Emmitsburg Council of Churches

The Strife of Life and Christ' Light

Father John J. Lombardi

Q: What's the biggest cult today? A: No, not the Hare Krishnas or New Agers. Rather, it's one we may all belong to-the cult of self. The cult of pleasure…the me-first, life-at-any-cost, pursuit-of-pleasure cult. We've all joined at some point, so now let's drop out. Deprogram. See the following…

Think of it. Today, we have so many things and pleasures to cater to ourselves it's hard to drop out and tune in to Jesus' Other Way of Thinking. Sky domed stadiums are now opening for baseball; simulator wave makers on cruise ships cater to more lavish desires, beard buster seventeen-track razors help men shave and look sheen like; color plasma televisions attract with a zillion channels to muddle over; supermarkets with goat cheese from France, Italian olive oil, organic lettuce from California, coffee beans from Columbia, Russian caviar and free-range chickens from the Outback allure the palate and passions; mudpack cosmetics create a gritty beauty; faster, hyper driven personal computers addict electronic junkies; countless communicating and contraceptive devices sidetrack true communion; alarm clock drip-coffee makers get you going and sleeping pills knock you out; cars with algorithmic accouterments of music, heated seats and geo-strategic plotting devices entrance; lean cuisine and trans-fat free foods supplement diets; and what one book describes as pursuit of American avariciousness-"The New New Thing" continues endless promises of a perfect earthly life, etc., etc. I didn't mention sacrifice and fasting amidst all this---no wonder Lent and Christian discipleship is so hard!

To all this, hear Jesus' astounding thunder: "Unless you hate your life in this world you will not possess eternal life" (Jn. 12:25). How can we hate life if we have all these things? Why do you need God or discipleship discipline if you "have it all?" Point: you don't have to be a Marxist to see that contemporary Mammon and economics, savage capitalism (as Pope John Paul called it), and socialism want to eliminate the Ultimate-God-by fulfilling every single seeming earthly desire.

We are told from an early age to love life, pursue it to the hilt; to make something of ourselves; live for yourself; simply be happy and pursue your personal dream, etc., etc. But Jesus drums in: "Unless you hate your life…" What gives? Long story short: there's a right way to hate and a wrong way. See the following…

When you neglect or reject God's Will for your life, then you should hate your life-precisely because you are basing happiness or self-esteem, goals or meaning for yourself on someone else. You cannot serve two masters. Just think: If Blessed Damien, the Leper priest, loved his comfy life in Belgium, the lepers wouldn't have been healed on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. If St John de Brebouef loved elegant France more than despising himself and earthly attachments, the Huron and Mohawk Indians would not have been evangelized. If Mother Seton didn't negate her own pursuits, she wouldn't have begun Catholic schools in America. If Fr Dubois didn't loathe himself and his personal comfort zone, he wouldn't have come to Mary's Mountain and founded our Grotto (and you wouldn't be reading this right now!). If St Teresa of Avila didn't reject her own earthly ego, she wouldn't have written one of the greatest mystical treatises, "The Interior Castle," describing the soul's union with God. If Jesus didn't empty Himself of His Glory, He wouldn't have saved us from sin, death and Hell. If…

The choice for us humans is hanging on to self, versus what does God want? We have phrases to describe our human, self-preoccupied condition: "He's stuck on himself" and "She's caught up in life," or "He's full of himself," "Blinded by life," or "She's got a big head," and so forth.

To this, study St Paul: "You should put away your old self of your former way of living corrupted through deceitful desires and be renewed in the sprit of your minds and put on the new self created in God's way…" (Eph. 4:22ff). Analysis: the old, outer, egoic, external self gets corrupted by vanity and earthly esteem-that's its nature. But if we renew our minds, our thinking, our "new self" will be aligned with Gods' Way, not our way. So, apart from God the self and life itself must be deterred and then redeemed.

To put it bluntly, to hate one's life "goes against our grain," against our earthy attitudes of selfishness and materialism. We're taught to esteem ourselves, love and respect ourselves. What self? The earthy earthly self of selfishness or the self God gave me to praise Him and serve others? Unless we hate-yes, indeed, a strong word-- our selfish selves divorced from God-we will perish because that selfish self is always seeking more fulfillment and pleasure apart from God: it'd be like a homing pigeon listening to a wrong signal and going to South America instead of North America. But, though we may recoil, we Catholics and Christians must use that "h-word," hate (in the right, informed way, of course)-because Jesus did-or else we will not be heroic or valiant like the saints and Jesus Himself in battling sin and selfishness. Why did Jesus use the "h-word?" Because our self and life apart from God are sometimes our most prized possessions-and enemies. Thus: Jesus is realistic in knowing this, and using some hyperbole, His tough medicine goes like a pierced arrow right at the most powerful sore in our armor-our self-seeking self. He goes right at it, as if asking: Are you with me or with your self? As a matter of fact, consider when Jesus says: "Blessed are you when men hate you…" (Lk 6:22); "Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you" (Lk. 6:27); "Whoever comes to Me without hating father and mother…" (Lk. 14:26); "You will be hated by all because of Me" (Lk 21:17). So, you can see-hate, that strong passion, can liberate us, but we should never hate in the wrong way.

Look at it this way: when we strongly negate (or hate) ourselves and life apart from God, alternatively we affirm God and His Plan for our souls. He gives strong medicine (hating self and life apart from God) precisely because we are so attached, like Adam and Eve, to our own small, egoic plans.

Self-abnegation, selflessness, death to self, self-denial, annihilation of self-all these classic words, phrases and practices are not de rigueur today-they are despised. However, always remember: when we die to self we live for God.

