Whoever does not bear one’s own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For who of you wishing to build a tower does not first sit down and figure out the price, to see if there are enough funds to complete the work? Otherwise, if one lays the foundation but is not able to finish, everyone seeing it will begin to mock that person. They will say, “This person began to build but was not able to finish.” . . . Such therefore is the case with all of you. If you do not relinquish all your possessions you cannot be my disciple.
The Xaverian Fundamental Principles remind us that we shall, over the course of our lives, come to know the truth of which Jesus speaks in today’s gospel:
you will realize
that the cost of your discipleship
is your very life . . . .
A teacher of ours used to say that it is a typical way of being for the human person “to put things together that don’t belong together.” For example, as we attempt to understand why the United States has so many more mass shootings than other developed countries, we see that what distinguishes American society is not a higher percentage of mental illness than other countries, and certainly not a more lenient criminal justice system, but quite obviously the sheer volume of firearms that are available. Yet, a significant percentage of the population, and certainly of the vested interests, continue to deny the connection between the hugely disproportionate incidence of mass killings and the number of readily available guns.
Throughout the gospel, we hear Jesus warning us of our tendencies to “want it all,” and how this is an obstacle to the transformation of our lives in God to which we are called, which is the way of discipleship. The truth we are called to reckon with today is that our call to be transformed into the image of God that is our life and destiny is absolute. We constantly want to give it a place among our other needs, wants, and desires — but Jesus tells us that we, no less than he, must take up our own cross and follow him. To attempt both to have things the way we want and to live our true and deepest call is “to put things together that don’t belong together.”
What do the above words of the Fundamental Principles mean when they say that as we live out our lives we shall gradually come to discover that the cost of discipleship is our “very life”? In today’s gospel Jesus says that we must come to hate “even our own life.” Most of us find it inspiring to hear, for example, of young people who for the sake of their art or their athletic aspirations will spend hours of every day in practice. When I think back to my refusal to spend even a half hour or hour daily in practicing my music, I am aware of how separate I am from those who are so dedicated to the gift they have been given that they will devote the majority of their waking hours in pursuit of its development. In many ways, it is far too easy for me to tell myself that they are the exceptionally gifted and I am but one of the common or ordinary or average persons.
From the spiritual or transcendent perspective, however, ordinary has a very different meaning from our typical interpretation which is to be nondescript or a regular, socially constituted person. Jan van Ruusbroec describes it as follows:
The bosom of the Father is our own ground and our origin, in which we begin our life and our being. And out of our proper ground – that is, out of the Father and out of all that is living in him – there shines an eternal brightness, which is the birth of the Son… The ordinary ground of our eternal image always remains in obscurity. But the incommensurable brightness which shines out from this ordinary ground reveals and brings forth the hiddenness of God. All those who are elevated above their creaturehood into a contemplative life are one with this divine brightness, and they are the brightness itself. They see and feel and find, by means of this divine light, that they are themselves the same ordinary ground out of which this brightness immeasurably shines forth without measure.
For Ruusbroec, our “ordinary ground” is our origin; it is the ground and essence of our very being. It is who we are. He says that our ordinary selves always remain in obscurity, but that by following the path of discipleship we can become one with this ground and so radiate its divine light into the world. The beauty in the expression of the great artist or athlete is the radiance of his or her ordinary life, the divine ground in which they, as all of us, “live and move and have our being.”
The differences among us are not that some originate in the divine light and others do not. It is rather a matter of who and what we love, a matter of the direction we give to our will. What is it that is most important to us and how much are we willing to pay for it? Jesus tells us by parable that if we discover the treasure in the field, we will sell everything we have in order to buy that field, and then spend our whole lives in digging in the field in order to unearth the treasure. While transformation is God’s work in us, it is our work to practice with our whole lives, to clear the ground that the treasure might be manifest.
The life that we must be willing to sacrifice if we are to be transformed is our life that, unconsciously and of its own accord, seeks to be gratified. As I grow older, I become ever more aware of how strong are my own reactions which are based on my demand that the world and all others conform to my needs and desires. At times I am open, warm, and available to others. At other times, I am closed, cold, and resentful of their very presence. At times I am enthusiastic and willing as regards the work at hand, and at others I am slothful and grudging in my response. At some moments I am hopeful and trusting, and at others I am discouraged and wary. So often, especially in familial and communal situations, the mode of relationship is that of power against power, of competing and often incompatible gratifications.
There are countless moments in my life where I fail to accept and even to recognize the gift of the moment that is being offered to me because I am enclosed in my unconscious life of instinctual reaction. For example, because I don’t like what is being said or the one who is saying it, I cannot receive the truth of my life that is being revealed, or because I am absorbed by the experience of my own pain, I am unaware of the life of the world beyond me.
We all sense that we are more than what we live from day to day. Yet, we would like to have the more plus the less at the same time. The call of today’s gospel is always an immediate one. At every given moment, I must make a choice for what I want most immediately and vitally, or for my “ordinary” life. It is of our very nature that the immediate has a hold over us, and it is this that makes our choice for the deeper life very difficult. Ruusbroec says that “All those who are elevated above their creaturehood into a contemplative life are one with this divine brightness, and they are the brightness itself. . . .” The “contemplative life” is another way of speaking of our most distinctively human capacities. To be truly human is to be, in this sense, contemplative. Yet, because “The ordinary ground of our eternal image always remains in obscurity,” and the pulls and pushes of our visible life are so immediately present and compelling, becoming truly human, living from our ordinary ground, is very difficult for us.
One of the promises of advanced technologies was an increase in leisure time for more people. Yet precisely the opposite has occurred. Now, many no longer work a mere eight hours per day but are “on duty” pretty much around the clock. We measure the advancement of society often by what we term levels of productivity. And so, individuals, with the help of technology, are more productive than ever. Yet, the quality of life has not improved but rather largely diminished. Perhaps one reason for this lies in how challenging and difficult leisure is for us. If the choice is to work or to become “contemplative” in the sense of facing ourselves and the world from our “ordinary ground,” we would prefer to be busy.
It is out of the experience of “the gap” between our life as we are living it and our “ordinary ground” and the “divine light” within us that the call to transformation occurs. The experience of this gap is the experience of our profound poverty, a poverty we try to fill, as Albert Camus says, with “love, and work, and communal life.” All with which we fill up our lives are our “possessions.” Most of us set out on the “way” of discipleship at a young age, perhaps before we were able to even begin to “count the cost.” And so, for the most part we vacillate between paying the price and refusing to do so. In the countless choices not only of life but of a single day, we often occupy our wills with the urgency or need or desire of the moment. The transformation to which we are called requires of us that day by day and moment by moment we “get rid of our wants rather than indulging them.” This is the only way for us in freedom to know and to experience “the ordinary ground of our eternal image.”
The attainment of our goal demands that we never stop on this road which means we must continually get rid of our wants rather than indulging them. For if we do not get rid of them all completely, we will not wholly reach our goal. A log of wood cannot be transformed into the fire if even a single degree of heat is lacking to its preparation for this. The soul, similarly, will not be transformed in God even if it has only one imperfection. As we shall explain in speaking of the night of faith, a person has only one will and if that is encumbered or occupied by anything, the person will not possess the freedom, solitude, and purity requisite for divine transformation.
St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I,11,6