Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23
In a recent critique of modern global economics, Pope Francis pointed out that the promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, thereby benefitting the poor. However, what happens instead is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger, but nothing ever comes out for the poor. Despite the Holy Father’s pointed criticism of what is sometimes described as “trickle-down” economics, Jesus, in today’s Gospel, seems to endorse a spiritual counterpart according to which the glass of the spiritually wealthy also gets bigger instead of overflowing to those spiritually less fortunate. Otherwise, what are we to make of his insistence that to anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; and from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away? It seems to almost suggest something akin to a spiritual Darwinian survival of the fittest that is unapologetically self-seeking and flourishes at the expense of the weak–for even what they have will be taken away.
And from a certain perspective a case can be made for just such an understanding of Jesus’ words as we think, for example, of the lives of some of the saints who are superabundantly blessed with all manner of graces and special privileges. As Cistercians struggling to persevere on an often dark, arid and sometimes desolate spiritual path, we may envy someone like Saint Bernard because of the plethora od spiritual gifts that inundated his inner life with light and divine consolation. How, we might ask, does someone like Saint Therese attain in twenty-four short years what we have been unable to achieve in fifty years of struggle? So too, as monks, we can experience frustration and dismay in our struggle to draw new members to our community while several already flourishing houses of our Order continue to be abundantly blessed with the very vocations that seem denied us. Here are instances where it seems that those who have plenty are given still more, while others with next to nothing seem abandoned to their plight.
One way of understanding this puzzling and unsettling teaching of Jesus is to suggest that perhaps the problem is with us and doesn’t reflect any unfairness or injustice on the part of God. This is to argue that it is not God who withholds his gifts and blessings for arbitrary or unknown reasons, but rather that is we who are incapable of receiving them. Saint Augustine speaks of this incapacity, metaphorically, in terms of space within our souls and laments: The house of my soul is too small for you to enter: make it more spacious by your coming. Saint Benedict echoes these sentiments in his promise that fidelity to monastic conversion will lead to an expanding of the heart. However, althouygh we speak in terms of emlarging our hearts and expanding our capacity for God we know that God cannot be thought of in quantitative terms such that one either possesses a greater or lesser share of God. Instead, God being a person and pure spirit is either possessed or not possessed. The human heart understood in a spiritual sense is similarly not something that can be enlarged or contracted. Being spiritual, the human heart is not confined by space and time and, indeed as Saint Macarius insists, although the heart is a small vessel, all things are contained in it; God is there, the angels are there and there also is life and the kingdom. But it is not about expanding the heart and providing a more spacious soul, what is that needs to happen in order for us to receive what God has bestowed so bountifully on the saints but seems to withhold from us?
Ultimately, what needs to happen is that we arrive at the full possession of our true and deepest selves whereby we can be present and open to God with the entirety of our being. However, being present to God with the entirety of our being demands, among other things, that we know who and what we truly are. And herein lies the challenge. For as Dom Brendan has been telling us in our refectory reading, coming into possession of our true self and arriving at an authentic personhood necessarily requires the abandoning of the false self, acquired by looking primarily outside ourselves and to others in defining our identity and maintaining our self-worth. The shifting opinions and ever changing attitudes of others towards us renders this a very unstable foundation to build a sense of self and thus Saint Bernard cautions I am a fool if I entrust my reputation to the casket of your lips and then begin to beg it of you when I feel the need for it.
Instead, coming into possession of the true self is only fully achieved by the journey within and is the fruit of an authentic growth in that self-knowledge attained by standing unflinchingly and perseveringly in the searing light of the Holy Spirit’s probing rays–rays that initially uncover our sinful wretchedness but then offer remedy through forgiveness, healing and the restoration of the divine image and likeness in us. However, because initial growth in self-knowledge is so painful and threatening to our very sense of self, we wittingly or unwittingly repeatedly interrupt the inward journey and escape into external distractions and superficiality–what Isaiah describes as a closing of the eyes, lest [we] see with [our] eyes. But in so doing we remain alienated from ourselves and from the God who is only fully encountered by the true self God intended and created us to be. As Meister Eckhart explains, God is near to us, but we are from from him. God is in, we are out. God is at home (in us), but we are abroad. Good reason, then, to courageously reengage the inner journey, however painful. For it is the glass of the emerging self that is filled and grows ever larger in its expanding openness to God’s gift of himself, even as the false self withers and dies. It is likewise to the true self–which alone possesses God–that more will be given and will grow rich; whereas from the false self–incapable of ever truly possessing God–even what [it] has will be taken away.