At the beginning of every Lent I start becoming very introspective. I think about what my "theme", "goal", or "project" will be each year. One year it struck me very suddenly. After talking with a priest, I got to thinking a lot about the role "anticipation of others needs", plays in showing one’s love. I thought I was on to a meaningful insight for my own life. I found, upon examination, that so much of what I might call love is based on two things: 1) doing something for the other, and 2) willing to love them. Most of my "doing" is done at the expression of some need by the loved one. Sometimes I may do nothing for anyone except will to love them. My love should not just consist in the doing of things that fulfill their expressed needs, but in anticipating those needs before they express them contemporaneously with my willing to love them.
How is it that we always feel that the world, life in general, and my life in particular would be so much better if others would change? The work of the church, apostalates, ministries, evangelizations and missions are all geared at 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 felt the world would have been a better place if he could have changed them to be more like himself.
Pride and hypocrisy are internal cancers that, unrecognized, rot us from within. When the change desired by us or the church is a turning toward You, and that same change is equally sought on a personal level, then love, not pride or hypocrisy, is the engine. 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 they might make less waves in the world, then we are like that official in the gospel. This goes back to that quote from Orlando that has, over nearly four decades, become such an haunting touchstone in my life: "there is no desire stronger in the human breast than to have others feel as we do." I continually succumb to this unhappy truth. It is loaded with "self". It may, if one thinks about it, be the very essence of our fallen nature. Whether, as an individual, a family, a church, a community, a state or a nation - we want everyone to be like us. The prime fomenter of strife, conflict, war, arguments and violence is this.
It is not we, but only You who takes every individual where they’re at and loves them and allows them choice. But even You have told us to 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 that I hate you and want no part of you if you don’t, 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 - wants it. This only adds fuel to the belief that if others would change, life would be better. Yet, for possibly countless other people in my life, I am one of those others.
There is currently a commercial running on TV (I’m not sure of the product) that depicts a stylish CEO hurriedly striding to an important meeting with a prestigious foreign delegation that has just arrived. As he marches through the halls and into the corporate lobby for this encounter, a legion of aides and secretaries (all equipped with walkie-talkies) attend to details of his appearance without him knowing it. "TP" indicates toilet paper stuck to his shoe. Static cling in his pant leg gets furtively sprayed. "Snow on the mountain" is the code for dandruff on the shoulders of his suit coat. All of these are taken care of in the split seconds before his meeting so that his appearance will be perfect. When the moment of truth arrives, he smiles graciously with a green chunk of spinach attached firmly to a prominent bicuspid.
This whole scenario, it strikes me, can be an accurate depiction of our relationship with You. Daily, hourly, in so many ways we try to make ourselves look good to You, but, no matter what, that speck of spinach is still showing. Try as we might, it is a totally futile effort to attempt to hide our flaws from You. You know us too well, and You accept us and love us spinach notwithstanding - which is as we too should act toward those we love. Let him/her without a speck of interdental spinach cast the widest grin. The commercial didn’t show whether the meeting was a success, a deal consummated, or whether the whole group went jovially back to the board room; but there most certainly was an implication that the foreign delegation would have been so aghast at the spinach that none of that could have happened and they would have walked out in disgust.
It is very human to be critical to others of that which we would fear being personally criticized. We have this strong tendency to look for flaws, cracks, and weaknesses in others rather than focusing on their good points. But it is in their good points that we see You; and it is You we seek. So, why do we spend so much time and energy looking for flaws?
I’m afraid there is no hope that I will ever comprehend all the twists and turns of the "feminine mystique", especially in this age of feminism. But there are some things that I do understand about the "male mystique". One is that the male is a salesman. This is connected significantly to the need to make an impression in order to have one’s needs met. My brother who, for many years, was in the business of selling, often bears the brunt of my general scorn for salesmen. I, most certainly, fancy myself as one who deliberately disconnects from all residue of this image. But the truth is that it is impossible. I’m just as much a salesman as the next guy and to deny it prefaces it with hypocrisy. What men try to do is sell themselves. From early on it seems the masculine duty is to put oneself over as worthy and, once we are accepted, to sell our values and beliefs to others - especially females.
