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On Bowing and Raising our Heads

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... we do not like to admit weakness, finitude, dependence, and interdependence. Thus all of us have to grow and mature to a place where we are no longer nave and arrogant enough to believe that we do not need God's blessing.

Father Ron
Rolheiser

At end of every Roman Catholic liturgy, there is an invitation given to the people to receive a blessing. That invitation is worded this way: Bow your heads and pray for God's blessing. The idea behind that, obviously, is that a blessing can only truly be received in reverence, in humility, with head bowed, with pride and arrogance subjugated and silent.

A bowed head is a sign of humility and is understood, almost universally, as our proper spiritual posture. Spiritual writers have rarely questioned or felt the need to nuance the notion that spiritual health means a head bowed in humility. But is it really that simple?

Admittedly there is a lot of wisdom in that. A head bowed in reverence is a sign of humility. Moreover pride heads the list of deadly sins. Human pride is congenital, deep, and impossible to uproot. It can be redeemed and it can be crushed, but it always remains in us, necessarily so. There is no health without pride, but pride can also derail health. There is something inside of human nature, inherent in our very individuality and freedom, which does not like to bend the knee before what is higher and superior. We guard our pride fiercely and it is no accident that the archetypal image of resistance to God is expressed in Lucifer's inflexible, pride-anchored statement: I will not serve!

Moreover we do not like to admit weakness, finitude, dependence, and interdependence. Thus all of us have to grow and mature to a place where we are no longer nave and arrogant enough to believe that we do not need God's blessing. All spirituality is predicated on humility. Maturity, human and spiritual, is most evident in someone whom you see on his or her knees praying.

But, while pride can be bad, sometimes pride and arrogance are not the problem. Rather our struggle is with a wounded and broken spirit that no longer knows how to stand upright. It is one thing to be young, healthy, strong, arrogant, and unaware of how fragile and finite we are (and that illusion can survive and stay with us into old age); but it is quite another thing to have one's heart broken, one's spirit crushed, and one's pride taken away. When that happens, and it happens to all of us if we are half-sensitive and live long enough, wounded pride does some very negative things in us, it cripples us so that we can no longer truly get off our knees, stand upright, raise our heads, and receive love and blessing.

I remember as a child, growing up on a farm, watching something that was then called "breaking a horse". The men would catch a young colt which had until then run completely free and they would, through a rather brutal process, force the young colt to submit to halter, saddle, and human commands. When the process was finished, the colt was now compliant to human commands. But the process of breaking the horse's freedom and spirit was far from gentle, and thus yielded a mixed result. The horse was now compliant, but part of its spirit was broken.

That's an apt image for the journey, both human and spiritual. Life, in ways that are far from gentle, eventually breaks our spirit, for good and for bad, and we end up humble, but we also end up somewhat wounded and unable to (metaphorically) stand upright. Conscripted humility has a double effect: On the one hand, we find that we more-naturally genuflect before what is higher; but, on the other hand, because the pain of our brokenness, as is so often the case with pain, we focus more upon ourselves than on others and we end up handicapped. Bruised and fragile, we are unable to properly give and receive and are stuttering and reticent in sharing the goodness and depth of our own persons.

Spirituality and religion have, for the most part, been too one-sided on this. They have perennially been vigilant about pride and arrogance (and, admittedly, these are real and are forever the deadly sins). But spirituality and religion have been too slow to lift up the fallen. We all know the dictum that the task of spirituality is to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted. Historically, religion and spirituality, while not always being very successful with the former, have been too-negligent of the latter.

Pride and arrogance are the deadliest of all vices. However wounded pride and a broken spirit can equally derail us.

So, perhaps when the church blesses its congregation at the end of a liturgy, it might, instead of saying: Bow your heads and pray for God's blessing, say instead: Those of you who think you are not in need of this blessing: Please bow your heads and pray for God's blessing. Meanwhile those of you who feel beaten, broken, and unworthy of this blessing: Raise your heads to receive a love and gift that you have long despaired of ever again receiving.

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.

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