who do you think you are?

This was my homily and closing conference for our 7th Annual Camaldolese Retreat for Oblates and Friends at St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista July 6-8, 2018.

There is a wonderful long quote that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela, because he used it in his inauguration speech in 1994. It actually comes from Marianne Williamson, from her book Return to Love.[1]

There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

This is something that should be on a poster in every child’s room as they are growing up.

This week we heard the story from the Gospel of Mark[2] about Jesus coming back to his hometown. His disciples followed him there, and he taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath: … and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!’ This next line we might not be ready for: And they took offense at him!? It’s where we get the classic phrase when Jesus says, ‘Prophets are not without honor except in their own native place.

There are similar stories throughout the gospels. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew we hear that the people were astounded that such authority could be given to human beings. And earlier in the same gospel, when Jesus was in the country of the Gadarenes, there were two demoniacs, and Jesus cured them by sending the demons into a herd of swine. And when the people of the town heard about it, they came out and begged him to leave.[3] Again, not quite ready for that reaction… What makes this particular scene in the Gospel of Mark even worse is that Jesus is in his hometown, Nazareth of Galilee. They were scandalised by him in his native place.

A first lesson to draw from this story is that part of the scandal of the Gospel is precisely in just how near God comes to us, in our homes, in our very nature. Part of the scandal of the Gospel is that such authority, such wisdom and power can have been given to a human being. That’s why Jesus is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. In another place, in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist says, ‘In the midst of you is one you do not know.’[4] Indeed, still, in the midst of us––among us, within us––is someone and something we do not recognize. Someone: the Christ; something: that authority and power.

It is easier and more common to keep God as far away as possible, distant, behind glass and altar rails, in “some heaven light years away.” Our ideas about God and religion tend to match the stage of our own maturity and the level of our own consciousness. (I get a lot of these ideas from developmental and transpersonal psychology.) We most of us begin with a magic view of the universe, and so we have a magical view of God and religion too. (I have often used the line at retreats, “God is not the Wizard of Oz, and you are not Harry Potter.”) And then we tend to move into a more mythical way of thinking, i.e. believing all the stories literally, followed by what developmental psychology calls rational, pluralistic and integral views of reality and, of course, then rational, pluralistic and integral views of God and religion.

Every now and then I go back to a wonderful children’s book, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I loved it as a child, and a copy of which a friend of mine bought me for my birthday a few years ago. And it occurred to me while I was flipping through it this last time, especially when I got to the section on Zeus, that a lot of people, Christians included, are still very much caught up in magical-mythical mentality about God and religion, and when they talk about God they’re really talking about Zeus! Or at least a god just like Zeus––sitting on top of a mountain, a little irritated, jealous, angry and capricious, shooting down lightening bolts and causing earthquakes just so we remember how awesome “He” is.

The, albeit controversial, Irish theologian and sociologist Diarmuid O’Murchu points out that in the time of Jesus God was mainly “understood to be a king-like figure who reigned in the heavens above and ruled all the earth through a hierarchical set of structures.” And Christianity projects this kingliness on to Jesus, which gets “historically reinforced mainly through the Roman Emperor Constantine.” And yet, he says, “this ideological allegiance to the kingship of Jesus … has been Christianity’s greatest liability.”[5] Why a liability? From my own perspective, it’s a liability because with this image of Jesus and of God there is no sense of agency, ownership, or participation.

Besides that, this is certainly not the portrait of his Abba that Jesus actually does paint for us, nor the image of himself. We might be tempted to blame this magical-mythical view of God on the so-called “Old Testament,” the Jewish scriptures, and the image of God we often glimpse there, especially in the Psalms. Yet when we read the Jewish scriptures we see a long evolution in their understanding of who God is, from Genesis through the late Wisdom literature, much of which was near to Jesus’ own time. One phrase that comes to mind here is from the Book of Wisdom, already a pretty evolved idea of who and how God is: Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have the power to act whenever you choose.[6] That calls to mind to me one of the best pieces of advice I ever got about leadership. It was, “When you have real authority you don’t need to grab for power.” That’s God. God has real authority and so doesn’t need to jealously grab for power nor make sure that we mortals always feel like little powerless peons––like Zeus and the other gods are always doing to mortals.

