The “performance principle” is a guiding mythology that, according to Richard Rohr, guides the first half of our religious lives. It is the mythology that suggests we are defined, more or less, by our achievement. It is also a mythology that is rooted in and propelled by fear: the expectation of punishment. Our achievements are meant to secure for us a way out of this punishment. In short, we live to prove. I don’t know a better summation of the Law.
What must happen, then, is death. Our first self must die. Thankfully, as Rohr’s meditation illustrates, this is the nature of the cross and the shape of Christian life (ht CB).

Kreuzeskuss_01Religion in the second half of life is finally not a moral matter; it’s a mystical matter. You can’t keep making all of life a question of what you’re doing, your moral proficiency and perfection. Paul calls this approach “the Law”; I call it the performance principle. Almost all of us start with a performance principle of some kind: “I’m good because I obey this commandment, because I do this kind of work, or because I belong to this group.” That’s the calculus the ego understands. The human psyche, all organizations, and governments need this kind of common sense structure to begin.

But that game has to fall apart. It has to, or it will kill you. Paul says the law leads to death (e.g., Romans 7:5ff, Galatians 3:10ff). Surprisingly, Paul has had very little effect on Christianity. This man was a radical teacher. He strongly critiqued his own religion, Judaism, for seeking salvation through the law, and then the new Christian movement for being exclusionary. Yet many Catholics I meet–religious, laity, and clergy–are still trapped inside the law, believing that by doing good things or going to church, they’re going to somehow attain worthiness or acceptance from God.

One of the only ways God can get us to let go of our private salvation project is some kind of suffering. This is why we Christians hang the cross at the center of our churches, why we kiss the cross, and why we say we’re “saved” by the cross. Yet for all this ritualization, it seems we don’t really believe what the cross teaches us–that the pattern of death and resurrection is true for us too, that we must die in a foundational way or any talk of “rebirth” makes no sense. I don’t know anything else that’s strong enough to force you and me to let go of our ego. Somehow our game has to fall apart. However we’ve defined ourselves as successful, moral, better than, right, good, on top of it, number one . . . has to fail. It just has to.

This is the point when you don’t feel holy; you feel like a failure. You don’t feel worthy; you feel very unworthy because usually you’ve sinned. When this experience of the “noonday devil” shows itself, the ego’s normal temptation is to be even stricter about following the first half of life’s rules. You think more is better, when in fact, less is more. You go back to laws and rituals instead of the always-risky fall into the ocean of mercy.

Yet that is the only path toward your larger and True Self, where you don’t need to prove yourself to God anymore; where you know, as Thomas Merton put it, it’s all “mercy within mercy within mercy.” It’s not what you do for God; it’s what God has done for you. You switch from trying to love God to just letting God love you. And it’s at that point you fall in love with God. Up to now, you haven’t really loved God; you’ve largely been afraid of God. You’ve been trying to prove yourself to God. Finally, perfect love casts out all fear. As John says, “In love there can be no fear. Fear is driven out by perfect love. To fear is to still expect punishment. Anyone who is still afraid is still imperfect in the ways of love” (see 1 John 4:18).