Sunday, November 25, 2007

Obey Whom?

Today is the solemnity of Christ the King in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. The feast was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical letter Quas primas. The “war to end all wars” had itself ended a few years previously, but another loomed on the horizon as the issues unresolved by the Treaty of Versailles continued to fester. Political instability, masked by a frenetic cultural quest for meaning or, lacking meaning, pleasure, drowned out any intimation of peace. A worldview devoid of God prevailed in many parts of what was once considered Christendom. It found political embodiment in communism. Pope Pius diagnosed rejection of Christ’s sovereignty as the root of this illness of the western spirit. He created the solemnity of Christ the King to promote an alternative—and, he believed, healing—view of the universe.
We no longer live in the political, social and ecclesial world of 1925. Except in those countries fortunate enough to be governed by upright working monarchs, the imagery of kings and queens has been relegated to the realms of fantasy and distasteful journalism. Nevertheless, the question raised by Pius XI remains: whom do we obey? It was not a new question when he raised it. It is as old as Eden. Although we customarily label the primal sin of the first human beings as “disobedience”, we are speaking in shorthand. Genesis 3:1-7 paints the human tragedy not simply as disobedience to God but as the transfer of obedience from one “god” to another. The serpent, who may in fact have represented a Canaanite deity in the world of the biblical storytellers, persuades Eve to obey him rather than the Creator-God by eating the fruit that God had forbidden. The serpent’s argument awakens a god every human being can recognize: the god Ego. The serpent appeals to the human desire to be autonomous and in charge. Thereby, in a move characteristic of evil in every age, the serpent subtly redirects human desire from a desire for communion with God to a desire for the supremacy of the self created in the image of God. Therein lies the heart of the tragedy: the reader familiar with the first chapter of Genesis knows that in the story of origins told there, Eve and Adam are, in fact, already “like God”. They have been made as the very image of God cast in human being (Genesis 1: 26-27). Eve, and apparently Adam, have forgotten it, but perhaps the serpent has not. He calls upon their own inmost but unrecognized truth to destroy them. This sleight-of-mind which distorts a good into its travesty is evil’s thumbprint. According to the story, Eve, and then Adam, were the first to fall for it, but they were certainly not the last, as the unraveling of the world in Genesis 4-11 is intended to show.

Their dilemma is still alive and well: whom do we obey? No longer in humanity’s first naïveté, we need no actual serpent to prod us into abandoning one God for another. Sadly, we are often all too ready to burn the incense of our lives to the god Ego, who guarantees the satisfaction of our desires as we misunderstand them. A little devil dust astutely sprinkled into our inner eye, and we are suddenly blinded to our own history, never mind the larger history of the world. We forget not only who we actually are but also what misery we have called down upon ourselves in the past by obeying a god other than the One in whose image we are made.

Take the recent U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving as a small but potent example. If we were among that small portion of the world’s population fortunate enough to have the means to eat well, we may very well have eaten rather too well, or at least too generously. The aura of holiday seasons the array of festal foods with a sense of carefree irresponsibility. Calories and cholesterol be—well, consigned to a warm climate. It’s Thanksgiving. Eat, drink and be merry. Add some beer and chips with the football game—the one we watch from the couch, not the one we play with our kids. Consequences? Not to worry. When this year, like last year and the years before, the god Ego, whom we have obeyed in its bodily disguise, exacts its ugly penalty in the form of the physical ills caused by overindulgence, the pharmaceutical industry rushes to our assistance with promises of immediate relief in the form of antacids, anti-gas capsules, analgesics, and maybe even a little sleeping pill to help us to sleep it all off in blissful unconsciousness. Stripped of the golden haze of holiday nostalgia, it’s really not a very pretty picture.

In his rule of life, St. Benedict (480-ca. 547 CE) proposes a different (but unpopular) antidote: just don’t overindulge in the first place (Rule of Benedict 39:7). Good advice, and not only for Benedictines. It is actually part of Benedict’s larger campaign against the worship of that alien god, the self out of place and out of proportion, whom psychology has baptized “ego”. Obedience is one of Benedict’s central tenets of life. What he really means by obedience, though, is undoing Eden by choosing to obey the real, life-giving God this time. If you shake off the devil dust, this alternative is no loner as unpalatable as it once seemed The God we are to obey is the God who, unlike the serpent, has our genuine long-term well-being at heart. Benedict works constantly to dethrone the ego that has taken God’s place by advocating every form of stamping out self-will. The goal is not dishrags or doormats but healthy human beings living life fully in the image of the God by whom and for whom they were created. The means is radical adherence to Christ as the source and center, the rule and ruler, of our daily lives. Christ is the image of God embodied in humanity brought to its full maturity. Within the limits of our created human being, Christ is who we want to be when we grow up.

Centuries before Pius XI, Benedict did actually challenge us to honor the sovereignty of Christ: “This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord” (RB Prologue 3). Benedict makes it clear that lip service won’t do it. A once-a-year-and-then-forgotten celebration of Christ the King is not enough. In fact, although the word “king” would have had real-life meaning in Benedict’s day, he uses it only twice, both times in speaking of Christ. What he repeats instead is the one all-sufficient directive that puts even obedience in its right context: “…prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72:11). Nothing. Even and especially not the self-in-isolation who has wrought such havoc in our lives and in the world around us. The full sentence reads: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life. (RB 72:11-12). That is a petition no other god can grant.

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

1 comment:

David A. Andelman said...

:...the issues unresolved by the Treaty of Versailles continued to fester."
And the proof is contained in my new book -- "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today," just published by Wiley !
For more, see OR, better, the full book (available at Amazon and most bookstores!)
David A. Andelman