by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries.
Madrid, August 30, 2020. | XXII Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Book of Jeremiah 20: 7-9; Letter to the Romans 12: 1-2; Saint Matthew 16: 21-27.
In a prison for political prisoners near Moscow, during the Stalin era, Ivan, a prisoner and expert in physics and optics, sat facing the prison governor and army general. Ivan knew at once they wanted something from him. Would you like a remission? they asked him. What do I have to do? What’s the project? he asked. We want you to perfect a camera that works in the dark, and another miniature one that can be fitted to the jamb of the door, and which works when the door is opened.
Ivan was perhaps the only person in the whole of Russia who could produce a blue print for these devices. After 17 years in prison the idea of going home appealed to him. Here surely was the answer to his wife Natasha’s prayer. All he had to do was invent a device that would put a few unsuspecting fools behind bars in his place, and he would be free.
Could I not go on working on television sets as I am at present? he asked. You mean you refuse? asked the general. Ivan thought: Who would ever thank him? Were those people out there worth saving? Natasha was his life-long companion. She had waited for him for 17 years… I couldn’t do it, he said at last. But you’re just the man for the job, said the general. We’ll give you time to make up your mind.
I won’t do it. Putting people in prison because of the way they think is not my line. That’s my final answer. Ivan knew what his ‘no’ meant. A few days later he was on the train to Siberia to work in copper mines where starvation rations, and probably death awaited him. Yet he was at peace with himself. Jesus talked of losing life, but he also talked of gaining life. This death to self is, in fact, the entrance to a higher life. It is death for the sake of life.
It is not for all Christ’s followers to give their lives in blood, but we are all continually called to give it explicitly and with inner violence in self-denial, which is an essential and profound component of our ascetical effort.
The best expression of offering one’s life is the Abnegation of the ego. This has not been determined by any theologian or Pope. It is Christ himself, in his words today, who tells us: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself.
We can better understand these words of Jesus if we look at the reactions of human beings in the face of the greatest difficulties that we encounter in life: death, the pain of loved ones, betrayal, divisions…
The first one is the way of denial. This was the attitude of Jeremiah. Doing God’s will was too much for him. Contrasts, misunderstandings and oppositions arise; conflicts with the king and the religious authorities explode. Even the people, angry and disappointed, ask the prophet to be silent. The avowed enemies collect evidences against him, have him arrested. They beat him and get him subjected to a process by which, luckily for him, he will be acquitted. In these moment of deep distress, he tried to escape: I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.
But he opened his heart and recognized that refusing to hear God would be his death. As it happens to one who has experienced an overwhelming affection, Jeremiah fails to free himself of the Lord who has seduced him. The passion burns in his heart like a fire that is impossible to extinguish. Despite the excruciating pain and disappointment that he undergoes, he cannot give up his mission. The denial was only a futile attempt to escape the most powerful reality, the divine plans.
To a greater or lesser degree, all of us have had this attitude:
– turning a deaf ear to a recommendation that is made to me or that I myself, feel in prayer,
– looking for an excuse in the lack of capacity or time not to carry out a task,
– abandoning my vocation completely with powerful arguments, for example saying that “I’m not suitable for that” or that “my brothers make the path impossible for me”.
The second reaction is the path of manipulation. This was the case of Peter in today’s Gospel narrative. He could not accept that Jesus, whom he professed earlier to be the Christ, would also undergo passion and death. This must not happen to you. Peter just could not accept this truth. We must change the course of events. We must even change the divine plan. This is the way of manipulation; taking things into one’s own hand.
This is how we react too.
– Judging by ourselves the importance of something that comes from God. Maybe it is not so important… Maybe it can wait… I don’t think it is dangerous for me to stay as I am.
– Thinking about the good deeds I do and thus taking priority away from what is God’s will for me. I will call this person when I can have more time to think about what to say to him… My dedication is already greater than the others, surely God understands me… My good will makes up for anything else.
We now see that the denial and manipulation of truth is destructive of life. It is in this context that Christ gives us his advice, truly suited to our nature and our destiny: Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Yes, to find the life, it is necessary to lose it. I lay down my life to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down freely (Jn 10:17-18). It does not matter how great our activities are, how happy they make us, or how much admiration they cause in others. The day will come when they will be “taken away” from us, by the natural law of human existence, because in this world we cannot have fullness or absolute security.
