Here is Quite Enough
October 21, 2012
Twenty Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time
In my last homily I quoted from the contemporary mystic Ruth Burrows, and I want to quote from her again today, because she is so simple and direct, so wonderfully cranky, and because everything she says seems to be a commentary on today’s gospel.
Burrows is in her eighties now, a Carmelite nun living in England.
Here’s a passage that really spoke to me, from her book To Believe in Jesus:
"When we come to the spiritual life, when we bend ourselves to prayer, as often as not what we are wanting is that it will make us feel good, that it will change the whole feel of our life and that an aura will be cast over us and all around us. This does not happen. On the contrary, we are likely to feel even less colourful than before. Can we take this?"
I think this suggests something of the attitude of James and John in the gospel today, their mistaken belief that to follow Jesus means to become spiritually powerful and spiritually important when in fact it means obscurity and hiddenness and suffering. I know this passage applies to me. I want joy in prayer and only joy, and I want people to see me and admire me being prayerful, see me and admire me being humble and serving others. “Over and over again,” Burrows says, bluntly, “we must realize how in what we think of as our love and service of God, lurks a ravenous self-seeking which would use God to inflate self.”
But when God really touches us in prayer, when we really begin to move deeper, we begin to “shrivel up,” as Burrows puts it, to feel like “empty husks,” because we finally, if we’re honest with ourselves, we finally begin “to feel something of our sinfulness and total helplessness,” or we should. This is necessary. This is good. It’s only in moments like this, Burrows says, “that we really experience that we need Jesus,” and “everything depends on our living this out,” on our “letting go of the controls and handing them over to him.”
I mean, do I believe in Jesus or not?
Here’s a simple statement from Burrows: “Faith is a gift that we will be given if we choose to take God at his word and stake our lives on it.”
But then this straightforward question, this challenge: “Do we take him at his word?”
And Burrows’s answer is, no. Again, very bluntly, no: “It is simply not true of the majority of us, and I mean good, spiritual people, that we believe in Jesus and make him the centre of lives.”
The disciples certainly don’t in the gospel today, or they wouldn’t be fighting over who comes first. And I don’t. Too often I don’t. I question. I intellectualize. I try to explain things away and make them complicated and metaphorical, partly because I’m arrogant and want to be in control, but really because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the emptiness and I’m afraid of the trust it requires. “Everything depends,” Burrows says, “on our believing God is Love, utterly faithful, good and generous. Everything depends, too, on our handing ourselves over to God’s loving designs, asking for no tangible certainties.”
The absence of tangible certainties: that’s the hard thing for all of us, I think, but that’s the fact, the reality, and that’s exactly why all we can do is throw ourselves onto the mercy of the Lord, throw ourselves onto Him. There’s nothing else.
This particular gospel, this gospel today, tells us clearly and straightforwardly that we should be servants. We stop thinking about ourselves and serve others. Well, do we?
Because if we do, everything changes. Everything.
“By nature,” Burrows says, “we stand on the viewpoint of the self and judge other people, things, what is happening from that stand.” Yes, like the disciples today. Me. You. All of us. But faith, in contrast, faith “demands that we deliberately get off that stand and move to another, the viewpoint of Jesus”--and then, from this viewpoint, “how different everything looks.”
And something really practical follows from all this, necessarily, something really down to earth, and it’s what the disciples today are trying to evade. They want something better than they have. They want a more heroic adventure, a bigger stage, and so do we. But as Burrows puts it, “the truth is so devastatingly simple we are tempted to shirk it. The stark, overwhelming reality is that God is giving himself to us in the stream of the ordinary, mundane events of our ordinary, mundane life.”
We die to ourselves by living in the moment, the moment we have actually been given, and it’s sinful to want more.
This is it, this is now, this is what there is.
A few weeks ago, after I preached at the 5 o’clock Saturday mass, a woman about my age came up to me. I thought she was going to tell me what a wonderful homily I’d given, but instead she said that she was homeless and that she and her boyfriend had just hitchhiked here from the coast. Did I know of a place where they could stay?
So I did what any self-respecting deacon and spiritual leader would do. I said, go talk to that woman over there—go talk to Barb Anderson. She’ll know what to do. And she did. The problem was that this involved us piling all of the gear of these two people into the trunk of our little car, the giant backpacks and the sleeping bags, and giving them a ride up to the fairgrounds, where there were some camping spaces, and having to talk to them and be nice to them on the way. And the car started to smell a little different after a few blocks, and I was pretty sure this woman and her friend were manipulating us, and when the time came for them to leave I didn’t know if I should give them any money or not. So I didn’t.
And I should have, of course. I should have, even if they were manipulating us. So what?
“The life of every one of us,” Burrows says, “contains everything that the Holy Spirit needs with which to purify us of our selfishness. There is no need to look for more.”
This is the answer: to live the lives that we’ve been given, and to do the best we can each day with what comes, and to admit when we have failed, in our selfishness and our lack of faith, and again and again to take Jesus at his word. To die to ourselves. To serve others. And first to ask for the grace to die to ourselves and serve others, because we surely can’t do it on our own.
And to give up everything else. All this self-centeredness and anxiety. All this silly, useless striving.
“Divine love,” Burrows says,
"meets us in this real world and nowhere else: in this moment; in this circumstance, painful and humiliating though it may be; in this person; in the daily unexciting round of seeming trivialities which afford no measure of self-glorification. Divine love meets us here in our flawed, suffering, human condition, and nowhere else."