I am wondering: is there or isn’t there a connection between Your love for me and the role that “luck” (chance) plays in determining my state in life, my condition in life, my role in life?
Is it pure chance that I am an American, a citizen of a most blessed country; that I am more materially blessed and comfortable that half or more of the rest of the world; that I have received a high degree of education and have huge amounts of leisure time that I fill with diversions of my choice? Is this all luck? Would I be the person I am if all these accidents of my life were different?
There are many things like my birth and early upbringing over which I had no control. The greatest amount of who and what I am was shaped by my parents, friends and the church. Although my musings in this regard may be whimsical, I am wondering if the chance components of my external being (my persona) were the raw materials given to You with which to work, or were they given by You to me and others to constructmy life?
If we truly believe that You love the soul of the most miserable, destitute, and perverse human being no more or no less than You loved St. Francis or St. Theresa, then we must admit that the accidents of life not only are not Your gift, but that You are essentially unconcerned with them. What this comes to is that in Your eyes it is not so important or consequential where I was born, or where I live, how healthy or wealthy I am, or how much security, leisure, comfort or education I have. These are the chance items I get from and give back to the world as attachments to Your gift of life. The things the world might be envious of have nothing to do with Your love for me which is spiritual.
There is something petty and trivial about all our earthly attachments and accomplishments – so petty and trifling when weighed against the spiritual that they sometimes strike me as comic especially in the ways we’re deluded by the treadmill of our daily activities. I am as guilty as anyone in this spiritual short-sightedness. It chafes at me to ponder the stark insight that the half or more of the world that is not as healthy, wealthy, comfortable and materially blessed as the half in which I find myself has so much more in the way of angst, despair and fatalism to overcome in order to get to You. The riddle of Your love for the poor has, in this, an answer.
The circumstances and attachments of each of our lives, like iron filings to a magnet, attach themselves to us as accidents of our existence on this planet. How we utilize, shape, or dismiss these accidents is part of the common recipe of how we return the love shown in Your gift of life.
There have been and will be many varieties of penance we impose upon ourselves as well as penances imposed upon us by others. We do well to remember that the way we handle these is a reflection of the way we love You.Yet there seems to be an all-pervading, unavoidable, primal penance that blankets every one of us – work! This, before any other self or other-imposed penances, reflects the way we love each other and You.
We speak of “work” in many ways: it is the means by which we earn a living; it is physical or mental activity which is taxing; and it can also refer to the doing of something to which we dedicate great amounts of time – even a life. Sometimes we are identified by our work: he is a carpenter, autoworker, teacher, or doctor. We speak of putting a new roof on the garage, or studying for a test, or trimming the hedges as hard work. We also make reference to the fact that scholarship, painting, music, or marriage can be a life’s work. It is in this latter sense that we might also refer to the work of ever drawing closer to You and of bridging the gap of sin that has so separated us from You. It is this gap, this loss chosen by our own free will for which, in the end, work is the primal penance.
To reverse things by willingly accepting and embracing that which is taxing or difficult for the sake of another, or by earning a living by going through years of that daily “grind,” or by dedicating oneself to a particular task – all these and more, are to perform the penance of our destiny.
Yet, there is another aspect to this – one that determines the efficacy of any penance – motivation! If love does not motivate the daily grind, the taxing chore, or the life’s work, we waste again the chance that has been granted us. In the mythology of Eden Your grace is what man lived by. The preternatural Adam and Eve, fresh from the breath of Your love had only to “be” with You in a paradise of innocence. They had only to will to love You to maintain such ecstasy; but, of course, the freedom of will You gave us – so necessary for us to choose You – was, and is, our downfall. As a commentator on Genesis so aptly put it, the story of Adam and Eve is not a story about then, it is a story about now. It is a story about man’s proclivity for falling from grace and of his work to re-obtain it – the ongoing penance of a work necessary to maintain the physical and spiritualposture needed for increasing closeness to You.
