Faults and mistakes of omission are so very easy to ignore. We become far more obsessed with actively committed transgressions. What we do is given far more weight than what we omit. It’s the sin of the rich man in Luke’s story of Dives and Lazarus (16:30). The sin is that Dives did not notice Lazarus. There is a lack of attention and concern in not noticing. There is absorption with self innot noticing. There is out-of-hand dismissal of the “golden rule” in not noticing. Yet, how often I wish to be noticed. How often in hard times or painful predicaments do I wish someone to notice and take pity.
The scraps from Dives’ table might have saved Lazarus, but Dives gave the scraps to the dogs and didn’t notice Lazarus and his plight. The barking dogs were noticed because they were persistent and annoying but a poor beggar at the gate is easily ignored.
I have been Lazarus and begged often for certain favors. I have also been Dives and failed to notice those who might be seeking something from me.When one suspects, but is not sure, that another is reaching out, I often dismiss the possibility that my own perception is right and thus I avoid noticing.
A major compulsion of being alive is acquisition.Consciously or unconsciously we go through life acquiring friends, knowledge, possessions, love, status, power, health, money and even spiritual insight. Our whole life seems to build in a crescendo of acquisition. Yet in the quest for You so much has been written and said about gong back to an almost infantile state of nothingness, a “zero-point,” a cloud of unknowing, a divestment of self all in direct affront to the spirit of acquisition. What is seemingly more glorified is a dumping of everything acquired; a complete “letting-go and letting God.”
The farther along in the spiritual quest one goes, the more of a “tug” is felt toward this zero-point. Greater and greater comes the realization that a state of just being brings us closer to You than anything else; and the more this becomes apparent the more we seek this zero-point. It is a point in prayer at which we cannot be carrying baggage. It goes against a lifetime mentality of acquisition yet, paradoxically, it is a state we wish to acquire.
We come into this world and we leave with nothing. The “tug” of this zero-point is inherent. It is a whisper, so it is easily ignored, but it is always there. The superficial attention we give it is in trying to figure it out. Others might characterize it in any number of ways but it generally seems to have to do with reduction, simplicity, and/or divestment – a loss for gain. I believe it is standard equipment built into every human and an awakening to it comes when You are seriously pursued. Perhaps the antithesis of acquisition is the most needed characteristic of a disposition friendly to Your whisper. We are drawn to stillness. The zero-point beckons but we always think we should be doing something.
Some spiritual writers talk about a certain restlessness or boredom that sets in later in our lives. When we have followed a common way, or our own set spiritual routine, we can, as time goes on, experience greater difficulty in focusing our thoughts. A kind of repugnance at going through the same old motions can seep in. It is characterized as not something that is willed but something that gradually creeps upon us.
Since the time of my retirement in 1996, I have followed a pretty set spiritual routine every day. I love it! I look forward to it! It’s my favorite part of the day, but it has its flaws and, recently, even twinges of restlessness. When I experience these I look for minor changes to “tweak” the routine. This seems refreshing. In my morning and evening prayers I find such tweaking especially renewing since I’ve prayed at these times pretty much the same way all my life. It’s a little different with my centering prayer. The problem at which I fail in my centering prayer is keeping it regular and finding the best time of day to do it. The strongest parts of my spiritual routine and those which I least desire to change are my letter writing to You and my spiritual reading.
Nevertheless, the main observation I want to talk with You about here is that my feelings of restlessness and/or boredom may be induced by a gift of such “twinges” from You. I use the word “twinge” because it connotes something quiet, subtle, and small – like Your whisper. Instead of directly examining myself for the source of these twinges maybe I should look to You. Maybe You are trying to nudge me forward in new directions. Maybe You are saying, “Let’s move on.” I believe this is likely. You use in us whatever helps draw us to Yourself. With this view there are much fewer guilt feelings about restlessness and boredom. But the effort and will to “tweak” must still be chosen by me.
If we analogize our lives to a story, its plot is governed by circumstances, events, and decisions that arise, as it were, at forks in our roads. I saw a movie once titled Sliding Doors. It was about how a minor event might change theentire course of our lives; how a different circumstance or decision might completely alter the plot of our story. It conjures for me an image of God watching my life as a movie and trying to guess which twists my plot will take while at the same time kind of kibitzing by dropping me hints about what to do next. Of course the movie, as I remember, was a light-hearted romantic spoof of how one set of circumstances might bring one particular person into another’s life and how a different circumstance might bring a different person into that life – two different futures.
