In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
What does it mean to lose one’s life for Jesus’ sake. Certainly he is not talking about physical death – most of us will not be killed for our faith. So Jesus must be speaking of another form of death.
In Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr writes:
In one way or another, almost all religions say that you must die before you die, and then you will know what dying means – and what it does not mean! Your usual viewing platform is utterly inadequate to see what it real. It is largely useless to talk about the very ground of your being, your True Self, or your deepest soul until you have made real contact with these at least once. That demands dying to the old viewing platform of the mental ego and the False Self. There is just no way around that….Anything less than death of the False Self is useless religion. The False Self must die for the True Self to live.
I have to die to myself to rise in Christ, to be able to say as Paul does, that it is no longer I but Christ who live in me. (Galatians 2:20)
I spent much of the time Monday and yesterday re-reading the current draft of the manuscript of my conversion book. I’ve been so busy with retreats and book talks on Growing in Love and Wisdom these last six months that it has been quite some time since I’ve looked at this manuscript. So it seemed to me useful, as I settle into ten days here at the Monastery to (hopefully) finalize the book, to take some time to just read what I’ve already put on paper.
One of the thoughts that came to my mind as I did so is this: We experience many things, many events over the course of time. The various events and experiences of our lives are in some sense unconnected until we construct a narrative of those events. Out of our experiences, we construct various narratives that explain our tendencies, our views, our ways of approaching people and things.
The (perhaps obvious) truth that became clear to me as I look back over my description of various segments of my life is that there is more than one possible narrative for any set of events. Meaning that we choose the shape of our narratives of those events. And once we do, we are affected deeply by the narratives we choose.
What I’m wondering is how carefully we examine the narratives we create? My suspicion is that once we create a narrative, we tend to see only those experiences that support that narrative, short-shrifting those that are inconsistent withe the narrative we’ve constructed. So that everything we see reinforces the story we’ve created.
That made me wonder how often we directly ask ourselves the question: What if the narrative I’ve created is false? What evidence am I looking at? And what have I ignored?
I think this is something worth thinking about.
In yesterday’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus tells his disciples that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” and that those who love their lives lose them, but those who hate their lives in this world preserve them.
Or, as Fr. Dale Korogi put it more simply in his homily at Christ the King yesterday: We need to die before we die, so that when we die, we don’t die. Get it?
It is actually quite easy to understand as soon as we realize that the death we are asked to undergo before we die is not a physical sacrifice of our lives like that of Jesus on the cross. Rather, Fr. Dale explained, we are invited to die to our false selves and embrace the poverty of being human.
His explanation reminded me of Thomas Merton’s description of the false self. For Merton, the false self “is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life.” The false self sees itself as separate and apart from others and from God, as a completely self-sufficient unit.
Merton believed that all sin stems from the assumption that this false self “is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” It is this false self that must be abandoned in order to us to live as we are meant to live. It is this false self that we must die to so that we may live fully human lives – and “preserve [our lives] for eternal life” (in the words of the Gospel).
Fr. Dale ended his homily by quoting an excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem, The Gift Outright. The lines he quoted are worthwhile to reflect on in the context of yesterday’s Gospel:
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
In today’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus tells his disciples that “unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it does, it produces much fruit.”
The first thing that comes to mind when one hears that passage is Jesus’ own death and resurrection. By his death, resurrection, ascension and coming of the Spirit, Jesus’ presence is felt far beyond what is was during his human lifetime.
However, what Jesus says next belies any notion that the passage is only about him. He continues “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.”
Fortunately, Jesus is not asking us to literally follow him to death on a cross. But he does invite us to serious transformation. It seems to me that these words invite us to explore what grains of wheat we hold onto – what do we not allow to fall to the floor so as to bring new life within us. Broadly the question is what are thing things we grasp onto that we need to let go of so that we can be more than we now are…things that keep us rooted in our false self (to use a phrase Thomas Merton liked to use) and prevent the flowering of our true selves?