Stretching the Soul by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?" They answered him, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can." Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned the Twelve and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Ignatius of Loyola put down the biographies and asked himself a simple question about their subjects: "What if I should do what St. Francis and St. Dominic did?" In effect he asked, "Why not me? What is to stop me from being a saint?" Such was the noble aspiration that eventually brought him to sainthood. In his first rule of life St. Maximilian Kolbe expressed this holy ambition even more clearly: "I must be a saint and a great saint." The goals of these men may strike us as too much, extreme, even downright prideful. But in fact they proceed from a virtue, indeed from "the crown of all virtues" - magnanimity.
Magnanimity is the virtue that prompts us to seek great things in the service of the Lord. It explains the seemingly overreaching ambition of the "Sons of Thunder," Saints James and John. They approach our Lord and boldly say, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left" (Mk 10:36). And even when our Lord makes known to them the cost of this reward - "Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" (Mk 10_38) - they respond generously: "We can."
We may mistake magnanimity for pride, as in fact the apostles did: "When the 10 heard this, they became indignant at James and John" (Mk 10-41). Magnanimity denotes a certain aspiration of spirit, a stretching forth of the soul to great things - holy ambition. The word itself comes from the Latin for "great soul" (magna anima). But magnanimity differs from pride in this: it operates not in consideration of a man's own worth but in consideration of the gifts he has received from God.
Magnanimity is anchored by humility, which gives a man the sense of his own insufficiency. The two virtues must travel together, keeping one another honest, lest humility become pusillanimity and magnanimity become pride.
Magnanimity (as the word implies) also "magnifies" the other virtues. It gives increase or added strength to all of them. Think of it as a magnifying glass held up to the other virtues. By magnanimity we stretch out to greater charity and aspire to higher hope. We desire to perform greater works of mercy, to make the Lord even better known, to do the more difficult thing for the glory of God - and even, as St. Ignatius put it, "for the greater glory of God."
True, the man cultivating magnanimity may sometimes outrun the virtue and need to be reined in. Our Lord had to do this on occasion, and in particular with James and John (cf. Lk 9:54-55). But it is an easier thing to harness ambition than to stimulate indifference. And how much more inspiring magnanimity is than the current state of mediocre spiritual aspirations. Our culture permits ambition in all areas - in sports, careers, finances, politics, etc., but not in religion. There we must be moderate, lest we be labeled "fanatics." Even within the Church, unfortunately, we often reduce the goal to just being nice, a basically good person, a "good enough catholic" (as some have actually encouraged).
Of course, this "greatness of soul" does not require the same great deeds and actions of everyone. It simply means that we aspire to great things according to our state in life and with the gifts God has given us. It means that we not content ourselves with half-measures or mediocrity. Humble as regards ourselves, confident as regards the Lord, we exercise a holy boldness in prayer, word, and action - all for the greater glory of God.
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