Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


November 17, 2003

The Gospels point out that, before his conversion, Zacchaeus was a short man, someone lacking in height, but that, after his conversion, the tall man gave back what the small man had stolen. Meeting Jesus, it seems, made Zacchaeus grow bigger in stature.

That's what goodness does to us – it makes us grow taller. A friend shares this story: He has a neighbour who drops round to chat. The neighbour is a good man from a wonderful family. But, like the rest of us, he has his weaknesses; in his case, gossip and occasional pettiness.

One day, as he was sitting with my friend, he made a racist remark. My friend, instead of accusing him of being a racist, called him instead to his own essential goodness: "That comment surprises me," he said, "coming from you. I've always considered you and your family big-hearted people, with class, never petty. I've always envied your family for its goodness and understanding. That remark simply doesn't sound like you."

The man's reaction was instant, positive. Immediately he apologized: "You're right. I don't know why I sometimes say stupid things like that!" Like Zacchaeus the taller man gave back what the smaller man had taken.

It's interesting to note that the word "Gospel" means "good news", not "good advice." The Gospels are not so much a spiritual and moral theology book that tell us what we should be doing, but are more an account of what God has already done for us, is still doing for us, and the wonderful dignity that this bestows on us. Of course the idea is that since we are gifted in this way our actions should reflect that dignity rather than what's more petty inside us. Morality is not a command, it's an invitation; not a threat, but a reminder of who we truly are. We become taller and less petty when we remember what kind of family we ultimately come from.

In essence, we all have two souls, two hearts and two minds. Inside of each of us there's a soul, heart and mind that's petty, that's been hurt, that wants vengeance, that's frightened of what's different, that's prone to gossip, that perennially feels cheated.

Seen in a certain light, all of us are as small in stature as the pre-converted Zacchaeus. But there's also a tall, big-hearted person inside each of us, someone who wants to embrace the whole world, beyond personal hurt, selfishness, race, creed and politics.

We are always both, grand and petty. The world isn't divided up between big-hearted and small-minded people. Rather our days are divided up between moments when we are big-hearted, generous, hospitable, unafraid, wanting to embrace everyone and those moments when we are petty, over-aware of the unfairness of life, frightened, and seeking only to protect ourselves..

But we are most truly ourselves when what's tall in us takes over and gives back to the world what the short, petty person wrongly takes. John of the Cross, the great mystic, made this insight the centrepiece of his theology of healing. For him, this is the way we heal:

We heal not by confronting all of our wounds and selfishness head-on, which would overwhelm us and drown us in discouragement, but by growing to what he calls "our deepest centre." For him, this centre is not first of all some deep place of solitude inside the soul, but rather the furthest place of growth that we can attain, the optimum of our potential. To grow to what our deepest DNA has destined us for is what makes us whole, makes us tall – humanly, spiritually, and morally.

Thus, if John of the Cross were your spiritual director and you went to him with some character deficiency, his first counsel would be: What are you good at? Where in your life and work does God's goodness and beauty most shine through? If you can grow more and more towards that goodness, it will fan into an ever-larger flame that eventually will become a fire that cauterizes your faults. When you walk tall there will be less and less room for what's small and petty to manifest itself.

But to walk tall means to walk within our God-given dignity. Nothing else, gives us as large an identity. That's useful to remember when we challenge each other: Gospel-challenge doesn't shame us with our pettiness, it invites us to what's already best inside us.