Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Even His Own Life

We live in a very sentimental age. I'm mired in the muck of it from day to day, and mostly grin and bear it, although many an encounter could easily enough prompt me to hold forth here on the matter. I've been a very lazy blogger this year, preoccupied with other business and expert in making excuses for neglecting this organ of mission. But once in a while, a homilist will annoy me so greatly that I feel positively compelled to write something in response - so any faithful readers who continue to watch here for some kind of update can always pray for the certain provocation that a bad sermon will provide.

This Sunday at Mass, Our Lord in the Gospel gives one of those hard-sayings that astonish disciples and halt us in our tracks:
If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. - Luke 14:26
Now, the most interesting thing in this brief saying to my nerdy sensibilities is its structure.

In the Greek text, there's a turn of phrase before the last item on the list - his own life - which is rendered in the NAB translation as even. Even, of course, gets the job done, but there's an emphatic weight that is sort of lost to us unless the one proclaiming the Gospel really nails that word. The fact is that the Greek phrasing does contain an adverb meaning "even", but that its situation amongst a conjunction and a particle make it a very emphatic, very insistent "even." It's a "moreover" even, a "yes, even" (as the RSV renders the phrase).

An illustration might help us get deeper into it. Another Lukan use of this phrase can be found in the moreover in the 28th verse of Chapter 21 in Acts. The Jews from Asia are bringing accusations against Paul:
Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place; moreover he also brought Greeks into the temple, and he has defiled this holy place.


Now, observing the effect of the "moreover" in this sentence, we can see that it is an obvious signal for a particular kind of argument: namely, the a fortiori, the argument that builds up from weaker to stronger reasons and ends by emphasizing the strongest evidence. This is a kind of argument found throughout the Scripture: recall the place where Christ compares the goodness of human fathers in giving good gifts to their children in order to highlight how "much more so" the Father in Heaven will give good gifts to the persevering supplicant.

Well, the a fortiori is in full operation in the passage from this week's Gospel as well. And this is where the bad homily and sentimentality comes in.

Good-natured modern folks are often guilty of a very blithe kind of altruism. It's a dressed-up aping of the virtue of humility that forgets the self rather than transcends the self, and - in an ironic solution - ends by disallowing self-transcendence because of that very forgetfulness. How to better illustrate what I mean?

Let's look at this reading as an example. Now, a good modern preacher's first approach to a reading should always be a response to a "concern." What is the concern, the felt need of the community, the point of friction or challenge, that a particular pericope pinpoints? The bad homilist I have in mind from this weekend was, emphatically, not a bad preacher - he responded directly to the most obvious felt need of his congregation in engaging this passage. What I will be taking issue with here is the nature of that need, what it means for modernity, and how the fact of feeling it ought to become to focal point for the preacher's sermon. The preacher in this case focused on why Our Lord demands such terrible things as that we hate our mom and dad, and oh isn't that terrible? He succeeded, I suppose, in making some sense of the matter, but he left out the main part: the denial of self to which all this ordered and from which all this stems.

Admittedly, a modern listener is jarred by the admonition to hate anything at all coming from Our Lord's mouth in the first place - and further discomfited by the specific direction given that it's our own parents, siblings, spouses, and children that we must hate in order to follow the call of discipleship. By the time the argument spins round - a fortiori - to the emphatic call to hate even one's own life, it glances off. In a strange way, the moral and ethical self-consciousness of this Gospel's hearers swallows the hardest part of this saying most easily: we can almost imagine the congregant saying, "Well, the call to deny self I'm used to; I can do that, sure, and who does that hurt but me? But how can I hate me dear old mum?!"

It's the same sort of distaste that creeps into our perception when Christ generically addresses his Mother as "Woman." (Of course, this is not so generic as it seems on the surface, but to discuss that here would be too long a digression.) We often get another hint of the problem of sentimentality when people talk about or teach the "law of love." How many times have you heard someone interpret the saying, "Love your neighbor as yourself" or draw the inference from it that we're to love our neighbor MORE than our very selves? Now, there's a drawing toward truth in this inference, but the fact is that most of the time its utterance is too easy, too glib, and devoid of depth or meaning. It's a sentimental altruism, a sort of stoic generosity. We swallow the hard pill of self-denial (in theory) and suddenly find it's not so hard anyway, because gosh isn't it swell to be so loving and selfless and all?