Restlessness is the tendency to be unable to stick to one thing for very long before wanting to move on to something else. I discover it daily in my own life. It may, at first, seem like a bad thing, a thing in opposition to the stability vowed in some religious communities. But there is a certain good dynamic at work in restlessness. That, “our hearts are restless until they rest in You,” may not be as much a curse as it is a blessing. I might even go so far as to say that restlessness may be another way of describing stirrings of the spirit when the comfort of a certain level of spiritual endeavor becomes routine. I find myself, every so often, tuning and tinkering with the ways I seek You. It usually happens that every few years (the time periods vary) I become restless for different approaches because of stagnation from too much comfort with the old habitual routines. This is not unhealthy.
Restlessness is a part of who we are. It’s true, we like some stability because as it endures we feel less vulnerable to risk. Stability is comfortable. Yet we know within us that to linger at one point and never move on fights growth – and so we become restless. It’s a cycle that constantly repeats itself. I think the worst thing we can do is to settle in and ignore it.
You pursue us in many ways. It’s both ironic and fascinating that one of the most powerful of these ways is through the feeling of a restlessness that can be either a source of seeking something that separates us or something that draws us nearer. You offer us restlessness and our response to it is what we offer You.
I tend to think the reason we usually consider restlessness undesirable is because it involves change. Change, especially as we grow older, is something with which we are uncomfortable. As we grow older we become more expert at ignoring and quashing restlessness. This is a mistake. Without the “pain” of change, which we increasingly try to avoid, there can be no gain.
I love to read or listen to the lives of the saints despite however much romanticizing has crept in over the years. I do not have delusions about their humanity. They got scraped, nicked, suffered, were embarrassed and insulted and got dirt under their nails just like the rest of us. Perhaps the reason I enjoy so much even the romanticized versions is because I think I can recognize the efforts of those who so idealize them that they dehumanize them – intentionally leaving out their rough spots. It’s a shame more of them didn’t write autobiographies like St. Therese of Lisieux.
For all the gloss – and even for all the pain and suffering – there is one quality shared by all of them: self-denial, which, in itself takes on many different forms depending on the individual and his/her situation. Indeed, regardless of thehalo or the stigmata, self-denial is the primary prerequisite and, therefore, common denominator of our true selves – our saint. And I believe there is a saint in each one of us. It is, for the most part, obliterated by all the false selves that need to be denied. This is how we bring out the saint in us.
As each of our false selves is denied, it dies and a little bit more of our true self – our saint – is revealed. The power-seeking self, the money-oriented self, the pleasure-seeking self, the manipulative and beguiling self, the doctrinaire self, the vain self, the smug self, the self-satisfied self, etc., etc. When each of these is denied it dies and our saint shines through a bit more. Certainly it’s easier to cultivate all these selves than it is to get rid of them. It takes real effort.
When I was teaching, no matter how poorly a student performed, if I could see real substantial effort it melted me. I think You’re like that too. No matter to You how inept we are at ridding life of our false selves and getting at our saint, as long as we make sincere efforts to do so. This is the substance of anyone’s spiritual quest.How it is done is easier to describe than to accomplish but, again, the effort is what is important: to deny the power-seeking self one must become subservient; to deny the money-oriented self one must feel no compunction about parting with what is not needed; the pleasure-seeking self by concern first for pleasing others; the beguiling self by trusting; the doctrinaire self by listening with attention, and so on. To rub away these false masks that hide our saint is to find You in us.
To discover who one is and what it means to be oneself, one must work as if in a monastery on removing certain things from one’s life. To be in a monastery, I would think, would be, in one sense, like being in the desert with You. It would be there that we might best understand the need to rid ourselves of the fear of failure. There we might begin to understand the importance of removing the need to be what we believe pleases others. Both of these are strongly enmeshed in the false self we spend so much time grooming.
The false self is an exterior façade that we come to believe is a given necessity for security and material survival in the world. We can become very comfortable with it because we create it as we go along - improvising its facets to suit our changing needs. There is no question that it infects our spirituality and there is no question that its ongoing formation is deeply based on a fear of failure. Sensing oncoming failure triggers a flurry of adjustments to maintain the comfortable status quo of the false self. Accepting failure (not striving for it) and learning ever to ignore the fear of failure seems alien.We want to be so much for others. We want to be one who means something to others and fills a need in them. The prospect of failure at this can be terrifying – but should it be?
