it shall not be so among you!

July 25, James the Greater

(fr Cyprian)


Like all the Twelve James is probably a Galilean, a simple man with little education who lived by the work of his hands. His and his brother’s family seems to belong to a relatively prominent social group. Their father Zebedee owned a boat and employed day workers, and maybe had some connections with families in the salt fish industry. Whereas some of the Twelve left their families behind, we also know that James and John brought their mother Salome with them. When Israel failed to respond to the call of Jesus, the Twelve apostles, the group he intended to restore Israel lost its symbolic meaning for the gentiles, abandoned Israel, and only Peter, James and John remained in and around Jerusalem, until the year 43/44 when James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa. This is part of his legacy: he was the first to “drink from the chalice from which Jesus drank,” mentioned already in the Acts of the Apostles (12:1-3). Of course he is also beloved for the camino to Santiago di Compostela, a famous pilgrim spot since the 9th century.

This apostle saint is known as “James the Greater,” which is of course sort of ironic, because he is infamous for getting caught lusting after greatness, power and glory. That’s the gospel reading the Church chooses to remember him by today (Mt 20:20-28), he and his brother getting busted by Jesus for their inner motives. I heard our Sr. Mary Louise in India say on more than one occasion that the upward mobility of religious life, and especially the priesthood, was “the scourge of the Church in India,” but I am sure that is not restricted to India. It may be a special temptation in poorer countries where having a career in the Church assures you food and lodging and a certain amount of respect that you might never get in your village otherwise, but in my experience the same thing abides in religious life at every socio-economic stratum. And it obviously goes all the way back to James and John.

I was thinking the old saying, “Never go into a gunfight with a knife.” I think there is something analogous in Jesus’ teaching. It is the basic human tendency (is it especially men?) to want power, status, to be the boss, to tell other people what to do and have them do our bidding. But it’s as clear as a bell: if power can be considered a weapon of sorts Jesus is asking us to go into a gunfight with no weapons at all, totally vulnerable, as slaves and servants, powerless, empty, earthen vessels filled only with the power of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. He sends his disciples out with nothing but healing hands and a word of mercy, poor among the poor. The Holy Father is certainly on to this; this has been the main thrust of his message to today’s apostles, the clergy, the Curia and his new cardinals, the scourge of careerism, the cancer of ambition… I thought it might be good to revisit some of the Pope’s words on this in the light of this gospel, wondering if they apply to more than clerics, and can be applied to any religious, any Christian.

Remember his blistering critique on the Curia last winter when he talked about 15 diseases? I wonder if we ourselves suffer of any of these diseases? Here are some: the disease of closed circles, I guess what we would call “cliques”; the disease of the “funeral face”; the disease of indifference to others, and the disease of gossip and chatter (in the Benedictine world we call that “murmuring”). Then there were these psychological diseases: the disease of existential schizophrenia––those who live a double life; the disease of spiritual Alzheimer’s, which is a particularly sad one, affecting those who have “lost their memory of their encounter with the Lord, and depend instead on their passions, whims and obsessions.” Then there is an oddly named one: the disease of bad coordination, which is about those who lose a sense of community, which causes the Body to lose its harmony, becoming like “an orchestra producing undisciplined noise because its members do not cooperate and do not live communally and have team spirit.” (I don’t know what the Italian is for this, but love that he used the phrase “team spirit”!) There is the disease of mental and spiritual “petrification.” This is what happens when we lose our internal peace, vivacity and audacity, and we become closed in ourselves and are incapable to sympathize or empathize with others, and we can’t “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.” See, these are never just personal diseases; they affect the whole ecosystem. ‘It shall not be so among you!’ the Holy Father echoes Jesus.

But the ones that really apply to today’s gospel and saint, that don’t necessarily apply just to clerics: when we live our vocation thinking only of what we have to gain and not of what we have to give. That’s back to the petrification again, becoming closed in on ourselves. Remember John Cassian warned that even those immersed in religious life can be lulled into a deep and dangerous sleep, and a feeling of security when, in fact, their very souls are in danger. He called it the pax perniciosa, the “dangerous peace.” Even the way of prayer can be dangerous––if it doesn’t lead to great love! Here is another one that goes along with today’s gospel: the disease of rivalry and vainglory, when appearance and honors become the first objectives of life. And then there is the disease of exhibitionism (a particular danger for those of us on the Eight/Two spectrum of the Enneagram), when we turn our service into power, and then use our power as a commodity to gain profits, or even more powers, maybe even through defamation and slander. When service and authority are really about showing off and exhibiting our superiority over others. (My friends used to call this “a Two gone bad.”) This too is a disease that hurts the whole Body, the Holy Father says, because it leads us to justify the use of any expedient means to fulfill our noble aim, often in the name of transparency and justice! We have to be careful: that praxis does not lead to the scopos we are aiming at, and so surely will not lead us to our desired telos. It shall not be like that among you!

In his homily for the installation of the latest cardinals, Francis continued that theme, maybe a little softer tone, reminding them that being a cardinal isn’t a prize or fancy entitlement, but rather a way to serve the church better in humility and tenderness. If the “princes of the Church” need to hear a message like this I suppose it applies all the way down to us common folk too. The Holy Father warned them that even church folks, (even religious! even monks!) are not immune from the temptation to be jealous, angry or proud, or to pursue their own self-interest, even when it is “cloaked in noble appearances.” “Even here,” he said (and this sounds like Cassian again), “charity, and charity alone, frees us.” What does Evagrius teach? The proof of apethaei is agape. “Above all it frees us from the mortal danger of pent-up anger, that smoldering anger which makes us brood over wrongs we have received. No. This is unacceptable…” It shall not be like that among you!

Religion unfortunately can have this great tendency to build up the ego––not just “I’m an apostle! I’m a priest! I’m the prior!” but also a kind of gnosticism––“I’m enlightened, I’m a mystic, I understand the inner meaning of scripture”––when it seems as if the opposite is supposed to be the goal, to slowly dismantle that sense of separate self, that I, me, mine that keeps on sucking up all the air in the room. It’s really very clear: the greatest among you must be the one who serves. That’s an integral part of our praxis. The greatest among us are those who give their lives as a ransom for many. In other words, the greatest among us are those who become Eucharist, who allow themselves to be broken and poured out, who not only drink the chalice but become the wine. We hold this treasure in an earthen vessel to make it clear that this power does not only not come from us, it is not just for us; it’s always for the sake of the whole Body. It’s like a counter-intuitive magic formula as Saint Paul describes it (1 Cor 1:25): God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

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