There sure are a lot of shades of meaning in the dictionary for the word “up,” especially in terms of the number of colloquial idioms we employ for it: to loosen up; to give up; to mess up; to screw up; to tighten up; to light up; to touch up; to fix up; wash up; speed up; clean up; dry up; warm up; clam up; save up, etc., etc. The word “up” in most of these cases seems to serve as a mild intensifier for the verb it accompanies.
This reflection on all the meanings of the word “up” comes from a reflection on one particular two-preposition idiom that fascinates me: “to put up with;” to really put with; to cast one’s lot with (if we parse the phrase). But the dictionary says the phrase means “to tolerate,” and that is the way it is most often construed.
Now, there is a lot in leading a Christian (spiritual) life that one “puts up with” – but in what sense? Do we just tolerate certain people, certain things, or do we really put with (cast our lot) with them? There is a lot within the meaning of “put up with” that helps define the message of the Christian life. There is a lot in life that we find downright difficult if not impossible to put up with. There is that which we cannot even tolerate. We react to these things in life defensively and with rejection. But this may be at the farthest extreme from Your message. If we are able to approach the same things with tolerance, in other words “to put up with” them, we move closer to Your ideal and Your example. Most of us get stuck at this stage yet still go on thinking it’s quite Christian. It may be closer, but it’s not really there yet.
I think “to put up with,” in the sense of the Christian message, means more like “putting in with;” casting one’s lot with, not just tolerating but projecting and identifying with the strengths and weaknesses we have in common which are a lot to put up with. The manner in which we choose to put up with them describes the quality of our lives.
These letters I write to You are a big part of my life. I anxiously anticipate writing to You regularly. I believe they are a huge factor in the development of my spiritual life. However, I wonder how much of what I write to You I really incorporate into my life. It’s easy to sit in the lap of God (my chair) relaxed and in silence and write what’s on my mind. When it’s all finished I read it back and it looks good. I’ve said what I want; on to the next topic. But is there any residual in my life? Is there anything of what You may be revealing to me through these letters? If I’ve thought any good thoughts and shared them with You – so what? A life unexamined may not be worth living but to make it worthwhile goes beyond just examining it.
Certainly there are some things You and I have shared that have made some impact on my life and my thinking. I suspect the themes of “love” and “self” have popped up more often than anything else and I further suspect that the reason for this is not so much what I want to say to You as it is what You want to say to me. I do like to peruse letters from the past that I have written to You. When I do this I discover that a great percentage of them have been forgotten and individually have had little, if any, effect on my life. But here’s the bright spot: the whole body of the hundreds of letters I’ve written to You have, in an ongoing way, had a significant effect on my relationship with You and on my overall spiritual growth.
As I get older my mind is becoming more and more like a sieve, but there is an aspect of gain in losing forever what is past. That gain is influenced by the totality of what I’ve written to You, and that influence will weigh on whatever I write to You in the future. These letters formed me in ways I do not fully fathom; and in the act of writing them, whatever they may be about, there is nothing better at keeping Your presence before me in the moment.
We can conceive of what we cannot express. This statement underlines the inductive and deductive powers of our intellects as they play against the knowledge that we are physically/mentally able to articulate. When we meditate or enter into contemplative depths like centering prayer we often have moments that are indescribable in language – spoken or written.
In the moments of writing these letters to You I take words and use them to feebly describe what I am able. Only You know, without any attempt on my part to use words, what these moments mean – moments that transcend words. These “times” exist in the reality of my life, yet no words can frame them. Maybe there’s a whole lot about our spiritual side that is totally apart from words or the mental formulations we devise to capture the essence of what is sensed. Maybe the fact that we are capable of recognizing this points to a near-dormant faculty of the intellect that doesn’t deal in words.
The fact that we can conceive an intuition of what we cannot express points directly at an aspect of ourselves of which we are dimly aware but unable to grasp. It points to the reality of something more to us than sentient feelings, thoughts and words. It points to a hidden nature deep within that seeks to emerge through all that is human. I’m inclined to think that it is heaven within us; the vestiges of the nature we were meant to embrace. It’s still there beneath the debris of ages. It will always be there. It waits patiently to be uncovered. It is a breath. It is a whisper. But it is not a word. Words do not capture it. They kill it!
I admire and try to emulate the gifts of speed and accuracy in performing tasks. The master craftsmen possess this efficiency. It is the professional who does the best job in the shortest amount of time that gets the most work. Athletes who are gifted with speed are also premium players at their sport. Despite the maxim that “slow and steady wins the race” we adore and cheer the flashy rabbits. Speed wins!
