This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Cities helpless against floodwaters
Today I’ve chosen the truly splendid translation of this passage from the Revised English Bible:
2 Corinthians 6: 3-13
Lest our ministry be brought into discredit, we avoid giving offence in anything. As God’s ministers we try to recommend ourselves in all circumstances by our steadfast endurance; in affliction, hardship and distress; when flogged, imprisoned, mobbed; overworked, sleepless, starving. We recommend ourselves by innocent behaviour and grasp of truth, by patience and kindliness, by gifts of the Holy Spirit, by unaffected love, by declaring the truth, by the power of God. We wield the weapons of righteousness in the right hand and the left. Honour and dishonour, praise and blame are alike our lot: we are the imposters who speak the truth, the unknown men whom all men know; dying we still live on, disciplined by suffering we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves we bring wealth to many; penniless we own the world.
We have spoken very frankly to you, friends in Corinth! We have opened our heart to you. There’s no constraint on our part; any constraint there may be must be in you. In fair exchange-I’m using childish speech- open your hearts to us.
This is almost a jazz improvisation on the theme announced in Paul first Corinthian letter, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Here the mighty paradoxes of the life of faith are set out. It is a life exposed to all that worldly people strive to avoid, open to everything the world calls disaster. Yet it is able to sustain simple goodness even in the midst of suffering and to dance to tunes of glory that the world cannot hear. There can be no understanding of Paul’s words here except by those who’ve tried to live this way.
His words have been made comprehensible to me by people who have lived their vocation of faith far more fully than I have, some of them the great saints of my time like the late Bishop of Recife, Dom Helder Camara; others, the unregarded heroes and heroines of daily life who kept on loving although the world was tough. But if I had not myself tried to live faithfully, their example would be meaningless to me. I have not done well, but I can testify that my worst sins were committed in arrogance when I felt strong; and my best-a poor best indeed- when I knew I wasn’t strong enough.
I’ve also found that Paul’s perspective on “weakness” is therapeutic for people whose lives are in turmoil and may imagine they can’t cope. A faith based on the crucified Jesus, which knows the power of powerlessness, can offer a means of liberation not only to those oppressed by outward circumstance but also to those brought down by addiction or depression. I have called my insights into this therapy, “Asthenics” after Paul’s word for weakness “astheneia”; and I have appended them to this blog.
ASTHENICS: INTRODUCTION 1.0
Asthenics is a theory of healing based on an understanding of weakness first outlined in a letter of St. Paul, written to people who thought they were strong in their spiritual attainment. He let them know that he had some spiritual experience himself, but said he would not boast about that, only about his weakness (Greek astheneia). He spoke of a “thorn in the flesh”, a physical or psychological ailment which made him weak. He had prayed God to take it away but he had been answered, “My kindness is all you need; my power works best in weakness.” He concluded, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
The second letter to the Corinthians Chapter 12
“This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I[a] was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows. 3 Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know 4 that I was caught up[b] to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.
5 That experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses. 6 If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so, because I would be telling the truth. But I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message, 7 even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.
8 Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. 9 Each time he said, “My kindness is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. “
2.0 What does he mean? He means that most people think strength comes from their own achievement and are proud of it, whereas when we suffer and are weak, we know that strength is given us: we are not isolated individuals but part of a shared life in which we live and move and have our being. Learning to be strong is not trying to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps nor lording it over others, but rather opening ourselves to the sources of goodness which are always there for us.
2.1Sources of strength: The natural world and its creatures; our society; our loved ones; our friends and companions; our house; our income; our food; music, art, books, film, drama; our luxuries; our pleasures; our work (it it’s good work!); our religious community (if we have one); our own character and abilities; these are all channels of the goodness we look for when we ask for our daily bread whose ultimate source, religious people believe, is God.
2.2 Asthenics is the art of rejecting false strength (the kind we imagine comes only from achievement) and building up our real strength (the kind that comes from our whole environment) We do this by allowing ourselves to be “weak”, acknowledging our grief and sorrow, our failure and tiredness, our anger and evil, and consciously opening ourselves to the sources of strength.