More importantly, God actually wants to share the power with us! There is a wonderful essay by Thomas Merton in the collection Raids on the Unspeakable entitled “Prometheus.” He notes how moderns and post-moderns are so captivated by the image of Prometheus stealing the fire from heaven, which becomes an image of our grabbing our destiny away from any kind of hierarchy and demagoguery. However Christianity’s response is that we actually believe, in spite of what we have somehow absorbed from our teachers, that our God wants to give us the fire! I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already burning![7] We don’t have to steal it.

The problem is, when God comes that close, when we realize that the divine is close––the Qur’an says, “closer than your jugular vein”––it’s annoying, because it’s so challenging. When the real power of God comes close it forces us out of our complacency and mediocrity, and challenges us to transformation and agency. I have found that it is again the same issue with leadership: We tend to prefer a leader who is going to make all the decisions for us, perhaps even do all the work for us, and we get a little uncomfortable when the leader puts it back in our laps and asks us to own the process and the decision.

Back to Jesus and his hometown: It’s as if they were saying to Jesus, “Who do you think you are?” We actually hear that a lot from each other. “Who do you think you are to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” And we start to believe it. That voice gets into our head. This is another version of the “glass ceiling,” a psychological emotional glass ceiling that we bump up against internally. When I was in early formation I remember hearing the warning from a senior monk, “Be careful––the long-stemmed roses are always the first ones to get trimmed.”

Well, Nelson Mandela via Marianne Williamson says instead, “Actually, who are you not to be” brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? “You are a child of God!” And here are a couple of lines that I love and want to shout: “Your playing small does not serve the world! There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the Glory of God that is within us.” Maybe, just maybe, that’s what a real prophet is: someone who is not afraid to make known the glory of God that is in them, among us, within us. The reading from the prophet Ezekiel that is paired with this gospel ends with the line: … they shall know that there has been a great prophet among them. That’s what is said about Jesus: A great prophet has risen among us; God has visited his people.[8]

And this is what we are meant to be for each other, how we are to be prophets for each other and what community is for, what church is for: to remind each other that Jesus says, ‘I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly’; and that “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Our playing small does not serve the world! This is an aspect of Christianity that’s hard for folks to grasp, realize, access, live out–– consciousness of our participation in the divine nature, that the love of God has been poured directly into our hearts, that we carry the glory of God within us, in our very bodies. St. Paul tells us and St. Peter confirms it: we are temples, we are tabernacles, living breathing walking around tabernacles, vessels of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus was prophet, priest and king, so by virtue of our Baptism, we are priests, royalty, prophets, grafted onto the vine that is Christ.

This is not arrogance, mind you. If the opposite of arrogance is humility, humility is still not the same as playing small. St. Paul offers a corrective to any hubris we might be tempted to and teaches us real humility in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians. The good news is that we were made to manifest the glory of God. The bad news, he reminds us first of all, is that we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.[9] As a matter of fact, it will blow us to pieces if we aren’t careful with it, if we tried to claim it as our own. So maybe there is an intuition of something good in the warning, “Who do you think you are?”, even if it is said a little harshly. There is a phenomenon in formation that we call “angelism.” As the desert fathers would say, “If you see a monk climbing to heaven by his own power, grab him by the ankles and pull him down!” This is not to discourage holiness or sanctity or enlightenment, but to encourage rootedness and incarnation. Nothing of truly human growth can be spiritually bypassed on the way to sanctity and enlightenment. This is the grace of these thorns in the flesh that Paul writes about concerning himself, too keep him from being too elated.[10]

I turned 60 this year, born the same year as the entertainers/musicians Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson. (Only Madonna and I made it.) And I have been thinking a lot about Michael especially. There was a grace about him: when he was a little boy he already sang with the maturity of someone twice is age; and Fred Astaire called him the greatest dancer alive. His talent made manifest the glory of God. But what a fragile vessel! What thorns in the flesh! No one was there to teach him how to reverence the power, how to negotiate the thorns. When he died I wanted to yell, “Where were his brothers?”

