This morning, I saw some incredibly beautiful photos taken by the photographer Sarah Sutherland-Rowe who is a friend of mine. The image of the waves crashing on the rocks is so powerful, so mesmerising… The storm can smash us to pieces; or we can withstand it, but it shapes us into something new, with smoothed edges and perhaps a new perspective.
This week’s gospel is from St Matthew, and Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross, deny themselves, and follow him.
Those words make it very clear that the spiritual path is not for the faint-hearted. It will be a tough road. There will be burdens to shoulder – each of us must carry our own. We may help one another at times, we may give encouragement and support, but we cannot actually carry the burdens of others.
And then those words – “those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” One thing that seems clear to me, this is not about literal death, and Jesus is not encouraging us to martyrdom! But death can be understood in many ways – a letting go, a transformation, a path to resurrection and new life. What is ‘saving’ our lives? If we take away the literal reading and literal death, then maybe this could be about the ego. For surely there is no greater stumbling block to deep faith and union with the Divine than our egos! If it’s all about me, then we don’t see beyond that to a deep and compassionate love for all that is.
And yet – we need our ego! It’s the starting point.
Richard Rohr makes the very interesting point that all religion has to start with what he calls elitism. It’s all about me. God loves me. I am special, I am blessed, I am forgiven and accepted and special. It is a transformative moment, becuase it is so deeply personal. And then the realisation comes: all those reasons why God loves me and I am special – those reasons apply to you too. And to everyone else as well. And so religion moves from the elitist to the universal, from being all about me, to being all about us. All of us.
And that brings me back to the storm, and carrying our crosses.
Crosses are heavy, a metaphor for the burden that each of us carries through life. It is unique and different for each one of us; and yet it is also totally universal. As are trials, temptations, struggles and storms. Those things will happen. They will be tough. They will shake us to our very foundations. And then we will find out on what our foundations stand. Are we founded on rock, like the image above? Or is our life a sandcastle? The rock may not be so beautiful at first sight, and yet its rugged beauty has eternal appeal. And its sharp edges are weathered and smoothed by the storm, just as the edges of our personality are generally softened by experience.
Jesus finishes with the words, “what will it profit [a person] if they gain the whole world and yet forfeit their life? Material abundance is of no value in and of itself. It has to have purpose, meaning; it must have its place, and that place is hand in hand with spirituality. We need the balance. Having untold millions but feeling empty in the soul must be a very special kind of hell. Jesus calls us to transcend the ego, the first stage, the “all about me”, to see the bigger picture instead of focussing just on our own small wants. And then, when we have “lost” our small lives, our little ego, we will indeed gain the world, because we will be able to see it, and to appreciate it. And we will have the strength to carry our cross, and withstand the storms of life.
With love, light and blessings,