In the Gospel Jesus says “you will not come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:40) This contains a promise ‘life‘ and the price that must be paid to receive the promise ‘come to me.‘ His words ‘you will not‘ are a true prophecy of every succeeding generation. For it is certain that in the 2000 years or so since He spoke them very few indeed are those among humans who have been willing to make that payment.
If asked most 21st century Westerners would say that since they don’t believe the promise they see no benefit to paying the price. Yet even in the centuries of faith when most Europeans ostensibly believed the promise hardly any of them clinched the bargain. In Our Lord’s very lifetime people who knew that the promise must be true through the power in Him whom they saw giving sight to the blind and raising the dead did not go to Him that they might have life.
So, if the excuses vary with the centuries but the behaviour remains the same it is the behaviour and not the excuses which tell us the most about human nature and thus we will gain most from examining it rather than them.
What is this ‘following Jesus’ that we are, most of us, so desperate to avoid? It is crucifying the flesh and its desires, taking up the Cross daily, a willingness to lay aside family and friends, ambitions, possessions, habits and careers if they should prove obstacles between us and Christ. Unless we are called to monastic life we do not positively have to discard these things but we must hold them only provisionally, that is we must be so detached from them for Christ’s sake that we can discard them if we must. Or, to put it in a more active voice, we must sever our bonds of attachment to everything that is not Jesus.
As an aside I would note that though we must destroy our attachments we must be careful not to destroy the objects of attachment. The persons and things which form barriers or obstacles to me may prove gateways to someone else. It is for this reason that neither Bilbo nor Gandalf nor Frodo nor even Sam killed Gollum when they had the chance. Which, as it turned out, was just as well.
In order to become detached from all but the Lord we must, in effect, destroy, de-create, annihilate the personality or Self which we have built up to act as a barrier between our fragile ego and the pain of recognising an objective universe of objects and people that do not find us to be the centre of the their existence. This is a painful task since this thing which we have built up with so much labour and which is so useful (as we think) has become precious to us. In that sense then it resembles the Ring of Sauron in that it is artificial but exerts real power over all that we think and do, we both hate and love it and wish to use it and also to destroy it.
It is a trope of religious writing that authors compares themselves and their readers to the worst case scenario so that they can say ‘thou miserable wretch.’ Whatever the reality might be with me as writer surely no one who is discerning enough to be reading this can fairly be said to closely resemble Gollum. No, gentle reader, you are more likely to be akin to Frodo. You are aware of the dangerous qualities of the Ring and you are willing to make great sacrifices in the cause of destroying it. But, when it comes to the point a thread, fine as gossamer and nearly invisible, binds you so strongly to the world that you cannot, in fact, cast the thing into the abyss. It has power over your mind and so your body obeys.
In the long history of the Ring only two persons, Bilbo and Sam, both possessed and used it while retaining the ability to freely give it away afterwards. Early in the Quest Frodo was able to offer to give it away but later he lost that ability. Why? The hobbits were small, insignificant and, in the eyes of the Wise, often foolish. Moreover they, the hobbits, knew these things about themselves therefore they were also humble. It was precisely these qualities which enabled them to discard, to be detached from, the Ring. During the course of his journey Frodo became one of the great. He was wise and heroic and strong, that is he grew, became significant and ceased to be foolish. No doubt he retained his humility but nonetheless his growth meant a loss of the qualities he needed to throw the golden thing into the furnace of Mount Doom.
Growth is normally a good thing and Frodo certainly grew in admirable ways, so what was the problem he encountered? Bilbo and Sam, in their different fashions, as they travelled through life gained knowledge and experience and wisdom but they never lost a childlike sense of wonder at the world they encountered. They remained, in Taoist terms, uncarved blocks or, more conventionally, they retained their innocence. They never thought that they were significant, that the universe paid attention to them. Frodo, in order to complete his task, had to think that it and therefore he was important. And the more he thought that, paradoxically, the more he became capable of reaching the end and the less he became capable of carrying out the task that had brought him there.
So, in the business of following Jesus, our role models cannot be courageous Aragorn, fiery Gandalf, wise Galadriel or anguished Frodo. They must be foolish old Bilbo and the gardener Sam. We must regain the potential to see ourselves as insignificant and the world as a source of wonder. More than that, Bilbo and Sam could give away the Ring to Frodo because they loved him more than they loved themselves. It is in loving others, and especially in loving Christ, that we can uncarve our block, de-create our Self and find the strength to follow Him who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
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