These thorns in our flesh serve as reminders that we, unaided, can’t do it. That’s real humility. Like Jesus, we cannot deem godliness something to grasped at. We empty ourselves hoping that when we do Spirit fills us. This is what this means that our strength is made perfect in weakness. Paul even boasts of his weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. You see: the power is ours to hold, but it is not ours to grasp or claim as our own. This is the beginning of worship, to merely recognize that God is God, that there is a power greater than me––it may flow through me and indeed it does. There is a Source beyond me, and I am not the Source! (It’s also good advice when I did yoga teacher training, that’s good for all teachers, which I passed it on to our oblate peer mentors: “Remember, you are a resource for information not the source of all wisdom.”) Sri Aurobindo says, “Within there is a soul and above there is Grace. That’s all you know and that’s all you need to know.” I am only a vehicle, a vessel. When we recognize that we start to grow from within.

And the amazing thing is that, as the Nelson Mandela quote continues, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” We don’t have to do anything: we don’t even necessarily prophecy––we are prophets. Our very way of life is a sign; our presence is a sacrament, a light set on a high place.

There is a story told about Mahatma Gandhi one day when he was trying to board a train while visiting the U.K. He was apparently trying to keep silence that day but reporters kept badgering him with questions. Just as he took his seat a reporter yelled out to him, “Mr. Gandhi, what is your message?” And he wrote on a piece of paper and held it up to the window, “My life is my message.” That’s prophecy. The wonderful Benedictine scholar Jeremy Driscoll, now abbot of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, says that monastic life itself is an evangelizing Word; our very life ought to proclaim the gospel. This is why I named our capital campaign “Yeast in the dough; light for the world.” Our life is a hidden one, really. We just melt into the earth. But in doing so we become a light, an example for the world––or at least that is the ideal. But we don’t get to be light for the world until we really disappear like yeast in the dough.

And so we must be prepared for the cross, both in the renunciation of melting into the earth like yeast, and because the rest of the world does not like to be challenged out of its mediocrity and complacency anymore than we ourselves do. This is why prophets are always persecuted, especially among people who know them well, who know their fragile vessels well, who are scandalized that Divine power, that Grace who actually flow through such a seemingly unworthy vessel and vehicle as us. We always have to remember that we are prophets not out of arrogance, not because we hate the world. We become prophets when we look around us and see that others are glowing too, like Thomas Merton in his enlightenment experience, about which he wrote, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun… If only we could see each other as we really are all the time.” As Nelson Mandela said, “It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.” We see others carrying the treasure within them, and we call it out of them as we call it out of ourselves. We start to see with God’s eyes and call the deepest truest part out of each other and challenge each other to live the promise. And we look out at the world around us and we do not condemn it, just as Jesus did not come to condemn it. Instead we see the glory of God being made manifest in sight and sound and smell; and we remind the world, that God so loved, of its origin and, especially, of its end––to participate in divinity. That we may “come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Then they will know that a prophet has arisen among them!

cyprian, 8 july 18


[1] If you don’t want to take it seriously because it is from someone who is considered a New Age guru, then please take it seriously because Nelson Mandela thought it was worth quoting at the beginning of the new era post-apartheid era in South Africa.

[2] Mk 6:3.

[3] Mt 9:8; 8:28.

[4] Jn 1:26.

[5] O’Murchu, Incarnation, 34.

[6] Wis 12:18.

[7] Lk 12:49.

[8] Ezk 2:5; Lk 7:16.

[9] 2 Cor 4:7.

[10] 2 Cor 12:7.

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