For wisdom is a kindly spirit, / yet she does not acquit blasphemous lips;Wisdom 1:6
Because God is the witness of the inmost self / and the sure observer of the heart / and the listener to the tongue.
He said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.Luke 17: 1-2
When I was younger, I was quite certain that I knew clearly the difference between right and wrong. In fact, we speak about this capacity, correctly from one perspective, as a fairly basic level of moral development. This level of moral development, however, does not yet constitute “Wisdom.” For Wisdom, as the scripture reminds us today, is the witness of God of our inmost self. St. Teresa of Avila puts it this way: “. . . for nothing but humility is of any use here, and this is not acquired by the understanding but by a clear perception of the truth, which comprehends in one moment what could not be attained over a long period by the labour of the imagination—namely, that we are nothing and that God is infinitely great.” As we age and as we grow in our journey of humanization with God, we discover that judging aright involves far more than our mere moral understanding of right and wrong.
We are always in a bit of a conundrum in our attempts to appraise the rightness of an action or position we take because we can see and understand only from our very limited perspective. Only God is “the” witness to our inmost self, the sure observer of our heart, and the listener to the tongue. Last evening I was having a conversation with someone who was asking me about the quality of her response to her cousin, who has been diagnosed with cancer. Her cousin, whom she says does not readily express herself, said to her at one point that she didn’t know how much longer she would be alive. The woman speaking with me said that she responded that none of us know that, as any of us could die or be killed at any moment. But she was relating this to me because she was having doubts about her response.
This example illustrates how the “moral issues” change for us over time, presuming, of course, that we live out a certain baseline morality of trying to do what is right and avoiding what is evil. As the person with whom I was speaking related this experience, she was most of all appealing to me to enter with her into her doubt about her response. She had even felt, after responding as she did, that perhaps she was not really helping her cousin but rather just distancing from the pain she was expressing. This experience of doubt was, perhaps, an invitation to her to grow in wisdom, to a greater capacity to respond to rather than avoid reality.
Jesus cautions us in today’s gospel to avoid serving the inevitable occurrences of sin in another. He tells us that things that cause sin will inevitably occur. As life teaches us, these causes of sin exist at every level of our lives and our endeavors. They exist, of course obviously, in the areas of life and action that are described by the Ten Commandments. But these same dynamics of sin and grace remain active, even in our attempts at virtue. And so, throughout both human and our personal history, our attempts to be virtuous have often been the cause of greater harm to the world. We need only advert to the various religious “crusades” over the centuries, which have resulted in the deaths of untold millions of persons, and which continue to the present day. Certainly in my own religious tradition, as with many others, there has been untold and unrecognized physical, psychological, and emotional abuse in the name of obedience and virtue. There continues to be practiced in some Christian traditions “conversion therapy” that commits violence on the very core of persons’ identities.
Yesterday there was an interview in the New York Times of Cardinal Raymond Burke by Ross Douthat. The perspective which emerged seemed to be that there is a pure, spotless, and sinless church tradition which once existed in order to discipline the sinful tendencies of its members. In his description of seminary life prior to 1968, the moment at which Cardinal Burke seems to think evil entered into church structure for the first time, he says: “But I look back now, and I see all those rules as geared to curbing the effects of original sin, and disciplining us so that we could really be good men.” There is, as I hear it, a disturbing ecclesiology and anthropology in this statement. If human beings are spirit, they are not to be trained in the way we train horses by “breaking” them of “the effects of original sin. There is a violence in this way of seeing the place of the church and its law that shares in the very sinfulness that is being attributed to individuals. Many of us raised in the Roman Catholic tradition can attest to the result of a premature distancing from ourselves that was effected in us by certain ways of teaching and invoking the law.
We read in the Prophet Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, / and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Whatever term we use for our sinfulness, in truth we do not see ourselves or the world as God sees them. We have glimpses of insight and wisdom, but overall we see “through a glass darkly.” The way in which we see has taken form in us from the very beginning of our lives. While our faith tradition affords us a way into clearer vision of the truth, it also obscures it. Despite Divine inspiration, the actual teachings of a tradition are human constructs. As such, they are formed by limited persons, like ourselves. To absolutize any human teaching inevitably leads to violence in us as we attempt to inflict and enforce our truth on others.
So, the way is the way of mercy and forgiveness. It is in the recognition of our falseness and limit, or our mistakes, that we open to the more. So, in my conversation of last evening, I could sense the openness and possibility in the doubt of the person I was speaking with about her response to her cousin. She knew, so I did not need to tell her, that she was moving away from her cousin’s appeal to her to be with her in her fear and anxiety. Is such a refusal of the appeal of another “sin”? It is a manifestation of our sinfulness, of our innate defensiveness rather than openness, of selfishness rather than love.
None of this is to say that we need not exercise self-discipline, that we need not work to treat others as we want to be treated. It is to say, however, that is only the beginning. Far too often we use our self appraisal that we are all good people to avoid God’s call to a far deeper wisdom. That we don’t kill or physically harm each other is not the totality of the gospel call. St. Teresa of Avila says that what we must always do is “know ourselves and do what we can.” She says, “nothing but humility is of any use here, and this is not acquired by the understanding but by a clear perception of the truth.” For most of us, an entire lifetime of practice will not be enough to “know ourselves” in “a clear perception of the truth.” We are always on the way in this regard. As a result, it is not even easy for us to know if, in fact we are doing “what we can” or not. So often I am trying to do what I think I should that I am failing to do what I can. At other times, I do nothing because I am unaware of the value of the little I am able to do.
History and literature are filled with characters who vaunted their moral superiority. And in every case, they are revealed as “whited sepulchers.” To see ourselves, even in a limited way as clearly as we can, will always be a humbling experience. It is in our claim to knowing that we do harm to others and to the world. It is in our arrogant certitudes that we inflict violence. This is how we are the cause of sin in the little ones. For, “Wisdom is a kindly spirit.” We become wise in our own humility. Then, instead of knowing the experience of the other, we faithfully enter into it. We don’t have a response to the person who speaks of her impending death. In our ignorance, we ask and seek to understand what she is going through. In pride, in knowing the answers, we are most likely to lead others astray. In humility, in not knowing but in wanting to see and understand more clearly, we help the other and ourselves to grow in wisdom.
But the poor soul, despite its desires, is often unable to do all it would like, nor can it do anything at all unless it is given the power. And so it grows richer and richer; and the more it serves, the greater becomes its debt; and often, growing weary of finding itself subjected to all the inconveniences and impediments and bonds which it has to endure while it is in the prison of this body, it would gladly pay something of what it owes, for it is quite worn out. But even if we do all that is in us, how can we repay God, since, as I say, we have nothing to give save what we have first received? We can only learn to know ourselves and do what we can—namely, surrender our will and fulfill God’s will in us. Anything else must be a hindrance to the soul which the Lord has brought to this state. It causes it, not profit, but harm, for nothing but humility is of any use here, and this is not acquired by the understanding but by a clear perception of the truth, which comprehends in one moment what could not be attained over a long period by the labour of the imagination—namely, that we are nothing and that God is infinitely great. I will give you one piece of advice: do not suppose that you can reach this state by your own effort or diligence; that would be too much to expect. On the contrary, you would turn what devotion you had quite cold. You must practice simplicity and humility, for those are the virtues which achieve everything. You must say: “Fiat voluntas tua.”Saint Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chapter 32