Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Opposites attract

Father John J. Lombardi

As in: Head and heart combining together in one harmonious person. As in a man and woman forming a holy Christian couple. And, in the Mass: metaphysical opposites converge as Heaven and Earth are mystically present.

In our holy religion we must strive for the "ABC's of Spiritual Union": Alliance, Balance and Complementarity. Alliance implies two wills (i.e., Divine and human) becoming one--without friction. Balance means equal tempering of disparate realities (spirit and flesh conjoining in one disciple). Complementarity means seeming opposites helping one another become whole and holy (maleness and femaleness both contributing in our Holy Church).

A lot of times in life we Catholics get out of balance in stressing, for instance, Jesus' divinity too much (He is only God) and neglect that He was human, too; or we may strive for the love of God to the detriment of love of neighbor.

In this Sunday's Gospel (Mk. 9:30-37), Jesus Christ shows us the unity of Divinity and humanity both within Himself and for us, by stressing the balance between adulthood (He shows His courage and manliness in embracing death-Mk 9:31), and childhood ("Whoever receives a child like this…"- 10:37). These seemingly opposite realties-adulthood and childhood--go together in discipleship. One moment in His preaching Jesus stresses strength, and in the next He emphasizes innocence and vulnerability.

What to make of this? Our egoic, earthy selves may see contradiction; but our souls should see, rather, spiritual paradox-that seeming opposites attract and complement one another. These paradoxes abound in our Religion. For instance, Faith and Reason combine to form right discernment in our lives if balanced correctly. God and Man conjoin mysteriously (though truly) in the Savior Jesus Christ; and human free will and Divine Providence align in Christians to attune to, and advance the Kingdom of God

Contrasting with this are Eastern and new age spiritualities which either neglect or reject balance and complementarity. For instance, the material-created world and human reason are not as stressed or balanced in the East as in our Western Christianity. Also, body and soul are dualistic in the East-only warring opposites, and therefore the body is seen more as an "enemy". And, in eastern spiritualities, grace and human nature are not as balanced because there is rarely room for Divine Grace to help human effort and cooperation. For us, opposites attract, they don't detract, from one another.

In trying to balance opposites-as in "opposites attract"-we at first wince-- it seems counter-intuitive: against our reason and nature. But the more you think about it and are trained in spiritual ways which include mystery and integration of seeming opposites, the more it makes sense-that child-likeness can be integrated with adult reason, or that a Virgin Mary and Mother go together. The more we live the paradoxes and mysteries of our Faith the more they help and serve us into spiritual integration.

What are some other paradoxical lessons of the Gospel?

The majesty of Divinity is Humility: You'd think that God-as-all-powerful would "Lord it over us" and demand human subservience. No, He, God, comes to serve us, to die for us, and proposes True Life instead of imposing it. Jesus washes the disciples' feet (Jn. 13:5ff: Our response to God should be the same as St Peter's: "Wash not only my feet but my hands and head as well"). While God does give us commandments and expects us to follow them, He never coerces or forces us-but appeals to our human reason and hearts to follow, serve and adore Him-and help others…Do you see your Savior as majestic precisely because He invites and serves you , in humility, and others? Do you find majesty in serving others and so imitate Our Lord and herein reach spiritual perfection?

Fully God and Fully Man in One Person: I recently conversed with a famous, respected theologian and he stressed how we may forget or neglect that Jesus Christ was truly human-while also Divine. In a famous phrase, the theologian-wise guy quipped, Christ was like us in all things except sin. St Luke's Gospel (2:52) says that Jesus grew in wisdom and favor. This thoroughly orthodox professor said that Jesus' divinity did not rule out, or overwhelm His humanity, and that His choices were operative somewhat like us-that if He was truly human he made choices like us, in freedom and abandonment to the Divine Will; otherwise, he would not be fully human like us. While Jesus was not ignorant, in His humanness he, like us, had to exercise human freedom in courage and surrender. In other words, somehow (and this is a mystery!) the Divine nature in Jesus' Person did not control or contradict His human Nature. Remember: Jesus' human nature complements and doesn't contradict Christ's Divine nature. Jesus Christ is one Person in two distinct natures. So we always need to fathom more deeply-within proper orthodoxy, or proper balance and with the Church's teaching-- the depths of how God is teaching us about Jesus Christ and ourselves through this Holy Mystery of the Incarnation, the God-Man …How can you both respect the human nature of Jesus and still worship Him as God? In Jesus' humanity how can you be in solidarity with God's suffering and how can you abandon to Him more precisely because He was fully human?

