And Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You lack a single thing: Go, sell whatever you possess and give to the destitute, and you shall have a treasury in the heavens, and come follow me.” But the young man, saddened by the counsel, went away in sorrow, for he was someone who had many possessions. And looking around Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those possessing riches to enter into the Kingdom of God.”Mark 10:21-23
What makes us, human beings, so restless and anxious? Albert Camus says that we are constantly seeing refuge “in love, and work, and communal life.” From what are we seeking that refuge? The basic philosophical and psychological answer to this question is that we are evading the awareness of our deaths. The gospel answer, while not at all contradicting this, adds that in doing so we are also avoiding our own lives. Remember the young man asks Jesus “Good master, what may I do in order that I may inherit the life of the Age?” And Jesus responds, after telling him to keep the commandments, that the one thing he lacks is the lived awareness of his own poverty.
About a year ago, our Community began an attempt to open ourselves to God and each other in a new way that we hoped would help us to ask Jesus what he asked of us and for the courage and grace to respond. We began our shared reflection with this passage from Mark’s gospel, for we were aware that the experience of call is continual, that every moment of our lives is a potential encounter with mystery. As Christian Wiman writes: “This mystery is not, in any ultimate sense, explicable to anyone, but it is available to everyone who will not actively resist those moments when the self and all it suffers are finished—again, in both senses of the term.” For the first time in my decades long experience of religious life, most of us in the Congregation committed ourselves to dare to lay our lives open to the mystery of Jesus’ call to all of us by opening ourselves to each other.
It is fair, and at least somewhat accurate, to say that at least at moments during this attempt we “saw” Jesus looking at us and loving us. In doing so we dared to touch the truth of the limits of our attempts to respond to that love, of how, each in our own way and together, we had tried to be and do good but that the love of Jesus for us is always asking so much more. It asks us to cease running from the truth we know when in Jesus’ presence, that “the self and all it suffers are finished.” This is the single thing that we lack, our willingness to sell what we have and to give to the destitute, so that we may, now unencumbered, follow Jesus alone.
Without presuming to judge other individuals, I think it is fair to say that in the process of the encounter with Jesus that Mark describes, having come to Jesus with the question of what are we to do and having somewhat heard his answer to sell whatever we possess, we are on the verge of walking away sad. Our possessions, material and personal, meager as they are, are too great for us to release and let go. For all its deficiencies, for the lack we experience in what we have and how we constitute our lives, it affords us protection from the truth we are still unable to bear — the truth of our own death and “the life of the Age” that so transcends what we take to be our own lives.
The restlessness and anxiety that gives form to so much of who we are and what we do, of even our strivings to do and be good (Jesus reprimands the young man for calling him good, because “There is no one good save one: God.”), is our way of avoiding the frightening awareness of the truth that our life is not ours. It is only when we live in abandonment to the one who is our life that we live toward “the life of the Age.” That abandonment consists, at least in part, of releasing and even giving away every one of our personal (and group) possessions. Every person and institution that devotes more of its energy to security and self-perpetuation than to opening to new life is opting for its own death.
Many years ago a revered confrere of ours died of a heart attack as he was doing his work as Province Treasurer. When a friend of the community was informed of his death, he responded: “How good to die while doing your work, doing what you are supposed to be doing.” At the time I felt angry and as if the sadness and loss was being unduly spiritualized. Yet, today I live the comment as something of a mantra. I ask myself, not infrequently, “Were I to die at this moment, would I be doing the work that God has given me to do?” Often, I fear, the answer is no, and when it is, I am, like the Rich Young Man, sad.
Isn’t it strange that we so often choose sadness? We see in the Rich Young Man that the reason is that the choice for sadness is a choice for selfishness. It is a selfishness that at once refuses not only the summons of Jesus but one’s own deepest desire. It is a strange human perversity that we more often choose sadness over joy, for joy entails the risk of letting go of the very things that satisfy us at one level but create the sadness at another.
The possessions, not only material but also emotional, intellectual and spiritual, help us to create and bolster our illusion of self-fulfillment and self-realization. They are the noise that fills our consciousness so that we can avoid our feelings of emptiness. For the Community, in the West, we have our past accomplishments, our memories, the security of being taken care of until death, and the associations of wealthy and attractive acquaintances whose respect and generosity are a boost to our egos. In the developing world, we have the status of education, financial security, and professional standing. We develop a sense of entitlement that comes from the support of the larger Community. For all of us, we have done things and gone places that given our poor and humble beginnings would have seemed impossible to us. It can be easy for us to take our bourgeois life and mentality as a possession we are due.
Jesus tells the Rich Young Man, as he tells this rich old man, that if he is to follow him, he must divest himself of whatever he possesses. This goes far beyond material possession, although that might be a good start. The demand of Jesus’ call is absolute. It is not possible to divide up our devotion, because even one little attachment to self inhibits living in the truth. As St. John of the Cross says, the bird who is held to earth by a small string is as bound as the one held by a strong rope. I, and I fear we as a Community, are interested in negotiating to what degree we shall abandon ourselves to Jesus. We want to follow but on our own terms. We learn today this is impossible. To withhold from Jesus anything is to walk away sad.
So, our sadness is a gift and a call. A good friend likes to remind me that there is every possibility that the Rich Young Man of the gospel meets Jesus again, and this time he is ready to sell everything and to follow. I had a psychologist friend many years ago who worked largely with religious communities of men and women. He used to say that so many of them “were doing the hurting dance and didn’t even know it.” St. Paul writes: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15: 19). It is human nature to compromise to varying degrees the core demands of our commitments. Yet, we know that we did not commit ourselves to abandonment to Jesus through the life and way of the evangelical counsels in order to be comfortable or successful, as this world measures. If we are truly alive, our awareness of how we have so compromised our calling will make us sad. It is that sadness that can prepare us for our next moment of encounter with Jesus, who will again look on us with love and ask us to sell whatever we possess, to give it all away, and to come follow him, as we once so longed to do.
I think it’s dangerous to think of art—or anything, actually—as a personally redemptive activity, at least in any ultimate sense. For one thing, it leads to overproduction; if it’s art that saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it, even if the well seems to have run dry. But that’s almost beside the point. The real issue, for anyone who suffers the silences of God and seeks real redemption, is that art is not enough. Those spots of time are not enough to hang a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point—whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make.Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art, pp. 66. 69-70
. . . . This mystery is not, in any ultimate sense, explicable to anyone, but it is available to everyone who will not actively resist those moments when the self and all it suffers are finished—again, in both senses of the term. It may happen in art, your own or that of others. It may happen in love, grand or minor. It may happen at any moment in life when “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy” (Wordsworth), we cease to be ourselves and become, paradoxically, more ourselves. Our souls.