The pitfalls of self-deception within the pursuit of a spiritual life are cunningly subtle. We can so easily become satisfied with our efforts that spirituality becomes and ego trip. We can begin to feel so good about our prayers, devotions and meditations that a silent, self-complacent cancer grows within us. This spiritual cancer is deadly. It can grow continually, if unchecked, until it’s too late. Its name is “I,” as in “I am doing great spiritually.”
Now, obviously, one cannot help feeling good, even ecstatic about successfully seeking and meeting You in different ways every day. But attributing this great feeling to ourselves is very dangerous. In a proper understanding of the “feel good” part of the spiritual life, we should actually feel pretty miserable about ourselves. The joy comes from the consolation that You don’t feel nearly as badly about us as we do about ourselves and, in that, there is much room to feel good.With even cursory consideration it should become evident that You are the amazing grace in our lives.
We must be very cautious too about crediting ourselves with the openness to receive Your graces; even this must be recognized as a grace from You. Nonetheless, the ego may become involved in further feelings of pride that we are so favored. There is a subtle but real connection between feeling good about such favor and feeling proud. Knocking the “I” out of it entirely fails to acknowledge the reality of a mutual relationship. Getting a proper fit for the “I” is the precarious goal. In simplistic terminology this implies the necessity for a kind of “Big You – Little Me” mentality, the truth of which popular culture rebels against. Trying to figure out how and where in this relationship I fit can be tricky because, ultimately, my vision of reality, wrong or right, is formed by me. In this circular sense it is almost impossible to eliminate “I,” but not impossible to assign the ego to its proper place once discovered. The individuality of that proper place, more by Your grace and gifts than by anything I do, has evolved into a unique mode of seeking You here now, in this place – one in which Your will only need be accepted by mine. Anyway, when all is said and done, it’s You who choose me not I who choose You.
To love God is something one cannot do. It is, itself, a gift from God to be able to love Him. This news may seem to render us inconsequential, but we are not. For one thing, we cannot be inconsequential if we have the power to accept or reject this gift; and, for another thing, God must consider us of great consequence to even offer it to us. We have great difficulty in recognizing this about ourselves. It’s like Anthony DeMello’s story about the eagle that was raised with chickens and thus totally absorbed the persona of a chicken. He lived and died as a chicken because he never saw the eagle in himself. We miss You in ourselves every time we refuse to see beyond being human.
Thomas Aquinas reminds us that our actions bring us to our highest perfection. Thus we remain a chicken if our actions never go beyond those of a chicken. The powers exercised over us by our inclination to sin tend to hold us in the familiar comfort of our “chickendom.” We become vaguely shrouded in the idea that it’s too hard to go beyond what we are.
What we can do is love You by loving with the love You give us.
In the spiritual quest there is always something more for us. There is no pinnacle – only the next higher step. That next level can never even be approached if we’re satisfied with where we’re at.
Sometimes we learn a great deal about ourselves by observing how we cope with change. If, during the course of a day, a person was to meticulously list all the actions, procedures and movements into which we lock ourselves through habit, we would be amazed at how little we do spontaneously. We create these habituated zones of comfort to avoid the effort involved in looking at things in new ways, being creative, or being spontaneous. The realization is jarring when we are forced, through whatever circumstances, to “jump” our track and change direction. If you have shaved, brushed your teeth and combed your hair at a certain time and in a certain way for 20 or 30 years, doing it any other way seems uncomfortable until a new habit is formed over time. This could extend, obviously, to many other daily routines including the ways we approach You. In a real sense we can easily see how life is a series of habits we settle into. We may, with effort, eliminate a habit we dislike only to begin another; and we truly try to avoid the discomfort of changing our habits because - it hurts!
I suppose most of the habits of daily life into which we settle are fairly innocuous, but they do set a pattern in our psyche for settling into habits in our spiritual life which aren’t so innocuous. Habit, of course, does not deal with intention, but it does blur it. I know in myself that it’s possible to get so caught up by routines of time, place and manner that reasons or intentions simply dissolve.
Anthony DeMello speaks eloquently of opening ourselves up daily to the possibility of change and to the reality of it. There are so many ways You genuinely speak to us in our lives. Only we widen or narrow the bounds of this grace. It may seem ironic but settling into comfortable habits can be a terrible constrictor of the spiritual life and, yet, they just seem to happen – unintentionally. However, the moment we settle into them we limit our possibilities. They’re not necessarily bad in and of themselves, sometimes we need the discipline of habit simply to accomplish that which we would otherwise ignore or let slide. The point is to not allow our habits to block out our intention of discovering new ways of finding You.
True love only begins when we expect nothing in return – NOTHING! Contemplative prayer stands apart from prayers of petition in that it seeks nothing. Living in this world in these times with the nature of contemporary relationships life is not at all conducive to expecting or seeking nothing. Yet, it seems quite clear that genuine love negates itself when anything is expected from it.
Contemplative prayer, which is one element of our love for You , is not genuine when we expect Your approbation. The self- giving of love allows for no expectations of return. Often our expectations are based on a fear of missing out on something. But countless times You have told us to “fear not.” Thus the elimination of expectations strongly involves trust, and trust is something we have great difficulty with. To “love and do as you will” is not a paradox. When love is true it is trusting and without expectation; doing what we will, then, cannot help but be an act of love.
In contemplative prayer we seek a state of being one with Your love as it is present in the depths of our spirit.
There is an extension of this search for oneness with You in our search for oneness with others. There is something that binds You and me in a deeply mysterious way which is prototypical of the deep bond that exists among us all. It is simply there to be recognized and nurtured. It expects nothing. To live and breathe in the constant presence of this awareness allows us to do as we will because it moves upon trust and looks for no return. Love like this cannot grow unless we accept life in all its forms as presented to us by others and unless we drop our attachments to those things that habituate us to expect returns.
The wonderful luxury in contemplative prayer is that, in its best moments, we are able to rest without expectation in the love that defines our being. Attaining this level of experience is the only “something” that goes beyond nothing – yet, it is in the expectation of nothing that it is found. Your love for us is far beyond our expectations.
When we become intent upon showing our love for others and showing our love for You, we have to be careful that it’s not just the “showing” that we’re in love with. When we become truly and purely indifferent to the showing, our loveis purified from its source – You. Meister Eckhart says that we should not intend anything in particular in our loving. The just person seeks nothing by his love. If God is to make something of me, I must first become nothing. Doing this requires overcoming huge mountains of self-interest and of fear.
Our human inclination (our concupiscence) is very powerful at assigning motivation for our actions. It is the same with fear. So often we find it impossible to overcome our desires and fears. Our interest is in self-gratification. Fear too often makes us do what we would not. “Showing” our love can emanate from this. We may “show” our love because it satisfies us and gets us what we want. Or, we may “show” our love because we fear the consequences of not showing it.
Our love should be like Anthony DeMello’s lamp, flower, or tree; offering their light, scent, and shade unconditionally and without thought of “showing.” We must discover the love that is part of our spiritual nature – a love that shows itself without conscious showing. When our actions are habitually an outgrowth of our unselfconsciousness, love has no connection with intent – it just is.
We do not, at its best, show our love. What we do, at its best, is extend Yours. We are the channels of the indiscriminate love that is You.
If we are compulsive, we have a tendency to make our compulsions imperatives. But in all creation there exists only one imperative – the imperative to love. Most of our compulsions involve false senses of urgency about some need, desire or fear. Those urgencies to which we assign the highest priorities in our lives inject and propel our compulsions with often erroneous and, usually non-existent imperatives.
In my own life I haul around many compulsions that take on the character of imperatives. One of them is my compulsion to do things now. I don’t know why, but somehow it seems imperative to me that I do whatever I conceive needs doing as close to conceiving it as possible. There is, in reality, no such imperative.
I am also under the compulsion to organize the hours of my day into a routine to the greatest extent possible. While it may seem so to me, this, in fact, is not an imperative either. The danger is that obstacles to my compulsions actually gnaw at me causing a variety of emotional reactions that work directly against the one true imperative – to love. All the quasi- imperatives of the compulsions of my life are the flotsam of a long misspent and unexamined life. Only one thing is necessary, and that is love. The compulsions that lead to false imperatives mask our failures to love.
“Love” is a word that can be a noun or a verb. I always remember the noun definition given to us in the seminary by our spiritual director, Msgr. William Cosgrove: “Love is a spiritual attraction based on virtue.” But I’ve never heard a definition of the verb “to love” that has stuck with me in the same way. I think one good reason for this is that we do not have a neat and succinct definition of You. If you stop and think about it, love is really the only verb we can predicate of You. You define the action of love. As St. John, in his letter, says: “God is love.”
So often we think of ourselves when we hear St. Paul’s words about love: it is kind, patient, long-suffering, holds no grudges, etc., etc; but, in every case it is descriptive of the reflections of Your love for us. Creation, covenant, incarnation, crucifixion, redemption, salvation – these are descriptors of the only word that can be predicated of You – love!
Sometimes, in scripture and in other places, we must hack through a jungle of anthropomorphic adjectives applied to You that help us shape our image of You. Too frequently we forget that we were and are made in Your image and not vice versa. That image is “love,” which is not an anthropomorphic word. To coin a descriptor, love is “Theomorphic.” It harkens back to the spiritual in Msgr. Cosgrove’s definition, but that is why it’s so hard to pin down as a verb - because it’s spiritual. To love is a spiritual phenomenon. It is not foreign to us, for we are spiritual beings made in the image of love. Yet, as in so much else, our senses rule and we live a corporeal life which veils our spiritual side. Evelyn Underwood in her book on mysticism characterizes our quest as “Theopathic,” that is, centered on love (God). Your love is the example we are to live by. To be bathed in that love and to want to share it with others is the very definition of the word “love.”
I perceive myself as not being a lovable person, but one who deeply seeks love. I further perceive myself as one who doesn’t much care whether he is lovable, but does care that he loves. The lack of lovability does now and then distract me. I perceive that in many ways I make it hard for others to love me.
The most profound evidence of my lack of lovability comes from my own family which I think perceives me at times as a cold, calculating, manipulative, hypocritical religious fanatic. Maybe they’re right. It’s the least lovable people who need love the most.
It’s not for us to be receivers. It is for us to be givers, for it is in giving that we receive. Some small but growing understanding and acceptance of this might be why I don’t much care whether I’m lovable since it appears our destiny is to love, not to be loved. Yet, there seems something puzzling about this because in the eyes of the world the most loving people are very often the most lovable. It follows from this, then, that if I don’t perceive myself as lovable, I must not be a very loving person – and this is the heart of the matter. It would seem that there is a line between loving You and loving others, but, of course, You have taught us that the two are connected. The key is to make that connection – and I haven’t!
It’s so much easier to love You whom I don’t see but who has given me everything, including Your immense love, than it is to love those whom I do see but who are often sources of criticism, disappointment and exasperation. I long to be with You, but I often do not long to be with others. In fact, I often long to be away from others so that I can be with You. I think this is sensed by some closest to me and is a source for my lack of lovability.
There is something out of kilter about all of this that gnaws at me. It’s that inability to make that connection between loving You and loving others. But, even more than that, it’s the apparently difficult-to-conceive notion that anyone who loves and seeks You may pay the price of losing the love of others. “Know that the world will despise you because it despises Me.”
Therefore to love and not be loved in return may be a sign that we’re on the right track, for the world has a hard time recognizing the reality of true love.
I look to You when I realize how easy it is to become exasperated at those you love most. Humans are an exasperating bunch, yet there seems to be a direct correlation between the degree of exasperation and the degree of love. I’m inclined to think of Your exasperation with a variety of people You encountered in the records of the scriptures including Your parents and Your apostles. Of course this inclination blatantly ignores Your exasperation with me, which is what I should really be thinking about. This should not be very hard for me to understand since I find myself constantly in a state of exasperation with those closest to me. Yet, the very root of that exasperation is love itself. Much, however, is less than altruistic. Much is the self-love I’m trying to shun .
Exasperation on my part is often because of the non-conformity of others with my will. My will is not always Your will and therein lies the difference. Your will is in complete harmony with the Father’s, so Your exasperation with the recalcitrance of the Jews was justified. My will, however, is often way out of synch with Yours and, therefore, the exasperation is unjustified. The powerfully monstrous force of wanting others to think, act, and believe as I do – especially the loved ones who are closest to me – is the culprit. It is the culprit because there is no justification in this desire if my will is not in harmony with Yours.Rightfully all such exasperation on my part looms as a stumbling block between me and You. It is more correct, then, to direct such exasperation at myself rather than others.
The problem comes when one, in good conscience, firmly believes he/she is in harmony with Your will in acting a certain way towards a loved one who, in some way, is perceived as going “another way.” At this point exasperation seems unavoidable. We know the people we love better than anyone else. This knowledge can be the source of both great exasperation and great love; for it is within the context of our exasperation that we are presented with the opportunity to love, and to do so selflessly.
The people closest to me are often terribly exasperated with me because they know me so well. If their knowing me so well is a frequent cause of their exasperation with me, think of how much You, who know each of us better than we know ourselves, must be deeply exasperated with me. Yet, the salient point of Your example is that this exasperation can be the very source of love.
Despite whatever it is in me which most exasperates You, You love me. I should do no less. Despite whatever is in another that most exasperates me, I must realize that my exasperation flows from love, concern and knowledge. Exasperation such as I’m speaking of does not happen in regards to a stranger walking down the street.
Once in a while some interior need for a precise word leads us to inventone. In thinking about the hindrances to the spiritual life described by the exhortation of Anthony DeMello’s method of “Sadhanna” to “drop attachments,” I have come up with a thought that necessitates the coining of a word. Under the circumstances of lay life in America in these times it seems to me that the answer to dealing with attachments is to surrender to possessions rather than to “possessionness.” This may, at first, appear to be a rationalization for convenience sake, but let me explain “possessionness.” It’s akin to the old adage about “eating to live or living to eat.” To have possessions that serve you, for whatever reasons, in and of itself, should not be a hindrance to a growing relationship with You.However, when one’s heart is imbued with the having of things for the sake of conveying some kind of image of oneself either to oneself or to others, we indulge in being possessed by our possessions. In other words, we have made ourselves victims of “possessionness.” We live to possess rather than possessing to live.
There is the word “possessiveness” with similar overtones, but its frequent use in regards to our relationship with people close to us leads me to believe there is a distinction between possessiveness and the possessionness I’m talking about. It is quite a fine distinction but it exists nonetheless as a descriptor of the difference between the love of a person and the love of a thing. I may be guilty of excessive possessiveness in regards to my children, but it is not the same as my excessive possessionness in regards to my record collection.
Before this all starts to sound too contrived, the point is that a small amount ofloving possessiveness in a personal relationship such as we have with You may be healthy, but not possessionness of the relationship which tends to objectify it, nor of things that get in the way of it which block and hinder it.