When Barnabas arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.Acts 11: 23-24
Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly father.Matthew 5: 16
What was it about Barnabas that led the author of Acts to declare “for he was a good man”? For it is not often that we hear this so straightforwardly said of someone, even in the scriptures. One would assume that something had to radiate from his person, the light that gives glory to God which seems to emanate from a personality.
It is the nature of a person’s core form or heart that his or her demeanor reflects. We hear in the description of Barnabas of three dispositions that seem to predominate in him: joy, encouragement, and a firmness of heart that leads to fidelity to the Lord. Perhaps by reflecting on these dispositions that are said to characterize Barnabas we might attain a greater capacity not only to recognize them more readily in others but to consider how to develop them in our own hearts.
When a person is resolute in pursuit of a goal or a call that they sense, they reflect firmness of heart. One of the strange paradoxes of our contemporary experience is that we live, at least in “post post-modern” western cultures, in a milieu of relativism. As we grow in our insight into human nature and personality, we cannot help but be less assured of certain values than was once the case. Especially in diverse cultures, we recognize that our own way of seeing things and of constituting value is not the only way. The paradox lies in the fact that this “loss” of the certitude that comes with a closed system seems to be creating a reaction of fundamentalism. Is what we see as our political polarization perhaps not in part due to the strain that attempting to incorporate a more complex sense of the nature and destiny of the human person creates in us? Rigidity and conformity are not firmness, however. Fr. Adrian van Kaam teaches that the disposition of firmness in us develops to the degree that we are also developing the disposition of its complement, gentleness. Without firmness, gentleness descends into weakness and appeasement. Without gentleness, firmness becomes rigid, arrogant, and ultimately violent.
Acts tells us that Barnabas encourages the people of Antioch “ to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart.” Psalm 112 offers a reflection on the characteristics of such fidelity. In verse 7 we read: “He is not afraid of bad news; / his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” The firmness of heart of which the psalm speaks is not based on externals. It is the result of a steadfast commitment to continue to walk the path to which we have been called and are committed. To live in a time when the contours of that path seem to be unstable and forever changing is difficult, more difficult than in a time when it is easy to believe that those who claim to possess the whole truth actually do. But to realize that no human being or institution can lay claim to “the truth,” is not, necessarily to become a relativist. For, as the psalm teaches, our heart can remain firm in its trust in the Lord, even when that Lord is often a mystery to us.
The other day I was reflecting with a friend on how “comfortable” the novitiate was for me. For some 26 months, after the first initial shock of the very different environment, I lived for the most part without questions and complications. The life was one that was clearly and neatly ordered by external rules and norms. Life was as simple as “living the rule faithfully.” Failure meant violating the rules; fidelity meant keeping them — measuring up to the expectations the environment imposed. There were really few decisions to make, and the few there were tended to be quite uncomplicated. From my immature and undeveloped perspective, I had no trouble imagining an entire life lived in this way — knowing exactly how I was to be and able to measure my worth and my goodness by how I measured up to those demands.
I know for many with me the experience was much more conflicted. I suspect that they had become more mature and responsible by the age of 18 than I had, and so the strictures of the environment were far less congenial for them. I suspect that my early life formation was too unstructured, and so there was a security for me in living within such clear and all pervasive guidelines. Yet, quite soon after leaving the novitiate, I began to experience the inner conflicts of my peers. I discovered that the “peace” and ease of my life in the novitiate was based on the abrogating of my responsibility for my own life. It was not peace I felt but rather short-term relief of the anxiety that comes from responsibility for our own lives. I had to come to discover that being a religious did not excuse me from discovering and living out responsibly and uniquely my own life call. And I also discovered at times in this new complexity a joy in being I could not know before.
The firmness required is not that of external obedience but rather an internal obedience to the truth of whom God has created us to be and the strength to keep following that path, even as we fail to see it clearly at times. It is by developing this firmness of heart, a heart that “trusts in the Lord,” that we are faithful. If we think we know all the time, there is no need for trust. Yet, it is by faith that the believer is called to live.
