Humility urges us to an honest assessment of ourselves in relation to others. It is my conviction that this pertains specifically to my relationship with You and, generally, to the spiritual life. The Imitation of Christ tells us that progress will be made only when we are able to truly regard ourselves as inferior to others.
So much of what I write to You seems to be motivated by the consolation it offers me for my own luke warmness and hypocrisy. I love the words of St. Therese of Lisieux: “ I am far from practicing what I know I should, but the mere desire to do so gives me peace.” There is so much humanity and longing in that sentence - especially as it comes from her, that it is a prayer. It’s simple honesty and humility keep me afloat. I want to shout with St. Paul, “By the grace of God, I am what I am”, and be ever so thankful for it: proud to have been given this great grace and humbly annihilated by the fact that there is no “I” in it.
If I grow, if I make You more present in my life, if I hear You in voices previously silent, if I love more and if I am constantly more grateful - it is not “I” at all, because it is by Your grace, Your gift, Your favor, and Your love that I am what I am. If I can ever come to fully immerse myself in that belief (not just express a realization of it in writing) then there is true humility. I am Your “work-in-progress” the features of whom are molded and shaped by my will to let You do so and Your will to never cease “gathering me in.”
To love because you are loved is to be a money-changer. A money-changer is, essentially, an individual who exchanges one form of treasure for another at a slightly inflated rate so as to profit. When these individuals brought their services onto the temple grounds, You drove them out with the most explicit demonstration of anger recorded about You in scripture. At the heart of this there may be a message about how we negotiate our own treasures.
So often, our rate of exchange for love is a love in return that is slightly inflated so as to be profitable to us; and this love drives us away from You. Selfish love is not love at all! It is a means to our own ends. When we really get to the root of unconditional love, we not only understand that it is truly unselfish but also that one of the “conditions” it overlooks is that we are loved.
We are so attuned to looking for “signs” of Your love or “signs” from people we love. Yet, this is that very currency of inflation, that profit in the exchange that we so hungrily seek. It’s part of our human condition that we want that. In Your love and patience with our backwardness, You continually make concessions to us; but the point is: Your love expects no return. When we offer signs and concessions of our love for another, we step back and wait for the reaction, as if to say: “Now it’s your turn, what’s your rate of exchange?”
Now, how this applies to my love for You, I’m afraid, creates a sad scenario. What is my rate of exchange for You? What is that bit of inflation I seek from You to profit me most? Not that, in Your love, You wouldn’t give it to me - but what “things” in me prevent me from operating without considering this margin of profit? I know You love me with the best possible love. You are love. And, since I know this is not true in me, then I seek this in You. It is not a fair rate of exchange. It can’t be! For my love, You offer so much more. Accepting it and embracing it is all I can offer, but that is what You seek. Do not drive me out in anger when I take advantage of Your love and when I seek to inflate the worth of my own love. We cannot love with Your love, yet this is what we must do! Let my successes lie without judgment; only forgive my failures.
In the realm of human relationships, we place great emphasis on “making an impression”. We do this, I think, for two reasons: first, to attract the love and attention of another and, second, to fortify our own egos with the adulation connected with a “look at me” maneuver.
From the time we are the age of Tom Sawyer (or even younger) we tightrope fences to impress our Becky Thatchers. We clean our room without being asked, eat our vegetables and say our prayers to impress mom. We make the honor roll or dean’s list to make dad proud. We buy gorgeous flowers and rent the snazziest tux just to brighten the eyes of a certain someone, etc., etc. And so, it is quite natural that this carries over into the spiritual life. As those other little things we did in the past to impress others, so also with You, by doing certain things, we try to make an impression. But, I think, there are some serious flaws in this attitude.
I do not have to get Your attention - it is always there! I do not have to impress You because You already love me more than I could possibly understand. There must be a distinction between impressing You and actively (or passively) displaying my love for You. When I come to the full realization that I have no need to impress You but I do have a need to love You, I begin to see that these needs are in me, not in You. Furthermore, there are some major differences between needs and desires. Desires are connected with my compulsion to impress. I try to impress because I desire something and to get it I feel I must put myself in a favorable light. Needs, more often than not, go beyond what is in my power to obtain. I need Your love, but I don’t get it by impressing You. I don’t get it by doing anything at all except recognizing it and accepting it because it is always there. It is a gift. All I need to do is to remain open to it.
This whole notion of “just loving” is expressed well in the father’s eulogy after his son’s funeral near the end of the movie, A River Runs Through It - all we can do is love!
