The Paradox of Power
By Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). These are the familiar opening words of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount—his inaugural address. At the very beginning of his teaching, Jesus gives us a revolutionary understanding of how change happens.

In God's reign, the "poor in spirit"—those who have been excluded, rejected, overlooked and deemed useless—in fact have a big advantage. They have a "privileged seeing" over the rest of us.

The poor in spirit are those who have been defeated somehow and who then rediscover themselves in a new place of utter security and freedom. They no longer need or believe in the old power or the old identity and often appear simple and naive to those of us still playing the game. In our competitive eyes they are poor and powerless. In Jesus' eyes they are "blessed" and "happy."

Beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures and continuing through the remainder of the Bible, we are taken on a journey into powerlessness. Over and over, biblical revelation is undercutting what we call power and relocating it. It is one of the most difficult messages God has to deliver.

The word of God is seeking to stop the cycle of violence that has plagued human history and to unlock it from within. Problems cannot be solved by changing things from the top down or the outside in. Instead, the Bible gradually reveals what I would call "relational" or spiritual power: transforming things from the bottom up and the inside out.

Slow But Effective

Spiritual power is the ability to influence others through one's very being, through who one is in God, through the transformative power of truth and love. It moves from God's very being to people who have let God love them, and from these people who have been loved by God to everything they touch. Yes, it is slow but it is ultimately effective.

Only vulnerable people can keep growing and converting. They allow events to influence them. It is always the vulnerable and powerless ones that God can risk sharing power with because they alone know how to handle power. All the rest of us will normally abuse it.

Who does God choose to show God's self to? An enslaved people rather than a dominant power—the Israelites as opposed to the Egyptians or the Babylonians. They gradually learn that they are not alone, that Someone else is in control. And so, they can let go of control!

The theme continues with barren women (Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Elizabeth), neglected sons (Isaac and David), rejected prophets (all of them) and in the daily ministry of Jesus with the lepers, blind, lame and poor (who respond to him, while the powerful fight him and finally kill him).

Jesus As Model

Spiritual power reaches its fullness in Jesus. He never forces God's will but invites and awaits transformation. Even after he models the way of powerlessness to his apostles, they argue about who is the greatest. He challenges them: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve..." (Matthew 20:25-28).

Through his life and teaching Jesus has forever revealed the nature of true power. He has given us a critique of all systemic power, prestige and possessions that we are still hard-pressed to accept 2,000 years later. Without the experience of true spiritual power, we will never have the security to let go of all of its lesser forms.

RICHARD ROHR, a Franciscan priest from Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. His newest book is Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Listen to a RealAudio excerpt from Father Richard Rohr

(Taken from New Great Themes of Scripture, a 10-part audiocassette series available from St. Anthony Messenger Press, A7090, $49.95.)

Questions for Reflection:

  • Talk about someone from Scripture (other than Jesus) who triumphs while seeming to be powerless.
  • Name a time you felt powerless. How did you cope?

Responses to this month's Questions for Reflection


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The Struggle for Independence
By Judith Dunlap

One of the most awesome and challenging responsibilities of parenting is helping our children accept their limitations as they work towards self-reliance. The struggle for independence begins early.

Remember when your toddler was learning to stand on his own? At some point you had to remove your fingers from his tiny grasp and watch him teeter back and forth. Sometimes he would fall. At other times he might reach back and grab your finger for support. This process of letting go and standing by continues until our children reach adulthood and learn to balance independence with a healthy need for others.

The process isn't always easy, but allowing our children to experience the consequences of missing the bus or forgetting their homework teaches them responsibility. Offering them help in an emergency teaches them trust. They also learn to rely on others to support and supplement their efforts as they work together with family members on projects around the house or in the neighborhood. They learn to rely on God by witnessing our trust in God and by being taught to pray for the support they need. We know we have been successful as parents when our children can stand on their own, knowing they do not stand alone.

We parents learn the same lessons as we struggle with our own powerlessness. When Jesus talks about becoming like a little child (Luke 18:16), one of the things he is referring to is a child's powerlessness. Perhaps he was telling us that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are able to acknowledge their limitedness and realize the source of true power available to them.


For Family Response: Have family members name two things they are good at doing by themselves and two things they need help doing.

Responses to this month's FAMILY CORNER.


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A Knight's Tale
By Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.

What do the following have in common: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Princess Bride, the Nike logo, spiky hairstyles, the World Wrestling Federation, Gone with the Wind, feminism, democracy, the cult of celebrity, Academy Awards fashions, MTV and spectator sports?

Discovering these anachronistic references and more can turn writer-director Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale into a healthy dose of cleverly administered medicinal laughter.

