Gospel Reflections by Father Gerry Pierse, C.Ss.R.

B - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 24, 2003
Jos 24:1-2, 15-18 Eph 5:21-32 Jn 6:60-69


        Today's Gospel story is well summed up in Darryl Ducote's lyric:
                Look beyond the bread you eat: see your savior and your Lord,
                Look beyond the cup you drink; see his love poured out as blood.
                This man speaks harshly; Who can listen to his word?
                We shall no longer follow him….
                You my disciples will you also leave? Lord to whom can we go?"

        There is a great tendency to resist the call of Jesus to be with him and to follow him: to be like him as bread; to be called, blessed, broken and given for others. It is so easy to opt out of the race or to settle for a halfway house along the way.

        In his recent book FURTHER ALONG THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED, Dr. M. Scott Peck describes four stages of spiritual growth. I would paraphrase him by calling the stages 1) the self-centered, 2) the religious, 3) the searcher and 4) the spiritual.

        According to him about 20% of the population are in Stage 1. These people have no sense of the spiritual, are focused only on themselves. They can pretend to be loving but all of their relationships are self-serving and manipulative. These people are antisocial; society exists only for what they can get out of it. Being unprincipled they can also be chaotic and deceitful. They can be creative in getting out of the problems they are ever getting themselves into. Some of them can actually be quite disciplined when it suits them, and even work in the apparent service of others. They may rise to positions of power and prestige. They may even become presidents or preachers! If these people come in touch with the emptiness inside themselves they may find life too painful to live and end it, or they may cover their pain by drugs or some other means or they may progress quite dramatically to Stage 2.

        The people in Stage 2 are labeled as "formal/institutional." They need an institution for their governance. For some this institution could be a prison. Dr. Peck mentions that in his psychiatric practice in prisons it was not unusual to have a prisoner who was a model and a leader inside. When paroled he was back to crime in a short time and then back again in prison. The military and big business can also give an ambiance that is structured and organized and many people feel comfortable working within the limits that are set by these institutions. The majority of churchgoers would fall into the Stage 2 category to a lesser or greater degree. Some use church and its structures as an optional extra, others take it very seriously - in a helpful or non helpful way. They can vary from those who get upset when some changes are made in rituals and liturgy to those who become fundamentalist and lock themselves into little boxes where, according to them, all truth is held.

        One thing that characterizes Stage 2 people is that their vision of God is almost always a "God out there." They have very little understanding of the immanent God, the God whose temple each of us is and who is met in silence. Their image of God is often masculine and punitive. While God, at times, may be benevolent, he can quickly intervene and punish us even for offenses of which we may not be conscious.

        The Stage 3 people are those who begin to question the box that the organization has put them into, or to which they themselves have clung for some kind of security. They become individualists who are searching for truth and not hemmed in by past structures. They can be very socially involved and committed to action for the poor rather that to mere do-good talk. If they seek deeply enough and widely enough they will find what they are looking for. As they get glimpses of the truth they will find that it strangely resembles the primitive myths and superstitions that their parents or grandparents in Stage 2 believed in. At this point they are beginning to convert to the 4th or spiritual stage.

        People in this stage have a greater appreciation of mystery. They can see a kind of cohesion behind the surface of things; they are at ease with paradox and are not upset by truths that for others seem to be contradictory. Where people in Stage 2 need to have things cut-and-dry, they are not put off by open endings. Seeing the connection between things and people and a world beyond, mystics move towards unity and community.

        Dr. Peck points out that these phenomena or stages can be found in all countries, cultures and religions. They can also be found inside ourselves. While we may be predominantly in one stage, we may temporarily advance or regress to another stage. The mature person will be aware of the potential criminal and the potential mystic that is within all of us at all times.

        He explains these stages further as a kind of fixation at different levels of human development. During the first six years the child tends to be self centered and manipulative. It then moves on to a stage where it accepts a lot of institutionalization. It is filled up with the wisdom of elders and accepts the structures that they propose. Moving into adolescence young people will question the beliefs and the authority that has been imposed on them. Flexing their muscles as they move toward adulthood, adolescents will reject parental and church authority and begin to defy their parents and resist practices like going to church. If this stage is negotiated satisfactorily the person will move on from being an individualist to a new acceptance of society and responsibility.

        I have taken time to summarize these theories because they make a lot of sense for me and help to explain some phenomena I have experienced in my own life and in the lives of those with whom I minister. The people with which I deal are mostly married people and professional religious people: priests, brothers and sisters. Amongst the married, the problem encountered is the difficulty of establishing real communication with one another and of holding a lasting exclusive relationship. The noticeable phenomenon amongst religious people is that where you have a group that has strict structures, an exclusive garb and an ordered way of life, many will be attracted to the group and many will persevere in it. But the groups that work to set the inner person free and do not impose strict dress and structure do not attract and keep their members.

        I think that the problem has to do with negotiating Stage 3, the questioning /critical/ fighting-back adolescence stage. Unfortunately, in Philippine culture there is little understanding of what is happening here. To talk back to one's parents or to the authority figure is one of the gravest sins and is dealt with severely by most parents. Few have the insight and wisdom to look on with good humor at the normal development of their child. This means that the child is made to feel guilty about being normal. It is scolded and punished for being normal. He or she is not allowed to individuate; to become a person in his or her own right. It is only when one has established one's own identity that one is capable of choosing to love or not love parents or any body else. If parents either cling or coerce, the young person cannot become an individual, and therefore cannot be capable of responsible commitment and love. There will be no growth from stage 2 to stage 4.

        Such a person may choose marriage to escape from the prison of the home but will inevitably bring prison-like structures into the marital relationship. Such a person may choose religious life because of the protective structure that it provides. If the process of formation challenges one to move to Stage 4 the person may be afraid to face that inner freedom and leave, or the person may discover that having found their inner selves they do not need the structured life any more and fly the nest!

        This discussion of fixation in Stage 3 is relevant to the topic of meditation. About ten years ago I began to meditate twice daily and expected that it would bring me to greater peacefulness quickly. However, the contrary was my experience. As I continued to meditate I experience much turmoil in the area of sexuality and relationship for about two years. Looking back on it I think that this is what was happening. I spent my adolescent years in a seminary setting and there were certainly some aspects of that environment that were not conducive to working through adolescent conflicts. What was happening when I created the space in meditation was that I was catching up on that development and sorting out unresolved conflicts of years before.

        Jesus asked the disciples "Will you also leave me?" The work of meditation can be painful and frustrating. There are two possible responses: abandon in anger or persevere in patience. In the latter is the secret of life, here and hereafter.


Taken from Sundays into Silence - A Pathway to Life. Copyright © 1998 by Claretian Publications

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