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October 31, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 142




Pat Marrin Freely chosen reality

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

Today's reading: Romans 9:1-5. I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.

THERE ARE lots of great Doc Powell stories known only to the Dominicans of the Chicago Province. Fr. Ralph Powell, who died in 2002, was a one-person think tank who needed the Dominican Studium in River Forest, Illinois, the way a nuclear reactor needs a containment building.

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As a professor of philosophy, Ralph was in a secure setting equipped to monitor his intellectual fusion (some might say, confusion) and to channel the energy he generated into comprehensible form for the hundreds of students who took his classes on Hegel and other impenetrable thinkers during the mid-1950s through the 1970s. He was little known outside very small academic circles, published little that normal people could read, was seldom let out without a companion and pretty much drove everyone crazy. Yet he functioned as a primary source for a whole generation of Dominicans, and others, who did publish a lot, went far and did a great deal because of his ideas and example.

He once described the study of philosophy as leaning for years against a locked door to some inchoate core of absolute truth, then falling through the doorway into the middle of a big sham. He anticipated recent books promising a "theory of everything," with a manuscript titled "Freely Chosen Reality," described by his editor as a pleasant read, "like having all your teeth pulled and the skin peeled off your head." I have always found the title to be a marvelous and complete philosophy of life, but I never got to the book.

On the silver anniversary of his teaching career, Ralph was feted by a colleague for "spending the past 25 years studying nothing, " a reference to his pursuit of a key Hegelian correlative, as in Being and Nothingness.

Ralph Powell's contribution to my lifelong confusion over both philosophy and theology was a statement he made once that the "strangest passage in the entire New Testament was Romans 9:1-3," which happens to be today's first reading.

I speak the truth in Christ. I do not lie; my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart. For I could wish myself accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kin according to the flesh.

Each time this passage comes around in the lectionary cycles, I puzzle over its strangeness and try to understand why Ralph Powell, who, more than anyone I have ever known, had plumbed the terrors of nothingness, struggled with it.

It seems to say that St. Paul, whose conversion to Christ redefined not just his religious beliefs but his very being, was at some point so staggered by the thought that his fellow Jews might not accept Christ, he was ready to be lost himself if they could be won. Paul's conversion and his subsequent mystical union with the crucified and risen Christ were an encounter with the Source of Life. To surrender this was to accept non-existence, annihilation. Paradoxically, it is also the greatest act of love a person might consider.

What confronted Ralph Powell, I believe, and what moves me so is that, in this surrender, Paul gained access to the selfless heart of God and the core revelation of the gospel. The double kenosis of God, emptying the divine life into Christ, Christ emptying himself into us, we emptying ourselves into one another, this is the center of all Christian doctrine. Paul's grief propelled him beyond the quid pro quo of religion -- virtue for heaven -- to the hidden core of the divine compassion, an awesome ache and longing for our response, without which God ceases to exist. A strange thought indeed.

What would such a love look like in human terms? Self-sacrifice is built into every act of love, but can we comprehend a selflessness so complete that we eject ourselves from the equation altogether? Paul offered to do so, to be lost forever so his beloved brothers and sisters could take his place in Christ. Jesus affirmed this same surrender on the cross, to be lost in an exchange for us.

IN A poem about a painting by Van Gogh, Annie Dillard begins, "I am trying to get at something utterly heartbroken." Life itself, its hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, is the subject of our redemption. Who knows whether any canonized saint is a better icon of Christ than the woman who dies in childbirth, a man who is broken by two jobs in order to send his children to college, the countless silent victims of betrayal, the falsely accused and cursed who live in exile? When was the last time I really wept for another? And if I can recover this capacity for grief that leads to self-emptying, will I break though the sham of religion and fall into the presence of the Living God?

The privilege of loving another more than life itself not only frees us from the burdens of being full -- of ourselves, our virtue, our own agendas and satisfactions, it also takes us to the edge of something utterly heartbroken. It is this place of awareness that blesses us with wisdom, which is to see with God's eyes. Paul saw. Van Gogh had such exquisite eyes. Ralph Powell could see in the dark. I want to see, too.

Dillard concludes her poem:

I love so very much, so very much, the effect
Of yellow leaves against green trunks.
This is not a thing that I have sought,
But it has come across my path and I have seized it.

Pat Marrin's email addres is Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. To preview Celebration, follow this link: Celebration.
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