“As you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord granted my request. Now I, in turn, give him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the Lord,” She left Samuel there.
1 Samuel 1:26-28
At the heart of the Xaverian Fundamental Principles lies the call to each of us, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and so become a minister of God’s healing touch of love to all we meet. Yet, it is clear that to follow in Jesus’ footsteps requires of us that we abandon our own way of thinking in favor of learning the “inscrutable but adorable” ways of God.
As we read today from 1 Samuel of Hannah’s presenting of her long desired son Samuel in the temple, we are brought into that inscrutable world of true belief. Having just received the gift of the child for whom she had longed her whole life, she now approaches Eli and gives her son away. “Now I, in turn, give him to the Lord.” For us who are formed in the values of capitalism and consumerism, the behavior of Hannah presents a contradiction that beggars belief. Having finally received that which she has so longed for, what sense does it make that she now gives him up?
In the magnificat which we also read today, Mary, as Hannah before her, says that “the hungry are filled with good things, while the rich are sent away empty.” Somehow in the world of the spirit, it is not what we possess that fills us, but rather our emptiness that allows us to be filled by God. To be rich in this scriptural sense is “to have many possessions.” This is the status of the Rich Young Man in the gospel who cannot follow Jesus as he desires to because “he had many possessions.” Jesus tells the young man that the condition to follow him is to give up and give away all of what he possesses, what he mistakenly believes belongs to him.
Hannah knows that this gift of a son to her is not a possession that belongs to her. Rather, he is given to her to tend to and care for on trust. A basic spiritual problem for us who are formed by the values of capitalism is that everything and everyone is seen through the perspective of possession. We treat persons and the earth itself as if they belonged to us. We are unable to respond to the potential and impending destruction of our planet because we think it is ours to use for the sake of our own comfort and affluence. We even see and treat our children as our own possessions. What they do and become is, for us, a reflection of our own sense of identity and success.
So, we must enter into the cognitive dissonance that Hannah’s behavior evokes in us. If she can behave the way she does with her long desired child, so must we come to see what it means to live and to act realizing that nothing is ours. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul berates the Corinthians for having become factionalized. There are some who say they are followers of Paul, while others say they are followers of Apollos. Yet, Paul says: “So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.” Paul says to stop distinguishing yourselves by what is yours or who you belong to, for all belong only to Christ, and so only to God.
Most human problems, at least in the affluent and capitalist West, are problems related to a distorted sense of possession. Recently we heard of how a member of the U.S. Senate had his ribs broken by a neighbor of his in their gated community who was infuriated by his lack of conformity to the rules of the neighborhood association. The Senator, true libertarian that he is, believed that since his property was his he did not need to take the sense of propriety of his neighbors into account. The neighbor, on the other hand, was resentful of the negative impacts of the Senators’ unique and eccentric upkeep of his property on his own. Clearly the gates intended to keep out of sight and consciousness the struggles of poorer people outside could not prevent those within from the effects of their own possessiveness and violence.
Most of our relational problems are also the result of our mistaken desire to possess those we love and even our own children. We live in jealousy and fear of loss of those we love because we believe they have become our own possession. We suffer repeatedly what we feel to be the inadequacy of the other’s response to us because we erroneously believe that they exist to complete us. Our secular formation tradition has led us to see everyone and everything in our lives as our possessions. Hannah’s giving over of her son to the Lord actually sounds to us as a failure of parental responsibility. it is hard for us to appreciate that she is not denying her responsibility to Samuel but rather contextualizing it. It is precisely because Samuel is God’s and not hers that Hannah must tend to him with the proper reverence for his dignity and his unique call that comes from God and so is mystery to her. She is to tend to him as a servant of the One to whom he truly belongs. This is precisely what we tend to miss in our more transactional sense of relationship. When others, including our own children, are possessions of ours, we, often without realizing it, condition our care of them based on the gratification they bring us. We communicate approval and disapproval not in terms of their uniqueness as God’s children, but rather in terms of their conformity to our demands and expectations.
