Stories from the Bottom
Most of political and church history has been controlled and written by people who have the access, the power, and the education to write books and get them published. One of the few subversive texts in history, believe it or not, is the Bible! The Bible is most extraordinary because it repeatedly and invariably legitimizes the people on the bottom, and not the people on the top. The rejected son, the barren woman, the sinner, the leper, or the outsider is always the one chosen by God. Please do not take my word on this, but check it out for yourself. It is rather obvious, but for some reason the obvious needs to be pointed out to us. In every case, we are presented with some form of powerlessness–and from that situation God creates a new kind of power. This is the constant pattern which is hidden in plain sight.
Many barren women are mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, and we repeatedly see God showing them favor. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was barren and past child-bearing years when God blessed her with baby Isaac (Genesis 17:15-19). Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was barren until God “opened her womb” and she bore Joseph (Genesis 30:22-24). Barren Hannah poured out her soul before the Lord, and God gave her Samuel (1 Samuel 1).
Even before Moses, God chose a “nobody,” Abraham, and made him a somebody. God chose Jacob over Esau, even though Esau was the elder, more earnest son and Jacob was a shifty, deceitful character. Election has nothing to do with worthiness but only divine usability, and in the Bible, usability normally comes from having walked through one’s own wrongness or “littleness.” We see this especially in Mary, a “humble servant” (Luke 1:48). God chose Israel’s first king, Saul, out of the tribe of Benjamin, the smallest and weakest tribe. The pattern always seems to be that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). This is so consistently the pattern that we no longer recognize its subversive character. They became merely sweet rags to riches stories.
One of the more dramatic biblical stories in this regard is the story of David. God chose him, the youngest and least experienced son of Jesse, to be king over the nation. His father, who had many sons, did not even mentioned David as a possibility, but left him out in the fields (1 Samuel 16). David was thus the forgotten son who then became the beloved son of Yahweh, the archetypal whole man of Israel, laying the foundation for the son of David, Jesus.
In case after case, the victim becomes the real victor, leading Rene Girard to speak of “the privileged position of the victim” as the absolutely unique and revolutionary perspective of the Bible. Without it, we are hardly prepared to understand the “folly of the cross” of Jesus. Without this bias from the bottom, religion ends up defending propriety instead of human pain, the status quo instead of the suffering masses, triumphalism instead of truth, clerical privilege instead of charity and compassion. And this, from the Christianity that was once “turning the whole world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Richard Rohr OFM
Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians are a tour de force on the pure meaning of grace and the serious limitations of morality and religion to lead you to God. “Cursed be the law,” Paul even says (Galatians 3:13). No wonder he has been called a “moral anarchist” by people who are still seeking any well-disguised path of “self-realization.” But it seems Christianity has paid little heed to Paul’s revolutionary message, or even to Jesus who says six times in a row, “The law says, but I say!” (Matthew 5:21-45). Both Jesus and Paul knew that rules and requirements were just to get you seriously engaged with the need for grace and mercy; they were never an end in themselves (read Romans 7:7ff).
“If you keep the law, the law will keep you,” we students were told on the first day in the seminary. As earnest young men anxious to succeed, we replied, “Yes, Father!” We knew how to survive in any closed system. I’m afraid we spent so much time in that world that it became the whole agenda. Canon Law was quoted much more often to us than the Sermon on the Mount before the reforms of Vatican II, and now the young priests are being taught in much the same way as I was. A strong emphasis on law and order makes for a sane boarding school, or an organized anything, for that matter. I really get that. It probably made it much easier for the professors to get a good night’s sleep with one hundred twenty young men next door. But it isn’t anywhere close to the Gospel. The Gospel was not made to help organizations run smoothly. The full Gospel actually creates necessary dilemmas for the soul much more than resolving the organizational problems of institutions. Fortunately, the Gospel is also a profound remedy for any need to rebel or be an iconoclast.
We come to God not by doing it right but, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong. We are justified not by good works, but by faith in an Infinite Mercy that we call grace. It has nothing to do with past performance or future plans for an eternal nest egg. All it requires is a deep act of confidence in a loving God. It is so hard to believe that this imperfect, insignificant creature that I am could somehow bear the eternal mystery. God can only grow bigger as we grow smaller, as John the Baptist put it (John 3:30). If we try to grow bigger by any criteria except divine mercy itself we only grow in love with our own image in a self-created mirror. That is normally called narcissism.
How could God love me so unconditionally, we all ask? This was Paul’s struggle as well, and it led him to his cataclysmic conclusion. God loved Paul in his unworthiness, “while he was yet a sinner” as he puts it (Romans 5:8). Therefore he did not have to waste the rest of his life trying to become worthy or prove his worthiness, to himself or to others.