It seems this whole process, with modifications, has been adopted by the modern female and a major distinction is being obliterated. With each assimilation of what is male by the female - or vice versa - the mystique, which is the attraction, is erased. Why does it seem that women wish to question the qualities of these mystiques?
There is a certain amount of aggressiveness that goes along with salesmanship, an aggressiveness that, until now, had been pretty much foreign to the feminine mystique while a given in the masculine mystique. Indeed, even You Yourself were a salesman and it is most difficult to envision Mary pitching what You had to sell.
Out of all this comes the agonizing precept that we must sell ourselves to You. The unspoken strain of this runs through much of early Christian education and its tentacles are powerful. To release this grip and place our trust wholly in Your love rather than in our ability to sell ourselves is to liquidate a need that is almost primal. Much trust, and much patience is needed.
Years ago, while I was living and working in another country, I read a bizarre novel called Orlando in which there was a passage to the effect that there is no desire stronger within the human breast than to have others feel as we do. How true and how frustrating this is, Jesus - especially in regards to those one cares about most. The crux of almost every argument between people who really love each other is, "you just don’t understand!" or "I wish I could make you understand!"
It takes more of a lifetime than I’ve lived to gain the wisdom necessary to admit that making another person understand the depth of you is an impossibility. Oh, but how we continue to manufacture friction by trying!
Just accepting and trusting is all You ask of us - not understanding. It should not be any different for me in regards to others. If I really love, I accept and trust. While it is helpful, understanding is not a necessary part of love.
Show me how to love as You loved when others disappointed You. It’s so much easier to love when the object of your love fills all your hopes and expectations. It makes you feel good and it’s almost effortless. Goodness, innocence, loyalty and support are such lovable qualities.
Your message regarding love is tough, but very clear: to love not only when such things are not in evidence
but even when their opposites are all we have. Let me tell You how tough that is! Talk about tough love! This kind of love lacks "self" and that is the secret of why we’re so often disappointed in our love - there’s too much "self" in it!
I know You never said it would be easy and I know You offered us a great example in Your, all-too-human, apostles who, at various times and in various ways, were immense disappointments to You. But You never gave up on them even when their behavior was the antithesis of loveable. They often lacked the goodness, innocence, loyalty and support that are somehow now, as canonized saints, attributed to them. All Your hopes were on these men who kept letting You down and failing to understand Your message. But You loved them! In disappointment and in pain You loved them!
Let me love though it might cause pain because love sees the loved one through and suffering teaches love.
I truly love spiritual reading. You speak to me so many different ways through books. But today I want to thank You for speaking to me so often and so emphatically through the pageless book of my family, especially my wife. I have learned a great deal about myself and about my life that I would characterize as wisdom through Your gift of her to me.
I remember someone saying, early in our marriage, that one partner in a marriage would either raise both to heaven or drag both to hell. I always had the ego to think it would be me that exercised that role not only for her but for the whole family. How blind I’ve been! It has, indeed, been her all along who has raised me up by making me dig deeper into my own spiritual resources to become more than I was. I truly am one of her children and she has truly raised me and continues to raise me. It has been her "humanity" and not her spirituality which has done this. If there is a message there, let it be that the example of a person’s virtues and failings strictly on a day-to-day human level, can be as powerful (even more powerful) than the influence of an ostensibly spiritual life.
What will be, will be! Acquiring this attitude of acceptance is becoming more and more an awakening experience in my life. The dear old "self" is asserted even in my choices as to how I best think of pursuing a spiritual life. But You have given others close to me who point out by their lives that I need not pursue You in areas away from home and daily life. I would like so much to spend some time in a monastery, but it seems there may be some very good reasons why You don’t want me to do this.
St. Therese of Lisieux speaks to me in her own words about doing the little things "in secret" (a key to losing the "self") in our daily lives. Truly, when I do something purely out of love and caring for another and intentionally hide it, the self is denied as is the "pat on the back" my wife says I’m always looking for. In this regard, actions are important, but prayer may be the most clandestine denial of self out of love for others that we possess.
