Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Strange theology, deeper healing

Doctor Strange and the Ancient One

On my flight home from Boston this past Sunday, I settled in to watch the remake of the film version of Doctor Strange.[1]   Marvel Comics fans will be familiar with the story.  Dr. Stephen Strange is a renowned, but arrogant, surgeon (imagine that!); the center of his own world.  He only takes the most interesting and challenging cases, those that will burnish his reputation.  If a case seems hopeless, or beneath his talents, he couldn’t be bothered.  Beneath the surface of his success he is driven by an outsized fear of failure.  Nothing – and no one – is allowed to penetrate his fa├žade of self-sufficiency and control.

When Strange suffers a near-fatal automobile accident that leaves his hands partially paralyzed, his worst nightmare is realized.  He can no longer perform surgery.  In response, he doubles down on his refusal of vulnerability, driving away the very people who most love him and desire to help him find another way to live.  He squanders his resources trying vainly to restore his hands, leaving him lonely, penniless, and despairing.

Desperate, he learns of a man who has miraculously recovered from a seemingly hopeless spinal cord injury; a man Strange had turned away as a hopeless case.  Strange tracks him down at a basketball court, and is stunned to discover that the man has indeed made a full recovery.  He presses the man to reveal the source of his healing, leading him on a quest to Kathmandu and the monastery of Kama-Taj.

Strange has no idea what he will find there, but he has nowhere else to turn.  When he finally arrives at Kama-Taj after much searching, he encounters the mysterious Ancient One, a spiritual master, who challenges all of his preconceptions.  When she suggests that there is a level of spiritual healing that is more than merely physical, Strange is contemptuous, declaring, “There is no such thing as spirit.  We are made of matter and nothing more.”  


Might St. James be your Kama-Taj, a place to which you are driven out of a desperate desire for healing?  We all carry wounds in need of healing; some visible, many deeply hidden.  Perhaps you share Dr. Strange’s nagging fear of failure, of not being good enough, unable to meet some standard you have internalized.  You worry that others, even God, will reject you.  If nothing else, we all carry the wound of mortality, the fear of death, wondering if we really are nothing more than matter, an accidental confluence of atoms in an ultimately dark and cold universe that briefly flickers into being and then is snuffed out forever. 

We arrive here and encounter the Ancient One, Jesus, who invites us to realize our true identity – so much more than mere matter.  We settle for the regard of others, a good reputation, and the earthly treasures we so assiduously pursue.  We have our reward.  But there is so much more that we desire, a heavenly treasure of surpassing value that our Father/Mother wishes to give us in secret.[2] 


Only after an overwhelming demonstration of spiritual power that literally blows his mind, does Strange become willing to explore the Ancient One’s teaching.  But Strange is a slow learner.  He does not open himself readily to mystery, to spiritual power that he neither understands nor fully controls.  He has great difficulty with spiritual practices.  In frustration, his damaged hands still weak and shaking, he pleads with the Ancient One, “how do I get from here to there?” – to the healing I desire.  She responds, as spiritual masters to often do, with her own question, “How did you get to reattach severed nerves and put a human spine back together bone by bone?”  “Study and practice,” replies Strange, “years of it.”


Years of study and practice.  Whoever said spiritual growth is supposed to be quick and easy?   Karen Armstrong, the well-known historian of religion, notes that all of the great religious traditions advanced the development of human consciousness, awareness of the transcendent dimension of life, primarily by developing practices that changed people at a profound level.  But we have to be willing to be changed.  We have to commit ourselves to ethical behavior and disciplined habits of awareness and compassion.[3] 

This is the heart of Jesus teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  Our practices of piety (justice and righteousness might be a better translation) are in the service of others, not ourselves.  They invite a transfiguration of the self from being self-serving to other-serving, from being self-centered to being God-centered.  The great truth is this: “It is not about you.”


Dr. Strange throws himself into spiritual study and practice with the same resolve with which he mastered Western medicine, and makes remarkable progress in the mystical arts; yet, his hands remain partially paralyzed.  He becomes less self-preoccupied as he is slowly drawn into Kama-Taj’s larger mission of resisting the forces of evil that seek to dominate and destroy life on earth.   In the climactic meeting between Dr. Strange and the Ancient One, Strange realizes that he has a choice to make.  He can use his new-found spiritual power to cure his hands and go back to his old way of life, or he can accept his woundedness and discover a more profound healing in an entirely new way of life in service to others. 

The old fear of failure still haunts Dr. Strange.  As the Ancient One comments earlier in the film, “We never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.”  Strange isn’t sure he is up to the challenge of this new way of life. “Surrender, Stephen,” the Ancient One assures him.  “Silence your ego and your power will rise.” 


The imposition of ashes that we receive today is an outward sign of the inward acceptance of our woundedness, our demons, our mortality.  Our wounds never really go away, but neither need they define us. We can engage in spiritual practices for ourselves alone, regarding our wounds as impediments to an old self-centered way of life.  It was that sort of approach that earned Jesus’ withering dismissal of those who “already have their reward.”  We can settle for earthly treasure.  These ashes represent a commitment to seek a deeper healing in service others.

When we accept our wounds, we can begin to learn from them.  We can integrate them into a larger wholeness that is generative of wisdom and compassion.  When the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples, his wounds remain visible.[4]  They do not disappear, but rather become the touchstone of healing for others.  They are a source of power: cracks in our well-defended ego through which the power of God emerges to resist evil and mend the world. 

Like Dr. Strange, we have a choice.  We can pursue a superficial healing, making the wounds go away only to resume a mundane, unenlightened existence, much like the fellow on the basketball court who sent Dr. Strange on his quest in the first place.  Or, we can embrace our wounds, silencing our ego so that we can give voice to a deeper truth, a more encompassing healing, that unites us with Christ’s mission of reconciling all things to God.[5] 

Our reception of the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood unites us with Christ in his self-sacrifice, his self-giving, offering our own brokenness for the healing of the world.   In this Sacrament we open ourselves to a transcendent power that reveals the glory of God’s love and mercy at work in the world in and through us.   We realize the truth of St. Paul’s paradoxical acclamation: “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”[6] 

Our mortality unites us with the great cycle of death and resurrection in which all things are being made new.  When we consciously choose to step into the flow of this powerful energy of love, when we silence the ego, we realize the greater reward, the heavenly treasure.  The kingdom of God is among you.[7]   Today is the day of salvation.[8]  We can let go of our death-grip on the old way of life to which we cling, so that we can receive the new life that God desires for us.  We can choose the deeper healing.

[1] Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios & Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2016.
[2] Matthew 6:1-21.
[3] Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), pp. xiii-xiv.
[4] Luke 24:38-40; John 20:24-29.
[5] II Corinthians 5:17-21.
[6] II Corinthians 12:8-10.
[7] Luke 17:21.
[8] II Corinthians 6:2.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Resisting Evil

How do we resist evil and not lose our souls in the process?  What sustains movements for social justice and peace over the long haul?  What particular resources can we offer to this work as people of faith?

These questions are not far removed from Jesus’ life and ministry.  Jesus was engaged in building a reform movement to renew the Jewish Covenant.  It was a movement rooted in the Torah as mediated through the prophetic tradition of Israel.  Concern for social justice is central to this tradition, which included the principle of the Jubilee Year that called for periodic debt relief, manumission of slaves, and redistribution of ancestral land to the poor.[1]  God’s righteousness and justice is to be the foundation of the social order. 

One of the unique contributions of the Covenant, which the prophets emphasize, is the way in which the perspective of victims informs the Torah.  The Jewish people had themselves been slaves.  They knew what it is like to be outsiders, a persecuted minority forcibly impressed into hard labor, treated as a unit of production rather than as a human being.  Hence the Torah’s remarkable emphasis on Sabbath rest as work stoppage that extends not only to citizens, but also to slaves and immigrants, and even to domestic animals and the land itself.

This concern for those on the margins goes far beyond loving the neighbor as oneself: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”[2]  Remember what God is like.  Remember your own history of oppression and suffering.  Imitate God; not Pharaoh.

Imitating God’s justice and mercy in our social relations is at the heart of Jesus’ own teaching and practice.  This isn’t always easy to do.  We will encounter opposition.  Recall that Jesus’ description of the attributes of those who live in the kingdom of heaven culminates in blessings upon those who persevere in working for justice even in the face of persecution.[3]   How do we respond to the resistance we experience, both in our own hearts and in the world?

Jesus addresses this question directly.  He begins by affirming the Torah: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”[4]  This refers to the lex talionis or law of retaliation.  It served to bring vicious cycles of vengeance under the rule of law.  By the time of Jesus, it was not taken literally, but rather expressed the principle of proportionality in determining appropriate reparation for harms, applied equally to aliens as well as citizens.

It is worth noting that Jesus begins by affirming the rule of law and seeking justice by means of legal redress.  Institutions such as courts are a significant advance over vigilante “justice” and endless cycles of violence.   This is not an anachronistic interpretation of Jesus as being a “law and order” guy in the polemical sense in which this is used in current political rhetoric.  It simply affirms that civic institutions such as an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and, in our day, a free press, are the first line of defense in resisting evil. 

But there is a caveat here, which Jesus notes.  Sometimes, the judges are corrupt and our institutions are broken.  Sometimes, the law itself is unjust, an instrument of evil rather than a resource against injustice.  Thus, Jesus says, “Do not resist by evil means.”[5]  This is a notoriously difficult verse to translate and interpret, but the usual “Do not resist an evildoer” is inadequate and misleading. “Do not resist by evil means” is echoed in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, when he writes, no doubt recalling Jesus’ teaching, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . Beloved, never avenge yourselves . . . Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[6]  Jesus clearly resisted evil.  This is not a call to passivity.  It is a cautionary note to make sure that our resistance to evil does not itself take the form of evil.

