For those who have completed the journey,
for those who are sorrowless,
for those who are wholly free from everything,
for those who have destroyed all ties,
the fever of passion exists not.
Like the earth,
a balanced and well-conducted person is not resentful;
like a pool unsullied by mud are they;
to such a one life’s wanderings are no more.
Calm are their minds,
calm is their speech,
calm are their actions
who, rightly knowing,
are wholly freed, perfectly peaceful, and equipoised.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cross as a universal symbol, with its vertical and horizontal axes. The vertical axis is rooted deep in the earth and stretches up into the heaven––our relationship with Absolute Reality, with God. And the horizontal axis, the cross beam, if you will, is about our relationship to one another. From as far back as the Jewish revelation, these things have always gone together, as if breathing in and breathing out. So the first three of the Ten Commandments are about our relation to God, for example, and the last seven are about our relations to one another. In Jesus we find the perfect wedding of these energies, an intense experience of God’s immediacy perfectly wedded to a sense of ethical responsibility. And so Jesus can teach that the greatest commandment is really two––love of God and loving neighbor as our self. What both of these axes have in common is that they each call for a kind of dying.
On the vertical plane, in this gospel reading that we heard from Mark today (Mk 9:3037), Jesus at this point is starting to alienate some of his own followers because they can’t seem to understand just how hard this road is really going to be. They did not understand, Mark says, the saying that “he would be handed over and killed.” Last week we heard about poor Peter, just after he had been called the Rock, being called a Satan because he is trying to talk Jesus out of the way of the cross. He didn’t see, as we find it hard to accept, that the way of freedom goes through the way of death, the way of exultation goes through the way of humiliation, the way to enlightenment goes through the way of darkness, in little ways and great. No matter what spiritual path we are on, if it is an authentic one, we are going to run into this harsh truth that in our path toward union with God, the way to our real self is the death of the self we think we are, that little self with which we usually identify and cling to so tenaciously. It is only then that we can have what Paul calls “the mind of Christ,” and the new consciousness––which is resurrection consciousness––the sure knowledge that ultimately life is not subject to death and decay because there is a higher life possible beyond the possibilities that nature and history seem to present to us.
The implication concerning our relations to the world––the horizontal axis––is just this: this experience of the immediacy of God becomes in us energy, a power. It makes us wise and compassionate, and makes us want to stand up for “the way of heaven.” But to do that we are going to have to put our life on the line; we are going to be swimming upstream against a world that doesn’t like to have its status quo challenged. There’s an old piece of conventional wisdom that whenever you’re doing something good, something bad is going to happen to try to prevent it. Evil does not go down easily. There really is a battle of dark forces versus light forces at work in the psychic realm and in the anima mundi––the soul of the world, though evil does not always appear as we might expect it would. There’s also another reason why bad things seem to crop up when good is starting to happen. And that other reason is us: there’s something in the human condition that hates to be called out of its mediocrity and complacency. We’re given a hint of that today in the reading from the book of Wisdom. “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings…” (This reading is used again late in Lent leading up to the remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death, by the way.)
I think a good example of what we are going to face in our relations with the world––the horizontal axis––are the polemics and political polarization in this country right now, especially centered around the maddening debate about health care reform. I promise you, I don’t want to “preach politics from the pulpit.” As far as I am concerned, yes, my sympathies are with the left, but there are reasoned and convincing arguments, and reasonable plans from both sides. Everybody agrees that something has to be done. As the president keeps saying, we agree on about 80% of it. That’s the “good.” But the good is being undermined and attacked by the vitriol that is spewing out of peoples’ mouths and over the airwaves, and the ad hominem attacks by the left and the right, attacking peoples’ character and motives. I made the mistake of listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio while I was in South Dakota last week. I was shocked. I equally grimaced when President Bush was being slandered and hung in effigy here in Santa Cruz in 2003 and 2004, but I don’t recall anything as mucky as this coming from the left. I realize this is politics, and the Rush Limbaugh is show biz, but politics and show biz are the “way of the world,” and this should be absolutely unacceptable to those who are spiritual. That’s the insidious power of evil.
My own position, informed by Catholic social teaching, is simple: I want to stand up for the dignity of all life, and I want to stand on the side of the poor. That’s been the consistent teaching of the church. Something in that position is going to irritate both the left and the right. But I still have to stand up for it as “wisdom from above.” But, as Saint James reminds us in the reading we heard from him today, this wisdom from above is “pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.” In other words, I need to stand on that truth not as a self-righteous conquering warrior; I stand on that truth as “the last of all,” as the “servant of all,” as Jesus says in the Gospel today, “pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity,” as James reminds us, because, he goes on to say, “the fruit of righteousness” will only be sown in peace if we cultivate peace.
I am reminded of the first and the last beatitudes as well: in relation to God, blest are the poor in spirit; in relation to the world, blessed are those who suffer for righteousness. And our righteousness, as hard as it is, is speaking the truth, but speaking that truth in love. It somehow is only true when it is spoken in love, spoken peaceably, gently, mercifully, respectfully.
I found it interesting that at the end of gospel reading we also hear about Jesus bringing a child in their midst. I think the child symbolizes here a certain innocence, the naiveté of someone who still believes that being pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant and merciful will win the day; the simplicity of someone who still believes that that any violence done in thought, word or deed will somehow not bring us the victory for which we ultimately long. As Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew, we are the children sent out like sheep in the midst of wolves. We’ve shown that we can be as “wise as serpents.” Now it’s time to be as “innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16), even better, as innocent as children.