Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year C
Psalm 89: 3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17 (R. 1)
Philemon 9b-10, 12-17
A Salutary Anguish
I was reading not long ago the counsels of Staretz Ambrose of Optino on having a daily rule of personal prayer. “Every day,” says the Staretz, “read one or more chapters of the Gospel, standing (the attitude of prayer). If you are seized with anguish, read again until it has passed. If it returns, read the Gospel again.” The reading of the Gospel does not always fill us with comfort, light, and sweet assurance. Sometimes the reading of the Gospel produces anguish. A salutary anguish.
Who Then Can Be Saved?
When the disciples heard Jesus say that, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:25), they experienced a salutary anguish and replied, “Who then can be saved?” (Lk 18:26). If you heard today’s Gospel, for instance, without being seized with a certain anguish, perhaps you didn’t really hear it at all? “And so it is with you; none of you can be my disciple if he does not take leave of all that he possesses” (Lk 14:33).
The Vice of Proprietorship
We hear this teaching of Jesus in its absoluteness and immediately begin to look for loopholes, for a way around it, under it, or over it. We call it impossible, forgetting that Jesus also says in another place — again concerning possessions — that “the things that are impossible with men, are possible with God” (Lk 18:27). “Surely this does cannot apply to me,” one thinks; “one must be reasonable. The scholars are not in agreement on the interpretation of the text.” But if one stays with today’s Gospel and refuses to pass over it or around it, one is obliged to look at what Saint Benedict calls, “the vice of personal ownership” (RB 55:18). Vice. Not a very nice word. One does not ordinarily think of a monastery as a place of vice. And yet, Saint Benedict puts his finger on what may well be the last vice to disappear from a monastery, the last vice to be eradicated from the heart of a monk: the vice of personal proprietorship.
Paradoxically, the less we have in the way of material things, the more attached we become to the little things we do have, even to mere trinkets. One can begin one’s monastic life with a grand flourish of detachment, leaving everything behind; and then, little by little, one begins to take things back, until everywhere there are things we call our own. One falls into the “vice of personal proprietorship” slowly and by degrees. One begins by filling a little drawer, then two or three drawers. When the drawers are full one begins to look for a box, then for more boxes. When the boxes are full one begins to look for closets. When the closets are full one claims squatter’s rights in an empty room. Finally one dies, and then the superior has to clean out one’s room, sort through one’s accumulated junk, and then look for a very big bin. “Thou fool, this night thou must render up thy soul; and who will be master now of all thou hast laid by?” (Lk 12:20). One takes comfort in being surrounded by “one’s own things,” but how far that comfort is from the anguish produced by today’s Gospel in the heart of one who hears it rightly!
The proprietary vice has to do not only with material things. One can be proprietary about the use of one’s time. Every monastery has its inveterate clock-watchers, those who having given up many things, claim ownership over time. And when the monk who spent his hoarding up time and begrudging the extra minute dies . . . there is still time.
Talents and Space
One can also be proprietary about one’s talents or abilities. “Yes, I know how to do this or that, but I will do it for whomsoever and whensoever I choose.” Again, one can be proprietary about space. Monks (and nuns) can become notoriously territorial: my table, my shelf, my choirstall, my closet, my room, my workspace. There is a reason why the wise old monastic customaries banish “my” and “mine” from our vocabulary. The corporate “our” is no mere formalism; it is reminder of the salutary anguish produced by the hearing of today’s Gospel, a call to something more. “Look well and keep yourselves clear of all covetousness. A man’s life does not consist in having more possessions than he needs” (Lk 12:15).
A Load Upon the Soul
What is the remedy for the vice of personal proprietorship? Saint Benedict tells us that the remedy is “to set nothing before the love of Christ” (RB 4:21). Saint Clare of Assisi says that, “she who loves temporal things loses the fruit of love.” Saint Teresa of Avila says that “one for whom God is not enough is by far too greedy.” Christ seeks the love of a heart undivided. Again, that terrible, salutary, evangelical anguish strikes! Christ asks of us impossible things! Listen again to what we read a few moments ago from the book of Wisdom: “Who among men is he that can know the counsel of God? or who can think what the will of God is? For the thoughts of mortal men are fearful, and our counsels uncertain. For the corruptible body is a load upon the soul, and the earthly habitation presseth down the mind that museth upon many things” (Wis 9:13:15).
Prayer Changes the Heart
Staretz Ambrose of Optino says, “If you are seized with anguish, read again until it has passed. If it returns, read the Gospel again.” Reading (lectio) is followed by repetition (meditatio). Repetition is followed by prayer (oratio). And it is prayer that changes the heart; it is prayer that eradicates the vice of personal proprietorship: not the prayer that is our work for God, but that other deeper prayer that is God at work in us. And nowhere do we experience that life-changing prayer more powerfully than in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: the prayer of Christ in us, for us, and through us.
The Risk of Holy Mass
It is dangerous to enter into the Eucharist; one risks the loss of so much “For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). It is even more dangerous to hold back from the Eucharist. “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk 9:25). Let us go into the Eucharist today with a salutary anguish. He who gives us His Sacred Body and Precious Blood will give us everything else besides. Love takes risks. Risk it all. Set nothing before the love of Christ. Count everything else as loss. “Indeed, “ says the Apostle, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). Therein lies wisdom of heart.