Friday, April 27, 2012

2 anxieties

During the course of my reading this last term, I came across a really great article.  You know, the kind of article that makes you say, Dang, I wish I had written that.   The title of the article is "Facing the Abyss: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Reading of Anxiety."  I didn't even know Hans (my main theologian for doctoral studies) was into anxiety!  Well, I thought I would share a few of the thoughts that the author of the article, Anthony Cirelli, brings to the topic.  I wish I had said these things, but I didn't.  All credit to Hans and Tony.

To summarize, Balthasar suggests that anxiety happens because of the void between infinite divine freedom and finite human freedom.  Anxiety in the Old Testament occurs in two distinct ways. On the one hand, it occurs when one turns away from God, only to be greeted by the torturous and searing loneliness and meaninglessness of life apart from God.  On the other hand, anxiety is experienced when one is approached by God, as he is overwhelmed, blinded one might say, by a presence too powerful for words. 

In other words, we are afraid of the infinite, of mystery and the unfamiliar, so we avoid it, turn away from it, and this produces anxiety.  Or we have an encounter with the infinite, the mysterious, the unexplainable and it freaks us out.  This produces anxiety because we cannot abide in a place of such unequal intimacy.  In both cases, it is a turning toward the self, trying to avoid the void by an egocentric response that results in anxiety.

Using the example of Christ on the cross, Balthasar concludes that God did not come to abolish existential anxiety, but to enter into it himself and therefore to be in solidarity with humanity. By doing this, he revalues anxiety and overcomes it. 

Cirelli says: "The moment when a person is aware of Being, he or she enters the dimension of encounter with the infinite God.  But the sheer strangement and unfamiliarity of this 'presence' calls to mind an even greater awareness of absence.  Metaphorically speaking, one undergoes a vertiginous experience as one stands atop a cliff in which the drop is incalculable and yet into which one is called to leap."  We all know that feeling, right?  Anxiety central!  But wait, there's more...

"Anxiety characterizes that moment of encounter and decision: one either surrenders to God, who has sent his Christ to bridge heaven and earth by conveying him to the void, or one retreats into oneself by looking past God and gazing at the void itself."  So there we are, teetering on top of the cliff above the void, faced with encounter and decision.  And really anxious about it all.  What now?

In imitation of Christ, one must make the leap by "surrendering all of one's hope and trust to God."  The courage of a Christian, for Balthasar, though certainly not without anxiety, is nothing other than "an act of faith in which one dares to place oneself and the whole world in the hand of the One who can dispose of a person for death and for life."  In other words, leaping into the void.  But how?

"It is in prayer, that is, the basic opening of self to God in an act of surrendering love and devotion, indeed, in a consent to be silent, to wait for God in the void, that one has an example of what the decision or at least the occasion for trust looks like.  Prayer is the way to enter into and emerge out of the void; not that prayer does away with the void, but rather is the experience of not being alone in the void."  Yes. Even though the void is unavoidable, we don't have to be alone.

Thanks, guys.

All quotes and paraphrases taken from Anthony Cirelli, "Facing the Abyss: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Reading of Anxiety." New Blackfriars, 2011.

the photo:  overlooking the St. Lawrence River from the train bridge.  Frozen void below.

Friday, April 20, 2012

rules of improv

I was watching the show Celebrity Apprentice last week (artificially created, overly dramatic reality tv, I know, but it has its moments) and on that particular episode the teams had to perform in an improv puppet show (for adults) with members of The Jim Henson Company.  Interesting stuff.  The cameras followed the team through puppet-making, improv lessons, and learning how to be part of a live show.  Of course, the most fascinating part for me was seeing professionals (and amateurs) do improvisational theatre.

The rules of improv are pretty simple.  Don't think up a scene ahead of time; instead, be in the moment and react to what is happening.  You don't have to be funny; place the emphasis on creating an interesting scene and a consistent character; funny will follow.  Be specific and avoid open-ended questions which add nothing; vague questions end up putting the burden on your team members to carry the scene.  Make your team members look good; this invariably makes the whole scene better.  But the NUMBER ONE RULE in improv is the rule of YES (and).  Basically, it means that you never deny any situation or information that comes your way.  Your response is always "YES, and....."  After you accept the situation, you add more information to it and build the scene. 

