A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Words and God’s Word ‘I’

By Fr Tom
Ryan SM

In The Short Course in Human Relations that has guided this series. ‘I’ is listed as the ‘least important word’.

In what sense is that true?

Consider the phrases we have discussed previously: about being sorry, grateful, helpful, giving praise, seeking another’s opinion etc. Importantly, last month we saw how important ‘we’ and relationships are for each of us.

Being a self, an ‘I’, means that each of us can only live and grow together through interaction with others. Each of us born into an ‘us’, a network of belonging. Within a family, society, culture we try to live with and, hopefully, for others.

So, yes, seen from that perspective, ‘I’ can be described as the word that is ‘least important’. However, the truth of that adage is also highlighted by its reverse side: those times when we may try to make ourselves the centre of the universe, if only briefly.

When that happens, the emphasis moves from ‘we’ to ‘me’. That’s the point behind a short Latin phrase used by Martin Luther. He borrowed it from St. Augustine; it captures what is at the core of sin: in se curvatus. Being curved in, turned in on, even, absorbed with, oneself.

There’s no limit of time or space to that tendency. It’s very real in us and around us. We can glimpse traces of it in our society: where attitudes of fairness, justice and the common good can be overtaken by a sense of entitlement.

"At the core of sin: being curved in, turned in on, even, absorbed with, oneself: in se curvatus

At its core, we are talking about the inward struggle described by Paul in his letter to the Romans (Ch. 8:14-25). It is not between the spirit (soul) and the body.

It is much deeper. It’s the struggle between the spiritual and unspiritual self (the true and false self): as open to God and the action of God’s spirit OR as closed to, or resisting God’s presence and action in my life. In that sense, the Gospel axiom is true: to find oneself one must lose oneself.

But what does God have to say about this? Let’s look at the Gospels.

God’s Word: ‘You are precious in my eyes…’

Jesus reminds us that I must ‘love [my] neighbour as myself’. The measure or benchmark against which I treat my ‘neighbour’ is how I myself would like to be treated. In other words, I need to put myself in the other person’s shoes.

In the time of Jesus, individuals were seen more as part of a group: whether it be as members of families, clans or tribes, or, like St Paul, as citizens of the Empire. That context helps explain Jesus’ question: ‘who do people say that I am?’

At the same time, think how often Jesus notices the individual. He worked one-to-one. He gives this person his attention—the woman who touched his garment; the rich young man who received Jesus’ steady gaze of love.

Consider the widow in the Temple (Mk. 12;42-44). Amongst the crowd in the Temple, Jesus notices her. More than that. He recognises in her the workings of divine grace—someone who has no standing in her community.

In giving her ‘mite’, this widow was giving all ‘she had to live on’. It doesn’t appear to be much; but Jesus recognised that it was her ‘everything’. She is presented as a model of discipleship: she strives to do her best with what she has.

Importantly, Jesus recognises the person. In healing and forgiving sins, he treated others as individuals. Even to the point that, with the curing of the leper in Mark, Jesus was prepared to stand on the ‘outer’ with him – to have no contact with the community and his own family. He is prepared to share this one individual’s shame and disgrace.

Again, with Jesus and the early Christian community, what mattered was the personal decision to be converted. Each person had to be ‘born again’—in a commitment to Christ, to become part of the community of believers, the Church.

Underlying this we glimpse how precious each person is in God’s eyes. Further, the slightest glimmer of divine grace at work can be very powerful. Think of the promise of paradise to the dying and repentant thief beside Jesus on Calvary…

Again, what matters in the eyes of the divine King? ‘When you did it (or did not do it) to one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did it to me’.

In a sense, then, we could well say: ‘yes, God does take it personally’.

‘I’ (the individual) is the focus of God’s love to the point of a willingness to ‘lay down one’s life for one’s friend’.

Next month: we end the series by pondering times ‘when we are lost for words’.

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