The ancients called it “fate,” the Turks, “kismet.” If we believe that God pretty much turns us loose to work out our own destiny and that He allows us to make our own willful choices, the possibilities for the plots of our stories are endless. With reflection though, it would seem that only a few choices are truly important – the rest are, for the most part, inconsequential. In ultimate reality is it really so important what schools we go to, what friends we choose, whom we marry, or even what church we go to?
The twists and turns of the plot of our story as affected by these choices is not nearly as important as the inner disposition and comportment of love and compassion in us upon which such events and circumstances play out. Sure, if this or that happened or if this or that choice had been made the plot of our story might be different but, more importantly, would we, at our center, be any different? Would our relationship with You be changed? The things that have the power to drastically alter that relationship are far more critical than who my friends are, whom I marry, or what church I go to. I could have become a priest, or never married, or married another woman, or had no children, or had ten children, or been very wealthy or dirt poor; but who I am at my center and what I am called to be and do does not change, only the surrounding circumstances change. They are not that important, but they are not without influence.
I have read St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. I have seen the term “dark night” referred to over an over again in spiritual writings. However, I am not sure I have a grasp of it. That fact in itself may confirm its reality. All along my journey, even since grade school, I have heard periods of dryness, barrenness, or terms conjuring the desert used over an over to describe difficult times in one’s prayer life. St. John himself intimates that periods of inability to find God anywhere, in anything, are part of the “dark night.”
What I experience in my prayer life is not so much aridity as it is the painful realization more and more of my own spiritual faults, failings, and shortcomings. The farther along the spiritual path I go, I realize my inability to get beyond certain points. This ever present knowledge is the “dark night” to me. Although I would not cease the climb I find myself saying, along with St. Theresa, “I know I am far from practicing what I should, but the mere desire to do so gives me peace.” It’s that distance, that farness from a point of doing what I could or being what I might and the seeming inability to get there that is my “dark night.”
The night time is what it is because of a lack of light. Darkness impairs our perception. The powers of darkness are those things that keep us from seeing what might be very close to us. In my “dark night” there are times when I feel on the verge of being able to perceive You in some way but fall just short. My “dark night” also manifests itself as the perception of some knowledge that cannot be humanly comprehended thus creating a void over which I am helpless to build a bridge. My “dark night” is the cloud of unknowing in the sense of not knowing. It shades the full brilliance of the light I seek. But if I constantly seek I catch tiny rays now and then and they erode the influence of the “dark night.” Like a flower we need to catch glimpses of the light in order to grow.
Continuing on another aspect of what I wrote to You not long ago, I want to talk to You about the “cult of difference” among people. I remember many years ago going over selected primary materials on the sacraments with my second grade children at home. There was always great stress on the idea that each of us is different, unique in our own way, but equally loved by God. In every day life there is also much emphasis on being “different.” We seek things that set us apart and make us unique among others. Our dress, our interests, our pastimes, our tastes, our cars, our homes all reflect an urge to set ourselves apart.
The way I’m thinking about this right now is that this urge to be different actually ebbs at our flow toward You. Because of our wills we set our own limits and boundaries. God would not have it any other way. Our choices are important to God. Yet there is a clash between the choices we make based on our urges to be different and choices we make based on our sameness. But just what is that sameness? You answered that for me in the first reading at Mass recently from Acts: 17.Paul is preaching the “unknown God” to the Athenians. In his own words: “...He is not really far from any one of us. In Him we live and move and have our being.” This is the “sameness” I speak of! It is the core of our true selves apart from the differences sought by our false selves. In the spiritual life an awareness of our sameness is vastly more crucial than an awareness of our differences.
We often hear extolled the individuality and uniqueness of the self each of us brings to our spiritual journey. Upon reflection, however, it seems to me that uniqueness and individuality are more attachments to our false selves. The essence of our true self is a oneness with God shared identically with every other human being. Only in our false selves, the selves we create from our worldly circumstances, is there uniqueness and individuality. I would suggest that thisuniqueness and individuality can be looked upon as something to be overcome in order to get to the core of our being.
More often than not what we would refer to as our uniqueness and individualityare cobbled from the persona with which we choose to deal with the world around us. Habituation to this persona asserts itself in the way we deal with God, and in this we are indeed unique and individual. But if all that is pared away, we are not!
We are equally and in the same way children of the Father. We are often urged to celebrate our uniqueness and individuality, but I am under the persuasion that it is our sameness that we should celebrate. After all, is it not misplaced pride in our uniqueness and individuality that fosters pride and fights humility? And is it not the recognition of the uniqueness and individuality of others that influences jealousy and envy?
