Monday, November 1, 2010

Of celebrities and heroes (A Reflection on the feast of the vast multitude of anonymous heroes and heroines of faith)

Balloon boy and his family, Octomom, John and Kate Plus 8, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Dr. Phil, Oprah, etc. The list goes on and on, like a litany. These folks have one thing in common: they’re all celebrities. They’re popular, famous (or infamous), constantly in the news, even notorious. In many ways, they represent the very antithesis of the men and women we commemorate on this Feast of All Saints.

Today’s feast is about heroes; not celebrities. And there’s a world of difference between them. The philosopher of religion, Mircea Eliade, points out that we can discern three general characteristics of those who are heroic—traits that clearly distinguish them from mere celebrities. We can call these characteristics: “struggle”, “self-awareness”, and “selflessness”.

First, a celebrity wants things easily. He prefers the quick fix, the easy way out. He wants things instantly, comfortably, and conveniently. In contrast, a hero struggles. He experiences a tug between the familiar and comfortable, and the unfamiliar and challenging. Joseph Campbell points out that the first stage in the “journey” of the hero involves a “call or separation”, in which an individual experiences himself being “called” to an “adventure”, to leave the comfort and convenience of what is familiar in order to live solely in confidence and trust in the voice that has called him.

It’s a journey from terra firma to terra incognita, from the safe and secure, to the challenging and arduous. Despite his instinct to stick to the former, the hero chooses, not the easy road, but the high road. And thus his adventure begins, and while he will inevitably experience anxiety, turmoil, and perplexity as he struggles to let go of what he’s used to, the hero learns to face his fear with calm, fortitude, and trust.

Second, a celebrity creates an image of himself, he fashions a mask that’s meant to hide his true self, not only from others, but sadly, even from himself. This façade is meant to facilitate what he is really about: self-promotion, a goal towards which he gives himself with all the zest and enthusiasm he can muster. But with every moment of successful self-promotion, the celebrity loses awareness of self, as his true nature and reality recedes further and further into the distance; till such point that he can no longer distinguish between himself and the mask he created. A hero on the other hand, ceaselessly struggles to bring the exterior and the interior of himself into a closer consistency.

This journey towards self-knowledge, brings the hero face to face with the reality that he is part of something greater and larger than himself. That he is “meant to do a job, a task—something that was given to him and him alone to accomplish, a mission in life. The self awareness that results from this experience leads him to discover his true selfhood, with its darkness and its light. He becomes “great” and “humble” at the same time. And this is why when heroes do something heroic, instead of promoting themselves, we usually—to our great surprise and bafflement—hear the same refrain: “I was just doing my duty”.

Third, a celebrity lives for himself. He does things to expand his ego, his sense of success and fulfillment. Even the help he gives others is meant to shine a spotlight on himself. The task of promoting oneself is endless. In contrast, a hero is selfless. He takes the road of self-giving, of total and absolute surrender and sacrifice to whatever task he’s confronted with. Joseph Campbell points out that the third stage in the hero’s journey is that of return and oblation.

The hero offers himself in total self-giving, in order that others may partake of the experience he himself has had, and taste of the wonders he tasted on his journey of struggle and self-knowledge. Ultimately then, the hero’s journey is a journey taken not for himself alone, but for something and someone larger than himself, whether this be articulated in terms of “Life”, “God”, or “people”. A hero lives not for himself, but for others; though in living such a selfless existence, he paradoxically finds himself even more.

Those we commemorate on this Feast of All Saints, those declared blessed by the Beatitudes, are not the ones the world would ordinarily consider “blessed” or “happy”. They aren’t the celebrities who constantly hog the limelight. Instead, they are the heroes and heroines who struggle to be faithful and true to God and to themselves, in the silent anonymity of everyday life.

Today’s Feast puts before us, the quiet heroism of many to whom the world will never confer celebrity-status, but whom God has recognized and welcomed into the joy of his presence. They are the ones who at the end of their struggle hear—not the world, but God saying to them: “Well done good and faithful servant…come and share your master’s joy” (Matt. 25:23). More than a mere celebration, today’s feast is an invitation to be heroic: to struggle, to be self-aware, to be selfless. What does this mean concretely?

First, be willing to struggle. Do not waver. Stand firm. Do not choose the soft way of comfort, entitlement, and convenience. “Difficult” should never mean “impossible”. None of the world’s instant-fixes can take the place of diligent and painstaking effort.

Choose the way of Christ, not the way of ease. The Spanish intellectual Miguel de Unamuno, ends his book Del Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida (The Tragic Sense of Life) with the words:¡Y Dios no te dé paz y sí Gloria! (“May God deny you peace and give you glory!”) Jesus calls us, not to a life of comfort, but to one in which we will have to spend ourselves completely, to our last breath.

Second, heed the counsel of the ancient Greek philosophers. Gnothi seauton. “Know thyself”. A hero is one who willingly faces his fears, and the greatest fear one can have is the fear of having to confront things about himself that may be undesirable and dark; things that need to be changed. Only self-knowledge can lead to self-transformation. To know oneself is the first step towards healing and redemption.

Finally, take to heart the words of one of the greatest heroes of our time, Teresa of Calcutta: “Give. Give until it hurts. It’s the only true kind of giving”. Live for others. A selfish, self-oriented existence is the worst kind of life there can be. We only truly gain our lives when we willingly and generously give it away.

Today, we are reminded that our ultimate vocation is to heroism and sainthood. Our calling isn’t to success, fulfillment, brilliance, intelligence, effectiveness, political correctness, theological or philosophical orthodoxy, or worldly excellence. In fact, our calling isn’t even ultimately to the priesthood. Our calling is to sanctity of life, our vocation is to become like the men and women we commemorate today. We are called to be “heroic”: to struggle, to become self-aware, and to offer ourselves in radical surrender and gift to the God who has called us.

God wants us to be saints. That’s no laughing matter. If our motive is anything less than that, we should seriously rethink our reasons for being here. Joachim Jeremias, one of the leading scripture scholars of the last century, says that the Beatitudes show us how Jesus calls his disciples to a very high standard that surpasses even the highest standards of the world. It’s a challenge “to be more”, because he believes we “can be more”.

Today, the challenge goes out to each one of us: “Be that ‘more’ that God wants you to be: in your studies, in your spiritual life, in your relationships with each other, in your pastoral work, in everything you do. As St. John Vianney reminds us: “Offer only to God what is worthy to be offered”.

Let us be heroes. Let us be saints!

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