There is profound spiritual meaning in the words of Your mother when she said, “Let it be done unto me,” instead of saying, “I will do it.” There is a great deal of difference in meaning when the “I” is removed. Implicit too is the surrender of will which goes with the negation of self.
In fine tuning our spiritual lives perhaps the greatest effort should be concentrated upon the areas of self-negation and surrender of will. It is hard but paramount to understand that in our relationship with You it is not what we can do for You but what we allow to be done to us by You. Again, the whole notion of “openness” and “letting go” comes into play. I think I speak to You of this so much because I am so very much aware of its necessity and so very much aware of its absence in me. It’s as if You keep telling me about it and I keep walking away nodding my head “yes” and saying “I know that.” It would seem the next logical step would be to say to myself, “What are you going to do about it?” And it is at this point that there is some confusion because to get where You want me to be may not require that I do anything except “be open” and “let go.”
I think a big part of all this has to do with being aware of the present and Your presence in every moment of our lives. Centering-prayer advocate, Father Thomas Keating says we can achieve this awareness of the present by simply doing what we are doing, “...focusing immediately on the content of what is at hand,” without tangential thoughts of self-interest. This will place us firmly in the moment.
I think the more naturally we’re able to live in each present moment the easier it is to surrender to it. Letting go of our “selves” becomes less cluttered and complicated. The baggage of the past and future become non-issues. We become more able to say, like Mary, “Let it be done unto me.”
I look at the “self’ I try to minimize and realize I’ve done a really lousy job. I am still all wrapped up in my “self.” There are things I know about my “self” that I have done very little to change. I fail to mix prayer and Your presence with all I do. It’s discouraging because I look at myself and I’m not even sure I’m capable of doing this. But I want to. I fancy two things necessary here, one exterior and one interior. Outwardly I must embrace silence about anything reflecting self. Inwardly I must recollect Your presence wherever I’m at, whatever I’m doing - outwardsilence and inward recollection. These steps to diminish my “self’ so that Youmay increase and be magnified through me seem so simple, but are so difficult for me. Help me in my efforts in this regard, Jesus. Grant that outward silence and inward recollection begins to take hold in my life and continues from now on.
How terribly muddling it is to know that because of our consciousness of self we end up seeking self when we think we are seeking You. Yet, humanly, it may be the best we can do. I cannot speak for others but I know in myself that my seeking is tainted by a boomerang-effect that somehow always refers back to my self to “save” my soul, “to be happy,” to be a good example, or a channel of Your light to others. In all of these there seems to be, for me, a reference back to “self” that forever keeps my quest flawed.
If the one-word answer to what we seek is love then it must be, like Yours, shorn of self and all its conditions. You certainly know of the great difficulty we, in our humanity, experience in trying to do that. That is why our desire and practice to achieve it is so dear to You.
Bernadette Roberts, in her book What is Self? talks about infants and the mentally retarded having no self-consciousness but simply viewing the world as an outside observer. Here the state of “no-self” exists but without intention, direction or disposition. In this case there seems to be no connection between losing a sense of self and seeking You. The thought thus occurs that we cannot seek You without some sense of self. It is at this point that the distinction between the false self and the true self comes in. There seems to be a direct correlation between the annihilation of our false selves and our ability to seek You. It is the false self in all its many forms that contemplates its own comfort and status thus making it a “first condition” of our love. Jettisoning the false self in all its incarnations lays bear the reality of our true self which is the reality of Your spirit within us. From this essential self the truth of love can be found and passed on.
Your words to St. Catherine of Sienna were: “I am He who is; you are she who is not.” Puzzling greatly over this statement leads me to entertain the thought that to be one with You is simply “to be.” Such is our true self. But to live our false selves is to not be.It would seem that nothing can be predicated of the true self; for the moment it is, it describes an aspect of the false self. It is the difference between “I am” and “I am an athlete,” or “I am a husband,” or “I am a musician,” or even “I am a contemplative.”As soon as we posit the self in something other than You, we take away from our true selves – the essence of which is simply “being.” Reflection such as this refers, it would seem, more to our origin and our destinybecause we cannot be in this world without predication. You Yourself were a carpenter, teacher, leader, servant. Must we say, however, that everything predicated of our being in this life is in some form an expression of a false self? Certainly it is true that we append extensions to our being. Perhaps while certain extensions diverge from and qualify our pure being, others gravitate magnetically (though never completely) toward it.
