Christ is Risen!
It has been two months (and one day) since I last posted on my blog. In part this was because of the liturgical and pastoral demands of Great Lent as well as being married to a brilliant woman in her last semester of law school (my wife Mary graduates next month, takes the bar in July and starts her new job as a law clerk for a federal judge in August). Mostly though I have not written anything because of nerve damage in my left arm that caused not only numbness in the fingers on that side but a fairly pronounced loss of mobility.
So for the last two months I have not been able to do many of the things I have always taken for granted. I couldn't type, I couldn't run and don't get me started on the joys of trying to open jars or use a knife. Thank God the surgeon was able to repair the damage to my nerves. He took the stitches out on Monday of this week and--again thank God--I have more mobility and less numbness everyday.
So, I'm back!
One of the things I learned during this period of enforced inaction was just how much I have become rather dependent upon doing things--even things that really don't need to be done or done "right now"--in order to feel good about myself. Granted the internal psychological process is a bit more complicated then that, but in the end I sought to ground my self-confidence not in Christ but in my own accomplishments. This is deadly for anyone, but especially for a priest who is called by virtue of his vocation and ordination to point beyond this world and its standards to the Kingdom of God.
Alas many clergy, and again I would include myself here, often fail to remain faithful to our call to be a sign of contradiction (cf. Lk 2:34) within the Church so that, in turn, the Church can be a like sign of contradiction to this world. It is the lose of this prophetic character that I think causes most of the difficulties that we encounter within the Christian community. We simply have forgotten--or worse have never know--that we are called to be a prophetic people who bear witness with our lives to Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven.
In part I would root this loss (at least in Orthodox Christian circles) to poor preaching and even worse catechesis; we simply do not teach people about who they are in Christ. And in part I think the problem is found in our rather lacks attitude towards asceticism. The Apostle Paul writes:
You know that while all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, the award goes to one man. In that case, run so as to win! Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things. They do this to win a crown of leaves that withers, but we a crown that is imperishable. I do not run like a man who loses sight of the finish line. I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing What I do is discipline my own body and master it, for fear that after having preached to others I myself should be rejected (I Cor. 9:24-27).If Paul was concerned that, absent ascetical effort, he would lose his salvation how can it be any different for us? for me?
The great paradox of the Gospel is that it is only through self-denial that I can hope to really hope to become who I am. This paradox reflects the tendency of sinful human beings to reduce our identity to some few aspects of our personality; I am smart; I am a husband; a priest; a Christian. Or for that matter: I am a sinner; I am vain, or proud, or unbelieving.
These are all true of course, at least in varying degrees. But none of these things full expresses who God has called me to be from my mothers womb. The Prophet Isaiah bears witness to the true foundation of human identity and vocation when he writes of the Messiah:
- Listen to me, O coastlands,
- pay attention, you peoples from far away!
- The LORD called me before I was born,
- while I was in my mother's womb he named me.
- He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
- in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
- he made me a polished arrow,
- in his quiver he hid me away.
- And he said to me, "You are my servant,
- Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
- But I said, "I have labored in vain,
- I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
- yet surely my cause is with the LORD,
- and my reward with my God."
- And now the LORD says,
- who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
- to bring Jacob back to him,
- and that Israel might be gathered to him,
- for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
- and my God has become my strength--
- he says,
- "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
- to raise up the tribes of Jacob
- and to restore the survivors of Israel;
- I will give you as a light to the nations,
- that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (49:1-6)
As I said, in our struggle to remain faithful to God and ourselves, the Christian tradition offers us the ascetical life. The goal of asceticism is first self-knowledge. Especially through a life of prayer and fast, we come to know who we are in truth. Following on this, albeit often in a concurrent manner, we learn to express who we are--we learn (and again, ascetically) to be who we are, who God has created us to be.
This adventure of self-discover and self-expression is the hallmark of tradition. And it is in light of how faithful it is to this two fold goal that we can adjudicate the health or validity of any tradition. A tradition need not offer the depth and breath of the Christian tradition to be true. Rather a tradition is true to within the limits and the degree to which it serves human self-discovery and self-expression.
Let me conclude by returning to my recent incapacitation. In this process of fidelity to God, self and tradition, illness has a unique, even privileged, role to play. When we are ill, or when we care for those who are ill, we are offered the opportunity to see just how foolish our are illusions of autonomy and individualism. We do not own our own life--it is given to us as a gift and we are stewards of the life God has given us. But I am not only the steward of my own life, but of my neighbors. The work of fidelity to God and self is not the work of individuals, no matter how virtuous or "Christian." It is a work that we share with one and other and for one another. Anything less, it seems to me, flies in the face not only of what it means to be human, but also reflects a lack of faith in, and fidelity to, the finished work of Jesus Christ to Whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and forever and ever. Amen.