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Lenten Series Liminal Space

Giving up control in life’s second half


“Love is a harsh and dreadful thing.”
-- Dorothy Day

I think we have all learned by the middle of life that people do not change easily. We try to change others, we try to change ourselves, we try to improve situations by better communication methods, various coercive means and sincere prayer, but, dang it, most of us are just like we used to be. Only the disguise and the denial get better. It seems we don’t meet that many transformed people. What a disappointment.

My hope, as I get older, is that I hurt people a little less. My hope is that I can at least see what I am doing a little better -- and more easily apologize for my mistakes. My hope is that I can accept people and situations as they really are. In these ways I have changed. But I must painfully admit that I am in most ways the same person that I was as a 17-year-old-boy. The same underlying patterns of arrogance, denial, deceit, rash judgment, lust and laziness are still with me. Now I just know how to describe them better for NCR articles. All of my years of education, all of my Franciscan training, all of my attempts at prayer, all of my wonderful loves and my terrible mistakes -- you would think I would be different by now. The truth is that I am radically different. The truth is that I am not different at all. And both of those are true at the same time.

In my attempt to explain this ultimate paradox (and it is), let me start by saying that I do not think all the expert communication skills in the world, all the explanations of very helpful psychology, will ever make us completely loving or lovable people. One speaker said recently, to my initial shock, that if we actually communicated better we would probably love one another less. We would know the mixed motives, the critical and judgmental thoughts that are floating through one another’s minds, and would never be able to fully trust or entrust ourselves to anybody. Instant mental telepathy would be destructive of human relationships. What if there were a neon sign on your head broadcasting what you are actually thinking moment by moment? Most relationships would not even get off the ground. Thus Jesus, the consummate realist, does not really teach communication skills, although I am all for them myself. He just counsels a kind of larger trusting, a winning patience, a brutal honesty, a radical letting go of expectations that finally gets called “love.” Better communication will aid us. Love alone will save us.

The great transformation that has gradually taken place in me -- almost entirely beyond my own efforts -- is that my Great Self has changed -- at least in my awareness of it. “I live no longer not I,” as Paul would say (Galatians 2:20). The who is now different, which changes absolutely everything at the deepest level. The what and the why and the how, my personality as it were, are still a lot the same.

I still prefer to do things that I am competent at, I still do things for at least partial self-interest, I still do things with the same inner energy of an enneagram One. The only difference is that I have another center of gravity now. You might say that I am still trapped in personality, but utterly freed by essence.

Seeing it for what it’s worth

Now I do not need to justify myself so much, or hate myself so much, or compliment myself too much. I just see it and then see it for what it is worth, which is not very much. Nothing worth defending or worth attacking. Just another instance of ubiquitous humanity, worthy of pity and compassion more than judgment or inflation. It allows me to say to others, “come on in.” It allows me to say to myself, “come on out.” I have learned to participate in something bigger, someone greater. I believe that all authentic religion is an issue of radical participation. Participation in another and larger life than my own. A life that can bear both the burden of sin and the weight of glory at the same time. Little Richard can do neither of these without self-destructing.

I use the word participation in contrast to ideas like “taking control,” “becoming religious,” “being moral,” practicing devotions and virtue, or joining a status group. All these are ways of getting the what, the how, the why right. Nice things actually. But the who is not necessarily touched at all. These are the questions of the rich young man of the gospels. Thus Jesus does not really answer the rich young man. He just tells him to “leave” it all.

This one issue is so crucial that it takes Paul all of Galatians and Romans and central parts of Philippians to address it, but often his style is so complex, his emotion so strong, that we still have been able to miss his point. For Paul, the greatest danger to being “en Cristo” is ironically a self-sufficient life of dedication and observance. His word for this is, of course, “the Law.” A highly moral life allows you to get the what down, get the how down, and even the why. “I am doing it all for God!” one says. It makes you feel strong, good, identified, with boundaries, clear headed, even a bit superior. It really works. There is only one problem. It is pagan and Promethean and has almost nothing to do with the mystery of vulnerability that was revealed in the crucified Jesus. This is God’s great secret revealed in one powerless life called Christ. And only the powerless understand.

Mere virtue demands self-control, but not participation. The who is still little ol’ me. Moral observance by itself inflates the ego, whereas participation in someone else’s life always deflates the ego. This is why pious religion is so much more popular than genuine spiritual journey. This is why religious practice is so utterly dangerous. No wonder that Paul speaks with absolute authority and even rage: “Are you people in Galatia mad? Has someone put a spell on you, in spite of the plain explanation I gave you about Jesus crucified? … Are you foolish enough to end in outward observances what you began in the Spirit? Have all the graces you have received been wasted?” (Galatians 3:1-3).

Religion’s two functions

Because many of us have unfortunately given up on Paul’s theological language, let’s instead read from a contemporary teacher, second to none, who can say the same thing in our own idiom. I will quote Ken Wilber at length from his recently published journal, First Taste:

Religion has always performed two very important but very different functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self: It offers myths and stories and rituals and revivals that, taken together, help the separate self make sense of, and endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This function of religion does not usually or necessarily change the level of consciousness in a person; it does not of itself deliver radical transformation. ... It consoles the self, fortifies the self, defends the self, and promotes the self. ... [Which is a necessary and good starting point, I might add!]

But religion has also served -- in a usually very, very small minority -- the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function of religion does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it.

Ironically, in my experience, too much of the first function actually keeps you from the natural life movement to the second. This is the rub. Or, as Jesus metaphorically put it, “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” (John 12:24). There might be nothing worse than just being a nice little observant Catholic grain of wheat. It could keep you from becoming the bread of Christ.

Suffering does the job

In my experience, the rules for the first and second halves of life are utterly different. The church largely teaches the rules for the first half of life, and actually does it rather well. Like St. Peter himself, the church is afraid of the second half of life agenda. “Being led where we would rather not go” (John 21:18).

Such transformation hardly ever takes place because we freely march into it. We are normally taken to the place that last week I called “liminal space,” a place where we are “out of place” -- the place where all real transformation happens. In my experience, only some kind of suffering is sufficient to destabilize the human ego in its endless attempts at control. I just don’t find that anything else does the job. I wish I could, and believe me I have tried, but it is all cosmetic, Christian and New Age “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” At least nothing that lasts.

Now before you turn me off as a masochist or crypto-Jansenist, let me define suffering very simply. Suffering is simply whenever you are not in control. Not being in control is the unique character of liminal space. The only way God can take control of your life is when you are somehow not in control. It is really that simple. Even Wilber, more Buddhist than Christian, says that the process of transformation “largely depends on your learned capacity to suffer.” Finally, I am learning to understand, and sometimes accept, the mystery of the cross in an honest and utterly realistic way.

So don’t run too fast from such suffering. But don’t try to artificially manufacture it either. Just practice not being in control in little Lenten ways. When the big opportunities for letting go are offered, and have no doubt they will be, you will be practiced and ready to let God do the really great work. In the West we have called this transformation process “salvation”; the Jews might have called it “passing over,” the Buddhists perhaps “enlightenment,” we Franciscans call it “poverty,” but the Eastern church has most daringly and perhaps most truthfully called it “divinization.”

Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, popular speaker and author, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, N.M. This is the second in a series.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002