"As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, 'Good Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.' The man said to him, 'Rabbi, I have kept all these since my youth.' Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.' When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions," (Mark 10:17-22).
If someone were to ask me to pick a passage from scripture that captures my own particular spirituality--one that would explain who I am and why I am living the life of a Dominican cooperator brother, I would have to recite the above passage from Mark's Gospel. It's a passage that I have been living with and have been challenged by, at least, for over thirteen years.
In many ways, I was just like this rich man was when I was sixteen (well, without the "rich" part)--I was eager for my religion, attending services at the Pentecostal Church I once belonged to every weekend, studying my Bible, working hard to do the right thing and be the kind of person God wanted me to be. I was so eager, I could not imagine saving any part of my life for myself, or anybody else. I wanted to surrender myself to God. Not surprisingly, then, when my sixteen-year-old-self read this passage, he took Jesus' words at face value,--I had to find of way of getting rid of all of my possessions so that I could be free to follow Jesus. I understood, what the rich man did not: that life wasn't about anything other than the total giving of self to God.
This realization came at just the time when the Holy Spirit had begun to call me from the Pentecostal tradition to the Catholic Church. I can confidently claim that there are two essential reasons that the Holy Spirit gave to me for converting to Catholicism: 1) The Blessed Sacrament and 2) Religious life. (Given the topic of this reflection, I'll focus on the second.)
My introduction to religious life really came through the story of St. Francis of Assisi. As I read about his conversion experience, his defiant determination to give himself to God, his willingness to have nothing but God alone (and thereby to have everything), I became convinced that I had to become Catholic.
I became Catholic when I was eighteen, and so could have begun my race to God then, but as many eager young men know, early manhood brings with it many distractions--internal and external--and my eagerness for God waned as my contemplative prayer life grew weak. That said, I still made time for prayer in the chapel, and I tried to attend daily Mass as often as I could. Sure enough, despite all the distractions and the noise, God was able to call out to me again. I can still remember sitting in the little chapel at Thomas More College listening to the Gospel passage above and feeling my heart get that funny feeling again--an inner fire blazing up: the fire of love.
You might have thought I would have run to the nearest monastery and surrendered myself then and there, but I didn't. It wouldn't be until two years later that I finally stopped running. This time, I learned the secret to vocational discernment and to religious life--radical obedience.
As any vowed religious brother or sister knows, the root meaning of the word "obedience" is "to listen." You cannot really give yourself to God, in the way that people like Abraham, Moses, Mary, or Francis did, unless you've learned how to listen. After all, once you've said your part, you've got to hear what God has to say. In fact, listening to God is precisely what giving oneself to God is all about. For the rest of your life, no matter what vocation you end up having, what ministry or occupation you do, listening to God is what will move you, define you, and give you joy.
The rich young man's problem was that he was willing to give himself, but he was unwilling to listen to God's directions for how to do so. Again, I was different. On October 7th, 2005, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, I presented myself to God in prayer, and I dedicated myself to him. I told him that my life was his to do with whatever he willed, only, he had to tell me what to do. Then...I listened. I was quiet. And I heard God's two-part reply: First, he told me I needed to look within to see what it was that I most hungered to do.
I listened. I was quiet. I discerned that PREACHING was what I most hungered to do. I wanted to tell other people about God. --But doesn't every vocation in the Catholic Church involve preaching? Preaching doesn't realy narrow anything down.
So I returned to silence. I listened. I was quiet, and God said the name Rose Hawthorne. Rose was a Dominican sister, and is up for canonization. I already knew about her, so it didn't take me long to put "Preaching" together with "Rose Hawthorne" and see that God was leading me to the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans.
I am taking the time to write about these things, because I cannot underscore enough the importance of radical obedience--the self-giving aspect of it, yes; but equally, the listening component grounded in silence and contemplative prayer. I think most people are probably hungry for greater happiness, and most of them want to have a connection with God--to know that he exists and can hear them; but they often resist taking the steps necessary to encounter God. They don't listen. They can't listen, really, because their lives are too filled with noise--either within or without. You're not going to hear God, if you're the one doing all the talking. "Shut up!" is not a nice thing to say to people usually, but in this case, it's the kindest advice I can give.
Recently, I had an image come to mind during prayer that I thought was interesting. It's related to the tension between noise and silence--(and to my last blog entry, in a way). I wondered if heaven would be more like a Handel concert or a night at the dance club--and I wondered which I would prefer, but then the image of a packed sports stadium came to mind,--instead of the usual noises associated with such a place, there was complete and intentional silence. I then connected the image with heaven, imagining everyone sitting in a serene silence, gazing on the Holy Trinity.
In the end, there's one puzzle piece left; one that fits perfectly with the self-giving and with listening, and it's the key to radical obedience: love. In the story about the rich man, Mark includes a telling detail--one that Matthew and Luke do not--and that is that Jesus looked at the man and "loved him." The rich man, however, for all his eagerness, does not really love God, at least, not on the level one might have been expecting, given his eagerness to go the next step in obedience to the Torah.
Mary Henrics, a Catholic mystic, says something which I think helps explain this element to the Gospel story: "When we say to God, that we love him with all our heart, it is often a mere form of words, without truth or meaning. Men learn it when they are young, and they continue to use it when they are grown up, without thinking of what they say. To love God, is to have no other will but his; to keep faithfully his law, and have in abhorrence all violations of it," (Butler's Methodists and Papists, 151).
--The rich man certainly did keep the law faithfully, and probably had an abhorrence for all violations of it, but he didn't love God enough to have no other will but God's, and so he ultimately fails to live with God.
To love God, to listen to God, to give oneself to God--these three things are what radical obedience is all about. And I would argue, they are what the vocation to be a religious brother is all about.
In all this, I do not mean to imply that radical obedience is easy. It isn't. It entails the cultivation of the contemplative life through a balance of noise and silence. It means a person has to develop his or her listening skills, and learn the many different ways of hearing God. And it means a person has to be willing to suffer. It is sometimes God's will that we do bigger and greater things than we ever imagined, but these bigger and greater things, these divine projects, sometimes demand that we stretch ourselves. We not only have to sell everything we have, give to the poor, but we also have to follow Jesus, and this means a cross will be involved. Perhaps the most painful part of carrying this cross is the death of our egos, and the death of our own plans.
Suffering isn't the sum total of the story, and it certainly isn't the story's point, because in exchange for our radical obedience, we gain something very dear to the human experience: happiness. I think the actor Neil Patrick Harris said this best in an article I read in Sky Magazine while on a plane on my way back to St. Louis: "You need to believe in something to be happy. You need to believe in something bigger than yourself, something that transcends you. This gives you hope, and that is part of happiness. Your body needs company, but your soul needs company, too. And that's the company of God. We cannot live without faith, hope and love. If we live only for ourselves, we're not going to be happy."
I am a Dominican cooperator brother, because I choose to be happy, and because I'm wise enough to know that life with God is the source of all lasting happiness.
Br. Paul Byrd, OP