Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
To lay a foundation for your faith, to plot out a plan for your successful growth in holiness, you must hate your mother, father, your wife, your husband, the children, your siblings, and even your own life; you must pick up and carry the cross handed to you and follow after Christ to the city dump and die an ignoble death as an unjustly convicted criminal; and you must renounce all of your possessions, anything you possess and everything that possesses you—stacked up stuff, ideas, habits, people, places, patterns of thought, passions, excuses, reasons. Everything.
Likely, you along with the rest of us slackers, while trying to build a holy life, will find yourself ridiculed by onlookers who shout: “HA! You guys started to build holy lives but you do not have the resources to finish!” Out of charity, we refrain from pinging them up side the head with a hammer. However, our anger at being ridiculed cannot burn away the knowing in our longing hearts that our poverty of spirit is not the blessing of the Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” No, our poverty, our lacking is a neglect and a failure and most likely the final bloom of cowardice.
Is this too harsh? Too difficult to hear? Am I just being mean? Jesus has just told the crowd following him that none of them can become his disciple unless they are ready to hate their families, die on the cross, and renounce all of their possessions. Is Jesus being harsh? Difficult? Just plain mean? Jesus is telling them and us the truth of what it means to be his disciple. What he is describing to them and to us is not a list of pre-conditions that we must meet before we become his disciples. He is telling us what we must be prepared for if we become his disciples. In other words, he is telling us this: “Come be my disciple. But know this: to be my disciple means forsaking those you love, dying with me on a cross, and separating from everything in favor of preaching the gospel. If you can handle that, then come on! If not, don’t bother b/c though you may start as my disciple, you won’t end that way.”
This teaching should be both familiar and confusing. Familiar in that you have no doubt heard this gospel passage read many times, quoted by spiritual directors and pastors, and probably printed on a prayer card or a poster. This teaching is likely confusing b/c it resembles nothing that we have been taught in the last thirty years or so. How many of us have heard that loving Christ, doing his will, teaching and preaching his gospel will likely get us thrown out of the family, hanged on a cross, and left destitute? Our contemporary Catholic Jesus is a mild-mannered social worker with a tendency to be a bit grandiose. Ultimately, he is harmless and urges us on in our efforts to build a community of spiritual consensus around vague notions like “justice,” “peace,” and “love”—none of which, of course, are very clearly defined in terms of Truth and all of which seem always to end up looking very political with a strangely partisan glow about them. Floaty Platonic Forms circling in the sky like ideological clouds never touch us down here, so Jesus says outrageous things like: “…anyone of you who does not renounce all of this possessions cannot be my disciple.” How strange that our mild-mannered social engineer with a utopian fetish seems so eager to exclude, to divide and conquer, and to set families against their members.
What does Jesus want from us? The quick answer: everything, all of it. The more complicated answer: Christ knows what lies ahead for him; he knows the Way he must travel is pockmarked with deadly-dangerous people, perilous trials, and a bloody end on the cross. And he knows that we who look to him now as the Christ—the one who satisfies our hunger for holiness, the one who heals our fractured lives—he knows that we will be sorely seduced, tempted beyond resistance to follow him, to walk behind him even now. And like his disciples then we find ourselves now in his increasingly seditious company. His disciples worsen their plight then if they, once seduced by his feast of grace, decide to be baptized, taught, and sent out as preachers of the Good News. What they had to be told then and we must be told now is that in order to survive spiritually, to keep the faith and to grow in holiness, they and we must want nothing but Christ, desire nothing but Christ, long for nothing and no one but Christ! Our hearts exclusively focused on Jesus; our minds thinking first and last of Christ; our bodies ready to be beaten, torn, burned, and killed for his sake and as a witness to the power and truth of the gospel, then we are prepared in this age or any age to be his faithful students. Christ died to give us the resources we need to finish building our righteous lives. Will we follow?
We must know and be warned: Jesus’ band of preachers and prophets and priests and kings is no merry band of do-gooders and smiley-faced bourgeois social engineers. They are men and women who were and will be, like Paul, imprisoned for the gospel. Made slaves of the Truth. Sworn to the Good. And brought to Beauty, brought to Him face-to-face. “And thus were the paths of those on earth set right.” And thus will our paths be made right.
I said earlier that our spiritual poverty, our lacking in strength is a neglect and a failure and most likely the final bloom of cowardice. Jesus knew that those who loved him as a teacher would betray him at his end. He knew he would die without his students. Despite his dreadful warning, they signed on and followed him. . .until following him required a price. But he knew this too, and he freely went to his death for them despite their cowardice, despite their failure of heart. In fact, he went to his death b/c of their cowardice. How else could he return and set them on fire with his Holy Spirit? The book of Wisdom is right about us: our deliberations are timid and our plans unsure, and we are weighed down with corruptible bodies and minds loaded with daily, yearly, and life-long worries. But we choose these; they are our decisions. And though we can scarcely understand the things of the earth and though we find difficult even that which is within our grasp, our Way has been set right by Christ. Now, will you follow him? Will you walk his Way? Sorrowful AND joyous!
Let’s end here: what do you love more than God? Who do you love more than God? What cross has been handed to you? Will you pick it up? Will you carry it? What possesses you? Who owns you? Will you claim the resources Christ died to give you? And finally, will you leave the prison of sin you have put yourself in so that you may be imprisoned in Christ?
If so, follow him.
*The low hum in the background is a fan I am using to keep me from dying of heat exhaustion while saying Mass. It will be a regular feature from now on. If it becomes too much of a distraction, let me know.