Why is our human nature so at odds with our spiritual nature? Why is there such a constant war? Why must I be Thomas probing and poking You before I believe? This kind of thinking is underscored by those micromoments of ecstasy I feel the instant I lose consciousness of all else except You. Whether I’m praying or reading or centering on You - when I’m successfully able to make the whole world go away for even just a few moments - then, in the instant before snapping back to full reality, to feel that I have successfully been with You, well, that feeling is the closest experience of heaven or of my spiritual nature that I’ll ever feel in this life. Yet, why is it such a struggle, such an effort? Is it because You want is this way? Is it because I make it this way? Or is it because of fallen human nature?
The first sin (monumental as it was) was, it seems, not nearly as consequential as the first guilt. Since that first feeling of loss and failure we have been trying to return to a state of oneness with You - a state that eradicates that feeling. The immensity of what we call "original sin" or the fall from grace is unimaginable. Nothing that can be conceived has had the penetrating nuclear effect on every living soul as this guilt and the desire to erase it and return to You.
So, it is not that You want it to be difficult for us. You don’t! It is not even so much that I as an individual make it this way; for indeed, I will as You do that is was easier. Therefore, it appears that it is my race, my species and its chosen nature. It’s my unavoidable inevitable heritage ( not of Your choosing but of ours ) which is the enemy. Fighting this enemy is indeed a war. Yet grace, the channel of Your will, is still there. That channel widens and floods my being in proportion to the success I have in minimizing the dam of my natural guilt. It is in choosing to combat this nature, denying it and rejecting its inclinations in order to let what’s left of Your original gift come through that creates the struggle, for our nature is very real and it does fight back.
I have to tell You about Thomas Merton and how present he has been to me lately. Through the years a lot of my spiritual reading has been by Merton. As time has passed I’ve grown to know and admire his spirituality more and more. In fact, I think You have known this all along and may have even assigned him to me as my "spirit-guide". What bonds us most is that we are both enthralled with the charm of solitude in seeking You, and further that this seeking extends from a certain restlessness about allowing the past to stagnate the now. Right now we both want not only something more but also something different. Especially in Merton’s letters is this restlessness apparent. One sees the stages of his growth through his desire for the Carthusian life that never came about; through his desire for eremitic solitude, which came about only after lengthy
lobbying, and, in varying degrees, through his desire to write but to avoid the inevitable fame attached to it. So much tempered his restlessness and so much he obediently accepted - but not without apparent and very human "twinges".
In our humanity it seems as if we aspire to higher plateaus of spirituality, finally get there, get comfortable, and then become "itchy" for a new plateau. I’m perceiving this restless drive as a spiritual good, maybe the normal course of Your spirit working in us.
To want more spiritually is not like wanting more materially. When we want more materially we become enmeshed in investing in acquisition, but divesting is the link to wanting more spiritually. To have both of these powerful forces at work simultaneously in one’s life is a source of conflict. By our very existence we have an inherent attachment to this world - in some form or another it’s unavoidable no matter how hard we try. Even in the monastery its residue is everywhere. I know Merton felt this, especially in his later years. In his own way he came to terms with it.
There are certain things about ourselves that we must passively accept and ignore so the anxiety they would normally generate is minimized. To whatever degree we are successful at doing this, we allow room for Your spirit which cannot occupy a space filled with something else. This goes back to the importance of "the cloud of forgetting". That we always want to reach that next step is good. That we do not allow our past weaknesses to construct a barrier in our lives is also good. Maybe St. Therese of Lisieux touches this restlessness most honestly when she said: "I know I am far from practicing what I should, but the mere desire I have to do so gives me peace."
One of the seven "keys" to DeMello’s Sadhana is to "accept life". Another one is to "drop attachments". There seems to be a certain friction generated by the contemporaneous pursuit of both. It seems to me that to accept life necessitates, for better or worse, accepting all the attachments that naturally come with it unless you are some kind of comatose cave-dweller. Conversely, to drop attachments seems, at least to a large extent, to belie attempts at accepting life, knowing full well that life is full of them. The answer may be "holy indifference"!
I think the life we are talking about when we "accept life" is the gift of existence and potentiality - to revel in the fact that right now, we are! What it does not necessarily seem to mean is accepting circumstances, conditions or events that, by our own free will, we attach to that existence. It is these attachments we talk about dropping in order to be more conscious of life. In order to drop attachments when we accept life, it seems we must cultivate a holy indifference to them. There are two words here that each factor into our attitude about all the circumstances to which life attempts to nail us.
