Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’Luke 14:28-30
For a very long time, I have found it difficult to really understand the place of Jesus’ warnings in today’s gospel. it seemed to me that what I heard as a call to proper planning in advance made good sense in the functional areas of life, but I could not really appreciate their relevance to the realm of my own human and spiritual formation. Of late, however, I have begun to experience, I think, precisely what Jesus is addressing. To paraphrase in the vernacular: “You will come to a time in life and in your commitment to me when you will sense that this relationship, that this life of faith, is far more than you bargained for. You will know the weight of your own cross and the cost of discipleship, that is no less than your very life.”
The opening lines of the gospel today are among the most difficult in the whole of scripture. Jesus tells his disciples that if one thinks it possible to be a disciple without “hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even one’s own life,” then that person is sadly illusioned. Radical discipleship is a tearing up of the very roots of what we take to be our life in relationship to others. We have an identity that is constituted by our initial familial formation as key to our life formation. Discipleship, which is the carrying of one’s own cross is a profound re-orientation of our very sense and understanding of one’s identity, of what one takes to be one’s self. To say that the cost of discipleship is one’s very self is not to say that it is our giving away of a self we continue to possess. Rather it is the loss of everything one thinks one has and is.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that we always hate those we at the same time love. There is a certain disingenuousness in us when we shrink in horror at Jesus’ words about hating our mothers and fathers, our wife and children, our brothers and sisters and even ourselves. Because if we are aware and honest, we know that we hate them all the time. The more we love and need them, the more we hate them. Love and hate always go together for human beings. Yet, we do tend to be horrified when confronted with the truth of our hatred of those we love. The result is that we attempt to suppress or repress this aspect of our experience, this movement of our heart and soul — and so we often keep refusing to truly understand this aspect of ourselves and our relational reality.
Our “self,” our “personality,” takes form as the field of formation that we are. It is our relationships to first our parents, but then all other persons, events, and things that come to constitute our lives. We come to experience and interpret who we are out of the forces that emerge from this field of relationships. Often in our lives this field of forces becomes comfortable and familiar to us. At such times, we are in the world in such a way that we take our place in it for granted. Whatever identity has emerged in the course of our experience, we take to be ourselves. This comfort is reflective of the certainty we have in the nature of our relatedness to each other. So, the self that I take for granted and comfortably assume is the self constituted by my social relations, both close and more distant. This mutually shared comfort with each other is often interpreted by us as love.
As transcendent, as spirit, however, we are always more than what our society in all its forms tells us that we are. I often think of a friend’s daughter who, as she grew into adolescence, once said to her mother, whom she loved, “Mom, I don’t understand why sometimes I feel that I hate you.” That experience, that we all know, is that of the assertion of a self, an identity, that is more than others recognize and constitute in us. Our love of each other almost always both serves and impedes our deepest self-realization. At the deepest level of heart and spirit we are always both loving and hating those who are telling us who we are. Our need for each other is so great, however, that inwardly we are constantly experiencing the conflict between carrying our own cross and carrying the cross which our world puts on us, between living for God and conforming to the demands of our culture, in all its manifestations.
So, as I read Jesus’ words today in light of my current experience, I realize that true discipleship would cost me the loss of many of my illusions about my relationships and my place in the world of others. An unfortunate aspect of living in a world and culture permeated with religious tradition is the facile way in which we appropriate “spiritual” language to buttress our own illusions. For example, we can far too quickly call our own manipulations and power dynamics the “work of the Spirit,” and we can avoid the conflictual reality of our relationships by calling ourselves brothers and sisters and by constituting our collective gathering as community. To carry our own cross requires of us to recognize and to face our illusions. It requires of us a willingness to bear our solitude and the reality of our distance from each other if we are to be drawn more fully into the way of the cross.
Such experiences, in family, or community, or friendships, or romantic relationships, or country can be terrifying. It is a moment of differentiation that initially, and perhaps much longer, is experienced as sheer darkness. If I am not what I have taken myself to be, than what or who am I? When we begin on the path of discipleship of Jesus did we count the cost that living in the truth would come to require of us? Recently Pope Francis said that he did not like adjectives to be applied to discipleship. His specific example was the adjective “authentic.” His problem, he said, was that there cannot be authentic and inauthentic discipleship. To be a disciple, as Jesus says today, is to be willing to pay whatever the cost. When young and idealistic it is relatively easy to say “Yes” to this. But when we grow old and “others take us where we would rather not go” (John 21:18) that is another matter.
Discipleship is the commitment, through it all, to carry our own cross. It is to be faithful to the call we are in Jesus, even at the cost of those illusions by which we have lived and felt significant. That hatred of our parents that every adolescent feels are intimations of the uniqueness and the challenge of our call. As human beings, our love for each other is always complex. We do love the other in his or her originality and in reverence to his or her call, but we also want them to be for us in return. We build societies based on the mutuality of relationships, but this mutuality is both reverent and possessive. We care for the other, but we also need them to save us from being alone. It is this need that leads us to hate them and resent them, even as we cling to them.
T. S. Eliot famously wrote that “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” (Burnt Norton, I) The cost of discipleship, however, is the bearing of reality which is a willingness to abandon our illusions as life reveals them to us, even those illusions we most cherish. At those moments when all seems to be differentiation, we are confronted with the question Jesus poses in the gospel today. “Did we not recognize as we chose the way of discipleship what that choice would cost us?” Even though our comprehension of the world and our place in it has changed, the world itself has not. As the Fundamental Principles say,
Jesus, your brother,
has walked this path before you.
as Risen Lord
He wants to walk this path again,
and His Spirit, the Spirit of God,
now guides you.
Given the complexity of human psychology, our relationships and the place we assume in society, in which these relationships constitute us, will always be a mixture of reality and illusion. Faith, in the deepest sense, is the trust that in the darkness we experience when the illusions of our lives are revealed and our lives become differentiated as a result that Jesus has walked this path before us and in us continues to walk it. Our illusions are so much a part of us that to lose them feels as if we are losing our very selves. Yet, these illusions are actually the obstacles to communion. We are capable of loving far more deeply and truly than we realize. The purity of heart of which we are capable, however, can only come about through the darkness that comes as the false light of illusion is darkened in us.
When I set out on the path, I thought it was about being good and doing good, and these seemed doable, even if difficult. What I didn’t understand, and so didn’t properly count the cost of, was that discipleship means also being led by life into reality, into the truth of things and that comes only at the cost of those illusions I have mistakenly seen as my very self.
I’m a “contemplative by catastrophe.” My wake-up calls generally come after the wreck has happened and I”m trying to dig my way out of the debris. I do not recommend this path as a conscious choice. But if you, dear reader, have a story similar to mine, I come as the bearer of glad tidings. Catastrophe, too, can be a contemplative path, pitched and perilous as it may be.Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old, pp. 59-60
I’m still on that path, and daily I stay alert for the disillusionment that will reveal the next thing I need to know about myself and/or the world. Life can always be counted on to send something my way—who knows what it will be today? Maybe a reminder of a part of my past that I regret. Maybe a spot on critique of something I thought I”d done well. Maybe a fresh political outrage that makes me feel that my country has lost all semblance of soul.
Whatever it is, I’ll try to work my way through it until a hopeful reality is revealed on the other side. Regret can be turned into blessing. Criticism can refocus our work or strengthen our resolve. When we feel certain that the human soul is no longer at work in the world, it’s time to make sure that ours is visible to someone, somewhere. These are some of the fruits that can come from being a contemplative by catastrophe.