“I do not know how you appeared in my womb; It was not I who endowed you with breath and life. I had not the shaping of your every part. It is the creator of the world, ordaining the process of man’s birth and presiding over the origin of all things, who in his mercy will most surely give you back both breath and life, seeing that you now despise your own existence for the sake of his laws.”
2 Maccabees 7:22-23
The third slave came and said, “Master, here is your mina. I hid it in a kerchief out of fear of you, for you are a severe man. You withdraw what you have not deposited. You reap what you have not sown.”
In the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel, the third slave lives his life from a perspective of fear and scarcity. The result of these basic dispositions of heart is a view of the world and of the Mystery as severe and demanding. He lives with an overriding sense of depreciation rather than appreciation. Thus, he is unable to receive the abundance of gifts that are offered, which is probably why in the parable he receives less than the others. As St. Thomas Aquinas teaches: “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur. Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” This is why Jesus says that “. . . to everyone who has will something be given; from the one who does not have even what he has will be taken away.”
Coincidentally, the parable today is paired with the reading from 2 Maccabees, thus contrasting the spirit of the mother with that of the third slave. She encourages her sons to be faithful to their call even at the cost of death because she recognizes that she, and so everyone, really possesses nothing. Because she recognizes that all, including her “own” children, is given as a gift, she lives in a basic disposition of appreciation and gratitude. She has become formed in a faith and trust that the One who gives breath and life will always continue to do so. We are not to hold on to anything, because as surely as everything passes, so too will more be given.
Our own formation of heart is always taking place in the tension between these two basic dispositions. We might even say that our capacity for love of God and the world is dependent on the depth of our appreciation and gratitude. The third slave in the parable does not appreciate either “the master” or himself. He lives in fear of losing the little that he has because he knows nothing of the abundance of love that continually pours out to him. He lives and moves and breathes because he is held in being by Love. Yet, he takes his life to be a possession of his own which is always under threat. On the other hand, the mother in Maccabees encourages her children to lay down their lives because the One who gives them life will continue somehow to do so. It is her and their appreciation of the gift of life and world that enables them to hand everything over in trust and faith.
The basis of this tension in us is due to the very nature and structure of our personalities. The pulsations, impulses, and ambitions of the pre-transcendent dimensions of our personality seek our survival at all cost. From this level, we are instinctually aware of our contingency and mortality. Here we live and act defensively and fearfully, instinctively “holding on” to what we realize is always slipping away from us. For example, we all have the tendency to accumulate more than we need in order to attempt to stave off the inevitable, as Jesus teaches in his parable of the man who builds a second barn to hold all the wheat he will ever need, only to die that night. We put our functional dimension at the service of our bodily impulses and instincts rather than at the service of our transcendent potencies.
At the level of spirit, we are a capacity to be in the world in a different way, not set against it defensively but rather living a life in relationship, that is in harmony and consonance, with all that is. As the Fundamental Principles say:
For it is only in harmony
that you will grow,
that your community will grow,
that the love of God will grow in your world,
and that the reign of God will grow to completeness.
The more that we realize our inter-relatedness to all things, the more that we recognize the abundance in the gift of life and creation of which we are but a small part. When I become self-preoccupied, I reduce the world “to my own size.” That world is always insufficient and fearful. It will never provide what I want it to, that is the establishment of my reign and immortality. The great loss of my early life was that of my grandmother when I was six years old. For decades of my life I suffered the effects of this unmourned loss. I could not think of her without sadness and could only see life in the fear of losing it. In time, however, I came to see that my perspective was basically mistaken. My grandmother was not my possession. She was a gift, among the greatest of gifts to me, which was given to me for a time — a time that was really the right one in my life. With that realization my disposition of heart began to change, from one of anger and fear to one of gratitude and appreciation.
Theodore James Ryken, in speaking of his moment of conversion at age 19, describes the first step in that conversion as being put in his place. His experience reminds us that one way we can begin to practice growth in appreciation is by remembering our place. At the level of our pre-transcendent life, we naturally focus our gaze on ourselves. The contemplative stance, however, is a stance where we look out at the world from our true place in it and not look at the world as filtered through our own self-preoccupied and self-aggrandized place. All of life and world is a gift to us, but not a possession of ours. When we see life as a gift, in thanksgiving, we see that it is a greater abundance than we can ever fully receive. On the other hand, when we attempt to possess and control it, we live in the constant fear of loss; we experience it as never enough.
To love God and to do the will of God is, ultimately, to say “yes” to how things are. It is to attempt to live a life responding in gratitude to the gifts that are given. It is to allow the deep thanks that is the expression of our spirit to become increasingly the source of our words and deeds. Then we shall know the truth that “. . .to everyone who has will something be given; from the one who does not have even what he has will be taken away.”
In the context of this surrender, grace over a lifetime will transform our human responses. Now and then we’ll smile where we couldn’t before. Now and then we will have an abiding awareness or conscious experience of God’s presence. Now and then we will not feel envious or get depressed when the person next to us is noticed and praised more than we are. This is God’s work. Our primary work is to live in intimacy with God, which is above all a continual yes to God; which is above all the life of Christ welling up within us in obedient love for the Father. When we each day try to say yes, Christ himself is formed to the fullness of his stature within us. We gradually incarnate his life in our daily responses. We begin to share his glory in a contemplative openness to the face of God. Our union with the Word becomes consummated. Death will be the gift of our last breath to God, our final yes to one last moment.
Richard Byrne, OCSO, On Doing What We Can: Good Will As An Origin of Contemplative Living