Well, even though I do like to get chores done quickly I am, in my thinking processes, something of a turtle. I’ve always wondered why a person like myself who loves words, loves to write, majored in English and minored in journalism, was so slow and inept at the spoken word. I’m wondering if it’s not because I’m such a slow thinker. Articulate, quick-witted individuals are near the top of my “wanna-be” list. I’m just not one of them. My brain is at least two steps behind my mouth. I always think of the perfect thing to say well after the opportunity has past. Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable with writing. It gives me time to think and allows me the needed interval to come up with the right words.
In a way it may be a blessing. Silence is safer. The quick mouth often has a foot in it. Once things are out of the mouth they can’t be brought back whereas a written page can be edited and/or destroyed before being read by others. I “speak” to You very carefully in these letters. I say pretty much what I want to say the way I want to say it. It’s a luxury. Though there is something of spontaneity lacking in it, there is heart. But there is also a danger in my “thinking” becoming like a religion. In my thoughts I create a world unto myself which, I allow, needs no expression. To speak it chips away at it. Could this be a rationale for my verbal deficiencies? I am convinced that I am comfortable in this silence. I hide in it.
To walk in silence is to be stripped of the certainty that we have the answer to anything. All that is certain in silence is that if we seek we are sought. If we find, we are found. Silence is a mute to our calculated trumpetings of self. It extends not just to the sound of our voices but also to the language of our bodies which we choose to speak for us in hopes of some recognition. In the lack of silence what is sought is attention, affirmation and praise. In silence what is sought is depth, discovery and the disposition of being sought. Some might disagree but I cannot see how silence and contemplation can be separated.
Silence draws us inward to plumb the depths of spiritual mysteries whose realities taunt us. It brings us to the honest admission that we can’t know completely what we seek, but we can know more, It makes us aware of the littleness of our self-promoting egos and it helps us realize the charismatic immensity of God’s love. Before we can open ourselves we must be silent. Before we can let go we must be silent.
In the words and actions that come from us also come false certainties and confidences in our own abilities. But in silence and stillness all such certainties and confidences are eroded and our warts are exposed. Such truth may be painful and intimidating but it is also liberating.
In silence and stillness the pressures of the moment, or of a particular situation in which not only others but we ourselves nurture certain expectations, evaporate. In silence and stillness we come closer to being who we really are. It is the environment of honesty and truth.
Even though we don’t have a choice about its imminence, there is something significant in accepting our dying. There is implied trust and there is choice. I’m not talking as much here about death as I am about dying. The inevitable part is death itself. It does not involve trust and choice, or even acceptance so much as dying does. Dying is the process that began with my birth. From that moment on I was dying. So, in a way, the acceptance, trust and choice we exercise in dying is also the acceptance, choice and trust we exercise in life since dying is an inevitably large part of living.
We don’t think too much about it in our early or even middle years. But as we get older and are besieged by the aches, pains and failures of various body parts and the increase in mental lapses we become increasingly aware that we are dying. The bodily functions and rhythms, normally taken for granted, harbor all kinds of anxieties when they change or get out of whack with age. I construe each new ache or functional anomaly as the sure foreshadowing of my demise.
Worst of all, though, are the mental lapses. I get angry about these. Doting old men and women I have known require a patience and solicitude that I normally do not consider as something required to be shown to me. But as time and circumstances magnify these possibilities and a steady flow in the attrition of gray-matter takes hold, the patience and solicitude I may have exercised for others I am incapable of exercising for myself. I am, right now, squarely at the margins of these parameters and, unless I yield to accepting and trusting in their inevitability, I can see myself becoming a grumpy old curmudgeon.
Death will happen. It’s the gateway to genuine life. But dying (like living) is fraught with worry and anxiety. Your acceptance of “Your hour” and Your advice to “be not afraid” rest squarely on Your love for and knowledge of Your Father. You have shown us that it is quite natural to welcome death but to have anxieties about dying.
What I write to You in any given day usually colors that whole day for me. I suppose that’s a big reason why, over the years, I’ve been reluctant to talk about death with You. I cannot deny that there is an exponential proportion between the number of years in my age and the frequency with which I entertain thoughts of my oncoming demise. What’s really amusing, in an ironic way, is my apprehension over death robbing me of my mornings with You. Attribute this to not being truly able to see clearly – and forgive me.
Sometimes I write as though I have a partial grasp of the veil that separates me from You – but I really don’t. I’m pretty much clueless or else I could see the foolishness of concern with missing my mornings. What, in fact, I might take from that feeling is the recognition of my strong desire to spend time with You – to be with You, and, of course, death is the gate through which we must pass.
It’s the moment of death we fear. It’s that point in time we dread even though we know what’s beyond is desired. We dread the moment like we dread going to the dentist, or taking our driving test, or getting a letter that says we’re drafted, or one from the IRS saying we are being audited. We dread physical and mental anguish and we know that the moment of death may contain this. As we get older our active imaginations conjure up all kinds of images of how we’ll die: an accident, a disease, our organs giving out, violence, an act of nature – these and more are all considerations.
