Somewhere I’ve heard that the better part of our lives is spent seeking various forms of consolation. Affirmation that I’m OK or that I’m “feeling good” about myself is a top-of-the-line priority. Even if I see through the flaws of this mindset it still has a profound effect upon my everyday life.
I try hard (but maybe not hard or consistently enough) to see You in the people and events of each day. I wonder about “feeling good” about it.I also wonder about the fact that I find it difficult to do. This leads me, therefore, to wonder if such wondering is a sign that I’m far from You.
Actually, I don’t need a sign to know that there are plenty of times I’m far from You. There’s little consolation in that, but, with Your grace, there are things I can do about it.The fact remains, though, that a good indicator of self-negation is the degree to which consolation and affirmation shed their desirability. So there is comfort here.
It seems so automatic and beyond our control to desire affirmation and consolation - but it’s not!Actually, as I reflect upon it, You seem closer to me in those times when I reject affirmation and/or consolation.
I continue to learn about the many aspects of erasing my “self,” and, as I do so, I learn that each “mini-death” draws me closer to You and further from myself. In the pain associated with this kind of growth there is hope, and in hope there is consolation. It is not the world’s “pat on the back” but rather Your hand on my shoulder and Your whisper of “yes” in my ear.
I just read something by a spiritual writer that correlates, in an interesting way, the statement of another writer who says that the great paradox of scripture is that true freedom can only be found in “downward mobility” not in the upward mobility lionized by our culture. That is, the way up is down. What the first writer said was that we’ve got to learn to get out of God’s way. Where the creature ends, God begins. Contained in the correlation between these two thoughts is the old notion of devotions, retreats, spiritual exercises and, indeed, religion itselfpossibly getting in God’s way.
I think what is meant here by “downward mobility” is humility: a movement away (down) from ourselves and out of Your way. The result of this downward movement into the deeper parts of our being frees us from the spiral of augmenting superficialities in an upward swirl of self-indulgence which always stands in Your way. The end of a downward spiral is “nothing” and nothing is where the creature ends; and where the creature ends You begin. So, the more we are able to at least visit our “nothingness” (if not frequently live it) the closer are we to You.
The cloud of unknowing is simply the mist that veils what is beyond (down deeper than) our creature-ness. There is nothing down on that level that can get in Your way. The more we tend to promote ourselves and what we do upward the more we distance ourselves from that level. We begin with nothing and we end with nothing. At both poles we are closer to You. It’s during the time in between that we struggle.
Despite what popular psychology might tell us, we are not created by other people. Who and what we are, at center, is Your creation. It might be more accurate to say that we allow ourselves to be formed by others, but they do not create us.
We are a people who beam with inner pride at our gifts as though they were our own, and quickly assign blame elsewhere for our faults and failings. I have more than a vague suspicion that certain aspects of psychology are driven by a need to place blame outside ourselves. We speak of our parents, siblings, friends, spouse, and children as having made us who we are. In our weaknesses they get the blame, but in our strengths we usually take credit. I have no doubt that these people, and many more, are influences in our formation as persons. But they do not create me anymore than I create myself.
The created being seated deeply in our center is not formed by any person. It is that which informs us, if we listen, about all the ways we and others form us. The words and actions of others that may influence our lives are often allowed to veil the child-creature in us. This is why contemplative prayer is so appealing. In it, ideally, we shed everything that is not at our core. We delve deeply through the litter and meaningless residue that clings to our daily routines to get at, and rest in, Your creature, Your child. No one created this but You.
Every attempt of psychology, counseling, therapy, etc., whether it recognizes it or not, is to get back to this true self, this child in the garden we spend a lifetime trying to hide. I don’t think we’re exactly assigning blame when we consider the conspiracy of the world, the flesh, and the devil against us. But our strength is in the truth that they do not create us. That has been done, once and forever.
By analogy, it is something like the influence of words in our lives. In every waking moment of the day (and sometimes even in our dreams) our thoughts and actions are shaped by the words we hear, read, speak, or think. But the words are all superficial to the simple child creature we are at center. Words may form and change us like the influence of other people in our lives, but they don’t create us. And so, the higher levels of the spiritual life consist in transcending people and words and presenting our unencumbered child creature attentively at Your feet.
