Wednesday, October 12

“What’s in a Name?": The Power of Name and Identity

In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the eponymous Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."1 This inquiry provides us with a deep and profound question - what is in a name? Perhaps the question should not be framed so much in the etymological sense, but in the very powerful connection that our name has to our identity as a person. This connection between name and identity is found even with a cursory glance at ancient human history, as well as the way in which names are utilized in the Biblical corpus, in the Christian tradition today, and finally, the use of name and identity when considering those on the margins of our society and those who have faced suffering, namely - survivors from concentration camps, the homeless and those struggling with addictions. 

Further, it is important to take what could be a heady, academic question and turn the question inward. As a result, I consider how this question of name and identity applies to my own immediate future and identity as someone discerning religious life with the Franciscan friars. In light of these and other considerations, our hope is to be able to recognize the name and therefore the identity of the Other whom we encounter wherever we go, in order to affirm and acknowledge the personhood and worth of each person. What power, then, do our names hold within them that makes one’s name so important to our identity?

The Power of Names in Antiquity
The question of identity shapes and forms the nature of the person. In the ancient Greco-Roman world your identity was given through your town, your nationality and/or the name of your father. For example, in Homer’s epic The Odyssey, after Odysseus has injured the Cyclops he reveals his identity as “Odysseus son of Laertes, King of Ithaca”. Also in antiquity, revealing your name meant that your opponent could have power over you and use your name against you. This is similar to anagnorisis, Greek term for when your identity is revealed to someone else; as in the case of Oedipus and his mother. The same concept is found in ancient demonology and black magic as well, so that once the name of the demon is revealed, it was believed that you could gain control over it and use it. One example of this is found in the pseudepigraphical 1st century text, The Testament of Solomon. In it, Solomon is given a ring with which to control demons in order to build the Temple in Jerusalem - using what is considered bad to help bring about the good.2

Perhaps a better example of this comes from the Synoptic Gospels, and is explored in a work written by Morton Smith titled Jesus the Magician. In it, the professor of ancient history establishes that for some in the ancient world, Jesus was considered a magician. At the time, citing the name of a magician in a spell was thought to be invoking their name as a god. One example of this is found in Mark 9:38, in which Jesus’ name was invoked even during his own lifetime. The passage reads, “’Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us’” (emphasis mine). This is also seen in Acts 19:13, “Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon possessed. They would say, ‘In the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out’” (emphasis mine).3

Clearly, names were important for those in antiquity, as seen in this brief look at the history of the Mediterranean region. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and in a few places in the New Testament we also see this significance where the Divine chooses to rename a person – Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul, and so forth. What is the reason for this change in name and in identity?

“I Will Give You... a New Name”
In the Apocalypse of John 2:17 we read, “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (emphasis mine). The idea that God will give “a new name” to those who are “victorious” or those who overcome struggle and turmoil in this life is the idea that they will take on a new identity and a new way of being. As aforementioned, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a precedent for tying one’s name to one’s identity. Biblical names often spoke to the destiny or purpose of a given individual. For example, Abram means “high father,”4 but after making a covenant with God which secured the future of his many descendants, he was re-named Abraham, meaning “father of many.”5 In the book of Job we read of the suffering of the title figure, and it comes as little surprise to know that the name Job means “persecuted,” or “hated.”6

Consider the case of the early Hebrew patriarch Jacob. According to Genesis 32:22-32, on the eve of meeting his brother after two decades, Jacob wrestles through the night with God himself, and at the end of their encounter he says to Jacob, “'Let me go, for it is daybreak.' But Jacob replied, 'I will not let you go unless you bless me.' The man asked him, 'What is your name?' 'Jacob,' he answered. Then the man said, 'Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome.'" If Jacob was actually wrestling with God as the text appears to indicate, why did he not know Jacob's name? One may speculate that God’s question to Jacob may have forced him to recall the last time he had asked for a blessing - the blessing which he had stolen from his brother. In fact, the last time Jacob was asked his name, the question came from his father Isaac, and Jacob lied saying, “I am Esau” and stole his brother’s blessing. 