For example, if a fellow actor says, "Your shirt is ugly," your first instinct might be to deny it by saying, "No, it isn't.  I think it looks fine!"  But if you follow the first rule of improv, you might respond with "Yes, I know.  I lost my luggage when I landed in Vegas last night so I pulled this out of the lost and found box at the hotel's front desk."  Which story sounds more interesting?  The Yes scenario or the No scenario?  Denying the situation suggested by the audience or contradicting what your fellow players bring to the scene not only shows disrespect for their ideas, but it brings confusion, undermines the integrity of the story, and most importantly, erodes trust.

Some of my reading this past term has been on the theodramatic theory of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Basically, he uses the model of drama as a way of explaining and illuminating the story of God engages with the world.  In many ways, the rules of improv are very applicable here, especially the rule of YES. Balthasar positions our YES in the context of divine freedom: “Only after God has uttered his absolute Yes to man can man utter his absolute No to God: genuine atheism is a post-Christian phenomenon.  This wide range in freedom, from a full human Yes and (at least the intention of) a full No, brings the tension of theo-drama to its peak." [1]  In effect, Balthasar is saying that our freedom to say Yes or No is a result of God's free choice to say Yes to us.  God is the ultimate improv artist! When we say Yes it means that we want to engage in his story.  Yes is a response that demonstrates trust.  Yes means I am a team player.  Yes is the only way to move the scene (my life) forward in a cohesive way.  Yes means I am committed to being a responder instead of pushing my own agenda. Yes means I have not pre-written my life's script, but am willing to take what is given to me and make something out of it. Yes means that I am the invited, not the author.  

But don't forget the "and!"  After the Yes, I am free to add what my character naturally brings to the story. It is necessary and integral to history that I add my "and."  It determines the specifics of how the larger story will proceed.  It is what can make a whole scene come alive.  It is life in the beautiful here and now, this moment.   

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar. Theo-Drama, volume 2.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 123-24.

the photo:  me posing in a cutout at the movie theatre.  I denied this guy.

Friday, April 13, 2012


I have been reading An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson, which is a memoir of her 20 years as a sister in the Missionaries of Charity (the order founded by Mother Teresa).  Like all monastic orders, the MC's have a Rule which governs the life of those dedicated to its mission, and this Rule is based on vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.   Poverty can mean anything from no curtains to changing where you sleep every month.  At the heart of this vow is Mother Teresa's insistence that one not forget the poor.  Chastity is interpreted as not touching another person, avoiding particular friendships, and embracing virginity.  Here, the primacy is put on intimacy with Jesus instead of with another person.  Obedience means that the voice of your superior is the voice of God; this is meant to teach submission to the Absolute.  As Mother Teresa often says, "Let God use you without consulting you."

Rules are funny things.  While they are meant to convey the practical application of a whole-hearted motivation, they can easily become a substitute for the larger, more generous concept behind them.   One of the stories in the book relates how, in her later years, Mother Teresa repeatedly requested to step down as General Superior of MC due to her diminishing energy and health issues (3 heart attacks).  Despite her insistence that another person be found to fill the position, the council continued to elect her as their overseer.  Johnson tells how at lunch one day, when she was recounting an anecdote to Mother Teresa in which Johnson's grandfather suggested that the aging nun should take a rest, Mother Teresa responded with an exasperated, "I can't!  It's the will of God!"  Because the council had elected her, she was bound to obedience, no matter what toll it took on her health.  Alas, Mother T found herself caught in the Rule, unable to break free from a task she was increasingly unable to perform. The Rule had become a tyrant instead of a servant.

The same thing can (and has) happen in my life.  I have at times been so dedicated to the rule of truth (believing the right thing) that I have sacrificed the dignity of others and thrown love under the bus.  Truth became a Rule instead of a Person invested in the freedom of others.  I have also been known to be so focused on the rule of responsible living (being a faithful person) that I have ignored the needs of others and registered disappointment in those who don't share my values.  Faithfulness is a response to the Faithful One, not a whip-cracking, whistle-blowing tyrant.  I have also used my level of sacrifice as a standard (rule) with which to measure others, expecting them to get in line and do likewise.  Generosity will never grow by demanding or even stealing sacrifices from others.