2.3 Opening to strength: The old religious discipline of “counting our blessings” is one way of doing this but it tends to lump all sources of strength together. Sometimes we need to pause with just one source of strength, say, our best friend, visualising her/him, remembering good times shared, the bad times got through, the prospects of future sharing. As we recognise and value his/her friendship we are always strengthened. Sometimes we may realise that we haven’t opened ourselves to a particular source: we’ve been too busy to see our friends, we’ve never stopped to appreciate the natural world. In these cases we will decide to see our friends, to stand and stare.
2.4 Oh Yeah? If you have been reading this, you will maybe have come up with the question,
“But what if my environment is shitty?”
In that case you can still look for strength: by seeking help (if you’re drowning you shout for help!); by discovering unexpected powers in yourself; by continuing against the odds to expect goodness in your life.
This is why we must give help when others look to us.
Another question is, “What if my weakness is destroying me?”
In this case you need to look more carefully. Weakness never destroys us. Take addiction: it’s not the weakness for the drug that’s destructive it’s thinking we can control our intake. It’s imagining that we can take just one drink. It’s saying that we’ve been stopped for a year so we can give ourselves a fag. It’s the false strength that’s destructive not the weakness. Alcoholics Anonymous knows this. They talk about the false pride of those who think they can beat it. They have to learn that they can’t beat it in their own strength; they need a “higher power”, a community of brothers and sisters and a rule that sums up their weakness: no booze today. By acknowledging weakness they open themselves to sources of strength.
3.0 Start here: So we start with weakness, which is to say, with ourselves. Very successful people are just as dependent on environment as the rest. Look at the speculators who lost it all because the financial environment changed: they would have called themselves self –made successes. In ourselves we are always weak; in the life we share with others, with our environment and with God we will always find strength. This is the secret Asthenics reveals to us. It is also the secret of the cross in the Christian story.
3.1 Weakness as our human condition
We have lost touch in our culture with the insight of the great religions that human beings are weak. We are in such denial of the human condition that drawing attention to it is considered embarrassing. We can accept weakness only as an exception. So, for example, British soldiers have been fighting for some time in Afghanistan whose civilian population has been killed in thousands, but when the British death toll approaches 200 we engage in increasingly sentimental tributes to our brave boys. If you engage to kill for your country (no-one calls it this, you defend your country of course, but Afghanistan’s a pretty distant place for a defensive war) you must expect that some of you will be killed. But politicians want to treat these deaths as the exception, a regrettable accident. If we admitted our human vulnerability in the face of violence, we might start to have a fellow feeling for Afghans, and that would never do.
The great religions see human beings as weak in face of chaos, evil and death. There are great conquerors who think they can chain the wind and bind the oceans but they are shown to be mistaken. Their empires rise and fall. Ordinary men and women experience ordinary troubles, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards”: it’s the way things are. Belief in God gives hope, but also a new awareness of human fragility, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
This is not a way of denying human greatness but rather a way of affirming that real greatness must engage with our common suffering.
Buddhism states it clearly and all religions accept the truth of suffering, while offering different paths to overcome it, but a society which depends on us spending as if we could live forever (“spend our way out of recession”), wants to turn our eyes away from illness, misfortune, violence and disaster unless it can sell us insurance policies.
3.2 Weakness through illness or oppression
A society that worships “strength” finds it difficult to acknowledge weakness; and when it does, it unlocks such powerful forces of repressed grief that it creates icons of misfortune like Princess Diana or Jane Goody. These are the moments when the ambiguity of success and strength is evident and arouses communal grief for suffering, which, however, must be packaged as “special” because otherwise it would have to be accepted as part of everyone’s life. We mourn the icon’s fate because we’re not encouraged to think about our own.
