Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why Is Self-Emptying So Important in Both East And West?

In the Gospel for today we hear our Lord tell us what is necessary to be his disciple: "Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." A priest reflecting on this passage, in the bulletin for clergy, refers back to the beginnings of Confucianism and Buddhism and shows that our Lord was speaking from a "blueprint"  that other wisdom teachers have discerned from life.

When taking up our cross, a willing acceptance of a personally painful matter in our journey through life, we should be clear, says the priest, about what that is. My cross may be anything in my daily life that is painful to deal with, but necessary if I am to live as a  Christian and as a full human being, we must not deny our crosses or run from them. Our Lord asks us to carry them willingly.

To do this, the prerequisite is to empty ourselves. The writer makes clear that all the higher religions make this a starting point--getting rid of the personal self. If the glass is filled with what is not wanted and not necessary we have to empty it to receive what is needed and life-giving.

He quotes from the "Analects of Confucius," Ninth Book, Section 4: "The Master recognized four prohibitions: Do not be swayed by personal opinion; recognize no inescapable necessity; do not be stubborn; do not be self centered--or, as the writer puts it,  no wilfulness, no necessity, no stubbornness and  no self. One of the interpreters of the Analects explained that a person does something because it is what the person wants to do; he usually does not bother to ask what more may be involved. He goes ahead and doesn't stop until he achieves what was intended. It  is this attachment to the  results that  brings on the mental pain that most of us experience in life.

The early Buddhists saw that freedom from the personal self, and the accompanying mental pain would earn them emancipation from the ties of this world.  By abiding in the awareness of no-self, an important concept in Buddhism, there would be no worldly desires.

Jesus makes the same point, although Christians come from a different understanding of life. In Galatians, St. Paul says, "I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me."  For the Christian, Jesus is the Lord, he is the Lord of everything I have and do. I try to conform my life to his. The writer concludes that we as Christians should be careful that we are not living our lives as if it all depended on us, on our own will and strength.

Reading the preceding, one can understand the fatalism, the resignation that is associated with much of the East. This fatalism is not only part of  eastern wisdom but also part of the mostly unknown patrimony of the West. In one of our antiphons to the psalms, we frequently repeat "Surrender to God, and he will do everything for you." This trust in God with the acknowledgement of our freedom of will makes all the difference.

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