It would seem that You taught us about many things to DO with our lives. The beatitudes You taught are full of DOING. You spoke often of DOING the will of Your Father. “DO unto others as you would have them DO unto you.”There is a great deal in both the Old and New Testaments about what we should and should not DO.
Over the centuries a problem has arisen over all this DOING. The problem is that we have somehow evolved the formula that equates all this DOING with gaining salvation. By DOING good things we build up a spiritual bank account. I think this concept is widely prevalent. We tend to ignore the sobering thought that we are not able to DO anything to gain or merit our own salvation – You have done that! But there is much I can DO to reject it or lose it. This all suggests that there is some real conflict between our notion of DOING and our salvation.
When we say a person “practices” his/her faith, we’re talking about DOING something. But, again, it seems automatically accepted that this “practicing” is about gaining our salvation – about “winning” heaven. If this is not so, then what is all this DOING about?
What it’s about is simply two things: unconditional love and acceptance. We love our spouse and our children, but when we DO things for them in order to gain something from them, it’s no longer love. Also, when we DO things to accept their love for us to suit our own agendas, it’s no longer love. But when we DO things for them – things that may be difficult or unpleasant - without any expectations of return or pats on the back, this is love. When unconditional love is at the center of DOING things there is no motive of any kind of gain. We do not love to gain salvation or to win heaven. We love because we are loved unconditionally and we accept that love by DOING things to show our acceptance and gratitude.
The reasons we are urged to DO certain things in the beatitudes and scriptures is because they are the things that demonstrate our recognition and acceptance of Your love in this world. If we don’t DO these things it shows our indifference to or rejection of Your love.
All the things that are contrary to the scriptural DO’s of the Old and New Testaments are things that reject Your love. If I say I love my wife, but DO nothing to show it even while she truly loves me, her love remains, but mine is lost. So, it might be quite proper to say that I am not able to accept salvation or heaven if I do not love You or others. But my love does not merit or, by itself, gain either. What is does is dispose me toward both.
I have written to You many times before about my thoughts on humility and how it eludes me. I am fascinated by the counterpoint of pride and humility in the growth of a spiritual life. To me, the one incontrovertible fact is that the “devil” is the “self” – all that focuses on the self, all the vanity that attaches to the self, and all the conceit that makes the self more attractive to us than anything else – all of this works efficiently against spiritual growth. The forceful currents of pride and humility push and pull at me as the tides of my self-interest rise and fall. I have gone through this cycle so many times that I (being a slow learner) am finally starting to learn something from it. But it is a tiny beginning and it always seems to keep slipping back.
Pride is a monstrous boogie-man that terrorizes almost every aspect of my life. I do not think I’ll ever be totally rid of it. I know this because every time I catch myself focusing on someone other than myself, I fall into the trap of being proud that I can do that. I want so much to the one in the shadows, head bowed, begging for mercy. But I see myself all too often as the Pharisee thanking You I am not like other men. This reveals itself in my constant judging of others and my fixation on my being the one who can help them, straighten them out, or bring them to You. I think people see this in me and it does more damage than good. It turns people away from me. When you think about it, the people we are truly drawn to are the one’s who are humble and have learned how to transcend self.
You see how prevalent pride is in me. In my desire to be humble lurks a desire to be recognized for it. There was a pop song a few years back with a lyric that said, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you…” – that’s me! I’m always thinking that in one way or another everything is about me. You must keep reminding me (for I am a slow learner) that it is You who live in me and are my center. What everything is really about is You.
Detached people are not the easy victims of good or bad events. Truly it would seem sadness results from earthly attachments. Detached people have the knack of maintaining a certain perspective about everything taken in by their senses. There is, among such people, an aura of being unimpressed. It is not a cynical nihilism but rather a steady perception of no-frills reality. Yet it is not cold, heartless stoicism either.
The art of detachment is not in the surgical severing of our being from our senses and emotions, but rather it is the art of properly placing them. The center of our being has no kinship with good or bad events that befall us on our journey. There is, in that center, no kinship to human relations, to famous or infamous people, to glorious or inglorious accomplishments, to farsighted projects or nearsighted prejudices, to magnificent possessions or dire poverty, to dazzling talents and abilities or a total lack thereof. None of this, in perspective, matters to our center. But we are creatures who carry in us the flaw of easily allowing all of these things, and more, to pull us away from our center. This, inevitably, will make us sad.
Our center is invisible to us, but our center is what You see when You behold us. Our center is our soul - a spiritual entity where the only attachment is to You because our center is You. I envision the primal “pre-sin” nature of our being as unaware of and nonconforming to anything outside its center. The only way our state of being could have cracked would have been for us to have relocated its center somewhere else – and that’s what happened!
