Ego, God, and Ministry

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Renowned theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, once suggested that there two different dramas we can live out in life, an ego-drama or a Theo-Drama.

We live an ego-drama when we draw our basic energies from our ego and from the highs and lows that our ego undergoes in life, feeling good when things are going well and feeling depressed when they are not. When we are living an ego-drama we are easily, and often, discouraged, angry, and depressed.

We live a Theo-Drama when we draw our energies from something beyond ourselves, from God. When we do this the highs and lows of our daily lives do not affect us so deeply and we are less prone to discouragement, anger, and depression because we are drawing meaning and energy from something beyond the fluctuations of our own egos.

Nowhere is this truer than in ministry where, invariably, we are either too full of ourselves when things are going well or too discouraged and angry when they are not. There’s a story inside the mystical tradition of Islam that brilliantly illustrates this. It has different versions, all making the same point, but here’s the one with which I’m most familiar:

Once upon a time there was a young man, full of sincerity and idealism, who felt the call to preach God’s challenge and consolation to the world. So he went into the deep woods and apprenticed himself to the Elders who trained him and when they felt he was ready laid hands on him, blessed him, and sent him out to preach God’s challenge and consolation.

And this is how he did it: Each day he would enter a town just before noon when the market squares were most crowded and cry out: “Does anyone want to hear about God’s challenge and consolation?” Always there would be someone, an elder, who would step forward and say: “Yes, we will hear you speak on this.” And the elder would take him to his house and after the supper meal some people would gather. But not many people would come, and some would come late and others would leave early, and he sensed they were listening to him only out of politeness, without real interest. So after each such session the young man would go back to his lodgings feeling empty, discouraged, thinking that these surely were not the people to whom he had been called to minister.

So it went on, for a long time, a short time, or for whatever time it was: Each day this cycle would repeat itself; He would go into a town, cry out, ask if anyone was interested in hearing about God’s challenge and consolation, always an elder would step forward and take him to his house, each night a small group would gather, some would arrive late and others would leave early, they would listen to him politely, engage him in polite questions, and he would leave feeling empty and discouraged.

Until one day he entered a town just as he always did, cried out just as he always did, and an elder stepped forward just as was the pattern. But this time things were different: Instead of taking him to his house, the elder took him to the town square where a platform had been erected and a large number of seats set up. That evening the whole square filled with people and no one arrived late and no one left early, and they listened to him intently and engaged him in deep questions long into the night.

He went back his lodgings that night filled with energy and all the next day he worked enthusiastically at preparing what he would say that night. And when he got to the town square that evening it was just as the night before, a huge crowd had gathered. But, just as he was about to step up to speak, the elder tugged at his sleeve and said: “Someone else who will speak tonight, not you.” And it was just as the night before, nobody came late and nobody left early and everyone listened intently and engaged the speaker in deep questions long into the night.

But the young man felt empty and listened without heart. When it was over, he returned to his lodging nursing an inchoate frustration. The next morning, early, he packed his few belongings and began to walk out of the town when, just at its edge, the elder stopped him and asked: “Why are you leaving us?” The young man replied: “It seems you don’t need me to preach to you, you have others.”

And so the elder took him by his sleeve and said gently: “Let me give you a counsel: The person who was so full of himself two nights ago and the person who was so empty of himself last night - neither of those persons is you. Stay with us and let us teach you who you are.”

Wise, wise words, carrying a meaning far deeper than first imagined.

Ron Rolheiser

Detroit, Michigan

August 1, 2010.