We might have to go through all the psychological stages of rejection, anger, resentment, bargaining… But whatever it is, the earlier we come to the stage of acceptance, the better for us. Running away from the reality or from the will of God cannot bring us real happiness.
The Abnegation of the ego makes us free from the dictatorship of our judgments, our desires and the powerful instinct for happiness.
It is true that there are people who are completely attached to their judgments and their opinions, with whom it is not possible to dialogue and who consider others to lack the sensitivity or experience to have a valid opinion.
There are also men and women who use all kinds of justifications to realize their desires, which often seem artificial and capricious to others. This is particularly critical in the case of those who have leadership roles and responsibility for other people. One of the consequences of attachment to desires is, in such cases, that those around them are transformed into silent, afflicted…. and forced smiling servants.
In this powerful way, our ego separates us from God and from our neighbor, which is why unitive prayer focuses its efforts on freeing itself from this negative influence.
Attachment to our judgments is common. But above all, when these judgments concern the moral life of another person, the results are particularly harmful. The following story shows how this attachment separates us from our neighbors and from God.
The Medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri attended a church service. Dante was deeply immersed in meditation and failed to kneel at the proper time. His enemies hurried to the bishop and demanded that Dante be punished for his sacrilege. Dante defended himself by saying, “If those who accuse me had had their eyes and minds on God, as I had, they too would have failed to notice events around them, and they most certainly would not have noticed what I was doing.”
We fear the Cross because it cancels what we truly love: the ego in me. Jesus justifies his choice of comparing himself to the seed: Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit (Jn 12:24). And we can also say, with Christ himself, that it is a lasting, imperishable fruit that goes beyond our short life and reaches people in an unimaginable way. Only in heaven can we see this reality in all its fullness. To earn our life “one must lose it”. It is necessary to expend it for the brothers and sisters
The Readings of today’s liturgy are all of a piece. In different ways they say the same thing. Heeding God’s call cannot be resisted except at the price of not being true to one’s deepest self, that self which is tune with what God wants. God and His Christ are to be trusted absolutely. No matter what the world says by way of ridicule, the believer should maintain this absolute trust. God will stand at his side. In following Christ, the Christian will inherit eternal life with God. In worshipping God, the Christian should be ever mindful of these basic truths and offer joyfully himself or herself to God in trust.
In our cultures today, where there is so much yearning and talk of well-being and the pursuit of happiness, this instinct for happiness finds a perfect home. However, let us look at what our Father Founder says:
We do not have to seek happiness; it is something from which we are wonderfully dispensed. Happiness has to be sought by those who in some way depart from Christ, either in a guilty way, in the formal and strict sense of the word, or by a general irresponsibility of the world, and especially the Christians, those who should be the authentic apostles and consecrate their lives, each and every moment of their existence, to be converting their spirit and, with the love of their spirit, to everyone (June, 29, 1972).
It is important to remember that instincts are something we share with animals. A generally accepted definition of instinct is the tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason. The key here is “not involving reason.” Moreover, we would say that neither does faith intervene in instinctive, or “automatic”, reactions, as some say.
The will to achieve gratification, acknowledgements and benefits will be always there. Even in the purest acts of love there is often some veiled forms of selfishness and ambition. In today’s Gospel, the role of the instinct of happiness is incarnated by the sentimental, good and saint Peter. Now he becomes a stumbling block because he lets himself be guided by human reasoning. It aims to glory, successes, honors which are obstacles in the path of the Master and his disciples.
With the troubles around me and my lack of faith, a lot of awful things might happen, demanding a response, a new effort. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it (Jeremiah 20:9).
In our sufferings we too tend to see situations from a narrow, superficial and short-sighted perspective. It is to see that our way of thinking is an obstacle to God’s plan, and is also at the same time, the obstacle towards our happiness. We can only surrender joyfully to God’s plan when we model our thinking, our perspective and therefore our behavior or life to that of God’s, then we will, as Jesus said, be rewarded, with a life that the world cannot give, with a peace and joy that can be ours already.
Three imperatives characterize the radicalism of a choice that does not admit delays nor second thoughts: Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. And always remembering that this does not consist of occasional actions, of something we do in difficult moments, but of a state, of what we call continuous prayer.