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When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes… (Matthew 8:5-8)
There are many things about this section of scripture that make me squeamish. In principle, I dislike charges of absolute authority, even as they are ascribed to the human incarnation of an omnipotent God. I am especially uncomfortable with authority analogies related to the military, or any other institutions that employ violence as a means of enforcement, for that matter. There is something about the centurion’s claim of unworthiness that gets me, too. Perhaps I’ve seen too many well-intentioned Christians transform “humility” into unproductive guilt.
Despite all this, I cling to that declaration: But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
This man knew the power of a word.
Jesus responded to the centurion, saying, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would!” I’d like to believe that “Go” was the word with all that power. I want to believe that because it is often the smallest words that heal me. Last semester I took a seminar that required students to circulate written reflections on the assigned readings before class. While reading the first reflection paper of the semester, written by male student, I was touched by the care with which he employed one little word. “When one does this, she experiences that…” Every non-specific pronoun he utilized in the essay was gendered female—a stark contrast to the ubiquitous male-gendered pronouns that filled the theological texts we studied all semester. With that little word—“she”—this colleague extended a powerful message: language so often excludes people of your gender, and I am invested in changing that. This gesture brought a little bit of healing.
Big words and long phrases have power, too. I keep a stack of blank note cards next to my bed; you will find me frantically reaching for them while reading Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, and Foucault when I have come across a line or a paragraph too precious to forget. I scribble them down and pin them to the bulletin board hanging on my bedroom wall where they remind me that so many others out there share the truths that I have unearthed in this short life. These are healing words because they remind me that I am not alone in my search for sense and meaning in my strange encounter with this world.
When I think of being “Christlike,” I dream of bringing words that heal. This is how I make sense of a life of so many books and computer screens. I am searching for the Word. The Word that heals.
Amid these long days curled over my laptop and yellow-paged library books, I have been stepping out into the fresh air for a walk on the Labyrinth. The white-stoned, circular meditation walk rests on the edge of a grassy lawn across from the entrance of Andover, Harvard’s theology library. The Labyrinth is warm from many hours under the sun, so I often take off my shoes to feel the heat radiating from the stone. Sometimes my shoes feel as confining as the walls of the wooden study carol where I have been writing my final papers all week. The labyrinth winds back and forth from beginning to end, and no matter how many times I walk it, I find myself feeling directionless there; that’s part of what makes it effective, I think. All I can do is look down at the path carved out in the stone, place one foot in front of the other, and follow the path in front of me.
During my second week at Harvard, I sat down for dinner with one of my mentors and I confessed my excitement and anxiety about the year ahead. I had no doubt that I did not want to be anywhere but HDS; I already loved my classes and professors, and my peers were brilliant and fascinating. Still, I worried that I could not live up to the opportunity. What if I’m what this place expects? What if they don’t like my ideas, or my approach? “Just give yourself to this process!” he reassured me. “This is amazing! I’m so excited for you! Just give yourself to this process…” I’ve repeated these words a thousand times this year.
On the days when I am particularly anxious, I look up in the midst of my labyrinth walk, and I am startled, “Have I moved at all?” This is a ridiculous question, of course. I’ve been walking for the last five minutes. Yet, really and truly, there are moments when I look up at all the turns of this winding circular path and I wonder this. I don’t have the patience for it. I ache for a reminder of progress! But all that’s there is another corner to pivot—a corner that looks just like the one I passed five paces ago. I want a reminder of progress! And then—I remind myself that that is not the point.
People often ask me if I picture myself doing something other than theology in the future. Typically, I reply with something like, “Well, I’m old enough to know that life cannot be planned. So, I try to remain open. But right now, I really see myself moving in the direction of theology.” For some reason I do not tell them about the moment earlier this year when I was sitting at my kitchen table with my roommate, Sarah. It was one of those anxious days, one when I was doubting myself again. She asked me that question about the possibility of doing something else, and I started to cry when I told her the complete truth, saying, “I don’t know what else I could possibly do…” It is not that I could not find employment, and even satisfaction, in any number of other careers. No. The truth is that I feel so deeply that this is what I am called to do, for myself and for my community, that even on the hard days I cannot see myself working toward anything else. And sometimes the calling frightens me. But it is always there, and it is so much mine that I can’t imagine leaving it.
