Could I Pass Through the Eye of a Needle?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Why is that? Is God prejudiced against the rich?

It helps me to understand what Jesus is talking about to recall the story told of a monkey whose hand gets trapped inside a glass jar. The jar has some food or trinket that the monkey is attracted to. The monkey can easily get his open hand into the jar, but once he closes his fist onto the treasure inside the jar, he is stuck, since he can’t pass his closed fist back through the jar opening. Thus, the monkey is trapped. He could easily free himself by simply letting go of what is inside the jar. But he cannot bring himself to give up the treasure.

I think that is a good image to keep in mind as we sit with today’s Gospel. It reminds us that it is our attachments that keep us trapped; it is the things of this world that provide us with (illusory) security that prevent us from passing easily “through the eye of a needle.” I had an image as I prayed of someone trying to force his way through a narrow doorway carrying big suitcases full of treasures.

Every day I pray St. Ignatius’ Suscipe, which ends with the line “Give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.” As I sat with today’s Gospel, I prayed, help me remember that Lord; help me remember that all I need is you. That I can let go of everything else.

Just Follow the Simple Instruction

In today’s first Mass reading from the Second Book of Kings, we meet Naaman, an army commander of the King of Aram and a leper. The Israeli girl who is servant to Naaman’s wife reveals that if Naaman presents himself to “the prophet in Samaria,” he will be cured of his leprosy.

When Naaman finally arrives at the home of the prophet Elisha, he is given the message “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean.”

This advice angers Naaman, who had expected that the prophet “would surely come out and stand there to invoke the Lord his God and would move his hand over the spot, and thus cure the leprosy.” He is incensed by the advice to wash in a river that by his estimation is a quite ordinary one. What is so special about the water in Israel that makes it better than the waters of his homeland?

Naaman’s servants argue with him, “if the prophet had told you to do something quite extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.” And so he washes in the Jordan seven times and is healed.

I always cringe a little when I hear this passage because I think we are not so different from Naaman. When it comes to God (and probably not just God), we like big. We like flashy. We like extraordinary. We like heroic acts and big deeds.

When it comes to experiencing God: Come to us in a big flash of lightening or a burning bush, we ask. Do something spectacular and dramatic to get our attention. And sometimes God does. But other times He comes to us in a tiny whisper.

When it comes to our life task: Give us some big deed to do. I think our expectation is that we will find our salvation in the equivalent of walking across the desert or climbing mountains or some other extraordinary or heroic acts. Shouldn’t there be some big, complicated, heroic act that will gain us the prize. Instead God says: Just love. Just be love. Love me. Love one another. Nothing big. Nothing flashy. Just love.

To paraphrase the servants of Naaman: If God had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more now, do as God asks.

It is Not About the Place

As many of you know, St. Ignatius Retreat House (“Inisfada”) in Manhasset, New York, was my spiritual home for many years. It was where I found myself upon my return from Buddhism to Christianity, where I regularly attended daily Mass, did my retreats and did my training in retreat house ministry, ultimately leading to my becoming a member of the adjunct ministerial staff. No place else felt more like “home” to me.

I was deeply saddened when the decision was made to close the retreat house and sell the property. I was even more saddened when someone sent me a picture last week of the half-demolished house:

inisfada

Over the last year, many people have written to me about their own sadness at this reality, sharing what the house meant to them and how important the Inisfada community was to them.

I sometimes have to remind myself, as I share with them, something I realized when the prospect of the reteat house closing first surfaced some years ago. It is the ministry of the house that really matters, not the house itself. What is important is that we be about the task deepening our own relationship with God and the relationship of others to God, and translating that relationship into who we are in the world – not where we do it.

And so I mourn the passing of this special place, but I let go any attachment to it. There will be other special places, and they too shall pass. But what will not pass is the work of God, which is ours to do everywhere.