Years later, Jacob now found himself before God and understood the implication of God’s question. Before he could confront his brother and continue his journey in life, he had to first come to terms with God - and himself. By forcing Jacob to think about his name, God provided Jacob with a way. Modern Judaism still places a value on the name of a child, for as the ancient Jewish saying goes, "With each new child, the world begins anew."7 This harkens back to the Edenic narrative, Adam was appointed the task of giving the creatures each personal names, which is a sort of creative power that Jews feel has been handed down to parents for their children. Again, the Bible corpus is full of examples of individuals who were given specific names - names which later were fulfilled, or names which signified a major shift in identity. For example, Jesus actually means "Savior" or "Saved." Consider the book of Ruth through the lens of identity: Ruth’s identity was once tied to her husband and her homeland - Ruth wife of Kilion of Moab - but by the end of the novella she becomes someone else - Ruth wife of Boaz of Judah. Ruth takes on this identity willing, including changing her god, her location and her being (Ruth 1:16-18).

A further example can be found in the New Testament: that of Simon Peter. In Matthew 16:13-18 (NIV) we read:
“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah... I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church...’”.
By giving Simon the name “Peter,” Jesus gave him a new name with a new purpose in life. Peter comes from the word petros or kepha, which means “rock,”8 which is interesting for a number of reasons. In the region of Caesarea Philippi there is a very large, massive rock wall, formerly used in Roman times as an place of worship to the god Pan.9 When Jesus gave him the name Peter, the strong visual connection would not have escaped him. By calling Simon “the rock,” it may have meant that Peter was very strong-headed, but many Christians throughout history have taken this to mean that Peter became the rock on which Jesus built the Church - the first Pope, traditionally - the one who would launch the early Christian movement. Since Simon was the one to recognize the true identity of Jesus, he himself was granted a new identity and a new name. Taking on the new name “Peter” meant that he was accepting a life of challenges, difficulty and certain death as a follower in this movement.

Today in Catholicism, one chooses the name of a canonized saint for their Confirmation name. When I was entering the Catholic Church through the Franciscans, I chose the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi. At the time, I was told to choose a saint who I would want to pray with me, journey with me and be my guide throughout the rest of my life – and I could not think of a saint I loved more than Saint Francis. But not everyone chooses their name – and in many cases, parents choose a baptismal name for their child; the child, not being old enough to speak, has no choice in the naming, just as the child does not choose the name they will be given in life. This is also an important point, because it reminds me that regardless of which name was given to us at birth, who our parents are or where we come from, we were all born with an identity that continues to shift, change and grow over time; an identity that is intimately connected to our personal name.

Of further note, although the change has not been as consistent after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, many who enter vowed religious life either willingly change their name or are asked to take on a new name. This is done in keeping with the ancient Biblical tradition of taking on a new name as a symbol for an inner change. The inner change can be a spiritual transformation which allows the person to enter more fully and more deeply into their new way of life. “John Doe,” for example, may become Father Mikah, whereas “Jane Doe” may become Sister Maria Jose de Jesus, or something similar. Each person who becomes Pope does this very thing - most recently, former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, took on the name of Pope Francis. For the former Archbishop, taking on the name “Francis” meant that the Pope was choosing to not only identify himself with the poor man of Assisi, but was also pushing the Church to identify itself more closely with those on the margins.  

The Name of God is Mercy and Mercy on the Margins
In Pope Francis’ new book, The Name of God is Mercy, he calls mercy God’s “identity card.”10 If mercy is God’s identity card, and we are made in the image and likeness of the Divine, should we not be more concerned about works of mercy, including clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, and others? 1st John 4:7-8 says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” If God is love, and God’s true identity is mercy, then we ought to be much more concerned about recognizing the image of God in others. This is more succinctly summed up in the famous quote by Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, who once said, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”11 If love is our name and our identity, meaning that we should be love to others, to whom do we go?

