"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Amo ergo odi

Like most American baby-boomers, I instinctively believe that it is possible to "have it all." Not all at once, perhaps; that is for the unusually lucky few, and even then it's ephemeral. But there's so much out there, and so much freedom to pursue it, that it's almost impossible not to believe that anybody with a modicum of talent, luck, and dedication can get as much of it as is worth having. Such is the American dream: a "life" of "liberty" spent in the "pusuit of happiness." Only recently have I come to suspect that it is the opposite of the vision of life Jesus presents to those who would follow him.

That is a suspicion which many American Catholics, especially of the baby-boom generation, would do well to share. But it is so difficult as to be almost inconceivable for AmChurch as a whole to heed such advice. As Fr. Philip Powell, OP, preaches:

This teaching is likely confusing [because] 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.

Having fashioned a Jesus who knows his place, how many of us in AmChurch know what to do with a Jesus who wants it all from us as individuals instead of striving to ensure that everybody has it all by means of politically correct arrangements? We're very good at evading the issue by substituting the latter for the former.

Thus, the real Jesus says things like: He who would save his life will lose it; he who loses it for my sake will have life eternal. Very well, we can handle that: a paradox for the curious, a pep talk for the committed. Today he says: Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Fair enough: we all have crosses to bear, and some of them cannot be shucked without displeasing God. But he goes further: "If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple....everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. Come now: are we really supposed to "hate" everybody we care about, and everything we have, before we can follow this Person? Is that the admonition of a Person who commands us to "love" our enemies? What kind of craziness are we being asked to subscribe to?

The exegetes are right: understanding the culture is indispensable. In Jesus' time and place, the nuclear and extended families were all-important for personal identity. Who one was depended on who one was related to; one's honor and status, and often survival itself, depended on them. But as I heard reiterated by a Benedictine homilist today, Jesus proposed a form of family that would supersede the natural family: namely, the Church, the ecclesia or "assembly" of those who followed him. Thus Matthew 12: 50: ...whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother. Of course such a proposal was worth heeding only if he was indeed the Son of Man, the Holy One of God, or what the Church came to recognize as God himself in the flesh. Since he was, it is. But supersession does not entail "hatred," or at least not what we think of as hatred today. So, what is this "hatred"?

I am told that the Aramaic expression being translated here, via the Greek, as "hate" means something like "to love the less." For instance, in Genesis 29, Jacob is said to prefer Rachel to Leah, who is termed "unloved"; the verb for that is the same as the one being translated as "hate" in today's Gospel; but Jacob then went on to have seven children with Leah, while Rachel remained barren. All that's really meant is what verse 30 says: that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. Now in Matthew 10: 37, we read: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. So, to hate our families, indeed our very lives, for Jesus' sake means we are to love Jesus more than anybody or anything else. If and when there's a conflict between following Jesus and anything else, Jesus takes priority. Following him is Job One, even if it means we die. Indeed, dying to self is precisely what it will mean, whether or not that also means being physically killed for his sake. That's what "hating" even one's own life means.

A lot of people claim to believe that, but not many really do. For a long time, I sure didn't. Spiritually I was an AmChurch baby-boomer through and through, even though an orthodox Catholic intellectually and proud of it. I believed I that I could focus on achieving success in a worldly sense, and on having a fruitful, happy family life, while still counting on a secure place as a disciple of Jesus. In other words, I believed that I could have it all. For I observed that some people seemed to have done just that. So, when faced with a crisis and a loss that posed a sharp challenge to discipleship, I made choices based on the premise that I could still have it all; after all, I was an American and an Ivy-Leaguer to boot! Naturally, I ended up losing everything. He who would save his life will lose it.... Since I didn't hate with the right sort of hate, I lost what I loved.

Losing it all has given me the opportunity to love Jesus as he invites us to in today's Gospel. My task now is to take up that opportunity precisely by means of the work I am called to do. I have come to realize that no other sensible choice is possible for me anymore; my goal is to put him, and therefore the path of discipleship, first. That has meant a gradual rediscovery of who I am in Christ: a minister of his truth—and therefore of his Person, for he is the Truth. I sometimes hear voices telling me that the best way for me to bear Christ into the world is to earn a lot more money in whatever way I can, which would involve giving up the adolescent, narcissistic fantasy of ministry and becoming a more solid citizen, the sort prized by Bank of America and family-court judges. That would indeed bring benefits, including some that I actually desire and that it is appropriate for me to desire. It would get me praised as a realistic, mature, adult male in 21st century America. But the Spirit of Christ has assured me that if that is my program, it will fail. I cannot have it all. I am to seek Christ, and Christ alone, so that eventually I can become such a vessel of his that it will no longer be I who live, but he who lives in me (cf. Galatians 2:20). I am called to be a radical, to get at the Root of all things: to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Despite what some others apparently do, I cannot do that by going for the bucks. I cannot even feign interest in Mammon long enough to be rewarded by him. If am going to be rewarded in this life in any terms the world can appreciate, it will be as a unforseeable byproduct of following Christ as part of his family, the Church. Seek first the kingdom of God, and all else will be given you besides...
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