In the growth and development of a spiritual life there is a tendency to brand things as clearly helpful and clearly detrimental to the change of heart (metanoia) that we hope takes place. There is a lot of common sense plus a lot of available spiritual reading that is of benefit in this regard. One thing, however, I don’t think we pause often enough to consider is that there are a lot of things in our lives that are not bad or wrong but that, nonetheless, stand in the way of this “metanoia.” They become more prominent as one attempts to refine, tweak, and tune-up one’s spiritual life.
A person might not normally consider changes in harmless routine activities to accommodate another’s sensibilities of them as uplifting, but it could be.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with discussing something, offering one’s opinion, or asking questions, but being silent at these times can work powerful changes from within.
Material goods and possessions are pretty much neutral, but looking at them from a perspective of detachment and indifference can feed our spirit.
Then there is the simple matter of good will. Good will may be the best lubricant of all for a change of heart. Assenting within to live with and accept circumstances we would otherwise kick against and complain about is the hallmark of Your mother’s life and the lives of many of the saints. To be and do the best we can in situations not of our choosing is a Teflon-coating for the mechanism of growth in the spirit.
True spirituality and love are not just found in the pursuit of a daily religious routine of prayer and devotions. My own bias is that it is impossible without it, but we must not stop at mastering the means with the end still not grasped.
Since, then, the end will not be fully grasped in this life, we inevitably cease movement in its direction if we epitomize the means by which we move rather than the end toward which it takes us. We do not find You in such pursuits but through them. They are the channels of Your grace which, with practice, we can widen.
It is not difficult to become infatuated and fall in love with certain forms of prayer, spiritual reading, and writing. But there is a risk. The risk is that of idolizing the means. It becomes even greater when we rationalize the promulgation of our means, however subtle, as that of a good example for others. This is spiritual disorientation and we lose our way.
In Frank Bianco’s book, Voices of Silence an abbot talks about trying to see the “balance” of all things great and small. There is a balance in the way we let God be in our privacy and in our common life. There is a balance between different personalities in any community, a balance between cares and concerns in one direction and a lack of them in another. Our devotional practices should not, first of all, blindside us as to their place in the balance of things and, secondly, they should not become a deterrent from seeking this balance by becoming private ends in themselves. To read, write and pray in different ways should be a part of the balance by which all men seek You.
There is an ongoing global as well as an historical balance to consider in the ways man seeks You. These must be recognized as part of the balance of life. My part is in there too. The context of my part is what is real to me. You always speak to me within the reality of my own life. So, it is You at the fulcrum of all
balance regardless of anyone’s push or pull. To explore and widen the channels You give us individually is to participate in maintaining this balance. We do this in the ways by which You call us. These ways are Your gifts of grace – not ends. They are the special means given to our individuality, in our contexts, to keep the balance. You call us in many different ways, but with one spirit. So, the routines of prayer, devotions, reading, writing and contemplation spill over into all the other times in our lives when we are not doing them and they lend a balance to the reality of our being which we take to every encounter.
We unintentionally divert ourselves from You in many subtle and habitual ways. We fall, almost unconsciously, into ruts and grooves in our ways of thinking and in our ways of doing things. If we were to rethink and redirect some of these habitual modes, we could do a lot better at finding You in our lives.
I know one area of my own life that fights the interior stillness needed for You to rest in me is my monstrous compulsion for order, structure and organization.I am an “a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place” guy; a compulsive list maker, tab affixer, note writer and labeler. Keeping up with this compulsion creates a lot of “busy work” and, for whatever reason, I am very fond of busy work. I seek it out and put it on my schedule. From the time I wake up to the time I retire I am driven to fill each moment with something. Because of this I don’t think I’m allowing You the space You need to happen in my life. You’re not on my schedule as much as You should be. Of course, I am faithful to the letter regarding those daily time slots I set aside for Mass, private prayers, meditation, centering, and writing. They have all been scheduled, and I don’t let anything interfere. But that leaves a great deal of the rest of the day – time when I seek “things to do.”
