The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Monday, October 15, 2018

Transparency


Have you ever wondered what the world, and our lives in it, would be like if Adam and Eve had admitted to eating the forbidden fruit? If they hadn’t hidden from God and then, once confronted, blamed everyone else instead? What if they had simply come humbly before God, acknowledged their sin, and sincerely apologized?

I’ve often wondered about that while reflecting on the account of the Fall in the Book of Genesis. Certainly, the world—and we in it—would still be in a fallen state. The disobedience of our first parents disrupted the harmonious relationship they had at first enjoyed with God, one another, and with all of creation. We would still be in need, certainly, of redemption possible only in a Savior, Jesus Christ. Humanity would still be broken.

However, I can’t help but speculate if perhaps we wouldn’t be as broken as we are today, if Adam and Eve had immediately confessed and repented of their wrongdoing. If they had been transparent enough to stand naked before God’s merciful gaze, warts and all. Perhaps, if they had done that, the punishment for the sin we inherited wouldn’t have been quite as harsh and difficult as we experience it today.

Perhaps. But that is not what happened, obviously. To refresh our memories, let’s revisit the passage from Genesis (3:7-13) which picks up immediately after Adam and Eve had disobeyed God by eating of the forbidden fruit:

.. and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

In these six verses from ancient history, it’s not difficult at all to see the state of modern-day humanity. First, Adam and Eve try to hide from God. When they are called out, they are fearful—not because they have sinned, but because they are exposed. When asked directly if they had disobeyed God, the man does not take any responsibility, blaming everyone but himself—even God. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit…” Not my fault, he says. She gave it to me. Besides, she wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you. That’s basically what he says! When God turns to question the woman, she also does not take any responsibility. I was tricked into it by the serpent, she says. Not my fault.

There is no accountability in this scene, no transparency before God and one another. Our relationships with God, creation, and one another have not been the same since. Besides the initial and long-lasting rejection of God through human pride, reverberating along the same fault lines are also cover-up, deceit, denial, and finger-pointing.

As Adam and Eve demonstrated, this lack of accountability or transparency, this blame-shifting, is fundamental to our human brokenness, and it is present all around us in today’s world. We see it every day in the news, in politics, in the self-righteous rage that often seems to fuel Twitter and other social media platforms. Sometimes, it seems that everyone is pretending to be someone they’re not, doing things they themselves condemn, protecting themselves at all costs, or blaming everybody but themselves. Unfortunately, and perhaps most shamefully, we also see this behavior among leaders in the Church, harming and scandalizing those whom they are commanded by Christ to inspire, guide, and assist.

No human being, no institution is immune from this tendency. We are all confronted with the constant challenge of resisting it by intentionally leading humble, transparent lives in which we hold ourselves accountable to God and one another, relying on divine grace and mercy. God is constantly calling out to each one of us: “Where are you?”

Our natural tendency as a result of Adam and Eve’s original sin is to hide from God, to deny any culpability, and to place the blame anywhere but on ourselves. What we too often witness in the world around us every day is the scene related by Jesus in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Gospel of Luke (18:9-14):

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

Keep in mind here the historical context. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were learned religious leaders—the ones the Jewish faithful looked to for guidance and instruction. They were generally considered righteous people. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were known sinners—greedy, dishonest people who could not be trusted. Yet Jesus tells us that the tax collector in this parable is the transparent one, because he humbles himself before God. He acknowledges who he is, and his need for God’s grace and mercy. The Pharisee in the story, however, is portrayed as non-transparent. Like Adam and Eve, he hides his true self from God by denying any sinfulness of his own, instead pointing a finger at the tax collector. He is a self-righteous hypocrite, a term Jesus often uses to describe the Pharisees.

The Greek word for “hypocrite” means an actor, someone playing a part or pretending to be what one is not. Hypocrites are people who say one thing to present themselves in the best possible light, but actually do something quite different. They are not the people they appear to be. They are hiding behind a false front or mask. Often, they lead double lives.

