Sirach 15:15-20; 1Cor 2:6-10; Mt 5: 17-37
Today’s readings, among other things, are about choices. The Book of Sirach reminds us that everyone must make choices in their lives whether they are rich or poor, free or imprisoned, healthy or bed-ridden. It is true that some people have less options than others due to circumstances, but we all have choices we must make – if not exterior, interior ones. We choose to do good or evil, to love or to hate…in other words, as Sirach says so bluntly, to choose life or death. Choice is a constant, daily component of life, yet how often we make them unconsciously - w/o thinking. Yet even the smallest decisions are so important and guide us to life or death. A cup of water given in Jesus’ name is a choice…just as…not to notice a person is thirsty is a choice as well! It is essential to remember that we can choose to be mindful and choose to move outside of our self, no matter what our feelings or circumstances may be. We have thousands of choices in a day – most unrecognized because we are busy, broken, or bored. However, if we wait for the big discernments alone, we will probably be too sleepy to choose with clarity or charity.
It reminds me of the classes we had on Dante’s Divine Comedy a few weeks ago. Each person we met in the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio got there because of the choices they made in their earthly life. It was suggested that Adam’s greatest sin was not disobedience or pride (which are the standard interpretations) but rather his unwillingness to confess his sin. Adam hid his wrong and did not take responsibility for his choices. In Dante’s Inferno, we met Ulysses whose insatiable thirst for knowledge led him to disregard the limits the gods had placed on human reason. We also met Francesca who explained how love overtook her. Ulysses felt he had no choice and Francesca saw herself as a victim! Neither took responsibility for the wrong they did. But Jesus tells us in the gospel today don’t come and honor me at the altar if you have been unkind or wronged one of your sisters or brothers – leave and first reconcile. Go humbly and confess your poor behavior or words w/o needing to explain or blame - without accusing or excusing.
If they had only been humble enough to confess their sin, it may have been the difference b/w Inferno and Paradisio. After all, Dante himself was a lost soul in the darken wood but found his way to Paradise. But Dante had the humility to know his limits, both in knowledge and virtue. He also had the courage to go through Hell’s gate to reach the mountain of God. And Dante had trust. He became vulnerable in the care of his guides. Humility, courage, and trust – these are three interior dispositions essential to lead us on our path towards Paradise.
We can look at Francesca from a distance and feel for her. But can we relate to her? It is very subtle, this lack of taking responsibility for making poor choices in life. We can easily blame or accuse others for our anger, irritation, or emotions. Or we can easily explain or excuse our poor behavior because we are tired, sick, or overworked. However when we do this, we may be sounding a little like Francesca. It is true that it is part of life that we will be hurt at times by others but it is our choice to remain in that hurt. We have a choice to feel the victim or to be empowered. Both sources of these energies come from within; they are not caused by others. Jesus tells us it starts in our own heart.
I found it surprising how Dante’s Inferno was full of people who loved greatly and devoutly! The problem was their love was disordered: selfish, shortsighted, or skewed. In the Inferno, love possessed them and they had no choice…in Paradisio, they possessed love and all choices emerged from this Love. We see people in Paradise because their greatest love was God and all other loves ranked under this highest love. It isn’t enough to avoid murder and adultery; we must strive for the greatest love – a divine love that dwells inside of us…a love that expands our hearts and our horizons. Something else that struck me in the Divine Comedy was that there were people in the Inferno who had not sinned but were there because they never had the courage to make a stand for love. So it isn’t just the option of choosing life or death, as Sirach proposes, but there is a third option of not choosing at all! So we see from our scripture readings today, as well as from Dante, that we must have the courage to make a stand. Otherwise as Evelyn Underhill said, “we remain cowards by taking shelter behind circumstances”. A Benedictine abbot once said: “Too often today, our culture teaches us to stand for nothing – to believe all is relative – but” he says “unless we stand for something we will fall for anything”!
Why is not taking responsibility for our choices belong to Dante’s Hell? I think it is because we are not really living. True living requires deliberate choices that have behind it determination, discipline, and devotion. Otherwise we are like those souls in Dante’s Inferno that are blown here and there by the winds (and their whims) and are never able to settle down and rest. It is from our true self that we gain and draw life; we must learn to be rooted in that deeper core of our being and not from outer impulses and tugs. It is an inner journey to the heart but Dante tells us we must first go through the circles of Hell and the climbing of Purgatory to reach this inner dwelling place of God.
Jesus is saying something similar in today’s gospel: Do not just look at the exterior actions but first look deeper into the heart. That is where our choices are made. There is where our deepest and highest love is decided. Jesus says it begins way before it becomes murder or adultery. It starts with that spark of anger, that flash of misdirected thought, or that pull towards something comfortable. One of the greatest dangers is to think we do not have a choice. It is said, “Heroes are made, not by the powers they are given, but by the paths they choose.” It is our choices more than our talents that show who we truly are.
Do I ever feel that I am not responsible for my emotions, thoughts, unkind behavior, or bad habits? …I am talking about ones that keep me from my highest love and passion? If so, Jesus is telling us quite emphatically to tear them out of our lives! Obviously Jesus is not telling us literally to cut off our arm or pluck out our eye, but He is trying to show us how important it is to move away from things that pull us to sin…and for us as monks, things that move us away from the monastic way of life we have chosen. All these things - emotions, thoughts, behaviors - stem from desires. “Desires decide our priorities, priorities shape our choices, and choices determine our actions.” Jesus says put your desire and love in order – make God your greatest love. Eliminate the escape hatches that keep you from spending the little interval time you have with God. Tear out of your life things that absorb your time and energy away from “the better part”. There is a phrase, “we are our choices” or maybe more precisely, we become our choices…so let us make them deliberately – with determination, discipline and devotion. Today’s readings call and challenge us to guard the heart and to be rooted in our love of God. St Benedict says it so succinctly “Let us prefer nothing to the love of Christ”. When we do this, no person or circumstances can keep us from a joyful heart and appearance.