Taking Nothing

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Looking at my life, I see quite honestly that I myself am nothing, am worth nothing and have nothing, that I can do nothing and, even more, that I am nothingness itself! But He is everything and, at the same time, he belongs to me and I to him because he does not reject me and has given himself up for me.
Have you ever seen a greater love than this?

St Josemaria Escriva: Friends of God, no. 215.

“He instructed them to take nothing for the journey” (Mark 6:8).

Our Lord always seems to ask us to go to extremes. We are to love God with all that we are and have—even more than our parents, even more than life itself. We are to love with a love that lays down its life for its friends—and then to go further and love and forgive enemies, everyone without exception. No compromises. No apologies. In a sense: Either do it or go home. That is often the uncompromising message we hear from the lips of Jesus. Foxes and birds have their own places, but not the Son of Man. If you wish to follow Him, get used to no room at the inn (cf. Lk 2:7; 9:58).

This Sunday’s gospel (Mk 6:7-13) gives us the opportunity to reflect: Do we approach our own Christian mission, our own journey, with that kind of absolute involvement? The test is to look at what we carry around with us, what we lean on for insurance and security.

Jesus—on purpose—reduces the Apostles to poverty. Carry only the bare minimum. He instructs them about what to take and what not to take, what to say and what not to say, where to sleep and eat. The Lord tells them first to be poor men and then to work and minister out of their poverty. Why? Because people generally like to make a show of themselves. From the little kid who shows-off to the adult who is still a show-off but no longer has the excuse of childhood, we like to impress others with ourselves. This puts me in mind of our Lord’s very frank and bracing comment to St Catherine of Siena. He often hides what He is doing in the soul because “you would inevitably rob something of it in appropriating to yourself that which does not belong to you. I shall therefore carry out the rest of my work without your knowing anything about it.”

People sometimes want to appear that they have a special something other than God that just makes everything hang together for them—grace and style, or personality. Sometimes even in God’s service we practically show that the power comes from us. It is hard to do what Jesus tells us to do: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6:3). It is hard to stand in the shadows indefinitely.

And so to the apostles and to us on our journey Jesus says: Do not carry yourself in such a way as to make it look as though all good comes from you. Do not carry equipment or accessories that suggest your message is all about having the right equipment. Rather, be poor. Advertise the fact that you are nothing and have nothing, but that God is everything. And you must do this even though your light must shine before the public eye. Somehow the Lord expects us to pull it off. Always do good in such a way that God alone is exalted, that is the program we must follow. Could this be why God allows us to have certain unshakable faults, so that we will never forget (as St Paul reminds us in today’s epistle reading) that we were born to give glory to His grace (Eph 1:11-12)?

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels,” says the same apostle, “to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). Here is a true apostle—eager to show that he’s not worthy, eager to bring people to the Source of the power and the glory that operates through him. Numerous times, he lets himself get arrested and beaten up and insulted. Why? So that Christ might be exalted. Because Jesus said to turn the other cheek without flinching. All the while he’s traversing the world, appearing before tribunals, preaching in synagogues, but everything about him suggests that he’s not working alone, nor for himself alone.

So poverty and transcendent power are the two qualities of the apostle. And combined they reflect the holiness of God, which is the one unanswerable argument that overcomes every other objection people might have against the Gospel. Holiness can never be advertised as something eye-catching, fashionable, flashy, trendy, etc. Nor is holiness a matter of affecting an otherworldly mystique—whether in clothing or demeanor. Rather, it is the divine power vested in poor men to drive out evil, heal the sick, and encourage the downtrodden. It is God, in other words, given the freedom to be Himself in us.

What comes before any vocational call to apostolate, what comes before any state of life, what came even before the foundation of the world, is the original call to holiness. St Paul celebrates that gracious call in the first verses from Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:3-4).

Before we can talk about mission, about vocation, we have to ask: What does it mean to be “holy and blameless” before God? When the holiest of all creatures, our Lady, not only stood before God but carried God within her, she said, “He has looked upon the humility of His handmaid” (Lk 1:48). Her Magnificat is all about poverty of spirit: I am poor and exalted by God. There can be no self-exaltation about holiness, no self-satisfaction, no thought given to self at all—at least, not in the sense of self-preoccupation. The self disappears in the poverty of God in Christ and reemerges as the new man made according to God in justice, holiness, and truth.

To stand before our God “holy and blameless,” we must be very poor. This is exactly how Jesus sends His apostles into the world. They give witness to what we hear from St Paul: “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10). How difficult it must have been for the Twelve to take those first steps on the paths of the world with nothing but their trust in the words of Jesus. Certainly they had their questions: How will all this work out? How will people treat us? Who will welcome us into their homes? Will people laugh at us, reject us?

So with a variety of possibilities, with no guarantees, with much uncertainty, they set out. And they found out that having nothing but their trust in the words of Jesus was more than enough. They could eventually stand before the Son of Man with confidence because they had nothing of their own. They had nothing which they had not received.

St Therese of Lisieux once said famously: “In the evening of my life, I will stand before God with empty hands.” It was not that she had no good works, but that she refused to cling to them, to justify herself by them. In her poverty, she knew that all goodness, all charity, all holiness comes from the good God, who is Love, and who is Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. And if heaven and earth are full of His glory, what place is there for self, for my ego?

The only place I have, the only place the disciple can claim as his own, is a place in the heart of God, who chose us before time began to share His life and holiness. To be chosen always means to be loved. And divine love is the only true, inalienable, incorruptible wealth of the true apostle. As St Josemaria says, “He belongs to me and I to him because he does not reject me and has given himself up for me. Have you ever seen a greater love than this?”

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he teaches English at St Michael’s Preparatory School, the boarding school operated by the Norbertine Fathers. He also preaches retreats, is chaplain to the cloistered Norbertine Nuns in Tehachapi, California, and serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California (Our Lady of Nareg Eparchy). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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