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Center for Action and Contemplation

Redefining Success

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Path of Descent

Redefining Success
Monday, July 31, 2017

Much of the teaching and culture that has emerged in recent Christianity has much more to do with Greek philosophy and Roman mythologies than the Gospel. This is not all bad, but we must acknowledge these influences. The ego is naturally attracted to heroic language, and so we focused on the heroic instead of transformation: Zeus instead of Trinity, Prometheus and Ulysses instead of the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah. Jesus’ teaching was more about becoming a loving, humble, and servant-like person than a hero by any of our normal standards.

The ego thinks that heroic acts or various forms of mortification are supposed to please God somehow. Yet Jesus says, “John the Baptist came along fasting and living an ascetic life and you were upset with him. Now I come along eating and drinking and you don’t like me either” (see Matthew 11:16-19). The scandalous thing about Jesus is how free he is. He is not a ritualist, legalist, or into any form of priestcraft. The things we usually associate with religion are not what Jesus emphasizes—at all. If you don’t believe me, just read the Gospels.

René Girard (1923-2015), a brilliant anthropologist and master of cultural critique, held that Jesus is the most unlikely founder of a religion because he does not encourage any forms of sacrifice except the letting go of one’s own egocentricity. Religion normally begins by making a distinction between the pure and the impure and telling us to “sacrifice” the impure—so we can be pure. Given that premise, Jesus undoes religion by doing the most amazing thing: he finds God among the impure instead of among the pure!

Jesus was not the powerful or effective Messiah that the Jews hoped for—or that Christians seem to want, for that matter. Paul says that “God chooses the foolish, weak, and despised . . . so that no human being might boast before God” (see 1 Corinthians 1:27-29). The revelation of the death and resurrection of Jesus forever redefines what success and winning mean—and it is not what any of us wanted or expected. On the cross, God is revealed as vulnerability itself (the Latin word vulnera means woundedness). That message is hard to miss, but we turned the cross into a transaction and so missed its transformative message for humanity.

Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), an unschooled French girl who died at age 24, intuited the path of descent and called it her “Little Way.” She said (and I summarize), “I looked at the flowers in God’s garden and I saw great big lilies and beautiful roses, and I knew I could never be one of those. But I looked over in the corner and there was a little violet that nobody would notice. That’s me. That’s what God wants me to be.” [1] Thérèse knew that all we can give to God is simply who we really are; or even better, “To do very little things with great love,” which was her motto. [2] That’s all God wants from any of us. It’s not the perfection of the gift that matters to God; it’s the desire to give the gift that pleases God.

Gateway to Silence:
The way down is the way up.

[1] Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, trans. Robert J. Edmonson (Paraclete Press: 2006), 2-3.
[2] Ibid., 220.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, disc 3 (Franciscan Media: 2012), CD; and
The Path of Descent, disc 3 (CAC: 2003), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: Jonah and the Whale (detail), Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles), circa 1400.
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