Barnabas is a source of encouragement to others because he has developed the courage to live from his own heart. We recognize as good the authentic person, the one who is comfortable in her or his own skin. Strange as it may seem, it takes courage to really be ourselves, to follow our own path. Courage, in its root meaning, is related to heart. The courageous person has her or his whole heart in everything she or he does. This is courageous because we are so existentially limited. To give all we have to our life tasks is to live always on the cusp of failure. It is to risk ridicule and rejection.
For most of my secondary schooling and even undergraduate study, I withheld a wholehearted effort in my studies. I was not conscious of this at the time, but only so in retrospect. It was in befriending someone who withheld nothing in his study and work that I began to recognize my own refusal to risk giving myself wholeheartedly to my work, and so my call. By not giving my all, I was always in a position to “hedge my bets.” As Kierkegaard might see it, I “flirted” with life and work so that at some level I could always evade responsibility for the outcome. By refusing to dare to love my work, in this case my studies, I would never have to face the truth of my own limits, of the disappointment in not realizing my deepest desires.
Most of us have our own ways of refusing to recognize our deep desires in order to avoid the inescapable pain that comes with them. In short, often we lack the courage to really live our lives. The “ekklesia,” the “community” is meant to be a place where we encourage each other to do what is most difficult for us — to give everything we have in service to the Kingdom, that is God’s will for us.
Finally, the goodness of Barnabas as a person is reflected in his joy. Until we discover that for which we will “spend” all we have, including our very sense of our lives, we cannot know the spiritual disposition of joy. Joy is not mere satisfaction, comfort, or happiness. It is rather a pervading disposition of heart that comes from living for and toward our “heart’s desire.” At those moments when I am doing and working at what is uniquely mine to do, I am profoundly joyful. All of life’s “existential” questions dissolve because I am living my life. As a young man I was often anxious and consciously fearful of death. I came to understand that I was fearful of death because I was not living. What I felt in the novitiate was not joy but relief from the fear of being myself. In time, however, that relief became anxiety because who I was could never realize the ego ideal I had created. It was in returning to myself, as body and spirit, that I could begin to commit myself to my path and my call. Our way to God is common, but it is common in the depths of its uniqueness, including its limitations and even sinfulness. There is no joy in life until that joy is, in part, a joy born of our gratitude to God for own lives, in every aspect. The limits we discover, and that can be a source of shame to us, are, as Adrian van Kaam says, “the outline of our call.” As a very young man, I felt that the meaning of life lay in overcoming my limits. Since this was impossible, I began to live in denial of them. Yet, spiritual joy lies in gratitude for them, for being who and what we are and then giving that back to God through the world.
I suspect that Barnabas was radiant in such a way as to evoke the description of being “a good man” because he was living out and giving away precisely who he was. Like the poor widow, he was giving to the “ekklesia” of Antioch all he had out of his poverty. He was not an authority, a leader, or a big person among them. He was just who he was as joyful, humble, and limited gift of God and encouraging them to be the same.
You might think that I am looking only at the joy of giving up all, and bringing Joy into the Heart of Jesus. Yes, I look at these most, but I see also what suffering the fulfillment of these two will bring. By nature I am sensitive, love beautiful and nice things, comfort and all that comfort can give — to be loved and love — I know that the life of a Missionary of Charity — will be minus all these. The complete poverty, the Indian life, the life of the poorest will mean a hard toil against my great self love. Yet, Your Grace, I am longing with a true, sincere heart to begin to lead this kind of life — so as to bring Joy to the Suffering Heart of Jesus — Let me go, Your Grace — Let us trust Him blindly — He will see to it that our faith in Him will not be lost.St. Teresa of Calcutta, Letter to Archbishop Perier, SJ in Come Be My Light, pp. 66-67
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I feel sometimes afraid, for I have nothing, no brains, no learning, no qualities required for such a work, and yet I tell Him that my heart is free from everything and so it belongs completely to Him, and Him alone. He can use me just as it will please Him best. To please Him only is the joy I seek.