So it will be on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, a person who is on the housetop and whose belongings are in the house must not go down to get them, and likewise a person in the field must not return to what was left behind. Remember the wife of Lot. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it.Luke 17:30-33
In today’s gospel from Luke Jesus tells us that when the Lord announces his coming we are not to attempt to return to the past, to grab hold of what we have seen as ours, as valuable to us. It seems as if, in Jesus’ view, what we take to be our life, at any given moment of it, is not our life in its eternal sense. The expression that “I need to get a hold of myself” comes to mind. Jesus is saying that there is no such object to get a hold of as one’s self. Jesus says we are not to look back, lest we petrify like Lot’s wife. Any way we attempt to “preserve” the “self” we take to be our life will result in our losing our true life. As Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me” (Gal. 2:19).
In our life of human and spiritual formation, we are engaged in a constant tension, some used to call it a spiritual warfare, between those instinctual forces that seek to preserve our lives and the movements of the spirit in us that seek to abandon our lives appreciatively to the life of God in us. Although Jesus speaks of the moment of the Lord’s return, he is speaking to us not only of the end of our individual lives or the end of the world but also of the insistent and perennial epiphanies of the Lord to us throughout our lives.
In The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila speaks of what she terms both exterior and interior mortification. As she is writing to her sisters, she speaks of the poverty and simplicity in which they have chosen to live as the exterior mortifications, in her situation this is especially true of visits from family. To appreciate this we need to understand that at Teresa’s time convents had largely become residences for wealthy, entitled, and perhaps spoiled young women. They had become to some degree a place of socialization and gossip among the well-healed of the towns. There was little attention to the inner life, because days were filled with the concerns of the social and familial spheres. Thus, in what can seem rather harsh to us, Teresa’s new rule prohibited, except under certain and rare conditions, visits with family members. Now, obviously, this would have been a severe external mortification for her sisters.
Teresa hastens to add, however, that imposed or external mortification has little meaning without an ever deepening interior mortification. This is the type of mortification of which Jesus is speaking. It is mortifying that tendency in us to “objectify” our selves. We can do it in terms of material possessions and wealth. Before her reform, many convents in Teresa’s time required dowries of those young women entering. The amount of the dowry would largely determine one’s place and perceived significance in the community. The true meaning of the vow of poverty is the refusal to objectify human life by means of wealth and possessions.
Yet, the external structure does not necessarily and inevitably result in the interior mortification of our attraction to money and possessions and our seeking significance for our life in them. So, when Jesus says don’t return to retrieve your belongings, he is telling us that they are not our life. The work of interior mortification is to grow, day by day, in detachment from what we have and what we own.
On a personal level, however, as I pray today’s gospel, I am personally awakened to a more subtle and powerful attachment. St. Teresa says what difference does it matter how we are seen and spoken about. She addresses the need we can feel to defend ourselves and our reputations, to attempt to repudiate those who have hurt or diminished us (as we see it). Now, admittedly, this is psychologically a thorny issue. Teresa is not saying that we should allow ourselves to be abused, or even worse to internalize that abuse in self-depreciation or self-hatred. Yet, she is pointing to the teaching of Jesus that tells us not to look back or to worry about what we had taken to be our self, for we are far more than that. Put simply, our reputation is also a possession that, if clung to, will keep us from realizing who we are as Jesus sees us.
Life will always counter our own illusions about ourselves. It is inevitable that we shall not be recognized or appreciated as we think we should be. We shall also fail at sincere efforts at least as often as we succeed. The gospel tells us that recognition, appreciation, success, and failure are all possessions to which we must not cling. And why? Is it in order to induce some salvific pain and suffering? Not at all. In fact, it is to travel the road, as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, toward “the end of suffering.”
Our reactions to rejection, lack of appreciation, failure and countless other experiences we term as “negative” are symptoms of our seeking to preserve our life at the cost of actually losing it. For those possessions and feelings we covet are the buttresses of our false form of life. Teresa goes so far as to say that we are to try never to indulge “our own will and desire, even in small things.” It is very difficult for us to understand this depth of spiritual teaching because the experience of unconditional love is rare in our experience. So, in the religious and spiritual spheres of our lives, we even make our relationship to God transactional.
Teresa tells her sisters that the life of one who longs to be among the closest friends of God is one long martyrdom. She is not saying by this that our suffering is what makes God love us. Rather, she is saying that our suffering, or martyrdom, our practice of inner mortification is what clears our heart, our mind and our eyes so that we can recognize the love that God has for us, and who it is that God loves.
Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes again there will be two in the same bed and one will be taken and one left. And there will be two in the field, and one will be taken and one left. Perhaps the two in the bed and in the field are actually one person. The one taken is the life we are with Christ in God. The one left is the “self” that we have developed and cultivated in and for our own indulgence. The love of God for us is constant; it is always coming to us. Yet, it is also very foreign to us. As Rudolph Otto taught, it is at once mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans. To the illusory self to which we cling it is terrifying; to the inner self it is most attractive and fascinating.
It is through the practice of inner mortification that our inner self strengthens and our false and anxious form loosens its grip on us. Yet, this is a painful process of giving birth to the Word who lives in our own soul. It means again and again refusing to “go back” to the belongings that have constituted our very sense of value, our very self-identification. It means trusting that as one after another possession and even our self-possession are taken from us that we are not left with nothing but rather with God alone.
To speak of living out a practice of inner mortification can sound like a dismal affair. And yet, it is the way to “a freedom and a liberation never before imagined.” It is about learning to lose our life rather than attempting to preserve it. The promise Jesus makes is that, much to our surprise, as we lose, what we think is our life, we discover the life that we are that is so much more. We hoard our possessions, both material and emotional, because we hope to experience love in them. But the love we so long for is actually something quite different from anything we can earn or possess. “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God loves what God has made in us, not what we have tried to make. So, the practice of inner mortification is our learning, in faith and appreciative abandonment, the truth of God’s love of us.
Why, then, do we shrink from interior mortification, since this is the means by which every other kind of mortification may become much more meritorious and perfect, so that it can then be practised with greater tranquillity and ease? This, as I have said, is acquired by gradual progress and by never indulging our own will and desire, even in small things, until we have succeeded in subduing the body to the spirit. I repeat that this consists mainly or entirely in our ceasing to care about ourselves and our own pleasures, for the least that anyone who is beginning to serve the Lord truly can offer Him is his life. Once he has surrendered his will to Him, what has he to fear? It is evident that if he is a true religious and a real man of prayer and aspires to the enjoyment of Divine consolations, he must not [turn back or] shrink from desiring to die and suffer martyrdom for His sake. And do you not know, sisters, that the life of a good religious, who wishes to be among the closest friends of God, is one long martyrdom?Saint Teresa of Avila. The Way of Perfection, Chapter 12