“Whereas I say to you that everyone who becomes angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; and whoever says ‘Raka’ to his brother shall be liable to the Council; and whoever says ‘worthless reprobate’ shall be liable to enter Hinnom’s Vale of fire.”Matthew 5:22
A couple of days before my father died, I was helping him eat his lunch. I cut the meat that was on his tray, and, in a contorted attempt to communicate my respect and appreciation for him, I said to him that I could not do this the way he could. His response was one that truly put me in my place: “I’m no better than anyone else.”
I felt somewhat humiliated by the interchange, not because he had said anything wrong to me. In fact it was precisely the opposite. In the face of my evasion of the truth of what I really wanted to say, he had spoken the truth to me in return. And the truth, so near the end of his life, was an extraordinary inheritance. When I am tempted to raise myself up by putting another down, my father’s words become focal in my memory and challenge me to judge myself and the world differently: “I am no better than anyone else.”
The Aramaic word “Raka” means foolish, empty, of no account, worthless. How often we judge another or relate to him or her as if he or she were of no account or worthless. How many in the course of a day are of no account to us. The workings of pride and arrogance are often most subtle in us. Even within a religious congregation such as my own, some can be seen as more necessary or more valuable than others. There are some who are necessary to an important meeting and others who are not necessary and perhaps not worthy. Some voices are considered significant and others are deemed of no account.
Jesus fully understands that just to keep from killing each other is not sufficient, for Jesus is speaking about a new way to live together, a possibility of a communion and community that bursts with the energy and zeal of each member’s unique call being respected, encouraged and fostered. The vision of Brother Theodore James Ryken was of “a band of brothers who mutually help, encourage, and edify one another and who work together.”
Today we are asked to consider an important lenten question: In what ways do we live out a sense of superiority and arrogance in our relationship to others? How in act, if not in word, do we behave toward others as if they are worthless and of no account? As we recognize these dispositions in ourselves, how do we practice reforming them by developing new ones in their place?
The subtlety and insidiousness of this self-exalting form of pride makes it one of the most difficult of the vices to become aware of in ourselves. Reflecting on my own experience, I can see its manifestations in many of the daily choices I make. For example, we move spontaneously toward doing those things that are comfortable for us and away from those duties that are difficult or challenging for us. We do this because the difficult reminds us of our limitations and frailty. As Rainer Maria Rilke reminds the young poet who has asked for his advice:
We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it. To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.Letters to a Young Poet, Letter 7
At times, we come to realize that our belittling of others comes out of our own laziness, our refusal to take up seriously our responsibility for our own lives. it is easy for us to live out our lives as reaction to the real or perceived demands we see others and the world making of us. This tends over time to make us angry and resentful. One of the ways we direct that anger and resentment is at others, perhaps especially at those whose way of living and working contrasts with our own evasion of the difficult work of living our call faithfully.
To the degree we have chosen and settled for an inauthentic life, otherness will also be a threat to us. The very striving for more of the immigrant and the fidelity of the believer from another tradition will require that I diminish them if I am to continue living in complacence. As I write, word is coming in about a mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand. At the moment 49 people are dead and countless others wounded. A terrorist in the name of white supremacy opened fire on hundreds of people at prayer in one mosque and then the other. This type of horror, while extremely rare in New Zealand, is sadly not rare at all in the rest of the world, especially in the United States. Yet, we must recognize that these acts are the manifestation of the extreme of the pride, arrogance, and diminishing of the other that inhabit the hearts of all of us.
We all want to be somebody. The mistake we make is to think that it is others’ view of us that constitutes us as significant. We look for affirmation from others and from our societies, when we can only be affirmed by God and ourselves. For only God and ourselves know if we are living faithfully and creatively. Do we live our lives by habit and rote? Do we do what we do just to get through it, or do we bring who we are and all we have, as well as our weaknesses, into making our lives and our work a work of art?
