Self-Gift

I just watched a “last lecture” delivered by Fr. Michael Himes, whose work I always benefit from. This lecture at Bostton College was the first in an anticipated series named for the talk given by Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch in September 2007, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The idea of the “last lecture” is that the speaker shares his or her wisdom about the most important things in life, as though this were the last chance one had to convey that which it is absolutely necessary to convey.

What Himes spoke about what his understanding of Christ’s statement in the Gospels that if one holds onto one’s life one loses it but if one gives it away, it becomes everlasting life.

Himes observed that for a long time he mistakenly understood Jesus’ words as a commandment, as saying this is what we ought to do – give up our live to save it. However, over time he came to understand that is it not a command, but a description; not an ought, but a statment of how things are: if we hold onto our live we will lose it; if we give it away, it won’t run out. What that means, he says, is that being and giving oneself are the same thing, which is precisely what John is saying in saying that God is love: that the foundation of existence is self-gift.

Love, in this context is not an emotion, but an activity – the act of giving oneself to another. To really love means to give oneself over to. We can’t, he observes really get to know or understand anyone or anything without giving ourself to it. Giving our time, our intelligence, our energy – really giving ourself to it.

I’ll want to continue mulling over what Himes says in this lecture, but his words resonate. If God is love and we are make in God’s image, than we are made for self-gift. It is not about commands and oughts, but about being who we are. We cannot be fully human, we cannot exist as we were made to exist, in God’s image, without giving ourselves over.

You can watch the lecture in its entirety here.

The Criterion of Judgment

Today’s Gospel for this Solemnity of Christ the King is St. Matthew’s account of the last judgment. We are told that when the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goat, he will say to the sheep on his right:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

And those on his left are told they are condemned because they did none of these things. Now, both groups are confused by this. Those on the right say – well and good, happy to be saved and all that, but, tell us Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink. And when did we see you a stranger, naked, sick, in prison, because we don’t remember doing any of those things. And Jesus responds: “whatever you did for one of hte least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

And to those on the left who say, wait a minute, we never saw you and refused you love or help, we never would have passed you by if we saw you in need, He says: when you did not do it for the least of these you did not do it to me.

This is pretty staggering when you actually think about it. As Michael Himes observes in talking about the passage,

the criterion of judgment has nothing to do with any explicitly religious action. The criterion is not whether we were baptized, or prayed, or read Scripture, or received the Eucharist, or believed the correct doctrines, or belonged to the church. Not one of these – however important they may be – is raised as the principle of judgment. Only one criterion is given: Did you love your brothers and sisters?

Jesus gives us a clear statement of the criterion for judgment and it is worth spending some time contemplating this passage if it is not one you have taken to prayer lately. Ask yourself: How good a job am I doing in recognizing the Lord in the least of our brothers and sisters?

St. Augustine

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Augustine. It is hard to pick one thing to say about Augustine, who was such an important person in the development of Western Christianity. Pope Benedict has this to say about Augustine:

“There is hardly a saint who has remained so close to us, so understandable, despite the lapse of centuries, as Saint Augustine, for in his writings we encounter all the heights and depths of the human spirit, all the questioning, and seeking and searching that are still ours today.”

Augustine was a prolific writer, but the work of his that was most important to me during the time of my conversion back to Christianity from Buddhism was his Confessions. His humanness and his brokenness are evident, as is his intense sorrow for his sins and his equally intense longing for God. At a time when I was having great difficulty finding my way, I found it very helpful, comforting even.

Interestingly, after writing his Confressions, Augustine asked himself whether it was good that he had done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and if I believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why bother putting all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life. Thus, for Augustine, recalling his sinfulness was a necessary part of his praise of God.

That seems to me to be a useful perspective for all of us to keep in mind. But it may be especially useful for those people who have difficulty with the idea of Reconciliation and the idea of confessing their sins. What Augustine understood, in the words of theologian Michael Himes, was that confession “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is. Like all sacraments, reconciliation is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.”