We seem to think God will love us if we change. Paul clearly knows that God loves us so we can change. The only people who change, who are transformed, are people who feel safe, who feel their dignity, and who feel loved. When you feel loved, when you feel safe, and when you know your dignity, you just keep growing! That’s what loving people do for one another–offer safe relationships in which we can change. This kind of love is far from sentimental; it has real power. In general, you need a judicious combination of safety and necessary conflict to keep moving forward in life.
Paul has fallen in love with a God who has loved him “for nothing.” For the rest of his life, Paul is happy to give God all the credit and he stops trying to validate himself by any means whatsoever. This creates a very different kind of person, someone who is utterly free. Paul knows that “the gift far outweighed the fall” (Romans 5:15) and he lives inside the gift all his remaining days. He never looks back to law or religion for his self-validation, but becomes the ultimate reformer of all self-serving religion, not just Judaism and Christianity. At least Judaism has been honest about its dislike of Paul. Christians have pretended we love him while overwhelmingly ignoring his revolutionary and life changing insights.
Richard Rohr, OFM
Vulnerability–Even in God!
Paul’s encounter with the Eternal Christ on the Damascus Road must have sparked his new and revolutionary consciousness. He recognized that he had been chosen by God even “while breathing murderous threats” (Acts 9:1), and that the God who chose him was a crucified God and not an “Omnipotent” or an “Almighty” God. In fact, Paul only uses the word “Almighty” for God once (2 Corinthians 6:18), and then he is quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. This is quite significant considering his tradition and training. Paul’s image of God was instead someone crucified outside the city walls in the way a slave might be killed, and not of a God appearing on heavenly clouds. Christ was not the strong, powerful, military Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for throughout their history. He was in fact quite the opposite. This was Jesus’ great revelation, surprise, and a scandal that we have still not comprehended. God is not what we thought God could or should be!
Paul, like few others, read his own tradition honestly and recognized that Yahweh consistently chose the weak to confound the strong (1 Corinthians 1:17-31). He saw this in Israel itself, the barren wives of the patriarchs, the boy David forgotten in the fields, the rejected prophets, and finally Jesus on the cross. This becomes Paul’s revolutionary understanding of wisdom that is still offensive and even disgusting to much of the world and even the church. Only vulnerability allows all change, growth, and transformation to happen–even in God. Who would have imagined this?
Paul’s view of himself, of God, and of reality itself was completely turned on its head. He had to re-image how divine power worked and how humans changed. All he knew for sure at the beginning was that it was not what anyone expected. Paul went off to “Arabia” for some time to test his ideas against what he thought he was taught, to slowly allow the full metamorphosis of his soul. (Is this not the necessary path for all of us?) Only later does Paul have the courage to confront Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:16-21), and then a full fourteen years later he tells Peter “to his face” that Peter is wrong (2:11) for imposing non-essentials on people that only give them an incorrect understanding of their correctness or righteousness. (Apparently Peter, the first Pope, was himself fallible, and he too had to learn how to be wrong to grow up!)
It takes all of us a long time to move from power to weakness, from glib certitude to vulnerability, from meritocracy to the ocean of grace. Strangely enough, this is especially true for people raised in religion. In Paul’s letters, he consistently idealizes not power but powerlessness, not strength but weakness, not success but the cross. It’s as if he’s saying, “I glory when I fail and suffer because now I get to be like Jesus–the naked loser–who turned any notion of God on its head.” Now the losers can win, which is just about everybody.
The revelation of the death and resurrection of Jesus forever redefines what success and winning mean, and it is not what any of us wanted or expected. On the cross, God is revealed as vulnerability itself (the Latin word vulnus means wound). The path to holiness is so different than any of us would have wished or imagined; and yet after the fact, we will all recognize that it was our littleness and wrongness that kept the door to union and love permanently wedged open every day of our life. In fact, there is no way to close it.
Richard Rohr, OFM
Love Never Fails
Paul says some pretty extraordinary things in 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s look at some of his points carefully.
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
This hits close to home for me. Paul points out that I might give a wonderful sermon, but if I don’t do it out of God’s love for the people right in front of me, it won’t be as powerful as when I’m participating in divine love. God will still use even lesser loves, but Paul recognizes that human feelings and preferences are quite unreliable. Our affections are fickle and will finally change and fall short when our conditions or requirements are not met.
If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge;
Among others, Paul is talking to the intellectuals and the academics, the Greeks of his day–and likely to most of us. This is the common temptation to substitute knowledge for actual love or service.
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Here he’s challenging religious people who make a task of religion itself, who try to be moral and “believe” through will power. This often passes for religion, but it is faith without love so it is not true faith. Paul might also be criticizing the common mistake of those we call conservatives or “true believers.”
