Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and, found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2: 5-7
When the time for the dinner came, he dispatched his servant to say to those invited, ‘Come, everything is now ready.’ But one by one, they all began to excuse themselves. The first said to him, ‘I have purchased a field and must go to examine it; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have purchased five yoke of oxen and am on my way to evaluate them; I ask you, consider me excused’ And another said, ‘I have just married a woman, and therefore I cannot come.’ The servant went and reported this to his master.
Luke 14: 17-21
So, what is it with these people who have been invited to a great dinner and find excuses not to go? Isn’t it more than strange that so many people would make excuses and not share in the most wonderful and extraordinary of experiences? Perhaps it is not so strange. Perhaps, in fact, this is precisely what most of us do most of the time.
What if Jesus means it when he says that he has come so that we might have life to the full and that he is always inviting us to share in that life. Given such an offer, might we not find it impossible to settle for a life that is so much less. Jesus presents to the Samaritan Woman at the well the choice between a life that is a constant flow of life-giving water or a life of daily trips to the well to struggle for a single bucket of water which will be empty at the end of the day. Wouldn’t we, given a choice between a love and a joy that overflows and pervades our entire being or the occasional gratification that a momentary pleasure gives us, of course, choose the former? Yet, the truth of the matter is that we choose the daily grind of getting our own bucket of water rather than accepting and receiving the gift of the spring of water within. We prefer the momentary gratification and pleasure to the “eternal life” of peace, joy, and love that comes from passing through the gate of Jesus’ life and way.
The reason for this rather mysterious obtuseness on our part is captured by Paul in today’s passage from Philippians. To receive the gift and to share in the banquet God has prepared for us requires of us to take on the attitude or mind of Christ. It requires of us that we “empty ourselves” and this is threatening to us because we think what we are being asked to let go of is all that we have and are. And so, moment by moment, in our everyday lives, we make excuses for not accepting the invitation.
As I have written often before, I personally am always continually refusing to stop my own control of my life and my time (neither of which are actually mine) and to empty myself to receive what God is offering me. My control of my time and my experience of my life in the way I want it to be is, in truth, a greater value to me than the love of God. St. John of the Cross, among other great spiritual teachers, would call this, and the excuses it gives rise to, spiritual sloth. In St. John’s words, ”Because of their sloth, they subordinate the way of perfection (which requires denying one’s own will and satisfaction for God) to the pleasure and delight of their own will.”
According to St. John, we make excuses because we feel an aversion toward adapting our will to God’s because God’s will that we come to live a fuller and deeper life requires that we forego some satisfaction to which we are currently attached. In Paul’s terms, we must empty ourselves to take on the mind and the life of Jesus. We have begun in the Congregation a process of what we are calling “Graced Crossroads” or a call to transformation. The crossroads at which we find ourselves is really quite simple. It is the choice to choose to live the life we describe in our Fundamental Principles or Rule of Life or to remain in that gap we all recognize between its call and or current way of living.
Conversion, reformation, transformation is always difficult precisely because, as St. John says, we measure God by ourselves and not ourselves by God. This is the continual human dilemma and the manifestation of our sinfulness, our spiritual sloth. The greatest obstacle to change, even change for the better, is our unwillingness to question the validity and integrity of our current way of living. What makes an emergence from depression so difficult, for example, is one’s fear of not being depressed, of the unknown experience of joy. What inhibits our love of another is our fear of how such a love will alter our life as it is. What keeps us from receiving and living the life with God that we are constantly being offered is, in John’s teaching, our subordinating “the way of perfection to the pleasure and delight of . . . [our] own will.”
So, in our communal process, we have begun the journey to “transformation,” by taking the first step of opening up to each other as brothers about our deepest desires and aspirations. This has not been easy and has required faith and courage on the part of many. It has already asked of us to relinquish some of our autonomy and independence in order to make room for deeper connection and relationship to each other. But now we enter into the even greater challenge, which is what are we willing to do? What happens when what emerges from our shared conversations and communal discernment is a call to move, to change our way of living, to expand our vision beyond our own self and locale? What happens when obedience to the call and the needs of the community impinge on our time, on the leisure and self-determination we have set as our right in retirement? How do we pass from a stance of observation and curiosity to that of accepting God’s invitation and acting?
Many years ago I participated in a process that was an attempt to discern who would best serve our then province as provincial. In the course of the meeting, the two Jesuit facilitators admonished the group. They told us that discernment was impossible when we all had excuses for not being considered: “I am too old. I am too young. I have another important work. I do not have the competencies.” As we read the gospel today, we are reminded of how many excuses we have for settling for so much less in life. For much of my life I have struggled with laziness born of my fearfulness of giving all I have with the possibility of then suffering disappointment. While I have made some strides on the functional side of life with this, I have yet to deepen in faith and trust enough to give over my life, my time, my petty satisfactions and sense of self-determination to God. I have, as those in the gospels, multiple reasons for withholding my heart and my whole self. The Fundamental Principles tell us that
you will realize
that the cost of discipleship
is your very life
freely consecrated to God
in poverty, celibacy, and obedience,
and offered to the world
as a sign of His love and care.
At some point, it is time to stop making excuses and to accept the invitation that God offers us. Simone Weil says that “God waits as a beggar for our love.” Every time I make excuses, when I walk by on the other side as the priest and Levite did to the man who had been assaulted and robbed, I am ignoring God and God’s desire that I live the life with God for which I have been created. The invitation today is to accept the invitation to life without any more excuses.
Also, regarding spiritual sloth, these beginners usually become weary in exercises that are more spiritual and flee from them since these exercises are contrary to sensory satisfaction. Since they are so used to finding delight in spiritual practices, they become bored when they do not find it. If they do not receive in prayer the satisfaction they crave—for after all it is fit that God withdraw this so as to try them—they do not want to return to it, or at times they either give up prayer or go to it begrudgingly. Because of their sloth, they subordinate the way of perfection (which requires denying one’s own will and satisfaction for God) to the pleasure and delight of their own will. As a result they strive to satisfy their own will rather than God’s.
Many of these beginners want God to desire what they want, and they become sad if they have to desire God’s will. They feel an aversion toward adapting their will to God’s. Hence they frequently believe that what is not their will, or brings them no satisfaction, is not God’s will, and, on the other hand, that if they are satisfied, God is too. They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God, which is in opposition to his teaching in the Gospel that those who lose their life for his sake will gain it and those who desire to gain it will lose it [Mt. 16:25].
St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, I,7,2 – 3