Insecurity Begets Ambition
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

On the night I was thinking about what to say for this homily, the final prayer of the Evening Prayer in the breviary contained the line: “Help us to see that the glory of your Son is revealed in the suffering he freely accepted. Give us faith to claim as our only glory the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That’s the central message of this gospel. Reading it for the first time, I was reminded of the gospel we heard very recently, in which the Apostles were arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. In this gospel, two Apostles, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask Jesus to grant them the two highest places, to sit on his right and his left.

There it is, once again, that insidious love of self that is the driving force behind all inordinate ambition. One of the wounds of Original Sin is the concupiscence of the eyes; the eyes look upward, toward lofty places, positions of power, honor, and glory, in the hope that others will one day look up to them. Behind that twisted desire is the need to be noticed, the need to be important, the need to be loved. That is a very basic and natural need; the most fundamental need of the human person is the need to be important, that is, the need to exist for someone. In other words, the most fundamental need of all human persons is the need to love and be loved.

But this desire gets twisted out of proportion and becomes disordered, like all our other desires, and at the root of that lack of proportion is the disordered love of self. We love ourselves too much, and that is because we don’t see ourselves from God’s point of view, through his eyes, but through the mirror of someone else who does not love us enough, either the eyes of our parents, or our peers, or the eyes of the world. In my experience with those who suffer from mental illness, I have found that most of them, if not all of them, see themselves through the eyes of the world—and that’s a problem because the world has no use for the sick and suffering--, or they see themselves through the eyes of an abusive parent, which is why they, like most people, do not have a healthy sense of their own goodness. But this life is about coming to see ourselves through God’s eyes, and that’s not easy, it takes a very long time.

But if we don’t see ourselves through His eyes, our life and everything we do will be characterized by a fundamental insecurity, and insecurity begets envy—and the Apostles in this gospel, despite being around Jesus for so long, despite being in His presence and receiving his teaching and witnessing his miracles, still do not get it entirely and are to some degree ruled by an inordinate desire for a high place.

It is precisely that disordered love of self and that accompanying insecurity that begets envy, and the history of the Church is filled with sad stories of saints who have suffered precisely as a result of clerical envy. St. John Vianney, the patron saint of Catholic priests, was the victim of clerical envy all his life. So too, St. Padre Pio, and the Vatican declared it openly when he was canonized. And today, the highest and most pervasive incidences of envy are found among professionals, i.e., psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, and sadly, the clergy.

Things have not changed and we should not be scandalized by that fact. We will always run into the territorial mentality now and then; “This is my turf, my territory, these are my privileges; mine, all mine...,” like a spoiled child jealous of his prerogatives. Sometimes we see it among certain laity involved in parish life, sometimes in certain priests, pastors, and sometimes even in bishops. It’s all rooted in profound insecurity, in a lack of real understanding of just how much we are loved by God. If I knew how much God loves me at this moment, I would die of joy; I wouldn’t need anything else. I would willingly take the lowest place. If I knew how much I matter to God, I wouldn’t care about being unknown, unloved and forgotten by the world; it simply wouldn’t matter, because I would know that I am loved by Him who alone matters. When someone is finally possessed by that love and knows that love from within, he is capable of the profoundest humility; and that’s the humility we see in the saints.

But how do I know that love that the Lord has for me? Why didn’t James and John know it at that time? I think the answer is that it can only be unfolded and revealed gradually, over a long period of time, and the glory of the divine love was making its way towards a complete disclosure, a consummation, and that of course is the mystery of Good Friday. God the Son joined a human nature to himself and entered into human suffering; and he came for one purpose, to die for us and rise again, to reveal the glory of his love through the suffering of the cross.

He had to prepare the disciples for his impending suffering and death, he foretold it three times, and they still didn’t quite understand. They didn’t get it because the human being suffers from a twisted desire to ascend. But God chose to descend. God becomes a servant, but something in the human person inclines him to desire to be served.

But that descent is precisely how I know that I am loved. The cross reveals just how much I matter to God. That’s why the theology and spirituality of the cross has been so central to Catholic spirituality for the past 2000 years. God the Son has entered into darkness, and what’s so significant about this is that God the Son is eternal, and so if the eternal Son entered into human suffering, into the heart of death’s darkness, then he is present in the sufferings of every human being who suffers; for he is not limited by time. In other words, when you and I suffer, we never suffer alone, and when we die, we do not die alone.

That’s why so many people finally discover the Lord not in the midst of prosperity, excitement, exhilaration—we typically forget God in the midst of prosperity--but in the midst of great suffering and darkness.

Christ tells us that we must follow him in his descent. He says if any of you wish to be a follower of mine, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. We heal others the same way the Lord healed us: through the mystery of his cross. He said it explicitly in the gospel of Matthew, at the end of time some will say: “Did we not prophesy in your name, cast out demons in your name, work miracles in your name.” Jesus does not deny it. Of course they did. But he said he will declare to them: “I never knew you, depart from me”. The will of the Lord lies elsewhere, and he revealed in the parable of the Last Judgment: “I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, naked and you clothed me, sick or in prison and you visited me.” No mention of miracles there, just the simple act of being present to others in their suffering.

“Depart from me, I never knew you”. For the Jews, to know someone is to be one with them, to experience a kind of union with them. There are many people who are very fervent, very much into the life of the Church, the life of the parish, active in so many areas, and make no mistake about it, some of these are priests, even bishops, but who just have never come to know the Lord intimately, because they have fled the mystery of the cross, they seek not so much the status of an unknown servant, but the status of a prince, who delight in having people fawn all over them—and I say this with great trepidation, because believe me, I don’t like suffering, I’m no better than anyone, and I point the finger at no one, I simply don’t know the heart of anyone. We might have a sense about someone, but we don’t know for certain if our intuition is correct, nor how a person is going to end up, he might very well turn out to be a great saint in the end, like James and John did.

While on retreat in the U.S. a few years ago, I heard of a Canadian bishop—we weren’t given his name—who was there previously, and the retreat director, who is quite renowned, said that late one night he heard the sound of someone weeping behind the altar and before the Blessed Sacrament. It was one of our bishops, who at the end of his life, finally discovered the Lord in the depths of his heart. He was grieving that he’d spent his entire life as a bishop not knowing and thus not really channeling that love--because we can only channel the love of God to others when we really know that love, are filled with that love and on fire with it. We have to know that we are loved, and once that happens, we couldn’t care less about anything else other than being an instrument of His will, whatever His will for us turns out to be, whether that means living in complete obscurity, being a forgotten and insignificant servant, or not. Nothing else will matter, and nothing will delight us except the knowledge, through faith, that His will is being achieved. And we’ll know the real joy that Christ came to impart to us, not the excitement and exhilaration of a spirituality that has a need to see miracles and prodigies, but the joy of loving those who suffer, the joy of entering into the sufferings of others, the joy of that charity that chooses to be present to the sick and the suffering, present to them not momentarily, but patiently, for as long as they suffer.

“Lord, help us to see that the glory of your Son is revealed in the suffering he freely accepted. Give us faith to claim as our only glory the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”