And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we have for you, so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.1 Thessalonians 3: 12-13
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.Mark 6: 20
Today is the Feast of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist. The familiar story of John’s beheading as Mark describes it is one of a highly conflicted, and finally impotent and pathetic Herod. It is Herod’s very impotence that, in this story, is the source of his violence. Herod actually experiences in John’s words and presence an appeal to something “more” in him. That “more” is able to recognize that John is “a righteous and holy man.” So, in this light he is able, for a while, to keep John alive, although in prison. It is what the gospel terms “delight” in the dancing of his step-daughter that compels Herod to make a promise that will lead him to deny the promptings of his deeper self. Thus, the gospel shows us Herod as the foil to John, the “righteous and holy” one.
In the reading from 1 Thessalonians, we hear Paul pray for his fellow believers that they may “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” and strengthened in heart to become “blameless in holiness.” What exactly is holiness? How do we strengthen our hearts in such a way that we might become holy? It is precisely his lack of strength of heart that leads Herod to kill the prophet. Adrian van Kaam tells us that the primordial act of violence is the refusal of our spiritual awareness. Herod is not without spiritual awareness. The source of the holy in him is able to recognize the righteousness and holiness in John. And yet, lacking the necessary strength of heart and moved by his more immediate and lustful desires, he refuses that spiritual awareness and so falls prey to our human propensity to violence.
A confrere and friend gave his life for many years to the service of two autistic young men who would more than occasionally become violent when they were in one way or another disturbed. In living and working with these young men, he learned many things about himself. One of the most important for him was to come to see the degree of violence he carried within him and that he would experience when attacked by the young men. He is not extraordinary in this way, however. We are all potentially, and often actually, violent in our lives, with others and with ourselves. This is due to the refusal of our spiritual awareness, the denial of our true and deeper selves. Recently, I was a participant in a meeting among members of my community and finished it realizing that the pervasive spirit was not “love for one another and for all” but rather violence. Not in the physical sense, of course, but rather in the energy expended to get one’s own way. No less than the autistic young men who had no other means of expression than to attempt to physically force their custodian and companion into submission, thus evoking violence in him, so too we far too often in our ordinary relationships relate by force, often subtly and “smilingly” attempting to force others to submit to our will.
Recently I heard a report on the influence on our culture of the economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. The report played a short clip of a talk of Friedman’s in which he challenged his audience to deny the truth, from his perspective, that human society operates primarily out of the motivation of human greed, and so the only rational economic policy must be based on this understanding. In Herod we see a ratification of Friedman’s theory. His delight in the dance of Herodias’ daughter and the desires it evoked in him lead him to refuse those deeper promptings and desires that had kept John the Baptist alive. Perhaps greed is not our deepest desire and motivation but only the most immediate. Some of the oldest extant spiritual texts are the Upanishads. In them we read: “One is what one’s deep desire is. It is one’s deep desire in this life that shapes one’s life to come. So let me direct my deep desire to realize the Self.” When Herod felt an appeal from the righteousness and holiness of John, he was experiencing the deep desire for and of this Self. But he lacked the will and ability to foster and to live in this deepest desire.
The Upanishads go on to tell us that this Self “can be realized by the pure in heart.” Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes is the same. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” So, what we call holiness is actually purity of heart. Violence in us springs from fear for our survival. People descending into dementia often go through a stage of acting out violently. This violence is born of their impotence; their inability to express themselves in any other way. It was a doctor who accompanied us during my mother’s diminishment with Alzheimer’s disease who first made me aware of this. He pointed out how, for example, if a caretaker came at her too fast or too assertively she had no way of defending herself except by physically lashing out. When some disturbance was greatly troubling or terrifying her, she could not speak about it or even remove herself from it, she could only defend herself against it. We are instinctually made for self-preservation. When we feel threatened we will instinctively do whatever we must to survive, including destroying the other who threatens us.
As distinctively human, however, we are not only instinct. We are a capacity for presence to the word and the will of God, in whom “we live and move and have our being.” This is why, when Jesus teaches us to pray, a central theme of that prayer is “Thy will be done.” Holiness is the conforming of our will, which is prone to dispersion, to God’s will. This conforming to the degree that it begins to inform every level of our person is what we call holiness. If, as Soren Kierkegaard says, “purity of heart is to will one thing,” that one thing is God’s will, that it may “be done on earth as in heaven.”
