The Performance Principle — Center for Action and Contemplation

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The Performance Principle

Growing in Christ: Week 1

The Performance Principle
Friday, March 22, 2019

Religion in the second half of life is finally not a moral matter; it’s a mystical matter. While most of us begin focused on moral proficiency and perfection, we can’t spend our whole lives this way. Paul calls the first-half-of-life approach “the Law”; I call it the performance principle: “I’m good because I obey this commandment, because I do this kind of work, or because I belong to this group.” That’s the calculus the ego understands. The human psyche, all organizations, and governments need this kind of common sense structure at some level.

But that game has to fall apart or it will kill you. Paul says the law leads to death (e.g., Romans 7:5, Galatians 3:10). Yet many Catholics I meet—religious, laity, and clergy—are still trapped inside the law, believing that by doing good things or going to church, they’re going to somehow attain worthiness or acceptance from God. This was Luther’s authentic critique of much of the Catholic church as he knew it.

One of the only ways God can get us to let go of our private salvation project is some kind of suffering. This is why Christians hang the cross at the center of our churches, why we kiss the cross, and why we say we’re “saved” by the cross. Yet for all this ritualization, it seems we don’t really believe what the cross teaches us—that the pattern of death and resurrection is true for us, too, that we must die in a foundational way or any talk of “rebirth” makes no sense. I don’t know anything else that’s strong enough to force you and me to let go of our ego. However we’ve defined ourselves as successful, moral, better than, right, good, on top of it, number one . . . has to fail us!

This is the point when we don’t feel holy or worthy. We feel like a failure. When this experience of the “noonday devil” shows itself, the ego’s normal temptation is to be even stricter about following the first half of life’s rules. We think more is better, when in fact, less is more. We go back to laws and rituals instead of the always-risky fall into the ocean of mercy.

Yet that is the only path toward our larger and True Self, where we don’t need to prove ourselves to God anymore; where we know, as Thomas Merton (1915–1968) put it, it’s all “mercy within mercy within mercy.” [1] It’s not what we do for God; it’s what God has done for us. We switch from trying to love God to just letting God love us. And it’s at that point we fall in love with God. Up to now, we haven’t really loved God; we’ve largely been afraid of God. Finally, perfect love casts out all fear. As John says, “In love there can be no fear. Fear is driven out by perfect love. To fear is to still expect punishment. Anyone who is still afraid is still imperfect in the ways of love” (see 1 John 4:18).

[1] Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (Harvest Books: 2002), 362.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adult Christianity and How to Get There, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2004), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: The Artist’s Garden at Eragny (detail), by Camille Pissarro, 1898, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being. —Richard Rohr
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