hierarchy and diminishment

(fr Cyprian)

There are some people, especially in this day and age, who don’t like the notion of hierarchy, any kind of hierarchy. They think that it is too masculine, for one thing, or else too authoritarian, not inclusive or egalitarian enough. The problem of course is that if we leave out hierarchy completely we lose any sense of evolution and any sense of progress. Carter Phipps in his marvelous book Evolutionaries put it this way: in fact hierarchy is “an evolutionary imperative, a developmental challenge for the species itself.” One compromise to this has been to think of a “holarchy” instead, meaning that at each stage of evolution the next species to develop not only transcends, but also includes all that went before. So, in evolutionary theory you might say that the human being is still mineral, plant and animal. We human beings carry all that within us and add something on to it. We are not simply a disjointed member set on top of the evolutionary pile lording over it.

The other problem is if we discount any sense of evolution we also exempt ourselves from the moral responsibility that goes along with being the leading edge in the evolutionary trajectory (the leading edge so far, that is; that’s not to say another species couldn’t come along and be master over us!). Our place on the evolutionary scale comes with a tremendous moral responsibility. If we do not recognize and own this hierarchy and our tremendous place in it, we will not own the fact that at this point in the history of the universe our very choices are affecting and have already affected the very course of evolution. We heard from our retreat leader this year, the Franciscan Dan Horan, about the different understandings to our relationship to nature in Christianity. The Holy Father in Laudtao Si has taught that the idea of us having dominion over nature is a mistaken understanding of Scripture for Christians, and he stresses much more our being stewards, having stewardship over nature. But there is a further growth in thought in spirituality, more in keeping with Francis of Assisi, toward which Christianity is slowly catching up, to emphasize even more that we are a part of nature, in kinship with nature. And what part? John Paul II would say, we are the priests of creation, and that too is one of the meanings of hieros––the prophet, the priest, the holy one.

And all of that is operative in the section from Romans 8 that we heard today, Paul’s great mystical vision of the unity of all things: all creation is groaning an in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies. As a result of the Fall, we human beings are out of right relationship with our own selves, and because of that we are out of right relationship with the earth, with creation. And following on that, all creation is groaning and in agony while we work this out, (if I may quote my own book) “groaning under the weight of pollution and exploitation, over-fishing, deforestation and strip-mining, gas-guzzling SUVs and mountains of single use disposable products, islands of plastic rubbish in the middle of the ocean and entire species’ being eliminated due to our lack of good stewardship of that over which we have been given ‘dominion.’ And all this, I would say, is because we are out of right relationship with our own selves, and that because our physical beings are out of right relationship with the deepest spiritual part of our existence––our spirit and God’s Holy Spirit.” According to Paul’s mystical vision, it’s all tied together, with us at the leading edge, working this out for all of creation.

There is something not dissimilar going on in the gospel reading (Lk 13:18-21). I love, love, love, these images of the kingdom of God––not unlike salt in the earth––the seed that falls into the ground and dies to become the mighty mustard bush, and the yeast in the dough. We might hear the phrase the “kingdom of God” and conjure up images of something like Disney Land or Oz or Camelot, something great and glorious and awe-inspiring. But Jesus is offerinmustard treeg the exact opposite image. These are images of things that act by disappearing, not getting bigger, but getting smaller, fading into their environment and operating from within, flavoring the whole earth like salt, turning into a mighty tree like a seed, making the whole batch of dough rise like yeast. That’s what we understand by hierarchy––the greatest among you are the ones who serve, the ones who are like yeast in the dough, salt in the earth, who give their lives for the sake of the whole, those who fade out, disappear, fade in, melt, dissolve––and fructify everything in the process.

I was reminded of the Holy Father’s remarks at the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops last week. He said that our church is like “an inverted pyramid, the top is located beneath the base.” That’s our Christian form of hierarchy. The word ‘minister’ comes from the Latin minus meaning ‘less than’; and the Latin word minister, like the old French word ministre is the word for ‘servant.’ And, Pope Francis says, “those who exercise authority are called ‘ministers,’ because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all.” And that somehow is our version of hieros, our place in the order of all creation that is groaning and agony while we work this out. We imitators of Jesus are supposed to be at the bottom of the inverted pyramid, that’s our place in the hierearchy, like yeast in the dough, like a seed that falls into the ground and dies, like salt in the earth, like Jesus who came not to be served but to serve and to lay his life down for the sake of all creation, like a seed the fell onto the ground and died, and then became yeast in the dough of all creation.

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