Conscience and Call

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.

Matthew 1:21-22

So familiar are the infancy narratives of Jesus to us that we can cease to be surprised by how unusual, even incredible, they are. In the world of myth, “virgin births” are not at all unheard of. Quite often extraordinary historical and political figures are born of gods and goddesses. All assertions to the contrary, bearers of a divine role in the world were often seen as the result of divine intervention in the ways of humanity.

Matthew’s account, however, focuses on the experience of Joseph in the story of Jesus’ birth. As Matthew frames the story, we are asked to ponder the dilemma of Joseph who discovers that his betrothed is pregnant with a child which is not his. We are to assume that Joseph lives a deeply traditional life, that his understanding of right and wrong, of how to behave, of how to organize and structure life, of how to please God is largely dictated by the law and by the traditions of his theocentric culture. It is only in such a light that the power of verse 21 of chapter 1 of Matthew can resound in us:  “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”

In contemporary Roman Catholic experience, there has been something of a traditionalist backlash to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitiae. Among the more controversial of the Pope’s teachings is his call for respect and pastoral accompaniment of those couples living in an “irregular union.” In today’s gospel we are reminded that from Joseph’s point of view, he is entering into an “irregular union” with Mary. God does not enter the human experience through “regular order.” No less than Abraham, Joseph must have a radical faith in God’s presence and working in a way that is foreign to the expectations of his tradition and conventions.

As the Theodore James Ryken wrote:

The Holy Spirit
does not let himself be bound
by rules and models
but works where and as He wills. 

When the angel appears to Joseph in a dream, the angel tells him to “not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” Because of the story’s familiarity to us, we tend to overlook the fearfulness of this experience for Joseph. To do the right thing means for him to follow his conscience at whatever the cost both to his social standing but also to his own deeply held beliefs about what makes for righteousness. The story of Jesus’ birth is a story of how it is not by convention that God enters the human experience but much more often through a radical cracking open of those conventions in favor of the more, of the world as the home of being and mystery. While our consciences and wills are formed by tradition, they must, to be truly alive and inspired, remain open to all that convention and tradition cannot contain.

It is not easy to be responsible for our own lives. To be truly alive requires of us that we deeply appropriate the wisdom of the faith and formation traditions of which we are a part, but a truly unique appropriation of those traditions means that they form our capacity for ongoing appraisal or discernment. Joseph’s tradition had a response to the situation in which he found himself, that is his betrothed to be pregnant with a child that was not his. Yet, Joseph experienced in his heart, mind, and will that the conventional response was not adequate to what he knew of Mary. He could not understand but he could sense that something different and new was at work, something that the traditional teaching could not fully encompass.

As we enter the third, and this year the last, week of Advent, we are mindful of St. Bernard’s teaching of the three comings of Christ: his coming into history at his incarnation; his coming at the end of time; and his coming to us now in spirit and power for our rest and consolation. To be awake is to be waiting always for the One who is always coming to us in all the persons, situations, and events of our lives. What today’s gospel reminds us of, however, is that discerning where Jesus is in the moment, and so what is asked of us, requires on our part a lack of certainty and rigidity. It requires an openness in us to those aspects of ourselves, our lives, and our world to which conventional wisdom would close us.

Most of us build selves that are to one degree or other like the gods described in Psalm 135:16-18:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them. 

We create a self-identity build on a deadened conformity to the directives of our cultures and religions. We establish habitual ways of being and seeing based on them, and then we attempt to live out the course of our lives by them without originality and integrity. We become “certain” that we are those conventions and habits. And so, we, as unique and inspirited beings, cease to speak, see, hear, and breath the life of spirit. We cease to be a human person and instead become an idol of our own making.

Over the course of my life, I have consistently rediscovered that it is those aspects of myself that I am most ready to diminish and reject, those things that I fear will lead me astray, that contain within them my deepest life. This is not to reject the wisdom in the wisdom traditions. For it is the teachings of those traditions that give us direction of how best to channel and incarnate the original calling that is ours. Yet, as Adrian van Kaam says, the true life of a tradition depends on its “unique appropriation by its adherents.” Joseph has formed his life in accordance with the ways and teaching of the Law and of his tradition, yet, when a pivotal moment of God’s presence and call arrives, he is able discern and integrate the tradition into his and Mary’s life in such a way as to make possible deeper life for us all.

There is always fearfulness in such responsibility for us. It is not infrequent that true life and discernment will put us at odds, to varying degrees, with social and religious norms and conventions. Some years ago I witnessed the coming out as gay of one of our candidates to the community, a person our provincial accurately described as “the most honest person I’ve ever met.” This process required of him that he tell his parents and family, an experience he knew would be painful for them all, and that he leave, for the sake of greater interpersonal intimacy, the community to which he was very attached and to which he was making an exceptional contribution. It required, and continues to require, of him that he struggle to remain a faithful and contributing member of the Roman Catholic Church, a Church whose teachings, but thankfully in his local situation not practice, would alienate him and his family. Because of his integrity, however, to live his faith requires that he do so in the truth of who he is, of the one God has made him to be.

This process of living our call in the truth applies to all of us. For all of the wisdom that our traditions and customs give us, the Holy Spirit is not bound by “rules and models.” To recognize the Lord’s coming to us today, we must put aside the idol we have made of our conventional identity and allow the life of the Spirit in us, whatever forms it takes, to come out. Our task for ourselves and as ministers of the gospel to others is to become servants of the Spirit’s work of “accompaniment, discernment, and integration.” It is to bring to bear the wisdom of our tradition as a way to life, to the unique call that is the life of each person. Thus, it requires that we be attentive and discerning, as Joseph was, recognizing always that God’s truth is always more than any human construct can contain.

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. 

Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitiae, #37

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