Sensitivity, Vulnerability, and Religion

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Daniel Berrigan once quipped: Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider carefully how good you are going to look on wood.

There’s a hard truth. Classical spiritual writers tell us that one of the ways we can tell whether our faith and religious practices are authentic or whether they are just another form of rationalizing and justifying our own motivation and will, is that, if our religious practice is real, we will be unable to protect ourselves against a certain amount of pain which we formerly were able to block out. If our following of Jesus is real, we will find ourselves sensitive and vulnerable in ways that leave us unable to protect ourselves from duties, involvements, and humiliations that we could formerly avoid. True religion leaves us anything but cool.

Why? Classical spiritual writers explain it simply: Look at the way that God handled Jesus and know that, if we give God permission, God will handle us in the same way. If we open ourselves deeply to God, we should expect that some of the painful things that happened to Jesus will also happen to us. Openness and love led Jesus to the cross. Should we expect anything else?

It was interesting to see the reactions to Mother Theresa’s journals when they were published and the world learned of her deep inner struggles, doubts, and pain. The common reaction was: How could this have happened to a woman of such integrity and faith? The classical spiritual writers would have reacted in the opposite way: Why would this not have happened to a woman of such integrity and faith? She opened herself radically to God and asked Jesus to make her feel like he felt. God just took her at her word. Her diaries are descriptions of precisely what Jesus felt like during a good part of his life, especially towards the end of it.

We should be careful what we pray for, or at least not surprised if God gives us what we ask. If I say to God: “Let me be as Jesus was”, and mean it, I should expect not just that a deeper happiness and peace will flow into my life, but also that this new sensitivity will allow deeper pain to flow into my life as well.

John of the Cross in his book, The Ascent to Mount Carmel, offers a series of counsels for anyone who wants to enter more deeply into the spiritual life. In the first of these counsels, he challenges his readers to strive to more actively imitate Jesus. And, for John, this means trying to imitate Jesus’ motivation rather than his appearance or even his actions. Ask Jesus, he says, to give you his motivation, to let you feel as he felt.

And how will we know if this is working? We will know that we are imitating the motivation of Christ and not rationalizing our own, John says, when certain pains begin to flow into our lives and we find that we are unable now to avoid certain difficult and distasteful situations which formerly we could avoid.

He expresses this in a curious axiom: Be endeavored to be inclined to be suspicious, he says, when your own will and God’s will habitually coincide, when your religious practices always fit quite smoothly with what you want to do in your own life. To choose God’s will is precisely to not always choose our own. And the proof of this will be that we will now be dragged into feelings and situations which formerly we could avoid.

But he adds an important warning: Don’t try, as is the perennial temptation in some spiritualities, to choose what is more difficult and distasteful just because it is more difficult and distasteful. That’s masochism, not religion. Things aren’t necessarily good for you just because they are difficult. Choose to do God’s will, whether it appears tasteful or distasteful. But, he says, if you choose God’s will rather than rationalizing your own, you will invariably experience new vulnerabilities in your life, new pains that you could formerly avoid, and new duties from which you could formerly absent yourself.

And you won’t always look good either. Jesus didn’t. He loved others beyond what was in it for him and this brought great depth and joy to his life, but it also led to humiliation and crucifixion. Sometimes he didn’t look good at all. When we do God’s will rather than rationalizing our own in the name of God and religion, we won’t always look good. Cool is the opposite of vulnerability and genuine sensitivity.

Sometimes, paradoxically, just when we are trying our hardest, just when we are most sincere, just when we are most honest, just when we finally stop rationalizing, our lives seem to fall apart rather than come together. Our spontaneous question is: Why? What’s the matter?

Perhaps God is the matter! Perhaps for once we are doing things right, but we don’t like how we look on wood.