During the horrors and injustices of World War II, many men, women and children alike would be packed into a cattle car completely naked, for several days with no food and no idea how long their trip would be - and some never survived the trip. Once arriving at a concentration camp, they would be hoarded into different areas, split up, their heads would be shaved, and their clothes, shoes and belongings would be taken. Each person, piece by piece, would have their humanity stripped away. Once they would finally adjust to a new change, more would be taken away, until even their humanity was not recognizable. Even their very name was taken away, and was replaced by a number - an identification code. This identification number was sometimes tattooed on the individual’s arm, as was the case in Auschwitz, or sometimes sewn into a cloth emblem or an armband that the person was forced to wear.12 This is an outright denial of one’s personhood and dignity, and an act wholly contrary to love, mercy and justice. 

Those who live on the margins of society also face a similar oppression - some either become the nameless of society, or, their name is all they truly have left of their identity. For example, when someone walks up to a homeless person on the street and asks their name, that person is given the opportunity for their dignity as a human person to be recognized. You may not have money or food to offer to that person, but sometimes simply asking someone’s name is an acknowledgment of their dignity and an affirmation of their personhood and identity. Each of these individuals living out on the streets come from somewhere - they had parents, possibly siblings, a spouse, children. They have a hometown, they have a history, and they may have come from a very good home and a very good life. 

Conversely, they may have had a tumultuous childhood, a difficult marriage, or perhaps they grew up addicted to alcohol and narcotics or have spent their lives living on the streets. They can be anyone of any age and any background. Every single individual has a story and an identity. Would we ask their names and acknowledge their personhood if we passed them on the street? A few years ago, almost 634,000 individuals in the United States alone were homeless.13 This does not include those who are facing extreme poverty and are almost out on the streets. Do we recognize our brothers and sisters when we see them in these deplorable conditions? Do we recognize that love is their name, and love is their true identity? Will they recognize the same in us?

Consider a further example in Alcoholics Anonymous. Founded in in Akron, Ohio, AA has been a service to those struggling with alcoholism for over eight decades. In their meetings, and in other Twelve-Step programs, when someone speaks they will introduce themselves, saying something along the lines of “Hello, my name is Troy” and everyone will reply “Hi Troy.” This may seem contradictory to the “Anonymous” part of AA, but the “Anonymous” speaks more to the non-publicity of those individuals who are present at a meeting and their anonymity among the larger society.14 It is important for a person to share their first name, because it recognizes their basic human dignity and their identity. If I say, “Hello, I’m Troy and I’m an Alcoholic,” I am identifying myself with my addiction and thereby revealing a part of my self to others I may not have revealed otherwise. Twelve-Step programs such as AA or NA provide the opportunity for people to have a platform in which they can be open, honest and share their stories, fears and anxieties while at the same time identify themselves by revealing their name to the others in the meeting. For some, this opportunity to share their name and identity can be a very healing experience.

On a personal note, I am in the process of making a change in both my name and therefore my identity. A few years ago, I began attending a Catholic-Franciscan university, and although I was raised in a Protestant, evangelical branch of Christianity, I ultimately made the decision to become Catholic. As aforementioned, at my Confirmation I took the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, which was not only an addition to my name but to my very identity. During this process of coming into communion with the Church, I was also considering religious life as a Franciscan friar. A little while later, after entering fully into the Church, I made the decision to apply to become a friar (from the Latin frater meaning “brother”), and eventually entered into formation with the Franciscan Friars to further my discernment. If I continue my formation process, I will later on receive the title of “Brother Troy, OFM,”15 or Br. Troy Hillman, OFM. 

This is no small change in my life, as this signifies a major change in my identity. Officially taking on the title of "brother" and adding "OFM" to my name is a name change, one which will officially signify a change in my identity and the core of my being. Becoming a Franciscan friar means that I am joining a fraternity - a brotherhood, and plan on eventually taking the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This means I plan on eventually wearing the brown Franciscan habit, which is an outward sign of solidarity with the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. Taking on the habit means that I am choosing to identify myself in name, appearance and overall identity with those who live on the margins, which is a radical shift in identity. Taking these three vows also means that I would willingly choose not to have a spouse and children, it means that I choose to live in an intentional community and not live alone, and it means that I choose to live as simply and sustainably as I can. Choosing to enter into a religious order does not mean that you will be given a new life, necessarily, as I am called to share my life with the friars. But it does mean that the life I lead will be changed, and that my very name and identity will change with it. 

