Catholicism: Day 24 – Letting go of worldly ambitions

Mark 10:17-27 tells the story of the rich man who approaches Jesus and his disciples and asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments (do not kill, commit adultery, etc.).

The rich man says he has followed the commandments all his life.

Jesus then tells him to sell all his possession and give to the poor and then to follow Jesus on his path.

The rich man is dumbfounded and walks away depressed at the thought that he would have to give everything up.

The disciples are also shocked. If this rich man, who is basically a good person, can’t get into heaven without giving up everything he has, how does anyone else have a shot?

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words.[a] But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him,[c] “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

The spiritual exercise for yesterday asked us to “Consider the rich man’s spiritual freedom or lack thereof. Notice how Jesus relates to him. Ask: What attracts me to following Jesus, and what holds me back?”

We like to think we’re good people. We don’t actively harm anybody, at least not intentionally, and maybe we even do a few extra good things like volunteering at a charity.

The Jesuit Joseph Tetlow describes this as “benign secularism,” a form of collusion with the world’s standard (as opposed to Jesus’ standard).

First, there is benign secularism. Certainly, there are people who do not know Jesus Christ who lead deeply good lives. But even the baptized can live in a benignly secular way. We join civic movements and help the needy because that’s what our neighbors do. We are good to our families and honest in the workplace. There is no immediate harm in this way, but neither is there anything more than a secular spirit, even though people today call it spirituality.

It starts off with benign secularism, but than can progress to more harmful “collusions.”

The way of the world differs entirely. The starting point is getting as much wealth as you can. You say, “Look at all this stuff I have.” When the world’s way opens before you, you shift your focus, saying, “Look at me with all this stuff.” As those around you grow more deferential, you start saying, “Look at me.” You become convinced that you are the center of your world. You may not have sinned yet, but it is only a matter of time.

It doesn’t seem harmful to pursue a few worldly ambitions, so long as those ambitions don’t harm anyone. Even if we have worldly ambitions, we still want to do good in the world; most of us see no inherent conflict with doing good and pursuing our ambitions.

But, it’s interesting to contemplate giving up your worldly ambitions in order to “follow Jesus.”

When I say follow Jesus, I like to think of it as following a good and noble path that is incompatible with desires for wealth and prestige. For non-Christians like myself, this is easier to think about then considering the scenario where I’d follow some guy, who may or may not be crazy, for uncertain spiritual fulfillment.

When you think about intentionally giving up your wealth or status, or, if you don’t have it yet, giving up the pursuit of wealth and status, you realize how attached you are to it.

This is a slightly different perspective from the Stoics. The Stoics believed you shouldn’t pursue wealth or prestige because they are not within your control, and you will be unhappy if you don’t attain them.

But, they did not require you to give up existing wealth or prestige or even abandon activities that could lead to wealth or prestige. They only advocated being detached from outcomes, being ok with whatever results may come of your work.

To completely abandon those activities is another situation entirely, and will help expose the attachment we have to our worldly ambitions.  In this exercise, we are forced to consider how much these ambitions interfere with living a rich spiritual life.

During my prayer and reflection yesterday, I realized how attached I was to the idea of prestige. I want to be known for being smart and insightful. I have been religiously checking my WordPress stats, wondering if people are actually reading these words and hoping that they will like what I have to say.

If Jesus came to me and said “Dale, you can keep doing this project but you need to stop posting it online if you want spiritual fulfillment,” I’d be reluctant to obey him.

This is despite the fact that I spent a month practicing being detached from things like wealth or prestige.

I suggest going through a form of this particular spiritual exercise. Could you give up whatever worldly ambitions you have for a spiritual one?

You might be surprised, like I was, at how attached you are to things you didn’t think you valued.