On September 11, 2001, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was in New York City to give a presentation to a group of clergy and spiritual directors at Trinity Church on Wall Street. What he hadn’t planned on was being an eyewitness to an epic act of terrorism on American soil. He reflected on his experiences that day in his book “Writing in the Dust: After September 11th.” He opens the book with a contrast between the religious language coopted by the terrorists to justify their horrific violence and the compassion of the secular language of those facing imminent death as they called their loved ones from cell phones in the Twin Towers and on airliners. Williams writes this about those last words:
“The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime. The nonreligious word are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged. It should give us pause, especially if we think we are religious” (p. 3).
Holy Week, and especially this time of the Great Three Days known as the Triduum, marks the climatic events of Jesus’ life central to the Christian faith. In the midst of a time fraught with religious drama it is ironic that John’s narrative tells us of Jesus doing something decidedly non-religious – washing his disciples’ feet. This act is not just ordinary and secular, it’s downright scandalous! In the honor shame culture of first century Palestine, no self-respecting rabbi would do such a thing. This is the work of servants, not revered teachers!
And if we are completely honest, like Peter, we are not very comfortable with the idea of our Lord washing our feet either. It’s just too much of a reversal of roles. Jesus, in this intimate act of care for his disciples, subverts the religiosity of his own day with a simple non-religious act of humble service and love.
It is easy for us to gloss over that Jesus was put to death by good, pious, religious people. The pious, religious Romans saw Jesus as a threat to the claim of Caesar himself being an incarnate god. The pious, religious Jews feared Jesus’ teachings and popularity would bring about the wrath of the military might of Rome and utterly destroy Judaism as the Babylonians had tried to do some 600 years before, which belies the sentiment uttered by the High Priest Caiaphas, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
At its best, religious practice is a means of encountering the living God. Through our liturgy, sacraments, corporate prayer, music and art, our religious praxis can elevate the soul and create a conduit of grace by which we can experience God’s presence with us, in us and through us. The danger lies in when we confuse the means with the ends. When religious systems and practices become the end goal, we will use them as a cheap substitute for God. They will denigrate into egocentric structures that we will then feel compelled to defend and protect at all costs.
As Archbishop Williams writes:
“We’d better acknowledge the sheer danger of religiousness. Yes, it can be a tool to reinforce diseased perceptions of reality. … It can be a way of teaching ourselves not to see the particular human agony in front of us; or worse, of teaching ourselves not to see ourselves, our violence, our actual guilt as opposed to our abstract ‘religious’ sinfulness. Our religious talking, seeing, knowing, needs a kind of cleansing” (p. 5).
Religion runs the great risk of becoming a mask we wear as we attempt to hide from a true encounter with Christ and with one another. It becomes a ruse by which we avoid the intimacy of conversion.
If we are completely honest, conversion is terrifying. It requires us to do things we’d rather not do. Conversion requires the death of our own small egocentric self. It demands we release our stranglehold on our need to control, to acquire, to exert power over others, to exploit for our own gain and thus do violence to ourselves and others. Conversion calls us into stripping away our need to be important, relevant, educated, popular and powerful. Conversion requires us to face our own guilt, sin and brokenness honestly and without rationalization. Conversion entails handing over, in the words of our Rite 1 Eucharistic prayer, “our selves, our souls and bodies” utterly and completely to the God who is able to love us more completely than we can even love ourselves. And this is terrifying precisely because of the intimacy and honesty conversion exacts from us. Conversion strikes to our very core – to our heart.
It has often been said that the longest journey any of us take in our spiritual life is the approximately 12 inches from the head to the heart. In our industrialized western culture, we have a tendency to live in our heads. Being rational and pragmatic is of high value in our capitalistic, utilitarian world. When we spend all of our time in our heads, our faith is reduced to a set of intellectual assents about God with which we can either agree or disagree. If we stay in this “head faith,” we will find ourselves frustrated by the paradoxes of the scriptures and our traditions. We will grow weary of a prayer life that appears to be nothing more than talking to air and waiting in silence for what seems like no answer at all. We will continue to hide behind religious practices out of habit or guilt, or perhaps even walk away from the whole thing in a bout of cynicism and reject God as nothing more than a figment of the imagination.
If, however, we pay attention to the humility and hiddenness of God in Christ, the Spirit is able to guide us into a journey of conversion. We will be led to seek Christ in new ways: not merely in our religious practices, but in the faces of each other and in the ordinary and often messy stuff of relationships. When this happens, the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to make space for those we otherwise would have overlooked – the last, the lost, the little, the least and the lifeless. This is why Jesus came to be with us, among us and for us. When we put our trust in Christ he will lead us on the journey from the head to the heart and back again – over and over and over again.
Jesus invites us into this intimate conversion journey just as he invited the 12 that night and, like Peter, we will likely experience an initial resistance to this invitation to intimacy and conversion.
The journey is only about 12 inches. Will you come along?