You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the Holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors.
When we hear that St. Stephen accused the people, the elders and the scribes of being stiff-necked, and then continued to scold and chastise them, we might get an inkling about why they stoned him to death. It definitely was not a way to endear himself to the people of power. He was brutally honest about their behavior, then and in their past, and was giving them a criticism that was not popular or wanted. No wonder they rejected him and his comments and killed him with, among others, the young Saul (St. Paul). We are different from the people, the elders and the scribes in this story ... or are we?
We like to think we're not "stiff-necked"; we like to think we have the flexibility to change and follow the direction of the Holy Spirit. But if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps as honest as St. Stephen, we become more aware that we are like the people who lifted stones against Stephen. Simple changes, sometimes even self-knowledge, can be very difficult for us.
If we reflect honestly, we will see that many of us have our "favorite" seats in classrooms, meeting rooms or dining halls. Though seating was never assigned, we keep coming back to the same seat, day after day. When someone else occupies "our" seat, we feel they have taken our place and we feel a bit odd or out of sorts. Though we are free to sit anywhere, we feel we have lost our chair. This is the same even with any routine we've established; we are being forced to change our perspective of our world a little and this is unsettling.
We need to wonder if we are as free as we think we are when it comes to seating, about our judgment of ourselves and others, or our behavior toward others. Saint Ignatius of Loyola understood we are all creatures of habit who need to work on being free to listen ... really to listen to God's Holy Spirit in our lives. Ignatius knew that only by seeking and developing, maybe even finding real indifference to things and opinions, can we truly read and hear and understand and experience God speaking in the world.
If we are not free, we listen only for the ways the Spirit agrees with us or our opinions. If we are not free, we hear only what strengthens our own preconceived ideas about nearly everything. If we are not free, we are very selective in what we hear or perceive, or even to what ideas we expose ourselves. If we are not free, our necks stiffen and we reject anything different from what we might find comfortable.
The first step to becoming more free: flexing our stiff-necks to become aware that we may be un-free and inflexible. Then we can turn to the promise of real freedom offered us all by Christ crucified and the Holy Spirit He offers each of us. Then the words of St. Stephen and St. Ignatius become more understandable, more true, more relevant to us, and we can begin to develop a trust in God's love that allows us indifference to the things that can bind us. We can begin to find openness to God and His Spirit in our lives and world. We can learn to really listen to the Spirit of God, without trying to protect, or project, our own ideas. We will be able to be free, to be comfortable in other chairs and with other perspectives. Then we might be better able to search truly for truth, for the glory of God and the good of others.
Let us pray then that we can ... might ... will? all grow in our awareness of our need for freedom so we may turn to God for that freedom in our lives. In this way, we learn that no matter what seating we are given, God protects us ... directs us ... invites us to His peace in our world.
A. M. D. G.
D. Highberger, S.J.
P. Stark, S.J.