In this semi-spoof action film Heath Ledger plays William Thatcher, one of three squires in service to a French knight who dies on the way to a jousting match. William decides to impersonate him to earn much-needed money. Knights must be of noble blood and have patent proof of their lineage so they can participate in tournaments. William, now Sir Ulrich, bluffs his way in and wins. After, William convinces his friends to continue the scam on the tournament circuit rather than return to England.

Enter, of all people, Geoffrey Chaucer. Wearing nothing, he trudges past the three as they travel along the road to the next tournament. Amazed, they question the man who introduces himself as an author who can write letters of patent for nobles. He tells the men to call him "Jeff," and they later discover he is also a gambler with a talent for shtick. In return for clothing and shoes, Jeff creates the necessary patents for William's phony persona and becomes his hammy herald who warms up the crowds with panache.

A beautiful female blacksmith makes new armor for William and joins the itinerant group. A sultry noblewoman, Jocelyn, sees William from the stands, and they fall in love. William consistently bests Sir Adhemar. William also jousts with an anonymous knight who turns out to be the Black Prince, Edward. He plays a key role in the feel-good resolution of the film's "conflict."

The world jousting championship is held in London. William seeks out his father, now blind, who had placed William in the service of the French knight 12 years before in hopes that William could change his "stars" and make a better life for himself. They reunite just before Adhemar exposes William's humble roots and has him arrested. William is rescued, knighted, gets his lady and all ends well.

A Knight's Tale is a kind of romanticized medieval road movie "lite." It offers words of wisdom and deeds of honor along with sounds and images of medieval Christendom, however "lite" the religious understanding of the characters seems to be. These play out through the lens of today's American popular culture with humor rather than depth. A Knight's Tale does not take itself too seriously. It's a fun watch for most teens and adults that will probably induce a stream of chuckles rather than belly laughs. And sometimes, this is just what the spirit needs.

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By Judy Ball

St. Edith Stein (1891-1942)

The short life and brutal death of Edith Stein offer a poignant lesson in the power of redeeming love in the midst of one of the most hideous chapters in human history.

Gifted, generous, headstrong, passionate, devoted: Only strong, forceful words can describe the young girl, then teenager, university student and scholar growing up in pre-Nazi Germany. These qualities that had served her so well were only strengthened in the next phase of her life as she converted to Catholicism at 31, entered a Carmelite convent at 42 and died in a concentration camp at 51.

The youngest of seven children, young Edith was almost certainly the favorite of her mother, a devout Jew. But Edith was also headstrong, and charted her own course from an early age. She showed limited interest in Judaism. As a teen she announced her intention to give up prayer and leave school. Later, she was one of the few women to obtain a doctorate (in philosophy) from a prestigious German university. During World War I she risked health and safety caring for typhoid victims at a military hospital. She pressed for women's right to vote.

But as hatred swept through Europe, Edith Stein—by then known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—could find no haven. She was rounded up in a sweep of Jewish converts to Catholicism and sent to a detention camp in Holland in August 1942. There she offered what food and comfort she could to distraught children separated from their mothers. One week later she was transported by boxcar to Auschwitz, where she died on August 9, which is now observed as her feast day.

Pope John Paul II canonized Edith Stein in 1998.

Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy

The date of August 9 is rich in meaning for Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy. It is the day Edith Stein died in a Nazi internment camp in 1942; the day of his 1981 ordination as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church (Melkite); the day his youngest daughter was born in 1984 and given the (Latin) name that Edith Stein used in religious life—Teresia Benedicta.

The connection with Edith Stein hardly ends there. At age two, Teresia Benedicta McCarthy, who had been living with her family in suburban Boston, lay in Massachusetts General Hospital close to death. Her liver was irreparably damaged, and doctors had pronounced her case medically hopeless. McCarthy family members and friends prayed to Edith Stein. Two days later, the little girl's physicians reported that she had made a full recovery. By 1997, officials in Rome ruled that Teresia's recovery was in fact a miracle—the miracle that made possible the canonization of Edith Stein.

Celebrating her 17th birthday this month, Teresia Benedicta is a healthy, happy high school senior. And her father, who is acting rector of St. Gregory the Theologian Melkite Catholic Seminary in Brookline, is convinced that she is named after one of the Church's greatest saints.

"In a world drenched in evil," Edith Stein showed that "the ultimate road to truth is the way of Christlike love," Father McCarthy, a veteran peace activist, told Every Day Catholic. Her whole life was about "fidelity to the will of God in the moment." And as she walked to her death in a gas chamber, he noted, "she continued to love as Christ loved all along the way to the final moment. This was an incredible human being!"

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