Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Dying to self means letting go of all the attachments that keep us from God; it is a purging of all that is not love. This means loosening our grip on our own plans, our desire for comfort and convenience, our tendencies toward selfishness and sin.
We can try to be the boss of our own lives, or we can give Jesus permission to call the shots. If we let Jesus take control, we will face the Cross, but we will also begin to see everything in our lives through His radiant Light.
Only when we throw ourselves upon God’s providence will we find ourselves—our true selves, who God created us to be. Dying to self is not an act of self-abasement but rather an act of faith—that when we cut away all the clutter we will find goodness underneath, that in the core of our being we will find the presence of God. Indeed, this dying to self is the seed of our salvation.
By abandoning our own agenda, we open our hands to receive the truest desires of our hearts. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and He will give us gifts greater than any of the earthly attachments we cling to.
The Jungle Book (2016) is a masterful adaptation of Kipling’s book, paying due homage to the classic Disney film with its meshing of the familiar soundtrack with exquisitely-rendered new visuals.
It is also a tale of growing up in a dangerous world, of fulfilling one’s telos or true end, and of choosing to practice virtue instead of being consumed by vices which enslave us and lead us to harm others.
[Caution: Spoilers ahead]
Shere Khan is gripped by a burning anger, unable to forgive Mowgli’s father for scarring his face with a firebrand in self-defense. The tiger’s hatred of men is boundless, extending to the innocent Mowgli who was a mere toddler when Shere Khan killed his father. Khan’s insatiable wrath isolates him, making him feared by the other creatures of the jungle, while he spends each day in a terrible rage, enslaved by his fixation on ending Mowgli’s life.
It should in fact be Mowgli who hates Shere Khan for killing his father and hunting him relentlessly, but Mowgli does not seek revenge on Khan even after learning the truth from the serpent Kaa. Even when Mowgli hears of the wolf Akela’s death, he only wants to face Khan and stop him from further devastating the wolf pack for letting the boy walk free. Mowgli even places himself in mortal danger by hurling his torch into the water so as not to frighten the other animals. By this act of making himself vulnerable, Mowgli wins back the trust of the others, although he has accidentally set their forest on fire, and they all band together to fight against Khan. In contrast to Khan, Mowgli only resorts to killing his opponent in self-defense – and by indirect means, allowing Khan’s own rage to fuel his fall into the fire. Furthermore, Mowgli does not allow his losses and scars to bind him in brooding rage over the past, although Khan has twice robbed him of father-figures and his home. He goes on to lead a happy life in the jungle, in the company of his assorted friends.
Similarly, Satan is a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8) with an undying enmity against the human race (Genesis 3:15), and we are to be ever vigilant against his attacks on our souls; there are times in the spiritual life when we must flee in order to preserve our virtue (as St Thérèse did once)1, and there are times when we must take courage and face the adversary, overcoming him with the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. Satan knows no peace – Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell2– but is possessed by a terrible rage against mankind. Yet, when we stand together as the Body of Christ, instead of being divided by fear, we will not succumb to his deadly rule, but will win through to everlasting life in the heavenly communion of saints.
As Satan lured Eve by inciting her lust for the forbidden fruit, of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:5), Kaa lures Mowgli with the knowledge of his past, seducing him with lies that he is safe with her. Of course, the python only sees him as a tasty morsel to be gobbled up. (In the book, Kaa is male and a mentor of Mowgli’s.) Kaa is so fixated on her prey that she is unable to react in time when Baloo the bear chances upon them and saves Mowgli from certain death.
Baloo is a sloth bear who lazes around, trying to use monkeys to procure honey for him. He initially lies to Mowgli too, taking advantage of him and allowing him to be stung horribly all over while obtaining honeycombs. However, unlike the other predators in the jungle, Baloo gives Mowgli his freedom to leave whenever he likes, and Mowgli chooses to stay with the bear, forging a firm friendship as they forage for food. Yet, Baloo still uses Mowgli to pander to his gluttony, claiming that he will starve in hibernation if they do not store enough honey. Bagheera the panther, Mowgli’s mentor, turns up and points out that Baloo does not hibernate. Happily, Baloo is ultimately virtuous and self-sacrificing, overcoming his fear of heights to save Mowgli from his next mishap.
King Louie the monstrous orangutan is possessed by greed and envy, longing for “man’s red flower” so that he can rule over the entire jungle, although he already has plenty more than enough, with the simians of the forest waiting on him hand and foot. He wants to be like man, “on top of the food chain”. His boundless lust for power is his downfall, for in trying to capture Mowgli, Louie destroys his own palace and is buried in the ruins of his home.
