poder es servir

 

 

th(fr Cyprian, for Holy Thursday)

Giving birth, nourishing life,

shaping things without possessing them,

serving without expectation of reward,

leading without dominating:

These are the profound virtues of nature,

and of nature’s best beings. (Tao te Ching, 51)

 

I’ve been thinking about two different songs as I approached my Holy Thursday homily. The first one was written by a very talented contemporary Christian musician named Rich Mullins who died, tragically and way too young, in a car accident some years ago. It’s called “Awesome God.” The refrain goes like this: “Our God is an awesome God! / He reigns from heaven above / With wisdom, power, and love: / Our God is an awesome God!” And then the verses go on to describe some of God’s actions in our world in the same vein: “When He rolls up His sleeves He ain’t just putting on the Ritz. / There’s thunder in His footsteps and lightning in His fists. / And the Lord wasn’t joking when He kicked ‘em out of Eden, / It wasn’t for no reason that He shed His blood. / His return is very close and so you better be believin’ that / Our God is an awesome God!” It’s a very muscular rock anthem with an Old Testament image of God, a perfectly valid one. The other song I’ve been thinking of was written by our friend Bob Hurd. It’s a bilingual song, English and Spanish, called “Pan de Vida.” It starts out in Spanish: “Pan de vida, cuerpo del Senor (Bread of life, body of the Lord)”; then English: “Cup of blessing, blood of Christ outpoured.” And then he goes on to explain the meaning of the Eucharistic gathering: “At this Table the last shall be first”; and this is the line that gets me and has been like a mantra rolling around in my head for many months: “Poder es servir, porque Dios es Amor––Power is to serve, because God is love.

I’ve been mining the conferences from the Prioresses’, Abbots’ and Priors’ meeting this past February for all kinds of materials for weeks now, but I’ve been saving this one image for today, which I only touched on briefly before, and that is the juxtaposition of and the difference between power over and power with, having power over someone or sharing power with someone. And if you get a sense of the tension in that you suddenly realize that it affects how we understand almost everything in religion and spirituality, and certainly how we approach leadership. Again, I want to point out that to some extent this is a both/and situation, but you will see right away where my prejudice lies and where the Gospel of Jesus tends.

How might this affect our notion of God? I think that this is a notion that I only came to realize when I started reading the mystics. Yes, certainly our God is an awesome God, a God of power and might, and especially the Old Testament is replete with images of God having power over creatures and creation (and sometimes wiping out entire peoples who did nothing worse than be in the way). But there is a subtle strain of thought also running through our scriptures that speaks more about participation, meaning that God wants to share divine power with us. (Certainly this has been a treasured theme in Fr. Bruno’s writing––“participatory consciousness.”) For example, 2 Peter, of course, the classic example: … that you may be participants in the divine nature.[2] God is not just content with having power over us; God wants us to share that power, as participants, as co-creators. And this is certainly the image of God that we get from Jesus: I no longer call you servants, but my friends. I have shared with you all that the Father revealed to me.[3] He might as well have said, “I no longer want to have power over you; I want to share my power with you. I am the vine; you are the branches. This is how I have power over you; I tie an apron around my waist and wash your feet! Now, you love one another as I have loved you.” There are no hidden meanings here! This is what it means to be the head of a family, a nation, an organization, a community––to be servant, and to share power with. Poder es servir, because God is love.

Concerning our view of church (and the Church): I remember after Pope Saint John Paul II visited Phoenix in 1987 someone wrote an article for the diocesan paper saying that she had experienced the whole Church there at the gathering (which was held, ironically, in Sun Devil Stadium): the Church Militant–Ecclesia Militans, the Church Triumphant–Ecclesia Triumphans, and the Ecclesia Penitens, the Church Penitent or the Church Suffering. (Perhaps those of you who have been to Florence will remember the famous 14th century fresco of this by Andrea da Firenze in Santa Maria Novella.) But I remember thinking even then, as I still think today, what about the Church Servant–Ecclesia Servum? Not that it hasn’t always been in evidence to some extent throughout history, but this is obviously the face of the Church that our Holy Father Pope Francis wants to be seen the most in our day and age. I don’t know how many times I have quoted this, that in his opening address to the second session of the Vatican Council Paul VI called on the Church to change its attitude toward the modern world: “Not to despise but to appreciate, not to condemn but to comfort. Not to conquer but to serve.” Poder es servir, because God is love.