If we accept that our true being is spiritual then that which we pursue which tends toward the spiritual while not per se a descriptor of our being, turns us in that direction. So it cannot be totally false. Our humanity is a qualifier of our life which is Your gift. So to say that life is a search for ways to overcome our humanity somehow fights the spirit of its ground. Though there are some who might discover in small tastes the ecstasies of the purely spiritual true self, it is an irrevocable and inevitable fact of earthly existence that our spirituality and our humanity are intertwined in various ways of our choosing.
Of the many powerful concepts that come from what I read and which have formed me, the one that sticks fast and even may be said to haunt me is the obscure quote from Virginia Wolfe’s novel Orlando which I read years ago while I was living in another country: "There is no stronger desire in the human breast than that others should think as we do." I’ve mentioned this to You before and I mention it to You again here because, through another reading, and through the gospel for today I realize I have never considered some of the corollaries of this quote.
Among the saddest and heaviest burdens we must bear are those of not being understood, cared for, loved, or recognized. Such circumstances drive some to despair. Yet, the answer for concerns with all of these worries is contained in Your response to the rich young man and to Your disciples after the young man turned and walked away. The gospel says You looked upon him with love. He did all but abandon his possessions to be saved. But even if he had done this, he could not save himself. That is impossible for us, but not for God. It is a blessing and a consolation to be loved, understood, cared for and recognized by others, but it can also be a form of possession that we hang on to that distracts us from the only love, understanding, caring and recognition that really matters – Yours! And that we always have. That we may never despair of. That saves us.
So while it may be true that we strongly desire that others think and feel as we do – it’s a selfish desire and of no real consequence. ‘Go and sell all your possessions and give to the poor and come follow Me.” With that kind of focus why should one even be concerned with who does or who doesn’t understand, care for, or recognize us?
I once saw in a comic strip a little boy who was shooting with a bow and arrows at a target hanging on a very long, high fence. A few of his arrows were in the ground and a few in the fence. None were in the target. A little girl, standing nearby, chided him for his lack of marksmanship. But his firm reply was, “Whad’ya mean? All my practice has paid off. I can finally hit the fence.”
I like that comic strip because I can identify with that little boy and his inability to hit the target straight on. He doesn’t give up trying but, with practice, gets closer and closer to the target without hitting it. It’s similar to my own spiritual endeavors. I refuse to quit. I refuse not to practice even though it is often very discouraging when I can’t hit the target. Every once in awhile my arrows hit the fence instead of flying into space or into the ground. Hitting the fence is progress, but still not on the mark. Sometimes I feel very satisfied that I just hit the fence. But deep down I know that’s not good enough. I should keep trying for the target, and even when and if I hit the target it won’t be good enough until I hit the bulls-eye.
I think I’m getting better at hitting the fence and maybe I’ve even nipped the target once or twice. But I’ve never yet come close to the bulls-eye. In a sense the bow and arrows are analogous to the ladder of many spiritual writers or to St. Theresa’s castles. There’s always another rung, another chamber, another part of the target. It takes a lot of practice.
Somebody once suggested that we think of ourselves as “builders.’ It’s at least an interesting metaphor seasoned with grains of truth. When we look to the past and see people upon whom we have formed our lives, they become “builders” of who we are. Parents, friends, teachers, spouses, and writers have built us. So too are we “builders” of others. We, someday, will be part of someone’s past that influences their future. It’s an awesome image to conjure this big picture of ongoing construction and make oneself an integral part of it. Yet it’s a simple enough metaphor by which to picture one’s individual place in the grand scheme of things. As anyone in the construction trades, we sharpen our building skills as we go along – growing and learning form our mistakes as well as from the mistakes of others. The strength or weakness of what we build has a lot to do with how well we hone these skills.
