I moved into the monastery on January 9th, 2017, about a week and a half before the inauguration of the current president. Several friends told me I was very lucky, as they couldn’t imagine a better time to enclose oneself away from the troubles and instabilities of the world, insulated from a constant torrent of news coverage.
They weren’t completely wrong. But I must confess, I speak today from a place of intense distraction, here in the midst of the longest and most stressful election of my lifetime. But it’s not just the fault of the media. Nobody requires me to have multiple tabs open on my computer, reading through various news sources, then, when I get to the end, going back to the first and refreshing the page, “just in case.”
No, the voracious consumption of this stuff is a symptom, not a cause. An unending appetite for junk points to a deeper dissatisfaction, deep-seated feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, isolation, confusion, frustration. I think our culture right now is very prone to this. And maybe your “junk” is not election news. Maybe it’s news about the coronavirus. Maybe it’s not news media, but the endless stimulation of social media. Maybe it’s work, ceaselessly giving yourself external tasks to complete. Or maybe it’s more embodied; maybe it’s alcohol, or porn, or literal junk food. It doesn’t matter. Maybe I didn’t list yours here, but there are myriad varieties of this experience, and I am convinced that they come from the same source of division, dissatisfaction, and a desire to be comforted in our inmost fears.
There is a word in Aramaic, the language of the Israelites at the time of Jesus: ihidaya. It is most simply translated as “single,” but it has a broad scope of meaning. Christ, the only-begotten, is the true Ihidaya. Those who wait for him, putting aside the temptations of idols, are ihidaye. In the Church’s call to participate in this waiting, we too are, collectively and individually, ihidaye. The term would quickly be applied to monasticism, with an understanding that the chief purpose of monks is – in celibacy and a single-minded, whole-hearted devotion to God – to remind the Church of this call to be ihidaya. Single, one, whole-hearted, clear-minded; this is a big word. And when I hear Christ’s words from our Gospel reading today, these varied meanings come together in a grand, unified vision.
One meaning that is clear in Jesus’s words is his prioritization of our hearts, our inner lives, our inmost beings. Christ calls us to a quite ruthless self-examination, a regular interior clearing out of that which is not holy. We are prone to build up idols in our hearts; these vary in each of us, which I think is what leads to the wide variety of things that tempt and distract us. We each have our inner wounds, and nurse those wounds, often in ways that do not lead to genuine healing. Jesus highlights anger and lust, that is, hatred and desire, two sides of the same coin, both of them fundamentally rooted in objectifying others. When we objectify others, we deny the presence of God within them. When we build up our idols, whatever they are, we do not devote our hearts wholly to God. It is on this basis that Jesus proclaims elsewhere that the whole of the Law and the Prophets is to love God with our whole hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Christ appeals to the laws his audience already knew, prohibiting things like adultery and murder. But he argues that these are not just a list of particular elements, some formula to follow. No, in Jesus’s view, the law was given for our sake; we do not exist for the sake of the law. The prescribed actions of the law are not complete in themselves. Rather, they are complete not by standing alone, but by being the fruit of inner love, a heart fully engaged in the love of God and neighbor.
It is when we cease to trust in this love, when we neglect the fullness and oneness of our hearts, that we begin to trust in outward action and stimulation that will justify ourselves. We see some church steeped in performative holiness codes, particularly around issues of sex and gender. We see others equally steeped in performative holiness codes around issues of social and political justice. It’s not that holy action is wrong; Jesus isn’t saying, “Oh, it’s mine to murder a guy, you just can’t hate him.” Of course not. The issue is not action itself, but action misused to build a sort of moral resume, a checklist by which we judge ourselves and others to see who is really holy. This, Jesus argues, is utterly backwards. We cannot satisfy the needs of the heart with outward things. It is the heart devoted to God that produces the fruit of holy action.
Earlier, I said that no one requires me to keep checking the news. That’s true. But it is also true that wealthy and powerful interests in our society spend huge amounts of time and money to tempt, cajole, and psychologically manipulate us into giving them our attention, all for the sake of profit. Our single-minded attention is a precious thing these days.
“When you bring your gift before the altar and remember that someone has something against you, first leave your gift, and go, and be reconciled with them, then come back and offer your gift at the altar.” This is the basis of the act in the liturgy we will soon participate in, the sharing of the peace. “When you bring your gift;” we don’t have much to offer. We don’t have heaven or earth or Jerusalem or our own heads. They’re not ours. What we do have is the attention and intention of our hearts. That’s our gift. When we bring our hearts, whole and undivided, to the altar, and offer them to God, we participate in Christ’s self-offering, abiding in him as Christ abides in us.
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