Indifference itself means a lack of concern, a detachment, an emotional distancing. It does not necessarily preclude need. I can be indifferent to clothes while at the same time realizing their necessity. This kind of indifference becomes "holy" when it is intentionally held to clear a way for You. Indifference becomes holy when You become more important than anything else in my life. Somehow getting to this point is what the spiritual life is all about. Attachments, of course, come in varying degrees of intensity. It is easier to be indifferent toward some things than others. Yet, in its most potent form, it is to the whole world that holy indifference applies.
It’s kind of like the old adage about "living to eat or eating to live". When one lives to eat there is small possibility of being indifferent to food because it becomes the object of our focus, but when one eats to live the greater good of life itself becomes more important than what we eat to facilitate it. It is easier to become indifferent to the food. I am reminded of stories of the indifference of certain so-called geniuses like Einstein who could passionately spout quantum physics while wearing two different stockings. Where our heart is, there is our treasure - all else is a subject of indifference.
The more "things" we can put aside, the less we seek after money and what it can buy. The less we seek after our own comfort, the more possible we make it to seek after the comfort of others. The less pleasure is a motivation for our actions, the more we shuck off the self and the more powerful we become internally.
The "power" of this kind of life is the power of St. Francis of Assisi. If we have the power to see and the mind open to his way, we possess You. What greater power, wealth, comfort or pleasure can there be? Yet we seek all these things in the most artificial, contrived and complicated manners that, in our world, one would think that simplicity is the ultimate mortal sin.
There is a certain inevitability about being a contemporary American with some money to spend and the desire for some possessions. Radios, TV’s, cars, entertainment, comfort and so on are all accessible. Yet, why do we end up craving so many things that end up possessing us? It’s nigh impossible to sweep them all aside and only want to possess You - nothing else! No wonder You love the poor so much and no wonder it’s so difficult for a rich man to get into heaven.
I consider myself a rich man materially. I have not only all the material comforts
of many possessions, but I also possess talent,
skills and passions. Somehow these possessions each chip away at my ability to fully possess You. It would seem that
You cannot be possessed by those who would not possess You wholly.
Can we live in this world, Jesus, and not be a part of it? Can we function "freakishly" in this culture by not surrendering to any degree of materialism? I sometimes think this society would find its own way to crucify us if we chose not to possess it.
I like the word "insights". I take them as glimpses of the truths of life. They occur only occasionally, but they have a unique impact and are usually remembered longer than things I read or discuss. I picture a flash of insight as the light bulb going on over someone’s head in a comic strip, including the facial expression.
I just had an insight about insights and now I think I like the word even more. I think insights are often just another word for Your voice - whispers of revelation from You to me, and You generally use any channel imaginable.
Recently I attended a series of presentations on family life. In one of the talks the speaker alluded to the point that people’s obsession with obtaining material goods and wealth, with owning things of leisure and pleasure, only ends up in the things they want owning them. How very true!
I’d like a boat, but can I resist being a slave to the maintenance, money and operation of one? It would own a part of me! I’d like a cottage. But its upkeep would own a part of me just as our own home does! Even my records and my music own a part of me. Everything that takes me away from who really owns and wants to possess me entirely creates a conflict in me. A desire for, and acquisition of, more and more goods only fuels the conflict and takes me more and more away from You.
Yet, common sense tells me that many of these things are not bad in themselves. They are only bad when I allow them to own me. But I can control them. Help me to gain further insights into the proper place of material possessions in my life.
In the field of entertainment, beyond music, my tastes have always been limited to the major sports, movies, and an occasional play. With movies it seems one has to wade through a lot of mediocrity and worse before discovering a gem. I have a short list of mind-sticking movies for which the criterion has always been their ability to move me in some way. There has to be some insight and a real spiritual quality. My quintessential list includes: Raisin in the Sun, The Last Angry Man, Lawrence of Arabia, Reds, Ghandi, and A River Runs through It.
That last one holds a special place for me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I identify myself with the father in this movie. He is a man who loves his children and is as steady in his love and values as the river which, through a shared passion for fly-fishing, runs through every significant moment of their lives even though each becomes independent of the father and his wishes. It is a story of life and of a family with all the insignificance shorn away. There is great love and understanding here among each member of the family. There is also wisdom. The river is grace. It is the force which binds them all. It is a symbol of a power so primeval that it cannot be but deeply spiritual - yet hard to give words to. It is that which is common to us all and to which we respond individually. It is that for which we sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously search. The movie touches the human and the divine. At one point Jessie asks, "Why do people most in need of help never ask for it?" These feelings are later echoed, after Paul’s death, by the father’s sermon (he’s a minister) in church. His words so powerfully express the inevitable feelings of any father whose vision for his children is "touched-up" by the independent wills and realities of each of them as they grow.
