By Michelle Francl-Donnay
Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus: who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. – Phil. 2:5-7a
“I’ve given up on matching glasses or napkins on the table,” I sighed as I bemoaned the cheerfully haphazard approach my guys take to setting the table to a priest friend. “However much I empty myself, it seems there’s always more to give up.”
It seems almost irreverent to allude to St. Paul’s beautiful hymn to Christ’s humility and subsequent glory in the same breath as my frustrations about setting the dinner table. Yet the more I contemplate the challenge that Paul sets before us in this passage – that our call to be of Christ’s mind is a call to an utter poverty of self – the more I suspect it is as much about such everyday things as it is about a willingness to be a martyr.
Theologian Johannes Metz, in his exquisite book “Poverty of Spirit,” talks of the ways in which our everyday experiences lead us to a deeper experience of the surrender that God summons us to, as signposts in the desert. Poverty of spirit, this self-emptying that Christ undertakes, begins not with grand spiritual gestures, but with the commonplace.
“There is,” Metz says, “nothing heroic about it; it is the poverty of the common lot, devoid of ecstasy.” By its nature, this is not a poverty we can choose, but one where the choices are made for us. Like the choice of the glasses on the table.
In principle, I stand ready to offer my life for God. I imagine that with God’s grace I could face death for my faith with the equanimity of SS. Perpetua and Felicity, with the courage of St. Margaret Clitherow. In practice, I find my attachment to these everyday anxieties about glasses and napkins infinitely harder to surrender. Perhaps because these are not abstract things, like a martyrdom I am unlikely to face in 21st century Philadelphia, but all too concrete, all too present.
Or maybe my trouble with letting myself be stripped of even my own expectations is that I would prefer it to be done Flannery O’Connor style: quick. Like the girl in O’Connor’s short story, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” who mused “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick. She could stand to be shot, but not to be burned in oil.” I want my surrender to be over and done with, and in a manner of my own choosing.
This, of course, is precisely the point. To be of the same mind as Christ is to stand ready to empty ourselves in ways we do not expect, welcome or perhaps even recognize. In small things as in the momentous. Not once, but again and again. Perhaps even every night at the dinner table.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
– Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., from “In Honour of St. Alphonsous Rodriguez”
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.