public and private

I have been reading David Brooks’ marvelous book The Road to Character lately. These days, when the word “values” is thrown around rather cavalierly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between our personal uprightness and social sin. In his chapter about the civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, Brooks writes about why civil rights leaders were so captivated by the Book of Exodus. “The Israelites were led by a man, Moses, who was meek, passive and intemperate, and who felt himself inadequate to the task,” he says, and the leaders of the civil rights movement had to tackle these same issues: “how to reconcile passion with patience, [how to reconcile] authority with power sharing, [how to reconcile] clarity of purpose with self-doubt (133).” (What a great litany! Reconciling passion with patience / authority with power sharing / and clarity of purpose with self-doubt…)

Especially those who are thrust into any kind of positions of leadership, be it ministry or parenthood, have to face this kind of tension all the time. Consider these other two biblical images: we don’t want to just be voices crying in the wilderness (Mt 3:3); we also want to be yeast in the dough (Mt 13:33), meaning who we are is just as important as what we proclaim from the rooftops (Mt 10:27). Without getting partisan about it, one of the reasons I bring this up is because in this country our new administration has stirred up so much debate about rights and values, and like never before we are seeing the fissure between diametrically opposed views of the world. And so many of our own oblates and friends are particularly fired up these days about social issues. It has made me reflect on the place of the contemplative in all of this.

The topic of sin is not very popular these days, yet Brooks tries to find new vocabulary to call us to accountability.[1] On the one hand we need to acknowledge our own sinful nature. Just as we’ll never be able to see “the long chain of consequences arising from what we do,” neither can we understand “even the origins of our own impulses.” In other words, we are never as virtuous as we think we are, and our motives are never as pure in reality as they are in our own accounting. And yet, while we acknowledge that our motives may not always be pure and that we may wind up being corrupted by whatever power we manage to attain and use, it’s still “necessary to take aggressive action to fight evil and injustice (149),” as well as to fulfill the gospel mandate of washing each other’s feet, mutual obedience, and giving our lives in service.

It seems to me that this is part of the “work,” if you will, of contemplative prayer, the “inner work”: to allow the Word of God, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, to be like a two edged sword, to test the thoughts and motives of our hearts (Heb 4:12). We need to have the courage to look deep inside ourselves and find the source of war––the source of anger, of selfishness and lust and covetousness––and cleanse ourselves of that. (Remember the patristic and early monastic writers left some of the violent images in the psalms specifically to refer to these kinds of things.) Because the source of the anger or lust or selfishness is all tied up with that false self that keeps claiming “I, me, mine!” And that so-called “self” has got to die in order for our real self, hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3), to be born. Hence our own Lenten journey, our own cross. If we’re serious about it, it’s at least as difficult and courageous––if not more––to face up to who we really are, the thoughts and motives of our hearts, as it is to do public protest and civil disobedience.[2]

I’m reminded yet again of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammed, who had once dispatched a contingent of an army to the battlefront, and when they returned he said to them, “‘Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad and have yet to perform the greater jihad.’ When asked, ‘What is the greater jihad?’ the Prophet replied: ‘The jihad of the self.’”[3] In Arabic this is known as jihad al-nafs, the “struggle against the self,” the struggle against evil ideas, desires and the powers of lust and anger, the struggle with the insatiable imagination, placing them all under the dictates of reason and faith in obedience to God’s command, and finally, purging all evil ideas and influences from one’s soul.

In the Christian tradition we would call this “purity of heart.” And this struggle might be even more difficult than fighting on the battlefield. It’s the struggle to understand God’s will by removing pride, and defeating haughtiness and arrogance so that we can submit to God’s will, because it is only by conquering pride and having purity of heart that we can even understand God’s will!

My Sufi friends taught me that it is only after conquering this battle of the self that one can healthily rise to the level of social responsibility, to the “jihad of the tongue,”––to be able to speak the truth even when it is against one’s own interest, like the prophets. Then comes the third level, the “jihad of the hand.” This is where it definitely can become very political, because every person has a right, a duty and a social responsibility, even a divine responsibility, to protect self, property and religious values. We might say, in the Catholic tradition, to protect the innocent. So, yes, it may well be that that inner work will lead us to some kind of public, prophetic voice and social action––because, remember, a two edged sword cuts both ways, going in and going out; but in order for our motives to be pure, or at least as pure as possible, we need this inner cleansing.

This is my focus during the season of Lent this year, to hold both of these dynamics together, personal integrity with public responsibility and service––along with how learning more how to reconcile passion with patience, authority with power sharing, and clarity of purpose with self-doubt––so that the still small voice in our heart, not my own self will run riot, will always the impetus for the voice that cries out in the streets (Lk 10:10, 14:21) and offers words of both comfort and challenge. May this season of self-examination and recommitment to our baptismal promises make us true servants of the gospel of our Risen Lord.

[1] He does so, first of all, through the ancient language of Saint Augustine’s “disordered love.” (Quite interesting coming from a conservative Jewish commentator.) And he also uses the writings of Reinhold Niebhur, who was also influential to these same civil rights leaders.

[2] See Brad Warner’s Sit Down and Shut Up, 76.

[3] Al-Majilisi, Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 19, 182, Hadith no. 31.

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