I keep a bookmark copy of this sermon to remind me that while those we most love often elude us, we can love them completely without understanding. The same river runs through each of our lives, but touches each of us differently. It is important that we recognize that!
So often as our children were growing up and going through all the predictable crises, my wife and I would look at each other and say, "The foundation is there, they’re good kids, they’ll be O.K.," and you know what? We were right! Even up into their teens the foundation was there and we could always count on their love.
I suppose it was too much to think that would continue in our intertwined lives forever. As near-adults that restless curiosity and assertiveness that signals independence, worldly wisdom and a general antipathy for their parents world sets in and pain, confusion and despair creeps silently into the lives of the parents spreading doubt and mistrust where there never was any. There is no lack of love, but somehow love is no longer an acceptable emotion from parents.
I think how it must be just this way for the Father of us all who hopes and longs for the love and obedience of His children, their respect and attention, but so often gets quite the opposite. In fact, You are often just plain ignored as if to say, "Leave me alone!" But You don’t ever leave Your children alone. You never give up on us - only we on You. As parents we must do no less.
Among the qualities of love that St. Paul describes is one which contemporary society seems to have great difficulty in grasping, namely - love never gives up.
There is not much that holds modern mans’ interest for very long. Boredom sets in and he must move on to something else. A change of hobbies or magazine subscriptions is one thing, but to surrender relationships out of boredom or exasperation (particularly in regards to the closest loves of our lives) is an indictment of our understanding of love. As a son, brother, father, and husband boredom has never been a problem - but exasperation has!
It seems to me that a fundamental quality of love which makes love truly love is dedicated patience and perseverance toward the object of one’s love - especially in the face of exasperation. The frightening reality of our self-centered desire to have everyone think and feel the way we do is at the root of our exasperation. To love unconditionally is to not only smother the ego-centrism of boredom but to accept the life of the other on equal footing with the acceptance of one’s own life and to mark it with a dedication to perfecting it that is impervious to the scurrilous values of the world.
We love, in careless conversations, to talk about how this or that person drives us crazy or makes us angry. Often it is someone as close as a family member. But these momentary exasperations do not make us quit and, while they may try our patience, (as we constantly try Yours), we persevere in our love and even grow from this part of our frailty; for we have given You every possible reason to be totally exasperated with us, we drive You crazy and completely bore You with our inconsistency; but Your love is unconditional and You never give up on us. This is our model!
There is a most pointed message for those of us who give You nothing in return for the love You give to us. It is the message of unconditional love. Genuine love gives without any expectation of return. Therefore, in this life, we, as You, should love most those who have the least ability to love us in return. For this reason the poor and sinners were so dear to You and should be to us.
So very often what we do for another is in expectation of what they will do for us - or in expectation of some ego-massaging expression of their gratitude. Where we get nothing in return or are not thanked is what we should seek, for it is most like the love with which you showed us how to love. We must not seek to receive love. It must come without anticipation. For my part, it must be a unilateral gift. Even in marriage this is so. Both parties must give unilaterally without any expectation of return - but with joy when there is. When one realizes that he/she is loved without condition - this is joy - this is a happy marriage!
Now there is decidedly a significant difference between loving those who can return nothing to you because they don’t even know you (such as those to whom you give donations in a faraway land or the nameless faces you serve in a hunger-center), and loving those who know you well but have no inclination to love you or do anything for you. In the first instance love is much easier, for you know nothing of these people to inhibit your love even though you get nothing in return. But in the second case it is much harder since you know that what you might get in return is hatred and rejection. Here is where the real challenge comes - and this is where Your example shines through. You loved, without any hope of return, all those who rejected, persecuted, denied and killed You; but You did not back down, compromise or renege on Your teachings.
Since we are all "works-in-progress", our lives are characterized by arrivals to and departures from new stages of growth. Life’s realities meet us at these various stages and we respond from the beliefs and love we have at that stage. This lack of constancy is characteristic of our human condition. And so, we find, hopefully as we grow, the means and situations whereby we love without any expectation of return. We fail more often than we succeed, but, as Merton observed, "I believe that the desire to please You does, in fact, please You."