29 February 2008

How not to be a Catholic Zombie

3rd Week of Lent: Hosea 14.2-10 and Mark 12.28-34
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert
the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

No doubt each of us here could write a book exploring the tragic spiritual consequences of a divided heart and a fogged mind, not to mention the resulting exhaustion from draining away one’s strength in dissipation and the hard work of entertaining anxiety. How quickly do we become ragged, stumbling spiritual zombies, more or less careening haplessly through a day, a week, a month until we hit wall or fall into a ditch, twitching and moaning, unable even to ask for help! But maybe, while we’re still clear-headed enough to wonder, somewhere in the increasing mushiness of our zombie brains, we ask, “How did this happen? How did I become a spiritual tourist? An accidental Christian? When did I become a Catholic Zombie?” When it happens, it happens for all of us at exactly the moment we love one thing more than we love God. It happens the moment my soul, my mind, my strength targets something other than God to love and then loves that target as if it were God. Jesus repeats the ancient prayer of Israel to the friendly scribe: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God is Lord alone!” He does so just for this reason: there is One we are commanded to love; One we are to worship; One we are to contemplate; just One upon whom we are to expend our strength to know and love: the Lord our God. No other, no-thing else; just One and Him alone.

Here Jesus teaches the friendly scribe the meaning of the Law; he does more than merely condense the Law into a pithy saying or two; and he does more than simply edit the Law to highlight his favorite parts. What Jesus does is unveil the foundation stones; he uncovers the roots at their deepest, the very ground of Who God is for us. Since our Lord is One, our love for Him must be one, singular, exclusively focused. But it is precisely because our Lord is One and that our love for Him must be singular that we are then capable of loving more than Him alone. In fact, loving God as Lord exclusively entails loving His creation, His creatures, and honoring their gifted-ends. We cannot, in other words, say that we love God and hate our neighbor.

The genius of Jesus’ teaching lies in the way he moves the abstracted notion of “loving God” into the natural world of real things: loving self, loving neighbor. By directly binding the commandment to love God alone to the commandment to love neighbor as self, Jesus makes it possible for us to “reverse engineer” a revelation of Who God Is for us as Love; that is, since there is just one Love, the one divine love we share in as members of the Body, we are shown—imperfectly—the divine face when we will for ourselves and one another what God wills in love for us all. God’s will, my will, your will, our wills, One Will together in love! When this happens, we can say of ourselves what Jesus said of the scribe, “[We] are not far from the kingdom of God.”

What stands in the way of this grand union of wills in love? The divided soul, the fogged mind, and a dissipated strength; that is, a scattered sense of your purpose as loved creature; a mushy brain confused by error and folly; and your potential as an eternal companion of God squandered on living passionately “just right now for right now.” Think about it: zombies are the walking dead! And you can’t get deader than when you turn everything you are toward a stingy life of Me-Me-Me. Look at Jesus’ temptations in the desert: personal wealth, personal power, personal aggrandizement. The Devil offers our Lord the only thing the Devil can offer any of us, The Temptation that we face in our Lenten desert: the chance to be our own god; to love self without Love Himself. Do this and you throw yourself into a vacuum, a permanent place of Nothingness, a terrible emptiness.

Christ does not urge us to love or exhort us to love or persuade us to love. He commands us to love. And as strange as that might be, the stakes are too high—even in the face of doubts and fears— the stakes are too high for us to do anything else but love as He loves us. Just look at the Cross and ask yourself: why would anyone do that for, why would anyone die for me?

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