Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Witness to Sanity

Several years ago I asked my bishop, Metropolitan Maximos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, why he participated inecumenical and interfaith discussions. Part of what motivated my question to His Eminence was that his involvement in these matters brought him agreat deal of criticism and even attacks on his character.

These unwarranted assaults came from both those inside and outside the Church. After a moments reflection, His Eminencesaid that as a bishop, and as a Christian, he was morally obliged to be a witness for sanity in an insane world.

The idea of someone being sanitys witness struck me forcefully. At the time I was finishing my doctorate in psychology and religion. I was also working as a mental health counselor. Most of my workday was spent with chronic, institutionalized psychiatric clients. Needlessto say, as a mental health professional I had my own narrow ideas about the nature and causes of insanity.

Typically, the insane person is the one who does not play by our rules, whatever those rules might be. A witness to sanity, at least as His Eminence used the term, is one who calls into question the assumptions of those who rule, of those who are powerful in this world.This is precisely (though not exclusively) what Jesus and the prophets are shown doing throughout the Scriptures.

Unfortunately, in our culture the need tobe a bit skeptical about the rules is the only rule of life that many of us will accept. All too easily skeptics, reformers and revolutionaries can become parasites whose identity comes only through their rejection of others. When a person builds an identity upon rejection, or when a community only knows who it is by whom it refuses to admit, then insanity, both psychological and spiritual, rules in that persons or that community's life.

The truly sane person is the one who, in the words of the Scriptures, welcomes the stranger and cares for widows and orphans. We are all quite easily seduced by a false sense of power and authority. With amazing ease we tell ourselves that we are strong and powerful; that we the captains of our own destinies. As for those who are different or vulnerable, who are sick or suffering, we shun them or, worse, blame them.

At our very core,we are each of us poor; none of us had any decision in the matter of our birth; none of us can even really say that we own our own life. We are each of us absolutely dependent upon the kindness, hospitality and charity of others. No child, for example, is born except by the willingness of a mother to welcome this tiny stranger into the very midst of her body.

The person who bears witness to sanity reminds us of this. A witness to sanity reminds us that we are dependent upon one another and ultimately upon God for our very lives.

But this mutual dependence should not betaken to mean that we are really all the same. Nor does it mean that, deep down, we really all agree. This is simply a cheap and childish way of refusing to love our neighbor. Rather than embrace someone who is different, we simply deny that the differences or disagreements exist. Or if we acknowledge that differences do exist, we say that they do not matter.

But it is not love when we only approveof those who are like us. It is not love when we only welcome those who affirm us or agree with us. The undeniable truth is that we are all different. But it is these differences that make love possible.

In the Orthodox Christian Church wevenerate and call saints those women and men who, among other things, become shining witnesses to sanity and its demands. We can easily forget, because itis convenient for us to do so, that such witnesses have always existed and still exist today. But easier and more convenient still, we can forget that a truly sane life makes demands upon us and upon those around us. This tragic tendency to forgetfulness we call sin.

Against the power of sin there is onlyone response possible: sacrifice. A life can only rightly be described as sane, not to mention loving, when it is a life of sacrifice. Further, this sacrificeis not offered for ones own good. Rather it is offered for the good of others.

Living as a witness to sanity demands that we sacrifice for the sake of those who are different from us. And anything less than this freely offered sacrifice is not worthy of being called sane, much less human or, as His Eminence reminded me, Christian.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Print this post