Rolheiser: Magnanimity

03 February 2020

Appears in: Columnists

What does it mean to be big-hearted, magnanimous?

Once during a baseball game in high school an umpire made very unfair call against our team. Our whole team was indignant and all of us began to shout angrily at the umpire, swearing at him, calling him names, loudly venting our anger. But one of our teammates didn’t follow suit. Instead of shouting at the umpire he kept trying to stop the rest of us from doing so. “Let it go!” he kept telling us, “Let it go – we’re bigger than this!” Bigger than what? He wasn’t referring to the umpire’s immaturity, but to our own. And we weren’t “bigger than this”, at least not then. Certainly I wasn’t. I couldn’t swallow an injustice. I wasn’t big enough.

But something stayed with me from that incident, the challenge to “be bigger” inside the things that slight us. I don’t always succeed, but I’m a better person when I do, more big-hearted, just as I am more-petty and smaller of heart when I don’t.

But just as our teammate challenged us all those years ago, we remain challenged to “be bigger” than the pettiness within a moment.  That invitation lies at the very heart of Jesus’ moral challenge in the Sermon on the Mount, There he invites us to have “a virtue that’s deeper than that of the Scribes and the Pharisees”. And there’s more hidden in that statement than first meets the eye because the Scribes and Pharisees were very virtuous people. They strove hard always to be faithful to all the precepts of their faith and were people who believed in and practiced strict justice. They didn’t make unfair calls as umpires! But inside of all of that goodness they still lacked something that the Sermon on the Mount invites us to, a certain magnanimity, to have big enough hearts and minds that can rise above being slighted so as to be bigger than a given moment.

Let me offer this example of what that can mean: John Paul II was the first pope in history to speak out unequivocally against capital punishment. It’s important to note that he didn’t say that capital punishment was wrong. Biblically we do have the right to practice it. John Paul conceded that. However, and this is the lesson, he went on to say that, while we may in justice practice capital punishment, we shouldn’t do it because Jesus calls us to something higher, namely, to forgive sinners and not execute them. That’s magnanimity, that’s being bigger than the moment we’re caught up within.

Thomas Aquinas, in his moral astuteness, makes a distinction that one doesn’t often hear either in church teachings or in common sense. Thomas says that a certain thing can be sin for one person and yet not for another. In essence, something can be a sin for someone who is big-hearted, even as it is not a sin for someone who is petty and small of heart. Here’s an example:  In a wonderfully challenging comment, Thomas once wrote that it is a sin to withhold a compliment from someone who genuinely deserves it because in doing so we are withholding from that person some of the food upon which he or she needs to live. But in teaching this, Thomas is clear that this is a sin only for someone who is big-hearted, magnanimous, and at a certain level of maturity. Someone who is immature, self-centered, and petty of heart is not held to the same moral and spiritual standard.

How is this possible, isn’t a sin a sin, irrespective of person? Not always. Whether or not something is a sin or not and the seriousness of a sin depends upon the depth and maturity within a relationship. Imagine this: A man and his wife have such a deep, sensitive, caring, respectful, and intimate relationship so that the tiniest expressions of affection or neglect speak loudly to each other. For example, as they part to go their separate ways each morning they always exchange an expression of affection, as a parting ritual. Now, should either of them neglect that expression of affection on an ordinary morning where there’s no special circumstance, it would be no small, incidental matter. Something large would be being said. Conversely, consider another couple whose relationship is not close, where there is little care, little affection, little respect, and no habit of expressing affection upon parting. Such neglect would mean nothing. No slight, no intent, no harm, no sin, just lack of care as usual. Yes, some things can be a sin for one person and not for another.

We’re invited both by Jesus and by what’s best inside us to become big enough of heart and mind to know that it’s a sin not to give a compliment, to know that even though biblically we may do capital punishment we still shouldn’t do it, and to know that we’re better women and men when we are bigger than any slight we experience within a given moment.