About 25 years ago, in a mist of “enlightened inspiration”, I wrote a poem which I entitled, “Retrospective Mirages”. I always thought it was pretty good, albeit, perhaps, too personal for others to feel its touch as I did. It was about the illusions of looking backward into our lives and how, often, we must drag these illusions, like slipping anchors, through our lives.
There are “main events” that shape who we are, but we must not be trapped into allowing them to define who we are. Sometimes, to me, it almost seems right and comfortable to do so - even a matter of pride; but there indeed is the quality of a mirage about this whole retrospective.
Probably the most influential (shaping) events of my life are the years of my education, the time I spent working overseas, marriage, fatherhood, the impact of my parents’ lives upon me, and the years of writing these letters. Most of them are delicious, positive memories; and for this blessing, I am truly grateful, for they didn’t have to be so. To recollect them as memories (mirages) is not bad, but to let them define me is a retrospective mirage - for I am not yet defined! Each was as a stepping stone. Each occurred singly and purposefully leading to something else. This “something else”, when met, became another stepping stone, and the former one a retrospective mirage whose breath in one’s life grows stale. Thus, the shaping events I’ve mentioned here, while fond to me, grow stale when I halt and dwell on them as more than steps. Yet, there is something that pervades this forgetful climb - something constantly fresh and unforgettable that is less a mirage than those retrospective events - it is You! There is no sense in any of this without You. All, with You, is transcended!
The example of Your patience means a lot to me. It offers hope and consolation to one such as me who, in so many extraneous worldly cares, is like Your apostles. There is the bright hope that Your long-suffering tolerance of their anxious, trivial concerns, and child-like questions can, in Your all-engulfing love, also be applied to one who cannot even for an hour get rid of the worldly distractions that prevent me from focusing on You.
You display this tolerance not only as a beacon of hope despite all my weaknesses and selfishness but, and more importantly, as an example of what love bears for the other. It’s always so much easier to find fault with those closest to you than to find fault with yourself. Pet peeves are easy to enumerate but not so easy to tolerate. Yet, as much as You must certainly have had pet peeves with Your apostles, Your love overcame them and Your patient tolerance always prevailed.
Any number of times in the past I’ve nurtured lengthy reflections on the proposition that, someday, I would give up all the “things” and selfish activities of my life and devote myself wholly to some other good. I am even bold enough sometimes to think that this may be a call from You. I muse about my ability and/or willingness to give up such “things”. My musings always leave me with the conclusion that I could do it. Very easy to say, but I really wonder if I have that strength. I wonder even more whether what I muse over is even necessary or desirable.
On a purely philosophical basis, I don’t want to be “owned” by material goods, wealth, power, passion or ambition; but are these elements undeniably counter to self-commitment in other areas? Sounds like I want to have my cake and eat it too. I guess I’m having a hard time figuring out why my spiritual growth depends on my detaching myself from things to which I’m not so sure I’m irrevocably attached in the first place. The bottom line keeps coming back to me from scripture, though, when You told the young man to give up everything and follow You.
There are many times in my life that I cry, “Lord, Lord”, but I wonder for how many of them Your answer would be, “I don’t know you.”
There is no doubt that my dependency upon You is utter and complete, but for what can You depend upon me? There is nothing that I can give, do, or add to You; so, maybe the one (and only) thing You look for in me is to need You. Mechanically saying morning and night prayers, distractedly going through the motions of Mass, weaving in and out of conscious meditation and reflection - these are all like crying, “Lord, Lord”. They may be feebly rationalized as attempts to maintain Your presence through the day, but sometimes they become like putting your socks on, brushing your teeth, or reading the paper. There is a distinct abundance of duty-accomplished-self-massaging, and a marked deficiency of need. The aforementioned prayers and reflections are, at best, a handshake looking for an embrace. Most often, though, I’m sure I make it very easy for You to say, “I don’t know you”.
So, instead of programmed conformity, mindless words, and calling Your name - how do I make myself known to You? Maybe the sheep You know best is the one who strays from the fold. Years of pulpit preaching, classroom teachings, and dusty tradition have often left this sheep shaded darkly. This is the one You, the shepherd, go after; and it is this one, in seeking it, that becomes most known, most loved. The paradox of Your relentless pursuit of the stray holds up in the context of Your words about not coming for the well but for the sick.
