gaining eternal life
The saint that we celebrate today, Pope Saint Pius X, gets kind of mixed reviews, to say the least. He is known for his stubbornness and stiffness, and especially for his anti-modernist stance and draconian tactics. (He had a league of secret informants!) The Society of St. Pius X, named after him, seems to appeal to this darker side. They are the traditionalist group founded by Marcel Lefebvre in opposition to Vatican II. They’ve been separated from Rome for decades now and have just recently released a statement that makes it appear as if they’ve abandoned all efforts to reunite with Rome. (I think it’s safe to say they abhor Pope Francis’ pontificate.
But––we are all such mixed bags!––in his lifetime, Pope Pius X was also known for his pastoral sense. He was the only pope in the 20th century to give a Sunday homily every week. He brought about great liturgical reforms, he encouraged frequent communion. The thing I found most endearing about him was that in his lifetime he was also known for a strong sense of compassion and his love for the poor. After an earthquake in Messina in 1908 he filled the Apostolic Palace with refugees, something you could imagine Pope Francis doing. He often referred to his own humble origins, and is quoted as saying, “I was born poor, I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.”
That serendipitously ties in with the gospel reading we heard today, Matthew’s telling of the story of the rich young man.[i] There were two things that struck me reflecting on it this time.
The first is something that I just read in Fr. Bruno’s essay on “Monastic Wisdom” from The Privilege of Love, how St. Athanasius, in his famous Life of Antony (of the Desert), recounts how Antony’s vocation to the monastic life was catalyzed by the successive hearing of two gospel texts at the Sunday liturgy. And the first one was this one, the story of the rich young man: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ And the second was like it, from Matthew 6:34, ‘So do not worry about tomorrow…’ Hearing these two scripture texts—just hearing them!––was enough to cause this great conversion.
Later in his life when Antony himself was pressed by some other monks for guidance, he said, based on his own experience, simply, “The Scriptures are really sufficient for our instruction…” (Mind you, later on he would also say, “My book, O philosophers, is the book of nature,” but those are kindly sisters, aren’t they, like theology and philosophy––Scripture and nature.) As Bruno wrote, “We are struck by the extraordinary authority conceded to the biblical word” by the early monks, and this carries on into the Rule of Benedict which could seem to us as if it were just a weaving together of Scripture citations. Benedict prescribes two to three hours a day devoted to lectio divina.[ii]
The other thing that struck me was this: One of our oblates was telling me a story at the retreat this weekend from her own work. She trains executive students in emergency management. And she told me how she wanted to offer these executive students an opportunity to co-create the executive education program in emergency management, thinking they would enjoy this challenge and this partnership, the creativity and agency of it all. But she was very disillusioned to find out that they didn’t want any part of it. Many of them expressed that they just wanted her to simply tell them what they should know to do their jobs better, and had no interest in co-creating.
I’m struck by how often we just want to know what the minimum is to get us by in any enterprise. This is something teachers notice––the students who just want to know the minimum they have to do to pass as opposed to the ones who are so on fire to learn that they go the extra mile. This is something that formators watch for in the seminary and we always watch for too with guys in formation: when they just want to know what hoops they have to jump through so they can get ordained or get into solemn vows. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Just give me some clear instructions and I’ll follow them!” Well, here’s the minimum you have to do, according to Saint Romuald: Empty yourself completely.
This rich young man just wants to know what formula to follow so that he can gain eternal life. I was thinking to myself that this is a really slippery word––“gain”! But then I found it was actually in the Collect for Mass! “… that we may gain an eternal prize.” I noticed it in the Collect for the Feast of the Assumption as well: “… that we may merit to be sharers of [Mary’s] glory.” I know St. Paul uses that image as well, but I think we have to be really careful about that, as if it were all up to us. We Americans might start to think it’s like a game show, or the corporate ladder, or a college degree, as if we really could “merit” God’s pardon, or “earn” the reign of God, or “deserve” in some way to be called children. We could start to make eternal life or the reign of God or the kingdom of heaven just another possession.
It’s somehow not about gaining anything. After all, Christianity claims that it has already been gained for us by Jesus! I think it’s more a case of realizing something that is already there––becoming aware of it, making it real. In order to do that we need to undergo a progressive stripping (I keep running into the image over and over again), perhaps even a stripping away of all we think we know about God or heaven or perfection, because sometimes those are our greatest possessions––our opinions, our view of the world, how we think things are supposed to go––that we hold on to tenaciously. And the world and God seldom live down to our expectations.
So many meditation teachers warn about this too: “Don’t sit there hoping you’re going to gain something, even peace of mind!” Meditation, like prayer, is us being in total poverty and availability, not really knowing what the outcome is, but trusting that whatever it is it is going to be right, if it is God’s will. Perhaps this is why the greatest prayer is almost always and everywhere Jesus’ own prayer: Your will be done; or his prayer on the cross: Into your hands I commend my spirit.
That’s the greatest poverty of all––the poverty of the poor in spirit. May it be said of us too that we were born poor, that we have lived poor, and that we wish to die poor.
21 august 17
[i] Mt 19:16-22.
[ii] The Privilege of Love, 65.