The panic in England recently over swine-flu demonstrates how just the threat of illness can affect people. Because the condition of being ill is disturbing, we resist its reality. We want to visit our dear ones in hospital but we’ve insisted that hospitals become as much like hotels as possible: open all hours to visitors, supplied with noisy entertainment. In contrast, the atmosphere of HDU’s frightens visitors because they are clearly dealing with illness. The different atmospheres of heart wards and cancer wards are telling: heart disease is a cheerful kind of illness, you might pop-off at any moment, but if it comes, it comes. Let’s live positively until we die. A cancer patient has to face the threat of prolonged weakness and pain; these wards are quieter and without humour. Care of the frail elderly is largely a disgrace because we don’t want them around: they’re not part of healthy life.
Over the last fifty years we’ve gradually rejected the idea that any of us might be oppressed by our employers or our government; the old language of trades unions and social reformers sounds bizarre to us. Our entire life outside our houses is videoed and recorded but we don’t find that oppressive. It’s as if we’d decided that there is no oppression any more in our society. This makes us hard-hearted towards the oppressed of the earth, especially if they come seeking asylum. When they take the miserable jobs we don’t want, we feel threatened by them and demand their removal. Making common cause against oppression doesn’t occur to us, because we deny that we either suffer it or impose it on others.
Once we admit that we can be made weak by illness or oppression we gain a new appreciation of the processes of healing and justice: we open ourselves to receive healing and to fight for justice.
3.3 False Strength
False strength is what gives us illusory control over our own lives or the lives of others. We think we are the masters of our fate, the captains of our souls, if we are reasonably well-off, have jobs that give us challenge and recognition, and are able to conduct our own lives by our own decisions. We may also relish control over others, not only at work but also in our social and sexual relationships.
The sense of control is false: there are aspects of our selves that escape conscious control, aspects of reality that cannot be moulded to our will; and we can damage others by our attempts to control them, but the attempt cannot fully succeed.
Unfortunately false strength does give the illusion of successful living and is envied by people who feel ordinary, unsuccessful, hurt or diminished. Although it seems to be a path to happiness it does not get us there because it is based on illusion.
3.4 Accepting weakness
Some of those who accept the fragility of our bodies and the restriction of our wills, are convinced that the self can be our citadel in adversity. There is a truth in this but to find it we must deconstruct the citadel. Where is this “self” and what is it? These have turned out to be notoriously difficult questions to answer, perhaps because our favourite method of investigation has been to isolate smaller and smaller portions of our being and call them “I”, only to find that there is a yet smaller portion, until the “I” vanishes altogether. Some eastern traditions have described the separate self as illusory because every “I” is part of the “One-self” which is God or the universe.
The Christian tradition urges us not to give up on the concept of a personal self as a unique centre of events but to see it as part of a community of being. Jesus instructed his disciples to use the pronoun “we” when praying: they are real as individual children in the family of God. The Gospel writers reveal the person of Jesus not merely through his own words but through his interactions with people and with the natural world. He is hardly ever Jesus-on-his-own, but rather, Jesus-and-the –leper, Jesus-and- the- Pharisees, even Jesus-and-the-Sea-of-Galilee. Thich Nhat Hanh the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher uses the term “inter-being” to describe how we are at once individual and communal. If we try to set up our individual self as a citadel we will find that its walls are too weak and shaky to protect us from all that is outside. But if we accept our individual weakness we can discover how strong our shared identity can be. St Paul tells us that “we are members of one another”.
3.5 False weakness
It is very important to distinguish this realism about our weakness from strategies of weakness which damage ourselves and manipulate others.
Dependency is the crying of the fledged bird to its mother: it is not yet willing to hunt for its food, but it must learn to do so if it is to survive. Human dependency takes a variety of forms some of which proceed from fear of the world, some from fear of failure, some from fear of work, some from being made to feel useless, and all attempt to impose a correct response on another person.
In Drug Dependency the relationship with an essential person has been displaced on to an essential substance. If the addict’s “pride” reveals false strength, his/her total conviction that the drug is essential is a false weakness.
