Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Inaugurations are usually accompanied by a big fanfare, with balloons and prizes to catch everyone’s attention. Things are going to be better than ever. Orators raise everyone’s hopes. Leaders articulate a vision which will inspire and motivate everyone to join in the new movement. I have a plan.
The Beatitudes are Jesus’ inaugural address. They articulate his vision for life. But do they elicit a lot of enthusiasm and eager participation? Rather, when we listen to them, we find them disconcerting, confusing, and maybe even shocking. He is not offering a plan or a system. The Beatitudes are not easily assimilated by the standards of our culture. They contradict the skills we have learned for living well in society, deeply ingrained habits of the heart. Maybe they will be appropriate when all else fails. Or we can consign them to a “spiritual” sphere while we go on with practical realism.
At least we can admit that Jesus is being very upfront about the demands of discipleship. It is a tough screening that weeds out the uncommitted. Not all the followers of Jesus are disciples. Monastic tradition is very attuned to this. Spiritual teachers dismiss and put off would-be students. The Rule of Benedict is very clear that newcomers should not be given an easy admittance, be shown harsh treatment, told all the difficulties and hardships that are required (Chapter 58). The reason for this is to puncture all false illusions and fantasies that can motivate people, to uncover all deceit and pretense, and to underline the fact that what we reject as injurious, painful or absurd might well be the necessary path into wholeness. The pain we avoid can be just the entry into an openness with God and other humans. But again, our society presents us with all sorts of entertainments and diversions to avoid and escape pain. Every computer keyboard has ESC, CTL, and DEL. None has a key for Surrender.
Jesus is not suggesting that we sit on the sidelines of the human parade and lick our wounds in private. He is calling us to engage in the world, but to be present as the lowly, weak and despised. The skills we have honed to be powerful, wise, and influential, to be right, to look good, and in control can be obstacles to the working of God’s Spirit in us. We are called to engage in the world from our heart. And it takes courage to know and live from what is in our heart. We don’t want to be seen as (much less to be) foolish, weak, and despised. John Powell once wrote a book, Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am? Maybe it is because there is too much of the foolish, weak and lowly in our hearts. To expose that would just subject ourselves to the powers that run the world. It would be to risk the little coherence and security we have been able to provide for ourselves, the systems we use to shield ourselves from potential danger.
The heart is not a lock-box of secrets and confidential materials. It is the moving center of our communion and connection with God and all humanity. It is a liminal space where we are moved by the very touch of God. What else is beatitude but being transformed by the creative word coming from the depths of God into the depths of our being. With the roots of our being in God, we can dare to experience the human boundaries of poverty, injustice, mourning, nonviolence and the struggle for true peace and justice. We are the remnant placed in the world to show the face of God breaking through the smugness of the powerful, wise, and influential. Consider your call…. God chose the foolish, the weak, the lowly.
Our pain can be the very path to grace, for it is when we suffer the most, when our sense of self is stripped away, when we have lost what we most dearly cherish, or when physical pain and disease destroy the illusion of our immortality that we can no longer avoid the plain truth of who and what we are. Let’s tell the uncomfortable truth: the passage to wisdom and knowledge is most often paved by suffering. We rarely change until we are forced to, until our pride and vanity are stripped from us. And it is only when the egoistic outer hull is shattered and removed, when we are reduced to pure seed, that we can finally grow.