The panicked, directionless moments are so often an occasion for reminding myself that I am moving, and that I’m exactly where I need to be. “Just give yourself to this process,” I tell myself. “One step at a time. One step. One step,” I tell myself again. When I confront my doubt with the truth of my call, I remember all the moments of epiphany this year—all the moments when I have felt more free than I ever have before—more myself, and more with God, and more with and for my people than I could have ever imagined.
The stone is warm under the soles of my feet, and I lean forward to take another step—
Lately each time I enter the gates of Harvard Yard from the concrete and brick of the Square, I am greeted with the opening word from Pascal’s Mémorial. The demanding red foliage of this one large tree declares, “Fire.”
Mémorial is Pascal’s cryptic account of the two-hour mystical vision he experienced one night at age 31. “Fire” begins the montage of parsed phrases, utterings of fear, wonder, reverence, and conviction. Pascal had the text sown into the lining of his clothes, which is where the account was discovered upon his death. Perhaps he brought it with him because he could not escape it. I have often found that if you listen closely, you can hear his heart racing between the words on the page.
Sometimes when I am sitting in the library here at school, I look out the large windows at the burning trees, and I think of Annie Dillard. In one of her essays she describes a moth flirting with the flame of a candle, irresistibly circling its blazing wick. The moth moves closer and closer, until it is too close; the fire consumes it. The moth is burning, but it has become the wick of the flame it so desires. Then my gaze returns to the book over which I hover. Fire.
It isn’t strange to me that God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Aren’t we all met with moments of fire? “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up,” concluded Moses when he saw it (Exodus 3:3). There are moments of fire that capture us so much that we cannot cease returning to them. They are people, and experiences, and visions we must circle around; we must return to them. We must sow them into our clothes. We must give ourselves to them even if they consume us. Fire.
Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared.” –Teresa of Avila, from The Interior Castle
There is a class at Harvard in which all MDiv students (those earning degrees in preparation for ministry) must recount their “spiritual autobiography” for those in the class. I’m told this process of vulnerable sharing, listening, and exchanging feedback can take many class sessions. Yesterday a friend told me about his recent experience of presenting his autobiography, wherein he admitted to his classmates that he is unsure about whether ordained ministry is actually what he pursue upon the completion of his degree.
“Well, would that ministry utilize your gifts?” they responded, “What are your gifts?”
My friend said he hesitated in his response. He felt uncomfortable claiming the (many, really extraordinary) gifts that he possesses. He said this felt out of character, and counter-cultural to both his faith community and the decorum of where he was raised.
Although the two of us come from different hometowns and denominational traditions, I imagine myself responding similarly was I placed in his position. I, too, experience the tension between a sense of real, genuine humility, on one hand, and the importance of recognizing one’s skills for discernment and effective ministry, on the other.
Recently, I have not only been confronted with this tension in my friend’s story, but also in the writing of Teresa of Avila. The professor who assigned her book, The Interior Castle, for this week’s reading warned the class: “Teresa has an extreme tendency toward self-deprecation—it can be quite disturbing, but just push through!” Sure enough, within the first few pages of the book she had already made it quite clear to the reader that she, herself, is useless, and only writes out of obedience to God and her monastic order.
As I have read on, however, it has become clear that Teresa was blessed with extraordinary gifts, as a mystic and as a communicator of those experiences for the betterment of others. Even as she communicated an extreme, self-deprecating humility, she must have written out of an undeniable knowledge of her giftedness. This is evident in one of her rather ironic warnings against the danger of a false sense of self-knowledge:
If we are always fixed on our earthly misery, the stream will never flow free from the mud of fears, faintheartedness, and cowardice. I would be looking to see if I’m being watched or not; if by taking this path things will turn out badly for me; whether it might be pride to dare to begin a certain work; whether it would be good for a person so miserable to engage in something so lofty as prayer; whether I might be judged better than others if I don’t follow the path they all do. I’d be thinking that extremes are not good, even in the practice of virtue; that, since I am such a sinner, I might be a greater fall; that perhaps I would not advance and would do harm to good people; that someone like myself has no need of special things…Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared. So I say, daughters, that we should set our eyes on Christ, our Good, and on His Saints. There we shall learn true humility, the intellect will be enhanced, as I have said, and self-knowledge will not make once based and cowardly.
Like Teresa, I realize that every person is blessed with unique gifts, and that I should celebrate this by sharing my gifts with others rather than letting fear and false humilities get in the way. The kind of humility that Teresa implores (perhaps in a self-directed message!) is a humility that does not deny giftedness. It acknowledges God, and it acknowledges the giftedness of others, but it does not prevent one from the sense of peace and joy that comes with doing what one is really good at!