I have not been flexible when I lock onto accomplishing something in a particular time slot whether it’s an element of my prayer life or sewing on a button. I am good at making powerful, inflexible, unwritten rules for myself and I am obedient to them without regard for anything else. The casualty is me, for I fear this inflexibility in me misses something. What it misses is You.
When I seek activity for the sake of activity I am in bold opposition to the stillness needed for You to rest in me or for me to rest in You. This is not to say that sewing on a button or changing the car’s oil is deliberately shutting You out. There can be some inner stillness even in these activities. But there is a disposition needed which I currently don’t have; a disposition of Your presence in all things and in every activity.
I do not know for sure that I want to totally rid myself of my compulsion to be organized. It is part of who I am and there are consolations and advantages in it, but there are also disadvantages and, sometimes, feelings of guilt.
Reflections on habits such as these often tend to make me consider gradual modifications in my life. Yet, I would embrace such reflections only if I thought it aided my quest for You. If, somehow, I could place You at the center of all the structure and organization I impose on myself, and if I could say “yes” to those I perceive as threatening my compulsions, I think some good progress might be made. Compromise, although it reduces my structure by half, may not be a bad thing.
My life, as a whole, might be characterized by the phrase, ‘O.K. that’s done, what’s next?’ In comprehending any mortal existence as a series of things to get done and do, I remind myself of the mouse on the tread wheel – expending lots of energy and getting nowhere. Sometimes I rationalize the extensions of this modus operandi by being this way for the sake of others. I anticipate things they do or would want done, and do it for them. I am very comfortable operating like this, but I think it drives some people a little crazy and one of those, I think, is You.
The reason is that oftentimes You are, at best, an attachment to my motivation for so acting – a dim one. I say “at best” because with some effort and deliberation I can connect You to one task and then another (especially those I do for others) as a presence. Often, however, I don’t even make this effort. But when I do, it is good – yet it limps because You just get a small piece of whatever I’m doing.
Frank Bianco’s book about the Trappists, Voices of Silence, paints a picture of men who, instead of cultivating a modus operandi based on ‘O.K. that’s done, what’s next?’ cultivate one based on the theory of “less is more.” The more silent, still and empty I am of doing this or that, or looking for what’s next – even if it has to do with others rather than self – the closer I come to You, Your Presence and Your love. Instead of dimly attaching You to my busy-ness, I cease and desist from any such compulsions and stand in my best nothingness to meet You with an embrace.
I am not denying a proclivity toward the organization of the tasks of the day. I like order and that is my approach. But living out this modus operandi on a daily basis, often finds me indulging in a routine compulsiveness that is marked by‘O.K. that’s done, what’s next?’ It is the thoughtless habituation to these compulsions that makes me wonder about where it leaves You in my life.
It really seems, without rationalization, that a lot of it has to do with expectations – the expectations of others and my own expectations for myself. The notion of responsibility comes into play here and the forces created by expectations and responsibilities are great when taken seriously. Yet, there must be some liberation from being “hog-tied” by these concepts. It is a very complex adjustment the conscience must make to not become overly scrupulous about expectations and responsibilities and, at the same time, not become guilt- ridden about shirking what we know to be a good and responsible action.
We cannot begin movement toward You unless You begin movement. It would be nice to be able to clearly discern the movements of Your spirit within us. Yet, so often we let pass or do not recognize the stirrings of Your spirit. It is an important aspect of the spiritual life just to be able to discern these movements. I think, in time, we begin to see them in places we might not have looked before. Even when I think I am making progress in finding You in my family, in my friends, in the beauty of Your world and in the discomfort and suffering that may be visible to me, there are countless ways I miss You each day.
There is a slow process of “fine-tuning” in the spiritual life which is made difficult to accomplish by living in the distractions of the world. How does one continually dispose one’s self to discern Your movements in all things?