And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
Apparently, you can even be a progressive and generous social activist; but if you’re just doing it to be holier than thou, or out of oppositional energy, you are still outside of the Big Mystery. Self-proclaiming heroics on the Left can be just as unloving as self-proclaiming religion on the Right.
Then Paul tries to describe the mystery of love, and he finally has to resort to listing almost fifteen descriptions. He talks about love not as simply an isolated virtue, but as the basis for all virtue. It is the underlying, generous energy that gives itself away through those living inside of love.
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous;
If I’m jealous, then I’m not in love. When you are inside this mystery of love, you operate differently, and it’s not in a guarded, protective way.
love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly [it is never rude]; it does not seek its own [advantage], is not provoked [it does not take offense or store up grievances],
So every time you and I take offense (how many times a day is that?), we’re not “in love.”
[Love] does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness [in the mistakes of others], but rejoices with the truth;
The Germans have a word for delighting in someone else’s misfortune–schadenfreude. Maybe we do not have an English word for it because we take it as normal. I hope not.
[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And then Paul ends with this: Love never fails. 
Paul is touching upon something that’s infinite; it can therefore include all and has an endless ability to pour itself out. When you’re in love, you’re operating from this foundational sense of abundance, not from scarcity or fear. There is an inherent generosity of spirit, of smile, of gesture, of readiness, of initial acceptance that you immediately sense from any person who is standing inside this Flow. Honestly, you can tell the difference between someone “in love” and someone “not in love” in the first five seconds of almost any encounter. The all-important point, however, is that if your primary motivation is to love, there is no such thing as failure–except in your failure to draw love from an ever deeper level.
Richard Rohr, OFM
The Four Loves
There are many different kinds of love. Ancient Greeks had multiple distinct words for what we try to cover with our single word “love”; these include philia (friendship), eros (passion), storge (familial love), and agape (infinite or divine love). I sometimes fear that our paucity of words reveals an actual narrowness of experience.
For Paul, agape love is the Great Love that is larger than you. It is the Great Self, the God Self. It’s not something you do. It’s something that you learn to live inside of even while you already participate in it. Paul’s oft used expression for living in love is en Christo or in Christ. This way of being is something you fall into more than you manufacture, just as our wonderful English phrase puts it–falling in love. This love is unconditional, always present, and comes without any stipulations except the falling itself. We will only allow ourselves to fall into love when we give up control, consciously or unconsciously. It will often feel like a falling and a faltering, an ecstatic humiliation.
The ego will resist and say, “Why am I doing this to myself? And yet I long to do it!” Normally, something must lead you to the edge of your present resources so you have to push your reset button to access a power greater than yourself. Most of us just don’t go there without a push or a fall or a seduction of some kind.
In 1 Corinthians Chapter 12, Paul explains how we, precisely in our togetherness and participation, are Christ’s Body. Yet each of us is a different part of this Great Wholeness. He lists the many differing gifts of the Spirit. In closing, he writes: “Earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I am going to show you the best way of all” (1 Corinthians 12:31). Then, in his attempt to try to describe this agape or divine love, Paul writes his most poetic chapter in all his letters. He seems to run out of adjectives and superlatives to express the fullness of love.
Paul is not describing human friendship (philia), affection of parents for children (storge), or even passionate desire (eros); he is describing what it is like to live inside of an Infinite Source–where all the boundaries change, feelings are hardly helpful at all, and all the gaps are filled in from the other side. So you see why I say that any Valentine’s notion of love is totally inadequate and can even send you down an impossible and disappointing road if you try to conjure up such romantic dedication within yourself. We have to take breathing lessons and develop larger lungs to live inside of such a new and open horizon. It does not come naturally until we draw upon it many times, and then it becomes the only natural, the deep natural, the true natural. You have then returned home and can even practice the other kinds of love with much greater ability and joy.
Richard Rohr, OFM
I know it has been a while since I have put my hand to the keyboard..but I have been indulging (possibly over-indulging) in Facebook and have not found the time, energy or space to sit and write to my blog! I have come across so many good articles like those of my Franciscan brother, Richard Rohr, that I really should (must) post them here and will try to do so in the future!
I am on a journey that is taking me away and out of The Box/Container that I have lived in for too far long..in fact I now see that ‘The Box’ was in fact a Coffin! There was no life to be found therein!
I have not thrown out the baby with the bath water…at least I hope I have not…but I am being drawn, enticed…wooed into the heart of intimacy with the living God and I am blinded by the light and overcome and overwhelmed by the love!
I hope to share with you more as we journey together, pilgrims and fools for Christ!
Br. Michael Daly CJ
11th April 2016