In the end, each villain meets their downfall through self-absorption and overweening pride, hankering after something not rightfully theirs; each hero triumphs through humility, overcoming their shortcomings and embracing their true strengths. Bagheera tells Mowgli to fight Khan as a man, not a wolf, and Mowgli, though physically much weaker than any of the animals, triumphs by exercising his intellect, exploiting his fearsome opponent’s weakness and using Khan’s wrath against himself. Similarly, when we are beset by fears and discouragement, we can turn it against Satan, offering up our suffering in union with Christ so that the Kingdom of God may triumph in the hearts of men. As delineated in Plato’s Republic, the body is in harmony when the intellect governs the emotions and the appetites; there is justice in the body politic when each part of society works together for the common good. Then we shall rid our homes of the scourge of evil, and live in peace with all of God’s creation.
1Story of a Soul Ch. 9: “I thought that if I began to justify myself I should certainly lose my peace of mind, and as I had too little virtue to let myself be unjustly accused without answering, my last chance of safety lay in flight.”
The following was a reflection I prepared for my prayer group, but I am also indebted to them for some of the insights that followed. The following Scripture, from Joshua 7:1-9, sets the stage for this reflection.
But the Israelites acted treacherously with regard to the ban; Achan, son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah of the tribe of Judah, took goods that were under the ban, and the anger of the LORD flared up against the Israelites.
Joshua next sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth-aven and east of Bethel, with the order, “Go up and reconnoiter the land.” When they had explored Ai, they returned to Joshua and advised, “Do not send all the people up; if only about two or three thousand go up, they can attack and overcome Ai. You need not tire all the people: the enemy there are few.” About three thousand of the people made the attack, but they fled before the army at Ai, who killed some thirty-six of them. They pursued them from the city gate to the Shebarim, and defeated them on the descent, so that the confidence of the people melted away like water.
Joshua, together with the elders of Israel, tore their garments and fell face down before the ark of the LORD until evening; and they threw dust on their heads. “Alas, Lord GOD,” Joshua prayed, “why did you ever allow this people to cross over the Jordan, delivering us into the power of the Amorites, that they might destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell on the other side of the Jordan. Please, Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has turned its back to its enemies? When the Canaanites and the other inhabitants of the land hear of it, they will close in around us and efface our name from the earth. What will you do for your great name?”
This scene in Joshua documents the first major battle after the Israelites enter the promised land. Moses has very recently died and Joshua is now the leader of the people. After their victory over Jericho and crossing the Jordan the wandering people of Israel now have a concrete view of the land promised to them. They traveled through the desert and were beset by famine, in-fighting, and dissatisfaction. Moreover they endured betrayal, idolatry, and many scourges.
Finally they had reached the Promised Land with the full hope of conquering the land and establishing a people rooted firmly in God. Yet the first battle in this Promised Land, not even a major one, was a defeat at the hands of a weaker foe. While joy and elation came with the Israelites so too did avarice and complacency.
Now I do not write this to accuse anyone of of being plagued by greed and complacency at this moment, but the Exodus story and the story of the settling of the Promised Land is also a powerful allegory for our own personal spiritual journey.
There are many battles and difficulties we face in life. Similarly there are many moments we look forward to: ordination, marriage, a big job, a new family, more money, a cute girl, etc. When we reach these objects of hope and desire there is also the great temptation of complacency—being content with what we have and becoming lazy with regard to self-knowledge and humility.
In Joshua one man, Achan, becomes avaricious for the gold and wealth won from battle and keeps it for himself. His own greed infects the people of Israel and results in the disastrous consequence related above. In noble matters and seemingly simple, bodily matters none of us are immune to the desire for more—more difficult still is that what we desire may not necessarily be “bad,” but the desire is bad because of its aim. Complacency and greed are self-centered and self-oriented. Ultimately it turns people and things into objects of desire and more dangerously objects that I deserve.
In my own spiritual direction I have looked for the undercurrents of jealousy and avarice that have invaded my habits and dispositions. I have been able to see how stress, disappointment, and dissatisfaction have guided my feelings. Sometimes I find myself envious of those who have more than I do or something nicer than I do because they have more money. Other times I’m upset that I put a lot of hard work into something for little to no encouragement or recognition. These dispositions can manifest themselves instantaneously and feel more like reactions than conscious decisions. If that is the case then it is likely that my feelings about money or recognition have been nurtured by my own desires. Those desires then have become habits and predispositions toward subsequent events.
We must always be on guard about what we desire and who we desire. The moment we feel as if we “have it all” leads to ruin. That moment where we feel we need everything does the same. Humility guards against both extremes. Humility accepts what we are and what we are not.