Passivity is an even more serious condition caused by abuse, torture, control or catastrophic trauma. Passive people may be too passive even to ask help. They may be content to take action provided someone orders them to do it.
Both of these and other disabled behaviours are quite different from the rational grasp of our individual fragility that Asthenics urges upon us. Dependent people are often distressed and distressing to others and need the wisdom that offers true weakness and strength for false.
4.1 Despair, anger, humour, compassion
If we are afflicted by illness, sorrow or the violence of others, the shock of losing our status as strong people may bring us to the edge of despair. Several incidents of suicide in the recent financial crisis have amply demonstrated how those who relied on individual strength, unable to deal with weakness, killed themselves, and sometimes their families also. Such terrible incidents remind us that despair can be a selfish response which denies life to oneself and others rather than living without the illusion of strength. Not all despair is selfish: sometimes it seems a natural response to suffering but it remains unfruitful because it confirms the isolation of the individual sufferer.
A better response is anger which expresses our pain and outrage at what has happened to us. The outrage is as important as the pain because it embodies the conviction that our suffering is undeserved and wrong. We have not earned the pain of cancer, nor the agony of starvation, nor the violation of rape, nor the terror of war; and we want to make this clear. We want to struggle against our affliction. Anger knows the weakness of isolated individuals and calls on others to share the struggle for strength. In this sense it is a positive emotion with an implicit trust in mutual help. We should not be afraid of our own anger at our own suffering but should allow it to rouse us to oppose harm by our own efforts and the help of others.
The gap between our dignity as human beings and the sufferings to which we are subject is a source of humour. Alexander Pope, the poet, expressed this truth about humanity:
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.
The delicate humour of soldiers in the front line; the harsh humour of prisoners in jail; the supportive humour of patients in a hospital ward; these varieties of humour assume our solidarity in suffering while exposing our indignities, moving us away from individual pain towards a recognition of the human fate that some may escape suffering but most of us share it and experience a laughter from which the more fortunate are excluded. Wilfred Owen wrote of his soldiers’ humour:
“These men are worth your tears; you are not worth their merriment.”
Humour reveals the secret solidarity of people in pain.
Compassion arises when we are able, out of the experience of our own suffering, to respond to the suffering of others. It is not the same as the pity of those who are not suffering for those who are. There is nothing wrong with pity but it comes to the sufferer as from above whereas compassion is given from the same trench, the next cell, the adjacent bed. Compassion, which can be enlarged by the realisation that all creatures suffer and that their pain is of equal importance, is our fundamental relationship to each other when we share our individual weakness and our communal strength.
5.1 Destructive behaviours
As imitative creatures we often respond to those who harm us by harming them; to violence by violence; to impoverishment by gaining wealth at the expense of others; to the hardships of life by a resentment which poisons all relationships. These are eye-for-eye strategies which as Gandhi noted can make the whole world blind.
Just as destructive however is the process by which we internalise the harm done to us adding self- hatred and self-harm to the damage done by others. Even if this process does not go as far as physical self-harm, it can implant a corrosive doubt in the soul that eats away our trust in goodness. We preserve the illusion of control by hurting others or by deciding to hurt ourselves.
When we admit our weakness, on the other hand, we can hold to the goodness which is beyond us and within us, opposing evil.
6.0 Opening ourselves to goodness 1: Physical 2: Emotional 3: Mental: 4: Spiritual
If we have experienced hurt, illness, or disaster, we may protect ourselves by closing ourselves to sources of harm but this defensiveness can also close us to sources of goodness. A vital part of any healing process therefore is learning again how to admit goodness to our lives by means of nourishing disciplines of living.
A measure of physical wellbeing is integral to all other dimensions of good living. We can achieve this by a decent diet and a sensible commitment to exercise, while avoiding anything that is destructive to health. There is so much hysteria and hype over this matter that we should cultivate a positive attitude towards it: we should enjoy good food and relevant exercise. Many of us participate in a sport but others find that the sport of their youth is no longer possible for them and they need a substitute. We should never underestimate the value of walking in the fresh air. Our society has found that eastern disciplines like yoga and Tai Chi are very suitable for the regular care of our bodies. If we have been ill or have developed a disability we need to recover pleasure in our bodies and physical capability. The important thing is to develop disciplines that are appropriate to our preferences and patterns of living.
