It is not so: there is no state on this life that will “fix” us in this problem. St Basil says (emphasis added):
Not every one oppressed with poverty is blessed, but he who has preferred the commandment of Christ to worldly riches. For many are poor in their possessions, yet most covetous in their disposition; these poverty does not save, but their affections condemn. For nothing involuntary deserves a blessing, because all virtue is characterized by the freedom of the will. Blessed then is the poor man as being the disciple of Christ, Who endured poverty for us. For the Lord Himself has fulfilled every work which leads to happiness, leaving Himself an example for us to follow.
You are not virtuous simply because you are poor. Wealth, per se, is not listed among the sins, but pride and envy are, both.
In the Gospel, however, we have a huge problem with those sorts of activism. Because we know God wants to save everyone: rich and poor, men and women, all races, all religions, all tribes, nations, and tongues. God doesn’t have time to care about our political squabbles.
St Ambrose of Milan notes (emphasis again added):
But although in the abundance of wealth many are the allurements to crime, yet many also are the incitements to virtue. Although virtue requires no support, and the offering of the poor man is more commendable than the liberality of the rich, still it is not those who possess riches, but those who know not how to use them, that are condemned by the authority of the heavenly sentence. For as that poor man is more praiseworthy who gives without grudging, so is the rich man more guilty, who ought to return thanks for what he has received, and not to hide without using it the sum which was given him for the common good. It is not therefore the money, but the heart of the possessor which is in fault. And though there be no heavier punishment than to be preserving with anxious fear what is to serve for the advantage of successors, yet since the covetous desires are fed by a certain pleasure of amassing, they who have had their consolation in the present life, have lost an eternal reward.
St John Chrysostom would warn that all of us are in danger of condemnation:
The sins of the rich, such as greed and selfishness, are obvious for all to see. The sins of the poor are less conspicuous, yet equally corrosive of the soul. Some poor people are tempted to envy the rich; indeed this is a form of vicarious greed, because the poor person wanting great wealth is in spirit no different from the rich person amassing great wealth. Many poor people are gripped by fear: their hearts are caught in a chain of anxiety, worrying whether they will have food on their plates tomorrow or clothes on their backs. Some poor people are constantly formulating in their minds devious plans to cheat the rich to obtain their Wealth; this is no different in spirit from the rich making plans to exploit the poor by paying low wages. The art of being poor is to trust in God for everything, to demand nothing-and to be grateful for all that is given.
I’ve noted, often, a desire to care for the poor in abstract, but not in specifics. A desire to run charities, while at the same time a fear of the poor procreating; a desire to educate, but not to evangelize (cuz, why would they want to come to our church?). There are people who smell out there. The first time I heard Christians not wanting to let “them” into “our” church was not with Joel Osteen was worried about Hurricane Harvey, but rather back at the turn of the century when a nice Episcopal congregation was afraid that feeding the homeless on Friday would mess things up too much for liturgy Sunday.
We’re really scared of the lower classes in this country: see how easily a populist political movement that, a few years ago, would have been called part of the 99%, is now called “deplorables”. We’re ok with poverty in the abstract, but not in the particular.
Jesus was, I think, mostly poor and perhaps often homeless. But not always. But he was always from among the laboring class: lower class, smelly, sweaty. Pious. But not always the “best class”. God has no preferential option for the poor in terms of salvation. And, even if there was such a thing, here in the first world, with you reading my essays on the internet, neither of us qualify. We’re rich.
And condemned. We can all be equally warned by the words of St Paul, Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.
Jesus wants to draw us all into his Kingdom. With man – and our political aspirations – this is not possible. But with God, all things are possible. We’re left holding the bag of junk and our job is to give the junk away to those who have none and then offer all of it to Christ.
Dearest Jesus, after the example of the Chaste Heart of Joseph and through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer thee all of my plans, dreams, and intentions, all of my thoughts, words, and deeds, all of my joys and sufferings, my hopes and fears, all of my crosses and crowns of this day and all of my life, all for the intentions of thy Sacred heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, for the salvation of souls, the reparation of sins, the reunion of all Christians, and the intentions of our Holy Father, the Pope.
Who was the first person ever to let you go off on your own and sin your own special way? Who was the first person ever to call you back and tell you to stop? Ezekiel has a job for us: the entire passage laughs at our fear of being offensive.
Thus says the LORD: You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.
Am I my brother’s keeper? YHVH says, Yes, indeedy. Who let you go and run amuck? How far away did you get before someone called you back? Paul says, though, Love is the fulfilment of the law. The Incarnate Logos tells us how this is all true.
Jesus wants that to be normal. I have sinned against you: you come talk to me. Failing that, you get a buddy to come along. Should that also fail, bring the whole parish.
The whole process is set up to lucratus eris fratrem tuum, to “gain your brother”; to restore to unity him who has walked away in sinning. While you’re to be about your business of forgiveness, that does not mean nothing bad has happened: they’ve walked away from communion with the Church.
