Photo by Michael Swan

Glen Argan: We can't allow ourselves to be victims

  • September 27, 2018

For several months, I have been attending yoga classes. As a tall man who has been crammed into ill-fitting chairs and desks all my life, I find these classes difficult. My body is stiff. I can be frustrated because of my inability to do poses others do so readily.

Yet, at the end of most classes, the yoga teacher says, “Be grateful for what your body has been able to do today.” Hearing that little dictum has been liberating. I need not fret over the many poses I am unable to do. Rather, I rejoice over those that I can do and then hope tomorrow brings another smidgeon of change.

Progress has been slow, but real. Perhaps no one else notices my little increases in flexibility, but I do. My back aches less than it did mere months ago and I stand a little taller.

Sometimes, I think of my progress in light of the story of the paralyzed man in John 5. The man has sat near the vast pool of Bethzatha at the Sheep Gate for 38 years. He bemoans the fact that no one will take him to the pool when the waters stir and miracles happen. He has become so anemic that when Jesus asks whether he wants to be healed, he cannot even say “yes.” When Jesus tells the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” the man is healed. Even then, he says nothing, not even “thank you.”

I feel like giving that man a shake. “Be grateful for what your body is now able to do,” I would say.

After 38 years by the pool, he is completely disempowered. He has become so convinced that nothing will change that he cannot even recognize change when it happens.

So, what about the laity in the Church today? Are we so disempowered by centuries of clericalism that we are unable to speak out? Are we as passive as the man by the pool? Do we recognize the need and opportunity for change in the Church’s current morass?

The questions have no simple answers. We have a theology of the bishop as the only real authority in a local Church. That theology clashes with the foundational belief that each Christian is transformed by the Holy Spirit through Baptism. How can we reconcile these two beliefs? Not without a theological tap dance that ends with bishops doing the tango and the laity with two left feet.

Many bishops and priests I have known oppose clericalism, while others seem happy with the current elitist structure. But the teaching is unchanged and laity remain not only powerless, but voiceless.

As an organization, the Church is a closed system. Even the Holy Spirit has trouble breaking into the tight circle, at least until the media and police turn up at the chancery office door.

Many Catholics are now deeply disenchanted. But we still cannot get to the stirring waters of the pool of Bethzatha. Are we waiting for someone to carry us to the pool? Do we hope for a miracle?

This year, large numbers have been reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Peterson’s book is a masterpiece of writing, but his basic advice is simple: In the face of all sorts of hardship, take responsibility for your own life. Rule One states, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Later, he writes, “Aim small…. You set the following goal: by the end of this day, I want things in my life to be a tiny bit better than they were in the morning.”

In short, stand on your own two feet and be grateful for what you were able to do today.

Unlike the paralyzed man, we should not allow ourselves to be victims. Nor should we surrender when we see only minimal change. Minimal change is not a defeat, but a sign of hope. When we see it, we get up the next morning and ask for the Spirit’s help in winning more change.

Not only do structures need to change, but so do entrenched attitudes. Never go silent. Heed the advice of that great change-maker, St. Catherine of Siena: “We have had enough exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues. The world is rotten because of silence.”

(Argan is author of Sacred Journey: Daily Reflections for Lent 2019, published by Novalis.)

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