Jesus said to his disciples: “It is impossible for scandals not to happen. But woe to the person through whom they happen! It is better for that person to have a millstone hung around the neck and be thrown into the sea, than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Pay attention to yourselves!
“Pay attention to yourselves!” Long before Sigmund Freud spoke of the presence of the “unconscious” in us, the world’s great spiritual and philosophical teachers have called on each human being to “know thyself.” In today’s gospel, Jesus points out to his disciples that, even after being with him for some time, they lack the faith that is even the size of a mustard seed. The mulberry tree that could be uprooted and planted in the sea, had they even that little faith, is the embeddedness of their and of our own character structure or pride form that continues to give and create scandal in our lives together.
The paying attention to ourselves, to which Jesus calls us, is the very opposite of self-absorption and narcissism. Socrates familiarly taught that “the only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” What we most “know nothing” about is ourselves. What Freud called our unconscious is the power that moves us to act and react based on the false stories and presumptions we have about ourselves. Thus, narcissism is our obsession with our own illusions, our own false stories about who we are.
In the passage from Luke we read today, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them that they will always be a cause of scandal to each other. Despite all our sincere efforts, we shall continue to be stumbling blocks to each other. So, says Jesus, pay attention to yourselves, recognize your sin when you commit it, and in faith try to allow yourself to be formed by the truth of your sin, to grow in “faith” in what God’s work in you can do despite your sinfulness.
Community, in all its forms, and relationship with each other in general requires of us humble self-awareness. The prime obstacle to friendship, family, community is the pride and arrogance that takes the form of self-obliviousness, the repression of what needs to be forgiven in us. Intimacy comes from forgiving each other. “Even if he (or she) sins against you seven times a day, yet turns to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him (or her).” (Luke 17: 4)
Jesus precedes this call to forgiveness by saying that when another sins against us we are to “rebuke him.” There is no true family, community, church, or friendship of any kind that is not inherently “formative.” It takes enormous generosity for us to care enough to lovingly rebuke each other. Yet, If we are not relating to each other in such a way that we are serving each other’s growing in the truth, then we are certain in the end to be, for all our “niceness,” only “stumbling blocks” to each other. The only way to avoid conflict with each other is avoidance of each other and of ourselves. Many years ago, I was driving my mother’s sister to visit my mother at the nursing home where my mother was then living. As we rode together, my aunt began to speak with me about some struggles her children were having with their families and of their inability to be honest with each other. She then said to me, “Johnny, at least in our family we always spoke with each other.” At that moment I experienced a powerful reaction. I heard an inner voice scream out: “We spoke to each other but we didn’t say anything? Here we are at the end of our lives, and we don’t really know each other.” But, I said nothing.
In the Fundamental Principles we read,
This was the vision
Theodore James Ryken had in view
when he founded the congregation:
A band of Brothers
who mutually help,
and edify one another,
and who work together.
You are called then by your Founder
to enter into a true mutual sharing
with your brothers and sisters.
This sharing will demand of you
an opening and a giving of yourself to them
at many levels,
and a ready acceptance of each of them
in all their sinful and graced humanity.
Perhaps today Jesus calls us to read and meditate this passage of the Fundamental Principles not sentimentally and romantically but while honestly and humbly paying attention to ourselves. Community is very appealing to us in the abstract, but not so much in the concrete. I remember as a child that the adults would characterize some people as “angels outside the house but devils inside.” “Community” is much easier with those at a distance because those who know us only socially and in our work tend to gratify and support the “unconscious self” that we present to the world. It is in the friction of bumping up against each other day to day, “in the common, unspectacular flow of everyday life,” that who we really are emerges. It is impossible for us to open and give ourselves to others and to accept others in their sinful and graced humanity without also experiencing fear, vulnerability, rejection, anger, and resentment. Is not true love, perhaps, our capacity to bear with and to forgive this in ourselves and each other? Is it not by suffering the experience of the longings and limits of real relationship that we are formed, reformed, and transformed into the image of Christ that we most truly are?
As human beings, we have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception. We can deplete ourselves attempting to build a kingdom not of God’s design but of our own. Jesus calls us to have the faith, even as small as a mustard seed, to recognize that God’s kingdom can only grow in the humble soil of the truth. God’s kingdom will grow not through the efforts of angels or perfected human beings, but by sinful but self-aware and humble persons who are willing to live in constant and indefatigable forgiveness of others and themselves. Honest and true relationship is the best teacher. If we are willing to pay attention to ourselves, the others will always be teaching us about the truth and falsehood in our lives.
Furthermore, when you are called upon to speak with any other person . . . be prudent, careful, and well ordered in your words and bearing, so that no one may take offense at you. You should also prefer always to remain silent and to listen rather than to speak. Be upright, truthful, and sincere in your words and in your deeds, in what you do and in what you leave undone, and always keep your interior conduct fixed in God’s sight. When in the give-and-take of conversation you recognize and feel images and obstacles coming between you and God, you should feel shame over this and should with a simple gaze turn quickly inward before the face of your God. As long as you remain so much the master of yourself that you can always turn inward when you wish to do so, you will live in peace and without fear of mortal sin. I therefore advise you to avoid and flee from worry and anxiety of heart as well as from the instability and manifold concerns of others, especially if they are worldly persons unschooled in the spiritual life. Seek and desire a unified, interior, recollected life and practice it as long as your state of recollection and your act of gazing inward with the eyes of your understanding are as easy and simple as turning outward and seeing things with your bodily eyes.
When you must use your five senses in cases when you or your neighbor is in need, then guard your ears and eyes so that nothing draws them to itself with desire, affection, or satisfaction so as to flood your heart with images and set up a barrier between yourself and God. Otherwise, inordinate desire and affection will hold you captive and you will lose your mastery over yourself and be deprived of your ability to turn freely inward to God, in whom all your beatitude resides. Be careful too in matters of food and drink and in tending to the needs of your body, so that you do not live according to the demands of your flesh and the desires of nature, for if you seek the satisfaction of your desires either in yourself or in any creature, you will have turned aside from the true way and become unable to live for God and to die to sin.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, I,E