A story(s) and thoughts from spiritual writer, Anthony de Mello:
“Have you heard of the man who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his expedition to the New World and kept worrying the whole time that he might not get back in time to succeed the old village tailor and someone else might snatch the job?”
“To succeed in the adventure called spirituality one must have one’s mind set on getting the most out of life. Most people settle for trifles like wealth, fame, comfort and human company.”
“A man was so enamoured of fame that he was ready to hang on a gibbet [a gallows] if that would get his name in the headlines. Is there really any difference between him and most business people and politicians? (Not to mention the rest of us who set such store by public opinion).”
In pondering some severe and very difficult words of Jesus this week (Luke 14:25-33), I though of these stories – and another!
There was a king who visited the monasteries of a great spiritual master. The king was surprised to find more than 10,000 monks living with him in the monastries.
Wanting to know the exact number, the king asked, ‘How many disciples do you have?’
The master replied, ‘Four or five at the very most.’ True seekers are rare!
I had this image in my mind of Jesus, a great spiritual master (amongst other things!), walking down the road. He was followed by a multitude of people who all wanted a piece of him. They hung off his words and found something insightful and life-giving in them. He was popular! I imagined Jesus turning around every now and again, facing the crowd and saying, ‘You can’t be my follower unless you…’ He said this three times and each time there is a cutting edge to his words. The first is ‘…unless you hate your family.’ The second is ‘…unless you take up your cross.’ The third is ‘…unless you give up your possessions.’ Hard words indeed. It comes across almost as if he didn’t want people to follow him but is really the warning about embarking unthinkingly upon the journey of spiritual growth and life. It is not an easy journey, which is why most don’t make it. It is, as de Mello says in his story, for the rare true seekers who are willing to engage in the harsh and hard journey through struggle, suffering and letting go before entering into the place and space of true life and being.
Three times Jesus warns those would-be followers that being a disciple is not for the faint-hearted, those who want complete control over their lives and want to hang onto the things they own. Jesus’ point is that the harder we cling to things we possess, the more possessed we are – whether that be family, life-comforts or wealth and physical possessions. Most people hold ‘family’ as sacred and we therefore we feel angry and resistant to Jesus’ words about ‘hating family…’ The sense of his warning is that when we idealise family (and other relationships) we tend to idolise them as well. We do not look honestly at those relationships nor the people behind them. We fail to question the experiences of family and people close to us, or the assumptions and expectations that come to us through family and close relationships. We fail to engage with the very real issues that exist within families and family structures. In failing to honestly understand our relationships and the people close to us, we fail to understand ourselves and the unquestioned assumptions that guide and motivate us. Unless we free ourselves from such assumptions, expectations and the culture of family, we will never truly appreciate and love those who are our family or friends – nor ourselves. In some families the culture is violence and abuse. In other families it is high expectation around education or professional success (as reflected in movies such as ‘Dead Poets Society’)…
The second warning appears in a few places through Jesus’ words – ‘You cannot be my disciple if you do not take up and carry your cross.’ It is the way and path of suffering that is mostly avoided by the vast majority of people, religious and otherwise. At first it seems bizarre to think people would want to embrace suffering! Surely it is our duty to stop suffering and help people avoid it, but truth is, avoidance is impossible because suffering is the path into deeper wisdom, understanding, life and compassion. The truly compassionate people of the world are humbled by their suffering, by a sense of awe and wonder at their own powerlessness, and the emerging new power of love that grows within them. To take up our cross is to follow into the path and way of Jesus (and other great spiritual leaders). He went to the cross, let go of everything and found the path into deeper being, a deeper reality and the heart of Love.
His third warning is to steer us from possessions, which includes the physical things we own and hold onto, protect and which ultimately own us and absorb our time, energy and worry. In Jesus’ time (and in some cultures today), possessions also included people and relationships. It may also include power, prestige, position, fame, and the ambitions, drive and that which forms in our dreams of success and achievement. There is nothing inherently wrong with owning things, although our society’s capacity to accumulate unnecessarily and refuse to share resources with the broader world where profound need exists, is questionable, sad and greedy. When we reach the stage of owning things in a clinging, desperate manner, we are probably possessed by these things or the perception that we are not a real, significant person if we can’t match others in what they own. Being possessed leads us into alternative paths of living that are dependent and ultimately life-denying. Jesus’ multitude of exorcisms were often about the elimination of that which causes spiritual dis-ease, emotional disconnection and the alienation of our being.
In all of this, Jesus invites people into a path that isn’t simplistic, and he doesn’t allow us to avoid the path he took. The trouble is that the church, along with the dominant cultures in which it exists, choose the easy way, the path devoid of any suffering or need to let go. Without letting go, without giving up, without the honest self-reflection we do not walk into the path of self-awareness and life. We will always be defending ourselves and our beliefs. We will always be protecting our stuff and we will always be searching and seeking for more, living with the fear and anxiety that pervades so much of human life. Richard Rohr says: “Following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. To allow what God for some reason allows – and uses. And to suffer ever so slightly what God suffers eternally. Often, this has little to do with believing the right things about God – beyond the fact that God is love itself!” It is this powerlessness of God that is the salvation of the world. Those who choose this path enter into eternal life now, walk with God, see more clearly and are instruments in God’s salvation of all!