I’m struggling with an ethical dilemma at the moment, that, ironically enough, involves an essay on ethics. In January I took my ordination exams, which entailed writing six essays over four days on liturgy, ethics, theology, scripture, church history, and the practice of ministry. I passed five out of the six essays, but I have been asked to rewrite my ethics essay. My essay on what constitutes the good life for the Christian, was, the examiners wrote in their comments, a beautiful exploration of contemplative union with Christ but was lacking in specifically ethical insight. The examiners seemed to want something more philosophical and rational, beginning with a first principle and moving outward from there.
Now I’m faced with a challenge. It would be so easy to write a new essay about the good life for the Christian from the standpoint of virtue ethics, to discuss how an adherence to the principles of justice, mercy, and mutuality shape the Christian’s life. And it’s not as if that argument is devoid merit. The trouble is that no virtue, however laudable, is ultimate. Nor is rationality or philosophy. From the contemplative point of view, which is the only place from which I can speak with any sort of integrity, the pearl of great price is union with God in Christ. All other virtues and blessings that may flow from or to such union are mere reflections of the life that really is life.
The community watched The Trouble with Angels for our movie night on Sunday. At one point the mother superior, played by the inimitable Rosalind Russel, is contemplating expelling Mary, the movie’s spirited heroine. This is her deliberation: “Mary… oh, Mary has a will of iron. To bend but not to break… to yield but not capitulate… to have pride but also humility. This has always been my struggle, Sister.” This has always been my struggle, too, and it is with this essay.
How do I bend, but not break? Part of the trouble is that I find philosophical ethics fundamentally incomplete. These attempts to systematize human life and behavior too often make an idol of rationality and the life of the mind and divorce themselves from lived human experience. As such they also leave out the only thing that makes Christian faith possible or worthwhile: a living relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
Can you imagine telling someone who comes to you struggling with pain that longsuffering is a Christian virtue and they should endure their pain for that reason? Such a response would be beyond cruel. But to offer companionship in the midst of pain, to gaze on that pain with them, to remind them that Christ lives within them, also enduring their pain, even though they may not know or feel that presence–that’s the contemplative response and a much more appropriate pastoral one, too. To paraphrase the rule of our Founder, rationality that does not lead back to prayer is a dishonesty for the Christian.
And yet, I’m aware that there’s plenty of prideful stubbornness masquerading as conviction in my attitude toward this essay. I’m angry that I have to rewrite it. I feel misunderstood and marginalized in a church and an ordination process that often seem more concerned with strategic plans and administrative hoops than in helping to celebrate and clear the way for a living relationship with Christ. I would love to turn in the very same essay that I wrote originally, perhaps with a note at the top that says “here I stand. I cannot do otherwise,” even as I know that such a move would reek (and rightly so) of arrogance.
So, the question remains, how to bend, but not to break? How to allow the fires of obedience (literally, “listening”) to temper the iron will within? How to write an essay that I say yes to with conviction and that also meets the guidelines laid out for me? How to craft a contemplative ethics that speaks to a rational world?
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