Faith and Reason go together: the fully formed adult uses human reason and rationality to operate in the world but also should combine this with childlike Faith to be an integrated, balanced whole person. And so, abandonment aligns with knowledge; human effort is balanced by Divine Grace; our strong personal attributes complement our receptive, softer traits…Do you strive for this balance in your spiritual life and embrace spiritual paradox?

Good out of Evil: The badness in the world confronts God but does not triumph over Him: Jesus Christ succumbs to death and seeming destruction but overcomes it in the Resurrection. He doesn't "dodge the bullet" of death and suffering, but knowing that we will all face these challenges, Christ fully engages with them and overcomes them exactly by going thru them. He brings good out of evil…Do you always try to avoid suffering and crosses and miss the true, deep meaning of Jesus' Passion and Redemption-and your own liberation by this mystery?

"A Challenge Not A Crusade" was the title of an excellent New York Times opinion piece (Sept 19) by John Allen, wherein he stated that Pope Benedict in a university speech recently appealed to Muslims to combine Faith and Reason and avoid sheer passions and coercion in faith matters. The Pope also challenged the West which neglects or rejects faith and supernatural mystery. Allen, who writes for a progressivist journal stated that the Pope knows there are difficult and dangerous, unsolved, issues between Muslims and Christians (and the West), and that the Pope is right to raise these questions and not ignore them as so many do. He also noted how the Pope's graciousness to Muslims should be clear in dialogues with Islamic clerics. The Pope meanwhile has appealed to Muslims to grant "reciprocity" wherein Islamic countries grant equal rights to Christians as much as Western countries do for them. Sounds fair.

Allen also writes: "Bishop Rino Fesichella announced it was time to 'drop the diplomatic silence' about anti-Christian persecution, and called on the Untied Nations to 'remind the societies and governments of countries with a Muslim majority of their responsibilities….Through his statements Benedict clearly hopes to stimulate Islamic leaders to express their faith effectively in a pluralistic world. The big question is whether it will be received that way, or whether it simply reinforces the conviction of jihadists about eternal struggle with the Christian West."

Another article by the liberalist theologian Martin Marty (The Baltimore Sun: Sept 19) stated that the Pope has no room to talk since the Catholic Church propelled the Crusades to convert, and, throughout the civilizing of Europe, conquered by the sword. Both these accusations are false. Once again, we should invite Dr. Marty to the paradox: you can challenge without crusading; one can converse with other religions without coercion.

Conversation shouldn't mean collapse: When the Pope calls us all (Muslims, Christians and Western intellectuals alike) to conversation and ecumenism he knows that this must mean we don't throw away our essential Faith (our Doctrines) and that, sometimes, difficult facts should not be avoided. One commentator said the Pope believes in "dialogue with teeth". So, unfortunately, sometimes in ecumenical dialogue you may hear false notions like "We are all the same" or "We worship the same God" or that "Differences are marginal" or "If you stick to your Faith and doctrine too much you are not ecumenical" and so forth. We must remember, amidst all this, the paradox: While conversing with others, which we should do, especially today, we should not collapse our unique Faith and practices in unwise ways.

It gets worse before it gets better: As with Pope Benedict's remarks which unfortunately ended in violence by some who did not fully comprehend his true meaning (and even the murder of a Catholic nun), when difficulties are exposed-not ignored unwisely-then, as in treating a sickness, for instance-things may sometimes get challenging before healing comes. The more you ignore your toothache or cancer, the more sick you will be and you will not heal. Likewise, in dialoguing about challenging subjects among religions there is an initial reaction of fear and resistance. This is natural. We should not imply from this that the difficult subject should not have been raised; otherwise, we will always be living in fear and false peace. It is precisely in the difficult times of Muslim-Christian dialogues that we both "air the issues" and also stick to the conversation. This seems like opposites to some, but, hopefully to those who believe in spiritual paradox, it is, rather complementary, and, besides, opposites attract.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi