MISSION FROM WEAKNESS

During the European meeting for the Lay Community of Brother Charles held at MinsteracresIn July 2019, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald presented this reflection from Christian Chessel on being a presence in the Muslim world.

Some reflections of Christian Chessel on a possible way of approaching mission. These reflections would seem to be based on 2 Corinthians 11:29 and 12:10. Christian obviously had in mind mission in the Arab world, but his observations have nevertheless universal relevance.

1. Terminology
One possible way of approaching mission in the Muslim Arab world is to consider it from the point of view of weakness. The immediate reaction may be one of surprise, since this term, 'weakness', is hardly part of the spiritual vocabulary with which we are familiar, whether theological or missionary. In fact an entry on 'weakness' cannot be found in the well-known classical works of reference such as the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité or the Vocabulaire de Théologie Biblique or again the Petit Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, whereas 'fortitude' - one of the cardinal virtues - is found. Moreover the term has a certain negative ring about it, especially in our present world where physical, psychological and intellectual strength and well-being are synonymous with human development and success, whereas the one who is 'weak' is above all to be pitied. Yet this term is widely present in the Bible, and more especially in the Letters of Paul in which asthenia (weakness) appears at least 33 times, almost exclusively in the Great Letters (Romans and Corinthians I and II). It is moreover from meditation on these letters that the present reflection springs.

2. Shared weakness as praise of the God Incarnate.
For Paul 'weakness' has multiple meanings. First of all it refers to all that is consequent upon the human condition, the natural (Rm 6:19) or ontological weakness of the human person which implies a degree of powerlessness because of being flesh (Rm 8:3; Mt 26:41). Onto this 'ontological' weakness is grafted everything inherent in the sinful condition of the human person, with a consequent degree of 'moral' and 'spiritual' weakness. So Paul speaks of a person's faith being not strong enough (Rm 14:1) and of those whose conscience is weak (1 Co 8:7). To this could be added all that refers to 'social' weakness, linked with a modest origin or condition, or even with an evident paucity of intellectual and human resources. It is with this in mind that Paul speaks to the Corinthians asking them: how many of you were wise in the ordinary sense of the word, how many were influential people, or came from noble families? He insisted that it was to shame what is strong that he (God) chose what is weak by human reckoning (1 Co 1:26-27).
3. This last example shows us how the terms 'weak' and 'weakness' are far from having the negative connotation that they can have today. Paul here is in line with the biblical tradition according to which the weak person is above all someone for whom one should show concern and who is to be respected, one who is, as it were, the standard or the measure of the moral and spiritual righteousness of both the individual person and of the community. In point of fact, to oppress the poor is to insult his creator (Proverbs 14:31), as if God could only identify himself with the weakest among his creatures: in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me (Mt 25:40). For Paul this identification of God with the weakest finds its most perfect expression in the language of the Cross, even if this language is folly in the eyes of the world, for God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Co 1:18.25).
* This text is probably to be dated to November 1993. It was published in se comprendre 2010 (10/08), pp.12-14.

4. There is a link here with the Law of the Incarnation and, at its summit, the paschal mystery through which God not only connects with the 'natural' weakness of the human being by sharing it, but also takes up and transfigures all human frailty by using it as a privileged language to reveal to every human person - whether 'strong' or 'weak' - the work of his love: for it is not as if [in Jesus] we had a high priest incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin (He 4:15). So it is not surprising that it is precisely the 'weak', whether the weakness they have to bear is 'social', 'moral' or 'spiritual', who understand this language best. I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children (Lk 10:21).

5. Weakness accepted as a language of dialogue and proclamation
To recognize, welcome and accept one's own weakness would appear to be a necessary, even inevitable, stage (passage) [in the life of a missionary]. This stage involves indubitably certain aspects that are crucifying - whether on the personal level, or on community and ecclesial levels - since in the final analysis it consists in nothing less than following Christ in his paschal mystery, uniting myself with his weakness and at the same time accepting that he be with me in my weakness in its different dimensions.
You have known him [Christ] not as a weakling, but as a power among you? Yes, but he was crucified through weakness, and still he lives now through the power of God. So then, we are weak, as he was, but we shall live with him, through the power of God, for your benefit (2 Co 13:4). One of the most crucifying aspects of this 'passage' (pâque) is perhaps precisely the fact that we are incapable of bringing it about by ourselves; only the Spirit can come to help us in our weakness (Rm 8:26) and teach us, through re-reading our life and our history, through our confrontation with the other and with events, to find little by little the strength to discover the truth of our own being, of our community, of our Church.

6. This is a task of great patience, but of immense value, in which one sows in weakness to rise again in power (1 Co 15:43), but with a power which no longer 'belongs' to us - or at least less and less so - because we know that it comes to us from God who alone can see that we are clothed with the power from on high (Lk 24:49), the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, as Ch-A. Bernard has explained in his article on 'Force' in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité XXXV, page 603:
[The gift of fortitude] always consists in sharing in the power of the Spirit of God replacing the weakness of the sinner… The gift of fortitude becomes a grace of healing; according to the measure of the Lord's gift it brings about the disappearance of the internal weakness which we so painfully experience. The Christian, who shares in the power of the Spirit, can then accomplish great things, being clothed with divine power.

