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New decade, new way to travel

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Be honest: how’s it going with your resolutions?

In the lead-up to New Year’s, I was working on what I saw as a pretty impressive list. And it was getting more grandiose the more I thought that this should be a list worthy of a new decade.

Then it all turned upside down by a certain Cistercian monk at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Father James Orthmann. In a recent retreat, Father James invited us to reflect on that stunning encounter between the rich young man and Jesus. When the young man addresses Jesus as “Good Master,” Jesus seems anything but “nice.” He immediately chides him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” 

The rich young man then asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” to which Jesus responds bluntly, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At this, the rich young man’s face “fell” and “he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

At mid-life (I can’t believe I just wrote that) I am increasingly aware of the sheer weight of my many possessions. Resolution season brings this reality to the fore. To just maintain — let alone improve — the things I have, I need a lengthy list which encompasses my “good” accomplishments, livelihood, family, stuff, education, dreams, friendships, and yes, even college tuition plans. 

In addition to all our good “stuff,” we also resemble the rich young man in our love of instant gratification. “Perhaps,” suggests Father James, “this privileged young man needs to break the habit of being able to acquire whatever he needs, when he thinks he needs it.” He continues, “Jesus would strip him of everything, not just his goods, his connections, his resources, but his very identity and habits.” 

Ouch. At this point my list of resolutions was beginning to look like the rich young man’s resume. The friction we are sensing in this encounter is what Father James calls the “shake-up”: Jesus is offering us a “new way of travel,” a “state of being” and “way of living” which is most likely at stark odds with our day-to-day lifestyles which prize control, acquisition and self-reliance. 

“No one is good but God alone.” This incontrovertible fact tells the rich young man — and us — that goodness is not something we can purchase and accumulate like everything else. Not even Jesus “appropriates any goodness as his own.” Instead, “transparent in his relationship to the Father,” Jesus chooses to reflect only the goodness of God the Father. 

When we allow this insight to sink in, we see just how exhilarating and head-spinning this “new way of travel” is. Father James explains, “It sets us on the road in which things are out of our control. I can no longer acquire what I want or need. That’s not to say that I’ll be left impoverished, but I’m nonetheless on a path where I can claim nothing for myself — not even goodness or virtue or perfection.”

Instead of curating our lives, we can discover this “new way of travel” which is characterized by receiving, asking, trust, interdependence and reflecting God. Fueling this way of travel is gratitude, which Father James calls “the prerequisite for the capacity to receive.”  

Anticipating just how impossible all of this sounds, Father James tackles the three most common obstacles which prevent us from following Jesus on this road and receiving his gifts. First, pride — “I should provide for myself”— closes us off. Second, impatience: “Will I be offered the gift on time?” Finally, an inability to recognize that the gift is “being poured into my lap right now — because it doesn’t conform to my expectations, I fail to recognize that it’s precisely what I need.” 

We set off into this new year and decade carrying many dreams and resolutions. While we may not be able to begin the year with a retreat, we can all find in one Cistercian’s reflection on the rich young man and the not-nice Jesus the wake-up call we need. 

Jesus is terse, blunt and unequivocal with the rich young man, who “went away sad.” It doesn’t have to end up this way with us. We can instead allow this searing encounter with Jesus to begin stripping away our pride, impatience and blindness. Then we can follow our master like the needy and grateful wanderers we are. We can travel newly into this decade — laying aside everything — at last eager to reflect God, who alone is good.    

Johnson is co-founder, with his wife, Ever, of Trinity House Community.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020