“What’s in a name?”, Juliet asked. The question can be considered a deeply philosophical question, but also a question of history, of etymological origin, of personhood, and of one’s very identity. Throughout antiquity and even today, revealing one’s name can mean that you now have power over that person - the choice lies in how you will exert that power. If the name of God is mercy, and mercy as well as love are God’s “identity card,” then we are not only invited but tasked with the responsibility of revealing love as our true identity to others. In Genesis 4, God calls out to Cain and asks about his brother Abel. Cain responds in turn saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question, which also has varied layers of philosophical and social meaning, is also a question posed to us. We are in fact our brother and sister’s keeper, and part of our responsibility is acknowledging the basic human dignity of each individual. If, as Merton said, love is our true identity and love is our name - then may our hearts and minds be moved to always recognize the inherent dignity, value and worth in our fellow brothers and sisters across the world.

[1] Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, 1-2.
[2] A case could be made that contemporary Christians do something similar by invoking the name of various saints or angels in order to intercede with them before God, although the difference lies in the matter of power and authority - Solomon had complete control and authority over the demons, whereas the believer is simply requesting the aid or assistance of a saint or angel.
[3] According to Smith (in Jesus the Magician), early magical papyri and other related items provide further credence for this understanding. Jesus’ name was used in a myriad of pagan spells and exorcisms, and was usually identified as a god. For example, a lead tablet from the 3rd century found in Carthage says, “…the god having authority over this hour in which I conjure you, Jesus.” It also names Hermes, the Greek god and others. Another ancient pagan papyri says, “I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews, Jesus” (PGM IV, line 3020). Line 2929 of the same papyrus may also contain an anagrammatized mention of Jesus in an invocation of the sexual goddess Aphrodite for a love charm. 
[4] В. А. Никонов (V. A. Nikonov). "Ищем имя" (Looking for a Name). Изд. "Советская Россия". Москва, 1988. Print.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Bank, Richard D. 101 Things Everyone Should Know About Judaism: Beliefs, Practices, Customs, And Traditions. Avon: Adams Media, 2005. 187. Print.
[8] O'Connor, Daniel William. "Saint Peter the Apostle". Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2013. Web.
[9] Kent, Charles Foster. Biblical Geography and History. Reprinted by Read Books, 2007. 47-48. Print.
[10] Pope Francis. The Name of God Is Mercy. Chapter I: A Time For Mercy. 2016. Print.
[11] From Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.
[12] Piper, Franciszek; Świebocka, Teresa. Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp. Oświęcim: The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 1996. 60–61. Print.
[13] The 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness. Rep. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development. Vol. I. N.p.: n.p., 2012. 4. Print.
[14] For example, if a celebrity publicly endorsed Alcoholics Anonymous and was then involved in a scandal, this could reflect on the group itself. In choosing not to publicize the names of those who attend meetings, they remain essentially “Anonymous,” but not within the meetings themselves. It is also true that not every person who attends a meeting is asked to or required to speak and therefore can go to the meeting and leave a meeting while never revealing their name, and thereby remaining anonymous.
[15] Order of Friars Minor, one of the three largest Franciscan groups, the other two being the OFM Capuchins and the Conventual Franciscans, although there are also the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Secular Franciscans, Poor Clares, Sisters of St. Francis and many other Franciscan groups.

Tuesday, August 30

Liturgy, Symbolism and Respect in an Asian Context

In recent years, there has been a renewal of the Christian message within Asian culture, and indeed of the liturgy as a whole. However, there are still challenges with integrating the gospel into Asian culture. For example, Asians have felt that the Catholic Mass comes with a distinctly European mold, and with these trappings it can be difficult to translate into their culture. Buddhism and Islam have adapted to their different cultures - evidently it is time for Christianity to continue to do the same, and even more so than it is now. Certain cultural traditions such as funerals and marriages (and their different conceptions of each) ought to be respected and incorporated into the Christian expression in that local area. How do these various traditions interact, engage with and participate in each other in a healthy and respectful way? (Inspired by Chapter XI: Liturgy, Cultures, and Religions from The Eucharist and Human Liberation).