Because we are busy does not mean we are not lazy, in the spiritual sense. Adrian van Kaam says that the vital and functional dimensions of our personalities must become disciples of our transcendent or spiritual dimension. Thus, in the spiritual sense, the value of our work is not determined by the recognition of others, or the value that our group or the society places on it. It is rather the result of how much it expresses the unique form of God we are called to realize in the world. So, we have the stories of saints like Alphonsus Rodriquez, SJ, who was renowned not for what he did but for the love with which he did it. It is said of him that his “act of opening the door became a sacramental gesture.”
As novices, we had a teacher of philosophy by the name of Pierre H. Conway, OP. Our basic impression of him was that he was clearly brilliant but a poor teacher and more than slightly eccentric. He lived for a very long time and in his last years was, among other things, the porter at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. When he died a friend and former classmate in the community sent me his obituary from the Washington Post. I was amazed to see that he was close to Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and that, as doorkeeper at the House of Studies, he was a close friend to all the poor and homeless who came to the door. A web search of his name shows his countless publications in philosophy and education. Yet, it becomes clear, however we perceived him in our late teenage years, that whatever he was doing and whomever he was encountering, he did so wholeheartedly.
How do we practice overcoming that in us that would live and work merely to be comfortable, accepted, and recognized and thus be more tempted to envy and belittling of others? Jesus’ teaching tells us that we should do so by taking the last place and becoming the servant of all. We are to do the good we do in secret, in both action and prayer. This obviously cannot mean that we never work in public, or even that we never pray in public. What it does mean, however, is that we pray with only God as our audience, and we work without an audience. One of the aspects of my work in spirituality and formation over the years requires me to give presentations to groups, often religious groups. I am almost never without some level of “performance anxiety” as I prepare and then carry out this work, but I do experience over the years a lessening of the anxiety. I think the anxiety lessens as the sense of performance decreases.
A great teacher and mentor of mine always witnessed to me of how we do what we can, giving all that we have, without looking out to see how we are doing in the eyes of others. It is the nature of call, and so of a work that manifests our call, to do what we can and all that we can and then to let go. So, this teacher would do his work or give his presentation in a way in which the attention would be to his teaching but not to himself. Over the years I realized that a common compliment given to a work or presentation in the community was: “It was well received.” I have come to dislike that appraisal of my work. Perhaps because when young, my being “well received” was so important to me, that I now realize that being well received or not is no measure of the truth of my work. Yes, of course, it is good to be congratulated and recognized, but it is also a terrible temptation to succumb to this approval.
The more we measure ourselves and our work by the approval of others, the more we are tempted to reduce others so that we may be seen favorably in comparison with them. Continually in the gospels we see the disciples struggling with the tension posed by their desire to be “special” to Jesus. So when one not with them heals, they want Jesus to stop him. But Jesus refuses. In the post resurrection narrative of John, Peter questions Jesus about John’s relationship to him. Jesus answers him, “”if I wish him to remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me.” (John 21:22) When we mind our own business, then we cease to live in comparison and do not feel the compulsion to diminish others, to make then nothing so that we can feel as if we are something. The implied answer to Jesus’ question to Peter is that what God is doing with another is not my business. Our call is to follow him, to live out to the end the unique assignment and task that God has given each of us.
Years ago, I met Maureen, a single mother with a daughter named Rebecca who had severe developmental disabilities and could do very little for herself. So Maureen had to live two lives, leaving her with neither time nor energy to go on retreat or take up formal spiritual practices. And yet Maureen was a world-class contemplative.Parker J. Palmer, On The Brink of Everything, pp. 57-8
In her love for Rebecca—who would never be “successful” or “useful” or “beautiful” by conventional standards—Maureen had penetrated every cruel illusion our culture harbors about what makes a human being worthy. She had touched the reality that Rebecca was of profound value in and of herself, a being precious to the earth and a cherished child of God, as everyone is.
To be in Maureen’s presence was to feel yourself held in a contemplative circle of grace. When you are with someone who values you not for what you do but for who you are, there’s no need to pretend or wear a mask. You experience the blessed relief that comes from needing to be nothing other than your unguarded and unvarnished self.