By Mary Marrocco | Catholic News Service
How difficult it is to get out of the center of the universe. And how painful to find our way there.
It’s a human dilemma. We tend to see ourselves as the center of everything. Even when we try to put ourselves and our egos second or third, we quickly find ourselves back at the center, trying to rearrange everything around us. We don’t do the good we want to do (Romans 7:15) and end up stuck and baffled.
We might put this common, perplexing human problem under the heading of “addiction.” Late psychiatrist and theologian Gerald May describes addiction as whatever we put in the place of God and worship in his stead.
In our addicted state, everything we do is designed to get us what we crave; all other reality is manipulated to this end. We aren’t likely to see our intentions clearly, being masters at deceiving ourselves about our true motives and methods. That’s part of the human dilemma too, wrapped up as we are by the deceiver and unable to extricate ourselves.
For Heather, for example, controlling food is her addiction. Fooling others, manipulating her body’s appetites, where she goes and when and with whom, how she sleeps, what she wears, whom she talks to, what she says — all are designed to get her the control she craves.
Even if she spent all day every day feeding the poor or doing vaccine research, behind the projected image, her focus would always be herself and her desire. Inside, she is trapped. The lonely, miserable center of the universe.
God alone can be worshipped without leading us into this trap; but when we are led further and further away and caught more and more in the trap, what can help us?
And yet, that bent desire to be the center of the universe, and the control and manipulation we design to get us there, echo our real status as beings created in the image and likeness of God. We are, by design, godlike.
In that sense Heather is right: We belong at the center of creation. God made it so. It is God who desires to give us that place and have us receive and accept it from him, in humility and obedience — listening to his voice, clinging to him; this is life and blessing (see Deuteronomy 30:20).
Trouble is, humility, listening and obedience do not now come easily to humans. We are susceptible to all sorts of pulls, pushes and enticements that entangle us and keep us controlling, controlled and miserable. Or we might say, addicted.
These days of pandemic, anxiety and uncertainty, such afflictions have seemingly increased exponentially; but they are not new. Back in the fourth century, St. Athanasius described this human predicament and the lengths to which God has gone (throughout history) to protect and uphold his beloved human creation.
Humans were given three ways to discover God, Athanasius explains: through studying creation, listening to holy people and the law — that is, humility, listening, obedience. And even these were not enough. People, burdened and bowed down by illusion and deception, forgot how to look up to God.
And so, God came down to where people were looking. He came down in the sensible world humans were immersed in, Athanasius explains. Because humans forgot how to look up, God came down in flesh, in humanness, poverty and vulnerability. He came down into the arms of a woman who “looked down to heaven as she held heaven in her arms” (as Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen put it many centuries later).
The Gospel begins by Mary looking down to God, and God looking up to Mary. God’s humility, listening and obedience create the possibility of ours. He shows us how we become like him. And so we can take our natural place at the center of creation, not to dominate it but to love it as God does. To finally become fully human, fully alive.
Heather tasted this freedom when, for a moment, she felt the delight of the heaven she looked down on. She realized the food she really wanted was what she already had, and in her joy she let go of everything else to taste that one thing: the Eucharist. The humblest thing of all.
For a moment, she wasn’t the center of the universe. Nothing changed, but everything changed. Paradoxically, that’s the first step into the center of the universe in the way we are meant to be there, not by self-absorption but by love.
The next steps on Heather’s journey may not be easy. The journey of the Magi, of the shepherds, wasn’t easy. But I doubt they counted the cost, or even noticed it.
They surrendered all joyfully, on their way to look down to the little one who opened up heaven to all. They beheld Christ, vulnerable and poor, in the arms of the woman who knew how to let go of everything so as to bear everything up.
Mary Marrocco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.