Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. ... Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others… And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. (David McCullough)A few weeks ago an English teacher named David McCullough delivered this commencement speech that went viral, titled “You’re Not Special.” His point was that praise must be earned not just handed to you; if everybody’s special then no body is special––that kind of thing. What was even more interesting to me than the speech itself was the reaction to it. You could just about hear people licking their chops with headlines such as “a commencement speech that eviscerated the self-esteem movement.” That’ll show these spoiled, entitled kids! Even Rush Limbaugh liked it! Mr. McCullough had some very memorable lines in it, one of them that I liked a lot was, “Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” Of course in some way it’s the opposite of what Jesus says when he tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world, a city built on a hill,” but that’s another issue…
I actually liked a lot of what he said, but I also thought it was a bit of an over-reaction, especially the response to it. I have spent my priestly ministry telling people the other side of the story––telling them how beautiful they are, and urging them and me to live up to their dignity, holding a mirror up to folks––which is what I think spiritual communities are supposed to do––and saying, “Look at yourself! See who you are! Live up to this! You are the image of God moving to likeness, called to share in the divinity of Christ, called to be participants in the divine nature!”
In a sense, this is what Jesus experienced from his relatives and friends when he went back to Galilee. He had asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” And now they were asking the question, “Who do you think you are?” They couldn’t believe that God would give such power to this kid whom they had seen grown up in dirty diapers, that such great power could be revealed in a human being. How could God come this close and be so ordinary?
Both of these things are operative though in our readings today, and in some way they are a subplot all through Jesus’ life and the spiritual life in general. My favorite image to describe this tension is from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians when he says we hold this treasure in earthen vessels to make it known that this extraordinary power comes not from us but from God. So we do hold an incredible treasure inside of us, but we hold it in a fragile, cracked vessel to remind us that it will blow us to pieces if we don’t deal with it with humility, and if we fail to recognize that this power is ours to share in, but it is not ours! And in case we forget, Paul gives us that great image that we hear today––we get these thorns in our flesh to remind us that on our own, without grace, we are nothing, just frail weak fallible hypocritical bumbling humanoid bipeds, but with the grace of God we are everything––prophets, priest, royalty.
And this is Jesus’ way; this is the key that holds those two things together. Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself––took the form of a slave. That’s the key to Jesus way. It’s in that selflessness, in that humility that we are emptied of our bloated false self––all our masks we wear and roles we play––emptied enough to be filled with the very fullness of God. And actually Mr McCullough agreed with that. He says:
And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.That’s also the key: because everyone is. The self-esteem eviscerating headlines miss that line: because everyone is.
I guess what I want to add to the discussion is just this: We use religion so often to wag our fingers at each other and tell each other to behave but, contrary to what Mr. McCullough says about praise, grace is not something that can be earned, even by good behavior. That would actually be a heresy in our tradition; it’s called Pelagianism. Grace, like love, is a free gift; as David Mamet might say, “That’s why they call it ‘grace.’” It doesn’t start with us behaving correctly; it doesn’t start with us doing anything. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness, St. Paul says (2 Cor 12:9). It starts out with us being loved, the scriptures tell us, it starts out with us knowing who we are, knowing that we are beloved and cherished––and that is the strength to do something with our lives, and that gives us the strength to move, as Jesus did, beyond our selfishness to selflessness. We have to have a self to give our self away, but we have to have grace to become fully ourselves––that’s the real “God particle.”
Our svadhyaya––the self-study through sacred reading, is like looking in a mirror; we find out who we are and we get food for the journey. So let’s hope we can someday know who we are, and recognize it in each other; and hope that that knowledge of who we are would give us the strength to do the dying, the emptying, the kenosis that we have to do to live up to our dignity, to lay our lives down for the sake of others, to be broken like Jesus and like the Eucharistic bread, crushed and poured out like the grapes and the wine, for the sake of the world. Then we will climb the mountain both to see the world, to love it as God so loved it, weep over it as Jesus did, and allow ourselves to be seen too––but to be seen for a very special specific reason, the reason Jesus gives: so that others may see us and our good works and give glory to God.