Point of balance


8 Nov 2022

We need to be at peace with ourselves so as not to endanger the peace of others.

The Irish Nobel Prize poet Seamus Heaney once wrote a poem Weighing In during which he says:

Suffering makes the world go round.
Peace on earth, men of good will,
Holds good only as long as the balance holds.

In 2011, visiting Israeli writer, Amos Oz, declared in Sydney that fanaticism is the most urgent issue of our times. How true that is. Across the globe the balance is not holding in people’s hearts. As Mitch Albom hears from his former teacher, Morrie, in the classic book Tuesdays With Morrie:
‘Have you found someone to share your heart with?’ he asked.
‘Are you giving to your community?’
‘Are you at peace with yourself?’
‘Are you trying to be as human as you can be?’

Peace begins in our own hearts. In his excellent book, Walk to Jerusalem, British Jesuit Gerard W Hughes reminded us of this starting-point when he wrote: ‘Each of us must make our own inner journey . . . The signpost to follow is appreciation of our own worth. It is because we do not value ourselves that we undervalue one another and our world, threatening its extinction in the name of security and defence.’

Fanaticism, and its first cousins extremism and fundamentalism, reveal a serious loss of balance and perspective. From time immemorial they have always bedevilled us and remain at the root of so much strife in our beautiful but troubled world. Shamefully, so much extremism has taken place under the guise of religion, so that many atrocities and barbarisms continue to be perpetrated across the world under the mask of appallingly misguided ‘martyrdom’.

Looking back in history makes us well aware that there is nothing new about this story of religious division. The Crusades divided the Christian and the Arab worlds; the Wars of Religion divided Europe; tension between Hinduism and Islam lie at the heart of the division between India and Pakistan; sectarian convictions divide Iraq itself; religious differences still mark the lines of division in Northern Ireland, and various religious figures around the world go on spreading rancour at a time of intense political tension. When one adds to this grim picture the scandals of child abuse in the Church, it is clear that religion has earned a bad name in the wider community.

Kathleen Norris is a splendid American Protestant writer, a poet in fact, who reminds us that ‘Christianity is at its worst when it becomes defensive. Often, enshrining orthodoxy into words has caused more trouble, more pain, more evil in the world than it was worth.’ (Amazing Grace, p.222) The easy answers of religious fundamentalism ‘are about control more than grace’. (Dakota, p.95)

It is worth recalling that the word ‘belief’ means simply ‘to give one’s heart to’. In recent times, however, the term has been impoverished by taking on the narrow intellectual meaning of a head-over-heart assent. (Amazing Grace, p.62)

To keep proper perspective, however, it is important – in Kathleen Norris’ words again – to view religious belief ‘as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.’  (Amazing Grace, p.66)

That is why she can see all the events of her life, large or small, leading and connecting her to God.

Religious fundamentalists, however, those fanatics and extremists believing they are doing good for God, have lost their sense of balance in life. In wanting to control God, they have taken on a dangerous idolatry. In their self-righteousness God cannot find them.

A few years ago I was acting Rector for a brief time at our Sydney Jesuit school, St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point. One of my delightful duties was to attend a Junior School Assembly where, after a multitude of assemblies over the years, I had a first-time experience.

Will Arnold, a diminutive but courageous Year 3 boy, strode to the front and proceeded to treat us with a splendid tap-dancing performance as part of the assembly program. It must not have been easy to perform in front of his peers, and the highly polished wooden floor of the College Chapel sanctuary did not help matters, but Will was unperturbed. He excelled in his balancing routine.

All of us, of course, are jugglers or balancers in life. Like many balancers, we sometimes fall, but we should remember that, where we stumble, there we find our opportunity. With our feet firmly planted on the ground and our eyes on the stars, all of us are continually striving to balance, and by example, teach others to balance – values and freedom, rights and responsibilities, mind and heart, thinking and feeling.

Where any of these elements are allowed to get out of balance we lose proper perspective and peace is endangered. To have enough is enough. Happiness is ‘enoughness’ as Tony de Mello SJ once wrote.

Those who have experienced the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola encounter the need for balance from the very first Exercise – what we know as ‘The First Principle and Foundation’.

Here is an excerpt from that Exercise in Gerard W Hughes’ God of Surprises: ‘Before the world was made we were chosen to live in God’s presence by praising, reverencing, and serving Him in and through his creation. As everything on the face of the earth exists to help us to do this, we must appreciate and make use of everything that helps, and rid ourselves of anything that is destructive to our living in love in his presence’.

That in a nutshell is Ignatian balance. And in our beautiful world troubled by extremism, fanaticism, and fundamentalism, don’t we need more of it for peace to flourish.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022-23 edition of Madonna magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the quarterly magazine.

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