Attachment to another center began the avalanche of off-centered attachments that continues on and on. We easily and even unconsciously work our ways into these positions without concerted attempts to work our way out of them and return to our center. Our humanity, which is the path of this avalanche’s destruction, cannot be avoided. We are separated that much from our center. But the emotional and sensual hallmarks of our humanity can, with effort and persistence, be redirected back to our center by cultivating a “holy indifference” to that which we perceive as good or bad events in our lives.
The soul rejoices in nothingness. Perhaps this sounds like a riddle. How can one be joyful over nothing? In the realm of the spirit (the soul) everything that is a thing, be it sensible or theoretical, to some degree is in conflict with no thing. Where there is conflict there is no peace. But where there is peace there is joy. The joy resulting from such peace is the cleared path for You; for it is in nothingness that we find You. The more things in our lives we jettison the greater our potential for happiness becomes.
When I want to spend time with You, rest in You, just be with You, I find that diminishing all things sensory is helpful: a silent room, closing my eyes, and finding a posture that minimizes touch. In addition, I peacefully seek an emptying of my mind as well as an intentional losing of consciousness of time and place. All these move together in the direction of nothingness or as close to it as I’m capable.
It is in this nothingness that You dwell. We find You there and so the soul greatly rejoices in nothingness. This is the essence of contemplation: to arrive at such a degree of emptiness and nothingness that You are able to fill it. The better we get at this the better we get at putting ourselves in a position of oneness with You.
In another way this quest for emptiness and nothingness extends to the daily commerce of life and how we find joy there as well. In the full sense of consciousness of our daily routines, the more we diminish the value of “things” the more room we have to increase the value of You in our lives. Then too, the more we devalue ourselves in the direction of nothingness, the closer we come to that humility needed to glimpse reality. This is not new or earth-shattering but goes back to “where our hearts are, there is our treasure.”
The soul’s joy in nothingness stems from a heightened consciousness of reality only possible with a dulling of the perception of “things” and their ultimate value. In Corinthians, Paul has told us that God has chosen things that are nothing so that He might bring to nothing things that are. It is a joy to know that to seek nothingness is to seek also that to which You would bring me.
I must talk to You about what I have learned about loss. I was listening to a minister on the radio talking about the tremendous sense of loss experienced by St. Paul, which he grew to recognize as gain. Paul had great status and position among the Jews as a Pharisee. He had an education enviable in his day because of its rarity. Among the Pharisees he was esteemed enough to be given the task of ridding Judaism of the thorn of Christianity and he took pride in this.
When he was knocked from his horse, all this was lost. But it was not the end of it. He even lost his sight until he learned to see with his heart. When, at this point, his life was totally turned around and he became a defender and promulgator of Christianity, more loss was heaped upon him. He lost all those he had previously counted as friends. He lost his freedom by being frequently thrown into prison. There were times when he even lost the support of the Christian Jews in Jerusalem. Ultimately he lost his life. But he counted all this as gain; and the one thing he never lost was hope.
This exposition of loss in the life of St. Paul led me to think about loss as St. Francis of Assisi might have experienced it and, from that, the general sense of loss among the poor and how it all ties in with Your own sense of loss and defeat in Your passion and death and the words,”to those who have the least, the most shall be given.”In other words it appears it’s life’s so-called losers we should be admiring and emulating in paradoxical opposition to what our hearts, minds and the rest of the world holds up as success and/or winners to be imitated as good examples.
St. Francis was a noble and wealthy young man who took his cue from his own status and the glamour of soldiering. Through a special grace Francis came to realize that it was those who had nothing who were really closest to You. He not only set about pursuing this ideal for himself and his community but he extolled greatly the life of poverty which economic circumstances forced upon others. Rather than trying to overcome it, Francis somehow realized he should pursue it and embrace it. Loss was gain!
As one might look out upon the needy throng at a hunger center, it is not hard to get the feeling that these people are extra close to You because everything else in their lives has been stripped away. In such a condition it is easier to see You as the only reality of life. I have come to the conclusion that this is why the poor are so special to You. It is truly the poor who provide the most fertile ground for Your love and for Your message.
It does indeed have a great deal to do with the loss of“things,” material goods, comforts and possessions, but it also has something to do with what the beatitudes refer to as poverty of spirit. This is the loss of “self.” - the humility and lack of guile of the Shepherd’s sheep. The more about me and my life that tends toward nothing, the closer I come to You. True wealth is the instinct of the sheep to recognize the voice and footstep of the Shepherd.