How can I foster this sort of life-giving humility? How can I let go of the false, fear-inducing humility that so easily distracts me from my gifts? And how can I help others do the same?
It is very likely that you know the story of Jesus walking on water—the one where his disciple, Peter, hops out of the safe sailing vessel to join his Rabbi atop the waves. When Peter starts to panic and sink, Jesus scolds him, asking, “Don’t you have faith?” If you’re like me, and probably most of us, you understand this story as a message about faith in Christ. If Peter trusted Jesus, he would have been able to miraculously walk on water just like his teacher. With faith in God, all things are possible.
The super hip American pastor, Rob Bell, has another interpretation of this story, however. In one of his super hip movie shorts, (one of the Nooma series), he cites Jewish rabbinic history to charge that Jesus’ question about Peter’s faith was not actually a question about faith in his teacher, as we often assume. Rather, Jesus was asking Peter, “Don’t you have faith in yourself? Faith that you can actually be like me?” Rob Bell suggests that by inviting all of humankind to be Christian disciples, disciples like Peter, Jesus was essentially communicating the radical message that God believes in us—in our ability to live good lives, and to live up to our individual callings. “Don’t you have faith Peter? I called you out here because I believe in you.”
I felt like Peter walking on the ocean today in my philosophy of religion class. As I looked up from the intimidating German names on my syllabus to the pensive faces of my anonymous classmates, and back down to those famous German names again, my faith waned and my heart began to sink.
I can’t do this. Why am I here? What was I thinking? I was drowning in self-doubt.
The thing is, I have read most of these German philosophers and theologians before. In fact, I have worked with these thinkers in classes in which I was quite successful. My fears were not rooted in a rational suspicion about my abilities as a student of philosophy and theology. They were not rooted in wise precaution. I have become self-aware enough to recognize my demons, and I know that low self-confidence is one of them. No award or grade or pat on the back has dissolved them thus far. It is going to take a deep form of self-work.
In the meantime, I find myself clinging to this fresh interpretation of that old biblical tale. Jesus has faith in me—to love my neighbor as myself and to turn the other cheek, ways of life that are simply much more difficult and demanding than the things I encounter in the classroom. If Jesus believes in my potential to do those things, then surely, it is worth having faith in my gifts as a student.
Jesus believes in me, and with time, hopefully I can too.
Yesterday I sat on the steps of Harvard Divinity School with Tim, a learned, enthusiastic lawyer who has returned to grad school to study church history. Guided by Tim’s astoundingly well-rounded studies, our conversation weaved in and out of a number of topics, including our faith lives and religious traditions–he, a practicing Mormon, and I, a practicing Catholic.
In an effort to gain insight into my personal convictions, I think, Tim asked me an interesting question: “If you were instantly declared Pope, what would you change about the Catholic Church today?” I laughed along with Paul, another lawyer and fellow Catholic student at HDS who had joined in our conversation. What a question…
My response sort of surprised me. Had Tim asked me what kinds of reform I would like to see in the Church, I would have confidently recited the well thought-out list. But that is not what he asked. “I couldn’t possibly initiate all the changes I’d like to see,” I told him. “And, honestly, I probably couldn’t initiate even one of them right away if I was magically elected Pope.” I was being absolutely honest, and it was hard to admit this to Tim, and to myself. “We have a global church and a history spanning thousands of years. If even the smallest thing is going to change, a lot of work and time must be invested into helping people make sense of these shifts from within the faith tradition. If something “new” is going to happen, we have to use the old authorities–scripture, doctrine, liturgy, etc.–to help people at all levels of the Church make sense of it within the context of their religious identities and communities. Otherwise it won’t mean anything to people. It won’t stick. It will be confusing. We have to help people make sense of it religiously before we implement it.”
This is why I want to be a theologian. I know I may never see very tangible progress in the type of Church reform that I think is right and just and good, but I think that teachers and writers and ministers and theologians can do work now that helps people make sense of the potential reforms we will not witness, in all likelihood. This work must happen if, one day, the average person is going to think of a married or female priest in a Catholic way, for instance.
On numerous occasions I have been asked to articulate what I’d like the Catholic Church to look like, but Tim brought out another, perhaps more complex and pressing, question–how? How is the Church going to look like that? And for that matter, how did the Church end up looking like it does today? How do individual paradigm shifts, or major institutional reformations, occur? If you’ve got any of these figured out, please let me know…