I thing the basic key to being able to do this is the often reiterated spiritual maxim of aligning our wills with Yours. Synchronizing our wills with Yours may be the best prayer of all, for then we seek what You seek and our movement toward You is at one with Your movement toward us. What’s interesting about this is that somehow You must first move us to get us to this point and we must be open to this movement for it to be effective. Your love always finds ways and means to accomplish this in our lives. When we stop and clear the channels we find moments of recognition and discernment. Then we move toward You; but we must practice this because in the normal course of life I fear we miss far more moments of such movements than we recognize.
Again, St. John Climacus has said that vainglory is circuitous. Even when we think we are not vain, that is vainglory and vainglory leads to pride and pride is the assertion of self and denial of You.
It sounds like a spiritual “Catch-22.” Without going to a dictionary I’m not sure of the difference between vainglory and pride. Perhaps there is none. My understanding of vainglory is the wasteful and useless time we spend in glorifying and promoting our false-self – the “me.”
Now, without You we are indeed nothing but with You we are indeed something to glory in and be proud of. This dignity, which comes from You not from our selves, is not vain, for vanity dwells more in fantasy than reality. The minute our egos take over and attribute the good we may see in ourselves to ourselves, that is the pride of vainglory.
Yet I think what Climacus is talking about here is a complacent brand of pride and vanity that sets in when we become satisfied that we have shed the “self” and placed You properly at the center of our lives. Truly, no man ever arrives so completely at this point. At whatever ascending step he may light, it was by Your grace and not his/her effort.
So, while it is good to feel good about Your actions in our lives, it is not so good to take a vainglorious attitude toward being so loved by You. It’s a difficult distinction for we know that Your love truly does make us “special.”
Into this whole mix must also be stirred the difference between an inward, silent sense of well-being in You, and an exterior, boastful brashness about it. There is something that definitely chafes, irritates, and grates on me at the very idea of not feeling fantastic about Your love for me. I don’t care what Climacus says, You are the most positive source of love and caring in my life – and I shouldn’t feel good about this? I think Climacus would not oppose me on this, but rather would point out that the source is not me – even when I feel good about not being vain about it, the source is You. True humility demands honesty and therefore recognizes and feels good about goodness, but realizes that all goodness come from the One Good.
St. John Climacus has said that whenever we grow warm with good feelings about our spiritual progress - that is the work of the demons. While I don’t think he’s saying we shouldn’t be pleased with what progress we perceive ourselves to be making, I do think he’s speaking against complacency and self-satisfaction in the spiritual life. The quest is constant. When one small goal is reached, another perpetually takes its place. Life is this kind of quest. The full attainment of what we seek in this life is outside our grasp, yet we are compelled in moving toward it.
It is the work of the enemy to settle us into the conviction that we’ve done everything we can. This is what St. John Climacus is talking about. In no way is a sense of completion in this quest conducive to a spirit of reaching higher. I see the signs of such self-satisfaction in my own journey when I catch myself in spiritual ruts that have grown comfortable. I need to revise and refresh the vocal prayers with which I begin and end each day so they don’t become thoughtless mantras without which I would not be able to start my day in the morning or fall asleep at night.
Unless I have spread wide the gates of my attentiveness to what is transpiring before me in the Mass’s “liturgy of the word,” and then the “liturgy of the Eucharist,” I rest in the complacency of just “attending” Mass.
In many ways the greatest pragmatic source of spiritual satisfaction that I experience comes from spiritual reading and from writing these letters. I think the reason for this is because the thrust of both is toward a moving on in the quest – a moving forward. But there can also be a demonic satisfaction in this when I credit myself for insights gained.
To understand and come to grips with the demons of self-satisfaction and complacency we need to consistently examine how life and its circumstances comes between the reality of ourselves and what we want to be. Very often the events of life are not under our control and, especially in regards to those that are unpleasant, we devise strategies, games, and postures that will give us the best feeling and the most comfort in a bad situation. We often do this with a sense of survival and a lack of concern for others. Habituation of such practices is what shores up complacency and self-satisfaction. We cannot climb the ladder by stepping on the hands of others and casting them off as they make the same ascent. Within ourselves we can never feel good about this. It is our unavoidable feelings and emotions that our demons play upon most. The stoicism that might seem so necessary to combat them has the side-effect of becoming a barrier to compassion. You grace is our hope and Your compassion is a grace