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The Positive in the Negative

Monday, February 15, 2016

Alternative Orthodoxy: Week 2

The Positive in the Negative
Monday, February 15, 2016

We must bear patiently not being good . . . and not being thought good. —St. Francis of Assisi

Whoever is willing to serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to herself, that person is a pleasant place of shelter for Jesus. —St. Thérèse of Lisieux

In these shocking quotes, Francis and Thérèse are trying to teach us to let go of that deep but deceptive human need to “think well of one’s self.” That is the ego talking, they would say. Only someone who has surrendered their separateness and their superiority can do this, of course. Anyone who has radically “accepted being accepted” already thinks well of themselves. Their positive and secure self-image is a divine gift totally given from the beginning and never self-constructed. It is quite stable and needs no fanfare.

In a world where imperfection seems to be everywhere, the humble and the honest have a huge head start in spiritual matters and can readily find God in their most ordinary of lives. “To the poor in spirit the kingdom of heaven already belongs” (Matthew 5:3), Jesus says in his emphatic opening line of the Sermon on the Mount.

One thing we all have in common is that we all “sin” (Romans 5:12), transgress, fall into our imperfections, and make mistakes. There are no exceptions to this. We are also sinned against as the victims of others’ failure and our own social milieu. Augustine called this “original sin.” But that does not mean we are bad at the core, which is the way it has unfortunately been misinterpreted for much of Christian history.

You must first remember who you are! You must start with the positive and not with a problem, or you never get beyond a kind of negative problem solving. Your core, your deepest DNA, is divine; it is the Spirit of Love implanted within you by your Creator at the first moment of your creation (Romans 5:5, 8:11, 14-16 and throughout). We must know that we begin with “original blessing” as Matthew Fox and others have put it. Augustine was just trying to describe the inevitability of sin in an imperfect world (so we would not be surprised). Unfortunately this poorly named and misunderstood negative notion dominated the next 1500 years of Christianity. The word “sin” implies culpability, and that was never Augustine’s point. In fact, his meaning was quite the opposite: we all carry the wounds of our parents and ancestors, which good therapists all know is true. Your sins are not just your own.

Humble honesty about our positive core, and a compassionate recognition that none of us completely lives out of our full identity, is the most truthful form of spirituality. The pull back that creates longing and desire and movement forward—like an extended rubber band—creates both inherent capability and negative capability. We all find our lives eventually dragged into opposition, problems, or “the negative” (sin, failure, betrayal, gossip, fear, hurt, disease, etc.), and especially the ultimate negation: death itself. What I love about healthy Christianity is its utter realism. Both divine election and death in many forms are presented as the school of life. The Divine Life we have been blessed with, which is actually Love Itself, is big enough to include all failure and death. The genius of the Christian explanation is that it includes the problem in the solution: the cross of failure becomes the catapult toward transformation. Our sins can even become “happy faults,” as we sing on Holy Saturday.

We might also call this pull-back or negative capability vulnerability or woundability. The vulnerable person has every reason to keep growing through everything that happens to them. The overly guarded and self-protected person is scratched and dented by all “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” whereas the malleable, bendable, flexible, woundable person is almost indestructible. Their wounds are always allowed to be their teachers instead of their defeat.

It is crucial that we understand Jesus was never upset with sinners; he was only upset with people who did not think they were sinners! How marvelous that our God-image is a wonderfully wounded and vulnerable man. This is a most unlikely image for God, unless we are able to comprehend that God is telling us something about the God Self—which is almost incomprehensible: God is also vulnerable.

Gateway to Silence:
A long loving look at the real

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 101-106, 111-112.

Image Credit: Habit of St. Francis of Assisi (detail), Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy.
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