We see hypocritical behavior all around us today—as we’ve said, it is present every day in the news, in politics, in social media, and regrettably, in the Church. There seems to be very little personal accountability today—in either a religious or strictly moral sense.

However, lest we judge others too harshly, let us take to heart another of Jesus’ teachings—namely, that we should concentrate on removing the wooden beam from our own eye before attempting to remove the splinter from another’s (cf. Matthew 7:1-5).

While we may not be in the headlines, and are (hopefully) not engaging in criminal behavior, the fact is that in one way or another, to one degree or another, we all struggle daily with genuine transparency in our ordinary lives.

How often do we truly allow ourselves to be held accountable for our failings and shortcomings without denying or minimizing them, or without projecting the blame onto someone or something else? In our day-to-day lives, do we speak and act with genuine sincerity, humility, and honesty—or do we put on some type of mask in order to “save face,” as the saying goes? Do we present our true selves—weak and vulnerable as they may be—in response to God’s constant call to each one of us: “Where are you?” Or, do we hide—from God and one another? Are we the same person—acting in the same way—regardless of whether we are with others or alone?

Author and journalist Judith Valente, in her book How to Live, illustrates one instance of what non-transparency may look like with an anecdote from her own life. She writes: “I am one of those people who go around trying to camouflage a host of insecurities with various emotional face powders. I must be pretty good at it. People often comment after they get to know me that they found me intimidating at first. This is laughable to me, since I am a breathing, walking pack of anxieties” (p. 146).

She relates how this “false self” of hers—the intimidating one—sometimes gets the best of her when she feels that one those deep-seated insecurities has been provoked. Once, she says, while working for the Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau, she boarded a city bus and casually flashed her monthly rider’s pass (p.55-57). Apparently, the driver did not see it. As she took her seat near the front of the bus, she began reading a book, and the driver said, “Hey Miss, you didn’t pay your fare.”

At first, she thought he was speaking to somebody else, so she just kept reading.

“Hey you,” the driver said, glaring at her in the rear-view mirror.

“Are you speaking to me?” she asked.

“Yeah, you,” he said.

She told him that she had shown her pass, and suggested that perhaps he didn’t see it because he was wearing sunglasses.

“No, you didn’t,” he insisted. As he continued to rant at her for attempting to ride without paying the fare, she sat fuming, believing him to be disrespecting her. She would not, she thought, give him the satisfaction of getting up and displaying her pass again, because in her mind at that moment, that would be acknowledging she hadn’t shown it in the first place.

Finally, she angrily rose and got off the bus, saying to the driver loud enough for all to hear: “If you knew who you were talking to, sir, you wouldn’t be so rude.”

In her book, she writes that she didn’t know what she meant by that, and realized afterward that it was a ridiculous and inappropriate thing to say from a Christian perspective. But in that moment, her wounded sense of pride had gotten the better of her.

It didn’t take long for someone to bring her down to earth. As she got off the bus, one of the passengers yelled out, “Hey, lady. If you’re such a big shot, how come you’re riding the bus?”

Humiliated, she realizes now that the moment was one of grace. It showed her who she often pretends to be because of her deep-seated insecurities, and who she really is. She writes: “A little humility on my part would have gone a long way that day.”

Her recollection of this incident has served as a helpful reminder in her life as she strives to be transparent before God and others—the person she is really called to be in Christ. And she acknowledges she’s not there yet—which, in itself, is an act of humility and transparency.

Perhaps you are able to recall similar lessons in your own life. It is important to examine ourselves regularly, to constantly question our motives, and to reflect upon what really lies at the root of our acting, speaking, or feeling a certain way— so that our false selves may gradually be stripped away and our true selves emerge more fully in the light of Christ. The goal is to be authentic. In the end, that is all God really asks of us, but it takes our cooperation with his grace.

This is precisely what Jesus is talking about in the gospels when he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24; cf. Matt 16:24-25, Mark 8:34-35).

