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Attending Christ means tending to our humanity

  • March 2, 2023

We humans need to be tended.

Sheep are tended by a shepherd. Gardens are tended by a gardener. Even databases are tended by experts.

How much more we humans need tending, regularly, daily, to survive and flourish. God wills that humans flourish, observes theologian Edward Schillebeeckx. The glory of God is the human fully alive, says St. Irenaeus of Lyons. God wills this even more than we do. And if we are to flourish, we need tending. 

Often we’re unaware of this need. Like the beloved in the Song of Songs, we neglect our own soul-growth: “The sons of my mother were angry with me; they charged me with the care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I did not take care of.” Untended, our need becomes desperate (perhaps unawares) and we’re likelier to accept what’s not good for us, like starving people eating poisonous food. We’re more vulnerable to manipulation — the opposite of care and tending. We easily mistake manipulation for care, leading us into all sorts of difficulties.

Manipulation simply means moving or managing something according to one’s own purpose. For example, we manipulate the smartphone to get it to do our work, and manipulate the coffee pot to get our hot drink in the morning. What happens when we treat people like objects to be moved or managed to suit ourselves? We end up trying to control people, put ourselves above them or make them small.

We all have a tendency to do so, not always consciously. So common is this human desire to manipulate others that St. Ephrem the Syrian’s fourth-century Lenten prayer, regularly prayed in church right up to this Lent, implores God to take away the spirit of “lust for power.” Every parish and church community needs this prayer, not because church groups are worse than any other human assembly, but because they are just as human. Everyone is inclined to dominate others.  

Such an inclination will always appear to us a good thing, done in a good cause — protecting us from awareness of our real motive, which is to take power. We just want the parish to be in good financial shape, that’s why we are telling fellow parishioners about the flaws we’ve observed in the pastor. I just want to share with that woman how great God is, that’s why I’m interrupting her private prayer at Adoration and keeping her talking about my life for half an hour.

Lust for power can show up as the absolute necessity to have an opinion about everything, and then impose it on others. Acquisition of knowledge can become a weapon of power. We can develop an over-sized sense of ourselves, forgetting our limitations and putting ourselves in a high place to always speak down to others. Somehow the simplest conversations end with somebody “on top.” Speech, even spiritual talk, can be used as a club, squishing people into submission and dividing them from each other. Lust for power commonly manifests in idle talking (words without substance) and gossip.

The higher one’s position, the greater one’s means to dominate others. But the lust for power is as true for the sweet old man in the back pew as for the cardinal of a metropolis.  

The opposite of lust for power is poverty: making the intentional choice of not seeking influence, choosing rather to be powerless. When we humbly tend and care for others instead of seeking to dominate, we magnify others by our way of being. “One always meets another person at the same level one seeks to know that person” (Fr. Christian de Chergé).

We all meet people in whose presence we feel encouraged, lifted up, a better person — magnified. When we meet a real saint, we don’t feel “less than,” constricted or re-arranged by someone else’s will. The holy person might show us things that are painful to see, but in a way that opens us up rather than crushing us. In my life, I had such an encounter with Fr. Benedict, a Trappist monk, in whose presence I felt light and clear, as though sitting with an angel who made everything shine.  

Prayer, and cultivating a habit of examination of conscience, help us recognize these patterns in ourselves and bring winds of change so we can engage with others as persons, not things. Awareness in the small things will help strengthen us to recognize lust for power and manipulation (idle talking) when they are big and brutal.

Can we take Lent as a time to give up the lust for power, asking God to take it away from us — giving us instead true silence, using words to affirm and heal rather than to dominate?  It won’t be easy, but will lead to joy. We’ll re-discover the delight of giving life rather than oppressing, tending someone rather than controlling, helping others flourish simply by being humbler.  

It might leave us freer to share the life we receive through Christ.

(Marrocco can be reached at mary.marrocco@outlook.com.)