Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Distinguishing the 'Essential' from the 'Peripheral' (Reflections on Luke 11:37-41)

Octavian was a young man who was born to an extremely wealthy Roman family. His father was Patrician of Rome who wanted his young son to succeed him after his death. Octavian did succeeded his father as leader of Rome, at the age of 17. A year later at the age of 18, owing to his family’s wealth and power, he was made pope and took the name John XII—the youngest pope in the Church’s history. Unfortunately, the young Octavian turned out to be an embarrassment for the church. He wasn’t only unfaithful to his office as pope, historical sources tell us that he was downright immoral as a human being. A council convened by the Emperor Otto I eventually deposed him in 964 A.D.

Contrast Octavian’s story with another young man whose wealth and family ties elevated him to a very high position in the church of his day: that of cardinal archbishop. We all know him as St. Charles Borromeo who at 22, was made archbishop of Milan by his uncle, Angelo d’Medici, of the powerful Medici family, after the latter became Pope Pius IV. Charles’ story, of course, was quite different from that of Octavian. While their backgrounds may have been the same—that of worldliness and wealth—Charles, at one point in his life, resolved that notwithstanding the manner by which he was made cardinal and archbishop, he was going to live a life worthy of his calling and responsibility. Unlike Octavian who sullied the church’s name, Charles became one of the greatest reformers in its history.

In one of his books on spiritual direction, Thomas Merton says that none of our motives for wanting to become a priest and entering seminary is totally pure. We all come with our personal baggage, wounds, scars, personal and family dysfunctions—all mixed up with a desire to follow Christ and serve his people. But since no motive is ever pure, the point of seminary formation then is to gradually purify our motives and intentions. How do we do this? By striving daily to make our interior dispositions (our inner life) coincide with our exterior ways, actions, and behavior. As my old spiritual director used to say: “You’ll know you’re on the right track when what you tell your spiritual director no longer feels like something you can’t tell your rector or dean of men”. While he wasn’t suggesting I cross that line, I believe he was reminding me of the importance of consistency in the internal and external dimensions of our life in formation.

The problem with the supposedly religious men of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees—was that this never happened for them. There was a wide gap between who they were externally and what they were internally. They became too absorbed with the external manifestations of their faith—such as the washing of hands, cups, and bowls, that they had lost sight of what these things signified: a pure heart, mind, and soul. Too hung up on the peripherals and marginals, they lost sight of the essentials.

There have been many people like John XII or Charles Borromeo in the history of the church. But what makes a Charles Borromeo different from a John XII is that Charles refused to allow the external, marginal, and peripheral things to define and determine the internal, substantial, and essential core of himself, his life, and his vocation. Through effort, hard, work, constancy, and prayer, he saw to it that it was the essentials that would define the externals, not the other way around.

Don’t get too absorbed with the externals of our faith then—and God knows there are many of them. They’re not unimportant; but they aren’t the substance that should define us as seminarians, priests, and followers of Christ. See beyond the trappings and trinkets of our religion, our rituals, our beliefs—and go straight for the substance and the heart of the matter, which of course is none other than our relationship with Jesus himself.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)