However, what if that “stray” is what it is, not so much because of common sin and estrangement but because of the discovery of “greener pastures” than the fold’s usual ones? That “stray” may stand out and be sought because it has something new and desirable to bring back and share with the fold. It is this non-conformity with the crowd, this stepping out because of seeking You in greener pastures that does more than say, “Lord, Lord” with the voice of the throng. It risks and explores other ways that compel You to say, “Oh, I know you.”
For me, I think these times come primarily through these letters and centering prayer. So, it’s not exactly that I’m lost, just intentionally strayed to get Your attention. You tolerate my “Lord, Lords”, but You know me by my seeking.
Do I allow others who love me and whom I love to be a hindrance in my love for You? This, to me, is a very real and difficult predicament. Certainly it is not off the mark to measure the love we have for You by the love we have for others. One form of the rub comes when I have feelings contrary to love for those who seem to reject or spurn You. A different form of the problem comes in loving another so much that, in order not to hurt them, I reject or spurn You. This may, in such instances, be the very pointed reason why, in Your revelation of the “new law”, You said, first you must love God, then your neighbor - not vice versa. Therefore, it may really be closer to the mark to say that we should measure our love for others by our love for You. It may be true that You can’t love God unless you love your enemy, but it is even truer that you cannot love your enemy unless you love God.
So, when I look for measures of spiritual progress, I should start by casting an eye toward how I fail to love You. This failure is reflected in how I love others. Yet, there is still the knotty problem of an individual whom I really do love but who, is some way or another, seems to be an obstacle to my love for You. Is it jealousy? Is it possessiveness? I really think so! The problem may be that I don’t take kindly to anyone who seems to have a better relationship with You than I do. It’s not that I wish them harm, or that they would go away, but since everything I do, I judge through my own eyes, it is intimidating to see, through others, how far away I am from loving You the way You want. Yet, it is also edifying. I learn well by making mistakes. Some mistakes I must make many times. I respect this process as spirit-centered in my life.
Ultimately, no person, in and of themselves, can be a hindrance to me. The hindrance, though perceived as being in the other, is, in fact, in me. What must be learned by these experiences is the art of not changing what I have become through Your grace while, at the same time, accepting unconditionally, as You do, the other in such a way that if You so choose, my instrumentality in their lives becomes a tool in You hands. It is for me simply to be open to this. What gets in the way is what Anthony DeMello calls the years of programming our own personal computers. The art of mastering the oppression ( or suppression) of years of this personal programming is the means by which happiness and love can be felt by even the most miserable of interns in a concentration camp.
The feeling that comes now and then that I’m not getting anywhere in the spiritual life, not growing as I think I ought, makes me feel down and gloomy.But, as I think about the flip side of this, it occurs to me that having the feeling of growing and getting somewhere is not necessarily what it’s all about. One tends to idealize this feeling: that this is how I should feel if I, indeed, am growing. But, in truth, this feeling places a dangerous amount of emphasis on the self’s ability to get there, and not enough emphasis on just letting You speak to me and work in me - especially at those times when I seem farthest from You. I get this eerie feeling that always the biggest obstacle between You and me is me with all my strivings to get to You when You’ve been there, regardless of my gyrations, all along.
One Bible commentary I use calls Stephen’s witness (Acts. 7), and his martyrdom, the “turning point” in the separation of Christianity from Jewish law and practice. The turning away is characterized by the Jewish leaders holding their hands over their ears as Stephen, at first mildly and then more forcefully, advises them not to make the same old mistakes of their forefathers but to be, this time, those who not only listen but actually hear. Stephen is the antithesis of Judas who personified a nation in his turning away. Like the Jewish leaders, Judas went through all the motions, but never really opened his mind and heart to You. Stephen came along at a time when the nerve was most raw - and rubbed salt in it - bravely! If nothing else would work, try a kick in the pants.
It cost him his life. But the point is, he was willing to pay the price. Judas was more interested in getting than giving. His words: “What will you give me if I turn Him over to you?” are, when one really thinks about them, terrifying! Stephen could not have said them. Any of the Jewish leaders could have, and, in one sense or another, did say them. Peter, in another sense, said them. And I greatly fear that I often say them: “What will you give me, world, flesh, devil, if I turn Him over to you?”
The witness of Stephen against all those who would sell You out is not only the precedent for all martyrdom but the witness the world needs to see. If one cannot do it in quite the dramatic manner of Stephen, one, nonetheless, in quiet ways, in a quiet life of loving You, can bear witness to Your truth to a world holding its hands over its ears. We do not choose You. You choose us. We can only choose to reject You. Stephen’s words and courageous actions shouted out that he, for one, would not be a Judas.