I guess dwelling on these things is quite natural. It doesn’t really accomplish anything and it doesn’t really belie our trust in You or in heeding Your exhortations to “fear not.” It’s just a built-in, unavoidable, reaction to an end-point in what we see as the continuum of life. It is the unknown, and I guess we always fear that. But we also selfishly fear missing something in life. How often do we intimate to ourselves that we just want to live long enough to do this or that? We tend to look at life for what we can get out of it rather than what we can put into it.
There’s so much in life that begs love and belief – not understanding! Yet we somehow instinctively place a higher premium on understanding. Faith and love overcome fear – understanding does not! If we believe and if we love, we dissolve fear.
The centerpiece of all Your teachings is love – the love we nurture for You and others. It should be of great concern to us not only that we manifest this love but how we manifest it. This may have the effect of bringing to the surface a concern lest others fail to be influenced by me. After all, how do I measure my effectiveness as Your follower if I cannot measure my effectiveness on others?
The feeling is real that if my life has not made a difference in the lives of others it is a failure. Is it possible to not experience the effects of our own lives and still be Your disciples? It seems a valid consideration to look at one’s life and see what it has meant to others; what difference it has made to others. Is it pure vanity to seek out solid answers to the questions of whether my life has meant anything to others or made a difference in their lives?
If I look to those whom I think have made a difference in my life I, in some cases, do not come up with radically spiritual individuals. It would seem that the negative effects of some people occasionally carry more power and meaning than exemplary models – and here I don’t mean for the bad but for the good.
The fact is, there’s not much to be gained by categorizing ourselves one way or another because we just never know how influential or how lacking in influence our lives really are and, maybe, in reality, we should not be so concerned with it. The flaw (which seems inevitable) in the concern lest others fail to be influenced by me is, indeed, that there is an abundance of self and vanity in it – so much that such a concern defeats the detachment requisite for effective influence.
If I am so taken up with the idea that my life is in every way the benchmark for another, or that what I do, say, or write is the measure of my influence and effectiveness, then I am totally missing the message of the cross. In the act of totally giving, of totally loving, there is no concern lest others miss it.
Humanity is sanctified by You. You wed heaven to earth. I don’t think we dwell on this enough. Because of God taking upon human flesh and blood with all its strengths, weaknesses and emotions, the state of being human is divinized. Because humanity was and is touched by the divine, it is divine. Because humanity was and is the receptacle and vehicle of the divine, it is human. What could make life more sacred than that? What could motivate us to look upon ourselves and others with more love and compassion than that?
We tend to look at Your life and death, the gospel stories, the whole journey from Bethlehem to Calvary as something outside of ourselves – like watching a movie. But that life and death is ours; those stories are ours; that journey too is like ours, because it is all so human. Just how awestruck we should be with the humanity of Your divinity is approached when we begin to think about the details of pedestrian human life that You had to embrace: eating, drinking, sleeping, voiding, discomfort with heat and cold, bugs, the influence and urgings of others, cuts, scrapes, sores, the weariness and dustiness of travel, doubts and anxieties, needs and desires, self, mediating, grooming, dressing, and so on. You experienced what we experience and we experience what You did. It makes life sacred. You make life sacred! Heaven is married to the earth on which it starts. What is divine can no longer ever be separated or disconnected from what is human.
Back when I was in journalism class in college I worked for the school’s student newspaper. I remember being assigned a background feature on the French philosopher/theologian Gabriel Marcel whose appearance on campus was coming up as part of a lecture series. There was no interview, but I did my homework, wrote the article, and that was that – about 40 years ago. Of course Marcel is long since dead but just last week a priest quoted him as the basis for his homily. It was the first time I’d heard his name mentioned in a long time. The quote was: “Life is not a problem to be solved. It’s a mystery to be lived.”
If we approach life as a burden to be tolerated, as a maze to be negotiated, as a case to be solved, etc., we don’t get it. However, if we approach life as a wonderful opportunity to love, then we understand the basis for the “mystery” of life. Life’s “problems to be solved” are created by us. They are inevitable and we have to deal with them. No matter how reclusively contemplative we are, life will present problems to be solved; but life does not exist because of them. They exist because of life.
Maybe more than anything else life has to do with the acceptance of what we don’t fully understand. The mystery is contained in the simplicity of that which we would complicate. If we live the mystery with love and acceptance we have nothing to “solve.” Even in the idea that, “Life is God’s gift to me; what I do with it is my gift to God,” there is an implicit hint that it’s like a problem to be solved in figuring out “what to do with it.” Even that wonderful expression can be misleading if we puzzle over its meaning too intensely. The mystery is how it can be true that all we have to do is accept and embrace life in the spirit in which it is given. The truth of this is mysterious to those who cannot believe its simplicity – to those who prefer to complicate it. The mystery of the gift of life asks for acceptance, not solutions.