Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Week 08 Tuesday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Peter 1:10-16; Psalm 98; Mark 10:28-31

So what's the deal, Peter asks. His question reminds us of how difficult it is to change our minds, be converted, and open up to living according to grace. Peter's interest is the exchange rate, the currency, in which the relationship with Jesus is to be evaluated: 'what about us, we have left everything and followed you'. His question comes immediately after Jesus' comment about the impossibility of a rich person entering the kingdom and Peter, in spite of himself, shows that he is still 'rich', still keen to know 'the bottom line'.

Has he really left everything to follow Jesus if this question still troubles him? At first Jesus seems to respond in the terms set by Peter: those who have left everything will receive everything back, and receive it a hundredfold (an impressive rate of interest). So there's the deal: give it all up and you will get it all back, and get it back with its value enhanced. This invites us to think in terms of a spiritual economy. St John of the Cross, for example, develops an understanding of detachment from all things, embracing the nada, the nothing, of the cross, but then being given everything back: 'I have the mountains, the quiet wooded valleys, the perfect solitude'. Give it all up for Christ and you receive everything back with Christ.

Meister Eckhart talks in a similar way: the one who detaches himself from all things becomes all things so you own everything in a much more radical way if you decide not to own anything. You will love your family more if you become detached from them, Eckhart says in commenting on today's gospel reading (Book of Divine Comfort, Part II): they become a hundred times dearer to you than they are now. As well as that, everybody else becomes dearer to you than your family is by nature and so you find yourself with many fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters.

It might seem irreverent, presumptuous, to question the interpretations of such spiritual geniuses as John of the Cross and Eckhart. But the question remains as to whether there is something in the teaching of Jesus that resists being contained even by their spiritual logic.

One qualification Jesus adds is that this detachment is to be 'for my sake and for the sake of the gospel'. What needs to happen if we are to find ourselves capable of such motivation? Just because I think that is why I want to do it does not mean that it really is why I want to do it. When can a person honestly say 'this is the reason for my action, Jesus and the gospel'? If we still harbour Peter's question somewhere inside ourselves we are still not understanding the terms in which Jesus is speaking.

A second qualification Jesus adds is this: 'with persecutions'. This is part of the deal as well, then. If glory is on offer then it is not without suffering, a suffering that attends any birth. And if we are to be born into a new way of living how can we know what that will be before we are born into it? How 'do a deal' when we are still in the womb and do not know what life will be like outside the womb, what 'eternal life' might mean? The first reading today uses the term 'grace' and then explains it in terms of glory and hope, a glory that attends suffering and is accompanied by suffering, a hope that means looking beyond the desires of our ignorance, and how are we to do that?

The third and final qualification added by Jesus seems to subvert not just Peter's ordinary, understandable question but also the solutions of spiritually sophisticated teachers like John of the Cross and Eckhart. There are many who are first who will be last, and the last, first. This seems to blow all logic out of the water, destroy all attempts to develop an 'economy' of the relationship with Christ. The first will be last and the last first: does it not draw a line under all measuring and evaluating of how we are doing and catapult us into the puzzling world of grace and holiness, a world in which we are strangers (no matter how hard we try to reduce it to more manageable terms).

We are to be holy as God is holy, the first reading concludes. How is it possible to be in the presence of the holiness of God, to perceive it, to understand it, not to be completely confused and overwhelmed by it? We can only allow it to reveal itself to us, to reveal its ways to us, to give us the courage to follow and entrust ourselves to its laws and criteria. The first reading teaches us that the power or capacity to do this is 'the Spirit of Christ' or 'the Holy Spirit' working in us. It is what we are searching for, as angels and prophets have searched for it, but in finding it we lose ourselves and we come to live for others even to the point of forgetting ourselves. Is it wise to think in such terms? Is God's holiness foolish? Have we really given up anything to follow Christ?

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