Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John12:24.)
Jesus had said this to his disciples shortly after his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I’m thinking about the issue of Dying to Self these September days because we’re celebrating a favorite feast day of mine because I have an along association with the Cistercian Abbey of the Holy Cross in Berryville,Virginia, nestled on the Western side of the first ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the shore of the Shenandoah River. I’m also thinking of the issue of Dying to Self these September days because of some personal issues I’m experiencing as I enter the fiftieth year of my priesthood.
Many of us might shudder and quake in our sneakers at the thought of Dying to Self. It goes against everything our American culture tells us we should do—Look Out For No. 1 ~ especially what we put up with from our elected officials, day in and day out these days. There has been talk about the “Me Generation” since the Seventies. I found quite interesting: Patricia Greenfield, a psychological scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles, used the Google Ngram Viewer to scan more than 1 million books. Her findings, which were published in Psychological Science, showed that there has been a distinct rise in more individualistic words such as “choose,” “get,” “feel,” “unique,” “individual” and “self” and a decrease in community-focused words such as “obliged,” “give,” “act,” “obedience,” “authority,” “pray” and “belong.” No sign of Dying to Self here, it seems. Let alone the Cross.
I wonder what will happen to our young people when they hit on hard times? When their climb toward success begins to crumble? When the girl that they’ve fallen head-over-heals in love with cruelly rejects them? Or as I just read in The Writer magazine, after five years of marriage, the successful screen-writer “Brendan” had grown tired of arguing with his wife, also a writer, but insecure and jealous of his success, told her he’s moving out? What happens to any of us when life does not turn out as we planned? When we suddenly lose our job? Or are diagnosed with cancer?
If you name the trauma(s) that have altered your life over the years . . . how did you deal with them? How did they affect you? What about Dying to Self? Can you ~ do you ~ do that?
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24.) Does this make sense to you?
For you? In another place, Jesus says to his disciples . . .
If any wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Luke 9:24-26 ~ NRSV)
Obviously, this is not the wisdom of the world with its emphasis on Power Prestige and Possessions. A priest-friend sent me a Christmas card a couple of years ago that I framed and placed on my dining room table —a quote of St. Paul’s:
My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection. And so I willingly boast of my weaknesses instead, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For when I am powerless, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Now here you have three koans to mull over, dear friends, and to try to grasp:
I / Unless a grain of wheat dies, it will not bear fruit.
II / Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. I
II / When I am powerless, then I am strong.
What is a koan, you might ask? A koan is a Zen saying often used by Buddhist monks to teach their novices: “To meditate on a koan is to engage in an active process, like that we engage in when we try to solve a mathematical problem. As in mathematics, the solution is supposed to come suddenly.”
So, rather than giving all your energy to the three P’s of the world, why not write these three Christian Scriptures on index cards and pull them out when you’re idle waiting for something else to happen? Try it! You just might be enlightened, as I somehow receive the gift of some in wisdom, as I have from time to time when I have been attentive to my prayer-life.
Jesus, of course, shows us the way. Let’s look at the famous “Kenosis” passage of Philippians Chapter 2:6-11 “Kenosis”—meaning here Jesus’ self-emptying . . .
Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
There it is, dear friends! Jesus gave his life for us. The movement was downward. Earthward. Earth-bound. Into the muck. Humility comes from the word humus, meaning muck. So, that’s what Dying to Self involves—getting down into the nitty-gritty of our lives and those of our loved ones and those we are called to serve. Being obedient to what life demands of us. And beckons us to, whether we might like it not. Real Life elicits from our inner depths our best resources. Then . . .
Then . . . God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And so, too, with us! We will be lifted up! I have experienced this several times. My longtime readers know that I’ve struggled with manic-depressive illness, and other issues with it, and later Parkinson’s disease, from which I received some sort of a miraculous release, according to my neurologist and very often financial struggles,like many of you.
But Jesus is faithful! Dying and rising is a continual process in nature and in our lives as well. We are taken down in some burden or crisis but, through faith, we are lifted up again! This is the Paschal Mystery. The Pasch ~ Passover ~ Passage ~Transition ~Transformation ~ Change. The Dying and Rising of Jesus in our lives is celebrated for us Catholics throughout the liturgical year and in every Mass.
Think about how you have experienced—and continue to experience the Paschal Mystery ~ this dying and rising ~ in your own life. And so, dear friends, I will bring this missive to a close by returning to the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and conclude with the wonderful words of the hymn Lift High the Cross. I remember when I first heard it. Trumpets and timpani sent shivers down my spine and goose bumps all over!
Lift high the cross The love of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world Adore His sacred name
Led on their way By this triumphant sign,
The hosts of God In conquering ranks combine. Refrain:
Each newborn servant Of the Crucified
Bears on the brow The seal of Him who died. Refrain
O Lord, once lifted On the glorious tree,
As Thou hast promised Draw the world to Thee. Refrain.
So shall our song Of triumph ever be:
Praise to the Crucified For victory. Refrain:
Now here is the hymn for your listening pleasure. Click here. Be sure to turn up your speakers.
And here are today’s Mass readings, if you’d like to reflect on them. Click here.