Yesterday at church I saw a video about hope in the new year.
There was nothing particularly wrong with it. Standard Christian video fare. An inspirational song set to cheerful images and lyrics.
What stuck out to me were the images being used in the video. On their own they were rather innocuous – smiling families, a big, new house, people celebrating a new job, etc. Again, nothing particularly interesting about those images in and of themselves, but when combined with the message of the video and a book I’ve been reading lately, the video unexpectedly turned into a moment of personal conviction.
The theme of the video, as I said, was hope in the New Year. As the video implied, that hope would be fulfilled through personal happiness – lots of smiling, celebrations, a bigger house, new stuff, and a better job.
It goes without saying that most of those are things many of us hope for, but a book I’ve been reading put those hopes in a slightly different light.
The book is called The Pope Who Quit.
It’s about a medieval hermit named Peter Morrone who inexplicably was elected pope and became Celestine V. However, roughly six months later he would be the first and only person in the history of the papacy to abdicate St. Peter’s throne. That story is fascinating itself, but it was Celestine’s life before Rome, when he was just a hermit named Peter, that gave me pause yesterday and had me rethinking the things I should be hoping for in the coming year.
You see, when people like Peter walked the earth it was thought by many that if you wanted to find God one of the best places to start looking was a cave, especially one set high up on a mountain where you could be closer to heaven.
No one thought that God literally lived in a cave, at least not like a hobbit lives in a hole in the ground. Hermits like Peter didn’t believe they could simply stumble onto a cave, knock on the front door, and wait for God answer to welcome them in for tea.
People went looking for God in caves because the sort of life one would live in a cave, with all of its difficulties, challenges, and lack of comfort, was the sort of life these saints thought it took to better understand, and therefore embody, the difficult, challenging, and uncomfortable life of Jesus.
In other words, strange though it may sound to our modern ears, these hermits were trying to live like Jesus, not matter the cost.
How strange, then, would that video I saw yesterday seem to these most ardent of disciples?
The things this video, and by extension we as modern Christians, hope God will give, or “bless” us with, in the new year – personal happiness, a bigger house, more money – are the very things these hermits thought must be rejected in order to know God better.
Which, for me, raises an interesting question – Is God more likely to be found in a cave or a 5,000 sq ft house?
Maybe the answer is both. Maybe God can be found in the midst of wealth and comfort. I know most of us hope that is the case. But the story of Peter Morrone, or Celestine V, raised an interesting conundrum for all of us who claim to seek after Jesus.
Peter began in a cave, then moved to a palace, only to return back to his cave.
Now, the reasons for Peter abandoning the papacy are many, and you should read the book to discover them all, but what is clear from his story is that for Peter wealth, comfort, and the prestige that came with the success of being elected pope did not aide in relationship with God. They hindered it. They got in the way of the total devotion to Christ he was seeking.
Now, I’m not advocating that we all move into caves. In fact, I would argue that there is something a bit problematic about abandoning the world to live in isolation in a cave. (Though, it’s important to note that many hermits, like Peter, were still active and intentional about serving the needy in nearby communities.)
However, I do think the story of Peter does present an important challenge to us and that is this – What is it that we want from God and want does that reveal about our relationship with God?
If the video I saw at church is any indication, and I think it is in that it seems to simply put music to many of our prayers, then the things we want from God are wealth, health, prosperity, and personal happiness. Again, none of those things in and of themselves are necessarily bad and if you were raised as a good American, then you know they are fundamental to the American dream.
But if those are the things we want most from God, then God is nothing more than a genie, a divine ATM for us to withdrawal from whenever we choose, and our pursuit of God, nothing more than our pursuit of the American dream.
In short, God isn’t the focus of our desires. God is simply a means to an end. We don’t really want Him, we just want what He can do for us.
I think hermits like Peter understood this irresistible temptation to wealth, health, prosperity, and personal happiness. I don’t think they necessarily thought these things evil, but they understood their intrinsic power to warp our love of God and transform it into a love of stuff, comfort, and, ultimately, ourselves.
We may not have to go spelunking to find God, and personally I don’t plan to, but if saints of the church like Peter Marrone have anything to teach us, it’s that if we are going to claim to be followers of Jesus, then we need to do some honest reflection and ask ourselves why we’re following.
Because if we’re following Jesus for what we think he’s going to do for us, then, like the rich young ruler, we’ll be sorely disappointed when he turns to us and says “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
But if we’re following Jesus because Jesus is all we want, then we’ll never be disappointed….even if we find ourselves living in a cave.
Grace and peace,