The Power of Powerlessness

At the climax of the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, young Harry meets his nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort, who was functioning like a parasite being hosted in the body of one of Harry’s professors at Hogwarts. Voldemort makes the following declaration of his philosophy of life:

There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.

Harry rejects this philosophy — and so should we all. It’s only the beginning of a seven-year-long struggle between the malevolent Voldemort and the principled Harry, who unlike his adversary very much believes in good and evil.

I’m afraid, however, that Voldemort’s amoral philosophy regarding good, evil, and power is not unique to him. A more succinct way of describing Voldemort’s philosophy is simply this: might makes right.

There’s a cynical little joke that goes, “Where does a 900-pound gorilla sit?” The answer: “Anywhere he wants.” The punchline gets its “punch” from a recognition that power affords privilege: if I am strong enough, mean enough, wealthy enough, influential enough, or even just attractive enough, I can more easily do what I want. That’s how the world works.

And those of us who aren’t rich, strong, mean, etc.? We are among those Voldemort contemptuously dismisses as “too weak to seek” power for ourselves.

Later in the Harry Potter books we learn that Voldemort is sociopathic — he has no friends, and only relates to people in instrumental ways: if someone is useful to him, he will seek to gain what he can from them; once a person is no longer useful, that can be disposed of — as Professor Snape learns toward the end of the final volume.

The moral of the Voldemort story seems to be this: that if a person orients their life only to power, they will sacrifice everything else — including love.

The Paradox of Powerlessness

And while Voldemort, the character, no doubt truly believed that the world only functioned in terms of power and the lack thereof, the world we live in clearly reveals that, paradoxical though it may seem, sometimes powerlessness is in its way truly powerful.

Another great fantasy epic — J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — demonstrates this well. In the movie version of the first part of the story, The Fellowship of the Ring, a council of elves, dwarves and humans determine that the One Ring of Power must be destroyed, by taking it back to fires of the volcano in Mordor where it was originally forged by the evil lord Sauron. The warrior Boromir scoffs at this plan. “One does not simply walk into Mordor. It’s Black Gates are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep, and the Great Eye is ever-watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire and ash and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly.”

But of course, the story of the destruction of the One Ring is not about ten thousand men storming the gates of Mordor. It is about a small group of pilgrims, eventually reduced to just a couple of hobbits — diminutive creatures, who by all ordinary standard are the epitome of powerlessness — who by their very littleness manage to get the ring destroyed, and thereby save Middle-Earth.

This is something that the Voldemorts of the world simply cannot grasp. And yet it is central not only to Christian spirituality, but indeed to all forms of contemplative practice.

When Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians, he talks about a “thorn in his flesh” — some sort of affliction, the exact nature of which he never reveals, but we can assume that this problem, whether physical or psychological in nature, seemed to be a weakness to him. He writes,

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (II Corinthians 12:8-10)

Paradoxical language, this. “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” This doesn’t sound like the kind of thinking that wins sporting events or military campaigns — but it does represent a spiritual approach to things that understands there is more to life than always being top dog. The weakness that is strong: a powerlessness that is powerful — to contemplatives, this is the virtue of humility, the recognition that in our vulnerability we create the space in our hearts for a Divine power over which we have no control to direct the course of our lives.

Powerless Possibilities

It is this Divine power, made present in our human powerlessness, that makes it possible for us to truly love — and be loved. It is this Divine power, made present in our vulnerability, that makes it possible for us to age gracefully and die peacefully. It is this Divine power, made present in our wounded and broken lives, that enables us to be a force for healing and reconciliation in the lives of others — building community, not through domination, but through tenderness and mercy and forgiveness.

Contemplative practice emphasizes silence, and attentiveness, and unknowing, and wondering. It’s not about exercising our earthly power, but actually about surrendering our power in the interest of allowing God’s power to work through us. But it must be a real surrender, which means that, paradoxically, it feels like dying. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” “I live now, not I, but Christ in me.” This is profoundly countercultural, especially given our cultural emphasis on politics and power. Might makes right, alas, is alive in well in most of our secular institutions (and it even shows up far too often in our religious institutions as well). But we do not have to choose the path of Voldemort. We can align ourselves with the little and vulnerable ones — like Harry Potter or the hobbits. We can choose love first — not to reject all power, but always to keep our earthly power subject to the demands of love. For then, whenever we are weak, in Christ we are strong.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.