I recently pulled an unread book off my shelf. The book was entitled was The Myth of More,and I was expecting it to be a critique of consumer capitalism. Instead, the book turned out to be about “finding happiness, about leading a serene and untroubled life.” And the basic thesis of the author, a D.C.-based psychiatrist, is that we fail to find happiness because we confuse it with pleasure.
The “myth of more” is the mistaken notion which so many of us flirt with so often: that if only I earned $500 more each week, if only I could lose five more pounds, if only I could get one more article published – and yes, if only I could have that sports car, that computer, that mountain bike – well, then I could be happy. But the author of my book, Dr. Joseph Novello, contends: “Pleasure is a fleeting moment. Happiness is a way of living. Pleasure exults in things. Happiness is more about the value we place on our lives. Pleasure is self-seeking. Happiness is generosity toward others. Pleasure must be constantly refilled. Happiness endures. Pleasure is about feeling good. Happiness accepts both the agonies and ecstasies of life in a spirit of tranquility, knowing that the world is unfolding as it should.”
The Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel had their own special version of the “myth of more.” For them, it was all about the Mosaic Law. “If only I could memorize more of the details of the Law… if only I could better understand its meanings and interpretations… if only I could keep the Law more faithfully and perfectly… well, then I would be holy and happy, not to mention pretty hot stuff!” Never mind that most of the Jewish people had little or no time to devote to study of the Law, or that most of them couldn’t read. And never mind that nobody, however good their intentions and however deep their desires, seemed to be able to keep the Law in its entirety with very much consistency. It still worked fine as an unattainable ideal, an “if only,” a variation on the “myth of more.”
In the eyes of the Pharisees, Jesus seemed to be a scoff-law, or at the very least, a renegade fast-and-loose interpreter of the Law, a sort of wily, crafty Jewish Jesuit. But Matthew, in presenting Jesus to a church made up largely of Jewish Christians, offered the explanation that Jesus was not, in fact, an abolisher of the Law and the prophets, but rather a fulfiller. And so, we find Jesus himself calling for “more” – but in his case, for a “greater righteousness.” “I tell you,” he says, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This “more” of Jesus is quite different from the “myth of more.” Jesus calls his followers beyond the letter of the Law and into its authentic spirit; he urges us beyond mere external conformity and calls us instead to attend to the fundamental values and intentions which underlie the Law. The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel also challenges those who would be righteous in God’s eyes to look to their own inner dispositions, to take responsibility for their attitudes of heart.
Hence, the challenging contrasts that Jesus holds out in today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount. He starts off with “You shall not kill” which is, of course, one of the most universally accepted human precepts across all ages and cultures. Why? Well, since we cannot create the miracle of life ourselves, it stands to reason that we ought not be presumptuous enough to snuff it out. But, says Jesus… MY followers should never even come close. Rather, they should head murder off at the pass by owning and repenting of their anger, and by avoiding all curses and insults.
Similarly, adultery is pretty clearly a universal no-no. It places pleasure before responsibility; it honors lust before love; and it ruptures relationships in ways that are destructive of harmony and community. But again, Jesus says we should head it off at the pass – by backing up and confronting our lustful feelings and urges. We are to take honest ownership for them and walk away from them before they end up pushing us where we definitely don’t want to go.
So… King David lost the battle with his illicit desire for his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheba, as soon as dallied on the roof of his palace and spied on her while she bathed. Had he said to himself then and there, “Oh my God, what am I thinking?! I’ve got to get out of here!” and gone inside to watch the football game or to read a good book, the story might have had a very different and less tragic outcome…
The Church also calls its clergy to a higher standard of loving – one which aspires to rise above selfish lust. But alas, as we learned yet again this week here in our own diocese, a small percentage of priests have continued to fail to rise to this higher standard. The reasons are complex. Many of these men are afflicted with complex and seemingly incurable personality disorders. And perhaps the training of priests and the Church’s system of governance have at times made it difficult for certain priests to deal honestly and openly with their own sexuality. Whatever the causes, the sin is undeniable and the devastation of the victims’ lives is both tragic and inexcusable. We must pray, for the victims first and foremost, but also for their abusers and for the entire Church, that it may find healing and somehow rise, through cooperation with grace, to the “greater righteousness” which Jesus modeled.
It is precisely from Jesus, his companion and guide, that St. Ignatius Loyola learned what would become the Jesuit magis, meaning the “more,” the “greater good” (as in the Jesuit motto ad majorem Dei gloriam, meaning “for the greater glory of God”). Once he had fallen in love with Jesus, Ignatius placed himself imaginatively at the foot of the cross where he could gaze up at Christ crucified. He found there a greater love poured out for him and for all sinners than he could ever have asked or imagined. And so, St. Ignatius found the courage to ask himself honestly: “What have I been doing for Christ? What am I doing now in my life for Christ? And what should I be doing for Christ?” And faced with the self-emptying love of Christ crucified, he found that it seemed a little tepid and inadequate to mouth a half-hearted “Yeah, well, gee, thanks, Jesus, for the whole dying thing… Catch you later, eh?”
Ignatius, in fact, offered a more worthy and mature response in his famous prayer, the “Suscipe”: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty; my memory, my understanding, my entire will. All that I have and all that I possess you have given to me. I surrender it all to you to be disposed of according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace. With these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.”
Another interesting and important thing which Ignatius noticed is that most of us do not spend our days choosing between black and white, good and evil. Unless we are deranged, we do not generally ponder whether we should help the older person across the street or whether we should push her in front of the oncoming traffic. Rather, if we are fundamentally oriented toward being good persons, then most of our choices are between competing goods.
So… should I marry now, or should I wait and finish school first? Should I accept the job promotion which demands that I relocate to the other coast, or should I stay here in my present job so as to be closer to aging parents? In each case, the underlying challenge is to discern the greater good, the better path. Which choice will most glorify God and benefit souls, my own and others’? Such choices are not always easy or obvious; but seeking the freedom in prayer to make them wisely gives our lives deeper direction, focus, and meaning. To love as God loves is by definition to strive for “more” – but it is also to give that “more” freely and fully, without counting the cost or looking for rewards. It is to love as God does, patiently and relentlessly.
One day a young man was walking along an isolated road when he heard whimpering from afar. As he approached a foot bridge, the sound got louder. Finally, the man saw, lying in the muddy river bed beneath the bridge, a puppy about two months old. It had a gash on its head and was covered with mud. Its front legs were swollen where they had been tightly bound with cords.
Immediately moved with compassion, the young man wanted to help the dog, but as he approached, the dog curled its lip and started to growl menacingly. The young man did not give up. Instead, he sat down and started gently talking to the dog. After a long time, the dog at last stopped growling and the man was able to inch forward, touch the dog, and begin to unwrap the tightly bound cords. The young man then carried the dog home, cared for its wounds, and gave it food, water, and a warm bed.
Despite all this, the dog continued to snarl and growl every time his new owner approached him. But the young man refused to give up. Weeks went by and he continued caring tenderly for the puppy. Finally one day, as the young man approached, the dog wagged its tail. Consistent love and kindness had won out at long last over prior hurt and suspicion, enabling a life-long friendship of loyalty and trust to begin.
That kind of “more” is no myth, my brothers and sisters. Rather, that is the “greater righteousness” to which Jesus invites us. And that is the “greater love” which lays down its life for a friend.
© 2011 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.
Old St. Joseph’s Church, Philadelphia
6th Sunday of OT-A – 2-13-11