March 22, 2015
LENT V (B)
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. – John 12: 24
In a book called “Peace of Mind,” a psychiatrist says that “The supreme foe of inner victory is rigid pride.” The Bible often calls it “being stiff-necked.” In Biblical terms it means a kind of know-it-all arrogance that excludes the possibility of admitting the need to change. The stiff-necked person is saying, in effect, “No one, not even God, can enlighten me further.”
Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” (Latin meaning ‘from or concerning the depths’) contains a powerful & moving passage describing the author’s personal experience with stiff-necked, rigid pride:
“I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will & much rebellion of nature, ‘til I had nothing left in the world but one thing. I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was a prisoner & a pauper. But I still had my children left. Suddenly, they were taken away from me by the law. It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees, & bowed my head, & wept, & said, ‘The body of a child is as the body of the Lord: I am not worthy of either.’
“That moment seemed to save me. I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then … I have been happier. It was of course my soul, in its ultimate essence, that I had reached. In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting for me as a friend ….
“Now I have found hidden, somewhere away in my nature, something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, & suffering least of all. That something, hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is humility….
“It was the last thing in me & the best. It was the starting point for a fresh development. It has come to me right out of myself, so I know that it has come at the proper time. Had anyone told me of it, I would have rejected it. I found it & I want to keep it. I must do so. It is the one thing that has in it the elements of life, of a new life for me. Of all things it is the strangest : One cannot acquire it except by surrendering everything one has. It is only when one has lost all things, that one knows that one possesses it.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus was preparing the disciples for his death. He was trying to tell them that God works through a process of death/resurrection, & that by His death, new life would come into the world. He also was saying that it is necessary to follow His example & apply this insight to their own lives. He was telling them (& us) to let go of their rigid pride in the old values & thereby make it possible to live not by man’s standards, but by God’s.
It is only when we are humbled that we can begin to appreciate the truth of this. It is only when we are humbled that we can truly offer our lives to God & receive the grace to use the gifts that are uniquely ours, in a life of ministry & loving service. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Fable,” a mountain & a squirrel are having a quarrel. The debate ends with the squirrel saying, “If I’m not so large as you, you are not so small as I; & not half so spry. I’ll not deny you make a very pretty squirrel track. Talents differ. All is well & wisely put: If I cannot carry forests on my back, neither can you crack a nut.”
There are times when some of us are equipped to carry forests on our back while others are good at cracking nuts – & vice versa. The point is, both are needed. But to see this, we must die to our egotistical, selfish pride, & that can be a painful experience.
The title of a familiar painting by Holman Hunt is “Light of the World.” It is a painting of Christ in a garden at midnight. In His left hand He is holding a lantern, & with His right He is knocking on a heavily paneled door. On the day the painting was unveiled, a group of art critics was present. As the curtain was drawn aside, one of them approached the artist & said, “Mr. Hunt, why haven’t you finished your work?” He answered, “It is finished.” “But there is no handle on that door,” said the critic. To which Hunt replied, “That is the door of the human heart, & it can be opened only from the inside.”
There is something inside all of us, hidden away like a treasure waiting to be discovered. That something is the quality of humility that can transform a stiff-necked people into a community of dedicated servants – of the Lord & of each other. That something can make a new & happy person out of a “hopeless” alcoholic. That something is what each of us needs to encounter during this holy season. But beware: only if a seed dies will it produce much fruit. AMEN!