You came to us and, in effect, said, “Here I am. What you see is what you get.” Shouldn’t we be all about being able to fearlessly make precisely that same statement? In fact, since our nature is not divine like Yours, shouldn’t we be about constantly working at establishing that true self as our only self?
The desert, the monastery, the interior life – these are the environments of the true self – the self that simply says “Here I am.” These are also the environments in which we nurture the growth of this true self – a self that is not afraid to fail (though it doesn’t seek to do so) and a self that is unafraid of not being meaningful or pleasing to everyone else (though it seeks the opposite).
What we bring away from contemplative prayer should be our true selves – or, at least, a growing awareness of our true selves. The true self is at the center of our being. The desert, the monastery and the interior life provide the environments we need to gravitate toward this center and away from our false selves without fears. Sustaining the true self in hostile environments, in the commerce of daily life in the world, and in the complexities of human relationships is the mark that distinguishes the saint.
I want to tell You about a theory I have. Percentage-wise, You know that more than any other topic, I write to You about “self.” There are some knotty problems presented by our perceptions or sense of self. It sticks to us like glue and is the source of all spiritual conflict. It is in just this sense that continual reflection on the self has led me to theorize that the “devil” we speak of when we characterize our weaknesses as the world, the flesh, and the devil, may just be the “self.”
In the story of creation man in the garden was, at first, blissfully unaware of his naked self in the presence of God. It was when man asserted his “self” beyond the will of God that he became aware of himself and his “nakedness.” Man became “self” – conscious. From that time on he has struggled against “self” to somehow return to that pristine time before the devil of “self” conflicted our nature. The garden (the world) didn’t change but the devil of “self” makes us change it all the time. The flesh is that which was first given to us. But the devil of “self” is what makes us slaves to the constant whims of the flesh. Our own interior self-consciousness also makes us less aware or concerned with the “self” of others. We would rather assert our own “self.”
Granted, what we uniquely are (the gift of self) is precious, but I think the distinction between self as being and self as willed must be made. Many writers name the two selves the “true self” and the “false self.” The true self is the essence of our individual being which You have given to us. It is, as it were, our “Adam-and-Eve-ness” before the fall. Our false self is whatever we’ve sold ourselves about ourselves – after the fall. Thus, to be self-conscious can be either bad or good depending on which self we are most conscious of. Being conscious of our essence, our true being, is good. In this we become more in touch with our roots – the very ground of our being. Being in touch with the self we’ve created draws us ever farther from our true selves. This false self has all the potential (and some of the actuality) of the “no” uttered to our true selves in the garden.
The soul of my life is the unique spirit (self) given to me by You. What I do can either enhance or disguise that spirit. But for the life of me, I cannot escape the fact that the one be-devils the other.
Recently, at the hunger center, an acquaintance named Charlie asked me, “What do you want out of life?” Charlie is very jovial and a great kidder, but I think he was asking this question seriously. It took me completely off guard and I blurted out, “happiness, of course.” But as soon as I said it I knew inside that there was something wrong with this answer and I continued to think about it. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then, instead of thinking about my answer, I started thinking about Charlie’s question. It’s the question a lot of people ask themselves, but it’s the wrong question. Therefore whatever answers it is not the right answer.
The way the question is asked is typical of our times: “What do you want out of life?” It’s looking a gift horse in the mouth. It’s grabbing a present from someone, shaking it, and saying, “OK, I know what it is – what else?” The question really should be, “What do you put into life?”But we tend to look at life as something out of which we should get something rather than taking it and using it as the gift we have received.
We’re often concerned with whether a person really uses a gift we’ve given which we thought was really a good gift. Sometimes, without ever really saying anything, we look to see if the recipient is using our gift. It is the use of the gift that shows us that it is appreciated.
Just so, it’s not what we get out of life that’s important. It’s what we put into it – how we use it – that shows our appreciation. The question, as posed, seemed rooted in the difference between love and selfishness – between what we can get and what we can give.
Maybe Charlie already knew that it’s not what you get out of life that counts, but what you put in it. Maybe Charlie’s question was Yours.
So long as I am open and disposed to accepting You in my life; as long as I pursue You, no matter how many times or how hard I fall – You cannot forsake me.This is yet another consolation, a hug from You in the same vein as St. Therese of Liseux’s: “I know I am far from practicing what I should, but the mere desire to do so gives me peace.”