Jesus said that he didn't come to negate the Law (Rule), but to fulfill it.  That means we don't throw chastity, poverty, and obedience out the window.  Truth, faithfulness, and sacrifice are cherished values to God, however, the Rule must never be given the status of tyrant, pulling our strings like puppets, regardless of the state of our heart.  Any rule that is meant to serve a bigger purpose must always give way to the bigger purpose when it needs to.  All through the scriptures, we see God's mercy triumphing over judgment and Jesus offering forgiveness to unfaithful rule-keepers.  Holiness is not found in a Rule.  It is found in the presence of Jesus.  Where God is, there is holiness.

Jesus fulfills the Law by embodying all the purposes of the Law.  He is Love embodied, he is Sacrifice embodied, he is Truth embodied, he is Life in communion with God embodied.  He is the three-dimensional, perpetual model of what it looks like to belong to God.  And two-dimensional Law must bow before his personification of that intention.  Not the other way around. 

the photo:  Sheriff''s office in Pioneertown, California.  Closed.

Friday, April 06, 2012

did you call me?

For one of my courses this semester, I have been reading a lot of Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher.  I am the first to admit that reading Ricoeur is not for the faint of heart.  Fortunately, the long, arduous road through his philosophical meanderings proved to be totally worth it when I got to the last two articles.  One of them was called, "The Summoned Subject in the School of the Narratives of the Prophetic Vocation."  One of the sections in this article explores the topic of vocation.  I pulled out some of his points and fleshed out the ideas for a short talk last Sunday.  Though Ricoeur is using Old Testament prophets as an example, I believe these principles apply to us all.

Before I get into Ricoeur's points, let me offer a brief explanation of the term, "vocation."  This word carries a sense of "spiritual calling," and has its root in the same word as "voice."  Much more than a career path one chooses, a vocation is a call that one responds to.  So when you ask someone about their vocation, you are not asking where they spend their working hours, you are asking what God has called them to do.  And this may or may not directly correspond to one's career or job.  For example, one may work in a bank, but be called to intercede or pray on behalf of others.  A vocation is meant to permeate all of one's life, not just take up a few hours a week.  Here, then, are 7 different phases of a spiritual calling based on Ricoeur's article.    

1. First, there is a confrontation with God.  For Moses, there was a burning bush which interrupted his herding duties.  What is noteworthy about the first phase in a spiritual calling is that God literally steps into our path and confronts us.  Take a look at the life of Saul/Paul and we note a very disturbing interruption in his life, one that blinded him and challenged him to change direction.  Interruptions are not always welcome.  Perhaps Moses was tempted to get out the fire extinguisher, put out the burning bush, and get on with life.  Fortunately for the Israelite slaves, he did not.

2.  The introductory speech.  This is where God introduces himself to the person he has interrupted.  In the case of Moses, God names himself, identifies himself, and makes reference to his faithfulness to past generations.  This introduction becomes the authority and foundation for the calling.

3.  The decisive word is pronounced.  Here, God communicates three things to Moses. 1) This is who you are.  2) This is what I am asking you to do. 3) Go.

4.  The objection.  Ah, yes.  The one being called is quick to object that this is just not possible.  For Moses, the objection was that he was slow of speech and would not be able to speak to the leader of a nation.  For Jeremiah, it was the fact that he was only a boy.  We all have our objections to the call of God.  Invariably, the mission is perceived as being too grand and the one being called perceives that they are too small. Nevertheless, the call has been given.

5.  The reassurance.  God responds to the objections with the following reassurance:  I am with you.  The reference goes back to capability of the one doing the calling instead of focusing on the incapabilities of the one being called.

6.  But what if?  Here, the one being called is willing to entertain the idea of taking the first step, shaky as it might be, and wants to know how things will unfold.  Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" (Exodus 3) The called one asks: if I take the first step and run into a roadblock, then what?

7.  Go back to number 2. In the example of Moses, God refers back to his introduction of himself as the faithful one, but expands on it, making sure that Moses understands that the mysterious name of God is nevertheless an all-encompassing name: evident in history, active in the present, and reverberating into the future.  God is always being faithful.  He is always capable.  He is always with the one he has called.  The success of the mission rests on the faithfulness of I AM WHO I AM.  Basically, God is saying:  you can count on me because it's me.

Though none of us find ourselves in the same situation as Moses, called to free an entire nation, there is no doubt in my mind and heart that we are all being called to bring freedom to those around us.  How God is asking you to do this, only you will know.  But the first step to finding out might be to ask ourselves, where is my life being interrupted?  Could this perhaps be a clue as to what my vocation is?

the photo:  my ear