Seek First the Kingdom

by Kilian McGowan, C.P.

Some years ago, while filling in for a month at our Passionist mission in Mandeville, Jamaica, I read a small volume by Henri Nouwen called "Making All Things New." He had been for a long time one of my most favored authors on the spiritual life. I also considered him to be a very saintly, human and fascinating person.

I jotted down some reflections while reading Fr. Nouwen's book and this article is the result. They are probably more of the writings of Fr. Nouwen than my own reflections.

Whatever their source, they are very pertinent to a spirituality of aging. They would apply to any stage of the spiritual life and surely more so at the end.

Our purpose here is to explore what it means to live the spiritual life -- how to live -- for people who have a longing for a deeper spiritual life -- those who are acquainted with the Jesus Story but want more.

"Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added to you besides."

  1. These Other Things

    Let's take a critical look at our lives. Are they "trivial pursuits"? What are our habitual preoccupations? Look at the way we think/feel/act/react from hour to hour. With honesty and courage, let's face what goes on in our inner space and time.

    Our days are certainly filled up. We are busy with projects and prayers, phone calls and letters, planning and worrying, etc.

    Are our priorities clearly set and understood? Health and food, working and relaxing, thinking and praying, etc.?

    Do we have to do this -- say this -- use this? To say nothing of why we do the things we do!

    Are we really seeking the one thing necessary? Perhaps we should bypass that question at this time and consider some symptoms of why we should seek the one thing necessary . . .

    Do you feel unfulfilled? The whole tenor of Jesus' Gospel seems to promise fulfillment --joy, peace. If we lack these signs of the Spirit, we have serious doubts about our 'worthwhileness.' Does the world really need what I am doing, producing, saying? Does it really enjoy my presence or would it just as soon have me absent? Do my preoccupations leave me unfulfilled? Am I simply just bored with the whole business of life and wonder if my life is really worth living?

    'I'm busy enough . . . but I'm bored. I question the value of what I am doing. I'm not sure that it really makes a difference in the eternal scheme of things.' If, besides all this, I feel used, manipulated, exploited -- my boredom can grow into a cold, abiding anger and resentment. I feel fragmented and disconnected -- and utterly helpless!

    Am I beset with loneliness? We certainly don't have to do much reading to quickly realize that this is more and more the live-in companion of many Americans. It belongs to no age group as its own. It's universal in its scope and painful in its depth. It leads to suicide, violence and sensuality, to mention a few of its illegitimate offspring. How can this happen in an age of the most advanced communications systems in the world's history -- an age of deep psychological insights -- an age that stresses the importance of relationships?

    Would it be that more and more persons are not at home with others because they are not at home with themselves? Have they lost heart because they feel cut off from the human family?

    This is a frightening situation for any human being,and it can lead to increasing depression.

  2. Seek His Kingdom First

    Jesus knew about 'busy-ness.' Look at Mark's lst chapter. He was rarely alone. "The whole town crowded to his door." (33) "Everybody is looking for you." (37) He was literally besieged from dawn to dusk -- and into the evening. There was little time for naps or meals -- he had to sneak off in the morning to pray.

    He had one overriding concern: He was always about his Father's business (if we may so express it, he was always 'busy' about that!). Into his Father's hands he commended his Spirit -- which should become our spirit -- every moment of his life.

    The "Center of Jesus": His center from which all else flows was his obedient relationship to the Father. He receives everything from the Father with total openness . . . and he returns it all with total responsiveness. But first of all, he listened to his Father with eager openness, ever ready to respond in love. This transcendent love, before which all other love pales, is caring, demanding, supporting, severe -- gentle but strong. This community Center is the Center and Source of all of Jesus' activities!

    Jesus' ministry flows from this: Unless we understand this Center of Jesus, we'll never understand him or his ministry -- or even our Christian life. These are his 'roots' -- total, attentive listening to his Father in unshaken, unswerving intimacy of total love! And it all started in his heart.

    What shall we say of a love that reveals itself as a totally dependent and powerless infant . . . as a migrant fleeing into Egypt . . . an obedient teenager . . . an obscure craftsman . . . a humble disciple of the Baptizer . . . a companion of unlettered fishermen . . . a man who talked with everyone and ate with sinners . . . a challenger of vested interests. . . a worker of wonders . . . who was finally rejected by those he saved and crucified as a criminal. And when we cast our lot with him, we must be mindful, as Fr. Don Senior, C.P. writes: "It was his lifestyle that killed him!"

    His response to our 'trivial pursuits': What is he really asking us to do? He doesn't ask us to change our activities, to slow down our pace, to unload all our contacts, to seek new ministries. He does ask us -- and very seriously so -- to take a hard look at our preoccupations. What's our center of gravity? What is the center from which all our thoughts, priorities, speech and action flow. Because if that Center, which is his kingdom, is in the wrong place, so is everything else. It's not surprising, therefore, that his first preached words are:

  3. "Be Changed In Your Heart"

    Our response to that invitation: When we take that hard look at our lives, it would seem that this holds top place in our priority lineup -- our value system.

    The apostle John reminds us that this imitation is one of "most dear children" in relationship to the Father . When Jesus clearly states that "I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly," isn't he inviting us to share his intimacy and community with his Father? If not, why would he pray, "that they may be one as Thou Father in me and I in Thee"? He became one of us that we may become like him in all his relationships.

    When Paul urges us "to put on the mind of Christ," isn't he asking us to have the same overriding preoccupation -- to seek the same Center -- to be transformed by the same Spirit of love?

    Jesus didn't ask us to leave this world. He wants us to go into it. To preach the Gospel to every creature. To live out his Incarnation, Death and Resurrection. He challenges us to be witnesses of his value-system even unto the end of the world with this "change of heart." Schedules and plans, people and events are not to be sources of 'anxieties," but manifestations of God. All of these 'other things' become gifts of God -- challenges to the Christ-life -- yes, even food for our contemplation.

  4. Set Your Hearts

    The invitation from the Lord: Jesus invites everyone to enjoy the blessings of his kingdom ("Come to me all who labor and are burdened"). This gift of the Spirit -- the spiritual life -- is not received in a vacuum. You have to set your hearts on it! And this is not easy, especially if you are lost in 'Trivial Pursuits.'

    To set your hearts on the Kingdom demands certain pre-dispositions, a three-dimensional approach:

    1. It was desire that made you dedicate yourself and your talents to the Kingdom of the Lord. And desire will be the first stirrings by which you wholeheartedly set your heart on it again -- in seeking the perfect love of God. God loves a person of desires.

    2. You need that special quality of a disciple: discipline! "If anyone will come after me, let him/her deny themselves . . . and follow me." You have to listen with total openness to the Father. But this takes discipline. Only the disciplined hear the Voice of God. You have to create the inner space in which he can be heard because you are deafened . . . surrounded by too much inner and outer noise to hear his voice calling you. (Example of Elijah in the cave; God not in the wind, the earthquake, the fire -- but in the tiny whisper!) (1 Kings 19:ff)

    3. You need determination: To seek, to discover, to enjoy your Center is not a one-shot deal -- it's a way of life. And one doesn't change the quality of his/her life with a single experience. It has to become a habit, a way of life.

Where do you look for the Lord?

To be like Jesus, to gradually free oneself from anxieties/preoccupations . . . to pray, to listen, to find God . . . has to become a daily experience.

When one has found the "pearl of great price," one sells everything else to possess it.

Kilian McGowan, C.P. (at right, above) was the founding editor of the Passionists Compassion and edited the magazine until his death in July, 1998

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