June 17, 2017

Praise of receptivity

By Alice von Hildebrand *
Mary holding Jesus. Credit: Kamira via Shutterstock.
Mary holding Jesus. Credit: Kamira via Shutterstock.

When I entered grammar school aged five, one of the great names that I was soon acquainted with were Plato and Aristotle. Clearly both of them conquered time, and are acknowledged to be two of the greatest minds that the human race has produced. Yet, we must acknowledge that talented as they were they were not protected from error. The human mind is great and noble, clearly capable of finding truths; skepticism refutes its own arguments because if they were valid, it would prove that the human mind is capable of reasoning flawlessly. Our task is to acknowledge its capacity to reach truth, while warning us that we should always remain aware of its limits and imperfections. Not only are there truths inaccessible to the human mind such as supernatural truths which need to be revealed (i.e. that God is a Trinity) but also in the domain accessible to us we should never forget that self-assurance, pride, intellectual “arrogance” can lead us into error. 

Socrates also reminds us that much as we know or believe to know, what we do not know is infinitely larger. This is why this noble and great thinker knew that “he knew not.” When a truth is clearly perceived, the response should be gratitude; indeed the human mind should be grateful that it has been given the capacity of reaching certainty. Alas, many a thinker instead of giving this uplifting response, is often tempted to “inflate” itself by the idea that, with time, he will know all things. This was the arrogant claim of Feuerbach, a German thinker of the 19 century, that led him to the conviction that man, having reached maturity, and liberated himself from the diapers in which the dark mediaeval mind had imprisoned itself in is now legitimately entitled to call himself god. But if this were true, it is surprising indeed that this god feels the need to proclaim it – to be god should be sufficient, to do so sounds as if he needed to reassure himself! 

This leads me back to Aristotle, a gift of Greece to humanity. Yet this great mind made some serious errors which have been inherited by his disciples, rightly impressed by his genius. He tells us that the human male is superior to the human female – a prejudice gleefully endorsed by the machismo attitude – because he is active and she is only passive. Activity being clearly superior to passivity, this claim has been inherited by his disciples and admirers and has led to the masculine superiority complex.

When God created male and female, He in no way created one superior to the other: they were clearly complementary, enriching one another. The fullness of the human person is to be found in both of them together. Yet it is worth remarking that whereas Adam’s body was made from the slime of the earth, the one of Eve was taken from a human person – a fact which gives the female body a special dignity. Who would not prefer to have a body made from a human person, and not from the slime of the earth? 

What was Aristotle’s serious mistake? He failed to distinguish between two very different things because they are both opposed to a third – namely activity. Both receptivity and passivity are opposed to activity, but, whereas passivity is “to be subject to” being “defenseless,” receptivity is to be opened to fecundation. Indeed, what is there that man has not received, and receptivity is therefore deeply linked to gratitude. In one case, the one being acted upon is “defenseless.” Passivity is a sign of inferiority. 

The piece of wood used by a carpenter to make a table has nothing to say in the matter. It is the slave of the carpenter who does with it what he pleases. Alas, human beings can also abuse of other human beings by brutally forcing them to yield to their strength. An illustration of this is “rape,” in contrast to the joyful donation of a wife to her husband. Man being a creature is essentially receptive. The most perfect of all human beings is the Holy Virgin, and the grade of her holiness is expressed in her words: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to Thy word.” 

This leads me to a topic of capital importance in metaphysics: the abyss separating passivity from receptivity, a truth powerfully expressed in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, that makes this gloriously evident. Mary, a Jewish girl, whose heart from its conception was God centered, is greeted by an Angel, a being metaphysically superior to human beings, as being “full of grace.” The humble virgin is surprised by this greeting. Are angels not metaphysically superior to human persons? She is a virgin and yet informed that she will be fecundated by God, and be given the privilege of carrying the Savior in her womb. Her response should be the object of our daily meditation: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” First, she joyfully acknowledge that she is God’s handmaid; she knows that to be God’s servant is a glorious title of honor and adds: "be it done to me according to thy word.” The glory of any creature is to pray: “be it done to me.” She joyfully accepted to be receptive, and this very receptivity makes her to be the Queen of Angels. 

Not activity, but receptivity gives us a golden key to holiness. It combines humility, an awareness that one is poverty, for we are weak and miserable, accompanied by faith: with God’s grace, “I shall scale mountains.” This deep truth, sheds light on Saul’s conversion on his way to Damascus which transformed a rapacious lion into a lamb. He was going to Damascus with a murderous mission to bring back Christians to Jerusalem to have them put to their death; he is active. He became “receptive” to God’s grace and became Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles, from murderous activity to radiant receptivity. He reflected the words of the young Samuel in the temple: “Speak, o Lord, Thy servant listens.” Living in a world where activity is acclaimed and receptivity easily confused with passivity, this passage of the New Testament should be a clarion call to reexamine our lives, and ask ourselves whether we have not forgotten to joyfully declare ourselves to be servants of the Lord, and daily repeat the word “be it done to me according to thy word.”    

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

Comments

Follow us:

Check out Catholic News Agency Polls on LockerDome on LockerDome