Clinging vs. Desire

I was sitting recently with my reaction to a situation where I didn’t get something I wanted. It is not important what it was (no, not a Christmas gift, or any other material thing), but it was something I knew full well I couldn’t have and I understood full well the reasons. Nonetheless, I felt deep inside something of the way a child feels when told he can’t have a sweet or a toy he or she wants. I could almost feel myself inside shaking my head back and forth saying, “No. No. I want it. I want it.” Figuratively holding my hands over my ears saying, “I don’t want to listen to the reasons why I can’t have it. I want it.”

That roiling feeling inside – the “I have to have what I want or I won’t be happy” urge – is the product of what Buddhists would refer to as clinging or grasping or attachment. It is an impulse that produces only dissatisfaction and unhappiness and there is nothing productive about it.

That is very different from the kind of deep desire that motivates us. The desire for union with God that provides energy to our spiritual life. The desire for the “good” that fuels our laboring for God’s Kingdom.

Reflecting on the two feelings in Ignatian terms, it is very easy to distinguish between them. Attachment (what might be called disordered desire) always feels tumultuous, unsettling and lacking in peace. Deep desire has an element of peace in it and it pulls us generally forward rather than roiling uncontrollably. And they are very different in their effects: Clinging and attachment incapacitate, deep desire energizes. Clinging and attachment lead only to pain and a feeling of incompleteness. Deep desire leads to satisfaction and peacefulness.

It is important to distinguish between the two and not fall into the mistake of thinking all desire is bad and should be abandoned. We want to recognize when clinging and attachment arise so that we are better able to let them go. Our desires, however, help energize us and help us be all that we can be.

What We Gain By Letting Go

The participants in the Fall Reflection Series I’m giving at St. Hubert’s are praying this week on the subject of letting go of the things that we cling to, things that threaten to remove God from the central place in our lives. The various prayer exercises they are engaging in this week are designed to help them identify what are the things that they cling to, what are the things that distract them from discipleship.

The difficulty for us is that the things we cling to can look very attractive to us, so attractive that we can fail to see how our attachment binds us, how it prevents us from being free. Buddhist thought on this subject is very developed; Buddhists identify attachment as one of the root delusions.

There is a story that captures well the danger of clinging. It is one I first heard many years ago, but I read it again recently in a newsletter and so thought to share it. It is a story that explains how monkeys in Africa are captured alive with a simple trap. The “trap” is a heavy bottle with a long neck, inside of which are placed some sweets that are attractive to the monkey. The neck is wide enough for an open hand to go in and out, but not side enough for a fist to enter or exit.

You can guess what happens. Attracted by the scent of the sweets, the monkey reaches its open hand into the bottle and grabs the object of its desire. Once it closes its fist around the sweets, it cannot remove its hand from the bottle. Because the bottle is heavy, the monkey cannot run away with it. All the monkey has to do to get away is let go of the sweets. However, the monkey clings to the object of its desire, unwilling to let it go, even though that means captivity.

We do the same. We cling to things that cannot bring us ultimate happiness, to things that keep us from being free. And all we have to do to gain greater interior freedom is to let go.

Fall Reflection Series – Giving Up What We Cling To

This week was the fourth session of the Fall Reflection Series I’m offering at the University of St. Thomas Law School, titled, “Jesus Speaks.” The series seeks to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ.

The title of this week’s session was Giving Up What We Cling To. The starting point for my reflection was the episode of the rich man in Mark’s Gospel who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, an episode I used as a way of talking about the things we cling to that prevent us from wholeheartedly following Christ. The second part of my talk focused on the end of that Gospel, where the rich man walks away sad because of his inability to give up his possessions, and on Jesus’ patience in dealing with our limitations. That part of the talk included a consideration of the post-Resurrection scene between Jesus and Peter, where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. The change in Jesus’ language in asking the question (apparent in the Greek, but not the English version of the passage) has a lot to say to us about God’s love for us and patience with us.

You can find the recording of the talk I gave this week at St. Thomas here (The podcast runs for 16:18.) You can find here a copy of the prayer material for this week.