The Will of The One Who Sent Me

Today’s Gospel from John ends with Jesus telling his listeners,“I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.”

I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.

What a counter-cultural statement in a society that celebrates the rights of individuals to make whatever choices bring them pleasure, that treats all visions of the good as equally valid, that acts as though it is we who assign the purpose of our lives.

Jesus models a different way of being, one that says my life and my purpose come from God.  One that acknowledges that we live in a world that is not ours to do with as we choose…a universe not designed by us for own goals and purposes. Johannes Baptiste Metz says that in poverty of spirit “we learn to accept ourselves as beings who do not belong to ourselves.”

I’ll be speaking more extensively about this statement of Jesus’ at tonight’s Novena of Grace at St. Thomas More in St. Paul.  If you are in the area, join us for the Novena Mass at 7:00p.m.

Poverty of Spirit

At yesterday’s Mass at the retreat house, I offered the reflection on the readings.  The Gospel was St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes and in my talk I focused on the first of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We have a temptation is to treat the Beatitudes as a series of sweet platitudes rather than as a statement of the meaning of discipleship under Christ, that is, a template for the way we should orient our lives. I remember when I was growing up in the 1960s, at the folk Mass I sometimes attended we sang a bouncy song based on the Beatitudes, “Happy is the Man who walks in the way of the Lord and God our King, Blessed is he and Happy are they who put their trust in him.” And we’d bop and sway our way through the verses recounting the Beatitudes without the slightest thought that they actually meant anything.

At least part of that temptation comes from the fact that the way of being the Beatitudes describe is so counter to the standards of the world in which we live. And I think there is nothing that better illustrates the contrast between the way of the world and the way of discipleship under Christ than the first of the Beatitudes; hence my focus on poverty of spirit.

Poverty of spirit has little to do with material poverty and everything to do with our recognition of our absolute dependence on God, of our appreciation that all we are and all we have is gift from our loving God. Macrina Weiderkehr paraphrases the first Beatitude by saying: “Blessed are those who are convinced of their basic dependency on God, whose lives are emptied of all that doesn’t matter. The Kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

In my reflection, I spoke on what I think are the three related elements at play in the first Beatitude.  First, poverty of spirit means I acknowledge and embrace my absolute and utter dependence on God. And not just giving lip service, but feeling in the depth of my soul my need for God’s grace.  Second, poverty of spirit also means that, in acknowledging my dependence on God, I choose guidance over self-determination.  Finally, third, in acknowledging my dependence on God, I recognize that nothing else other than God is sufficient to satisfy me.  I talked a little about each of these elements, including talking about how each is so counter-cultural.

Although I think poverty of spirit highlights in the clearest way the contrast between the way of the world and the way of discipleship in Christ, I encouraged the retreatants to sit with each of the other Beatitudes and reflect on its contrast with the way of the world, considering where the challenge is for them in living in the spirit of the Beatitudes.   And they are challenging, precisely because they are so antithetical to the way of the world. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek is not easy in a culture grounded in competition, self-promotion, and intolerance of those who don’t fall in line with the prevailing worldview.

So how can we possibly bear the difficulty of orienting our lives in accordance with the Beatitudes? In that beautiful first reading we heard today, Paul answers that question: Our God of encouragement encourages us in every affliction. “As Christ’s suffering overflows to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.” As we share in the sufferings, we also share in the encouragement.” And part of that encouragement is Jesus’ promise: choose my way and yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.

What It Means to be Rich

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus addresses a parable “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” – the parable of the phraisee and the tax collector.

The parable is one that is familiar to many of us. Two men went to the temple to pray. One, a tax collector, stood in the distance, and humbly and sorrowfully prayed, acknowledging his sins and asking for God’s mercy. The other, a Pharisee stood front and center and “spoke [a] prayer to himself,” a prayer that outlined his strengths and expressed thanks that he was “not like the rest of humanity.”

Jesus’ message from the parable was that it was “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Preaching on this parable, St. Augustine of Hippo held up the tax collector as a model: “He was looking at his own emptiness, but he knew what ample wealth the Lord disposed of. He knew that he was coming thirsty to the fountain,” in asking for God’s mercy. Augustine goes one to say that because of this, the tax collector “was already to some extent rich, since he had the idea of making such a request. After all, if he had been completely poor, where would he have been able to produce these gems of confession from?”

The pharisee, in contrast, lacked what the tax collector had: “He was boastful, but it was all hot air, no solid substance. He thought himself rich though he had nothing. The other man admitted he was poor, thought he already had something.”

