How is it that we always feel the world, life in general, and our life specifically would be better if others would change? The work of the church: missions, apostolates, ministries, and evangelizations are all geared to changing people. So, certainly, it’s not foreign to us to want to change our spouses, children and friends so they fall in line with our way of thinking. After all, that’s what the church does. The official in the gospel raised his eyes to You and thanked You that he was not like the sinners around him. I’m sure he thought the world would be a better place if he could change them to be more like himself.
Pride and hypocrisy are internal cancers that, unseen, rot us from within. When the change desired by us or by the church is a turning toward You and when that change is equally sought by we ourselves for ourselves, or by the church for the sake of its flock, then love is the engine, not pride or hypocrisy. And therein lies the difference: if I want others to change so that life is easier for me, or if the church wants others to change so that there will be less waves in the world – then we are like that official in the gospels. This, for me, goes back to that haunting quote from the novel Orlando that has, over nearly four decades of my life become such an insightful touchstone: there is no stronger desire in the human breast than to have others feel as we do. I continually succumb to this truth. It is loaded with “self”. It may, upon reflection, be the essence of our fallen nature.
Whether as a person, a family, a church, a community, a state, or a nation – we want everyone to be like us. The prime fomenter of strife, conflict, argument, war and violence is this! It seems like it’s only You who take every individual where they’re at and love them and allow them choice. But even You have suggested we be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. To say: “Here I am! Love me and be like me,” is one thing. To say or feel: “ I hate you and want no part of you if you don’t change,” is another. Love the sinner, hate the sin! It all seems one of life’s paradoxes that we are taught what to offer others, but nobody – least of all those closest to us – want it. This only adds fuel to the belief that if others would change, life would be better. But for countless people in my life, I am one of those “others”.
There is no great improvement in me over those who killed You. I hold on to that Pharisaical need to be right based on my construct of religion and spirituality. My intentions are good, but that’s not enough. Great damage has been done by misguided well-intentioned love. Great cruelty emanates from “religious” people. So, what was it that differentiated the Pharisees from the disciples? And which am I?
It seems that with the Pharisees and with many of the Jews their religion was their god.They worshiped not so much God but the construct of a spiritual tradition of their own making.
My institutional church or the interior church of my own construction may be subject to the same misplaced adulation. This tends to enclose one in a certain inflexible rigidity. The disciples’ unconscious blessing may have been that they were on the fringes of this – aware of this, but not ardent students of it. Today we might call them “Sunday Christians”, and there may be an advantage to that. Those who killed You were not open to You. They were not open to anyone or anything that did not follow their own notions of religion. But the disciples, with all their faults and worthy of Pharisaic criticism, weren’t quite sure what they knew for sure - and so, they were open, they would listen. This openness and wonder and lack of sureness were the qualities in men You wanted. The Pharisees, and people like them, would squash such childlike qualities and replace them with rules, sanctions, traditions, and superstitions allowing these to become the basis for their relationship with God. This can kill You. It can effectively destroy any possibility of recognizing who You are.
It may be that we will recognize and follow You more in the margins than in the text. It is in the margins that we write our own music to the lyrics of the text. In the margins of their sanction-bound society is where the disciples heard Your music and made it their own.
It is both astounding and devastating to recognize Your execution by well-intentioned people. It goes on daily and I am one of them. It is an irrevocable guilt. I wonder later how many Jews and Pharisees realized what they had done?
There is hope in the blanket of love You throw over our guilt. There are those in the church today for whom conformity to the letter of the law is a sign of religious piety. Yet You, by Your life, and St. Paul by his words, emphasized the spirit of love behind the law. If we were all saints there would be no need for law and no need for foisting upon others the constructs of authoritarian conformity.
Once in awhile we read books, or parts of books that seem to be speaking directly to us and make a great impact. One book like this for me was Tielhard deChardin’sToward the Future, a gold mine of insight. The notion of “divergent” Christianity or “divergent” spirituality swerving outside the flow of traditionally directed religion enthralls me.
Years ago a priest friend and I discussed at length the possibilities of outgrowing the formulated spirituality presented for the masses by the church. It would seem that while the church doesn’t talk about this very much, it nonetheless would be the ultimate goal of its guiding magesterium . Being able to soar without fetters to find the personal yet cosmic connection to Your Father seems impossible without some “divergence” from being swept onward in a redundant flow.
