I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of Yahweh your God, obeying his voice, clinging to him . . .
Deuteronomy 30: 19
If anyone wishes to come after me, that person must deny the self, take up one’s cross every day, and follow me. In fact, whoever wishes to save one’s life will lose it, but whoever loses one’s life for my sake will save it.
Luke 9: 23-4
Claiming and acting out of responsibility for our own life is a continual life-long work. We are all familiar with the somewhat trite expression: “Not to decide is to decide.” Yet, trite as it may be, we do all we can to keep from being personally and fully responsible for our decisions. Life feels smoothest to us when we establish habits and routines that result in a comfortable conformity with our surroundings and the directives and choices of those who constitute our personal environment. Life dictated to us by the demands of our situation and the approval of our human societies seems to us most desirable.
Today’s readings, however, seem designed to discomfort us. Deuteronomy reminds us that at every moment of our lives we are choosing between life and death, blessing and curse and that our destiny is constituted by those choices. This cannot mean, however, that we are to live tense and anxious lives about every individual choice. Rather, it means at the deepest level of our transcendent will we choose life as God has given it to us. It means we live in gratitude and appreciation for all that we have been given, and that we long to be for others and our world bearers and evokers of life rather than death. This is possible only in our grateful consent to the mystery of our own life, with its strengths and weaknesses, its possibilities and limits. To “choose life” requires, first of all, that we choose, and not reject, our own lives. We love God by giving back to God and to the World the lives God has given to us.
Jesus, in today’s gospel from Luke, reminds us, however, that saying “yes” and choosing life requires of us a capacity to say “no” as well. Because our earliest life formation is, in fact, conformation with the world outside of us, we live our whole lifelong with a powerful inclination to live our lives in accord with what we believe the world outside of us requires and demands. Our inability to say “no” to those forces in “the world” that would drain us of our deepest originality and self-responsibility results often in the choice for death over life, for mere conformity rather than for a response to life out of our unique Divine call.
So, we must increasingly develop, says Jesus, the capacity to “deny the self.” The Greek verb arneomai which is translated “deny the self” essentially carries the meaning “saying no.” As the years of life pass, one learns that most significant moments of saying “yes” to life must often be preceded by several “no’s.” For example, if I want to learn to say “yes” to being more available and present to those around me, I must first say “no” to overwork or overindulgence in time before the computer or television. If I am to say “yes” to time for prayer, I must first say “no” to accommodating the unreasonable demands of those around me and my desire to always be included in the social gatherings of others. If I am to say “yes” to what I can contribute to my situation or to a specific local need, I must say “no” to my idealizations and illusions about being another Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi.
We don’t think of saying “no” as an act of love. In truth, however, it is the deliberative and responsible “no” that creates the space in life where our deepest “yes” may occur. This is the denying of “the self” to which Jesus calls us. As Lent begins, we are called to deny those self-illusions that keep us from loving, that is from concretely doing and giving what we can in our ordinary daily lives.
Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
Pedro Arrupe, S.J.