The tax collector is a wonderful example of poverty of spirit, a poverty that is itself a sign of richness. When we know what we lack, and what we need, we have everything.

The Power of We

Today is Blog Action Day, an annual worldwide event where bloggers write about a single topic, occuring each year on October 15 or 16th. Past themes have included the environment, poverty and climate change. The theme for this year is The Power of We.

The “Power of We” conveys a very simple truth: working together leads to the best results. It is a truth that operates at a lot of different levels:

First when we seek through our charitable efforts to help those who are marginalized and vulnerable, we can go more if we empower them and work with them than if we simply hand them aid. Working with, rather than giving to, is the way to accomlish aims that are more than temporary.

Second, if I am part of an organization, if I can get buy in from others for my plans for improvement or change, if I can involve others in my ideas, they are more likely to succeed – and I get the benefit of the creativity and talents of others.

Finally, and by no means least in importance, I am most strong when I acknowledge my need for God, when I decide to approach things with God rather than on my own. As the plaque on the wall on my study at home reminds me, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” On my own, I am small. When God, I walk with the strongest form of The Power of We.

It’s About How, Not How Many

A Synod of Bishops on the “new evangelization” is now going on in Rome. The Synod is, not surprisingly, generating a lot of blog entries and media articles on the subject.

On of those on-line pieces that I read the other day spoke of the “doctrinal confusion,” which the author described this way: “Many of our fellow Catholics look at the world this way – that broad and wide is the road that leads to heaven, and almost everyone is going that way, but narrow is the way that leads to hell, and hardly anybody is going that way.” He continued, “Of course, that is hugely problematic, as it’s the exact opposite of what Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14: ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.'”

I think some people like to think that, in his reference to a narrow gate, Jesus meant that very few people will end up in heaven, and that most of us are on the road to perdition. Those who think that way generally also tend to think that the small number who will enter heaven consists of them and their friends and excludes the rest of us.

But I think today’s Gospel passage from Mark helps us to a better understanding of what Jesus meant in talking about the wide and narrow roads.

In today’s Gospel, when Jesus wants his disciples to understand “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God,” he tells them that “[i]t 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.” When the confused disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?”, Jesus replies, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

The narrow gate is not about numbers. It is not a suggestion that heaven is reserved for a few and that most will find their way to hell.

Rather, the narrow gate is about our need for God. The narrow gate is not about keeping large numbers of us out. It is about understanding that our salvation comes from God, for whom all thing are possible. We are not the author of our own salvation.

On the one hand, one can view our recognition of our need for God as a narrow gate. On the other hand, God is a gate big enough to handle all of us.

Recognizing our Talents

At the weekly gathering of the participants doing the Lent Retreat in Daily Living at St. Hubert, we had a discussion about the difficulties so many people have acknowledging their giftedness.

During last week, one of their days of prayer focused on the parable of the talents in Matthew’s Gospel. The questions I had asked the participants to reflect on included these: “Do I hesitate to recognize my giftedness? Am I willing to own the gifts God has given me? If I am hesitatnt to do so, what is the source of that hesitation?” I also asked the partiicpants to name at least one of the gifts God had given them and share with God how they might better use that gift to further God’s plan of salvation.

After some small group sharing of their prayer experience, when we came together for questions and discussion, sevearl people observed that this was a hard exercise, the most difficult of the prayer for that week. I think their experience is not atypical.

We have had drummed into us that we should not be prideful. We read in Scripture Jesus’ admonition to have humility. And we remember the parable of the Phrarisee and Tax Collector and, in particular, Jesus’ reaction to the pride of the Pharisee. As a result, we are worried, as one person suggested, that acknowledging our gifts is akin to “tooting our own horn.”

Jesus did warn against pride and instructed us to be humble. But he also told his disciples not to hide their light under a bushel.

We have all been gifted by God. But we cannot use those gifts if we don’t acknowledge them. It will be impossible for us to discern how we can best serve God’s plan of salation is we don’t accurately assess and own the gifts we have been given. We were given our gifts to use for the life of the world, not to hide in a closet.

One of the things I told the group is that if they can remember something else that was part of their prayer for that previous week – the first of the Beatitudes – they might find it easier to acknowlege their gifts without worrying about arrogance or pride. That is, if we truly have poverty of spirit – if we recongize our complete and utter dependence on God, then we know that the gifts are not our doing, but God’s.

Of course, we always need to be careful to be sure we are using the gifts we have been given for God’s glory and not our own, but it is important that we not shy away from recognizing those gifts.