When we think of building up the Body of Christ there is much meaning gained from stepping back and looking at “our building” and our skills. The memories and influences of other “builders” who have contributed to our building come to mind. Then the foreshadowing of our skills and what they have accomplished as played out in others in the future comes to mind. Have I actually built up my wife, brother, children, grandchildren and friends? Have they built up me? An examination of things in this light is revealing. I guess, for one thing, it shows how mutually dependent upon each other we actually are – even if we don’t think about it. There is a line from a hymn: "Let us build the City of God", that sketches out succinctly this whole idea. For Your kingdom to come, we must build it.
Centering prayer is prayer not of words or thoughts but of being – the being at my center. I am so unaccustomed to being in touch with my being that it seems difficult and even foreign to me. It’s a paradox that it seems easier to pray words or meditate thoughts than to simply rest in my being which is, essentially, an even easier thing to do even though it doesn’t seem so. To liquidate every connection of every syllable of every word that enters my consciousness seems painfully hard to do. To vaporize every image conjured by every thought till there is nothing is like building a pyramid from the top down. I have trouble with it. I struggle. Sometimes, like now, during the summer, I give up on it for awhile. But I always go back to it. A quiet half-hour before supper in the winter months, when it’s dark outside at that time (and, hence, dark inside with the lights off) seems best for me. To begin, the more senses I can deprive the easier it seems to go. Focusing on breathing and a simple mantra like the word “one” helps keep words and thoughts away. With the banishment of words and thoughts the self melts away and I become an open door accepting the one who would enter; an empty cup waiting to be filled. Quite simply it is a time to allow God to love me without me interfering; without ever feeling the threat of not being loved. Ideally I could live in the knowledge of the love of God. But “ideally” doesn’t work so often with one so preoccupied.
Silence is a way of minimizing the world around us. It helps clear a path to the center of our being. It lubricates the channel through which we focus on Your presence and how we live in that presence. But there is a joyful paradox in the cultivation of silence. It can, seemingly against itself, make us chatterboxes. To imagine someone you love but have not seen for a long time is facilitated by silent recollection. When the day comes that you are reunited in-person, your heart overflows into your mouth and you can’t stop talking – you can’t be silent.
As much as silence and stillness help me to reflect upon Your love for me and mine for You, I know that if I was physically in Your presence – in-person, I would be a chatterbox. Silence then would be a straight-jacket. I know this because these letters to You are only a preview of all I’d want to talk about with You.
I love my wife, but to be constantly silent in her presence would make her think otherwise. When I am with her I am compelled to share my mind and heart with her. Likewise this is the case with You. But for You and I this silence, stillness and aloneness makes our talking easier and there is an understanding between us that silence is the medium through which we “speak.” There are times in silence when I feel Your presence so strongly that I “gush” with words and there are also times when I just “bask” speechless.
Silent stillness in Your presence is not loneliness. There is no loneliness in being with You. It usually evokes a rush of words to express my heart. I can picture myself being face-to-face with You speechlessly awestruck or, more likely, spewing forth words from my heart.
I have written to You many times before about things that strike me as paradoxes of the spiritual life. A study of individual directives and paths within the context of a Christian life might aptly be titled, The Paradoxes of Christianity.
One I’ve thought about lately is what strikes me as a paradox from the contemplative life style. St. John of the Cross and others have written extensively about an essential emptying of one’s self of all desires so that being empty we might be filled with You. What seems like a paradox here is that in so doing we are, in fact, exercising an amazingly strong desire of the self. Does that desire, because it is self-generated, get in the way of its object? I mean, it cannot be denied that at some points in our spiritual journey we generate from the center of our selves desires to seek You in different ways and desires to grow spiritually closer to You and to others in our lives, and desires to learn how to love. Are these desires in conflict with our efforts to rid ourselves of desires?
I want to say these are the only desires we should have and nurture, but, at the same time, I can see how self creeps into such desires and how a total emptying of even these allows for greater facility in recapturing for You the space they occupy in us. Our desires emanate from no other place but the self and are unavoidably filtered through it. I think the gifts of Your grace place the efficacious desires in our consciousness. It therefore becomes important for us to be able to discern efficacious desires from frivolous ones. The spiritually efficacious ones may come not so much from ourselves as from somehow being instilled in us by You.
The paradox of desires is ameliorated by prayer and discernment, yet even then we have doubts that our self is not somehow involved. It is at this point that we abandon such doubts and trust You.