Honoring ancestors may also be thought of as cultural, although there is also the element of religiousness to this. The sort of clothing that is worn is also different culturally between the Western Church and the Asian Churches - those in the West tend to prefer to dress up for Mass, whereas the Asians generally prefer simplicity and therefore it may be pertinent to adapt to this cultural practice. The Eucharist is another consideration: bread and wine are not generally used in Asia as they are elsewhere. All of this being said, In what ways do we see the Christian message intermingling with the Asian context, and what can this teach us about where we've been, where we are and where we are going?

Jesus and the Buddha
Christians are called to recognize the dignity and value of the human person and hold a respect for each individual, but in some cases - particularly those in conflict with Buddhism that are now etched into the Asian memory - Christianity has not been so accepting of others. The Catholic Church (in part due to the work done at the Second Vatican Council) recognizes that other religions do contain truth and the movement of the Spirit, such as in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and others. For example, for Muslims, like many Catholics, St. Mary is held in very high regard and devotions may be directed toward her by both. Dialogue is something that needs to occur between Christians and others, as well as a respect for other religions and the ability to recognize goodness, beauty and truth in these other religious traditions. Part of this attitude toward other religions is accepting their values as well. An example of this can be seen through the Vesak, a festival of light and life. It celebrates the life of Buddha and emphasizes the virtues lived out by the Buddha. Christians may respect these values and virtues and accept these values as being virtuous indeed.

The Second Vatican Council (as well as the earlier Council of Trent) opened up the opportunity for liturgy in different areas to be changed and revised. Although there are certain distinctly Christian elements that should remain, some liturgical aspects can be adapted to the culture. Asia, however, seems to have yet to take much advantage of this. Other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have certain sacred texts that they use. Since the Church recognizes that each of these religions do have truths within them, there is a suggestion that perhaps selections from these texts can be read at Mass during the service of the Word. As an aside, one may point out that St. Paul quotes from a Cretan philosopher, a Greek poet, a Greek philosopher, St. Jude may allude to two apocryphal works, and there are works (such as the Book of Jasher) referred to in the Hebrew Bible that are not canonical Scripture. So there is a precedent for this sort of thinking, that perhaps at a Mass we may find readings from the Qur'an, the Vedic Scriptures, Buddhist Scriptures, or others.

This caused a major controversy at one point in Christian history, actually, known now as the (Chinese) Rites Controversy. The debate occurred in the 1600-1700s, In short, the controversy centered around whether or not Chinese practices such as honoring one's ancestors as well as other Confucian practices could be compatible with Catholicism, and further, various priests decided to dress in Confucian attire so as the better convey the Gospel within the Chinese culture. The Jesuits were at the forefront of this controversy, and felt that the rituals were compatible with Christianity, yet various religious orders (at the time) did not, and therefore reported this to Rome. There were bans on and off for a number of years, and finally in 1939, Pope Pius XII decreed that Christians may observe their ancestral rituals and practices as well as participate and engage in Confucian-based ceremonies and rites. This spirit of inclusion, inculturation of the Gospel and openness to a new local or cultural theology reached its climax with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and this new openness continues to be felt today.

An early Nestorian monk
Interestingly, something similar nearly happened several centuries ago as well. In the early AD 600s, shortly after the early Islamic movement began to spread, a number of Christian (Nestorian) monks from the Eastern Church left for China. When they arrived, they began writing what is now known as the "Jesus Sutras," a collection of sutras (aphorisms, often found in the Buddhist tradition), a way of presenting the Gospel to the Chinese people by using Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist terminology, concepts and ideas. These Sutras are not considered canonical within the Church today, but upon their recent discovery over the past few years, they have served as an important lesson and reminder of how early missionaries presented the Christian message through different lenses, and allowed the cultural and religious traditions to interact and express the message in new, powerful and meaningful ways for their audience.

