Paradox Sublime by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" They said in reply, "John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, 'One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'" Then he said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter said in reply, "The Christ of God," He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.
He said, "The son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised."
Then he said to all, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."
A few decades ago a wise bishop in the Midwest frequently would instruct his priests to look in the mirror in the morning and practice saying "no". The good bishop knew that every priest suffers a propensity for vainglory. He also knew that it was far easier to say "yes" to every request from parishioners than to risk the possibility of their scorn by saying "no". Furthermore, in our affluent culture it is seldom easy to say no to a request when so many indulgences are habitually available from so many sources.
Like priests, parents also can labor under an excessive desire to be "liked" by their children and parents can truly dread the ill feelings that come from saying no to them. A spoiled child who always gets his way is a sure sign of parental complicity in satisfying every appetite. Spoiled children grow up as selfish and narcissistic adults who are nearly pathologically incapable of saying no to themselves. Like priests with their parishioners, all parents need the resolve and courage to say no to their children and to train them to self denial.
Priests frequently encounter the culture of narcissism during marriage preparation, especially among cohabitating couples. When challenged in a pastoral setting, it is not uncommon for the couple to respond as "victims," feeling the need to lash out at the "judgmental" posture of the priest, who simply is faithful to the Gospel by saying no. It is easy to get the impression that well into adulthood, some people have never heard "no" for an answer from a person in authority.
It is likewise spiritually wholesome to practice saying no to oneself. Self-denial is the direct initial response to the Lord's invitation to discipleship in this week's Gospel: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." The widespread failure to discipline ourselves by self-denial is evident everywhere. Our television commercials as well as our bathroom scales tell the tale. We have super-size appetites that all too easily say "yes" to the question, "Do you want to super size that order?"
But it is not enough simply to say no. Saying no to others, in some cases, may be for selfish, petty and unjust purposes. Sometimes we say no because we cannot be bothered by an annoying request. Saying no to self may really be a smoke screen for narcissism. A person who spends countless hours a week in the gym to sculpt the "perfect body" while neglecting the duties of his or her vocation is practicing self-denial perversely. Even the gift of priestly celibacy can be distorted for selfish purposes. Christian self-denial must be directed to the mission of Christ and to the mission Christ has set for each of us in our respective vocations.
Following Christ in Christian maturity begins with saying no to the allurements of the world. The sacrament of baptism begins with a renunciation of Satan and all his works. After saying "no" to Satan and ourselves, we must also learn to say "yes" to Christ. Christ reveals Himself as the "Way, the Truth and the Life." He insists, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." The way of Christ is the way of happiness in this life and in the life to come. A soul trained in self-denial is docile and receptive to the teachings of Christ. This is why the no to Satan in the sacrament of baptism is immediately followed by the yes to Christ in the creed.
Discerning when to say no and when to say yes is a critical matter. The stakes are high. Christ Himself sets the terms in the form of a paradox: "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." The "no" of self-denial and the "yes" in the service of a vocation in Christ are the keys to understanding this paradox sublime.
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