So, we see in Herod the conflict we all experience. We are violent, but we also are consistently experiencing the appeal of our own spiritual awareness, of the Self that is our true and deepest identity and possibility. As St. Augustine put it, “You have made us for yourself, O God.” Unlike so many other creatures, however, our true Self, our foundational life form does not become enfleshed merely through spontaneous unfolding. It takes form through a process of formation in which we must responsibly take part. Herod locks up John rather than allowing the appeal of John to him to unlock his own true identity. So, too, we often lock up the deeper levels of our own awareness, for they make conventional life sometimes difficult for us. We prefer to live by habit and convention because “being responsible” seems too difficult for us.
Not all forms of responsibility are the same, however. We have ways of being overly responsible in the conventional ways of our societies that can actual be an evasion of our deeper transcendent or spiritual responsibility. I have a certain impatience, bordering on anxiety, about attending to the demands of a situation or of others on me. As a friend once pointed out, he became hesitant to ask me to do things because I would immediately rush to them, dropping whatever I had been currently engaged in. For me, the immediate is what tends to claim my full attention. Rather than take the time necessary to allow the call of the moment to reveal itself to me, I tend to react to the first impulse, which is often not the most important but the most immediate. The Upanishads tell us that “the Self . . . is life, light, truth, space, who gives rise to all works . . . .” That which we are to do, that is the “works” that arise from God’s will for us, can only be known in a certain spaciousness. It is the very nature of the Self, the unique image of God that we are, to reveal itself to us through a still, detached, and attentive listening. To be hyper-responsible, which is really to be reactive, in the world is to fail to be responsible in the deepest sense, responsible for the Self and responsible to God.
It is a certain deformation of responsibility to see being responsible as always assenting to the demands of the world. When Herod makes an impossible promise and then has to keep it, it results in the martyrdom of John the Baptist. So for us. When we live by such mistaken responsibility, we will always act violently, even if the outcomes are apparently good. For, above all, to be responsible is to be responsible for and to our spiritual awareness. Had Herod been able to nurture his own spiritual awareness, which the preaching of John had awakened, the story would have been very different. Of course, it would have brought out with Herodias the conflict that Jesus predicts. Herod would have needed the strength of heart and character to refuse the demands of his wife. But this is the sword of the truth and the word that Jesus predicted.
Jesus tells Martha that “only one thing is necessary.” Holiness is living out at every moment the one thing that is necessary, the tending to and living by our own “spiritual awareness.” Mary has chosen the better part because she understands that in every moment, in every decision, in every action one is first to be attentive to the word of God being spoken to the Self. At moments when this awareness has been most alive for me, I can see in retrospect that I often did quantitatively fewer things but each of them was done more fully and authentically in accordance with my own call. Martha is “worried and anxious about many things” and that is the problem. As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing reminds us: “There is one impulse of grace for each atom of time.” At this moment for each of us, only one thing is necessary. As we try to do so many more, we can only do them violently.
Had Herod listened better to that in himself that was appealed to by John, he would have made different choices. So too for us. So often the time of my life, the time of a single day is filled but not in purity of heart. At those moments, however, when I am responding to the impulse of grace for the present moment, I have at least a glimpse of “the abiding joy” of the life in God that is truly my identity.
The universe comes forth from Brahman, exists in Brahman,from The Chandogya Upanishad, trans. Eknath Easwaran
and will return to Brahman. Verily all is Brahman.
One is what one’s deep desire is. It is one’s deep desire in
this life that shapes one’s life to come. So let me direct
my deep desire to realize the Self.
The Self, who can be realized by the pure in heart, who is
life, light, truth, space, who gives rise to all works, all
desires, all odors, all tastes, who is beyond words, who
is joy abiding — this is the Self dwelling my my heart.
Smaller than a grain of rice, smaller than a grain of
barley, smaller than a mustard seed, smaller than a grain
of millet is the Self. This is the Self dwelling in my heart,
greater than the earth, greater than the sky, greater than
all the worlds.
This Self who gives rise to all works, all desires, all
odors, all tastes, who pervades the universe, who is beyond
words, who is joy abiding, who is ever present in my heart,
is Brahman indeed. To him I shall attain when my ego dies.