A Fruitful Failure

by Cheryl Ann Smith

Many of us sympathize with the poor Rich Young Man in the Gospels (Mk 10:17-22) who ached for what was missing in his life. He had done everything he knew, keeping all the laws and commandments, so what was this interior hole?

So great was his longing that he ran up to Jesus, and knelt before him to ask his burning question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus “looked hard” at the young man and loved him, and then offered an amazing invitation: if he truly wanted “perfection”, or the fullness of life and joy, he could become one of Jesus’ intimate friends. Obviously, Jesus saw a burning desire in this young man, and the potential for a totality of self-giving.

Of course, he would have to let go of all his possessions, since Jesus lived an itinerant life completely dependent on the providence of his Father.

His invitation to sell what you have, give to the poor…then come, follow Me (Mk 10: 21) was too much for the young man, and he went away sad. At least at this point in his life, the interior flame failed to ignite.

A story of failure? Hardly! This rich young man is arguably one of the most influential characters in the array of Gospel denizens. His story and the invitation issued by Jesus was the catalyst for many saints to awaken to this interior call and to throw off anything that hindered this radical following of Jesus.

In the third century, another young man, Anthony, heard this passage being read and was pierced to the heart. His parents had died, leaving him a great inheritance and the care of his sister.

Hearing the gospel words as Jesus’ call to him personally, Anthony provided for his sister, then sold the rest of his possessions, gave the money to the poor, and retired into the desert to pray. He became the father of monasticism, and one of our greatest saints.

Our foundress Catherine Doherty was another one who received her call through the Rich Young Man. When she became aware that God was wooing her, she arose, like the Bride in the Song of Songs (3:1-2) and began to seek him.

She turned to the Scriptures, and something strange and at times frightening, began to happen: she would open again and again to the story of the Rich Young Man.

Her Bible seemed to have a mind of its own, opening always to this story, so she tried opening other Bibles—in the homes of friends, in churches, even in the public library. Always, the pages opened to the Rich Young Man—until she surrendered and gave her whole heart and life to the Beloved.

By pursuing her with this gospel passage, the Lord made it clear that she was to provide for her son and then give away her possessions. She was to place herself completely under His care, protection, and providence. Her life was no longer her own; it belonged to Him.

My own history with this bible passage was almost identical: When I was 18 years of age, I was miserable, lost, seeking something, although I didn’t know what. One night, I found it—or rather, He found me!

At a concert of Handel’s Messiah, as we all rose for the magnificent Halleluiah Chorus, God himself poured into every nook and cranny of my being, filling my heart and soul with divine love.

In the twinkling of an eye, I went from not knowing if I believed in God, to knowing that he was my whole life; not knowing if I was loved, to knowing that I was loved with a passion by the Lord of the Universe; not knowing where I was going in life, to knowing that my future would be entirely bound up with my Beloved.

I turned to the Scriptures to find out who this God was, and I began to learn about the Father; I fell in love with Jesus; I was baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Around the same time, I fell in love with a wonderful Catholic man who introduced me to his Church, and I encountered my Lord in the Eucharist. Jacques and I became engaged, much to the delight of our families and friends.

Enter the Rich Young Man: at some point, this particular passage began to haunt me. I seemed to open too often to this story, and became convinced that my life was bound up with this Rich Young Man.

I asked Jacques if he thought we were to be missionaries serving in poor countries. Could that be the meaning of this? But no—Jacques was adamant that he was to earn a good living for our family.

I came to believe that I had to live in poverty. Slowly we began to realize that we were not called to marriage with each other after all.

(If anyone doubts the power of Scripture, let this be a warning! Scripture can and must change your life!)

In my heart, I began to associate the Rich Young Man passage with my vocation—whatever that was. After a couple of visits to Madonna House in Combermere, I decided to go back for six months after I graduated from university.

However, when that time arrived, I was in a raging black night: after my 3 ½ years of commitment to prayer and the spiritual life, God suddenly disappeared. I could no longer see, hear or touch him. My initial dismay, bewilderment and grief gave way to anger and fear.

If God had left me, how could I possibly spend six months in a community completely centred on him? That would be just too painful!

However, the sense of being called to Madonna House was so overpowering I could find no rest or peace.

Finally, I laid down the gauntlet to God: if you really want me to go to Madonna House, open this Bible to the Rich Young Man.

I hate to say it, but I put God too much to the test: I wasn’t satisfied with opening to this story once, or twice, but I demanded a third time!

He gave it. What more was needed? My feelings hadn’t changed, but God’s will was crystal clear: go to Madonna House. As a further confirmation, the Gospel reading at Mass when I arrived was—you guessed it—the Rich Young Man.

Even after I joined Madonna House, these lines would periodically leap off the page, to remind me of why I was living a consecrated life: because I want the fullness of union with Jesus; nowhere else can I find peace.

I hasten to add, however, that this call is for everyone, not just those embracing a consecrated life. Jesus longs for every soul to be his intimate beloved, called to throw aside anything that hinders the deepest surrender of love.

As the Spirit speaks to each heart, he will have something different to say to each of us, for he knows what ensnares each of us. It may be a particular relationship, the dream of a particular career, the need for security or unfettered freedom.

The Rich Young Man wanted the fullness of life, but not at the cost of poverty. Many of us want intimacy with Jesus, but not at the cost of the Cross. As the years rolled on, this passage penetrated to deeper layers in my heart.

At one point, I was grappling not as much with poverty, chastity and obedience, as with suffering. I knew that if I wanted to go deeper into God’s Heart, I had to embrace suffering. This time, I was afraid I would follow the Rich Young Man and go away sad.

We are made for life, and this felt like death. But like Jacob, I would not let go of the wrestling match until God gave me the grace I needed.

More recently, I was on a month’s retreat, a time of silence and solitude as I enter the last third of my life. As soon as I settled in, I said to the Lord, “You know I’ve given you my life and that I love you. Yet something is missing. What is it?” And suddenly, I was shaken to the core.

I had become the Rich Young Man. I tasted his longing for the more that eluded him. I begged God to tell me what I lacked, and to give me the grace to let go and follow Him on a deeper path. The depths of this passage can never be fully plumbed.

What happened to the Rich Young Man in the Gospels? I like to think that he later found the courage and the fiery desire to let go of everything and follow Jesus.

Sometimes I wonder—was he Zaccheus, another rich man who joyfully divested himself of what shackled his heart? Or one of the other characters we read about in the Gospels? Or a follower known only to Jesus? I can’t imagine being looked at long and hard by Jesus, with penetrating Divine Love, and being able to stay away.

We’ll never know what happened to him. But we can allow this passage to beckon, torment perhaps, draw us into new and deeper life in the Heart of Jesus.