Many caring people become exhausted because they are giving so much and taking so little in. People who are coping with their own traumas as well as maintaining their working lives can easily drive themselves to collapse. Giving and coping are costly and may spur us to find emotional nourishment. We need a discipline that makes sure we set aside time for spouses, partners, friends and all other providers of emotional food.
If we are always giving far more than we are receiving, we will become emotionally starved. If we are single and under fifty the common assumption about this condition is that we need “a relationship” or more bluntly, sex. There is certainly nothing wrong in admitting such a need but we should ask whether we are looking for a sexual relationship or simply for affection and companionship. Friendship is an undervalued relationship which may give us affection without the demands of sexual partnership. If however we decide to seek sexual partnership we should be very careful that we do not use methods that expose us to exploitation or abuse. We should be explicit about our own ethics and expectations so that we do not give misleading signals to others. In any case, we should recognise that religious, cultural, political and community activities may nourish our feelings as much as personal relationships.
Serious depressive illness and other psychopathic conditions which create a chronic sense of sadness, isolation and lack of worth cannot be healed by our own strategies but require skilled attention.
It is always good to admit feelings of being unloved and undervalued for only then can we open ourselves to affection or therapy.
Fortunate people will have known times of mental pleasure in their lives: perhaps in the course of study, or of creative activity, or of work. There is great exhilaration in making connections which have not been made before, in devising strategies that have never been tried before or in reaching an understanding which unites discrete bits of information in a new synthesis.
When we are made to suffer, we realise that we do not understand what is happening to us. If we insist that we are strong we will reject this realisation as unimportant, but if we are ready to admit weakness we will set our minds the task of creating a new understanding of our lives which measures up to our experience. For this task we will need to lay hold on mental resources outside us as well as within.
Great philosophical and scientific texts are available to us, as is the recorded wisdom of ages, through the world-wide web and the still marvellous products of print. We may already have given mental allegiance to a particular philosophy or religion but suffering will ask questions of the most settled certainties and dissolve the most elaborate systems.
The rediscovery of engaged intelligence is one of fruits of weakness: we begin to use the resources that are available.
Before suffering, our spirituality can be theoretical; our prayers can be the sort of thing we ought to say. But come suffering, spirituality must either work or be discarded; our prayers dispense with words and become real. This plunges a religious person into experiences of conflict, which she had not known before and which are hard to bear. She may feel that the God or religious path in which she has trusted is not merely irrelevant but also a grotesque parody of real help. Those who in this peril can reject all pious comfort gain access to a kind of truth which gives no easy answers but helps the soul to hope and to endure. Acknowledged weakness is the door to a more genuine spirituality.
6.5 Daily Bread
Jesus’ Prayer is a sober reminder of who we are. We are the little children of God crying from our weakness that God’s goodness may be recognised and obeyed in the world; that the resources we need for our shared life may be given; that the strict commerce of accountability may be dissolved in the generosity of grace; and that we may not be tested beyond our endurance.
For our purpose it’s vital to notice that we ask for resources one day at a time (Sweet Jesus!).
Our openness to the resources of life must be renewed every day we live.
7.1 The Shared Life
St Paul speaks of the “communion of the Holy Spirit.” In Greek the word is “koinonia” which is taken from the secular vocabulary of business in the Roman Empire, where Greek was the language of commerce. A koinonia is a shared enterprise, a business partnership. In Paul’s usage it means firstly, the life we are allowed to share with the Goodness that all human beings expect in their lives; and secondly, the life we share with all those who commit themselves to transmit that Goodness.
Those who rely on their own false strength cannot know this sharing; those who admit their weakness can rediscover it as a gift.