Well, if you're overly influenced by terms like self-esteem and hate crimes and "hate is a four letter word," well then, ok. So, now, try these words substituted for hate in Jesus' maxim: despise, dislike, negate, renounce, loathe, abhor, scorn, denounce, shun, reject-your selfish self, your life apart from God. This will then give you the spiritual "gas" to motor your soul to liberation, love and service. But remember: no gas, no go.

Another way to grasp what Jesus is saying is to think of times we have hated: you've probably said at one time in life that you hate (pick one): peas and carrots (liver and onions anyone?!); or, "I hate that side of her or him;" or you've said "I hate the humidity" or "I can't stand the cold and snow," or "I hate the morning traffic" or "crazy drivers." Kids say "I hate doing homework" and parents say "I can't stand that side of her/him," and so on…we've all had the passion of hatred: point-use it for good and the right way.

We all have strong feelings and hatred taps into that in a positive way-to passionately despise that which separates us from God. He does not want us to hate our God given selves, the soul He bestowed upon us; He does not want us to forget we are, each, a child of God. No, we must love and cherish this Gift. Herein we should distinguish between the outer, selfish pleasure-seeking self and the inner self (the soul) which is called to be in constant communion with God. Unless we break that shell of ensnarement of "outer self" we cannot liberate the inner self to live God's life for us. Unless we hate our lives lived on our own terms, or the Devil's or the world's-apart from God's plan, we shall not be begotten from above (Jn. 3) or enter Eternal Life. Jesus uses the strong terms of hating God-separated life and denying self (Lk. 9:23) precisely because so many (most?) people are overly attached to their selfish, outer selves and life apart from God that they are slaves of these. And so, just think: since the world denies the supernatural aspect of ourselves-our soul and Eternal Life-it can only offer love of self and love of life apart from God as the only alternative.

In all this Jesus gives us an S.O.S.-a solidarity of suffering. He enters into our suffering to identify with it so deeply (His Passion and Death) to remind us He is Emmanuel-God with us. God is not distant or uncaring of our suffering-He becomes one with it. The true disciples-saints-do likewise and become an "alter Christus-another Christ." The saint despises his own life of comfort to identify with the poor; the Catholic abhors her own pursuits to pursue Christ at any cost; the Christian man denies self to heroically embrace purity; the celibate priest neutralizes desires for wife and children to make Jesus' friends his own family; the Catholic guy and girl leave personal comfort zones to embrace Jesus in His disguises of the poor, sick and dying. Thing is: when we negate self or life apart from God we embrace another reality: Divine Union. Do you have this spiritual insight, drive and direction?

So, regarding rejection of selfishness and life divorced from God: loathe, despise, reject, hate it when you focus too much on yourself and get stuck in personal self-seeking. When you want to do evil and not do good (cf. Rm 7:25); when you are more stuck on your own personal comforts and not Godly selflessness; when gossip becomes accepted and even protected and projected; when you want to believe what you want to believe and not what the Church or Bible teaches; when the sex trade manipulates young girls and women across the globe for sensualist purposes; when believers can't get along and bicker over banal biases and brickbats; when pornography reigns in so many hearts and homes and computers; when drugs rack your families and lives and careers; when priests abuse children and young men; when the Sabbath and Lord's Name is profaned; when the Catholic Church is maligned in the culture; when a culture of greediness and violence and sensualism is profiteered from children and all of us; when religion is despised in the media; when the Catholic Church's teachings and spiritual treasures are neglected or rejected.; when your anxieties and nerves get the best of you; when you love the world more than the Lord, etc. Get it? Do you have the "gasoline fuel" of negation and hatred of the selfish self and life apart from God, as these examples show, to go deeper, higher? If you don't have that, then the shell of self and the cornhusk Jesus speaks of (Jn. 12:24) will not be broken and the soul will continue in enslavement.

Another way to look at Jesus' controversial saying is to look upon what He is affirming: Eternal life, Heaven, discipleship, embracing the Passion, Christic and personal resurrection. We must also remember in this Johannine passage that Jesus is giving the disciples a premonition of His Passion, Death and Resurrection. When He uses the images of hating life and the seed dying to itself, He is referring to His own Death and Resurrection. So: when He and we die, we must also remember it is for a purpose and not just for sheer spiritual will power or prowess-it is for True Life, divine discipleship and to recall that He is Victor over all sin, death and selfishness. Yes, especially as Americans, so lured by rewards, a "purpose-driven life" and goals, we can focus on the goal Jesus points to, and this will certainly help us. In classic spiritual terms, we must remember our last end-Judgment (definitely) and Heaven (hopefully). If we then contemplate that Bliss and Paradise we want to attain, we will certainly do whatever it takes, including hating life and self apart from God. The means and the ends are like cause and effect. So, when we see the effect (Heaven) we will pursue the cause with great desire and, even, tough medicine.

Another problem is that we think when we hate our selfish selves or life apart from God we cannot have joy or fulfillment or happiness. No! Think of St Philip Neri, the "Joyful Saint," who practiced personal mortifications, denials of self, service to the poor and also carried a joke book and played practical jokes. You can have it all as a Christian if you do it the right way, not the way of the world.

And, yes, we should also hate sin. You don't hear this much anymore. But we should remember this helpful, though jarring, saying. Think of sin as searing our relationship with God, the Church and others. Then stop sinning! Always remember: Cling to the King. He hung up there-on the Cross. So hang yourself on the Cross with Him and thereby enjoy true life and thereby, Eternal Life.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi