Wonderful words of advice that the church should take on board
All of this is simply to suggest how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be. Why is this so? Why do we children of the light so easily become conspirators with the darkness? The answer is quite simple. Our identity, our sense of self , is at stake. Secularity is a way of being dependant upon the responses of our milieu. The secular or false self is the self which is fabricated, as Thomas Merton says, by social compulsions. ‘Compulsive’ is indeed the best adjective for the false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by the world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failure and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same – more work, more money, more friends.
These very compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of the secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies. What else is anger other than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word. And when my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated. Thus greed and anger are the brother and sister of a false self fabricated by the social compulsions of the unredeemed world.
Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who making them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart. If there is anything that makes ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.
It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard it is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.
Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, London: DLT, 1990: 14-16
Two works of mercy set a man free: forgive and you will be forgiven, and give and you will receive.
When you pray we are all beggars before God: we stand before the great householder bowed down and weeping, hoping to be given something, and that something is God himself.
What does a poor man beg of you? Bread. What do you beg from God? – Christ, who said, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven’.
Do you you really want to be forgiven? Then forgive. Do you want to receive something? Then give to another. And if you want your prayer to fly up to God, give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.
But look carefully at what you do: don’t think it is enough to fast if it is only a penance for sin, and does not benefit someone else. You deprive yourself of something, but to whom do you give what you do without?
Fast in such a way that you rejoice to see that dinner is eaten by another; not grumbling and looking gloomy, giving rather because the beggar wearies you than because you are feeding the hungry.
If you are sad when you give alms, you lose both bread and merit, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.
Pride is the great sin, the head and cause of all sins, and its beginning lies in turning away from God. Beloved, do not make light of this vice, for the proud man who disdains the yoke of Christ is constrained by the harsher yoke of sin: he may not wish to serve, but he has to, because if he will not be love’s servant, he will inevitably be sin’s slave.
From pride arises apostasy: the soul goes into darkness, and misusing its free will falls into other sins, wasting its substance with harlots, and he who was created a fellow of the angels becomes a keeper of swine.
Because of this great sin of pride, God humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant, bearing insults and hanging on a cross. To heal us, he became humble; shall we not be ashamed to be proud?
You have heard the Lord say that if you forgive those who have injured you, your Father in heaven will forgive you. But those who speak the world’s language say. ‘What! you won’t revenge yourself, but let him boast of what he did to you? Surely you will let him see that he is not dealing with a weakling?’ Did the Lord revenge himself on those who struck him? Dying of his own free will, he uttered no threats: and will you, who do not know when you will die, get in a rage and threaten?
Shall a Christian go and live apart from the world, so that he may not be tried by false brethren? Shall he who has progressed in a righteous life separate himself so that he need not suffer from anyone? Perhaps people have suffered from before he was converted. Has no one anything to put up with from you? It would surprise me – but if it is so, then you are stronger and thus able to endure other people’s failings.
Do you propose to shut out bad men from good men’s company? if that is what you say, see if you can shut out all evil thoughts from your own heart. Every day we fight with out own heart.
You say you will go apart with a few good men and admit no wicked brother to your society. How do you recognise the man you wish to exclude? Do all come to you with their hearts bare? Those who wish to come do not know themselves, they cannot be proved unless they are tried.
Nowhere in this life are we secure, except in God’s promise – only when we have attained to it, when the gates of Jerusalem are shut behind us, shall we be perfectly safe.
Beloved, mark the apostle’s words: ‘Support one another in charity.’ You forsake the world of men and separate yourself from it. Whom will you profit? Would you have got so far if no one had profited you?
I was somewhat troubled when I first read this morning’s Gospel. I find it all too easy to moan about all sorts of things, it is a very human failing, one to which we all, from time to time, succumb. But it’s something which Our Lord tells us not to do, and so I pray that through God’s grace I may live a life which more closely imitates Jesus, and follows His commands. It reminds me of a passage in the sermons of St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church: ‘“You all say, ‘The times are troubled, the times are hard, the times are wretched.’ Live good lives and you will change the times. By living good lives you will change the times and have nothing to grumble about.”’ (Sermo 311.8) It reminds us that the work of the Gospel is at one level up to us, the Body of Christ, His Church. We have to live our faith out in our lives (as fine words butter no parsnips) and we have to live the change we want to see in the world. Christianity is a way of life, a way mocked and scorned by the world around us, written off as irrelevant, and yet close to the God who loves us and saves us.