Sin does that, it shatters communion. But to acknowledge the Communion is broken is not a sin. In fact to pretend it’s not broken, to go on as if nothing is wrong, only confirms someone in their shattered state. Who let you go so far away that you didn’t even want to bother coming back?
Jesus wants us to (first, quietly) gently tell someone they’ve broken communion, in love. Hiding the truth here is not love. It’s tolerance. It’s disinterested regard. It’s presenting a neutral affect. It’s cutting ourselves off from communion. Because if you really loved someone you would be holding them in communion and not letting them walk away. Not telling the truth here, damning them, is the same thing as hate. That person that let you walk away without even a word of condemnation? That was hate, pure and simple.
The wicked shall die for his guilt, but God will hold you responsible for his death.
For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,but let us stay alert and sober.
1 Thessalonians 5:5-6
We have it here again, that combination of Sober Vigilance that is so important to the Apostolic conception of the Christian life.
Satan never says, “Hey, let’s do this awesome bad thing.” He uses the “Hey, let’s do this less-good thing” over and over until you’re doing a bad thing.
I have this problem: I want to be in bed by 9:30. I love writing these daily meditations, but, really, about now (8:34 PM as I write) I should stop and set about my evening prayers and getting ready for bed… so that I can get to bed by 9:30. But these meditations are a good thing – for myself, and for my readers. They touch people, they invite people into relationship with Christ. But, in the end, if I start writing at 8:30, it’s going to be 9:30 before I’m done. There’s the teeth brushing and the bed making and, tonight, the putting away clothes from the dryer.
Then I skip my bedtime prayers and tell God I’m sorry and go to sleep.
See? A less-good-than.
In the Angelic Warfare Confraternity, the 8th daily prayer is for our power of estimation:
Grant that we may quickly sense dangers to chastity and instinctively flee from them, that we may never turn away from higher, more difficult, and more honorable goods for the sake of sinful self-indulgence.
And tonight at a meeting discussing the Ignatian exercises, the group leader pointed out that it’s discipline that leads us to self-control.
So, with those passing thoughts, I’m going to be sober and vigilant. It’s 8:43PM now.
Asking your prayers.
(Stick it, Satan.)
Jesus, grant me grace always to remember my death and the great account I then must render; that so being kept continually disposed, my soul may depart out of this world rightly in Thy grace. Then by the gracious intercession of Thy blessed Mother and the assistance of the glorious St. Michael, deliver me from the danger of my soul’s enemies; and do thou, my good angel, I beseech thee, help me at the hour of death. The, dear Jesus, remember Thy mercy; and turn not, for my offenses, Thy face away from me. Secure me against the terrors of that day, by causing me now to die daily to all earthly things and to have my continual conversation in heaven. Let the remembrance of Thy death teach me how to esteem my life; and the memory of Thy resurrection encourage me cheerfully to descend into the grave.
Si quis vult post me venire, abneget semetipsum, et tollat crucem suam, et sequatur me. Qui enim voluerit animam suam salvam facere, perdet eam: qui autem perdiderit animam suam propter me, inveniet eam.
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Matthew 16: 24b-25
It’s not quite as fun as it was all cracked up to be. In the end, there were no blessings for being free – if by free you mean, “You ain’t the boss of me.” For all there were were more things left to wander about and the distinct paranoia of our modern world, the Fear of Missing Out.
We have only one job in all of this. What if one job is more like watching bread rise than being Katy Perry’s Fireworks?
At the middle of the Rosary there’s the Mystery of the Carrying of the Cross. It’s come to me lately that that’s really all there is: this is the only part of Our Lord’s Passion we’re asked – nay, commanded – to emulate. Yes, we’re to die with Christ, and yes, we’re to be baptised, and yes we’re to eat this bread and drink this cup, but the only part of the Passion we’re told, specifically, to repeat, each in our individual life, is this one thing: Carry the Cross.
This is Christianity: carrying the cross.
It’s not about “finding my passions” or “doing what I do best for God”. It’s not that “Jesus has a plan for your life” (and he does, but he’s not going to show you…). You have free will, you have choices to make. Wake up in the morning and carry the cross.
This passage is very Psychological. Reading these verses, you might remember another translation that asks “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lose his soul.” The greek word is ψυχή psyche, used over and over:
For whoever wishes to save his psyche will lose it,
but whoever loses his psyche for my sake will find it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his psyche?
Or what can one give in exchange for his psyche?
Psychological – not in the sense of modern mental onanism that tries to find the “me” in all this and “fix it”, but rather in the classical, Christian sense. You have a Psyche. It’s not the “soul” living in you like the Platonists and the Gnostics taught, nor is it the Mind like the Greeks imagined: it’s your very self. You are a union of body and spirit, of Matter and Eternity. Your Psyche is this presence of place and time that is your fulcrum into the Cosmos. You. We are not souls living in matter, but rather matter living in souls.
And if you try to hog all the stash, you will die.
We are created in the image of God whose entire being is self-emptying, kenosis. Not self abnegation, but emptying AS self. This is what God IS. And so are we… unless we miss the point.
