I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you, a long life for you to live on the land which the Lord swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.Deuteronomy 30:19-20
One of the most striking characteristics of our decaying western culture is the prevalent refusal of responsibility for the results of our own actions. It may well be that the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War were the last time that denial of responsibility was not an acceptable defense.
Time and again we have seen that the rich and powerful are not held to account for their failures and irresponsibilities. It is striking that the salaries of CEO’s are obscenely high, supposedly because of the heavy burden of their responsibilities, and yet, when faced with retribution for failure or damage to others their defense is one of ignorance. On the other hand, the poor, underpaid employee is often held to an impossible standard of accountability.
Yesterday as I listened to a podcast about judicial appointments in recent years and the appalling number of unqualified judges being chosen merely for their ideological positions, it was pointed out that the Majority Leader of the Senate “released” one of the ostensibly more moderate senators to vote against those of whom she disapproved. Reportedly he did this because there were already sufficient votes for approval. It is very rare, in our time, that a politician take responsibility for his or her votes, for the demand is that they abrogate that responsibility in favor of party loyalty. In effect the most common practice is to give over the responsibility for one’s decisions to one’s tribe, group, or party.
So, we live in a certain cultural acceptance of the reality that the higher one’s position the less one is accountable and personally responsible. And this begins to “trickle down” into the understanding of the population at large. In the absence of objective truth or reality, one is only “responsible” to one’s own opinions, often based on biases and prejudices and confirmed by the voices that agree with those prejudices.
Today, at the very beginning of Lent, we are reminded, however, that we are responsible for our choices and that those choices are a matter of life or death. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose of forfeit himself?” (Luke 9:24-5) When we place our own prejudices and biases over the demands of reality and the truth, we will lose our lives. When we accept the hard responsibility of living in the truth, we will save our lives. When we cynically do what we know to be the wrong thing for the sake of power and privilege, we lose our souls in the process.
The teaching of Deuteronomy reminds us that to choose life is to choose love. What we take to be our life as separate and autonomous is a chimera. Our attempts to make our life by building our “self” up is the way of death. For our life only truly exists as a life in relationship, in loving relationship to God. Every time we choose to respond to God’s love for us with love in return, we choose life, for ourselves and for all. And every time we choose self-interest and self-protection, we choose death for ourselves and, in some way, for our world.
In the early 21st century we have learned that our presupposition that our planet existed only to enhance our own comfort and sense of progress and that there were no limits to what we could take from it and do to it was horribly mistaken. So, we now suffer the effects of our sins of greed and selfishness in the illnesses and death from environmental pollution and in the potential extinction of our species through our planetary degradation. As a species, we have lived as though everything existed only for our sake and comfort, and now the “dues” for that irresponsible behavior are coming due. As we see, it is very possible to continue to deny our responsibility for the state of things, but our denials do not change the truth, nor the effects of our actions.
In the 10th century the monk and mystic of the Armenian Church Gregory of Narek, whose feast we celebrate today and who was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis in 2015, near the end of his life composed a mystical poem entitled Book of Lamentations. In it he writes of how the punishments we receive for our sins are of the very nature of our sins themselves. This is not a foreign concept to us in the West, for much later it will be most famously illustrated in Dante’s Inferno. As St. Paul teaches in Galatians 6:7: “One reaps what one sows.”
As we do our personal reflection this Lent, perhaps it is well to look at our lives in this light, our personal and our social and communal lives. If we look at our sufferings, honestly and deeply, we are likely to come to insight about our life of sin. As Gregory describes it, when we are “frozen with anguish at the first sign of danger,” we can see where we have failed to love others. Where our needs and addictions are overwhelming us with burning desire, we can see the results of our failures to “rein in our insolent appetites.” Where, as is so easy in our time, we feel lost in the darkness and confusion of meaninglessness, we can begin to see how we have ceased to “love the good news of your light.”
The Buddha taught that “all we are is the result of our thoughts.” When we live for others, then we need not fear the dangers and terrors of life, for we are not alone. When we channel our energies into healthy relationships and good work, our eros will flow in life-giving directions. When we meditate and concentrate our hearts on the words of life that the great traditions and spiritual masters offer us, we shall have faith in God’s way for us.
When we refuse responsibility for our choices, we fail to recognize that we are responsible for where we find ourselves in life. Every moment is a moment of choice, for life, care, and connection or for death selfishness, and alienation. In faith, we trust there is always the grace to choose life in responding to God’s love for us and for the world. Whatever has been true in the past, our past does not determine us. We can, in the present moment, responsibly choose life. One of our greatest human capacities is our ability to respond, our response-ability. But that requires that we know a way, a truth, and a life that is greater than our own thoughts, inclinations, and prejudices. When we choose responsibly in service to that truth, light, and love, we serve not only greater life in ourselves but in our whole world.
The punishments are genuine likenesses
Of the sins whose nature they share,
Co-images, two of a kind,
Converging along the same path,
Both signifying the same idea.
Because I did not comfort
My companion with the warmth of love,
Now I am frozen with anguish
At the first sign of danger.
Because I did not rein in
My insolent appetite,
I rightly suffer this miserable
Unquenchable burning [Luke 16.24]
Because I did not love
The good news of your light,
I am justly condemned to grope about
Errantly in the snares of darkness,
In the fog of destruction.
Gregory of Narek, Book of Lamentations, quoted in Michael Papazian, The Doctor of Mercy: The Sacred Treasures of Gregory of Narek, pp. 142-3