There is much hope in the idea that the sinner precedes the saint. Magdalene, the good thief, Augustine, Francis, right on up to Merton: each is an example of a spiritual master of the release of the past into a cloud of forgetfulness and the relentless, loving pursuit of the cloud of unknowing. A dramatic and clear cut separation of past and present is characteristic of each. Still, there is always residue.
Why is it that I’m so fascinated with the slightest of stumbles of these and others after their turn to You? What draws me lightening quick to the self interest and indiscretions of a Thomas Merton? Why do I take an almost prurient interest in the peccadilloes of those I regard as spiritual guides? Actually, the answer is quite simple: they give hope and they are proof of the fact that You are crazy in love with us. I want to see them stumble so that I can clump my stumbles on their heap and watch as You tell us to forget it and go on.
I suppose there can even be some argument for the fact that not only does sinning precede sanctity, but the greater the sinning that precedes it, the greater sanctity that follows. Whatever the process is, from moral decrepitude to enlightened love, the source for the enlightened love is the moral decrepitude that came first.
People are quite good at falling. We fall in many ways every day. It’s discouraging, but we’re used to falling. The most important part of falling is getting back up and going on. This may be why those of us who are most accustomed to falling find that falling in love is only a minor adjustment in direction. When we fall, we give in to weak things in our nature. Love is not a weak thing in our nature, although it is often restrained to an undercurrent and kept in check. But if we fall, that is, give in, to love, we are not let down. We are sustained. All the practice in the world at falling down may, indeed, be the best rehearsal for an understanding of falling in love. The mastery of falling in love is preceded by many other falls.
There is something of both irony and paradox in the lives of such persons as Thomas Merton who leave the world, seek solitude, and live the interior life: they become celebrities! This is the last thing they would have wished for themselves. True humility is so rare that it can do that. In reading about St. Francis of Assisi and then thinking about Merton one sees the validity of the "less-is-more" theory and the nature of their celebrity. There is in Francis and Merton’s cases (as well as in many others) a certain leadership quality. This may well be another way of describing their utilization as tools in Your hands. Yet, do we ever extend our thoughts to those monks who formed circles around Thomas Merton or Francis of Assisi during their lives? The biographies are about the "stars" but how much of what they were, as with anybody else, depended upon those who were around them? These were people who, while not necessarily demonstrating roles of leadership, were just as much tools in Your hands as the centers of their circles. It may never, even in a limited sense, be known that these people lived upon this planet, but could it be that in Your eyes they are all perfectly equal in the spiritual sense?
I think that the Francises and Mertons and all the proclaimed saints that populate the pages of Butler's
would wholeheartedly endorse this idea because the celebrity attained was often based on the precious rarity of the parts of their human lives that showed or came to the fore because of some other human notoriety. Their instrumentality to the human condition was monumental. But it was You working in them, not vice versa. What You saw in those people, especially those we never hear about, includes them equally in Your book of saints, not Butler’s. Being called by You to some special, "high profile" task is what places the "big names" in the spotlight of popular attention and, ultimately, canonization. But they were formed, and many others had a lot to do with that. We think of canonization as a sacrosanct hierarchical ritual of recognition and declaration but that’s just the surface. It’s the culmination of a popular movement. We bestow the halo as an emanation of the spotlight. Saul of Tarsus, without the high profile, may have been no less a saint. There is great hope in this. Who is to say, then, that Joe Schmoe down the street, who loves You and pursues You with great persistence amidst the repetitive and pedestrian moments of "normal" everyday life, which otherwise distinguishes him from nobody, is any less a saint in Your eyes than Thomas Merton, Francis of Assisi, or Paul. All of this takes nothing away from the "stars". It is not their fault that we have lionized them. We do that to those who stand out. But if we would be saints, a meticulous and clearly defined "indifference" to the spotlight must be cultivated even though its reality may be unavoidable.