Power and Repentance

At the time of the evening sacrifice, I, Ezra, rose in my wretchedness, and with cloak and mantle torn I fell on my knees, stretching out my hands to the Lord, my God.

I said: “My God, I am too ashamed and confounded to raise my face to you, O my God, for our wicked deeds are heaped up above our heads and our guilt reaches up to heaven.”

Ezra 9: 5-6

In Act One, Scene Seven of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth argue about the very nature of humanity. As Macbeth withdraws from his intention to kill Duncan, Macbeth says that he is Duncan’s kin and subject and so to kill him would be outside of the limits of humanity. “I dare do all that may become a man,/ who dares do more is none,” he says. Lady Macbeth tells him that it is the very courage to carry through their plans to kill Duncan and take over the throne that would make Macbeth a man. What, in truth, is the measure of our humanity?

Today we read of Ezra falling on his knees in shame and guilt before God. In the gospel we hear Jesus give his disciples “power and authority,” but that authority comes from their willingness to set out with nothing and in total dependence on God. “Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic” (Luke 9: 3). Somehow our distinctively human potency depends on our relationship of dependence on God. Jesus teaches in the story from today’s gospel that it is what we accumulate around us, how we come to identify ourselves with our position, power, wealth, and possessions, that distances us from who we truly are, what constitutes our unique humanity and call.

Adrian van Kaam teaches that we come to know our call through the experience of violating it. We experience the “definitions” or boundaries of our true identity when we , as finally does Macbeth, violate them. By doing what he knows exceeds what is rightfully human, Macbeth unleashes not only personal but also societal and even cosmic chaos. As we learn from the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve, human beings will always push the envelope. At the levels of our bodily impulses and our functional ambitions, we are always seeking a power that is not ours to have. It is at the level of spirit that we are able to recognize our “transcendent form potency,” the power that comes from living our dependence on and in God. We are truly participants in the very creative work of the Divine Mystery, and yet we shall always seek a power and control that is our own, as separate and autonomous from our Divine Source and the rest of creation.

The result of our “being powerful” in ways that are untrue to ourselves is always harm to others. If we honestly reflect on our lives, we can usually remember countless experiences where we acted not from love but from power, and if we’re honest with ourselves and willing to bear the truth, we shall also realize the harm and the hurt that we caused to the personal subjects who became the objects of our power.

As a young teacher, I remember using my good relationships with students to learn the identity of a student who was a lead perpetrator in what I now recognize to be merely a typical boyhood prank. The result of my “unearthing” this student’s identity was his expulsion from the school, an action which in retrospect I realize as an extreme over-reaction. Now I have no idea what became of that student, and yet, I pray constantly for him and repent of my own rashness and violence which so negatively affected his life.

As there are, gratefully, many moments in life where our humble and appropriate work has benefitted the lives of others and the life of our world, there are also, what at least feel to be far too many, times when “we crossed the line” of what was ours to do. In one way or another, this crossing of the line almost always meant exercising a power that is not ours over another. Our own formation, our own deepening into our call, requires of us the honesty, humility and courage to “fall on our knees” at such times, as does Ezra.

In recent times, psychological research has shown us that human beings are far more resilient than we had imagined. People are able to overcome the worst of adversities and even extreme harm at the hands of others. There is a great consolation in this insight. It suggests that, in fact, the world is inherently resilient. When we stop hurting or damaging it and truly repent and learn our true place from that repentance, life, in all its forms, can continue on and even be healed. I often imagine what would happen for the earth itself if all humanity practiced a weekly Sabbath. If we rested and so all our functional work stopped for even 24 hours, what would be the effect on our planet? Studies proved that during the stoppage of air travel immediately following the attacks of 9/11/01 that the hole in the ozone layer decreased considerably.

In repentance, we stop pushing ourselves in our false form onto the world. We allow a space for God’s work to heal the world, the other whom we have hurt, and ourselves. In our age, the personal sense of sin and sinfulness has pretty much evaporated. Yet, we make a profound mistake if we do not recognize our capacity, in our desire to exercise power in blatant and subtle ways, to do harm. We would like it to be otherwise, but we only learn our true call by fully recognizing and being responsible for the ways that we violate it. This responsibility means to repent our forgetting who we are and who God is. Jesus tells the disciples they are to go out with nothing but the clothes on their backs because they must always remember that God takes care of them. They will never know their deepest transcendent power to respond to evil and to proclaim the gospel without living fully their dependence on God. When we, as Ezra, repent, and experience the truth of who we really are, we make ourselves available to become the “ordinary” persons we have been created to be and to thus become the servant of “a love common to all.”

 

                                            Hold My Hand

Deliver me from my own shadows, O God, from the wreck and confusion of my days, for the night is dark and Your pilgrim is blinded.

Hold my hand.

Deliver me from despair.
Touch with Your flame the lightless lamp of my sorrow.
Waken my tired strength from its sleep.
Do not let me linger behind, counting my losses.
Let the road sing to me of the house at every step.
For the night is dark, and Your pilgrim is blinded.

Hold my hand.

Rabindranath Tagore, The Heart of God, p. 10

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