Friday in the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Heb 13:1-8; Mk 6:14-29
Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand has written: “It is not from what we undertake with a view to our transformation, but from the things to which we devote ourselves for their own sake that will issue in the deepest formative effects” upon our character.[i]
That is the lesson of today’s gospel. Now the exam: Compare and contrast how that principle distinguishes Herod and Herodias and John the Baptist. What did Herod & Herodias devote themselves to for its own sake? What was its effect on the formation of their characters? And what did John the Baptist devote himself to for its own sake? What was its effect on the formation of his character? (Clue: It was something to lose your head over.) Bonus question: What did Jesus devote Himself to for its own sake? What was that effect?
On this day after the clothing of a new novice it is good to recall what we have devoted ourselves to for its own sake. It should be having deep formative effects on our character.
The heart organizes itself around what is deepest in it, around what matters most. We see that in the people in this gospel. We see how the difference in their behavior is a difference in what the heart is set on.
More importantly, we see that the heart gets its orientation to life from devotion to something for its own sake. That’s what devotion is for; it is appreciation of the intrinsic value of something. The wise heart devotes itself for the sake of that which is pervasive, enduring, and deep. One becomes more about that than about self.
That is a lofty ambition for people with fallen natures. And therein is the problem of the divided heart. There is that part of us that wants to devote ourselves to that which is for self’s sake; to the merely satisfying. To deny it we need a community and a story it lives out. Those will only be a help if the heart is devoted to Truth and Love for its own sake.
Several months ago I saw a website where a panel of Hollywood gossip reporters was discussing whether it was right to report on a celebrity who was an “out loud” Christian and had been caught in a scandal. They agreed that it was right to report it and to emphasize his Christian allegiance. None of them said what their own codes of ethics were. They were likely relativistic, i.e. each made up his or her own, subject to revision as needed. Christians are more daring: we try to live by a code that we did not write. We commonly fall short. But because we devoted ourselves to Love Incarnate for its own sake even falling short has deep formative effects on the formation of our character. And when we fall short our community distinguishes itself from Hollywood gossip reporters by being forgiving. If it’s not forgiving, it’s not our community.
We are not clones of one another. Each develops a unique moral identity resulting from her gifts, traits, and things that have happened to her that have not happened to anyone else. From these comes that sense of what matters most. Everything else gets its importance from its relationship to what matters most. That is how we get virtues; virtues are habits acquired to realize value.
Yet Hildebrand tells us our character is not “a purpose attained by our own will.” For all of our virtues & idiosyncrasies it is because of what we as a community devote ourselves to for its own sake and the power of it that the formation of our character is essentially a gift.[ii]
[i] Transformation in Christ, p. 231