Your arm is around me constantly even when I fail to cast out the speck in my own eye. I would have it so, but cynicism, anger and criticism keep me dwelling on the faults of others rather than ridding myself of the very same faults. Daily accepting and pursuing You in my life is really the only peace and consolation there is, but it carries heavy consequences. How can one keep brushing Yourarm away? How can one keep avoiding Your hug and still seek You? Yet this is often the case with me, for my “self” is still so strong and the inner peace and quiet which comes now and then in flashes, more often eludes me.
We must never stop trying to grow into the person You made us to become, but so often we are not clear about that person. It is said that this blurring of Your image in us is a result of our fall. We kick against our banishment and exile to this exterior world often without any clear idea about what’s going on within us. Occasionally, in such times of unreasoned purity of heart we touch the inner world of who we really are and we understand that You will never forsake us. Seeking You in this life is a matter of constantly practicing and growing in entering into and dwelling in this inner world.
It has struck me that a single day is a meaningful metaphor for a whole life.The warmth, security and pleasant dreams we experience just before waking might be likened to the period of our gestation. When we awaken, it’s like being born. Our senses are flooded with reality and a new beginning is made. The dawn of a new day surrounds us with possibilities and, refreshed from the “gestation” of sleep, our energy level is high. We meet the day with hope. Life is good and clean and promising in the morning of our life. From the edge of the bed we put our feet on the floor and take our “first steps.”These steps, during the course of the day, will lead us into many different surroundings to which we will react differently. Early on we stumble and frequently fall becoming painfully aware of our frailty and vulnerability. We deal with other people in our day: those closest to us, those we barely know, and those we know not at all. In the course of our day we learn lessons about others and about ourselves. More than anything else during the course of our day, we are aware of our “self.”
As the midpoint of our day approaches we are often upset with and disillusioned by our “self.” The lessons of the day, by this time, begin to become less objective (as if necessary to pass a test or impress someone) and more interiorly personalized in the subjective sense. The closer the approach of evening, the more introspective we become and hindsight into our day gives us perspective about how we’ve used, abused, or profited by our day.
Evening is the beginning of wisdom or foolishness. Where we have gone, what we have done, the various people with whom we have interacted in our day bring us wisdom if we have not so cluttered it with sensory pleasures and busy distractions so as not to be able to see it. It is a shame at evening to look back over our day and not have any sense at all of where we have come from.
The darkness of the night is foreboding. There is apprehensiveness that our day will end soon. With this looms a sense that we have not used our day well. There is an increasing hope and reliance on You and Your mercy as the time for “retiring” approaches. We see that only You can justify our day.
Death is analogous to our lying down and being enveloped by the unconsciousness of sleep. There is a bit of heaven in the hope that maybe we have moved closer to You in our “day” and a bit of hell in knowing we didn’t.
We might be wise in taking a lesson from the movie Groundhog Day and live each day as if it was our whole life.
Thomas Aquinas alludes to the idea that it’s devastating to be unknown and further devastating to be known but not known enough. I think this operates on two levels: one where fear is legitimate and the other where it is pure ego.
The fear of not being known and, more to the point, being loved by You is a bona fide aspect of the fear of God. To not be known (loved) by You would be the height of all despair. When we have faith in You we have faith in the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep. If we trust in the fact that You do know us and love us, then any other devastation we have to deal with is a mirage. Not being known or not being known enough by others is irrelevant. I quote Jesuit writer Fr. Anthony DeMello: “There is no need to be popular…no need to stand out or be important…they are desires that arise from the ego – the conditioned “self” – the ‘me’.”
In a very real sense our desire to be known by others works against our being known by You. It is another way we put ourselves ahead of You and whenever we do that we shut You out. The fact that I can say I know DeMello is right does not diminish the fact that among my family and friends I still desire to be known. How often this manifests itself in the thought that he/she just doesn’t understand me. This, of course, is yet another manifestation of the quote from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: “There is no desire greater in the breast of man than that others should think as he does.”As natural and instinctive as this feeling is, it is a construct of my own ego. To revel in recognition, adulation, or sympathy from others is irrelevant. Only You give us what we truly need.