Of course then we have to constantly discern how this annoyingly applies to our relationships with each other. It’s sort of counterintuitive, maybe especially for men, because power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and so much in typical worldly affairs encourages us to believe that this is something to be sought, power over others, to be “king of the mountain,” a CEO, to be the boss. But Jesus says, It shall not be that way with you![4] Though in some subtle but very enlightened way, this is really very practical: if you have power over me, or if you exert power over me, I may do what you say as long as you’re in the room, but as soon as you turn your back, I’m going to get out from under your thumb and do whatever I want or whatever I think is best. You may win a couple of battles, but you won’t necessarily win the war. On the other hand, if you share power with me or, even better, if you welcome my power, then you have won me over for life. Not only that, if you share power with me and welcome my power––what a tremendous force we are together! This too I think is what Benedict has in mind when in in Chapter 3 of the Rule, right after the Chapter on the qualities of the abbot, he talks about bringing the brothers together for counsel (a monastic community is not necessarily a democracy, but it’s certainly not a dictatorship either!); and when he urges the abbot to listen even to the youngest members of the community, and when he urges all the brothers not to seek their own will, but the good of others.[5] He says too that the abbot should be loved more than feared. Mind you, not “rather than” feared (that’s a mistranslation)––there’s still supposed to be a little fear there, a little power over, but more love, more power with. Remember, this is the same abbot who is supposed to wash the feet of the guests that come in! Benedict quotes the First Letter of John: There is no fear in love … fear has to do with punishment­­—power over; but perfect love—power with—casts out fear. Of course he quotes that at the end of the chapter on the steps of humility; the way we get to perfect is love is through humility.[6] The ladder that we climb to heaven goes down, down to our humanity, down to service, an ascent to the depths of the heart. Poder es servir, because God is love.

And I want to take one more step here, too, in regards also to nature. I’m not exactly sure how we Christians are supposed to understand the biblical injunction to fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion … over every living thing that moves upon the earth[7] except to say that here too we are supposed to exercise dominion the same way Jesus exercised dominion: we put on an apron and we serve, like a steward, a servant. Again, in the big picture, if we keep on trying to subdue the earth, if we keep trying to have power over the earth the way we have been since at least the rise of the Industrial Age, we may win a couple of more battles, but we are totally losing the war. The Earth is going to win this one. All she has to do is get rid of this pesky annoying species and she will regenerate just fine. But if, like Anthony of the Desert or Francis of Assisi, we could finally learn to share the power of the Earth, us offering Earth our voice, our power of adaptation and intellection, and Earth like a mother, I think, lovingly sharing all her powers and forces of creativity, it would be like flying on the wings of an eagle, or riding on the back of a mighty stallion, working with the natural powers and gifts of creation to bear fruit abundantly, with more than enough for everyone. Benedict Groeschel, in his marvelous book Spiritual Passages, speaking of the sacramental world, says that those “in the illuminative way are intuitive environmentalists. “One can hardly imagine a spiritual person consciously despoiling the environment or lacking a sensitivity to beauty, which is one of the voices of God.”[8] Poder es servir, because God is love.

Actually I wonder if this doesn’t apply to our own bodies as well, and the natural power of generativity that flows through our veins. Perhaps the goal is not so much to have power over our bodies, it as to be able for the mind, the soul, to work with the body, channel the energy, focus it like a laser, into all kinds of procreativity. I think this is celibate chastity at its finest.

This simple gesture of washing feet is really an icon of a whole attitude and outlook on life. It may look like weakness, but really it takes nothing less than heroic strength and dedication, and a love that’s stronger than death, stronger even than hell,[9] as we’ll learn on Good Friday. It takes heroic strength to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself, took the form of a slave … Therefore God raised him on high and gave him the name above all other names.[10]

 

[1] Tao te Ching, 51

[2] 2 Pt 1:4

[3] Jn 15:15

[4] Mt 20:26; also 23:1ff.

[5] RB 3; 72:7.

[6] 1 Jn 4:18, RB 7:67.

[7] Gen 1:28

[8] Spiritual Passages, 143

[9] Song 8:6

[10] Phil 2:6-11.

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