In light of some of my current reading in John Jacob Raub’s book Who Told You You were Naked?, and, reminding myself of some things I’ve written about to You in the past,I’ve been thinking a lot about how an individual’s spirituality often transcends church. We know that we do not gain the love that You freely give us; however, we can love You back for our part of the relationship. We can strive to keep You present before us. Yet, it seems a person might go beyond and above the level of love that is fashioned by the church for its flocks – beyond a spirituality for the masses. Fear and guilt hold us in thrall. Loneliness and separation terrify us.Irrelevant traditions and even superstitions are factors.But there are no conditions of guilt, fear, loneliness or separation that affect Your love for us. We are the ones who allow these to block out Your unconditional infatuation with us on an individual basis.
Annoyance leads to resentment, resentment leads to anger, and anger battles with love – which is to say, with You. So, it would seem very important to avoid annoyances – but that often seems about as possible as avoiding breathing. If I run away from or hide, interiorly, from annoyances it shows cowardice, but if I express annoyance I jeopardizes relationships.
I wanted to start out this letter by talking to You about how annoying it is that the changes in liturgy and stylistic preferences of some priests allow for so short a period of time after communion for reflection. This annoys me and builds up resentment just short of anger that drives me to fashion my own solution of ignoring the rest of the liturgy from that point on in order to enter deeply into our personal relationship at that time. I’m still annoyed, but I’ve found a way to prevent my anger. This is not always true in other areas. The oblivion necessary in the first instance to avoid annoyance is abhorred by others. To ask others to not abhor one’s oblivion is to ask them to ignore you. This oblivion is somewhat akin to “holy indifference” (also abhorred by others).The trick is to not be adversely affected by the opinions of these others. This is not easy because among these others often are those we love most. And so, it would seem if we are to love these as we love ourselves, fraternal correction is subordinate only to self-correction.Yet this is precisely where wills clash and people get annoyed. What to do then – when someone I love is annoyed by me or I am annoyed by them (particularly in a matter regarded as important or even critical by one for the other)?
Reasonably, it seems the annoyer should gently be informed, but what often happens is that a third party (also a loved one) becomes involved and is annoyed that you are annoyed. If I am annoyed with the short time after communion, I can share that annoyance with You and deal with it myself. In fact, sharing it (like I am now) with You may be my only outlet since often a third party with whom I’d wish to share my annoyance becomes annoyed at me for wanting to do so.
The crux is whether the implicit cowardice in becoming very passive in regards to annoyances should even be regarded as cowardice at all. Maybe it’s just good judgment to let it go or form one’s own method of coping with it. Yet, I still have to learn how the passive silence of one can, in another, teach, correct and witness. Certainly the last three years of Your life were not passive or silent – but they were certainly annoying to some. Perhaps I’ll never get to living the example of those three years but forever will remain somewhere in the shadow of Your first 30.
There are degrees of martyrdom that fall short of giving one’s life for You. This is not to diminish the “ultimate” giving of self that You showed us, but only to recognize that there are many things in our lives that can be “put to death” without dying.
With martyrdom we often equate dying for the faith with dying for the church. But the martyrdom I’m talking about here transcends church. It is a dying for You or for, in some way, a refusal to deny You. Indeed, to die for a church misses the idea entirely. That’s why I often wonder when I see newspaper articles about the imposition of state religions. I wonder about the validity of their being the cause of the martyrdom of some of its citizens. It is bad (but not disastrous) that a temporal power should take away the institutional vehicle we choose as a spiritual guide, but what is more disastrous is when the temporal power tries to remove You.
If we love You and have grasped Your Spirit and are open to its workings within us, we have, to that extent, transcended church – be it state-controlled or otherwise. It strikes me that openness to the Spirit asks us, short of physical death, to be a martyr daily and increasingly in many different ways. This is not easy, nor is it for the luke-warm. But love finds a way. Dying to one’s self, one’s sensual and material desires, one’s pride, superiority and self-righteousness and anything else that closes our door to You, is a form of martyrdom. To die the small daily deaths of self-denial is a martyrdom of redemption and reconciliation that extends over a lifetime and remains on a very personal and inner level which absorbs and transcends church.
To what, exactly, do I aspire? It’s great consolation to mark the words of St. Theresa of Lisieux: “I am far from practicing what I know I should, but the mere desire to do so gives me peace”, or Thomas Merton: “I believe that the desire to please You does, in fact, please You.” But to hold up expressions such as these as the ultimate description of our aspirations is to settle on consolation as a goal. If I do this, then my spiritual aspirations tend, at best, to luke warmness, and the gospels tell us how You feel about that. Yet, somehow, much of church religion is like this.