It is often very difficult for the more basic teachings of our faith tradition to overcome the strength of our secular formation tradition. The call to spiritual detachment can seem to us to be a rather remote and ethereal idea. Yet, there is no true and authentic spiritual life and so no spiritual action that does not proceed from it. As long as we are holding on not only to what is outside of us but to our own life as our own possession, we are unable to break the grip on us of our tendency to inflict on the world our own unique brand of manipulation, control, and violence. The rich are sent away empty because their desires are so limited. The hungry, however, are filled with many good things because they are available to receive whatever is given, trusting that whatever is given is, in truth, all that they need.
I can recall certain Christmases as a child when my heart was set on a certain gift in particular. My heart and my eyes were focused on just that one thing that would make me happy. And so, everything else was extraneous and unappreciated. There were usually many gifts, each of which to a child who had little would have been a source of great joy and appreciation. Yet, for me, even the nicest of gifts was a disappointment, unless and until I received the one thing to which I felt entitled. Although no longer a child, I can still spend Christmas, as most any of my days, limiting my field of vision and my openness of heart in search of what it is I think I need and most want. Meanwhile, from moment to moment I am being filled with good things that ask for my response in gratitude and service. When I cease attempting to possess and control, I discover that all is mine, that we are all Christ’s, and thus we are all God’s. So the fact that everything and everyone comes and goes is not a disappointment, but rather a call to serve who and what is given to me, while I can and as I can.
It is a difficult and embarrassing time to be an American. When representatives of my government threaten and bully other nations to submit to the ignorant and selfish decisions they make in the name of “the American people,” I feel angry, discouraged, and even impotent. Yet, such extreme behavior is but a culmination of previous decades of becoming more and more blinded by the false, arrogant, and entitled notion that the goods of this world and the submission of others is our possession by right. Perhaps this is actually a moment of grace in which our spokespersons no longer cover our selfishness with a veneer of goodness. We now proclaim that it is right to seek our benefit over all others at even the expense and suffering of others, that it is only our wealth and power that make us great, and that we are prepared to do anything to maintain that status. The magnificat reminds us that the inevitable result of this will be that we shall, at last, go away empty, while the hungry we have been intent on refusing and denying receive their fill.
“For all belong only to Christ and Christ belongs only to God”. As we prepare to celebrate this Christmas, may we wish all that we wish for ourselves for others. May we remember that each of us alike “came naked from our mother’s womb and naked returns there” (Job 1:21). The Jesus whose coming we celebrate is One for all, just as everything that is given is given for all. To paraphrase Jan van Ruusbroec, the love of the Jesus whose coming we celebrate is “a love common to all.” God’s love is not our own possession, nor is it a possession of one religious group or other. It is a manifestation of the truth of God’s universal love, and a call to us to make real, to incarnate that truth.
Gandhian Satyagraha is thus rooted in an attitude that, in his eyes, should be fundamental to all religious practice and belief worth the name, an attitude that relativizes the claim of the self to absolute possession or absolute control. But it does not entail – as the superficial observer might think – absolute passivity or the acceptance of injustice; as Gandhi’s witness so consistently shows. It is rather that it dictates the way in which we resist. We do not resist in such a way that we appear to be seeking the same kind of power as is now injuring or frustrating us. We do not imitate anything except the truth: our model is the divine communication of what is good. But beyond this obvious principle is the further point which Gandhi implies but does not fully state: belief itself is not a possession, something acquired by the ego that will henceforth satisfy the ego’s needs for security and control. To believe in God is to be a ‘trustee’ of God’s truth. My belief is not a thing I own; I might say, truthfully enough, that it ‘owns’ me, that I am at its service, not that it is at mine. When I claim truth for my religious convictions, it is not a claim that my opinion or belief is superior, but a confession that I have resolved to be unreservedly at the service of the reality that has changed my world and set me free from the enslavement of struggle and rivalry. To witness to this in the hope that others will share it is not an exercise in conquest, in signing up more adherents to my party, but simply the offer of a liberation and absolution that has been gratuitously offered to me. When Gandhi reminded his Johannesburg audience that a promise made in the name of God was a serious matter, he was underlining for them the fact that commitment to God in their work for justice involved them in an act of renunciation in the name of truth, the renunciation of any style of living and acting that simply reproduced the ordinary anxieties and exchanges of force that constitute the routine of human society.
Williams, Rowan. Faith in the Public Square, Kindle Locations 5832-5846.