Saturday, October 30, 2010

The language of power does not belong to Christ; he has renamed it once and for all, and called it "service" (Reflections on Humility in Lk 14:1,7-11)

“Humility”, says St. Augustine, “is the foundation of all the other virtues and thus, in a soul without humility, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”

The antithesis of humility, however, isn’t really pride; it's power. And power, says Henri Nouwen in his book, “In the Name of Jesus”, is one of the deadliest temptations of those in leadership positions in the Church. It’s true in our day, it was true in Jesus’ day.

Power seeks control; it wants a spectacle and a show; it needs to be noticed—like the guests in today’s gospel reading who were choosing places of honor at the banquet. But this, Nouwen says, is dangerous—especially since we sometimes think that power can be useful in our ministry.

Many years ago, a very good friend in seminary and I made a pact. If one day, we were given a title in the church, we would both respectfully decline--not because we didn't want to serve, but because we could still do our work without any fancy titles to our name. It might sound a little presumptuous, even a little extreme, a little naïve, and perhaps a little too idealistic. But we were just kids back then, what do kids know? But we so totally believed all the lessons on humility we read about, that we promised to stick to it for the rest of our lives, no matter what happens. We were going to be as humble as St. Francis who, out of humility, even chose to remain a deacon for the rest of his life. We were going to be saints.

Two years ago, my friend did receive news that he was in fact receiving such an ecclesiastical title. He called me up all excited and said: “Ferdi, I’m going to have to break our pact. I really believe that I can use this title for the good of the church and the people I serve”. Perhaps because there’s still a bit of that fire of idealism of my youth in me, I replied: “Dude, remember we used to admire the idealism and humility of St. Francis? I thought we were going to say ‘no’ to these things for the rest of our lives?”. “Sorry man,” he replied, “I guess I’ve gotten old. Maybe I’m just a little more realistic now”.

Maybe he was right. Perhaps as we grow older, we come to see things differently. Perhaps when the fiery ideals of our youth begin to wane, we realize we were too naïve. But then again, don’t saints become saints by keeping their ideals till their dying breath? Perhaps we’ve become too old to want to become saints—as we used to when we were kids.

Titles and positions, symbols of power—they aren’t bad; but they aren’t good either. What they can be—Nouwen says—is “dangerous”. And so I prayed for my friend—that God may keep him in the straight and narrow and not let him be sucked into the vortex of power many well-intentioned people find themselves in.

And yet, as I prayed for my buddy, I remembered Nouwen’s words that we used to read and talk about when we were young seminarians:

“We will often be tempted”, Nouwen says,
“to think that power can be used for the proclamation of the gospel. This is the greatest temptation of all. We often hear from others, and sometimes say to ourselves, that power—as long as it is used to serve God and the church—is a good thing.”

But we shouldn’t be deceived. “He who sups with the devil must use a long spoon”. Otherwise, without even being aware of it, you've already turned into the very thing you despise and should never have become.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Perhaps, Nouwen says, it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.

Jesus asks: “Do you love me?” And we reply: “Can we sit at your right hand and at your left?” (Matt. 20:21)

Power isn’t only tempting; it’s downright alluring. And so Jesus--in his wisdom, and wishing perhaps to shield his followers from its attraction and the depredations that inevitably come in its wake--once and for all redefined power for all of us who wish to follow him: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve”.

The language of power--in any shape or form--does not belong to Christ; for he has renamed it once and for all, and called it “service”.

The lesson of today’s gospel for us—we who wish to be an alter Christus, we who are asked to act in persona Christi capitis—is that the way of Christ, the way of true Christian leadership is not the way of power. It’s not the way of upward mobility in the church, but the way of “downward mobility” that leads to the cross.

You guys are young; one day you will become priests, perhaps more. I hope and pray that when the time comes, you will not choose the way of power that often leads only to death: the death of your ideals, the death of the fire of your youth, the death of your enthusiasm for your vocation, the death of your zeal for holiness. Power usually makes us priests forget why we chose to follow Jesus in the first place.

Choose instead the “lowest place at the banquet table”, choose the way of humility, the way of downward mobility, the way to the cross, the way of Christ, the only sure path that will lead you to life.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)