That Jesus has something like this in mind is evident from the examples of creative forms of resistance that he offers.   The first deals with the insulting slap of a master against his slave, the second with greedy creditors, the third with forced labor, and the last with the structural violence of endemic poverty.  In the first three examples, victims take the initiative to assert their dignity in such a way as to turn the tables on those who have caused them harm; in the last example, we are encouraged to offer solidarity with such victims.[7] 

Understand that slapping your slave, confiscating land and putting people into debt slavery, as well as impressing civilians into forced labor were all perfectly legal, even as they were instruments of oppression.  Yet, in none of these examples does Jesus counsel passivity, or the renunciation of claims to justice.  They are attempts to question the normalcy of injustice, disrupt the system, and create spaces for resistance.  Sometimes, resisting evil requires us to make what is invisible, visible, and raise the consciousness of our fellows, opening up new paths to the possibility of justice and reconciliation when our institutions fail us.

The difficulty is in not becoming the evil we claim to oppose.  “Do not resist by evil means.”  Do not dehumanize your enemy in the way he dehumanizes you.  Do not escalate the cycle of retaliatory violence. Imitate God; not Pharaoh.  Here we must attend to the enemy within as well as the external enemy, purifying our motives and intentions.  Evil is not just out there; it is in us as well.
Jesus teaches that our relationships with our friends and with our enemies, with everybody, should be animated by the energy of love.[8]  He urges us to imitate God, noting that God makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on both the evil and the good, the unjust and the just, without discrimination.[9]  God is love, the creative energy that creates and sustains all things.  St. Julian of Norwich wrote that “The love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning.  And all this we shall see in God, without end.”[10] 
Love just is.  It is the root-energy of the universe, so to speak, and it suffuses all things.  The question is how we humans respond to and work with this energy, how we metabolize it and give it expression in our lives.  Unfortunately, our experience of this root energy is not always informed by God’s loving intention.  It is, in fact, shaped to a large extent by our coming to internalize and imitate the response and desires of others – our parents, caregivers, families, and the larger culture.  We learn how to work with this energy – expressing or repressing it, turning it to creative or destructive ends – from the social other.  

As we come to mimic their responses, this inevitably leads to conflict and rivalry to secure the objects of shared desire, rupturing the fabric of our relationships with even neighbors, much less enemies.  This rupture is sin, and it is expressed in the manifold consequences of distorted energy shaped by desires that are contrary to God’s loving intention.  

Jesus understood the challenge of working with this root-energy in such a way as to give it creative expression as love; compassionate, forgiving, and life-giving.  This is why he urges us to cultivate love for our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  It isn’t so that they will change, but so that we will be changed:  so that we will become willing and able to transmit the energy of love rather than imitating the vicious cycle of vengeance we internalize from the dominant culture. 

The imperative to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”[11] is not an impossible ideal of moralistic rigor, but rather an invitation to be wholly inclusive in our love toward others, just as God’s love is inclusive.  Imitate God, not your enemies.  Creative strategies for resisting evil are the fruit of cultivating a capacity to work with the energy of love in imitation of God.   Our hope for genuine peace, a just wholeness that is more than simply the absence of conflict, depends on our willingness to persevere in resisting evil with open hearts. 

But it is contemplative practice that supports our capacity to resist evil in this way.  We have to do our own inner work as well.  We can learn to become transparent to the energy of love.  This is what it means to become children of our Father in heaven.  It is not just about acting in a loving way, much less being “nice.”  It is about exercising love as a powerful force for healing, reconciliation, and justice.  Divine love in its pure, undifferentiated form, can come directly from the Source through us – individually and collectively as the Body of Christ.[12] 

St. Teresa of Avila described this process of becoming transparent to love through contemplative practice using the beautiful analogy of watering a garden.  She described four ways in which this watering take place.  First one pulls the water from a well with a bucket.  Second, the water comes more easily from a waterwheel.  Third, one brings it still more easily from a nearby spring or stream.  And finally it comes without our effort at all, through the rain.  She spoke of the decreasing amount of human labor necessary for the first three ways and of the great wonder of the fourth, in which the Lord “waters it Himself.”  In wondering how the soul was occupied during the watering-by-rain, Teresa felt God say to her, “It dissolves utterly, my daughter, to rest more and more in Me.  It is no longer itself that lives; it is I.”[13] 

The secret to sustainable action for justice is letting God do the work, channeling this inexhaustible energy source. Contemplative practice is not only about personal union with the divine.  It is also and, more importantly, a way of discovering how to become transparent to love for the sake of others, exercising its power for the sake of justice.[14]  When we do so, we begin to realize the meaning of Jesus’ prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”   

Let us pray.

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.[15]

[1] Leviticus 25.
[2] Leviticus 19:33-34.
[3] Matthew 5:10-12.
[4] Leviticus 24:17-22.
[5] Matthew 5:39a.  For a discussion of the translation, see Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads Of The Sermon On The Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 12/2 (2003), pp. 279-282.
[6] Romans 12:17, 19, 21.
[7] Stassen, op cit.  Walter Wink brilliantly interprets these creative initiatives in his Engaging the Powers. 
[8] Matthew 5:43-44.
[9] Matthew 5:45.
[10] Quoted in Gerald May, Will and Spirit (New York:  HarperCollins, 1982), p. 202.
[11] Matthew 5:48.
[12] See May, pp. 202-209.
[13] Quoted in May, p. 202.
[14] See May, p. 208.
[15] Collect for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 216.