Concerning modern Christianity and Asia, there are many great spiritual leaders and thinkers that come from Asia. There are also a number of suggestions that have been made as to how Christianity and Buddhism can teach each other - a big proponent of this was the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who participated in a number of interfaith communications. We may consider venerating Buddha on the day of his birth, or tying in these figures to the liturgy. It should be noted that these figures are not regarded as a god or worshiped as such in the other religions; it may be likened to the Catholic reverence and veneration of the saints. Consider also interreligious action. The suggestion is that we as people honor the different beliefs and practices of other religions, and in order to engage in reflection on the Christian Scriptures, we also need to be willing to reflect upon their Scriptures. This inter-religious reflection can bring about great appreciation and understanding. The different religions of the world all have mystical experiences at their roots. The Buddha had several mystical experiences. Christ went out into the desert and was later transfigured. Muhammad spoke to angels. The earthly liturgy should be a reflection of the heavenly liturgy, and it indeed is intended to be so.

To be sure, these various religious traditions and philosophies are very different. Buddhism comes out of an Indian context, brought about by the first Buddha - Siddhrtha Gautama. After leaving his princely life by exposure to the suffering and pains of life, he became a beggar-monk, and a homelss acestic man. He taught that through various means, one can achieve enlightenment and leave the cycles of reincarnation and enter into Nirvana. Taoism is an ancient Chinese religion, named after "the way" (thus, the Tao; interestingly, early Christianity was also called The Way). Taosim focuses on the yin and the yang, and Confucius was an early proponent of this religion. In fact, his ethical principles found in the Analects, for example, are founded in part on Taosim. Taoism is concerned with living in harmony with the universe. Christianity came out of the Middle East (which is also partly in Asia), and although it springs out of the Judaic tradition, it also finds its foundation in Jesus of Nazareth, who we venerate as the supreme deity incarnate who lived among us during the 1st century.

This does not mean, however, that there are not also commonalities or similarities. Take Buddhism, for instance. Buddhism is seen in some circles as a contemplative religious tradition. However, this does not mean that it is without its values on the human person and justice. Since its formation followers of the Buddha have placed an emphasis on social justice borne out of compassion. An early example of this emphasis is seen in the reign of King Ashoka (304-232 BC). Ashoka started out as a violent ruler, but following his conversion to Buddhism he began to repent for his past actions, and as a result, he tried to rehabilitate prisoners and stop the slaying of animals as well as setting up hospital-like areas for both humans and animals. Further, Ashoka formed a group of messengers who could bring their concerns and desires before the king to be given fair treatment. This is something that should be familiar to the Christian audience, as Christians are called to live a life of mercy and compassion rooted in social justice.

Further, in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition we read of the bodhisattva, Christ-like figures who live their lives in service of others. A bodhisattva pledges to take upon themselves the burdens and suffering of all beings, from humans to birds to plants. This allows the bodhisattva to fully experience the life of creation and as a result, he or she grows in compassion - one could compare this in a Girardian sense to the sacrificial work of Jesus as the scapegoat. As another example, the current (14th) Dalai Llama cries out for justice for the Tibetan people, as well as an end to injustices across the globe and fair treatment of all through compassionate means. Although this is only one example, it demonstrates that Buddhism also places an emphasis on the same sort of issues that we would find in Catholic Social Teaching or elsewhere in the Christian tradition.

What are we left with, then? Perhaps it is important that Christians come to learn more about Buddhists, Taoists and Confucian philosophy, and vice versa. Perhaps it is important to adapt various cultural and religious expressions of the Asian context into the modern liturgy. This integration would be crucial for the people living in each community, as it allows one's cultural and religious heritage to interact, inform and engage with another living tradition that they may or may not be attempting to take on. Finding similarities and matters of agreement and relationality is also vital for continued flourishing and fruitful potentiality. As Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says in Living Buddha, Living Christ, "If we find ways to cherish and develop our spiritual heritage, we will avoid the kind of alienation that is destroying society, and we will become whole again... Learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions, and this will benefit everyone." Amen.

Monday, August 29

The Call to Humility: Taking the Lowest Place

One of the most important virtues in the Christian tradition is that of humility. In fact, one of the most important calls in the Christian Scriptures is "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8; emphasis mine). There has been much written about Christian humility, and there are many wonderful examples found through its history - from the poverty of St. Francis of Assisi to the compassion of Mother Theresa; Jesus called this way "gentle and humble" (Matt. 11:29). The Beatitudes reflect this as well, wherein the humble are called the "poor in spirit," as well as later in the Matthean tradition, where we are told that we must become like little children - and in so doing, take on the humility and innocence of a child. Humility is something we desperately need in our society today, where ego, position and titles so often gets in the way of mercy, compassion and justice. If we are to walk in the way of peace, we must answer the call of humility, and take the lowest place.

