Tag Archives: decision

19 November: The King III, Over to Jesus.

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We are looking at the Jesus-Pilate dialogue occurring towards the end of the Gospel of John (John 18:28f.) in order to explore what it may tell us about Jesus’ kingship. Pilate is clueless about Jesus and his teaching, but as the situation progresses, some important aspects of Jesus’ person and identity gradually, if incompletely, come home to Pilate. Perhaps by watching this process, we may discover something new about Jesus, also.

The dialogue has barely begun, but Pilate has already exposed his impatience with the entire affair – a fact which in itself was insulting, and must have registered as such with Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus bluntly, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

We have noted above that Pilate, as governor of Judea, acted as a supreme judge in his district. Therefore he alone had the authority to impose the death sentence, which is what the Jewish leaders who handed Jesus over want Pilate to do. Jesus’ arrest and trial so far have gone on all night and it is now morning. Jesus must be exhausted, but his response to Pilate’s question is not in the least expressive of the mental derangement which Pilate probably hoped to find in him and which might have made his task so much easier. Jesus, in answer to Pilate, asks a question of his own: ‘Do you ask this of your own accord, or have others said it to you about me?’

Astonishing question. What can Jesus mean by it? Jesus knows his hour had come. His question cannot have been an attempt to gain time in order to plot his escape. It can only have come from his awareness of Pilate as a human being in need of salvation. Although Jesus has already been insulted by Pilate’s manner, it is never his way to return insult for insult. As always, Jesus is reaching for the deepest level of the person to whom he is speaking: he wants Pilate to question Pilate, if not now, then perhaps later. Jesus’ thirst for souls is never quenched, never shelved, forgotten, or given up. To his last breath he is offering salvation to all. Jesus sees clearly that Pilate, on one level, is a man to be pitied. He is a puppet of higher political powers. History suggests that probably most of Judea regarded Pilate as an inept governor, always acting with one eye turned towards those who might be watching him, and rarely, if ever, acting, or even thinking, without being jerked into position by those puppet strings. Jesus, however, seems to pay Pilate the compliment of taking him seriously as an independent thinker, able to lay claim to his own actions and respond to him from within his own centre of freedom.

But, this compliment is lost on Pilate, seemingly. He knows that others are pulling his strings, and although he hates it, he thinks that getting more power for himself will solve his problems. He will allow himself to be a puppet to any degree if this seems to be the most effective way of eventually obtaining more power. Power is what everything is about for Pilate; it is the mental ‘lens’ through which he views everything he does. Naturally, his conversation with Jesus is coloured by these preoccupations.

But, as far as Jesus is concerned, the preoccupations are entirely other. The conversation with Pilate, in Jesus’ view, is about truth and freedom. What will Pilate make of this man?

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January 11: Temperance V: The Gift of Shame

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The virtue of temperance does not require the stoic abstention from all physical pleasures. Temperance is the virtue by which we are strengthened in the ability to decide how much is good for us, and to follow through on that decision on the level of behaviour. What helps us in our decision?

St. Thomas teaches that the spontaneous reaction of shame that surfaces when we have over-indulged in the physical pleasures is both healthy and helpful to us. At first this might be hard to believe: shame is such a miserable, intensely uncomfortable feeling. We don’t like it, and often try to suppress it, or to defend against it by laughing it off and telling ourselves not to be so morbid. Yet, it is better for us to face our feeling of shame. It is a useful reaction whereby we recoil psychologically from the disgrace that comes from intemperance.

Excesses on the level of our physical appetites give us a feeling shame that is usually more intense than the shame we feel over our other moral failings and sins. St Thomas explains that this is because our bodily appetites are what we share with animals, and when we over-indulge them we feel deep down that we have lost something of our innate dignity as human beings.

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Shame, again, surfaces spontaneously. In the masterful book Love and Responsibility, written by Karol Wojtyla*1 in the 1960s, the phenomenon of shame is one of the topics he studies in depth. Here is a brief passage from his book:

Shame is a tendency, uniquely characteristic of the human person, to conceal sexual values sufficiently to prevent them from obscuring the value of the person as such. The purposes of this tendency is self-defence of the person, which does not wish to be an object to be used by another… but does wish to be an object of love (Chapter III).