7. To learn in this way of our own lack of power and to become conscious of the radical poverty of 'being before God' can only be an invitation, a pressing call, to create with others relations characterized by a lack of power (des relations de non-puissance). Having learnt how to recognize my own frailty, I can not only accept the frailty of others but see in it an invitation to bear it, to take it up myself, in imitation of Christ. Strengthened by the hope of our own weakness, we have a duty to put up with the qualms of the weak without thinking of ourselves (Rm 15:1). The community is doubtless the first place in which this invitation is both addressed and heard; it is there that we learn first of all to be disciples of Christ carrying each other's troubles (fardeaux) (Ga 6:2); it is in short there - and more widely in the Church - that mission draws it source from the weakness of its members…, weakness accepted, which becomes the first expression of humility, allowing us to experience at first hand that the parts of the body that seem to be the weakest … are the indispensable ones (1 Co 12:22).

8. The consequences of such a personal and community attitude can be immense for Mission.
On the one hand, it encourages us to forego any sort of pretension in encountering others however frail they may be, and to go to meet such persons with no fear on account of their physical, moral or spiritual weaknesses. It thus impels us to change the way we see others, making no attempt to impose on them, not only because of the realization that the use of any power other than that of the Spirit is vain, but also because of coming to understand that the weakness is in fact calling more clearly for a loving response. On the other hand, but for the same reason, this attitude invites us not to fear the encounter with others - or with events - however powerful they may be, but to meet them in the strength of weakness, thus relying solely on God. As for me, brothers, when I came to you, it was not with any show of oratory or philosophy, but simply to tell you what God had guaranteed [TOB to announce to you the mystery of God]. During my stay with you, the only knowledge I claimed to have was about Jesus, and only about him as the crucified Christ. Far from relying on any power of my own, I came among you in great 'fear and trembling' and in my speeches and the sermons that I gave, there were none of the arguments that belong to philosophy; only a demonstration of the power of the Spirit. And I did this so that your faith should not depend on human philosophy but on the power of God (1 Co 2:1-5).

9. Elected weakness as the language of discreta caritas
It is true that the attitude of weakness can meet with a radical lack of understanding. Paul experienced this himself in relation to the community [of Christians] in Corinth: these claimed, with regard to Paul, that he writes powerful and strongly-worded letters but when he is with you you see only half a man and no preacher at all (2 Co 10:10).This leads Paul to say: I hope you are ashamed of us for being weak with you instead (2 Co 11:21). Here we can grasp that weakness is not per se a virtue, but is rather the expression of a fundamental reality of our being which has continually to be taken up, given form and shape by faith, hope and love in order to be conformed to the weakness of Christ, to the humanity of Christ. It needs therefore to be treated with discernment if it is likewise to become a sign of contradiction and a source of discernment for the world, an expression of the strength of the charity of Christ, for we were still helpless when…Christ died for sinful men (Rm 5:6). In short, to be appropriate, and to be seen to be appropriate, with the attitude of humility it implies, the weakness of the Apostle must imitate that of Christ, being rooted in the strength of the paschal mystery and in the power of the Spirit. Far from being an attitude of passivity and resignation, it requires much courage and it encourages commitment for justice and truth while denouncing the illusory seduction of strength and power.

10. Fr Samir Khalil Samir [s.j.], in an article published in Proche-Orient Chrétien (1992 Vol.42 page 94), has expressed this idea in a very accurate way within the Arabo-Islamic context in which he has lived his own faith:

I believe that in a society deeply influenced by Islam, as for example Egyptian society, the attitude of humility and service cannot be understood in accordance with the spirit of the Gospel, unless I have first given proof that I am interiorly strong. This means that I am not afraid to speak the truth, without any partiality, to denounce social injustices, contempt for the poor and for foreigners, anti-Semitism, anti-colonialism and all those attitudes that are currently accepted without any criticism.
Otherwise there is a strong risk of my being seen as someone who keeps silent and is humble, not because he is not given to pride (an attitude admired by the Qur'an when it speaks of Christian monks), but because he is afraid, or because he is not free to behave in another way. In both these cases I would draw scorn on myself.
For this reason, in order to avoid all ambiguity, it is necessary to show clearly that true strength lies in magnanimity which enables one to desist from the use of power and force. It is this interior nobility that makes it possible, in daily life, to forego recourse to one's power, to accept to be 'like everyone else', even if I am in a 'higher' social situation, to be weak with the weak, to become weak.

Only at this price can elected weakness become an evangelical attitude, a missionary attitude which proves to be even more fruitful since, though I am not a slave of anyone (TOB libre à l'égard de tous), each one of us is invited to become the slave of everyone so as to win as many as I could (TOB pour en gagner le plus grand nombre) (1 Co 9:19).
11. In this way elected weakness becomes one of the most beautiful languages in which to speak of the discrete caritas of God towards human beings, at one and the same time very discerning charity, but also the discreet charity of one who has willed to share the weakness of our human condition in everything except sin [He 4:15]. In this way it [elected weakness] because a spirituality of empty hands in which it is understood that everything, even our weaknesses, can become divine gift and grace, a manifestation of the power of God's love which, alone, can change human weakness into spiritual strength. My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness (2 Co 12:9).