Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Zeph 2:3, 3:12-13; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 5:1-12a
In Francois Mauriac’s novel “Woman of the Pharisees,”1 the title character, Brigitte, is scorned, hated, and reviled. She loves to think of herself as living the beatitude of the persecuted: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” She thinks, “I am hated because I stand against the ways of the world.” But in actuality, she is hated because she is hateable. She meddles in the affairs of others. She is selfish with her goods. Her outside is very pious, but inside she is full of envy, jealousy, greed and hurt feelings. She is La Pharisienne, the woman Pharisee, a master in the art of self-deception.
When she tries to prevent the marriage of her housemaid, Octavia to the tutor of her stepson, she is told very bluntly that it is no business of hers. Francois Mauriac describes her reaction: “Madame Brigitte forgave the hand that held the weapon. She always behaved like this when people told her she had committed some injustice. Instead of admitting her fault … she turned the other cheek, protesting that it was well she should be so misunderstood and vilified. In this way she added another link to the armor of perfection in which she went clad from head to foot. If on such occasions her interlocutor was driven to speak angry words, this gave her a feeling of still greater excellence at the bar of her own conscience,” (p. 67).
Secure in one of the beatitudes, she sought evidence for others, like poverty of spirit. Mauriac writes, “There had been a time when she was worried by the spiritual aridity that marked her relations with God; but she had read somewhere that it is the beginners on whom the tangible marks of graces [of consolation] are showered to set them upon the right path. The kind of sensitiveness that afflicted her was … a sign that she had long ago emerged from those lower regions of the spiritual life where fervor is usually suspect. In this way her frigid soul was led on to glory in its own lack of warmth,” (p. 156).
Her conscience, however, gave her no peace. Brigitte identifies the torments of her conscience as a case of scruples until her stepson, speaking frankly, tells her that the source of her suffering might not be from scruples but from remorse for real sins. Stealing some of her craftiness he urges her to seek absolution in confession. He says, “It will be hard, of course, but by so much the more will you acquire merit.” At the word merit she lifted her head. He continues, “It would be beyond the strength of most people, but [not] you…” She straightened up still more (p. 215).
Brigitte thinks that by confessing she might acquire even more beatitudes: like the blessedness of those who mourn for their sins, and of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and for purity of heart. She reflects that it is God’s way to turn even our sins to His own purposes for our good. So, she attached great importance to her faults when she made her confession. The priest, who knew her well, tells her not to substitute the illusion that she is a person well advanced along the way of perfection, for another no less [conceited] illusion, that she is a most notable sinner, (p. 217).
We also probably need to worry less about whether the world hates us for embracing Christ than to ask whether perhaps we are a bit too much like the Woman of the Pharisees who suffered more from the capital sins than from the eight beatitudes.
The Eucharist is meant to make our inside and outside more truly Christian, more in harmony with each other, so that one day before our death and rising, we shall like Jesus, become worthy of the world’s rejection and experience what it really means to live in both the suffering and happiness of the beatitudes.
1. Translated by Gerard Hopkins, Henry Holt and Co. Inc, NY, 1946
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Deut 18:15-20; 1 Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28 ]
In last Sunday's gospel the evangelist, Mark, tells us the first part of Jesus' mission: “Repent!” Jesus said. In other words, have a change of heart. A change of heart is a change in what affects us. Then he said, “Believe in the gospel.” So the first part of his mission is to call us to put our faith in the gospel. Today he gives us the second part of his mission. It is about removing the obstacles to being affected by God's word.
Today's gospel tells us, “…He teaches as one having authority … he even commands unclean spirits and they obey him.” The second part of His mission is that he is to drive out demons. Evagrius of Ponticus listed the eight demons that affect us: avarice, gluttony, sadness, and so on culminating with Pride. They affect us; they taunt us with our human limitations. They plague us with fears and self-doubts that we can't just think our way out of. Some days it seems like these demons chase you down and beat you up! Like the powerless man in the gospel, we experience the unclean spirit as foreign, as being in a holy place on a holy day where it ought not to be. Driving out these demons would be an impressive proof of the authority we seek.
We seek authority when we can no longer make sense of our suffering. We look for something to put our faith in; to set our hearts on. The secular approach to suffering is to “get over it.” The Christian approach is to find something more important than it. The suffering over which Jesus has authority is that caused by the unclean spirits of a disordered sense of importance.
We came to the monastery not to avoid our demons; we came here to face them directly. (We may not have known this when we came here, but the wisdom of monastic's through the ages, including our seniors today, affirm this truth.) When Jesus says “Repent,” he means to renounce the despair that results from our futile attempts to “get over it.” When he says “Believe in the gospel,” he is saying, “Let my gospel affect you; let it replace the despair with faith in my words and my works.” What affects us motivates us. Let his gospel be more important than our demons. He is re-ordering our sense of importance, of what is good; of what has value. When someone speaks with authority, we know they will affect our sense of what is important, of what matters most.
“Importance” is a viewpoint and a source of motivation. The first viewpoint, the one for which we don't particularly need Jesus, is that of the personally satisfying. If someone compliments us or we eat something tasty it is agreeable and pleasant. It gets its importance from its effect on us, from the personal satisfaction it gives us.
The second viewpoint on importance is that which has value in itself, independently of its effect on us or if we are even capable of appreciating it. It has intrinsic value. It is not up to an arbitrary decision we might make or an accidental mood we might be in. Once discovered, we feel obligated to make an adequate response to it. The gospel of Jesus Christ about the Father and our relationship to Him is of such value.
To center one's life on the merely satisfying is called a “lifestyle.” To live toward enduring value, to live toward the “important-in-itself” is a “way of life.” Jesus is calling us to a way of life.
The ability to grasp values, to affirm them, and to respond to them is the very foundation of the Christian way of life in general and of the monastic way of life in particular. St. Benedict, with his emphasis on humility, calls this “Reverence.”
Reverence is an attitude we take toward the world when its goodness-in-itself affects us in the light of the gospel. It acknowledges there is something greater than self that obliges us to make an adequate response. That response is one of submission to the thing as it is, not as it can be merely useful to us for pleasure or status. Reverence is essentially a contemplative attitude of listening and allowing the object of our attention to touch us, to move us.
Reverence is the only proper response to the mission of Jesus Christ. The despair we renounce when we answer His call to repent is replaced by reverence for one “who teaches with authority,” and drives out our demons. The demons are not driven out for our personal comfort. Indeed, given that we are here to face them, we may still feel their presence. But by His “teaching with authority” they will not dictate our conduct. They are expelled so that we may be free to revere our neighbor and “free to worship the Father all the days of our life.”
You see, what we reverence we prefer to self; what we worship we prefer to everything.