Perhaps this requires some unpacking. First Wojtyla affirms that shame is part of our in-built moral equipment, as it were – uniquely characteristic of the human person. As such, it is a gift, and it has an importance and a purpose in our spiritual and human lives. Then, he speaks of ‘sexual values.’ Again, an important notion. We see here that he is not trying to say that our sexuality is bad. Then why does he talk about ‘concealing’ this value? Simply because this value has a tendency to loom larger than it should, so much so that it can ‘obscure the value of the person.’ There is a hierarchy of values here, he is saying: the person is of greater value than sexual values. Through shame we actually protect ourselves as persons, so that we do not become an object of “use”. According to Wojtyla, then, shame is not the result of prudish conditioning by repressive religious teachings, or over-strict authority figures. It is inherent in our nature, and surfaces spontaneously with a message for us. That message is that we are created to be loved and to give love in a manner that always affirms the unique beauty and dignity of the person – both our own person and that of the beloved.

This beautiful insight by Karol Wojtyla shows us something that helps us to moderate our physical appetites, by reminding us that we were created to love and be loved. This is the fulfilment we crave most deeply. But we must love and be loved rightly, with great respect for ourselves as persons and for the unique personhood of our loved one.

1 Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, and was known as Pope John Paul II. His papacy lasted until his death, twenty-five years later.

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October 13: Decisions

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One of the aims of L’Arche is to enable all community members to take part fully without being over-helped at every step of the way; to be able to make decisions – and sometimes to have to stick with those decisions. So if someone opts to spend time in the garden, they don’t just turn up once and expect to be able to do something different the next week. That sort of commitment is part of being human too.

I’m reminded of a story told by someone from L’Arche who briefly worked for another organisation which need not be named. In L’Arche there are discussions about where people go on holiday and with whom, and in the event, everyone seems to enjoy themselves. In this other agency, careworkers chose a destination according to their own preference and the clients’ holiday budget. If a resident hated flying or Spanish food, hard luck, but the carers enjoyed themselves.

James’ words on August 28 bear repeating:

Providing ‘care’ to someone with particular needs enables the individual to live life with more freedom and independence which in turn offers more opportunity for them to care about—and be cared for —by another human being.

Does that sound easy? I remember from many years ago a young man who would refuse to leave the care home where he lived. If staff carried him to the minibus he would cheer up within a few minutes and enjoy the outing or holiday. And he would have been helping plan it all in the preceding weeks. If he stayed at the house, there would have been nothing to do, no-one to play football with. Which course of action promoted his freedom and independence? Which would be said to protect his human rights?

It isn’t always a small and cosy world.

Pray for Wisdom!

MMB.

Mosaic at Broadstairs Baptist Church

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30 April: Prudence VII, Reason.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas says that it is important for prudence that a person be “an apt reasoner” (Summa Theologica 49.5).  We have just said that we must not be thinking forever about what to do, but still, we must think enough.   We know, for example, the exasperation we feel when someone flip-flops from one decision on one side of the problem to the opposite decision on the opposite side with very little rational explanation for the change of mind.

Today, pop psychology has placed a rather inordinate stress on the so called “gut feeling,” as though our gut somehow has access to a truth that the mind and the reason cannot find.  Saint Thomas thinks more highly of our powers of reason than that.  He says that reason is the faculty that researches, weighs and evaluates.  Going off on tangents, or taking quantum leaps isn’t really the way to attain prudence, in his thinking.  Rather, he says,

‘The work of reason is research proceeding from certain things to other things.’ 

Eminently reasonable himself, Thomas would have us take a step by step approach to discovering the most prudent course of action:

  ‘It is proper to the rational creature to be moved through the research of reason to perform any particular action.’  

SJC.

 

 

 

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29 April: Prudence VI, Shrewdness.

 

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In the virtue of prudence shrewdness complements teachability and limits it.  (Summa Theologica  II. II. 49:4) ‘It is a disposition to acquire a right estimate by oneself’, says St. Thomas.  In other words, after you have listened to the advice of those who are older and wiser, the obligation to arrive at a decision about what to do still rests on oneself.  Others cannot and should not decide for us.  The weight of the final decision is still a burden we must carry alone.  One can be running to this or that person forever, unable to come to a decision and rest in it.  Shrewdness knows when one has listened enough and found the answer; shrewdness accepts that the answer in this case might always contain some ambiguity, realises that a certain amount of risk and uncertainty must be borne, but that the issue is now as clear as it will ever be, and the time has come to act.  Saint Thomas will even go so far as to say that in deliberation we may take as much time as needed, but a considered act must be performed swiftly (Summa Theologica  II.II. 47:9).  There comes a time, and we must simply get on with it!

It is important to remember that prudence isn’t about being indefinitely watchful and careful.  Its most important act, for Saint Thomas, is the command.  Prudence answers a question: “What is the best course of action in this situation?”  When it discovers this answer, it commands, “Do it.”  Prudence is a “directive knowledge”, for Saint Thomas.

SJC

Carving, Chichester Cathedral. MMB

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