|| By Larry Lewis, M.M.
This fifth in our series of spirituality columns for 2014, reflecting on events of the liturgical year, focuses on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
In 2003 I was teaching a seminar on spirituality in China as part of a renewal program for priests ordained after the Chinese government allowed seminaries to reopen. There were over 40 priests from more than 20 dioceses. I was apprehensive, wondering if the priests would understand my Chinese and, if they did, how they’d respond.
I hoped to encourage them to reflect on God’s presence in their lives. I told them my spiritual director had repeatedly told me how the Holy Spirit shatters all criteria, all definitions (cultural, familial and even religious) by which we understand ourselves and that guide our lives. The shattering is to open us to our true selves as defined by God’s unconditional love for us.
To engage them in a discussion about how all cultures have values that open or close people to Trinitarian love, I wrote on the blackboard: American Cultural Values, Trinitarian Cultural Values, Chinese Cultural Values.
As we discussed the “Trinitarian Culture,” they shouted out what they thought were values by which Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate: love, openness, sacrifice, caring, selflessness, obedience, mutual respect, trust, hope. For American cultural values that open us, they noted the spirit of volunteering, taking risks, confronting challenges and welcoming immigrants. In listing the obstacles, they had a ball: independence, “time is money,” “dog eat dog,” “looking out for number one.”
For Chinese cultural values that open them to the Trinity, they listed relationship, sharing, familial loyalty, respect for elders. Cultural obstacles included conformity, overemphasis on what others think of them, not going beyond caring for their own family and the all-consuming saving face—not bringing shame on oneself, family, nation or Church. For a Chinese person, “face” is an integral part of personal and social identity. I noted that we base self-worth and a feeling of wellbeing on cultural norms and often unawares turn our backs on God’s invitation to accept His love.
I asked my students to discuss in groups which people in their lives revealed the self-sacrificing, self-emptying love of God. My heart was pierced when the eldest of the priests told us how during the Cultural Revolution his family was dirt poor and had very little to eat. His mother was gravely ill and in an almost miraculous way the family was able to get hold of some vitamin supplements. At this point the priest started swallowing hard to hold back tears. His face was red and his words came haltingly.
His classmates encouraged him to continue. By their cultural standards, this priest had just lost face. He then shared how his mother did not take the vitamins but fed them to his brothers and sisters to keep them healthy as she weakened and eventually died. “She was God’s love,” he said. Our remaining time together was bolstered by this priest’s trust in us and our respect for him.
There was a crucifix on the classroom wall depicting the suffering, exhausted, expired Christ. On the last day of class, I asked the students: “How do you feel when you see the Crucified One?” After a felt silence, one priest said, “a real loss of face.”
There was a second’s worth of transfiguration as together we realized that to follow Christ is to lose face and surrender all we think defines us, acknowledging that the crucified Christ lost face for us, and is a loss of face to all of us Christians. I will always remember our discussion, as one by one the priests started saying how countercultural Christianity is—for all cultures. Together we embraced the Trinitarian love that defeated the cross, overwhelmed and grateful for such a merciful, loving God.[Featured Image: Father Lewis (c.) helped Chinese church leaders like Father Peter Xu and Sister
Father Larry Lewis from Clinton, N.Y., is spiritual director at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. For 20 years he coordinated the Maryknoll Society-sponsored Chinese Formation Education Project, enabling Chinese priests and Sisters to pursue religious studies at U.S. universities.