Listening to others and living in obedience reduces the ego.
Recall your last conversation. With whom did you speak? Do you remember what she or he said? Did you hear him or her? Did you half pay attention or fully pay attention? How well did you listen? To listen is an act of ego reduction. It diminishes ego importance. Listening reduces ego to nothing because it involves complete attention to another person. Jesus listens and this tells us God listens. Listening has everything to do with today’s Gospel.
The mysterious event of the Transfiguration confirms the revealed truth of being reduced to nothing, which is dangerous to conventional society and its market values. In the Gospel of Luke, it says Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discussed Jesus’ “exodus” or passion and death. The context of the Transfiguration in Mark, the Gospel from which today’s reading comes, is vitally important. Otherwise, we can forget how the Transfiguration reveals that God is behind the reversal of all conventional values. God is driving this path of downward mobility and ego diminishment. We can forget, in the light of the glory of the Transfiguration, that divine glory is revealed most truly and effectively through the cross.
Immediately prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus predicts his passion and death. Then, Peter takes Jesus aside to rebuke him. If he knows he’ll die in Jerusalem, Peter reasons, then it’s best not to go there! Who among us wouldn’t argue in exactly the same way? Jesus’ response is telling. He says Peter is thinking not like God but like men. Peter is reasoning based on his society’s values and not based on the values of the kingdom. Jesus then calls all his followers to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and lose their lives. This is how we follow him: by being reduced to nothing. This path shows us who we are. For, after these scenes, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor and is transfigured. His true identity shines forth, but the context suggests one truly grasps Jesus’ identity and fully realizes one’s own identity by the cross, by being reduced to nothing.
Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and our own divine identity, is revealed through the reduction to nothingness. A lot of our pain comes from over-identifying with a race, a nation, a religion, an ethnicity, a political viewpoint, a political party, addictions, the body, time, buys-ness, various idiosyncrasies, and, ultimately, the ego. The identities we manufacture keep us pivoted away from reality and locked in very illusory worlds. Jesus, though, finds his identity in his Abba, the Holy Mystery beyond all things yet intimately one with all things. Jesus, fundamentally, listens to his Abba and in doing so knows who he is.
We don’t really want to listen because it is not the posture of the winner. The ego, and our conventional culture, wants to win, maybe above all other things. By winning, whether through an argument or an athletic competition, the ego presumes it will be investing itself with eternal glory. The ego wants the glory radiating from Jesus but on its own terms. The terms of the ego are reflected in society’s values: competition, success, achievement, and doing what it takes to win. The Gospel, however, is about losing. Just a few verses before the Transfiguration Jesus commands – not suggests, but commands – his disciples to deny themselves, take their crosses, and lose their lives. This is the way we follow Jesus into the glory of God. God is not a triumphant military hero but a crucified, humble, and poor God. Listening seems like an experience of losing because the one listening gives way to the other instead of asserting oneself over the other.
We rationalize away the Gospel by listening to our own excuses and explanations. God’s voice cuts through this dross and says, “Listen to Jesus.” The hardest thing to do is to listen authentically. Listening well and as a spiritual practice crystallizes into the virtue of obedience. Jesus obeys God. But, is there a more distasteful virtue for our society? Conventional American society says we can do what we want. We can choose as we wish. Truly, the most basic cultural myth that we never question is the absolute priority we give to individual choice. Free choice is a fine value, but we treat it as ultimate. To obey God and what God wants for us rather than obeying our own wills is a tremendous step along the path of being reduced to nothing. Submitting to God’s will is a practice faithful to Jesus who submitted his own will to God our merciful Abba: “Not as I will, but as you will.”
Only when we listen to and obey God will we ever discover our true nature as the beloved of God. We listen to God best in silence. We surrender to God most directly when we pray contemplatively. Contemplative prayer is really the central practice and hinge to living the Gospel. Through contemplative prayer God becomes the center, ego diminishes, and we receive the grace to put the Gospel into practice. Meister Eckhart preaches, “Be as free of all images as when [you are] nothing.” Contemplative prayer, in a non-thinking silence, is a very radical reduction of the self to nothingness. In the silence, we let our thinking, our plans, our feelings take a back-seat to God. We stop the conversation we have with ourselves all through the day to let God be God in us. We listen to God’s fundamental message to us, “I love you enormously. I delight in you as you are, and we are one.” This is the triumph of obedience.