There is a profound lesson that we often miss in the fact that Your ministry sought out first the “have-nots” of Your own society, and the fact that Your life was an exquisite example of loss being gain. So seminal is this concept to spiritual growth that in some cases, such as Paul and Francis, you had to knock them “off their horse” for them to see it.
Within this idea too is DeMello’s tenet that suffering (loss) teaches. It is almost as if to say that first we must be emptied of all our own gains in order to gain spiritually. Gains of my own push me from You. Loss, like a magnet, draws me to You – and, on the level of human comforts, loss causes suffering, and suffering teaches. The way of loss is the bumpy yellow brick road to learning love in this life.
Humility really nourishes our spirit. If we consider humility as the gift of the ability to see ourselves as we really are, it is nourishing. But there looms in every one of our lives powerful forces that war against us doing this.There are things that I do on a regular basis that are part of my life. They are so much a part of my life that I identify myself with them and think about myself in their terms. They are things that I have accomplished or am accomplishing for which I am recognized and/or praised. They are things about me that make me feel good and they are very hard to put into the proper spiritual perspective because they like to stay at the top of my consciousness of myself.
I think often of Thomas Merton and how he must have struggled with the notoriety his writing brought to him – a notoriety he probably felt good about but, at the same time, realized was a barrier to nurturing his spirituality. When he woke up in the morning, did he think of himself in terms of his notoriety or was he able to overcome that constant aura? I wonder.
Then I think about You too. For 30 or so years,were You in a constant state of awareness of the divinity within You that set You apart? If Merton had to struggle each day with the thought: ‘by the gift of my ability with words I am a special channel for the growth of others’ – did the thought overpower You that: ‘I am unique among all men, sent on a special mission by God my Father?’
Further complicating our picture of how all this works for or against our spiritual growth is the widely promulgated view that we should downplay, conceal, or become indifferent to those images we attach to ourselves. They only feed our egotistical pride and conceit.
What I do feel pretty sure about is that certain skills, abilities and talents have been given to us for reasons we may not comprehend. To closet them ignores the love of the Giver. Sharing them magnifies the gift and the love and, hence, the Giver.
I like what Henri Nouwen says: “Even though following Jesus might become a more and more hidden journey for me, I don’t think it should ever become a private one.”
It’s time to take stock of my possessions. In the exhortation of Anthony DeMello’s Sadhanna to “drop attachments,” my first thoughts turn to the material goods I own: house, car, boat, etc. Becoming detached from these is needed and it is often difficult. These things take up one’s thoughts and attention and, therefore, take away from You. But Thomas Merton has taken me by the hand once again and shown me that there are other “possessions” the attachment to which is far more insidious than attachment to material goods.
There are attitudes, postures, and clever strategies that we possess without any desire from which to detach ourselves. There are characteristics, manipulations and eccentricities about ourselves to which we are strongly attached and from which we would hate to be separated. In one sense, the peculiarities of one’s own spiritual regime may be considered an attachment because of the pride we attribute to ourselves in it.
My life is full of such possessions that fight more violently against a poverty of spirit than any amount of material goods. The feeling that I’m doing something meritorious when I help others is contrary to a spirit of poverty. It is a possession. When one hand knows exactly what the other is doing and why,poverty of spirit suffers and attachment is strengthened. There is nothing without which a denial of self can contribute to true poverty of spirit and detachment from possessions. The rich man who, at first, wanted to do more walked away sadly from You because, as scripture says, “he had many possessions.” I submit that his sadness was over the realization that he was still attached to other possessions besides material ones.
There was a time when we were connected to You in a union similar to that of a child in its mother’s womb. I think this is the way it was always supposed to have been. But we ourselves cut the cord and, since then, have been ever trying to get back into the womb and reconnect. If we are driven by the resultant concupiscence and distractedness of the world, we are also innately driven by a desire to be one again with You – however latent that desire may be.
The Genesis metaphor for the rebellion within us by which we sever our union with You is a metaphor for the continuous presence of a situation in which human beings daily find themselves – a turning away from You even within the context of wanting to be one with You.
That separation and its accompanying “slap in the face” are even more painful to You. Even more than we, You seek our reconnection and reconciliation. So much does God seek after it that He turns over His Son to again and again be betrayed and slapped in the face in order to make the reconnection of His creation with the Primal Womb.
God doesn’t make mistakes. So it wasn’t a mistake that he made man. We are rooted in the Eternal Good. We can choose not to love You, but You cannot choose not to love us. As love itself, You cannot deny Your own existence. But we deny that in us which is You, we deny love – and we die. It is because of this hardness in our hearts that we listen but fail to hear; look but fail to see; perceive but fail to understand.
In order to truly see, hear, and understand we must, with great humility (for we have so much that shames us) hack our ways through the weeds and underbrush we have allowed to grow up around us severing all ties that tether us to things. No reconnection can be made when we are already connected by the cords of other attachments we substitute for You.
Ultimately we do this alone. We sort through our false selves in solitude. In solitude we reconnect. The solitary man is a sign of contradiction to the world. The world shares little in common with the life of such a one except the need to reconnect. The point of reconnection cannot be found in exterior trappings of society’s daily life. Falling into this rhythm is easy but counter to finding the connection we deeply seek. The original sin is that we go outside of ourselves to find You.
No man can serve two masters. Yet I would ostensibly spend great amounts of energy in directing my attentions to seeking You while, at the same time, spending great amounts of energy maintaining attachments, projects, and entertaining all kinds of distractions. The conflict inherent in this is of my own creation.
There has always seemed to be something hypocritical about the notion of having your cake and eating it too. While this “predicament” offers tension in the pursuit of a spiritual life, I’m not absolutely positive that the “notion” of its being a conflict is unequivocally true – and this is the real problem: to know whether pursuing such a line is purely rationalization or not. Are one’s naturally human proclivities for worldly attachments, projects and distractions purely the tools of the devil or can something good be found in them?
The possibility for more rationalization makes me shy away from such a notion (for I am, I know, a great “rationalizer”) but it’s pretty clear that this world and our humanity are things quite far apart from the undistracted bliss of heaven. What we are, then, and when we live are inevitable parts of Your “plan” for us. Granted things may not, in their present form, perfectly reflect Your “original plan” but rather what we have negotiated as acceptable and You, in Your great love for us, have allowed. So, this is it! We function purposefully to find You in a milieu of projects, attachments and distractions.It is not so much that we seek them in order to seek You – it is more that we come to grips with the reality that rather than suffering the mental and spiritual punishment of trying to purge ourselves entirely of them, we learn to place You in them and find You there. I think the operative word for these stumbling blocks is “inevitable.”We do not necessarily desire them, they just occur.
Thomas Merton talks about spiritualizing our desires by desiring not to desire. I think this means the desire for projects, attachments and distractions is one thing (an obstacle), but to allow them (not to desire them) is replete with the possibilities of finding You in them, or directing them to You, or inviting You to join in them, or redirecting them as prayer, or seeing in them other possibilities for spiritual growth. Sometimes concentrated involvement with them in leisure can result in the kind of self-transcendence theologian Fr. Donald Cozzens talks about as so necessary for contemplative prayer.
We are, somehow, nearer to You when we lose ourselves. Thus, the ways we tend to lose ourselves (to transcend our self) in projects, attachments and distraction which might otherwise be hazards to our spiritual growth may, in one sense, be a paradigm for the transcendence sought and needed for contemplative prayer. So, the trick is not in learning how to serve two masters but in learning how that which might become our masters might serve us.
There is a huge part of the spiritual life that is tied directly to detachment. It has been implied that if one cannot be detached from everything one does or likes to do, one cannot lead a fully spiritual life. As much as my life argues with this and tends to rationalize against it, I cannot deny it.
Everything that absorbs my consciousness but does not include something of You attaches me to something else. I have gobs of such things in my life. The memory and imagination alone, all else aside, probably would suffice as attachments enough to frequently exclude You. It is very easy to be attached to memories and fantasies. Each thing, be it memory, imagination, idle talk, TV, pastimes, hobbies, etc., which are not inherently evil but to which our routines facilitate our becoming attached, pulls us away from You.
The spiritual life is not impossible, to some degree, with such attachments but it’s certainly more difficult because it allows for times when You’re left out. The premise is that the heights of spirituality are reached when we include You in all that we do, think and explore. I believe this is right, and that it is what The Search is all about – finding You in new places left by new detachments. Each time we pull away from an attachment it leaves a vacancy that we can fill either with You or with another attachment. It’s up to us. There is in this the potential of great spiritual discovery and growth.
There is still another approach to which, through rationalization about letting go of attachments, I am quite prone. It is the idea of seeking and finding You in my attachments. This, in one sense, is like a detachment from the thing as an end in itself. If I am so absolutely fascinated with such an activity as following sports that it occupies a large part of my time, I could detach myself from that proclivity by a loving act of the will and fill it with prayer. But I could also look for You and Your wonderful gifts and graces in the talents and skills of athletes, or in the spirit of goodness that is Yours in the pure joy of the game itself. A dower denial of all things in our life is like a shunning of its gifts instead of seeing You in them.