Saturday, October 20, 2012



One of the saddest symptoms that I run into in my high school students is a lack of ambition. The young man, for whatever reason, has no sense of exerting himself for the sake of some goal whether near or distant. He has no motivation mechanism, or at least none that can draw him forward every day toward achieving some positive future goal. It’s really difficult to work with a kid who has zero ambition. I look at him and I see the image of a steamship that is “dead in the water” with no way of moving.


 During this week I’ve been studying with novice Br. Thomas the “Rule of the Master” (RM), a document from the time of Saint Benedict. Scholars pretty much agree that the author of Rule of Benedict (RB) had the RM in front of him as he wrote, and borrowed huge chunks of material, leaving out some, modifying others and then adding his own ideas or those of still other monastic writers. The RM is three times as long as the RB, so it’s instructive to look at what Benedict chooses to simply leave out as he is borrowing. Br. Thomas and I saw that some of the characteristics of the RM that don’t make it into the RB are such things as a rather pessimistic emphasis on sin and hell, a passion for locking the monastery gate and avoiding contact with outsiders, and a tendency to micro-manage everything in daily life (e.g. the manner in which the crumbs are to be collected after a meal!). One other idea in the RM that Benedict stayed away from was the RM’s encouraging each monk to behave virtuously in order that he might eventually be considered a good candidate for abbot. Maybe in some people that sort of ambition might be a strong motivator of virtue, but Br. Tom and I decided that it struck us as a little bizarre. Besides, it seems hard to reconcile the RM’s idea with the most important chapter in the RB, the one on humility. (I didn’t mention to the novice my own thought that nowadays being an abbot is probably a lot more of a burden than an honor!)


The Sunday gospel for Oct. 21, 2012 shows us Jesus’ take on ambition:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?" They answered him, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can." Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:35-45)

The verses immediately preceding these contain Jesus’ prediction that he is going to be betrayed suffer persecution and be put to death. But James and John were so self-centered that they hardly even heard what Jesus was saying -- they had a different agenda. And just as bad, when the other ten heard of this request they became angry and indignant at the two brothers. Instead of gently correcting them and maybe even making fun of such an unworthy ambition, the ten get drawn into the same game: They get indignant because those places of honor are attractive to them too, and they don’t want anyone getting an unfair inside track.


At this point Jesus calls them all together and gives his position on ambition: “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” I think it’s fair to say that Jesus wants his followers (including you and me) to be ambitious. He wants us to dedicate our every effort, our whole lives, to being the greatest. But the catch comes, of course, with his definition of “greatest:” to be “the slave of all,” “not to be served but to serve.”

Benedict imagines the monastery as a peaceable kingdom in which the brethren each strive to outdo one another in mutual obedience, encourage one another by their good example, and serve each other constantly whether in the infirmary, the dining room or anywhere else in the enclosure. His vision is one that all Christians can try to live out in our own way in our everyday world. Imagine what your office or workplace would be like, or your family or other community. What if, starting with you, everyone strove to be of service to the rest, and made it their aim and ambition “not to be served but to serve.” Jesus expects you and me to make the first move.


My school week ended with a conversation with one of our older students who was describing how he and his family members cooperate in taking care of his mother who is crippled with multiple sclerosis. As a result of this experience, he told me, his ambition is to go to college and med school and become a neurologist. Sounds like a plan.

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