Have your belts cinched tight and your lamps lit. Be like people waiting for their master to return from a wedding, so that when he arrives and knocks they can open the door for him immediately. Blessed are the servants whom the master finds awake when he comes.
Luke 12: 35-7
Today’s passage from Luke follows Jesus’ teaching earlier in the Chapter about avoiding the anxiety that we experience when we are overly concerned about material things and gaining possessions. Jesus tells us that it is the hold that comfort and possessions have on us that makes us anxious, and that if we could learn to trust God who cares for all things then we would not need to worry.
The context is important as we read the words of today’s gospel because it could be possible to hear what Jesus says in them as anxiety-provoking. He tells people that they are to live in such a way as to be prepared always for his return. As the people were commanded to be prepared to leave Egypt at the Lord’s summons, so are the disciples of Jesus to live their entire lives, watchful, awake, and standing ready to respond. The spiritual tradition calls this disposition vigilance. Spiritually speaking vigilance is very different from anxiety. It is not so much a fear of loss as an attentiveness to call. It is living in a state that is trustingly wakeful and alert. It is described in the Fundamental Principles in this way:
Stand ready to answer
if you are available for God
to become more present in your life
and through you to the world.
What keeps us from standing ready, from being awake to all the ways the world is forming and calling us, is self-preoccupation. When we are at the center of our attention, the whole of reality is reduced to its perceived or feared effect on us. As Elder Thaddeus says, “We embrace our self and we protect it, turning away any kind of insult to it and wanting everyone to think well of us.” As I watched the news this morning, I saw a clip of an old interview with the media personality Bill O’Reilly in which the woman reporter asked him to respond to the allegations against his then boss Roger Ailes. In typical fashion, O’Reilly responded by raising his voice and leaning towards the interviewer in an obvious attempt to intimidate and bully her. What was most striking, however, was the composure of the interviewer. She continued to maintain her stance, her composure, and even her facial expression. As he railed, there was on her face the hint of the same smile with which she had initiated the exchange. Although no more of the clip was shown, I could only wonder what the effect of that sustained composure would have had on O’Reilly, as his typical attempt to dominate and control by bullying was clearly ineffectual.
I think this so struck me because it reminded me of how influenced I am by the reaction of others to me. As Thaddeus writes: “. . . turning away any kind of insult and wanting everyone to think well of us.” How great an inhibitor to our call and our work for the world is our concern about the opinion of others! How limited our service to others if our work on their behalf is constrained by our desire for their approval!
Thaddeus says that “We must look beyond our self for the sake of the love of God . . . .” To really care about and to love another will always require of us that we be willing to call him or her beyond care of his or her own ego to fidelity to his or her own deepest call. This will mean being, at times, the bearer of a word the other would rather not hear. If one’s own need to be liked and approved of is too great, it will seem impossible to speak and to love in this difficult way. Our self-concern will make us unavailable for what God is asking of us, even with those who are closest to us.
“The common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life” is continually challenging us to come closer and closer to the world in love, as an instrument of the Lord’s love and peace. The great obstacle to coming closer to real life, however, is our egocentricity. Dying to our ego, “dying to self” in scriptural terms, can seem like a grand project to us. But, in truth, it is a moment to moment challenge in all of the ordinary flow of our day. Sometime in the course of everyday, we can be sure we shall experience a call to speak a difficult, and what can feel like a dangerous, word to another. If we withhold a word that is for another’s deeper good, for the sake of his or her own soul, then we are choosing ego over love.
In his classic opening to Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Family dysfunction is the source of both great literature and of film comedies. It is both tragic and funny because it is something we know well, in our families, in our communities, and in our workplaces. At the root of much of the dysfunction is our refusal to really speak to each other. We speak about each other to the others, but, when face to face, we fail to speak a word that might summon the other to his or her own deeper life and call. Often it is our fear for our own ego that is the block to such love and service of the other.
Much of our shared lives is that of somnambulists. The life we are sharing is one that refuses to awaken to our deepest possibilities, as individuals, families, and communities. As strange as it may seem, we deliberately opt for living our co-constituted illusions and spending our energy on a phantasm, rather than awaking to the true world in which we are all held in Divine Love. The reason, as Jesus teaches us, is that to really live we first have to die. The death of which he speaks is not really as highly dramatic as we might envision it. It may instead consist of a choice, in a given moment, to say what must be said, even at the cost of our own “reputation.” For our ego, our own place in the eyes of others is paramount. As spirit, however, we are servants of a love that is always calling every one of us to more. The more we realize this call in particular actions, the more we shall awaken to the truth that the master is continually knocking at the door. Our only true responsibility is, mindless of the cost to ourselves, to open the door for him — in ourselves, in the other, in our world.
Divine love does not tolerate egoism. When we fall, we are empty and we do not have anyone near us except ourselves. We embrace our self and we protect it, turning away any kind of insult to it and wanting everyone to think well of us. At the same time, we do not pay attention to the type of life we are living—to what we are doing and how we are doing it. We don’t pay attention because we are sunk in our self.
We must look beyond our self for the sake of the love of God and not simply to reject the sovereignty of the ego but to kill it. Because if the ego doesn’t die, we cannot become one with God—’His Majesty,’ our ego, will always be an obstacle in our way. Like an aristocrat, whose ego never permits him to bow his head and holds it constantly high. That’s the reason we need humility, why we need to become humble and meek.
Elder Thaddeus of Vitnovnica