In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, appearances are kept up but the undercurrent beneath those appearances is that something is indeed rotten in Denmark. There is some lurking "thing" beneath the appearances of my life too. I know what it is and its ugliness repels me. It’s hypocrisy: pharisaical, whited-sepulcher, hypocrisy! It’s the knowledge that not only am I far from being what I should be, but sometimes I’m the exact opposite. Case in point:: my neatly, highly organized daily spiritual regime is so sacred that I’m twisted totally out of shape when it’s interrupted. I can’t, for the life of me, picture You not lovingly and patiently bearing all interruptions. It may occasionally be necessary to dwell on the fact that while Mary may have had the better part, You still loved and bore with Martha.
In myself, what I really get angry with is my own acceptance of the hypocrisy that surfaces when other people push or pull me in directions away from You. I am often so blind as to not see that these people (whom You love as much or more than me) and these interruptions (which You Yourself experienced) should be embraced in the present moment as equal or greater opportunities to love You than any spiritual "exercises" I am doing at the time. I cannot help but recall Fr. Keating’s story of the bartender and the present moment. He says: "Far better to be present to your duty if you are a bartender than to be present in church and to be thinking about being present in the bar." Within this context of being fully present to the present moment must come the understanding that the needs of the present moment can change and that they are often governed by the needs of others. It is this that daily provides me with the opportunity for hypocrisy. Being able to be present for others in a different way than one may wish to be present for oneself is the essence of Your example of service - and You are the measure! I cannot claim to love You and be put off by the needs of others.
At times there has been some validity in my life to the latent meanings behind the notion of "competitive spirituality". I don’t see it as a major factor now, but there were, and still are, times when, for better or worse, I may have done things or made certain choices in order to appear as good as or better than someone else. A lot of it is tied up in what may be an errant understanding of my commitment to example. The danger of hypocrisy in this regard looms large. Wanting to "appear" to others as well as we know we should sometimes takes some acting and dangerously redirects focus from You to ourselves.
There is another aspect of this in admiring and wanting to follow the example of others who were saints and mystics. If these folks were phony "posers", then they too were guilty of the drive for spiritual appearances. But the true example of their lives is precisely that they were not trying to be anything for anybody else but You. If one can live one’s life with that totally at the forefront, then there is no worry about others at all, or about what they think of you or what they see - no worry at all! This is the desired attitude in this matter: that one should dwell spiritually at the point where one simply does not worry about what anybody else thinks. To be cleansed of all the powerfully swaying concerns about images others have of us is a difficult but essential part of spiritual growth. It is only how You see us that matters and there are no illusions in that.
What will be, will be! Acquiring this attitude of acceptance is becoming, in my life, more and more an awakening experience. The dear old "self" asserts itself even in my choices as to how I think of best pursuing a spiritual life. You have given me others, close to me, who point out that I need not pursue You in areas away from home and daily life.
I want so much to spend some time in a monastery, but there may be some very good reasons why You don’t want me to. St. Therese speaks to me in her own words about doing the little things "in secret" (a key to losing the "self") in my daily life. Truly, when I do something purely out of love and caring for another and intentionally hide it, the "self" is denied 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.
It has been pointed out to me that my mother, my brother and I all share the peculiar genetic distinction of "righteousness". My dad was not the progenitor of this curse, so it must have been mom; however, dad may have been a carrier since his mother also fits this mold.
The people doing the pointing out all say we can’t be told anything. We think we’re right and we stubbornly stick to it. We’re inflexible and closed-minded. It’s our way or no way. Further, it’s said we’re argumentative - even among ourselves; for, when three people, all of whom believe they have the truth, clash, words are thrown down like gauntlets and ground is not given - just defended!
While this characterization may seem a bit humorous, it’s also quite sad because it’s true! Only lately have I begun to see myself in my mom and brother. I would never have identified as mine the attitudes I so often see them take; but they are mine! It’s almost like an inevitable inheritance and not until I see it and recognize it can I begin to weed it out. What I believe, I believe very strongly. Yet, what’s right for me may not be right for others. After so many years, how do I begin to come across as a consoler, a comforter, a sympathizer, instead of an oracle?
Holy Week is the time of the most solemn days of the church year. It leads us directly to the joys of Your resurrection and our salvation. In terms of sheer import and magnitude Holy Week should be a time of obligatory participation for all Christians - even more so than some of the Holy Days we now observe. All that gives us the name Christian is contained in the events of Palm Sunday through Easter. It is the definitive pageant of what it means to be Christian as focused in You. No greater love exists that this: that a man lay down his life for others. This was Your example. This is what being a Christian is all about - laying down your life. Giving it up for others. Giving up whatever stands in the way of making a servant, a slave, out of the master. If Holy Week has one message it is this: that bit-by-bit, as the years go by, we see more clearly our servant-role and lay down our lives.
It seems to me there is a way of reading the gospel accounts of Your life and still missing the point. We marvel at the stories of Your miracles. We are overcome with admiration of Your simple yet powerful way of preaching and using parables. We are curiously fascinated with Your attitude towards the poor and sinners, and we envy Your masterful handling of the religious hypocrites. But if we stop at this, we have totally missed the point. The imitation of You is not about imitating the external actions and movements of Your life. I will never perform miracles or preach and tell stories or confound the wicked as You did - or will I?
The gospel message is not the message of imitating the externals of Your life, but rather to look at Your heart in each one of these episodes and to imitate that! The gospel message is not the astounding suspension of natural law in a miracle but the love and compassion for another being on his/her own journey just as we all are. Its message is not the wit, the spellbinding aura, nor the incontrovertible logic of what You say, but the painfully intense longing and desire to draw all life to the Father. It’s not the fact that You traveled with, ate and drank with, and were housed by the ragtag fringes of Your society, but that their being, their worth was precisely the same as anyone’s though their road was through unsought snares and curves thus making their efforts more precious. Nor is it the slick, hip, or just plain clever manner in which You irrefutably called a spade a spade in the faces of those who called it something else and spent lives trying to promulgate that fabrication, but rather Your voracious hunger born out of love for truth. In all cases it was not the letter of what You did that was the lesson, but the spirit - the heart. And it is in this regard that I dare to wonder about my own ability to perform miracles, preach, teach, guide, and be compassionate to all; not because I could not generate such actions, but because I have not Your heart.
The matter of sharing one’s spirituality is not an easy one. One desires to share it with those whom one loves most, yet, it is indeed with them that it is somehow most difficult. That Your ministry stayed away from Nazareth is meaningful. The words of scripture that a prophet is without honor in his native land ring with wisdom. Repeated lifelong attempts to "preach" my beliefs have failed miserably; besides, it seems clear to me now that they smack of a "holier-than-thou" attitude which is an immediate turn off. This experience and what I read tell me that if I want to share what I have seen and what I have learned, I must let my life silently do the talking. The one thing to work hard at, at all times, is guarding against seeming "better". This, specifically, might be that which must be fought against most vehemently if one who wants to share his love for You would be able to do so. Within oneself one must put away anxieties about "reaching" the other. One must let God work through him.
The Cloud of Unknowing speaks of playing a "spiritual game" with You in which we hide the deepest desires of our heart from You because, in so doing, we anchor them in our spirit which, in truth, speaks more clearly to You - and so might it to the attuned spirit of another.
So many times in earthly things as well as spiritual I am brought back to the thought that "less is more". It pains me to think about the self-righteousness I know others see in me and the damage it has done. What remains then is mastering a life of silent example that makes me less, allowing You to become more. This may be the way You’d most want me to share with others.
The gospel recently was about Your transfiguration. It made me think. Inside me too there is the divine which, through the death of my body, will one day be transfigured by Your love and we shall share eternity together. But there seems to be more of a message in this gospel than its divine aspect. Transfiguration is a change from what is normally visible or understood, and I think the gospel writer wanted us to see that.
I am transfigured when something special and meaningful of myself shines through the well-known superficial me. When my faith, or my love, or my selflessness shines forth to temporarily overshadow the me everyone knows. Then I too am transfigured before men and my light shines out. These are rare moments and precious ones, but ones indeed that are at the heart of the Christian message to the world.
The imperfections and failures of humanity’s quest for love are often so much before me. There are times when I feel that nobody besides You really loves me - and I so desire to be loved. It is a feeling that must be akin to Your desire to be loved by us and our constant failures to do so. Yet, while I wallow in this feeling, who would say that I really love them? Would You say that I really love You? Would my wife and children say that I really love them? How about my friends? To all of these is there any evidence of love from me? Despite the desperate need we all feel to be loved, this very feeling is removed from and often in direct conflict with love.
Two individuals may be mutually in love with each other, but it is not the mutuality that makes the love. Love is a singular independent gift that an individual gives with absolutely no strings attached. People in this age, and probably in previous ones, always find ( or seek to find) the attached strings. We are super-sleuths at ferreting out the slightest shred of self-interest in another’s ostensible love. Is the purity of the gift in its wrapping or in the intention? Or are they related?
Life is indeed a quest for true love. But the point is that it should be a quest for perfecting our gift of it, not a quest of seeking it from others, or perfecting it in others. When I mentioned You and all those friends and relations above it was because there really is some form of attachment there. I know these people and knowledge precedes love. If I did not know these people I might still wish to be loved by them, but it would be just as a performer wishes the adulation of his audience. When it is preceded by knowledge the desire to love becomes more that just a feeling of good will. It is knowledge about this woman or man or about You that elicits my gift of love. If I wish for love, I must make myself known to others including You. Maybe it’s from this whole concept that the scriptural idea of “a selfish God” comes. I know that feeling of selfishness in regard to my love for You. So, in a very real sense the questions: “Do they love me? or Do You love me?” are irrelevant. Even the answer “No” to these questions does not preclude the fact that the only valid question is: Do I love?
Our natural tendency in every facet of life is to seek the comfort and security of loving people around us. An extension of being a loving person is that this example will "rub off". "You’ll know they are Christians by their love". But at the heart of it here, what we’re talking about is love being given, not received. The curious paradox in regards to all this is that in the spiritual life it seems eminently true that we learn love best and practice it most genuinely from those who irritate us the most - not from the loving people around us. I guess I would have to stop short of saying therefore let us be irritable with each other in order to help the other perfect his/her love. There is nonetheless, more than a kernel of truth here. For that matter, even among those closest to us it is not impossible to find things about them that irritate us. Sometimes I wonder if You don’t purposely give us people in our lives who are real thorns in our sides just to reveal how lacking in love and full of self-interest we are.
It’s amazing how many other virtues are predicated upon humility; how difficult it is for us to swallow the words, actions and life styles of others and to efface our own words, actions and life styles. Yet, it increasingly seems to me that not just learning to tolerate these "thorns", (whom You love as much as You love me), but to be genuinely kind and pleasant to them without patronizing them is what helps us to grow. And, in that sense, these people have so much more to offer us than those we love and with whom we feel secure and comfortable. I cannot become "less" insofar as I consider myself better or above those who rankle me. In learning love from them I diminish the self-righteous self in me and participate in Your love for all.