Fr Paolo Consonni, MCCJ
(O Clarim) 13 Sun OT Year A
“Jesus said to his Apostles: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’” (Matthew 10:37-39).
Jesus’ call to follow Him, with all its demands, seems cruel, inhuman, unreasonable. Why should we love Him more than our family members? Why the need to “take up your cross” and “lose our life” for His sake? Should not God promote our happiness and self-fulfillment?
In the past century, the development of psychology has underlined the role of the “ego” in the development of our personality. The ego usually refers to an individual’s perception of one’s identity and self-value, and thus greatly influences the way we relate to others too. If unchecked, the ego has the tendency to become overinflated and dominate our lives.
In this case, it degenerates into “egotism”, which is an exaggerated focus on oneself or one’s own sense of importance. In the quest of reaching security and self-satisfaction, an unhealthy ego creates excessive attachments to persons, possessions, or even ideas. If a person has experienced significant traumatic events, the “ego” also tends to create walls (defense mechanisms) to protect itself from experiencing again emotional, mental, and even physical harm.
But life, with its unpredictability and complexity, is constantly challenging the sense of security created by the ego and relativizes its attachments through experiences of separation, which are necessary for the healthy growth of our personality and of our capability to make meaningful choices, especially at a relational level.
The physical and psychological pain of childbirth symbolizes the many processes of separation we experience throughout our life. Going to kindergarten, the death of someone we love, the breaking up of a relationship, the loss of a job – these are just examples of the many separations, big and small, that mark our lives.
If ill-managed, these experiences can easily trigger in us the fear of abandonment and, in the effort to decrease the anxiety it causes, the deployment of defense mechanisms like isolation or excessive control of people, environments, thoughts, and situations.
In some groups, in an effort to feel more secure, those “ego attachments” create a “collective ego” with a sense of identity so strong that it overwhelms the individual personality of its members. Collective egos tend to create toxic societies, organizations, and even families, which become totally absorbed in their self-interest and self-protection.
Unfortunately, a wrong conception of religion can also contribute to the reinforcement of the ego (individual and collective) and its pursuit of self-interest. Throughout His life, Jesus often had to deal with the unhealthy collective ego of the people of Israel, which is epitomized by the rigidity of the Pharisees and the close-mindedness of the priests and the scribes, who used traditions and culture as a pretext to inflate their sense of self-importance and not to do God’s will.
Jesus is not interested in reinforcing our unhealthy “ego”, individual or collective, because He knows that our happiness and human maturity happen only when we break down the protective walls of the ego to His grace, love and mercy. Jesus’ call is not an act of violence that destroys our personalities and relationships, but an invitation to become free from the unhealthy attachments which do not allow us to go beyond the narrow limits of the ego’s self-interests. It’s a difficult journey, we have to admit, which feels like “carrying one’s cross” and “losing one’s life”.
But only this journey towards inner freedom, which is the journey towards holiness, brings true joy and serenity. Pope Francis says: “Holiness will take away none of your energy, vitality, or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self. To depend on God sets us free from every form of enslavement and leads us to recognize our great dignity” (Gaudete Et Exultate 32).
Therefore, the Church is confident in reproposing Jesus’ invitation to follow Him with all the severity of His demands because it is for our good and for the good of humanity. The Catechism affirms: “Family ties are important but not absolute. Just as the child grows to maturity and human and spiritual autonomy, so his unique vocation which comes from God asserts itself more clearly and forcefully. Parents should respect this call and encourage their children to follow it. […] Parents should welcome and respect with joy and thanksgiving the Lord’s call to one of their children to follow him totally for the sake of the Kingdom in the consecrated life or in priestly ministry” (CCC 2232-2233). And this is true for any other vocation too: they are all invitations to become more free, more loving and more alive.