At that very moment he rejoiced [in] the holy Spirit and said, “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”Luke 10: 21-24
Today is the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, the patron of my congregation. Our Founder, Theodore James Ryken told us that “The name of this insatiable laborer for souls will indicate with one word what is intended for the congregation.” Now I have to admit that there are very few ways I am able to identify with St. Francis Xavier. Perhaps if at the age of 17, when I was making the decision to join the congregation, I had known these words of Ryken I would have sought out an order or congregation more suited to my personality and temperament. Yet, I do believe that while unable to identify with Francis Xavier in his courage, selflessness, and zeal, I can somewhat identify with him in his intention.
It is said that Francis Xavier changed his life when the following words of the gospel penetrated his heart: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36). I believe not a day goes by, at least in my later years, that these words of Jesus do not reverberate in me. What good is there in life, if I am not living the call of God to be who I am called to be, to do for the world what I alone have been given to do. When young, I thought saving my soul meant to keep it from getting stained by doing or thinking sinful things. The idea, as we learned as children, was to keep the milk within the glass bottle spotless. Of course, one would never emulate Francis Xavier in this timid and defensive way of living. For him, saving one’s soul meant to spend all of who and what one was in God’s and humanity’s service. It was to do the work that he had been given to do.
Each day I receive from the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, a daily reflection from the late Eknath Easwaran. His reflection today is based on a famous passage from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience:
Most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger.
It is very easy for us to live our lives like the person who gets into the habit of using and moving only one’s little finger. As a young person I had, what feels in retrospect, like an anomalous fear of death. Over time I discovered that I was not so much fearing death as I was fearing not living. That is, I feared that if I continued living merely to conform to what I saw as others’ expectations of me, or in order to be good or successful in the eyes of others, I would be gaining the whole world but losing my soul in the process. The anxiety I was suffering was the spiritual anxiety that moved Francis Xavier to give up all of his privilege and entitlement for the sake of his heart’s desire. Just last evening I read the following epigraph to a chapter of a memoir of Saeed Jones by Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley: “Somewhere between the fact we know and the anxiety we feel is the reality we live.” “The anxiety we feel” is the summons of our soul to bring into the world, for the sake of the world, the mysterious and unique call that is our own life.
So often in our own lives, and then together in our places of living and work, we are individually and together using and moving but our little finger. At such times and in such places, we can even appear to be very busy and productive at one level, but we are largely lifeless. Ordinary life, to be sure, can be constituted by a lot of “settling for less.” And we can learn to dull the pain and the anxiety that such lifelessness should evoke in us. I, at times, have lived and worked with others in a way that, although certainly not perfect, was an incessant call to each other to be more, to live out more fully one’s call. And I have also lived and worked in situations in which relationship and collaboration were assiduously avoided. I have awakened mornings anticipating social and work situations with an eagerness and desire to share life and challenge with each other, and I have awakened other mornings with the lassitude and discouragement that goes with putting in my time in such a way that feels as if I am losing my soul in the process. I suspect that we all know both of these experiences. They are for us the challenge that Francis Xavier faced.
As I increasingly experienced loving and working in the truth of my own life, my fear of death began to recede. I have slowly come to realize that death is not fearsome if we have lived our lives. If we fail to live our lives, however, then death is the ultimate futility. This is perhaps what is really meant by loss of one’s soul. Every society, every group tends to take on a corporate sense and identity which would afford us a place to use and move merely our little finger. Perhaps we have no choice at our workplace, for we must realistically provide for ourselves and our families. The great spiritual danger lies in our bringing this home, in our doing and living only the minimum, only enough to survive. In our day it is clear that our economic system is in decline. For, the creativity and life of a society is dependent on its not over-compromising the uniqueness, creativity, and soul of its members. At the point at which it becomes, for most people, soulless, it will inevitably atrophy.
Our economic system at this point has come to demand of its workers that they be but cogs in the machine of a production designed to inflate the wealth of the few. The same can tend to happen in the church. That so many, especially of the young, have left in droves may be due in good part to the fact that to be a church member had come to mean “to pay, pray, and obey,” rather than to be formed by and to give form to the living body of Christ. Our country and its social structure is on the verge of collapse because we have lost the call to citizenship. A citizen is one who sees her or his life in light of the call to serve the common good. It is to know one’s responsibility for the whole, and to make real in action one’s unique gift of service to be given for the sake of the common wealth.
In my own congregation, we have become aware of how, in the course of time, we have failed as individual members to be faithful to the call of our Rule of Life to be responsible for the life and works of the congregation. But merely saying we must be responsible is not enough. Each of us must first recognize how our life is a unique responsibility toward and for the whole and then learn how to live that out. We have been called by God to this community to give it and those it serves all of the unique call that we are in God. Religious groups, however, no less than any other social grouping, tend toward a functionality that fosters conformism and dependence. A truly living community where the unique call of each member is fostered can seem far too chaotic to be efficient and manageable. And so, we can come to a place where we call for responsibility but have not fostered the deeper life, the soul, in each of us that makes true responsibility possible.
When some of us were young in the faith, it was communicated to us that we needed to be fearful about losing our souls. We had better make sure that we didn’t have mortal sins on them because, if we died suddenly, we would be hell-bound. The possibility of losing our souls is, indeed, a fearful thing. But it is not the servile fear that our catechetics sought to engender. It is, rather, the “fear of the Lord,” that takes the form of anxiety that we feel when we know we are breathing but not living, we are doing, but not responding to our call. “Somewhere between the fact we know and the anxiety we feel is the reality we [are called to] live.”
Not far from where I was brought up is Walden Pond. It is there, just outside of Concord, Massachusetts, where Henry David Thoreau fled in order to find his soul. In words that resound at the heart of American thought, he wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Centuries before Francis Xavier had heard the words of Jesus and responded not by fleeing to the woods but by going out to all the world. Yet, the motivation was the same. Hell, the loss of our soul, would be to come to die and “discover that I had not lived.” We are not merely cogs in a machine, foot soldiers in an army, or indistinguishable members of a club. We are unique images of God and forms of Christ in the world. The world needs us to be that image and to afford that unique service that is ours to give, and we have not truly lived until we do so.
People don’t just happen.We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The “I” it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, “I am no longer yours.” My grandmother and I, without knowing it, were faithfully following a script that had already been written for us. A woman raises a boy into a man, loving him so intensely that her commitment finally repulses him.
Silent beside my grandmother on the same twenty-minute drive we’d taken so many times that summer, I could feel the distance growing but didn’t understand it yet. Instead, a sense of certainty took root in me.
. . . .
I sat there ablaze, struggling to apprehend a new, darkly radiant sense of self. I felt dangerous, evil even.
If this feeling was what my grandmother meant, I wasn’t sure I would survive it after all.
But I couldn’t turn to her now—not anymore—to name whatever was having its way with me. So we drove on, an old woman and her grandson, alone together, making their way through one last gorgeous summer evening in Memphis.Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir (pp. 34-35)