What guards against the poison of greed and complacency? Here are a few suggestions:
+Accountability: make yourself accountable to others for your spiritual well-being. Confide in friends or relatives whom you trust to be on the lookout for patterns you wish to eliminate (or grow).
+Prayer: Honestly present to God what you are struggling with at this very moment. Pray also for the insight to know yourself more fully and to love yourself for who you are and are not.
+Guidance: Spiritual direction with someone practiced in prayer and the movements of the Spirit can aid us in recognizing patterns we cannot see. While your priest may be a good starting place it does not need to be him out of necessity. He may very well help or direct you to someone he feels can best guide you. Moreover one must also pray about who should guide them.
These are three small ways to strengthen ourselves on our own spiritual journey to the “promised land.” Like the pilgrimage the Israelites made in the desert our own pilgrimage will be filled with wandering, confusion, idolatry, anger, betrayal, and crises of faith. These trials are only bearable with the help of others who wander with us and guide us. Entrust yourselves to the care of others and be a Christian who is trusted to do the same.
In his book The Total Money Makeover, finance adviser Mr Dave Ramsey describes a method for not only getting out of debt, but also then saving up for your children’s college fund and your own retirement fund. In reading his plan, I notice that he doesn’t begin with: take all available money and start paying off your debts. Rather, the first step in his plan is for you to save up $1000 as a short-term emergency fund. The idea behind the plan is that accidents and emergencies happen, and when they do it is best to have some cash on hand so that you do not need to tack out more debt to deal with them. The goal is to eliminate debt, so that also means eliminating possible (that is, emergency) sources of new debt first. This idea of a short-term emergency fund is not unique to Mr Ramsey, but is in fact widespread .
What the system recommended by Mr Ramsey does, in other words, is take into account both the long-term goals and the short-term obstacles, and then it gives solutions for achieving the one and overcoming the others. This seems to me to be sensible advice both for personal/household financial planning and for the larger economic planning on our country’s part, though unfortunately neither the average family nor our country’s government ever seem to take both into consideration . However, since I’m not an economist, this isn’t going to be an economic policy post, nor a financial advice one. For the former I would recommend Thomas Sowell, F.A. Hayek, or Henry Hazlitt, and for the latter Dave Ramsey; but my in-expertise combined with my writer’s block means that drawing all of this out would suck up a little too much time and would yield a poor product in return. On the other hand, there is another topic which I think could use a similar approach and which would involve a bit less time-suckage on my end–even if the end-product is little improved over an economics post.
In thinking over this principle of long-term plans and short-term contingencies, had a bit of an epiphany, at least one for me. It may have been a the kind of epiphany which leads to my realizing something that an ordinary person has long known based on common sense, much like Mr Ramsey’s advice is rather commonsensical. Well, at least there wouldn’t be as much time-suckage in writing such a post, so here goes: this principle which I have said is a financial principle is really a moral principle. We cannot win the spiritual war in our own lives if we lose every battle along the way.
What I mean is this. What is the purpose of life? Well, it’s to know and love God, to serve Him in this life, and ultimately to prepare us to live with God in the next life (see Baltimore Catechism 2, Q6). As a corollary to this, it is also to know and love ourselves and to at least love our neighbors. This, then, is our long-term goal in life: and if it is achieved, the result is that we become saints. But are there short-term obstacles to our becoming saints? Well, of course! We have enemies who will stop at nothing to prevent us from becoming holy men and women; and the greatest enemies we have are the devil and our ownconcupiscence. None desire more that we fail to become saints than the devil; and nothing holds us back more than our own tendencies toward sin. The former works against our long-term goal of becoming saintly, the latter also creates any number of short-term obstacles: the temptations to sin, which at times are quite overwhelming.
Thus, if we want to work with God’s grace to become saints, if we want to to our part to to overcome our sins, we need to bear in mind that the process is lifelong, but that life is lived in the here and now. We won’t shed our vices overnight, but neither will we ever overcome them if we don’t try to begin resisting them now, today; we cannot inculcate any virtues in a week, but if each week we say to ourselves, “I’ll start next week,” we won’t be able to gain them in a lifetime. We need to work both in the short-term and in the long-term.
In the short term, we are called to resist our sins, but in the long-term we must begin to build up immunity to those sins. In the short term, this may mean avoiding “fatal attractions,” that is, avoiding even things which might tempt us to sin. There is a story about a man who fell into adultery. He did this because he would walk down the street which passed by the adulteress’ house on his way home from work. The first few times, He merely passed by her house, knowing that the woman who lived there was a temptress and a seductress; then one day he stopped by to talk to her because she was outside. She invited him in, and he went forth like a lamb to slaughter, and was soon ensnared in her web. We might say that he was foolish to set foot inside of her house; in reality, he was foolish to even walk down her street to begin with.
