If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple
We can, I think, draw a useful distinction between harshness and austerity. Many commentators on these words of our Lord have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that they are not as harsh as they appear at first sight. This is necessary work but in performing it too often the austere nature of the programme outlined by Jesus has been under-emphasised. By way of redressing the balance I propose to completely ignore the harshness aspect and focus instead on the austerity. To do so I will be using (apparently) erotic poetry to help me.
I sleep, and my heart watcheth;
the voice of my beloved knocking:
Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove
Song of Songs 5:2
Our lives are usually wrapped up in immediate earthly concerns to do with ourselves, our families, our work, politics, celebrities and so on. We are asleep to the things of the spirit with our active consciousness yet there is a part of our being which is awake and alert. At least once and sometimes many times the Lord will come and whisper to us as we are sunk in material slumber. Our heart will leap in joyful response and wake the totality of our being to the Presence that seeks us. What happens next?
I have put off my garment, how shall I put it on?
I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them?
Song of Songs 5:3
We do not respond instantly to the call. Instead we think of this thing and that thing. Our everyday concerns, mundane earthly matters intrude between us and our Divine lover. Often that is where it ends. We remain in bed and fall asleep again. Yet, sometimes eventually after dealing with these trivia we are sufficiently curious to make our tardy way to the doorway from which our lover called us.
I opened the bolt of my door to my beloved:
but he had turned aside, and was gone.....
I sought him, and found him not:
I called, and he did not answer me.
Song of Songs 5:6
And this is the message that Jesus was hammering home. If we do not cast aside the things of this world when He calls us, if we do not hate them, then we shall lose Him altogether. It is not that these things are bad in themselves. On the contrary some, like loving ones parents are positively virtuous. No, what they are are the things of sleep and He invites us to the things of wakefulness, the better part. Once we know Him and are united to Him we can return wakefully to the things of sleep and so bring what was dead into life by infusing it with His Spirit.
The keepers that go about the city found me:
they struck me: and wounded me:
the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
Song of Songs 5:7
This is what it means to carry the cross. In a world asleep when we wander around, awake and in search of our Beloved, we can expect to be buffeted. The words found, struck, wounded, took away, express the sorrow, pain and humiliation that we can expect from life. We can escape from this if we fall asleep again and abandon the search, if we embrace with love those things we had begun to hate for the sake of the Beloved. But then our heart will remain awake and impart its restlessness to us, the sense that there is an emptiness where wholeness should be. Alternatively we can shoulder our cross and persevere. Why though? To what end are we journeying?
I am become in his presence as one finding peace.
Song of Songs 8:10
A peace passing all understanding, a transcendent peace will possess our souls, fill our spirits and rejoice our hearts when we encounter the Beloved and contemplate Him with adoration. The fullness of this experience must wait until we have put of mortality and been clothed with immortality, left time and definitively entered eternity. Nonetheless we can experience in part now what we will enjoy to the full then. The Beloved is to be found in the Sacrament of the Altar, in the Eucharist we can meet Him, consuming the One whom we long to consume us. In Tabernacle and Monstrance we can sit at his feet like Mary of Bethany, drinking in His peace and love. In prayer we can meet with Him and share the silence of deep things beyond speech. In the saints, those who are in heaven and those who are our neighbours, we can catch glimpses of Him. And in Mary, His Mother, the mirror of perfection, seat of wisdom, Queen of Angels we can find a sure way to the Son of the Father.
The austere way proposed by Jesus is not austerity for the sake of austerity. It is a simple truth that she who travels light travels fast. Let us cast aside all that is superfluous that we might the sooner catch up with the Beloved and become one with Him, now and forever.
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The paintings are The Church as Bride of Christ by the Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale and Christ as gardener appearing to Mary Magdalen by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostanen