One of the “jobs” of being a Christian is to bring You to places where You are least expected. There certainly is precedence for this in Your own life. Dining and socializing with sinners and tax collectors, etc., may not have been an exact fit for a Messiah in the eyes of the Jews. Well, I’m not very good at bringing You to such places myself, but I, at least minimally, understand it. It’s kind of like the leather-jacketed biker with the “Pray the Rosary” bumper sticker. It gives others pause. But, as I say, I’m not very good at this.
I bring myself to places where I’m not unexpected and I like to think I bring You with me yet I am reticent about declaring You openly in a manner that draws attention to my being other than I am. My rationalization is that if I keep You present to myself (and I’m not good at this either) You will shine through me in Your own way and in Your own time. Unfortunately, my self gets in the way a lot.I do often frequent places where You might not be sought – especially in the business of musical entertainment, and I’m aware of bringing You through me to those venues. But particularly in those situations I am not sure how well You are able to break through my self.
In our age one of the biggest “turn-offs” is that of appearing to be a “religious fanatic” – especially if you are one. More and more this brings me to the conclusion that it is not one’s mouth but one’s life that speaks best. Not what you say but who you are, wherever you are, is the best way to bring You to unexpected places. In this way, the conveyance itself becomes an unexpected place, and I have a feeling that that would certainly describe me. To those who know me best, especially members of my own family, I am indeed an unexpected place – one without honor in one’s own “country.”You, as the son of a carpenter, who grew up in the streets of Nazareth, were a most unexpected place for the Nazarenes to posit a Messiah.
So, there is something to be said about going out to unexpected places where prior prejudices hold no sway. If, indeed, we bring You more eloquently into this or that place with our lives rather than our tongues, then maybe such places should be sought. The important thing to remember here is that such places may not all be external. I am still discerning unexpected places within me where I can bring You. You are a speaking God and we are a listening people. It is within the solitude or our own hearts that we hear You best.
Thomas Merton has said that,“…it is our vocation to share in the spiritualization of our existence….”We are called to radiate this by our lives. Yet so often we radiate something else. It’s all about our choices. There are plenty of other choices for what we do with our existence – most of them easier, more glamorous and more comfortable than choosing to spiritualize our existence. Historically, nonetheless, this is what the Old and New Testaments, over thousands of years, proclaims. We are called to be God’s people. We are called to perfect our existence as such.
In reflecting about how to do this it strikes me that a surreptitious stumbling block for which we seem to have a natural proclivity is the tactic of “inserting” things spiritual into our lives in order to ostensibly become more spiritual. It seems like a logical thing to do and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong in it. It seems, in fact, that it might be very helpful. But it occurs to me that it misses a fundamental point about our being: we are already spiritual!We are human in nature second because we are spiritual in nature first. The essence of our spirit is present in all that we humanly do. Inserting extraneous spiritual exercises and devotions is fine, but such “add-ons” might follow more fruitfully upon the clear cultivation of an awareness of the spiritual dimension already in us, and of how it touches all we do.
We, I think, do not so much make our spirituality as find it. We are indeed called to share in the spiritualization of our existence. But before anything else this means we must explore and contemplate our own spiritual nature. Merton elsewhere warns against the idolatry of “thespiritual experience,”and againstthe cultivation of a “pseudo-mysticism.” In these cases we are manufacturing our supposed spirituality to suit ourselves. First we must lose our “selves” to truly discover the spiritual in us, and then nurture that.
The real test of my spiritual growth is not the quiet times of prayer and reflection, but the times in between. These intervals can also be most discouraging to the notion that I’m growing – a wake-up call to the fact that all the elements of my comfortable daily spiritual regime amount to nothing unless my life itself is transformed.
It is so easy to fall into the spiritual delusion referred to by St. John Climacus when he says that it is easy to assume falsely that we are at the heights of spiritual endeavor when, in fact, we are at the very beginning. Of course in this notion there is at least the implicit thought that we are at the beginning and there’s consolation in that. I find that it is consolation of any kind that we need in order to maintain hope. At least I find it true in myself to the extent that during those “in-between” times I may be more interested in seeking consolations as an expected residue of my prayer and reflection. However, such seeking may be tantamount to two steps forward and one step back.
A better measure of spiritual growth is the integration of my prayer life, my reflections, meditations, etc., with the moments of my daily life in which I am not directly engaged in them. I think St. Paul put his finger on it in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians: we can be carrying around a whole lot of spiritual stuff, some of it trivial and some of it important, but all totaled up it doesn’t amount to anything if we don’t have love. It is love that should fill those “in-between” times. The residue of all my spiritual efforts should be love, not consolation. I must work more diligently on this than upon any elements of my spiritual regime and I must not assume that it will automatically flow from my spiritual “efforts.” It will happen when I learn to align my will with Yours in all these “in-between” times.
Much of what I write to You extols the ongoing discovery in my own life of a spirituality that centers on the interior. The inward-turning of one’s reflections ostensibly yields new and fruitful insights and approaches to our relationship with You. Whole new aspects of who and what I am seem to open up. But there is a caution in all this. It is the caution that entering upon an inward path one might become heavily “self-referring.” As I write this, I’m not sure whether that’s bad, good, a little of both, or simply irrelevant because of its inevitability. What I mean is that I cannot conceive of turning inward to seek You without constantly bumping into my self. It’s a hindrance because my self is a lousy filter through which to draw myself closer to You. Yet, here and now, there is no other way.
If we believe that what You give us is sufficient then we must accept that ultimately our spiritual journey cannot avoid being “self-referring.” It’s the “Catch-22” of spiritual life. Without the self as a reference point there can be no effort to overcome the self. In this sense my key to You is me. The truly astounding part of this revelation is that You too must work around this obstacle to reach me.
It is one of the many paradoxes of the spiritual life that one must encounter the self in order to diminish it. It therefore becomes the means to its own end. The most hazardous part of this process is the reference we make to one or more of our many false selves. The fact is, these too must be worked through.
The interior life is, indeed, self-referring. What else do we have to refer to! But the self we must refer to is the one we struggle mightily to find, the one that sets us free, the one that is liberated by the truth, the one You presented to the woman at the well. It may take a lifetime to find that true self. It is the only self to which we can fruitfully refer. It is the spark of Your spirit within us.
The answer to that most primal of all questions: what is the meaning of life? is ventured, I think, so that we know we are living. We must know first that we are living before we understand what we are living.
The meaning of life is the event of “being” with all its potentialities. We MUST know this!We must know that life itself gives the momentary occasion of one’s earthly existence meaning, not vice versa. The meaning of one’s existence upon this earth may seem to be diminished because of its brevity within a fleshly body, but the ground of its being is the infinity of its disembodied soul. So, to ask what is the meaning of life is not to ask what is its meaning between the birth and death of an individual, but rather what is the meaning of the soul? – which is life itself to each of us. Hence, after we know we are living, we can ponder what we are living.
It strikes me that what we are living should be in some sort of response to the fact that we are living – that the immortal spirit within us will always live. Men and angels share this gift that nothing else in creation possesses. The marvelous wonder of such an exclusive gift defines its purpose and use. What we should be living is gratitude and love to the source of that gift and respect for the others who have also received it. Though individually we will always engage in injecting life with our own meaning, the meaning of life has no need of that because the meaning of life is life itself. It is that, by the grace of God, we are, and always will be directly attached by nature to that source. What we do gives no further real meaning to life. What we do, rather, is done in recognition of our source. We do not give life meaning. Life gives us meaning. Recognizing and reflecting upon this should direct how we respond to the gift of life.
In the daily traffic of our earthly lives it pleases us when we see a gift we have given truly being used, appreciated and enjoyed. Such response becomes, for us, very precious and casts in a special light the individual to whom we gave the gift. It does not give meaning to the gift, for the gift stands by itself with its own meaning, but it is the proper and beneficial response. By such responses we grow in gratitude, love and respect.
How I love the mornings! Through the daily routine of prayer, Mass, reading, meditating and writing to You I’ve come to hold the mornings as the most looked-forward-to part of each day. It’s a time when, for me, peace, stillness, joy and Your presence are most profoundly felt. It is akin to the daily visit or phone call between best friends. It is energizing and nourishing. Yet lately I’ve looked more critically over my gushing about this period of the day.
In purely human terms, am I becoming more focused on peripheral comforts of the peace and joy the morning affords at the expense of whatever might take place in my inner opening to You each day? Is that feeling real that says I may be guilty of using You to get this wonderful feeling about the mornings rather than using this wonderful feeling about the mornings to get to You?
I’ll bet monks look forward to the time of day when they are alone with You in their cells. It’s easy time. There is real comfort in being Mary rather than Martha. But if I might put a new twist on poor old Martha – she served! She did the grunt work so that others, not she, might be comfortable. The work the monks do in the fields, shops, or kitchens is for the community – not themselves. It’s Martha time.
It is good to serve. In serving “self” is forgotten. But I’ll bet the monks’ favorite time is not the hard time of serving but the easy time of being alone with You. It feels good. Herein lies my quandary. I like to feel good. I pursue times that make me feel good. Thus comes the question: how much of my daily morning routine is done more to feel good than to truly listen at Your feet? Or, is the feeling good just a natural consequence of listening at Your feet? My puzzling over this lately has burned a lot of mental calories and what I’ve come up with is this: the peace, joy, and contentment of spending silent time with You is, itself, Your gift – a tiny foretaste of the joy that is part and parcel of union with You. It is easy to get hooked on such a feeling. Mary becomes oblivious to Martha.
Truly, the important thing is seeking You through my routine. This is the better part. Then Your grace and gifts fall as they will with my gratitude and pleasure. Seeking You is, in fact, learning daily how to let You seek me – and You always come bearing gifts. To not enjoy the gifts cannot make the giver happy. I should not expect the gifts, and I should not reject them.
There are many saints and saintly people whom I love and wish to be like: Peter, Thomas, Francis, The Little Flower, Mother Theresa and the spiritual writers I so avidly read. But I fall short. Therefore, what I wish in the least is to be like the leper who returned.
Through the saints, writers and saintly people I know You cleanse me daily. It is at least for me to return thanking and seeking. If I fail at everything else, I do not want to fail at being grateful. To actually be grateful, to me, means far more than thanking You. It’s something I show by the way I live my life. I don’t doubt that the other nine lepers were thankful, but only the one did something about it. Gratitude for being cleansed of that fatal disease, just as gratitude for the gift of my life and all life, is an ongoing demonstrable process. Maybe that’s why You were a little taken aback when only one returned to express gratitude and You said, “Where are the other nine?” Did they think that being made clean was owed them? Is this what I think?
The concern You showed for those ten, not only in healing them but in their responses to being healed is a paradigm for our relationship with You. It extends even further to our relationships with each other. If the life of the spirit is characterized preeminently by love, then we must comprehend the fundamental connection of gratitude to love. Like the one in ten, it means making the effort or going out of one’s ordinary way to acknowledge an aspect of a relationship that is new – and doing this over and over again.
TV often scares me. There are things like movies and sports that I like about TV. But, other than commercials, there are two things I don’t like about TV. One is the attraction it affords to simply wasting time. The other is a sinister brand of mind control it conveys. It could be far more fruitful if I just sat down in a chair, closed my eyes and opened myself to You. Not doing so is an aspect from which I derive guilt feelings about watching TV. But apart from that guilt there is a certain fear of TV that Fr. Henri Nouwen gives voice to: “When it is true that the images you carry in your mind can affect your physical, mental and emotional life, then it becomes a crucial question to which images… we allow ourselves to be exposed.”
Now prayer too creates in us images that affect our lives. So, in a real sense, both prayer and TV vie for the images with which we perceive ourselves and our world. If, as Nouwen says elsewhere, true prayer makes us into what we imagine, consider what would make us into what we would imagine without prayer. TV is probably near the top of that list. TV has the scary potential of intentionally providing us with any number of false identities, identities we gather from the images it presents. It may not even be conscious – and that’s what’s scary!
So often we talk about the potential for good possessed by television. But there is nothing evil that is not first perceived as some kind of good. My imaginings of the subtleness of TV cannot but encourage my perception of it as a powerful tool for Your enemies – maybe the most powerful tool culturally! In the end, of course, the most powerful tool is our own mind. But that mind falls under many influences. TV, like so many other things, is, in itself, a neutral distraction. But the fact that it has the generative power to conjure tempting images may make it something we could do better without.
I’m sure I won’t stop watching movies or sports on TV in spotty “leisure” moments. Yet, at the same time, there is an underlying awareness of something subtly influential in flipping through the channels – and it’s not, in my own mind, always neutral.
If we started at about age 16, the thing we do next most in life after eating, sleeping, and working is probably driving. In a lifetime, if we were to total it up, we spend a staggering amount of time behind the wheel. A hundred years ago that would not have been true. But today it seems we’ve always got to get to someplace else, and we are willing to invest time behind the wheel to do it.
It is interesting that we can think of all kinds of distractions to our spiritual life, but driving is seldom one of them. In former times people were happy to have some land and settle on it for life with only an occasional trip “into town.” Monastic men and women stay in one place for life seldom concerned with being anywhere else.
There is no real reason why we can’t pray and reflect while we’re driving. No reason why we can’t observe things all around the roads we travel that reflect You. However, the fact is that we’re usually on “automatic pilot” when we’re driving. I can call to mind countless trips where I remember leaving and I remember arriving, but I don’t remember anything in between. There are periods in life like this too, where we’re on “automatic pilot” unaware of what goes on around us or what we’re doing. Even in the other areas of “most time spent” – like eating and working – we’re often not aware of what we’re doing.
It strikes me that times like this are wasted, and I’m irritated by wasted time. It further strikes me that this is an appropriate metaphor for life. There are many trivial destinations, but there is always that one major destination lurking in our thoughts. We invest much thoughtless time in getting to those minor destinations, but how much do we invest in getting to that major one? And, are all these minor ones somehow linked to the major one? The trick is to overcome our conditioning to ignore the mundane; for in the mundane we meet You in new places and in new ways. It takes focus and effort not to waste time, but it can be done.
It’s been just over seven years since I retired from teaching and during that time a certain morning-routine has evolved. I get up about 7:45, get to church about 8:10, do some praying and meditating, hear Mass, receive communion, go home, do spiritual reading and write to You. This has become my peaceful morning with You every day – and I’ve come to realize that it’s a favored and desired part of my day. I’ve actually felt, frequently, an anxious yearning for the next morning.
In writing to You about this I’m trying to discover why this is so. Good, loving, peaceful, joyful and prayerful things happen during other parts of the day, but never so delightful as in the morning. I know one factor is the peacefulness of the morning itself, and another is the newness of the day – a new beginning! Around our house it is very quiet in the morning and that stillness is special. It goes well with the brightness of the new day. Sometimes the only sound in the morning is the chirping of birds outside my window.
Morning too is the time of day before which the day’s complications set in, a time when our minds are at their most uncluttered. I think it is also a time when it is easier for You to touch us before the pedestrian daily activities take over. Hopefully my mornings prepare me to take You through the rest of the day with me. I still have a powerful yen for other diversions, entertainments, and material things, but as I grow older the desire to spend at least each morning with You grows stronger.
The most dramatic evidence of Your whisper in my life, one about which I feel very confident, comes when, within a short period of time, a particular theme recurs to me through three or four unrelated channels. For example, yesterday I started reflecting on how there is much time in my life that is wasted. I was still thinking about that this morning when, on the car radio, a minister was talking about the same thing. Then, in my spiritual reading this morning, Anthony DeMello talked about it in relation to prayer.
This has happened many times before and, what usually happens next, is that I write to You about it as I am now because I think You’re telling me that You want me to talk to You about it.
I have become aware (rightly or wrongly) of occasional twinges of guilt over time spent one way that might ultimately have been spent more wisely another way. I am admittedly a child of American pragmatism and self-sufficiency. I do, sad to say, worship at the altars of efficiency and do-it-yourself. One consequence of this for me is the abhorrence of empty moments. Too often, when I wake up in the morning, my first thoughts gravitate to what I will get done this day and in what order. Nonetheless I do enjoy the empty pleasure of a good movie or sporting event on TV.
I know there is nothing inherently evil or immoral about such times but I have come to realize that I have not yet learned the surrender necessary to turn such times of apparent vacuity into prayer. They are just as genuinely times of Your Presence to me as moments intended for “prayer time.”
There is also at issue the “empty” time I spend for another versus such time spent for myself. Understanding the word “empty” is important here. Its meaning becomes very relative and subjective when another person just wants or needs me to spend time with them, not necessarily doing anything. I may regard this as “empty” time because it doesn’t fit my agenda. However for most of us, certainly me, time is the hardest of all things to give. I’m talking here not about time to “do” this or that together but time just to “be” together. It is most troublesome to be bothered by feelings of guilt that arise from our culture and society over such “empty” times.
Periods of inactivity, which I try to, in stillness and quiet, fill with calm so that I am open to You, are not what I’m talking about here. It’s in times of selfish inactivity without much purpose other than self-gratification that I need to let You in too. For me it takes much practice.