Monday, April 7, 2014

Strength in weakness; wholeness in brokenness and power in powerlessness

In May 2012, Fr Ron Rolheiser wrote a column entitled The Power of Powerlessness.  Last week, another spiritual writer, Franciscan Richard Rohr, also wrote about power in powerlessness.   I wonder if their spiritual musings had anything to do with their own downward spiritual journeys, causing them to ponder on the irony of how Christianity turns the world’s definition of power and strength upside-down.  Whatever the reasons, I am most grateful  to have read their works as this had been a most physically draining and painful week for me, and I had found myself weakened more than ever as I had to be admitted into the hospital for a biopsy and a throat CT scan.

Both writers had very different approaches in their reflections.  Richard Rohr was very scriptural and used Paul as a vivid example of how he had to learn the hard way that the way of Christ was not one of being on top and leading by way of the world’s expectation of a military leader to oust the Romans who were occupying the land at that time.  He says that Paul encounters instead a “crucified loser”, and this turns Paul’s world and all he stood for upside-down.  From the moment of his encounter with Jesus on that road to Damascus, Paul begins to idealise powerlessness, and in his letters, we are given plenty of his personal examples of how he embraced suffering, persecution and trials for the sake of his Lord.  Furthermore, Paul is so convinced that he is to live as Christ lived, and as a disciple (some may argue that he was not an apostle in the technical sense of the word) he needed to imitate Christ in all ways possible (Phil. 1:19-21). 

Ever the erudite speaker and wordsmith that he is, Fr Rolheiser took an existential approach that even non-Christians could readily relate to.  Comparing four different people in a room – a powerful dictator, a gifted and muscular athlete, a rock-star and a tiny infant – he showed the reality that it was in fact the tiny and helpless baby who yielded the most power and influence of all four.  In its ironically powerless and weak way, this infant touches hearts and can transform a room in ways that the other three would have much trouble with.  He touches a moral core deep within each one of us.  He goes to the extent to say that the baby has the power of exorcism in him, capable of driving out the demons of self-absorption and selfishness in us, which is what Jesus does.

As expected, he then links this to how the incarnation does this to show God’s unfathomable plan of salvation and redemption. 

When we find ourselves in positions of vulnerability and perhaps even physical powerlessness, reflecting on this Christian reality gives one who is in a state of suffering much hope, strength and even a sense of purpose.  Much as we do not like it when we are weak and ill, and think that we can do much more things and live life if we have more energy and are more mentally alert, it is our suffering and weakness taken in the most positive way that becomes our link with God. 

But we fight this with all our might most of the time, don’t we?  That’s the constant struggle of every single person who is serious about being the disciple of Christ.  It’s not much of a problem with those who have not yet known Christ because being on top and yielding power with brute strength has always been the way of the world.  But for the serious disciple of Christ, the constant challenge will always be to find ways to live in ways that counter the call of the ego and the need to be superior and powerful. 

Those of us who have been afflicted with a physical weakness or some medical condition fight a different battle.  Our weapon for battling evil and the false self is given to us in the form of our sufferings and pains.  We can do two things with them – we can either be bitter and hold God (and just about everyone else) responsible for our state of afflictions, or we can surrender them to God in love and faith, and ask that he use our mellowed hearts for the transformation of the world and the salvation of souls.  It’s the ability to hand over our suffering in humility and self-surrender that reveals how much we are willing to be imitators of Christ.  

Only then can we say like St Paul, that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us.


  1. Hi Fr. Luke,

    Recently I visited a friend whose cancer has returned, after over a year in remission. Just when she thought that she might have gotten over the worst, it returned with a vengeance. Her chemo sessions have commenced (again), and she sat there in her living room, looking utterly powerless and bewildered. I couldn't help but imagine, as I chatted with her, that she (and many others in the same situation) must be wondering, "Why me, and why now?"

    In such cases one is tempted to question the meaning of it all. I also imagine, that anyone who has long been a faithful disciple, facing a long and protracted illness (such as yourself) must have at one time or another cried, "Why continue to break me, Lord, when I am already so broken?" If Blessed Mother Theresa herself could experience "the dark night of the soul", what more ordinary people such as ourselves?

    What I cannot imagine, though is what it is like to be in her (and your) shoes as hard as I try. I can only thank God for your continued faithfulness which is an inspiration for us all.

    Fr. Rolheiser's take on an infant is especially insightful. I was there each time, by my wife's side, as she gave birth. I can tell you there is hardly anything so humbling as that. The sight of a new-born baby has the power to strip away all vestiges of self-esteem and reduce one to jelly. No wonder, then, that God chose to enter humanity as a babe, for who but the hardest of heart could be un-moved by such a wonderful thing?

    As always, my prayers continue for you and also for many others who are facing so many difficulties.
    God bless,

  2. Hi Fr Luke - an insightful article indeed ! What a sense of helplessness just trying to figure out the pain you are undergoing at this time. However, just know that there's a lot of people out there reading you, praying for you and cheering you on as you fight this battle. You have shown me how best to respond when suffering and pain comes our way. pauline

  3. So true this statement frLuke "It’s not much of a problem with those who have not yet known Christ because being on top and yielding power with brute strength has always been the way of the world." as on some days, i told our Lord, if only i do not know You!

    Was reading Cardinal Martini - I Believe in Eternal Life and came across this para : 'The temporal space which stands between the ascension and the return of Christ in glory appears thus as an extension of the Pascal mystery to all human ups and downs; in suffering and death, which still characterize our history, the suffering of the cross is made present so that the life of the Risen One may be tasted beforehand by those who accompany Christ in his Paschal exodus. The whole life of the Christian is a pilgrimage of continual death and resurrection, lived with Christ and in Christ in the Spirit, even bearing Christ within ourselves, "our hope of glory" (Col 1:27)

    Praying, frLuke, for God's will be done and His Spirit be with you, all times.


  4. Reading your post yesterday, I was struck by the truth of the following lines.................
    “When we find ourselves in positions of vulnerability and perhaps even physical powerlessness, reflecting on this Christian reality gives one who is in a state of suffering much hope, strength and even a sense of purpose..................................................................................................., it is our suffering and weakness taken in the most positive way that becomes our link with God.”

    Sometimes, suffering opens up new ways of experiencing God and the Paschal Mystery becomes apparent in our daily life – with small deaths and small signs of resurrection. Perhaps, when one is vulnerable and broken both in spirit and in health, one is more open to God’s presence and so is able to confront Him in all honesty – with one’s pains and weaknesses, one’s fears and tears.

    I believe it is when one is able to step onto the path of life and continue on it, embracing the uncertainties and accepting the challenges that Life has in store for one, that one is most “Christ-like” in obedience. Would this then, be the surrender or submission to His will that would be pleasing to Him,................. as one’s suffering ( like you said) has a purpose ?

    In the words of Teresa of Avila, one’s suffering has become “a prayer”...........
    “One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer.”

    God bless you, Fr.


  5. Father Luke, May the grace n the mercifulness of the Lord stays with u n be with u always. +