Thursday, July 24, 2014

Apathy a Virtue?

Here's a little story from John the Theban, known also to fellow Christians living in the desert as John the Short:
One day Abba Isaac went to a monastery. He saw a brother committing a sin and he condemned him. When he returned to the desert, an angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, "I will not let you enter." But Abba Isaac persisted saying, "What is the matter?" and the angel replied, "God has sent me to ask you where you want to throw the guilty brother whom you have condemned." Immediately he repented and said, "I have sinned, forgive me." Then the angel said, "Get up, God has forgiven you. But from now on, be careful not to judge someone before God has done so." 
If we recognize ourselves in this story, to feel a little pluck at our own consciences, it's because this is hardly an uncommon occurrence. How frequently do we find ourselves in situations where we see something pass before our eyes and immediately pass judgment upon it? Often I find it much easier to see another - a brother Jesuit, a fellow citizen - acting in a way that is contrary to custom and I immediately thrust that person against a rule, or a law, and judge them to be wanting.

Mind you, I'm not advocating some anemic interpretation of the Holy Father's oft-quoted, "Who am I to judge?" line. Too often this has been taken as a warrant to persevere in some "I'm okay, you're okay" mentality, a feel-good response to Rodney King's immortal plea, "Can't we all just get along?"  This story certainly doesn't permit such relativism: in the second line, the narrator acknowledges that this brother was "committing a sin." The story does not deny the reality, or commission of sin. Instead, it forces us to look upon how we respond to sin in the world.

Embedded within this story, I think one can detect an inkling of apathy as a Christian virtue. To be sure, apathy gets a bad rap: the dictionary definition notes it as a "lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern" and offers as synonyms such as lethargy, ennui, and dispassion. Stoic philosophers lauded this as a state of indifference and, truth be told, I think some practitioners of Ignatian Spirituality read indiferencia as though it were a wholly dispassionate stance toward reality. For does not Ignatius counsel in the Spiritual Exercises
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it? (§26)
Is the ideal, then, a sort passivity or aloofness to what passes before us?

Perhaps another way of looking at apathy, at least one more resonant with Christian life, would be to see it not as a "lack of feeling" but as a being so overwhelmed by love that it is hard to be jarred out of it. It's not that one doesn't feel anything but, rather, that one feels God's love so deeply that it's hard to be budged from this position.

In Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, I think, we see just this type of Christian apathy. The Father has two sons who believe their relationship to be governed by economic terms. Especially in our money-conscious culture, the younger son is particularly reprehensible: he wastes money, frittering it away rather than saving it. The older son, by contrast, is adjudged at the least to be sensible: he works hard, puts his time in, and makes a long-term investment in the Father's project.

Yet this parable gives us a glimpse that Jesus' understanding of the Father is quite different from our own. The Father never succumbs to these economically construed relationships. Instead, he loves freely, gratuitously, and prodigally. The Father is so possessed by, so caught up in, a love that is beyond human judgment that (1) he rejoices when his wasteful son returns and (2) goes out to his self-righteous son refuses to come to the party. The Father doesn't play by their rules - he is enflamed by the love of God, by God's generous love, that he is apathetic and unable to be torn away from the love that animates him.

The Father, as a the paragon of apathy, is not bereft of feeling. Quite to the contrary, he is so full of love that he cannot not be swayed from his exuberant demonstration of God's joy and life. Christian apathy has nothing to do with "not caring" and everything to do with loving as God loves and not backing away from it.

Abba Isaac, above, was not summoned to look dispassionately upon a fellow sinner. Nor was he to turn a blind eye. He was, rather, to be an agent of virtuous apathy whose heart and mind were so infused with God's love that loving mercy, rather than judgment, animated his response. Instead of condemning and judging, he was called to charity and service toward his fellow sinner. Likewise Ignatian indifference is not about standing without passion. On the contrary, it is allowing that passion to be channeled by God for God's own greater glory.

Thus Christian loves's challenge to the world: a humanly un-reachable goal of being authentically a-pathetic, "without undergoing change," because one is so caught up in grace that one cannot not love prodigally and act mercifully. I say humanly unreachable because I'm not foreigner to sin and temptation, to failing to live up to this - or any - ideal. Our goal in life is not to be perfect so that God might love us but to love ever more perfectly as God loves us. We are to be in the world what we have received from above, to offer to others what we have accepted, and to grow in Christian apathy enlivened and sustained by God's triune grace. 

1 comment:

Fred Kaffenberger said...

Good post! I am learning that typically that my irritation at another is an indication also of something in my own heart, as suggested by a favorite line of mine from Bernanos.

"She who voluntarily blinds herself to her neighbors, under pretext of charity, often does nothing more than to break a mirror so as not to see herself in it. For the weakness of our nature demands that it should be first of all in others that we discover our own wretchedness. Take care not to let yourself be won over by some foolish goodwill or other which will soften the heart and warp the mind." Bernanos "The Dialogues of the Carmelites," p62-63. Georges Bernanos from The Heroic Face of Innocence