On that day the person who is on the roof but has belongings inside the house should not go down to get them. The person who is in the field should likewise not turn back for the things left behind. Remember Lot’s wife! Anyone seeking to hold life as a possession will lose it. Whoever loses it will keep it alive.
Luke 17: 31-33
Jan van Ruusbroec writes: “For this reason, if you wish to begin a good life and remain in it forever, you must sincerely intend and love God above all things.” We all want to live “the good life.” Contemporary culture defines the good life as a life of maximum pleasure, comfort, and security. Perhaps, although the idea of what constitutes these things may change, this has always been at least one aspect of our craving for an enjoyable and happy life. In today’s gospel, however, Jesus counters that understanding. He says that if we live by attachments, by our cravings for possession, including possession of our own life, we shall wind up losing everything.
“Turning back” in the gospel is a description of living with a divided heart. it is the everyday experience that most of us know of wanting good, of desiring to live for God and God alone, on the one hand, and for comfort and gratification on the other. After over fifty years of religious life, I must admit that in countless ways I experience myself as being torn between competing desires. I think if most of us are honest, we would admit that our usual stance is one of trying to reconcile our deepest spiritual or transcendent aspirations on one side, with our need and craving to enhance our life as our own possession on the other.
The truth of the matter is that to be human is to be conflicted. We long to be simple, to be pure of heart in the way the gospel describes, yet, as Ruusbroec says, our love of God “does not overcome every inordinate inclination or desire” of our nature. We must, he says, always “hold fast in the battle” that is constituted by the contrary pulls from the differing levels of or personalities. This conflict or battle is exemplified by Luke in Lot’s wife. She is fleeing to save her very life, and yet is drawn back towards death by her desire to save and hold on to some of her possessions. We see the same intense struggle in the story of the Rich Young Man. He is one who longs for the eternal life that is the singular love of God. Yet, at least at the moment related in the gospel passage, he is unable to follow Jesus’ way because he has many possessions. Even though holding on to his possessions makes him sad, he chooses them because of their possession of him.
These days in our Religious Community, we are struggling with the meaning of the call to conversion and transformation. We realize that as individuals and as a Congregation we have done a lot of “turning back” from the aspirations of our Founder and of our Fundamental Principles and Rule of Life. We experience a sadness that comes as we recognize that we have to a degree said “yes” to the dream and vision of Brother Ryken, but we have also, in our personal and communal lives, strayed from that vision as we attempted to both give our lives and hold on to them as our own possessions at the same time. So now, we, as every one of us in our own lives continually experiences anew, are receiving an invitation to “intend and love God above all things.”
As I, and I suspect all of us, experience this invitation, this moment of encounter with Jesus like that of the Rich Young Man, I also experience the conflict. “I am tired; I am old; I have other commitments; I am unhealthy; I have already paid my dues; I can’t trust the others enough; I fear I will yet again be disappointed; I have relationships and attachment to others to whom I am responsible.” All of these and many more ways that I hold my life as my possession inhibit my saying “yes.”
In the abstract I always desire renewal and new life. I readily speak of love of God and of commitment to my Congregation and its mission. And yet, I would like to ignore the personal responsibility I have to respond to the call to more life and to greater and more single-hearted love. What each of my “possessions” has in common is that they are a turning without for life and meaning, rather than a turning within. Ruusbroec says that each time we turn within we shall “savor and experience God’s goodness.” Turning within, however, means not turning back out toward all those possessions that appeal to us as alternatives to the love of God.
Even those of us with very little money have, like the Rich Young Man, many possessions. These possessions have such a hold on us because they represent for us our own life as a possession. Since our life is a gift that is not ours to possess or control, we shall always lose our life when we attempt to hold on to it in this way. If however, we “turn within” to the One who is the source and giver or our life, we have nothing to lose. Ruusbroec says that the way we are to practice learning “the genuine love which is imperishable” is “through forgetting and renouncing” ourselves, that is by ceasing to see our life as our own possession.
The “Suscipe” is a very familiar prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
It is a prayer not merely to be recited but to be enacted. To merely say the prayer is life depleting. To intend and then to try to do it , however, is the way to life. I take my liberty, memory, understanding and will to be, in fact, mine. But they are not. St. Ignatius understands, obviously through his own experience, that all of us come to take our individual lives to be ours. We mistakenly come, then, to believe, that they are to be our primary preoccupation. As long as we live from this perspective, we are always experiencing loss. When our gaze, however, turns to God, when it is God and not our own life that we love “with all our heart and soul and mind and strength,” then we experience the eternal life from which we spring and which we share. When I experience that I am holding on to my liberty, understanding, or will as my own, I am called to give it back to God. This requires of us a transformation of our life of desire. As Ruusbroec says, you are to come to “always be occupied with your Beloved with great desire.” This transformation toward such a purity of heart comes about by a lifetime of practicing returning to the Lord what the Lord has given us.
In Psalm 116:12 we hear the question: “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good He has done for me?” The answer the mystics give us is that we must constantly practice forgetting and renouncing ourselves, that is, the return to the Lord we are to make is our life. This does not mean a kind of spiritual masochism. Rather, it means that at every moment when I become aware that my preoccupation is my and mine, I turn to the Lord and return myself to the Lord. I do this by renouncing whatever the possession is that binds me in this moment. Moment by moment we are choosing between loving and possessing. Much of the time, without really being aware and realizing it, we are choosing a possession (including ourselves) over love. When we, as the Rich Young Man, stand before the Lord, there is often “one thing” that stands between us and “eternal life.” That is, we always have our reason for saying “no.” It is our choice to hold on to that which we are being asked to give away that keeps us from “genuine love.” To say “yes” is, at the moment we become aware, to give back that to which we are holding on.
Holding on to what we think we possess is the “what else” that stands between us and eternal life. The Rich Young Man has always been “good” and kept the commandments. He is able to do good, but he is not yet able to trust enough to face the truth of his ultimate poverty, that he possesses nothing he has not been given. We receive life in its fullness when we let go of what separates us from living in the truth, and the joy, of our own poverty.
The Holy Spirit reveals his grace in a person’s heart. If, then, a person wishes to accept God’s grace, he opens his heart and will to God and receives God’s grace and interior working with a joyful spirit. At once his affection toward God outweighs and overcomes his inordinate affection toward all creatures, though it does not overcome every inordinate inclination or desire of his nature, for a holy life is a knightly service in which one must hold fast in the battle. For this reason, if you wish to begin a good life and remain in it forever, you must sincerely intend and love God above all things. This intention will always lead you toward what you love, and in love you will praise, embrace, and possess what you love. You will base your entire life on this and always be occupied with your Beloved with great desire. You will thus savor and experience God’s goodness each time you turn within, and so you will love God purely for his eternal glory, so that you might love him for all eternity.This is the root of a holy life and of that genuine love which is imperishable and which you will always practice through forgetting and renouncing yourself.Therefore hold yourself above all things so as not to seek your own advantage in love—seek neither savor nor consolation nor anything else which God can give you for your own comfort in time or in eternity, for that is contrary to charity and is a tendency of our nature which makes genuine love wither away.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, I,A