Consider this past week's Gospel reading in light of the theme of humility. 
According to Luke 14:1, 7-14, 
"On a sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Phariseesand the people there were observing him carefully.... He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position’... 'For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.' 
Then [Jesus] said to the host who invited him, 'When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
This gospel has a very simple, yet radically potent message: "take the lowest place." Theologically, we would note that Jesus took "the lowest place" by humbling himself and emptying himself when he came to live among us, a process called kenosis (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). This process of self-emptying can lead to humility, yet we may often avoid the path of humility because it also leads to vulnerability. To be humble is to be open to vulnerability, to uncertainty and servanthood. Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, "Humility is the mother of all virtues - purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed, you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal."

Even Jesus, who deserved "the place of honor",
untied the sandals of his followers and washed their feet,
taking "the lowest place."
Our world today is very much about structures, titles, hierarchy, accreditation, and "places of honor." Yet in the gospel, Jesus is teaching us to "take the lowest place," regardless of our socio-economic, political, and cultural status. This is a hard lesson for us, because humans have a desire to be recognized, to be praised and affirmed, and to be remembered. This is not necessarily a bad thing; psychologist Abraham Maslow would argue that these are basic human identity needs. But challenges crop up when these identity needs are placed before the needs of others, or are lauded around and celebrated at the expense of the dignity and respect for others. I recently heard a story of a professor of graduate studies at a School for Theology who said that if the students had gone all four years of school without learning the names of the janitors who worked in their building, the good people who worked in food service or those who worked on maintenance for the university, then their degree was not earned. They had taken the place of honor, and now held the title, but had not been with those who had taken the lowest place.

Our role as humans in connecting with others ought to lead to upholding, respecting and dignifying others. But if we choose instead to make ourselves into something bigger, and "take the place of honor," then we overshadow those who have taken "the lowest place," and although we may stand as giants, we stand without these important human connections. This message of humility can be taken another way as well. This past Saturday, I attended a Profession of Solemn Vows for three Franciscan friars in Manhattan. On the way there, our bus encountered some difficulties and had to pull over for an extended period of time while the problem was being worked on. In the process, I grew restless and impatient, as I knew we would be late for the ceremony. As I understand it, the community I am with (and came with) was expected to sit in the front of the Church, and as such, be both the first in the opening procession of the ceremony, and probably the first to leave - receiving the recognition of the people.

However, we arrived about a half hour late, and at the end of the ceremony our presence was indeed recognized - but we were all sitting in the back of the Church. The recognition itself was not necessarily embarrassing, but the thought that we could have been the first was at first slightly frustrating for me. When hearing this gospel from St. Luke on Sunday, however, the story took on new meaning. It was not important to be the first ones to arrive or to leave - nor should I desire "the place of honor." It was better for me and for the others in my community to have sat in the very back, to "take the lowest place." It was better to be humbled by the experience of the problematic bus, so that I could learn a lesson of growth in both patience, humility, and vulnerability. It was better that the focus was on our three new solemnly professed friars, as the day was theirs, not ours. As Jesus said, "the one who exalts himself will be humbled," an experience I can now experientially attest to.

Seeking to be loved, admired and appreciated is indeed a very human quality - but as a Christian, I am called to littleness, minoritas, and humility. Today in various Christian denominations, the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist is remembered and celebrated. So in keeping with the life and lessons of St. John - who was himself a powerful speaker, prophet of the people and a well-known itinerant - we may recall his words regarding Jesus, that "He must become greater; I must become less" or as some translations say, "He must increase, and I must decrease" (John 3:30). We must also uphold those who have been marginalized by society, as Jesus says here - "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind," as well as the many other communities who continue to suffer from oppression and marginalization. These have experienced minoritas, and can teach us how to "seek justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God."