But the a fortiori will not abandon its strength, and finally we must confront its deeper signification: in this saying, in the law of love itself, in every place where Our Lord tells us without confusion that there's a "better way" of reading His message. It does no good to reconcile ourselves to the hardness of His words if we simply throw ourselves against them without discernment of the meaning of the pain. What is the difficulty? What do we understand from this hard saying? Why is it hard - and what does the challenge mean for us?

Well, I'm for reading the Gospel as a whole, and for the answer to this paradoxical question, I'm going to turn to an ulikely source. Whether intentional for this purpose or not by the Church authorities who constructed the lectionary, I think the Holy Spirit offers a solution to the problem of this Gospel in the reading situated before it in the liturgy: the section from Paul's letter to Philemon.

In verses 15 and 16, Paul gives a very beautiful rationale for the slave Onesimus's temporary absence from the community to which Paul is returning him:
Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Now, I don't think I take undue liberty with this text if I argue it to be an intepretive text for the Gospel of the day. Paul has given us a rubric, a hermenuetic if you will, for understanding what happens when we "give away" something to the Lord's will and service: we get it back, a hundred-fold.

I don't see this as a liberty with the text because of Our Lord's own words to this effect in a different Gospel passage, which bears a resemblance to the "hard sayings" given this week by Luke: "And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29). (Another interesting note is the proximity in both Gospels of this saying to the one that "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first".)

Our Lord is making a radical proposal demanding a real trust on the part of the disciple. There was not so much confusion about this for the Apostles themselves: they had literally left family, fields, and all manner of other things behind, and eventually followed Christ even to death.

This is not a sentimental suggestion about merely being willing to walk away, but a challenge to put our actions in line with our words - and if not our external actions, our internal ones. There's nothing stopping a single disciple from fully renouncing all that he's been given in this life, today, by an internal act. For those familiar with the method of Saint Louis de Montfort's consecration to Our Lady, you might recognize in this something akin to where de Montfort speaks about "giving up" even our own intentions and concerns of intercessory prayer, and relinquishing them to Our Lady. In fact, we don't really give them up, but we begin with that total dedication, that total commitment to her, and accept our own intercession - even our own will - back as gift.

Why is sentimentality the enemy? Because sentimentality forgets that the "giving up of ourselves" which we find so easy, in contrast to the difficulty of denying our loved ones, is not a real giving up. We're taking refuge in the things we love, and the very pleasure we have in loving them becomes a consoling balm. We forget that what we struggle with in the saying about hating mother, father, sister, brother is the pronounal reference of these: they are abstract terms, situated primarily in our own relation: it's MY mom, MY dad, MY sister, MY brother, MY spouse, MY kids. And that's why the a fortiori drives so hard at the self: it's getting after the MY. All of those things which are MINE must first be severed from my ultimate desires in order that the ME may follow. Contrarywise, if we truly accomplish this abandonment of self - of all our desires, hopes, dreams, pains, sorrows, loves, wishes - into the Lord's service as perfect disciples... well then of necessity all of the things which were MINE become HIS along with my very self. And the new point of reference for all relating to the things which might have been MINE is now centered in Christ: if I love them, it's primarily because they're His; if I deny them, it's ultimately because I'm His.

Once again, and important to remember, the long road of martyrdom and some external act to finalize and concretize this commitment is not our immediate concern. No, the Cross is ours to carry today, and every moment of prayer affords us an opportunity of total abandonment, of relinquishment, of renunciation. This is a hard saying indeed. Will we, today, "hate" these things and give them away? Will we, that is, deny them unless and except they are His? Will we accept them only as return from Him, and not as already given? Will we love them only when they come back to us through their being His and our being His together? And when sentimental love begins to ache in our heart, will we tear our heart away and place it within His own pierced heart, never to beat again or to love again unless in perfect harmony with His?

The a fortiori does not give up its strength. We can't stop at moreover.
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