Mar 14, 2019 1114 Deacon Jim McFadden,

Let’s Get Serious!

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going …

I n the year 2010 the movie, 127 Hours, was released starring James Franco, who portrayed an adventurous man Aron Ralston. The main character falls into a crevice while on a canyoneering venture in southeastern Utah. His right forearm gets pinned underneath a boulder, which traps him for five days and seven hours (127 hours). He lays there for several days trying to extricate himself from the rock, but to no avail. Finally, convinced that he would die of exposure, he grabs a small, dull pocketknife out of his backpack and begins to cut off his own arm. Despite the unspeakable pain, he completes the task. Ralson then ties a crude tourniquet around the stump of his arm and makes his way through the remainder of the canyon, in which he had to rappel down a sixty-five foot sheer cliff face to reach safety. He later comes to a road where he flags down a car.

Some months after this terrible ordeal, he appears on the David Letterman Show, where he tells his story, to a spellbound audience. When he finishes, the normally light-hearted and sarcastic Letterman becomes unusually serious. Looking at his guest intently, he says with great admiration, “You know something about life that I don’t.”

What is the point of describing this terrible, yet fascinating tale? Because Jesus speaks with incredible bluntness about cutting off ones hand, ones foot; about plucking out ones eye. If these become a block to salvation, get rid of them, he says; better to enter eternal life maimed, than going to Gehenna with all your members intact.

These are hard, blunt, surprising words but, are we to take a literal, fundamentalist understanding of them? I think not. In the Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas laid the foundation of modern biblical interpretation by recognizing that the Bible is packed with rich symbolic language, which communicates special meaning regarding what Jesus actually said. So, he distinguishes between the literal sense of a passage—what the words of Scripture actually says; that is, the obvious meaning of the text. Then he notes that there is a spiritual sense in a passage which goes beyond the literal sense of the words and thereby to consider the religious meaning, conveyed symbolically.

So, I do not think Jesus is encouraging us to cut off our hands or feet or pluck out our eyes. At the same time, we are being challenged to look at this teaching with a certain spiritual seriousness. We should not be to blasé over the language Jesus is using. “Oh, our Lord is only exaggerating; He is just using metaphors to get our attention.” Rather, I would caution you to read the passage (Mark 9:43-48) through the lens of Aron Ralston and his experience. Let us look at Ralston who found himself in mortal danger when his arm was pinned underneath a boulder. So desperate was his situation that he judged quite rightly, that he had to sacrifice an essential part of his body in order to save his life. He knew that something drastic had to be done and he was willing to pay the price, despite the pain, to do it.

Does it ever occur to us that we can be in a similar kind of spiritual situation in which we are in danger— that, if we do not do something drastic, we could die spiritually? Indeed, we could be in mortal danger, pinned, as it were, under a “rock.” Jesus is warning us of spiritual dangers, of spiritual warfare, of spiritual death, and the drastic things we have got to do in order to save our spiritual lives.

So what are the three things that Jesus identifies? Let us have a look at these from a spiritual standpoint.

1. Grasp the Nettle

Your hand is the member by which we ‘grasp’ and ‘take’ things. In the course of our lives, we take and grasp for all sorts of things: money, pleasure, sex, power, prestige, security, and comfort. Go all the way back to the book of Genesis in which our original parents grasped for the fruit from the tree of good and evil. They grasped at godliness but without God! From the beginning our hands are a problem because they grasp what the ego wants.

What are you grasping at in the course of your life?— worldly things, honor, creating benefits for yourself and pleasures. Is that grasping putting you in spiritual danger, keeping you from receiving the one glorious essential which is God’s own Life? Are you willing to cut off the attachment, right out of your life? You may be thinking now “There is no way! I can’t live without so and so.” It could be riches power, pleasures or honor. If so, perhaps your grasping has pinned you down, and is keeping you from being fully alive.

2. Pick Your Way

What is the foot but the member why which we walk, by which we set ourselves on a definite path. We are meant to spiritually walk towards God, who is the goal of our life. Saint Aquinas says that if you want to find joy, walk the path that leads to God alone.

What do we do with so much of our lives? We walk down errant paths; we chose paths that move us away from God—path that leads us to wealth and consumerism, status and prestige, control and dominance, and hedonistic pleasure. Very early in life we get on these paths and we walk and walk. As we get older, we may pick up the pace because we do not have too much time left; so, we accumulate more and more, thereby moving us in the wrong direction. There are many stories in the spiritual tradition that talks about path, roads, and ways of life. Think of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” which begins:

“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost” (The Inferno, Dante Alighieri, Canto 1).

So, if your foot is your problem, cut it off. What does that mean spiritually? If you are walking along the wrong road, you must be willing to change the direction and set off on the right path. This is “rubber hitting the road” spirituality. You may be thinking, “You mean this road that I have been walking most of my life, where I have devoted most of my energies, is the wrong one?” Yes! And, you must be willing to abandon it, to cut it off.

3. You are What You See!

Finally, Jesus speaks of the eye. If it is your problem, pluck it out. Both Saint Augustine and Saint Aquinas say that the beatific vision is to “see” God face to face. The goal of the spiritual life is the knowledge of God, a love of God, of seeing very deep into the very essence of God. That means that the spiritual life is a constant seeking and seeing the things of God.

Unfortunately, most of us spend our lives looking at all the wrong places—we are often looking for and seduced by the goods of the world. If your eye is your problem, pluck it out. Take that challenge with spiritual urgency. If you have been looking in the wrong places, if you have been intrigued and beguiled by the wrong things, you must be willing to eliminate that thing from your life. You must be willing to do something drastic to deal with it.

In the recent years, we have lost a since of urgency with the spiritual life. Somehow, Catholic spirituality has become soft, and too easy: “God is love, God is my friend; therefore, whatever I do will be forgiven; so, it really does not matter what I do.”

Yes, we will be forgiven if we seek it; but, the spiritual life is the consummate high adventure: it is demanding. In Saint Paul’s language, an athlete is willing to sacrifice all sorts of things to win a perishable crown. What are we willing to sacrifice, to cut drastically out of our lives in order to gain eternal life? That is the hard question raised by the challenging language of our Lord Jesus.

O Lord, help us to make a strong resolution to follow close, the print of Thy dear footsteps and cut off all that which hinders us from Your path which is righteousness and peace.



Deacon Jim McFadden

Deacon Jim McFadden ministers at the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Folsom, California. He is a teacher of theology and serves in the Adult Faith Formation, baptismal preparation, spiritual direction, and prison ministry.

Latest Articles