Hokusai and the Danger of Becoming Complacent

October 9, 2016

Are you too complacent in your faith?

Complacency is a rejection of things as they might be. "Good enough" is the motto of the complacent person. Complacency makes people fear the unknown, mistrust the untried, and abhor the new. Like water, complacent people follow the easiest course – downhill.

Katsushika Tokitaro was a Japanese artist. You may know him better by one of the many names he adopted throughout his life, Hokusai. If you do not know the name you undoubtedly have seen his most famous work, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa.”

Hokusai is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the Edo period. But he never allowed himself to be complacent about his skills. At one point, Shunko, the headmaster of the Katsukawa school, expelled the young artist. Hokusai wrote of the event. “What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunko's hands.

Hokusai always fought to improve his talent, realizing there was always more to learn. Late in life he wrote:

“From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. I published a universe of designs by the time I was 50. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before.

To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”

Hokusai passed away at the age of 89.

The great Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski echoed this sentiment. He said, “There have been a few moments when I have known complete satisfaction, but only a few. I have rarely been free from the disturbing realization that my playing might have been better.”

Have we become so comfortable in our faith that we have stopped striving to know God better? Have we forgotten the reason we attend church on Sunday? Can our playing be better?

In Jesus’ time there were a number of reasons an individual could be considered "unclean" and unable to act as a full member of the community. In all cases it was the responsibility of the priest to determine whether a person was “clean” and could once again take their place in society.

Jesus heals ten lepers and sends them to show themselves to the priests. We have seen Jesus heal with signs and symbols and words but in this case He seems to heal simply with a thought and sends them on their way. While making their way to the priests, the lepers realize what has happened. Nine are so locked into law and ritual, that is, they are so complacent, they apparently continue on their way. Meanwhile the tenth, a Samaritan, a foreigner, returns to give thanks to the Lord.

There are many lessons for us here, most obviously the importance of gratitude and the willingness to be fearless in what we ask of God. But there is also a subtler lesson about becoming so complacent in our faith that we lose sight of its true meaning.

We must guard ourselves against a spiritual "leprosy" that erodes our faith to the point where we pray by rote and attend Mass just because we are supposed to. We go through the motions and forget the meaning.

When we attend Mass we renew the covenant that God has established with His people through Jesus Christ. We leave behind the mundane world and enter the world of the divine. The Mass is a foretaste of Heaven, but we cannot see this if our eyes have grown dull with complacency.

God is eternal, He always has something new to teach us. How can we turn away from Him, thinking that our life of faith, our relationship with Him, is “good enough?”

Sometimes it takes an outsider, like the tenth leper, to show us the glory and mystery of what we believe and remind us of the awesome gift that comes from being God’s children.

Pax Vobiscum

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