Reflecting upon this, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote: “In order to become one’s true self, the false self must die … [This involves] a deepening of the new life, a continuous rebirth, in which the exterior and superficial life of the ego is discarded like an old snakeskin, and the mysterious, invisible self of the Spirit becomes more present and more active.” (The New Man, Love and Living)
Again, God is continually saying to each of us, “Where are you? The real you—the person I created you to be. I know who you are. Don’t hide from me. Don’t be afraid. The truth will set you free” (cf. John 8:32).

When we respond to this call, and are truly authentic and transparent, we allow God and others to see us as we really are—just as the tax collector in Jesus’ parable. We don’t appear or pretend to be someone we’re not. We take responsibility for our actions, whatever the consequences, and learn from such experiences. We are honest with God, with ourselves, and with others in appropriate fashion. We acknowledge our faults, seek forgiveness, and if necessary, make restitution. With the humility and mercy that only God can provide, we forgive others their faults and transgressions—for Jesus tells us that it is only by that measure that we ourselves will be forgiven by God. And, because we all have blind spots that will remain with us to our dying day, we pray in the words of Psalm 19: “[Lord], who can detect all his errors? From hidden faults acquit me.”

This journey toward transparency, obviously, is not completed overnight. It may literally take a lifetime. However, it is one we all need to embark upon. But how, exactly? What practical steps does one take?

This is an area where Benedictine spirituality can be particularly helpful, and has been for centuries. The Rule of St. Benedict is filled with practical guidelines for striving to live a life of transparency, humility, and accountability before God and others. Moreover, it is rooted in the earlier monastic tradition of the Desert Elders, who encouraged their followers to reveal their thoughts, struggles, and failings. Doing so, they insisted, exposes malevolent forces to the light of Christ, who robs them of their power over us so that God’s grace can take hold.

For example, in Chapter 4 (:50) of the Rule, Benedict tells his monks: “As soon as wrongful thoughts come into your heart, dash them against Christ and disclose them to your spiritual father.”

Benedict is not talking about sacramental confession here. Obviously, that is also good and absolutely necessary to the Christian spiritual life—it is through the sacrament that we seek pardon for our sins, obtain absolution, and reconcile with God and the Church.

However, what Benedict is referring to is more akin to spiritual direction, wherein one freely and openly reveals his or her innermost thoughts and spiritual struggles—which may or may not involve the actual commission of sin. It goes deeper than sacramental confession, and is helpful as a tool to complement the sacrament. Ideally, one participates in both.

The Church requires all Catholics to go to confession at least once a year, and to do so before receiving Holy Communion if one is aware of having committed a mortal sin. In the monastery at Saint Meinrad, all monks are also required to meet regularly with a spiritual director. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI said all Christians should have a spiritual director in order to avoid self-deception, realize the limits of their own understanding, and grow in their relationship with Christ. So, this is something we can all do—whether a monk or not.

In the absence of a spiritual director, the next best thing would be to have at least one person in your life with whom you can—and will—share everything you are feeling, thinking, or going through—whether it’s a spouse or a best friend. This needs to be someone with whom you can be completely honest, and from whom you will accept honest feedback and constructive criticism.

Another practice from the Rule of St. Benedict that aids in the journey toward transparency is one that you may have witnessed during visits to the Archabbey Church at Saint Meinrad. Have you seen a monk kneel in front of the ambo (or lectern) after Vespers, or one of the other offices, as the rest of the monks process out of the church? Doing so, the monk is acknowledging before everyone that he made a mistake or disrupted the ordinary flow of the office in some way—such as a cantor’s intoning the wrong antiphon. This practice is addressed in Chapter 45 of the Rule, where St. Benedict writes: “Should anyone make a mistake in a psalm, responsory, refrain or reading, he must make satisfaction there before all.”

This is not a punishment, but rather a practical way of being transparent while living in community. It is a way of acknowledging to everyone: “Sorry, I messed up.” Then, the entire matter is forgotten.

