Anyone who commutes into New York, or has any reason to take mass transit into New York, may be all too aware of the stalled projects to build new rail tunnels and bridges across the Hudson, between New York Penn Station, Newark, and Secaucus Junction.
It’s been a decade since construction on the first project started. Now, ten years later, there are tunnels that are almost complete — but with no agreement on funding to finish the job, they’re tunnels to nowhere. It’s maddening!
Like the man in the Gospel today building a tower, this project was started without “counting the cost.”
It’s crucial to count the cost.
Or is it?
Here’s an odd thing: Our Lord talks about counting the cost, but more often his followers, even saints and popes, talk about “not counting the cost,” which at first seems like a reversal of Jesus’ words.
Many people don’t realize how Jesus’ words in the Gospels, and the Bible as a whole, have shaped the way people talk, like Shakespeare’s plays. “The blind leading the blind”; “moving mountains”; “casting pearls before swine”; “the eleventh hour”; and so on.
Not just in English. All those phrases are used in Spanish, too. In Spanish you might hear “Vayan más allá” — literally “Go further,” or, as we say in English, “go the extra mile.” That’s from the Sermon on the Mount.
Even people who’ve never cracked open a Bible, who may have no idea where these phrases come from, use language shaped by the Lord. But when it comes to “counting the cost,” often it seems Jesus’ words are negated, even by people who know the Gospels very well.
Thérèse and Teresa
Last Thursday we celebrated the feast day of Mother Teresa, St. Teresa of Kolkata. Her namesake, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, on this day in 1890 — Sept. 8, the Nativity of Mary — made her profession of vows.
Let’s look at what they have to say about “counting the cost.”
St. Thérèse wrote about counting the cost in one her poems, “To Live of Love.” She wrote:
To live of love, ’tis without stint to give,
And never count the cost, nor ask reward;
So, counting not the cost, I long to live
And show my dauntless love for Thee, dear Lord!
Jesus said to count the cost, but Thérèse celebrated not counting the cost.
And Teresa of Kolkata did the same. Writing about the work of her order, the Missionaries of Charity, she said:
In all our chapels we see the Cross and the words, “I thirst.” … Remember, what we do for each other satiates the thirst of Jesus.
And the way to satisfy the thirst of Jesus, Mother Teresa says, is “by total surrender: complete, without counting the cost.”
Pope St. John Paul II, at Mother Teresa’s beatification Mass in 2003, said in his homily that Mother Teresa’s
greatness lies in her ability to give without counting the cost, to give “until it hurts”. Her life was a radical living and a bold proclamation of the Gospel.
Jesus says to count the cost, but here we have popes and saints talking about not counting the cost. Which is it?
The Cost is Everything
The answer becomes clear when you see what the cost is: Turn your back on your possessions, your family, your own life. Take up your cross and follow Jesus.
The cost of being Jesus’ disciple is everything. Everything!
Okay. What does that mean? Did Jesus really mean that giving up all your possessions, leaving your family, and going to martyrdom was the only way to be his disciple?
Well…that’s exactly what he asked of the Twelve.
Peter and Andrew, James and John, and the rest — they really left all their possessions, their family. They accepted persecution, even martyrdom — all but St. John, who was not martyred, so already we begin to see that Jesus doesn’t ask everyone to follow him in exactly the same way.
Forsaking worldly possessions, forsaking marriage and family, in the same spirit as the Twelve, is also the calling of the apostles’ successors, the bishops, along with the celibate priesthood of the Latin Church, as well as consecrated religious, with their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Not all bishops and priests live that calling well, but Church history is full of saints who have embraced Jesus’ words in all their rigor, from St. Benedict and Scholastica to Francis and Clare of Assisi and many others.
The Cancer of “Mine”
While Jesus’ words do apply differently to lay people and even deacons in the world, we need to keep our eyes on the example of those who really live the ideals of poverty, chastity, and obedience — what are called the evangelical counsels, meaning that Jesus doesn’t command everyone to follow them in the same way.
What do his words mean for us? Here’s a tiny example.
Thirty-five years ago, in 1984, when I was in high school, there was a major flood affecting much of northern New Jersey. The whole street I lived on (in Pequannock, near Wayne in the Paterson diocese) was evacuated, and after the flood waters receded, the cleanup effort was immense.
Thankfully, our family had a lot of help cleaning up from members of our church at the time (an Episcopal church in Wayne, St. Michael’s on Alps Road). We needed help. They showed up to help without expecting anything in return.
There was a lot to be done: junk to be carried and thrown out, filthy floors to scrub, and so forth. The work went on for hours, and I was happy to be doing my part — until, alone, in a quiet corner upstairs, I gave myself a little break, picked up some new comic books that I hadn’t read yet, and started reading. Other people were cleaning up my house and I was doing my own selfish thing!
I guess eventually my absence was missed and someone called for me — I don’t remember that part — but what I remember is going back to the work, but now wishing that I was still doing my own selfish thing.
Nothing had changed, except in my mind I was thinking of the time as my own time — time that belonged to me, that was now being taken away from me. I was counting the cost — to myself.
It’s a very small case in point of the poison, the cancer, the deadly condition that our Lord targets with his words in today’s Gospel: the cancer of “mine.”
I’m sure many of you can think of experiences in your own lives that illustrate the same truth. I’m afraid some people come to Mass with that attitude! They’re here — they’re meeting their obligation — but they’re conscious of time taken away from them when they’d rather be doing something else.
Living With Abandon
“I have said,” says St. Thérèse,
Jesus does not wish me to ask again for what is my own. This ought to seem quite easy, for in reality, nothing is mine.
Nothing is mine. That’s the secret of this difficult Gospel: My time; my family; my possessions; even my life: none of it is truly mine. Nothing is mine.
Whatever state of life we’re in — whether we’re single, married, thinking about getting married, thinking about the priesthood or religious life, actually a priest, whatever it is — the Lord calls us to live for him in that state of life with abandon.
Count the cost. The cost is everything. Never count the cost.
Vayan más allá: Go the extra mile! Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who borrows from you, do not ask again.
If we’re called to marriage and family life, the Lord doesn’t want us to abandon our families. He wants us to abandon ourselves to our families — to be total gift of self to one another, to make our homes schools of charity and domestic churches. In doing so, we satiate the thirst of Jesus.
Count the cost. The cost is everything. Never count the cost.
We must not let possessions possess us. Priests and religious are called to evangelical poverty. The rest of us are also called to be poor in spirit. Almsgiving, giving to the poor as well as the support of the church is crucial not just because the poor need what we have to give, or because our parish has bills to pay, but because we need to give in order not to be owned by our money.
The Step that Costs
Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” We belong to each other. The biggest mistake we can make is thinking we belong to ourselves — thinking anything belongs to us. The cancer of “mine.” Nothing is mine!
If we let that cancer fester — even if we try to be religious, to pray and go to Mass — our road to heaven will be like those unfinished Hudson tunnels to nowhere: They’ll never get us where we want to go.
If we can do this, we will be free in spirit, and with this freedom comes great joy and peace, not just in heaven, but in this life. St. Thérèse writes:
Dear Mother, I say this is hard, but I should rather say that it seems hard, for “The yoke of the Lord is sweet and his burden light.” And when we submit to that yoke, we at once feel its sweetness.
The sweetness is not just in heaven. Again St. Thérèse:
Verily, the reward is great even on earth. In this path it is only the first step which costs.