“Be it done to me according to Thy word.”
—Mary, Luke 1:38
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“Heroism” is at a premium nowadays. Perhaps that’s because everybody is so painfully aware that we live in a decidedly unheroic age. News commentators are quick to slap the label “hero” on all kinds of unsuspecting victims: firefighters who fight fires, police officers who fight crime, airline pilots who land airplanes in difficult situations, and lots of other workers who simply do their best to carry out the tasks they’ve been trained to perform.
You’ve probably noticed that most of these people deny being “heroes.” From a certain perspective they’re absolutely right – after all, there’s nothing especially “heroic” about doing your job. But in another sense it would be fair to say that their humble protests are out of place here. Their modesty, however commendable, is in this case merely irrelevant. That’s because real heroism isn’t about doing something. It’s about being done to. The true “hero” is not the person who drums up enough gumption, courage, or initiative to charge into the breach and tackle the impossible. He’s just an ordinary human being to whom something extraordinary happens – and who does his best to respond in the only way he knows how.
This kind of “heroism” is what Pilgrim passion is all about. Passion is a word that has been widely misunderstood. Like vision, it’s been reinvented in our time to suit the needs and interests of corporate America. In this case, the original significance has been all but completely obscured. In the minds of most of our contemporaries, passion is associated primarily with erotic ardor, intense excitement, enthusiasm, uncontainable emotion, and (as a result) decisive action. But these are only secondary derivations of the word’s root meaning.
The Latin noun passio (a cognate of the Greek pathos) is associated with the verb patior, “to undergo, suffer, endure.” In English the original meaning is best preserved in the phrase “The Passion of the Christ.” Christ was not passionate in the way a modern-day lover, salesman, junior executive, or football coach is “passionate.” He was passionate in the sense that He endured suffering and agony. Something huge and horrific happened to Him, and He responded by receiving it. It’s conceivable that He might not have chosen this path of His own accord – indeed, He prayed earnestly in the garden that the cup might pass from Him. But in the end He accepted it because there was no other way to go. In the same way, the passionate person is not the one who gets himself sufficiently fired up to take the bull by the horns and rush right in where angels fear to tread. On the contrary, the passionate person is passive. The two words are intimately related.
Perhaps we should have made this point clear before ever setting out on our journey. No one takes the Pilgrim path of his own volition. Who would embrace meekness, weakness, madness, selflessness, emptiness, defeat, and death of his own free choice? No one; as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “No man can choose such a life for himself. No man can call himself to such a destiny.”[i] The Pilgrim does it for one reason and one reason only: something happens to him. Something compels him. Something convinces him that there is no alternative, no other pathway open to him. He makes this terrible choice because he is chosen. He hears the insistent and uncompromising call – “Follow Me!” – and realizes that it will not go away until it meets with compliance.
This, in the parlance of the Pilgrim, is what it means to be passionate. Pilgrim passion is a matter of being cornered and conquered by the relentless Hound of Heaven. It’s about saying, as Peter said in response to his Master’s challenge, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.