There is always something more we can do, or something we’re currently doing at which we could do better. But the “doing-something” part is never-ending and is also rife with luke warmness. Metaphorically, while aspiring to luke-warmness is a step above coolness or coldness, it seems to remain the nearly unconscious path of the majority who call themselves Christians. The fact that folks may not be aware that this is what they’re shooting for makes Theresa’s and Merton’s words a real comfort. But what about a person who becomes aware that it is only for luke warmness that his/her life is aimed?And, what if, indeed, attaining to a new or higher level of love and awareness, after a time, becomes only a different kind of luke-warmness? How does one sustain the passion and heat of a St. Paul, or a St. Francis, or a St. Theresa? How does the aspiration to be a saint sustain itself? I wonder if just being in You and with You and making ourselves open to You in everything we do isn’t the simple key here. I wonder if this is not entirely what it’s about.
You positively do reveal Yourself to us, but, like Samuel in the Old Testament, we often think we’re hearing someone else’s voice. We need to become more accomplished at opening ourselves to Your revelation of Yourself in places and at times when we otherwise might mistake You for something else. To see Your will in places beyond church, where we normally might not look, and, by Your grace, to recognize and follow that will is an extremely challenging and oft belittled way in this life. It is not a way of luke warmness. One must nurture an inner love – a passionate fire, to pursue this.
Can there be any merit in pushing all people, all commitments, all material goods, all worry and care aside and floating constantly suspended in You? I envision heaven as being something like this. But the Church is very “gung-ho” on building community and promulgating the notion that our salvation, to one extent, is bonded to our involvement with others.
Yet, here I am at this stage in my life, speculating that my own personal “nirvana” can only be accomplished in a cloister or a hermitage where I have nothing but You. Almost everything in my life seems to interfere with You. If everything goes away – even temporarily as in contemplative prayer – this is heavenly! These are the times I feel closest to heaven – to You – when I can push everything else away. But then I stew over this being self-centered. One spiritual writer has said that there cannot be solitude without community. It’s not as paradoxical as it might first sound.
During these times in popular American culture, even within the church, it seems to me that skepticism and cynicism are the most potent enemies not only of spiritual development but also of trust in You. Skepticism and cynicism pervade so much of our thoughts and actions that they transfer, almost automatically, to our spirituality.Dishonesty in politics, advertising, sports and in all their connected hype immerses us in incredulity and mistrust. The world teaches it to us and its constant repetition mothers our mastery.
I just finished reading a book about the many miraculous cures wrought over the years through the intercession of Your grandmother, St. Anne. In these times, believing in miracles isn’t even discussed much. In fact, I guess I wouldn’t even be talking about it now if I myself didn’t experience some skepticism after reading it.. My cynicalmindnoticed the large number of cures that came after a promise of a lifetime subscription to The Annals of St. Anne.I want very much to believe it – and I do! I want the intercession of Your grandmother in my own life, and I ask You to hear her on behalf of me; yet, being a product of this age, I can’t get rid of the implicit commercial message for a journal as it was used by the author of that book. St. Anne, I think, cares more about people than she does about subscriptions to her magazine.
Reflecting on St. Paul’s “circumcision of the heart” brings one to the inevitable conclusion that the spirit of the law matters more profoundly than the letter. The Jews and their leaders, in Your time, were great keepers of the letter of the law. It seems everything for them was wrapped up in the belief that circumcision meant they had to observe very faithfully every detail of the law in a most precise manner. They were, it seems, hung up on punctilious external observances and correctness. But You called them hypocrites and “whited sepulchers”, and St. Paul says they’re missing the boat entirely.
It is the heart that must be circumcised with the comprehension of what is behind the law - its spirit. That spirit is the spirit of love - Your spirit - not the fear of reprisals for having left out some literally interpreted ritualistic detail. Only this should motivate us. Even in recent evolutions of Christianity we have wrestled with scruples over such issues as eating meat on Fridays, pre-communion fasts, and the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. Without Your spirit these are empty motions.
Sometimes I think the church doesn’t say enough about cultivating the spirit of the law since it knows that too many of its flock might be alienated by less comfortable non-literal interpretations.