We have other such practices in the monastery which are not as public. In Chapter 46, St. Benedict says that anyone who commits a fault during work or other community exercises—by breaking something, for example, or speaking during periods of silence, or missing Morning Office by oversleeping—should “come before the abbot and community of his own accord, admit his fault and make satisfaction.” We normally call this “saying culpa.” Practically speaking, it would be difficult to do this before the entire community every time someone committed some type of fault (otherwise, that’s all we would be doing all day long!). Instead, what we typically do is go to the Prior and admit our fault. He then usually gives a small penance, or offers some counsel if it is a more serious offense.

In addition, several times a year at Saint Meinrad, we monks hold what is called a “Chapter of Faults.” During this meeting, the entire community gathers in the Chapter Room, and one by one, we each acknowledge before everyone some chronic fault we know that we struggle with, and which we realize annoys or inconveniences others. It’s usually something of which everyone else in the room is already aware. It’s simply each monk’s way of saying, “I know I do this, and that it irritates some of you. I’m sorry. Please pray for me.”

It should be noted that in each of these cases, we’re not talking about serious sins or revealing matters of the conscience that should only be addressed during spiritual direction, confession, or in a private conversation. What is being acknowledged in these instances is some specific, public behavior which openly affects others in a community setting. For example, during the Chapter of Faults, a monk may say something like, “For my impatience and for my tardiness at Office, I ask you to pray for me.” Then the rest of the community responds: “Lord, have mercy.”

All of these practices are ways of prayerfully striving for transparency in the monastery, allowing ourselves to be held accountable by others in the community, and exercising true humility. They are tools to help us in our monastic journey, which is rooted in conversion of life.

It behooves all Christians to apply the same principles in their own circumstances—whether married or single, in family life, in one’s parish, workplace, school, or other relational settings. It is quite counter-cultural, and is often not easy (especially at first), but it is amazing what kind of positive effect it can have on any community when just one person openly acknowledges a public fault or failing, and apologizes for it. It is simply a way of saying: “Sorry, that’s on me.”

Think how about how rare (unfortunately) that is today, when the inclination is so often to act like Adam and Eve—denying any responsibility and blaming someone or something else.

Again, we’re talking here about specific, public behavior here—not serious sins or matters of conscience. Still, whether it’s a relatively minor offense or a serious sin, the important thing is that there is a need—in the appropriate time, manner, and place—to acknowledge our faults and failings, apologize, and, if necessary, make restitution. Hiding our transgressions, denying responsibility, or shifting the blame only creates further disharmony and leads us away from God.

Undergirding this entire effort to be more transparent, of course, is prayer. Without God we can do nothing. Ultimately, it is God upon whom we rely, and even prayer is never our own doing. It is a response to God’s calling out to us as he did to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”

Let us pray always for the humility that allows us to answer that call, to honestly stand before God with a knowledge and appreciation for ourselves as we really are—weak and sinful human beings in dire need of the mercy that God, in his superabundant love for all persons, is only too willing to bestow (cf. Cloud of Unknowing).

In my opinion, Psalm 138 is the perfect prayer for one seeking to be more transparent before God and others. The psalm is fairly lengthy, but it begins with these familiar verses:

O Lord, you search me and you know me,
you know my resting and my rising,
you discern my purpose from afar.

And it ends with these lines:

O search me, God, and know my heart,
O test me and know my thoughts.
See that I follow not the wrong path
and lead me in the path of life eternal.

In terms of public prayer, there may be nothing as straightforward as the Confiteor, which we monks say every night after the examination of conscience during Compline. To me, it’s a beautiful witness when the faithful pray those words together and mean every single one of them. It’s a public act of transparency, just as the tax collector in Jesus’ parable demonstrated. So, let us pray:

I confess
to almighty God and to you,
my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault,
through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.
May almighty God have mercy on us,
forgive us our sins,
bring us to everlasting life.
Amen.

2 comments:

  1. Beautifully written...you've given me many points to ponder. God bless!

    ReplyDelete