When I was first ordained a priest, I was sent to St. Teresa’s Church in Dumfries. As you know, Dumfries is the hub of the universe! I.e., not a lot happens in Dumfries! Don’t tell anyone from Dumfries I said that! Dumfries was at first a bit of a culture shock for me, as I had just been in Rome for seven years. Apart from the wonderful cultural and historical things in Rome, there was a great variety and wealth of spiritual riches in Rome – not so much at the Vatican as among the many religious orders and spiritual centres. As a young seminarian, I used to get spiritual direction every week from one or other holy man.
And so, when I arrived in Dumfries, I thought, “what do I do now?” So, I asked around a bit and I heart that there was a Fr. Jock Dalrymple in the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh who was famous for being a holy man. So, I phoned him up and he was very kind, taking me on board straight away (that’s a big ask – taking me on board!). When I went to see him for the first time, he said, “Peter, how many hours do you pray a day?” I had been feeling quite good about my spiritual life: half-an-hour meditation in the morning, the rosary, the Mass, the reading of Scripture, etc.. Fr. Jock fired back, “That’s not enough!” And he told me that he himself prayed for five hours every day. He got up at 4am and spread the five hours out across the day interspersed with his other priestly work. He said, “I’m not asking you to do what I do. It’s taken me thirty years to get to this point.” Then he added, “what do you think I am, in fact, asking you to do? What percentage is five hours out of twenty-four?” “About 20 something”, I replied. In response, he asked, “how much does the Lord deserve from us?” I said, “well, 100%.” “That’s the point”, said Fr. Jock, “you’ve got to aim for the 100%.”
Years later I heard the story of Cardinal Comastri, Archpriest of the Vatican, who, when a young priest, went to India to try and meet Mother Teresa. He was so deeply moved by her work that he was determined to see her in person. When he eventually managed to see her, she asked him, “Father, how many hours do you pray a day?” Like me, he thought he was doing well with his half-hour of this and ten minutes of that. But she said to him, “Father, that is not enough.”
Now, Jesus does not say in the Gospel today, “If any priest, if any Fr. Jock Dalrymple or if any Mother Teresa of Calcutta wants to come after me, he/she must renounce all his possessions, and must hate his mother and father” and so on. No, Jesus says, “If anyonewants to come after me …” That includes all of us here. Now, Jesus asks us to “hate” yet he is clearly not asking us to commit the sin of hatred. He is using strong language or hyperbole to ram home the point to the great crowds that were following him, to the great crowd that is here today, that discipleship must mean that he himself is to be the first, the top of our priorities. We cannot fit Christ around the rest of our lives, but rather our lives around Christ. I like to say that the Mass is not part of our week but that our week is part of the Mass. Our measuring-stick, the measure of anything and everything in our lives is first of all our relationship with Christ.
This is another way of talking of the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” The thing about us human beings is that we can make anything into a god: from pleasure to money and, indeed, family relationships. We can put family before God. Nobody wants to get to the stage where they need to choose between Christ or family, Christ or spouse. But if it did come to that point, Christ is challenging us today to answer the question, “who is it to be?”
Remember that earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I have come not to bring peace but a sword. To set mother against daughter and father against son”, etc.. In other words, fidelity to Christ will sometimes mean that we have to let go even of our dearest relationships. And if you look at the history of the Church, there were many martyrs who were betrayed by the members of their own families, because the members of the family wanted the martyr precisely to choose family before God.
This is quite an ask! We could ask Jesus in return, “what right do you have to demand such a radical, such a brutal commitment? What have you ever done for me?” Well, take a look at our majestic Crucifix here. There’s the answer to that.
If we are to respond in kind, we need to be able to say, or at least ask ourselves, “would I be prepared to die for my faith in Jesus Christ?” When we made our baptismal commitment, we rejected Satan and sin, we professed our faith in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But when the cards are on the table, when our back is against the wall, which is it?
Now remember that Jesus also says that we have to “hate our own life” if we wish to be his disciples. And I suppose that is more the experience we have on a day to day basis. It’s not that our faith flags up so much daily problems with our families, but the problem we have in being free from ourselves. If I say I am prepared to die for Christ, am I equally prepared for His sake to give up that sin I commit? Am I prepared to change the way I live for His sake?
Father Jock Dalrymple wrote a book on prayer, still available online, called “Costing not Less than Everything.” Remember that you and I were created by the love and Word of God. It is to Him that we are going. And we are going to have to give up all our possessions eventually. The question is whether they will be taken from us by force or whether we will give them up willingly. That does not mean that we all run away from our families or responsibilities. It means that we love our families from within and because ofthe love of Christ. It means that we enjoy the things of life in a way that is compatiblewith Christ. That we get rid of our dirty little secrets that keep us from being open to Christ and to his great love for us.
Jesus wants the whole of us. He is jealous, you know! He is madly in love with us. And he will not settle for less than everything we are. I am a million miles away from responding to Him as he desires, but I am not giving myself the excuse that it’s merely an ideal I am following. Ideals are for idealists, unachievable goals and therefore wholly to be ignored in practice! What Christ demands if we are to follow him is not an ideal: it’s a basic condition– “if anyone wants to be my disciple, without hating his father, mother, etc., his own life and without giving up all his possessions, then he cannot be my disciple.”
Let us at least try and desire to do as he demands. When you get up in the morning, let your earliest thought be, “Lord, how can I love you today? What can I do for you today? What do you want of me today?” The beautiful prayer of St. Alphonsus Liguori sums it up: “I love you, Jesus, my love above all things. I repent with my whole heart for having offended you. Never permit me to separate myself from you again. Grant that I may love you always, then do with me what you will!”