So very much of our modern world is about finding my me-ness, and being that. Well, guess what, your me-ness is about giving it away. Literally, that’s what we call Love. Wiling the good of another until you sacrifice all of you for it.
Jesus says that when you find it and be it, you will die.
But when you give it away… then you actually live.
What if the very thing you thought was your me-ness was a black hole that sucked in everything and everyone until there was nothing left but a yawning maw of pride and bullied corpses of your enemies? Then you die.
What if the very thing you thought was your me-ness was only skin deep, was driven by hate, was a sociological and unscientific construct that had nothing to do with either biology or history. What if it made you push away everyone and everything in the name of a dream of some sort of revenge of the underdogs. But you could only love people like you. Then you die.
What if in the end, all you had left was your few treasured possessions and an illimitable sense of you’ll never catch me! Then you die.
Me is not in the getting, the having, the experiencing, the sexing, the dancing, the working, the pain-avoiding, drug-taking, fear-filled-zombified thing the world calls “life” and “reality TV”.
There’s no me there at all.
We’re going to die so fast that we don’t have time to wait to give it all up. Take up the cross and walk. This is the me that we are each offered.
St Paul takes if further than Jesus, telling us to offer our bodies as sacrifices too.
And in the end, where there is nothing left but the divine and eternal life that is the very act of kenosis enfleshed in each of us – at that point when we are surrounded by so much joy that we don’t miss our toys and our games – at that point we say with Jeremiah, “you seduced me, Lord, and i let myself be seduced.”
But it will not feel that way here, now – or, maybe not for the next few centuries. For if you speak out the World of YHVH today, you will – like Jeremiah – feel as though you’ve been sucker punched. To actually preach the Gospel in word and/or deed is to step out of the world and to actively critique it. To Love in the fullest sense, in the Gospel sense, anyone at all is to will the Good, the True, and the Beautiful into their lives – even if they don’t want it. (Yes, there are good, better, and best ways to do this, and they vary with the person… but to not do it at all is so much not-love as to be hate.)
And to love like that – to pour out your life, your heart, your soul, your art, your job, your whole being in love for another person – is to find life, is to be life, is to be the image of the Father, of whom the Son is the Icon, and by whom we are made to share this eternal outpouring with the world. And when we do that – and the world spits it back into our face, or our friends leave us in disgust and hatred, then we will say with gusto, faces buried in our elbows, bitter pints of IPA on the table, “Lord, you seduced me… but I let myself be seduced.”
As Catholics, we know that Jesus doesn’t promise us success or victories. We know there are no full wallets in the Kingdom of heaven. We know that there are no full bellies, no full closets, and no full mouths. But there are full hearts pouring eternity into each other.
We may not yet have our bodies on the line, but soon, it is possible, that we shall.
And then it is us who must love beyond life itself. Willing the good of all – even when they don’t want it. We have only to walk away from Love to die… but we are seduced into living instead. This is who we are. Christians are the ones who will die to show they love their murderers, to embody the love they feel for whomever is in front of them. Before of a society that will offer a pinch of incense to any Caesar that promises to liberate them from any sense of obligation, we will throw ourselves under the bus, jam the gears like so many Luddites, and stuff our bodies into the air vents to seal out any poison lest anyone else die. We are seduced. We can only love more.
We must make our bodies, our minds, our pride, our sense of self, an offering all to Christ in his person and in the person of our neighbor. The ever living Christ is as near to us as one seat over on the bus, the shopping cart in front of us at WalMart, the door just down the hall.
That’s when we are finally loving, we will have psyche then. Each and all of us.
We are seduced.
Into carrying the cross daily out of service: We don’t want them to have to go too far when they need a place to nail us up.
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission — I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his — if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
- Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising;
- give your first thoughts to God;
- make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament;
- say the Angelus devoutly;
- eat and drink to God’s glory;
- say the Rosary well;
- be recollected; keep out bad thoughts;
- make your evening meditation well;
- examine yourself daily;
- go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.
To this I would add this simple rule, offered by Alexander Schmemann in his journals (Mindul that he was writing privately, but to a hypothetical reader who was craving monastic obedience as the magic panacea for whatever it is that ails you):
- get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);
- while working, pray and seek inner peace; do no get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;
- after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;
- always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov). Keep at that kind of service and be–in church matters–totally obedient to the parish priest.
- do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;
- read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly (this point needs more precise definition);
- if friends and acquaintances invite you because they are close to you–go; but not too often, and within reason. Never stay more than one and a half or two hours. After that the friendliest atmosphere becomes harmful;
- dress like everybody else, but modestly, and without visible signs of a special spiritual life;
- be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. If you act that way, everything will be to your benefit;
- do not seek a spiritual elder or guide. If he is needed, God will send him, and will send him when needed;
- having worked and served this way for ten years–no less–ask God whether you should continue to live this way, or whether change is needed. And wait for an answer: it will come; the signs will be “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.”
And if you can’t then try again. Be faithful in piety and love, God will give you ways to use your gifts and you will see them and fulfill them.