on authority

(fr Cyprian)

Both of the readings that we had today (Monday of the 3rd week in Advent) cause us to reflect on the nature of authority, especially, of course, on the nature of spiritual authority, religious authority. Suddenly out of nowhere we get this reading from the Book of Numbers (24:2-7, 15-17a) and the prophet Barlaam gets held up to us as an example, as a prefiguring even of both John the Baptist and Jesus. All of them in their own way––Barlaam, John the Baptist and Jesus––are challenging legitimate authority figures, challenging those who have been given positions of authority, rank and privilege within their communities. All of them are challenging the status quo, the accepted way of seeing things and the normal way of ordering life. Perhaps those ways of life and the basis of that authority have never been questioned before as to their validity, as to their continued relevance. Their authority may be simply based on the fact that “We’ve always done it that way!” But what I was really thinking about is the contrast between what we might call “worldly authority,” rank and privilege, as opposed to spiritual authority. In the corporate world what is prized in a leader? Efficiency, expediency, productivity? Not to say that there aren’t enlightened souls in the corporate world, but still, compassion doesn’t necessarily play into the equation at all. Certainly in the world of sales, or marketing or the competitive world of finance, anyone who exudes softness would be perhaps mistakenly taken to be weak, and would get eaten up and tossed aside. Even in the political realm: “We get the leaders we deserve,” my Dad used to say, and we don’t usually reward things like virtue and composure. We reward the slick and the rhetorical; we reward the decisive (even if their decisions are not based on facts) and the charismatic (even if the charisma is not in keeping with anything virtuous––hence an Adolph Hitler). There’s always a hierarchy, a pecking order, and in the dog-eat-dog world only the strongest survive, like Darwin’s evolutionary trajectory, those with a greater and greater sense of self, big egos and strong personas.

But it’s different in the spiritual realm, in spiritual community, or at least it ought to be. Look at both John the Baptist and Jesus­­­­­­—two losers! John the Baptist’s voice of authority comes from decreasing, not increasing. As in yesterday’s gospel (Jn 1:19-28): ‘I am not the Christ… I am not… no…’ ‘I must decrease and Christ must increase.’ That is not going to get you too far in the corporate world or in politics, at least not in the short term. And then there is Jesus who displays the ultimate power of total weakness, of total vulnerability, of total self-donation. He too is always pointing away from himself, to the will of the his Father, as Paul says, didn’t deem equality with God something to be grasped at but emptied himself and took the form of a slave… The older I get the more I think that there are two movements in life: first a building up of self, a making sure all of our needs get met; and then, once we get our needs met––if we ever can possibly!––there comes a slow dissolution of self, an emptying of self. I think that’s when we get real authority, spiritual authority, when we empty our selves of our self and are led by the Spirit, led by that deepest aspect of ourselves that is in union with the Spirit of God.

I’ve been carrying around this paragraph for a couple of weeks looking for an opportunity to slip it into a homily somewhere, and these readings gave me the chance. It’s again from the Muslim scholar Ali Lakhani that I’ve been reading, on the nature of what he calls traditional authority. By tradition he means the spiritual tradition of the perennial philosophy, the traditional wisdom shared by the great world’s religious traditions. In the traditional view, authority is always hierarchical, but who is at the top of the hierarchy is not just the strongest, the loudest, the most efficient. Who is at the top is the noblest, and those who are given privilege and rank are those who exhibit depth, profundity. In other words we give authority over outer order (rank and privilege) to someone who exhibits a certain inner order. And what does inner order look like? Ali uses three words: compassion, wisdom and rigor. (“Rigor” may sound odd in this context, but I think he means by that steadfastness in the spiritual life; or else, as another friend pointed out to me, that proper proportion of love and strength, until we find the place where they are not wo things, the love that is stronger than death that the Song of Songs sings about.) “Authority resonates as inner beauty or virtue, as sacred knowledge or ‘gnosis,’ and as the wisdom of compassion and love. True authority… exudes its own perfume,” he says, the perfume that is this marvelous mixture of “rigor and compassion” that is “found in all the great spiritual messengers and teachers.” And then in keeping with John the Baptist and Jesus, he says that the death we are looking for is not a longing for martyrdom for some political cause, not an escape from this world, but the death of the ego. The real heroic struggle is “an inner struggle against the egoic self, culminating in the heroic death of detachment, whose counterpart is the heroic rebirth of compassion.” ‘Christ must increase, I must decrease…’ ‘Not my will but yours be done.’ “Death and birth, detachment and compassion, nobility and profundity––these are the marks of the spiritual hero,” these are the marks of spiritual authority.[1]

Saint Paul also gives us list of those what this inner order looks like in his famous fruits of the Spirit in the letter to the Galatians. In the spiritual tradition we give authority to those who exhibit love, joy and peace; we give rank and privilege to those who manifest patient endurance, kindness, and generosity; we give privilege to those who show forth faith, mildness and self-control. As we continue this Advent journey, let’s pray for that inner ordering, the wisdom that is both compassionate and strong. And let’s continue to empty our selves of our self, and sit waiting, content with the fruits of the Spirit, content to make a pleasant shelter for Jesus to dwell in the cave of our hearts.


[1] M. Ali Lakhani, The Timeless Relevance of Traditional Wisdom, 63-67

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