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Christianity and the Threat of Intimacy

April 5, 2016

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For Lent, I wrapped my TV with a purple cloth and placed my Pantocrator icon in front of it. After celebrating the Easter Vigil at Mt. St. Joseph Nursing Home, I drove back to the seminary, unveiled my television, and one of the first things that I watched was a commercial. I don’t remember what product the commercial was advertising, but I do remember one scene specifically. A family was on vacation in some wooded resort with a big beautiful lake. The mother, a woman in her mid-to-late forties, was sitting on a paddleboard, meditating in a yoga-like pose in the middle of this serene lake when her two teenaged sons splashed her and broke her meditation. She didn’t seem to mind too much, and soon the commercial moved to a new situation. 

But the scene of the mother meditating in the middle of the lake struck me. Our culture likes meditation, and it seems to like yoga, too. More and more workshops are being offered on the art of meditation, and it seems that yoga studios are popping up all over in suburban strip malls. It’s cool to meditate; it’s healthy and holistic to practice yoga, our culture tells us.

But what if the woman sitting in a serene position on the paddleboard in the middle of the lake had a rosary or a Bible in her hand? It would never happen, of course, because people would be offended. But why? Why is it culturally acceptable to present an image of a mother doing mediation or yoga early in the morning in the middle of a beautiful lake, but offensive to show a mother praying a rosary of reading Scripture?  

It seems to me that what makes Christianity so threatening to so many people is that it’s so very intimate and personal. What do I mean? I mean that in meditation or yoga, you may focus on your breath, or be aware of your body, or clear your mind, or intentionally enter into the present, but you are never called to enter into relationship with another person. The only person that you are really concerned with is yourself. Christianity, on the other hand, is essentially personal, professing that we believe in One God, Three Persons. And it is with those persons that we have relationship. We are created in God’s image and likeness, male and female he created us. We are made for relationship, both with God and each other. 

But relationships can be scary. If you are old enough to be reading this, chances are that you’ve been hurt in a relationship before. Some of us have been hurt by the people we love most, sometimes our friends, spouses, or even our own parents. Maybe the hurt came from things that loved ones did to us, but much of the time we hurt because of the things they didn’t do for us, like show affection, be present, provide for our needs, tell the truth, or just simply love us. 

For many people, a relationship is a threat because a relationship calls us to give and receive, to share our life with another, but if we’ve been hurt by others in the past, it’s reasonable that we would want to avoid been hurt again. So an impersonal practice like meditation or yoga sounds like a nice alternative. Christian prayer is essentially relational, and since relationships are threatening, they are best to be avoided, according to the wisdom of the day. 

Think for a moment of how very relational Christianity is. Think of how personal it is. Not only do we believe in God, we believe that God has a name, and that he wants to enter into relationship with us. We believe that on account of the sin of our first parents, we have been separated from God, but that God wants to enter into relationship with us, and that that reconciliation comes through his son Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. 

We believe that Jesus had a mom named Mary and a step-dad named Joseph. He had an aunt named Elizabeth, an uncle named Zechariah, and a cousin named John. More relationships, more specificity – nothing vague. We believe that Jesus had friends like Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Peter, Veronica, Simon, and John. We know that Jesus encountered men like Pilate and Herod and that they handed him over to death.  More people, more names. And we believe that Jesus first appeared to his friend Mary Magdalene, the one from whom he drove out seven demons. It’s all relational – real people, with real names, with real personal histories. There is nothing vague, abstract, or formalistic about Christianity. After all, it is, at its very core, the most Incarnational of faiths. 

On Easter Sunday one of my former teens from my first parish youth group, who is currently a Hollywood actor, posted a picture on Instagram. The image was of St. Francis of Assisi with arms in orans position under a big old wooden cross. So far, so good.  But here was her caption: “Happy Easter Everyone! No matter what your faith tradition is, if your (sic.) spiritual or otherwise, my prayer for all of us is that we work everyday to make this world a better place. Be the light in people’s lives. Be the walking definition of love. Be you.” I didn’t double tap the picture.

Like the commercial with the meditating woman, my young friend’s spiritual message is incredibly vague and impersonal. “If you are spiritual or otherwise”, what does that even mean? And who doesn’t want the world to be a better place? But again, I think this sort of impersonal, non-specific, un-relational spirituality ultimately comes from a place of woundedness. If you’ve been hurt before, it’s better to stick with a spiritual practice that won’t hurt you, a practice that won’t call you into relationship, a practice that will just let you be you without getting crushed. Keep your walls up, you be you, be aware of your breath, and protect your heart.  

There is no religion quite like Christianity. We believe that God the Father sent us his only Son, like us in all things but sin, in order to suffer, die, and rise from the dead to save us from sin, which is to save us from ourselves, by bringing us back into relationship with Him. Are relationships scary? Sure, they can be, especially if you’ve been hurt before by people who were supposed to love you, or by people who do love you, but not perfectly. But look at the person of Jesus Christ. He knows all about being betrayed, denied, mocked, scorned, abused, and abandoned. How did he treat the one who denied him three times after his Resurrection? He forgave him. How did he treat St. Paul when he met him on the road to Damascus? He transformed him. And so how is it that the Risen Lord wants to be in relationship with us? In the same way that he was in relationship with all his friends that he loved in the Gospels. He’s not a threat. He didn’t rise to hurt us. He didn’t rise to take revenge. He rose to recreate us, to heal us, to enter into relationship with us, to restore our relationship with the Father. And he does all this through his very person, and it’s that same person we encounter every time we celebrate the sacraments and pray with the Word.

I didn’t write this essay to bash meditation or yoga. I’m sure that meditation helps a lot of people calm down and relieve stress, and I know some killer yoga positions that really stretch the body and make for a good workout. What I am saying is that there is a major difference between meditation (or yoga) and Christian prayer. The former practices are not relational nor are they personal. They do not require relationship. But Christian prayer is essentially personal. It’s all about relationship. The Other in the relationship is God himself, and as Creator of the universe and Savior of the world, he can never be against us. And although there surely are privileged places to encounter him, he’s easily accessible from a paddleboard in the middle of a lake, in case you were wondering.

 

Photo Credit: Juni

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