Learned a new word this week: ternary.
I guess it’s been around for a while. It means, in essence, ‘having three elements’ or ‘arranged in threes’.
Guest writer Cynthia Bourgeault used ‘ternary’ to help break open the mystery of the Trinity – the three-in-one God in whom we live and move and have our being – in the daily meditation emailed to me by Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr.
On the whole, though, I think I’m a lot more comfortable with “ternary’s” older brother – “dual”.
Consisting of two parts.
Either / or.
Black / white.
Good / bad.
Odd, though, that Cynthia should bring the word ‘ternary’ to my attention… during a week when I’ve found it just a tad frustrating to cling to an either / or framework…a good / bad Weltanshaung.
The presentation I attended on Wednesday evening had a lot to do with my dis-ease. Monsignor Jack Schuler – Director of Mission Integration for Catholic Charities of St. Louis – spoke at a neighboring parish. His topic: “Catholic Social Teaching – The Street Strategies of the Church.”
It’s not the first time I’ve been present at a talk sponsored by the Peace & Justice Commission of our Archdiocese. Been to three in recent months, in fact. And there’ve been some eye-opening revelations in every case. Facts…historical statistics…trends… that make me squirm just a bit in my seat of privilege.
But this is not an essay about any personal insights into ‘white privilege’. Rather, it’s an observation…about how often ‘social justice’ presentations tend to skip over the most important point, and head directly to ‘solutions’ that hinge on political advocacy or community organizing.
We miss the most important point.
We blow right past Him…as we make our determined way toward City Hall…or the state capital…or Washington D.C.
And that’s a big mistake, in my view.
We are, as Pope Francis has famously said, sinners. We are broken. So it stands to reason that if we rely on our efforts alone to bring about change in the world, we will inevitably fail.
Conservative / Progressive. Either / Or. Good / Bad. These dualities do not serve us well.
But there’s a third way. A ternary option. And in my experience, it hinges on Christ. In the memorable words of St. Patrick: ‘Christ, be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me.’
We tend not to be all that comfortable with the ‘Christ’ option. Like the Israelites mumbling against Moses in the desert, we think we have two choices: Find water. Or die. But God suggests another way: Strike a rock. Make an outrageous act of faith. Do that first, and new possibilities will open up for you.
Jesus seems to have something like this in mind for the Samaritan woman he meets at Jacob’s well. We hear about their encounter at Mass this Sunday. Jesus promises a ‘spring of water welling up to eternal life’, and the woman takes him to mean that he’s offering a solution for a temporal problem: ‘Give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Ever the teacher, Jesus points instead to the gift of redemption he offers. When she mentions the Messiah, Jesus says in reply, ‘I am he, the one speaking with you.’ Under the circumstances, it no doubt took an outrageous act of faith for the woman to accept this extraordinary promise.
But respond she did. She put Christ first – and that changed everything.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.