The closer we operate within the parameters of our collective sameness the closer we are to our true selves.
I was recently reviewing some notes I took on a book I read a long time ago: Eric Hoffer’s,TheTrue Believer. There was a line in the notes that had given me particular pause over the last few days. The line is: “The vanity of the selfless is boundless.” Over the years the theme of self and selflessness has dominated my letters to You. I see indulging my self and catering to its whims as the prime obstacle to union with You. Consequently I have become increasingly more conscious of de-emphasizing me, of denying my selfishness, and of becoming more and more selfless in order to remove what I perceive as the primary obstacles on a path toward You. But the quote from Hoffer has made me think that even in this endeavor there may be too much vanity tainting and even obliterating the effort.
What we wish to communicate of ourselves is failed miserably by words. Yet, both what we honestly think of ourselves and what we think others think of us are framed in limp and wobbly words. If I were to write down how I honestly think others perceive me I would use such words as: selfish, manipulative, hypocritical, arrogant, inflexible, impatient, cynical, and closed-minded. But the words I might use in describing my perception of myself would be: flawed but trying, carrying excess baggage but attempting to get rid of it, weak but seeking strength, selfish but trying to learn how to love. Put into words I cannot deny the faults and failures others, as well as I, perceive about me. But when I look at the differences between the two I see that in my perception of myself the word “but” springs prominently to my perception. I perceive all of these faults and failings in myselfBUT I also perceive some effort in trying to erase them. Unfortunately, when reflected upon, I can see an inherent vanity hidden in each of these “buts.” It’s the vanity of: ‘Yah, I have my faults but by trying to overcome them I’m really OK. My effort keeps me afloat. If I believe this about my own effort then vanity has truly seized me.
The only thing I can rest trustingly in is the hope of the action of Your grace to bring me to You. I was born for You and You will have me if I but let You. Others’ perceptions of me, and even my own, are framed in words that suggest a role – a vain role – in the destiny of my being.
I am good at holding back from You. It’s a practiced art I have cultivated more attentively than the art of letting go. I hold back in the time I give to You directly or through others. The reason I hold back is because with everything I do I reserve at least a little (if not a lot) for myself. If it is not for my profit or advantage to do a certain thing, or say certain words, or act a certain way, then I ignore it. I know that loving You and seeking You is what I say I want to do, but the moment such seeking interferes with my agendas I hold back. I ignore You. It’s a very easy thing to do, but I get exasperated with myself. I guess that’s good; but even better than exasperation is doing something about it. It’s all tied up with the ability to see clearly the “giving” essence of love as opposed to the “getting” essence of our humanity.
To hold back gets something for us. To let go pays no attention to getting but rather gives up – surrenders. Practicing holding back from others makes it easy to hold back from You. Doing just enough to get by for someone in order to keep them off our backs is not unusual. We’re great at refining the art of doing the minimum. How often do we do more than we’re asked?
The example of Your life shows us how love means more than just doing what is asked. Within the spark of love generated by letting go and letting God is an area of letting go for others. Learning this and not holding back gets us to the “letting God” part.
If being a Christian is having the “mind of Christ,” or, as St. Paul says, being “in Christ” then being a Christian means being free and guiltless. Being free and innocent would seem to make the prospect of being a Christian very attractive: no obligations, responsibilities, or feelings of shame or guilt sounds good to me. But wait! Somehow the mind and the life You exemplified doesn’t fit with a carefree, “what-me-worry?” attitude. Maybe accepting the freedom and innocence of being “in You” and “with You” is an onus more than a relief.
The freedom of Your example is a freedom about making or rejecting choices. At this point the territory becomes a little scarier. It’s as if we, without much thought, accept the fact that being like a slave is easier than being free. As a slave we stick to choices that have already been made for us or by us. It’s a rut with which we get very comfortable. But if we are truly free we must make decisions, listen to our hearts, and follow paths we might not otherwise choose. And if we are guiltless we must realize it is so because our guilt has beenabsorbed by Your love. This fact alone should be the single most powerful influence upon the choices upheld by our freedom. In addition, acceptance of this guiltlessness suggests that it should be maintained - no easy task with all the choices our freedom allows us in daily life.
The gifts of freedom and innocence are not free passes to happiness, yet there are, in them, the seeds of great joy; for guilt and bondage are not desirable nor are they what You wish for us. Freedom and innocence are gifts You give us to remain close to You, just as you are close to the Father. To keep them they must be maintained. Otherwise they become guilt and bondage.