In what I might call newly attained or newly granted levels of spiritual progress, I am constantly tempted to give myself some kind of credit. But moments of God-granted clarity pull me up short. In such a moment recently was given me the insight that, try as we might, we can do nothing to gain infused contemplation for ourselves. It may or may not be granted by You. That’s all! It’s totally up to You.From this I extrapolated the attainment of every spiritual goal to which we aspire. You will grant it as You see fit.
So, what is our part? Are we purely sponges? Does what we do have any value or consequence? The answer is “yes,” and goes directly to the concept of “disposition.” We can make ourselves more sensitive and finely tuned receivers by opening our “doors” ever wider. We can, by getting up every day and doing things that dispose us to this scenario, enable You to gift us. We must look with hope each day in finding You in what we do. The prayers, meditations, alms, works of charity and mercy, devotions, and contemplation, we must understand, in and of themselves do nothing but dispose us to receive what You might give. They dispose us and fine tune our ability to receive. Each one of them is a “door” through which You may enter bearing gifts. They don’t “earn” us or “merit” us anything. This whole concept is rather contrary to the notion of doing good to accrue merit for ourselves. Yet this is the popular corruption of being “religious.” It confuses me to see this widespread notion of chalking up points with God taken as the basis for religion or spirituality. I have a “tingle” that vibrates quietly in me and seems to want to convince me that a lot of the “trappings” of institutional religion are going the wrong way on a one way street.
You come to each of us in Your own way according to how we dispose ourselves to You. If we do not understand that, we are missing the point. The point is that while we imagine ourselves seeking You, it is really You who are seeking us. The twist is that whatever we do to seek You helps clear the way for You to seek us.
The “self” is so strong in me that I fear oftentimes (maybe all the time) that what I think is Your voice in my life is really only me talking to myself. “Discernment” has become a catchword in Christian spirituality for the ability to truly identify Your spirit’s whispers and movements in our lives. With so much ego, so much me, so much “self,” this is not easy. What makes it even more difficult is honestly knowing when the “self” is vacated and the doors are open for You. In this endeavor the “self” a pest that won’t leave.
One unavoidable axiom that should be paramount in my thinking about discernment is that whatever I’m discerning must be channeled through me. I am the only conduit through which You can reach me. So the question of valid discernment is really a question of the degree of conductivity to which I have brought myself. Since this process of disposition is ongoing and evolutionary it has the potential of becoming sharper the more it is sought and the longer it is sought.
There may never come points at which we are absolutely 100% sure of Your voice or Your actions in our lives. The doubt comes from our own humanity. But the more we learn to dispose ourselves by pushing “self” aside the easier it becomes to discern instances which beg further discernment; and the perception of successive discernments becomes surer. It’s basically the old saw, practice makes perfect. I’m far from being perfect and I’m still practicing, but there are indeed times when I’m strongly convinced that You speak to me and move me, and it’s not just my “self.” I treasure these times and, like those who followed You around Galilee and Judea, I keep wanting more – more signs – more ways to discern You. Your love overlooks all my shortcomings of discernment and maybe the ability to discern that fact is the most important discernment of all.
The term “discernment” is often used among the descriptors of the operations of the spiritual life. Discernment is a two-edged sword. It is a tool we pray to use correctly because the fact is, if left entirely to our own resources, our discernments are as flawed as we are. Any discernments we make on our own are inherently influenced by who and what we are – our experiences. I would not be making a point of this if I did not think it important that we pay heed to the caution that, as a race and as individuals, we are much more prone to make erroneous discernments than good ones.
We have failed in the past to discern who You are. We fail often to discern the beckoning of God in our lives. We fail to discern correctly the true character and dignity of others – even those very close to us. All the way back to and includingthe story of Adam and Eve, ours is a history of erroneous discernments.
Because our experiences weigh heavily on our discernments, I view even what I perceive to discern clearly (especially about spiritual matters) as fuzzy; and being fuzzy they tend to go on without definitive resolution. But the wonder is that this may be a good thing! There is no quest without a “grail” even though not definitively discerned. So, we do the best we can and continually try to inform our discernments.
Discernment often becomes much clearer in hindsight. People we avoided or did not much care for, or with whom we had issues, years later can present pictures of exemplary stature which we missed. How many individuals – even relatives – could I wish to experience again bringing all my present experiences and knowledge to the encounter? Certainly discernments in hindsight are more trustworthy than those made in the present. I do not trust myself alone to discern clearly. Only with Your spirit does my trust increase.
Our inclination to wonder where God is at in personal or global disasters, sufferings, war, crises, etc., may arise from a blind spot that causes our inability to see good in them. Suffering is a great teacher. It is the crucible in which the dross of illusion is burned away; and this is the process by which we move closer to You.
When we are happy, free of cares and everything seems to be going along just great we are not prone to ask: “Where is God in all this?” We take it for granted that such blessings are the way things should be. When suffering and disaster filter in, we begin to think we’ve lost touch with You when, in fact, we may be even closer to You. I think we need to take the long view of such times and reflect upon the many ways good may come from them.
Most of the times that I recall being annoyed, frustrated, exasperated and/or hurting, are times, in hindsight, when I learned something, I grew, I found something of good in the experience. Therefore it seems to me that that blind spot which causes our inability to see good in something disastrous or painful is the present perception of it. We are too close to the moment of pain to even consider the patience necessary to view it over the long run. But that is what is needed. What is immediate lacks context. With time we come to insert the episode into a context. From that context, that broader view, what seemed painful may indeed be viewed differently – even positively. There should, then, be caution about making any judgments about the undesirability of such times.
To say, “Where is God?” in our times of distress is to discount the gospel message that God knows what we need before we even ask. The possibility that what we need maynot be what we want gives us the chance to defer to God, to let go and accept what we would not choose – even to embrace it, knowing full well that what we perceive as the rocks and shoals in the storm of life may result in safe harbor. The agony of defeat often precedes the thrill of victory – Gethsemane teaches this!
One of the biggest “glitches” in developing and nurturing our relationship with You is that it suffers a lack of the basic expectation in human relationships of being 50/50. Without Your being physically present to us the relationship, in reality, is tilted more strongly toward what we control – and that’s the problem! When we control our relationship with You there is no part of it that cannot be touched by the powers of evil. There is no part of it that cannot fail. When we form You in our image, when we see You only in what we want, and when we need You only in our own time, the flaws of our own endeavors are clear and large. But the powers of evil cannot touch what comes from You in our relationship.
We cannot fail if only we learn to let You act in us, to allow You to move us in ways we might not choose, and to willingly accept them. This seems to me to be what the spiritual life is all about – learning to allow You to establish Your relationship with us; learning to be open to the action of Your grace; learning not to manipulate You as we so often do with others.
Evil cannot touch what You work in us. We cannot fail when we perfect disposing ourselves to Your action in us. So often we get in Your way - even by doing things we think are good. The “self” is great at convincing us that what we do counts for so much. The life’s work of removing that is what allows You to work in us, with us, and through us. We are, it is true, vessels of clay, but vessels nonetheless made to receive and contain.
It seems to me that the greatest failure of organized Christianity is the continuing instruction of age-mature church-goers in a way that goes beyond a re-hash of their elementary and/or secondary schooling. To so many of us what we understand about life and our relationship with God ends with the last “religion” class we took. It leaves us at a certain level that, instead of being augmented and transcended is perpetuated by the sermons preached by most priests and ministers on a regular basis.
The fundamental value of what we learned in religion and theology classes can’t be denied. They are the necessary starting point for life’s forming of faith. But all too often they are also the ending point. What happened to “post-graduate” work? I think that factors such as “comfort” and “risk” in enhancing our relationship with You come into play not only in our own lives but in the lives of those we look to for guidance.
For our part it is not hard to come to believe that we already have learned everything we need to know. It’s more comfortable this way and less risky if we just keep practicing what we know. The clergy, I fear, is intimidated by the possibility of losing their congregation if they don’t perpetuate that comfort and lack of risk. Indeed, whether it be the clergy from the pulpit or we ourselves, it is risky to challenge our comfort zone. You challenged an entire race’s customs and beliefs in a way that was both risky and discomforting. But who challenges us today? Is it us? Do we challenge ourselves to grow? Is it the clergy from the pulpit? When was the last time we were so moved by a sermon that it actually changed us? No, the real answer to who challenges us today is still – You!
If we are open to the accounts of what You said about our relationship with Your Father then we and our comfort are currently being challenged in ways that go far beyond the grasp of our religion classes. Our “post-graduate” work is an ongoing attempt at the comprehension of the meaning of love both in our relationships with others and with God. Attached to this is a diminishing of “self.”
Yes, we must find our own paths to doing this, but first we must want it and then we must actively seek it in ways that go beyond the habitual practices of the traditions of our youth. In the gospel admonition to, “Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you,” the responsibility to “seek” and to “knock” is on us.
It is the action of love that somehow transforms the conceptual knowledge of faith into the possibility of direct experiential contact with God. Consequently the union caused by love is closer than that which is caused by knowledge.
There are many forms of “attachments” in our lives which we allow to debilitate our movement toward You. Maybe the most insidious of such attachments is to religion. So often this attachment is a masquerade for self-righteous, loveless legalism. It strikes me that with the situation the world is in today there may be nothing more antagonistic to the reign of Your kingdom than religious fundamentalism and religious extremism.
The fundamental, literal, legal approach taken by many Christian sects is a growing cancer to Your message. The fanatical extremism of certain Islamic factions in the name of religion, and even in the name of God, is a tangent moving at ever-increasing velocity away from Your spirit and love toward fear, terror, and self-destruction. When our relationship with God gets its only meaning from our ability to wear it like a badge for all to see, we do not understand, deeply, our common spiritual bond and destiny. Those without such a badge become “have-nots,” outcasts, pariah, and they are castigated by those who know not what such people have within.
I like the broader term “Christian” rather than Catholic to describe the persuasion under which I operate. Yet, there is a certain uneasiness even about this that compels me to search for a more encompassing descriptor of human spiritual roots and direction – a designator that lovingly binds us all together.
The faith in a loving God that binds many of us from all corners of the earth is not the same as faith in a particular “faith.” Do you believe in an all-loving God who cares deeply about humanity and about each of us individually? This is a more germane question than, “What religion do you belong to?” Maybe the descriptor should be believer, but, unfortunately, so many religions use this word only to describe those of their own persuasion. If you belong to the group you are a believer; if not, you are an unbeliever. Maybe the most precise descriptor, the one with the most common root, the one most undeniable, is seeker. No matter what other tags we apply to ourselves, no matter what badges we wear for all to see, and no matter what religion we are, we are all – every one of us – seekers. While our seeking may often be misguided, that spark of looking for something ”beyond” is alive in all of us. It binds us together. It cannot help but do so because it is the whisper of Your voice calling to each of us.
When I have a dilemma caused by a sense of discomfort about myself due to something I’ve read or some thought that has struck me, it will most likely end up in a letter to You. Such is the case here as I ponder the lesson You gave of giving “all.” You abandoned everything, even those around You whom You loved, for the love of “all.” I am further intimidated by the examples of some of the victims of the holocaust who gave till death everything they had for the comfort of others. To pray sincerely and with joy, “Take, Lord, and receive all that I hold dear,” is a prayer that frightens me because of what it reveals about me. The saints and, particularly, the martyrs were not reticent. They did not hold back from You. But I do.
Spiritual courage is not talked about that much, but it is an indispensable part of “letting go,” which has to do with our attachments. We live a life of habitually growing more and more dependent on people and things. The longer we live, it seems, the more attached we become. To honestly say, “Take and receive all that I hold dear,” takes more courage than I have right now, but I want to be able to say it. I believe that as long as I remain open to Your love You will gradually move me to the right disposition in this regard. As often happens, my concerted efforts place too much emphasis on my own abilities to effect change. This hinders the action of Your grace in me.
Worry is a funny thing. Worrying about others may show a degree of love and concern, but, on another level, it may show a lack of trust.
As You know, I am a worrier. I worry about almost everything. I even worry about being a worrier. I lean toward the feeling that it’s a bad thing, but I can’t seem to help myself. I worry primarily about those I love most. I worry about their safety, their health, and most of all about their relationship with You. Worst of all, I worry about me not being a factor in all three of these, which is, when I stop to think about it, more like worrying about myself. Superficially I tend not to think that I worry about myself; that I care more about others. But I’m starting to see that my worry about others may be a mask for a more deep-rooted worry about myself.
Many times are recorded when You would begin or end an exhortation to Your disciples with the words, “Fear not.” It’s pretty much the same as saying, “Don’t worry.” You also told Martha not to be so anxious about so many things. Your admonitions are clear. So why is this such a stubborn problem for me? Again, at its root, I see more of a lack of trust combined with a self-centered worry. I am more afraid of failing others than afraid of their ability or inability to find their own way. The reason is because I fear the guilt I may feel for being found lacking in some regard. This in turn keeps me so busy worrying about doing things that keep me from being lacking that putting trust only in myself is the result. The worry characterized by this kind of fear and busyness is a barrier to being fully open to You – to letting go and letting God.
What I wish is that I could dispassionately commit everything into Your hands and forget about it. This will never completely happen because I am who I am and only You are willing to accept that; but with effort some greater degree of it may yet come to pass.
When we are young we think that to become wise we must know a great deal about a lot of things, and so we spend a lot of time on our education, on reading,and on discussing views and sharing opinions. A good part of our lives is spent doing this. When we get old and reflect upon all this learning and knowledge we realize that wisdom is really very basic and simple and is often encumbered by much of our knowledge and learning. We become so caught up in acquiring worldly wisdom that we cannot see the forest for the trees.
Sometimes the simple wisdom of a child confounds our complex approaches to a problem. Nowhere is this truer than in the spiritual life where we come closer to wisdom the more childlike we become. As a mother or father cannot resist the cries or entreaties of their helpless, dependent child, so also God cannot resist our childlike dependence upon Him. The more worldly, knowledgeable, wise, and sophisticated we are the more independent we become, and this lack of dependence keeps God at a distance.
It is wise to realize that we can never really know God in this life, only love Him. He will reveal Himself to us as He wishes, not as we wish. All the spiritual, theological, and religious books we read may help us love God more but, despite what we may think, they do not help us comprehend Him anymore than He has already revealed Himself. The ultimate wisdom offered by books is that true wisdom is not acquired, it is bestowed. At best, books are conduits of grace and the spirit. They are not guarantors of wisdom. The factor of disposition plays such a huge role that it might even be said that wisdom is the act of disposing oneself to its gifting.
I think, at this point in my life, that real wisdom is mostly about listening attentively to Your many voices and being open to the changes that may bring. It is not so much something we possess as something by which we are possessed.