September 27, 2015
Num 11:25-29; Mk 9:38-48
There is a little problem with today’s gospel. We hear Jesus tell us to amputate our own hands and feet – and whatever else causes us to sin! I think Jesus is being a bit overly dramatic in an attempt to emphasis the severity and seriousness of sin. In a culture that no longer talks much about sin, this may be a much needed gospel for our times. But wasn’t it just a few weeks ago Jesus was telling us that nothing on the outside makes us unclean, but what causes sin comes only from within?! The battle we are called to fight is inside of us - with our thoughts and disordered passions – with the mind and heart. So if we put these two teachings together, this amputation would not leave us handless and footless, but rather every one of us would be left “mindless”!! In reality, it is our conflicting thoughts and passions that need to be cut off, not our hands and feet. So Jesus speaks quite vividly today of the practice of nepsis. It is about reaching apatheia - about detachment to things that are not of God. Cassian calls this apatheia ‘purity of heart’ and explained that this detachment leads us to contemplation - union with God and unity within our self.
It sounds ironic: detachment to create union; to ‘cut off’ to form communion. Yet these two opposite themes run together in the readings. The first theme is about dissection while the second is about connection. In the Book of Numbers, Joshua tells Moses to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesizing because they were not among their group. Joshua wanted to cut off those outside their camp even though their words were good. Next we have John telling Jesus to stop people doing good works in His name because they too did not follow their cluster. Yet both Moses and Jesus say do not prevent them: “Who is not against us is with us.” Jesus said we can tell a tree by its fruit. So a question we might ask our self is: What fruit do I bear? And what needs pruning?
But we can take this analogy further, not as individuals but as a community. We are one body striving towards one goal, which is Christ. Is there anyone in community I exclude because they do not live the monastic life the way I think they should? Can I relate to each and every member or do I cut one or two off because they cause irritations? I am not called to exclude others but to look inward and remove thoughts and feelings that exclude me from others. Any community not in communion is broken for when we cut off a limb we are all wounded. Yet looking at it on the other side, when I exclude myself from the common life am I not exposing myself to potential sin and greater temptations? This calls us to examine our relationships in community and as community. Again, there is an interior battle that needs to be waged with our thoughts and hearts. This is a challenge – detachments within are needed to bring unity without.
But let us widen the analogy even further, from our physical body, to that of the Mystical Body. St Paul speaks of all humanity as members of the one body in Christ. He said, “The body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1Cor12) “Suppose the foot was to say ‘because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’. It belongs to the body nonetheless… God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body as He chose. If the whole were a single organ, there would not be a body at all.” Paul concludes saying, “You are Christ’s body and each of you a limb or organ of it.” When we start excluding groups who are not like us are we not cutting off the limbs of the Mystical Body? To amputate others is to lose our self as well as our true identity. Any community not in union with the Mystical body is broken for when we cut off a limb we are all wounded. As St Paul said, “When one member suffers we all suffer together with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together.” We are all born from the same womb and so we are all brothers and sisters in the One Body of Christ. Thomas Merton said that we as monks “go into the desert (or cloister) not to escape the world but in order to find them in God.” Is our prayer bringing us to greater compassion and unity? Is our prayer moving us to reach out in love or to cut off in self-preservation?
But there is still another analogy to this detachment that leads to union. Pope Francis in his latest encyclical said that our connection with our diverse world is found by detaching from all corruption that harms our world and the cosmos. When we treat our planet as the gift it is, we will be responsible in our actions and share these gifts with all people. We cannot divorce ourselves from the living environment that sustains our existence. Pope Francis says the only way we could ignore the intimate connection between ourselves and the ecosphere is to objectify it and see it only for my use…and thus, abuse.
So let us take seriously the sin that separates us from our true self, from our community, from the Mystical Body, and from all of creation. There needs to be detachment to find union, things’ to cut off’ to form communion, dissection so as to have connection. Unity is found when we amputate all those thoughts, passions, and actions that are not of God. As Merton said, “In my soul and in your soul I find the same Christ who is our life. This life is love and together we all find Paradise which is the sharing of His love.” This is the love we strive for: a love that unites, a love that brings fullness, and a love that will “bring us all together to everlasting life”. (RB 72:11)