The limits of “commitment”

One of the most moving parts of the ordination of a priest is when the candidate lies prostrate before the altar and the whole church kneels and sings the litany of the saints. I can still clearly remember that part of my ordination and I also remember that, as I lay there, I prayed, “Lord, if I can’t be a good priest, then don’t let me be a priest at all”. Afterwards – remembering that as soon at the litany finished I knelt before the bishop, who laid hands on me and ordained me – I would think to myself: “It was a bit late for that prayer!” However, later on, I realised that it was, in fact, a good prayer for it acknowledged that I did not know what a good priest was and even if I had known, I didn’t know whether I had it in me to become that person. So, it was a prayer of trust, a prayer confiding myself into the hands of God.

Some fifteen years later, I went on a 30 day retreat and reading my journal of that retreat, I see that, by that time, I thought I did know what was required of a priest – and, moreover, that being so certain of myself, I had edged God out of the picture. I do not think I was any different from most other people in this, for like them, I had come to consider that whatever I thought to be right and good that was also how God regarded them. It did not occur to me that God may have other ways of looking at things and other plans of how to get there. That retreat was for me a turning point, although even now I am still trying to grasp and live out what I saw then.

That attitude of presuming we know what God thinks is often reinforced by the language we use, when we speak of the Christian life. An example of this is the word “commitment”. We are often urged to commit ourselves to the service of God and we also hear married couples being urged to commit themselves to their marriages, but the word “commitment” implies that I already know what I am supposed to do and also how to do it and in such a frame of mind, there is a danger that God will become a bystander, whom we ask to help us attain our end, but does not have any real part in deciding what the journey itself is to be – that having been decided on when I committed myself.

I remember a Benedictine Abbot giving a talk on commitment at the University of Reading, when I was chaplain there. He said that the word “commitment” appeared in our Church vocabulary only very recently. Up to 200 hundred years ago the verb “to commit” was only used when we “committed a sin”, “committed a body to the grave” or “committed a convict to prison” – it only came to be used in our present sense of “dedication” during the French Revolution, when people were urged to commit themselves to the cause, but it was not used with regard to people.

The problem with the word “commitment”, when used with regard to people is that it overlooks the sense “giftedness”, which must be present in all genuine human relationships. Marriage is a good example of this – an example used by the prophets and St Paul to illustrate the relationship between God and us. The heart of a marriage is the couple making an on-going act of faith in each other – they are daring to entrust themselves into the care and love of their partner – and the only way the partners can do justice to this gift is to receive it with thanksgiving and awe that someone loves them and freely entrusts themselves to them. It is an attitude, which seeks to discover what will benefit the beloved, how best to care and serve the beloved. However, should the idea of “commitment” be used here, the emphasis is on the one who commits himself, not on the one who entrusts – thus the order of true love has been reversed.

The same is true of our relationship with God. If I “commit” myself to God, the emphasis is on me and what I am going to do, not on the one who has accorded me the tremendous gift of his love and friendship. I remember, years ago, Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila once saying that the Patron of the Philippines is the Holy Child, “because”, he said, “we know how to receive a child. We get frightened of Jesus, Pantokrator (the Creator) or the mighty Risen Lord – we don’t know how to approach him. But we do know how to receive a child – we know we must hold him to our hearts, we know we must be attentive to his needs, when he wants to be fed or changed or cuddled”. In other words, our attention is all on him and not on ourselves. This manner of God’s coming among us, as a helpless child, shows us how to receive him, with gratitude, wonder and awe. The word “commitment” is thus not really appropriate here.

They say that when a memory of the past remains, there is something there that God wants us to learn from. My memory of lying prostrate before the altar, just minutes before being ordained, has, I believe, something I need to learn again. I need to learn to appreciate once more not the task God has given me, but the gift of himself as my lover, my friend and my partner. This means that I cannot assume I already know what he wants, so my attention must be on him and on what he wants from me – not on me and on what I decide to do for him.

Diary

This is supposed to be the dry season here in Sarawak – or at least the drier season – but almost every afternoon the rain clouds appear and drench us. In some ways that is good, because it cools the air and enables people to sleep better at night, but the rain nearly always arrives at the time when I like to do my grass cutting exercise and it puts a stop to that. My bathroom scales show me that this is not a good thing, so I will have to find some other form of exercise for rainy days.

A friend of mine, who was at one time my Parish Priest, Fr. James Meehan, has recently moved into our retirement home here in Kuching. However, he does not have a television and time hangs a little heavy at times, so I have taken on the task of being his entertainments manager. I download movies and old TV shows so he can watch them on his computer. At the moment he is watching the British comedy “The two Ronnies”, which he seems to enjoy.

I have to go to the dentist on Monday. I had one of my molars extracted about two months ago and I am hoping that the bone will have grown back well enough for me to have an implant on that spot. I am very conscious of the gap when I chew and for some reason it has affected my bite so that I sometimes bite the inside of my mouth when I am chewing my food – which is not a pleasant thing.

God bless,

Terry

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