14 February 2013

I can be god without God

Thursday after Ash Wednesday 2013
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Yesterday, we wore ashes as a sign of repentance and humility, a sign of our joy in the promise of an eternal life that comes after a mortal life lived in loving service. Today, we take another step toward Jerusalem and our Easter morning by denying ourselves and taking up the Cross. And tomorrow and the next, if we will to continue on pilgrimage, we will deny ourselves and lift that Cross again, one more time and again and again. Daily denying self, daily bearing the Cross. If you will follow Christ, you must sacrifice Self on a cross. This is the unambiguous truth that Jesus teaches his disciples. What is not so clear about this truth is how we go about taking these necessary steps. We can want to deny self and take up the Cross. We might even know what it means to deny self and take up the Cross. But how do we will these steps and complete them? Let's start with two less practical questions: 1) do you want to follow Christ?; and 2) do you know what it means to follow him? As imperfect creatures made by Perfect Love, we are drawn to the perfection that Christ's death and resurrection made possible for us. To want to follow Christ is to surrender oneself to the desire for spiritual perfection that he offers. We deny self and carry the Cross when we renounce in word and deed anything or anyone who obscures or obstructs that desire. 

Do you want to follow Christ? Do you know what it means to follow him? If you want to follow Christ, are you prepared for the consequences of taking up his Cross as your own? Giving your life in service to others for his sake is only the beginning. Dying on his Cross for the love of others is not the end. Before you can come close to sacrificing yourself in love, you will be challenged by greed to save yourself so that you might accomplish worthier deeds. You will be harangued by envy to compare your life to others and find yourself wanting. You will be scolded by pride to forget this following Christ business and get back to the business of making yourself indispensable at work and at home. You will be tempted by lust, gluttony, and wrath to indulge your passions b/c you have the right to express yourself freely w/o consequences. And lastly, sloth will whisper to you that all your sacrifices will bring you no joy, so why bother? All of these dark spirits will be set upon you as obstacles, obstructions. All of them will attempt to cloud your desire for spiritual perfection in Christ, and all of them will be victorious if you cling to Self and allow its survival instincts to rule you. Thus, Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” 

Denying self and taking up the Cross does not mean hating yourself as a person, or hating your body for its weaknesses. Denying self means placing yourself first and last under God's love for you and then loving in turn as He loves you. It means surrendering yourself to His love and then living daily always and everywhere conscious that you are capable of love only b/c He loves you first. We fast, abstain, pray, and give alms during Lent as a way of practicing sacrificial love, as a way of making real our willingness to let divine love use us—body and soul—to spread out into the world, offering consolation and comfort to all those who roil in anxiety and defeat. When we do this—allow divine love control of our lives—we offer a irresistible challenge to the Self's survival instincts. And the seven darkest spirits rise up to point out the imminent death of Self. All the temptations we suffer are motivated by a single, ancient desire: I can be god w/o God's help. I, I, I. Self. Self must die on the cross of sacrificial love—given up in service to others—if you will to achieve spiritual perfection. That path, The Way, is open to us b/c Christ goes before us, clearing the dark spirits that obscure and obstruct our steps. Surrender to Christ, give yourself up to him, and then live in love as he loves you. 

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  1. In today's first reading, I was grabbed by "Choose life", and so when reading your homily today I read it in that vein, for it seems that is what you were saying. Choose Life over Death. Choose Christ over Self.

    I had a little bit of difficulty, in that I had to really read slowly and on several occasions re-read sentences to be sure I was understanding you correctly. For me, there was just so much in this homily, and I didn't want to miss any of it or mis-understand anything.

    The final two sentences of the first paragraph really stood out and hit home with me. I can't spell the sound which escaped my lips while reading the second paragraph, but it was a sound of a recognition of myself in what you wrote. I had to slow down considerably for the third paragraph. Though I found the ending to be fantastic, you had me really thinking before getting there.

    The tone was somber, and I saw a little too much of myself in the words, so that the homily left me feeling uncomfortable and pensive.

    1. I set a somber tone on purpose. . .Lent and all. Oddly, I think this one is kinda stale. It's recycling themes I've been beating on for a while now. Maybe it's the combo of style and theme that left you uncomfortable?? Dunno. I'm not saying anything new here.

    2. Could be, too that I'm on my fourth night in a row on 5 hrs of sleep or less, and no naps. . . that'll do it!

      I don't know that it's stale. I try to approach most things willing to learn from them, so even though nothing new may be in the words/themes you have presented something you said struck a chord somewhere. I wasn't reading you last year at this time, so This is my first Lent reading your homilies. Could just be that. Maybe I'll be bored by next year...I'll let you know. ;-)

  2. Thank you Father. I cut and pasted your post here. I'll refer back to it as Lent progresses.

    For the past few years, I have been trying to follow a more rigorous fast and abstain practice as prescribed in the older tradition. For example, I follow Ember days (next week, again, too!) I am particularly challenged with a high metabolism that does not react well to reduced blood sugars. Consequently, my patience and charity are at low ebb during fasting time. Candidly, my attention span is low too so my prayers at these times appear to me to be poor as well. Do you or anyone else have some advice for me on how I can maintain traditional fasts with additional mortification without failing in kindness, charity, patience with my neighbors?

    1. Hi! I think many see fasting as an end rather than a means. I'm not saying this applies to you, but if you haven't already, be sure to ask yourself if this form of fasting is or is not contributing to your growth in holiness. Fasting became a little easier and not as grump-invoking for me when I changed my attitude, and made a conscious realization as to why I was fasting. I only follow the prescribed fasts, with a modified fast on Fridays, but practically speaking, when I do fast, I prepare for it with prayer and try to clear as much as I can my schedule to only necessary things, schedule in extra time for quiet and prayer and I am sure to have a lot of Peppermint or other mint tea handy (hot tea, straight, helps to balance out the hunger and keeps my charity level a little higher). You are trying to follow the traditional fasting, so clearing your schedule is probably not feasible. But the tea may help, and a continual reminder to yourself as to why you are fasting.

    2. New Guy, Shelly's advice is sound. I don't fast well. Abstinence is no problem for me, but fasting is difficult. I have thousands of excuses for why this is so. . .

      I find that it helps me a bit to focus internally on whatever problem I'm having and name it. This could be a temptation, a sin, etc. Generally, it's better to confront these things rather than let them sneak into our lives.