There are three parts of our fallen nature which work against us every time. They are curiosity , forgetfulness, and a sort of pride that we can withstand temptation. All three are at play in this little story. The man was curious–was there really an adulteress, was she really a seductress, did she really live on that street, were things he’d been told about her true?–and this got the better of him when he thought he’d stroll past her house in the half-hidden hope of meeting her. If he hadn’t originally any desire to cheat on his wife, he certainly did nonetheless take pride (and unwarranted, as it turned out) in his ability to resist any temptation to this sin. And, in the heat of the moment, he forgot his vows to his wife, forgot how much he loved her, forgot his faithfulness to her.
In the short term, we have to contend with these three bits of fallen humanity, that is, against curiosity, forgetfulness, and pride. I sometimes wonder if these three things are also the beginnings of every addiction–from drugs to alcohol abuse to pornography to gambling to the occult–they start with some curiosity, continue with a forgetfulness in which we remember the highs but forget the lows, and are strengthened by a pride which wants to test our willpower’s bounds. This last point may be in testing our ability to “resist” some drug “in small amounts”, for example; or, on the other hand, in engaging in a seemingly innocuous activity which may make us crave the thing we are addicted to by, for example, reminding us of something we experience when on our “high.”
Meanwhile, in the long term we have to recognize each sin as a sin, and recognizing what things tempt us into sinning so that we can avoid–not merely resist, but avoid–these temptations and these sins. It means developing in ourselves habits to counter any tendencies which lead to sins. Do you suffer from pride? Develop humility by working to serve “the least of these,” and do it so that fewer people can see you doing it–only your Father in heaven needs to know. Do you suffer form lust? Pray for the grace of true chastity–not just abstinence, but actual positive chastity–and develop that virtue in yourself. Practice custody of the eyes, which means not only not entering the brothel but also not looking at pornography, and even averting your eyes from the modestly clad woman who might for some reason be tempting against this sin.
This also applies towards venial sins. In the short-term, we must not “trick” ourselves into knowingly committing even a venial sin just because it’s a “minor” sin and not a “major” one. It also means not allowing a “minor” sin which we’ve already committed to be repeated. After all, the minor sins can quickly lead to the major ones. In the long-term, it means educating ourselves against even minor sins, inculcating virtues to oppose even these, asking for God’s grace against even these “little” sins; and it most especially means not letting even the venial sins becomes engrained habit. After all, as Chesterton notes in The Innocence of Father Brown, “Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.”
And with all sins, it means in the short term repenting of them, and receiving the graces available from the sacraments, both Confession and Communion. This is especially true of the big sins, the grave and mortal sins; but it can be and often is also true of the venial sins (which are not obligatory to bring up during confession). But it also means not giving up hope, not losing faith that God will help us to free us of our sins, not falling into despair when we fail, even if we fail again and again. “Providence moves slowly; the devil always hurries.” We will not, even with resolute wills, overcome a sin in a single night; it may indeed take an entire lifetime, as God’s grace sometimes works slowly, and since we often even resist it with our presumption, that is we sometimes delude ourselves into believing that we don’t need God’s grace. Yes, we must do our part, do everything we can to cooperate with God’s grace: but sometimes He allows us to fall again–even into a mortal sin–so that we will not fall into the even more deadly sin of pride, of believing that whatever victory we win is ours alone and not God’s.
As with a financial makeover, so with a spiritual makeover: not only should we pay off our debts–that is, break out of sin and vice–but we should also save up for the future–that is, we should inculcate virtues which counter these vices, make some effort to spend our time doing good and not merely avoiding evil. This means first and foremost asking God for our daily bread, for the graces we need now to get out of sins, to resist vice and avoid temptation; but also asking for the strength to be virtuous, holy people, to develop those virtues which counter sin, those habits which counter vice. In means continuing in hope–which also come from God–and not in either despair or presumption.
 For his part, Mr Ramsey says that little if anything in his book is unique to his book. It is all common financial sense (at least amongst financial experts), but it is a formula which works, and it is also a formula that so few people follow that he thinks just getting the message out there is the first and most important thing.
 Often both the government and the average family take neither into consideration.
 Curiosity means more the allure of the forbidden than honest intellectual curiosity. The former is a sort of perversion of the latter. It’s a bad curiosity which wants only to satisfy idle questions and not questions about the deeper meaning of life, or about how the world works.
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