Fr. Denis Robinson, OSB, is Rector of St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. I was fortunate to have him for four courses. In every course Fr. Denis found an occasion to do the following activity. He thought it was THAT important that each priest-to-be and minister-to-be understand what it teaches.
Fr. Denis would have two people come to the front of the room and face each other. Then he would ask them to raise their arms with their hands spread flat out pressing against each other. He asked them then to lean in, to push against each other. They did. We smiled. It was a stand off: neither could push the other down. Finally, Father had one person stop pushing back. The result, of course, was that the one still pushing lunged forward, just catching himself before he fell. We smiled a bit broader.
Then Fr. Denis made his point: “The triangle is a strong construction. The pressure of one angle pushes against the other to make a solid, meant to last, construction. It takes the pressures of both sides to be strong. It is important the Church be like that. People want to lean to one side or another. When they do, the construction is weak. It begins to collapse.”
I loved his final line: “The Holy Spirit lives in the tension in the middle.”
Father went on to discuss with us how “The Holy Spirit lives in the tension in the middle” doesn’t mean compromise, half what one person or faction wants and half what the other person or faction wants. That would deny objective Truth. The Holy Spirit lives in the middle rather means that in the (respectful) dialogue between opposing viewpoints solutions emerge which meet the essential needs of each perspective. These solutions are the work of the Holy Spirit. They come from the Spirit’s gifts of Wisdom, Counsel, Knowledge, Understanding, Piety, Fear of the Lord, and Fortitude. They lead to Fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, and Self-Control.
These solutions are also practical solutions that can be willingly implemented. Such, so I understand, were the solutions developed again and again during Vatican Council II.
Such is the solution described in yesterday and today’s reading from Acts. This was a critical point in the spread of Christianity. Was Christianity going to develop as a part of Judaism, or was it going to become a new religion? My guess, from reading the 15th chapter of Acts, is that no one yet saw that Christianity would become a new, separate, world religion. Even the Gentiles who were being accepted into Christian communities were not saying “Separate from Judaism.” They also didnt seem to see themselves as BECOMING Jews. They were simply filled with the Holy Spirit post-baptism as were the Christians who had been born into Judaism or who had gone through the process of seriously studying Judaism. They wanted to follow Jesus and “the way.”
But what was the Way? Did they need to be circumcised? Did they need to follow Jewish laws and rituals? Did they need to follow Jewish culture? Were Christians “super Jews” or were they Christians?
There were two sides to the problem. People were like the model that Fr. Denis gave us in class: the two sides pushed against each other.
What would have happened to Christianity if all Gentiles had to be circumcised and had to follow all other Jewish laws? What would have happened to Christianity if they had totally broken with Jewish faith and custom at that point?
We don’t know, but logic can tell us that Christianity would have been weaker as it faced coming persecution. It would have been less likely to attract people and spread.
Interestingly to me, none of the arguments from either side take the tactic, “What’s easier to market?” Both sides were interested in what was practical and right.
From the dialogue and discussion we hear today of a Holy Spirit solution:
After much debate had taken place,
Peter got up and said to the Apostles and the presbyters,
“My brothers, you are well aware that from early days
God made his choice among you that through my mouth
the Gentiles would hear the word of the Gospel and believe.
And God, who knows the heart,
bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit
just as he did us.
He made no distinction between us and them,
for by faith he purified their hearts.
Why, then, are you now putting God to the test
by placing on the shoulders of the disciples
a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?
On the contrary, we believe that we are saved
through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.”
Everyone was silent. Then came the confirmation which marks the peace and wisdom of the Holy Spirit for sure. James got up and said:
“It is my judgment, therefore,
that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God,
but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols,
unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood.”
It is hard for us to imagine the level of change this was for the Jewish Christians. But today we have disagreements within the Church. One such disagreement seems to be, “How do we approach those who have ceased to be active in our faith?” Do we lead with Truth or Compassion? That question seems to me, in practice, not that different from the circumcision question.
That is often a question for evangelists, bishops, and popes and can be totally over my head. It is also a question for practical experiences in my life. How do I respond to my adult children who no longer go to church? How do I approach people who have married outside the church? What do I say to someone who is unhappy with our current pastor? I work a lot with people considering returning to the faith. I work with some bitter from past experiences.
It seems to me it is good to follow Fr. Denis’ advice: look for the Holy Spirit, the decision of God, from the tension in the dialogue. Look to see how factors on both sides of such questions have God’s characteristics of Truth, Fidelity, and Compassion in them. Look to answer the questions in ways that work for both sides, “What is essential here?” Look to see how the Holy Spirit speaks from the tension in the middle.
Lord, Truth, Compassion, and Fidelity are core characteristics of You. Help me to know how to express those characteristics in my interactions today, especially in situations where people are troubled or at odds with You or Your Church. Help me to think in those terms when I read articles or watch TV. Perhaps even more important, help me be willing to sit in the tension of dialogue until Your Will is clear. Help me to remember, it is I who must learn to conform myself to Your image, not You who must conform Yourself to my image.
NOTE: I will be taking a two week break from writing for A Catholic Moment. I will return on June 8.