As I grow older I find I like myself less and less. There may be both good and bad elements in this feeling. I can use these feelings as a motivation to do something about the specific things I don’t like or I can become morose and mired in my faults because they take too much effort at this point to do anything about. However, the most comforting option is to take refuge in the idea that You love me for who and what I am and are willing to forgive my faults. Of course I like that last one the best; but if I love You as I’d like to think I do, I would do something other than be presumptuous.
I am not necessarily talking about sin or sinfulness here but rather the day-to-day habits and expectations that have, over time, taken root in an old man’s ways and become not only annoying to others but annoying to myself.
Yesterday I thought maybe You spoke to me about this through Thomas a Kempis who wrote: “Let not your peace depend on the tongues of men: for whenever they put a good or bad construction on what you do, you are still what you are.” That provided a little insight, especially into what I may say about myself; but I became even more certain this morning that You were talking to me when I read from Fenelon: “The pain you feel at your own imperfections is worse than the faults themselves....Learn to live with yourself as you actually are.”That’s good spiritual advice, but how does one learn it?
Previous introspections have yielded up the insight that in regards to the way I think, what I believe, and the ways I go about doing things, I may be in the habit of saying things to which others don’t want to listen, and, when I realize that, and still do it, I feel badly about myself. So it seems that learning to keep my mouth shut about things I’d like to share but others would not like to hear is a new habit I must cultivate. Maybe it will help me feel better about myself and render me less annoying to others. In any case, I’ve still got You to annoy.
There seems to be an almost mystical dichotomy between the things we actually expect to get from others and what, in reality, they are able to give us; and the gap between the two is a source, in us, of impatience, intolerance, unkindness, and misunderstanding. Of course, it goes both ways.
According to spiritual writer, Fr. Henri Nouwen, one human being cannot unconditionally love another, cannot fully understand another, cannot offer consistent affection, and cannot enter in to the deepest core of another’s being. It’s just impossible! That’s because we are human. But we tend to forget that and always expect more from others than they can give. We become disillusioned when we realize this. It may cause us to resent certain things about others. But the fact is. It’s always going to be like that because I am me and another person is who he/she is.
In certain situations (especially when I feel treated unjustly or unfairly) I affirm the existence of this gap and become resentful because my expectations to be treated by others as I would treat them is not met. Whenever words of promise or guarantee are exchanged my expectation is that they be met as a matter of honor and integrity. I think of myself as one who lives by this and I expect it of others. Unfortunately I have a strong tendency to go ballistic when others ignore this.
We all want others to think and feel as we do, but our natures are flawed and each of us is unique in our ways. This gap plays out even further in my relationship with You. With others I am prone to perceive the creation of this gap as their fault, but with You I know it is my fault. The fact that I cannot help it is frustrating. Accepting the gap, trying to diminish it, and going on from there is the only option. As a human You experienced this Yourself. Our race is marked with the remnants of Babel – and it is a life’s work learning to grow from it.
You know well (better than I) my priest-friend and former classmate we had over for dinner recently. He’s been very close to our family for over 40 years. Now he’s very sick and feeble with Parkinson’s Disease and his mind is starting to have lapses here and there. Because of his disability he has, of course, been retired from active ministry for quite awhile now. At the dinner table with us he wandered into a melancholy moment of soul-searching that questioned his accomplishments and effectiveness as a priest. The aura of doubt that surfaced in his words reminded me of my own (and probably every human’s) doubts about the efficacy of their life.
I have my own feelings this way – about whether or nor I’ve been as good a husband or father as I could have; or whether I made wrong choices about which directions to go in my life. The cliché about hindsight being 20/20 is overused, but true. I don’t think there’s one of us on this earth who can’t look back with longing at certain portions of his/her life in which they would have made different choices. But we can only go forward, not back. Hopefully the lessons of past mistakes guide our future choices.
Despite our overwhelming proclivity to do so, we cannot dwell on the past. What’s done or not done remains forever. The point here, I think, is that we cannot place our hope in ourselves. It will disappoint us and lead us toward despair. Far better to put our hope in others but, as humans, they too will probably disappoint us. This disappointment must be accepted with life. The best move is to place our hope in You. Thoughts of a misspent life or a life of missed opportunities can be heavy and oppressive, but our priest-friend, time and again, has and does accept the circumstances of life and puts them all in Your hands. What more can we do?
Into a cloud of forgetfulness I commend my past. Let my concern be only with the present moment.
My life is not about me. It is about life. Life is about life. When I think that life is about me (which is a very easy and normal thing to do) I am, in effect, saying that this great gift from God is just for me. It is truly not difficult to think of it this way. But thinking of it this way actually points us in the wrong direction. To celebrate the highs and pine over the lows of my own life seems petty when played against the highs and lows of life in general.
Life is the condition of all. It is the sea in which we all swim. It is that which we consciously recognize as “being.” We have nothing to offer life, but life has a lot to offer us. From the gift of life come many possibilities, much potential, and many opportunities. It offers this to everyone, not just me. Instead of looking at life as mine it seems it would be closer to the mark to view myself as belonging to life. I am plugged into life, not vice-versa; and as such what I say and do should affirm and uphold all life.
The flesh and the spirit have life in common. My body and my soul are tied together by God’s gift of life. God is the source and giver of life, therefore it belongs to Him. It is not mine. We are totally adrift when we look at another and say, “I wish I had his/her life.” We do! And they ours! Individual circumstances do vary but they are not life. We share life equally with all – in abundance. That is Your gift
The spiritual life is a multi-faceted ideal. It is an ideal which, I suggest, is unsustainable with any consistency because of the many compromises life invariably presents to us. Some people work hard at putting themselves in positions with which they stand a better chance of dealing with life’s compromises and, thus, experiencing longer stretches of the spiritual life. Most of those who are able to do this we consider saints. But even in their ranks compromises are inevitable.
My own life is rife with compromises for which I rely on Your loving mercy, forgiveness, and grace. The one great compromise in my spiritual life is my strong leaning on myself as the source of my own spirituality. This seriously compromises Your role.
Often we are not sure that the things we consider compromises are actually that. When I chose to become a priest and studied three years for it, was my spiritual life compromised by my thinking that my life might be more “influential” as a lay person? In that case, then, was studying to be a priest a compromise?
My journey has led me to epitomize the monastic and eremitic life, but this track of the spiritual life is compromised not only by my state in life but my conviction that I can make the world my monastery. So very often it seems as if the right path is to not fight the compromises; to accept them and roll with them, and put them in Your hands with the conviction that Your grace plus my willingness will pull me through.
There are events, situations, or confrontations that will always put us in compromising circumstances – circumstances in which what we value is threatened. We may be forced to choose what we would not choose. Our tendency is to view these as setbacks, or maybe even as faults or weaknesses. Yet, recognizing their inevitability means we know we will have to deal with them.
I write this to You now looking for consolation, support, and a “game plan” in dealing with those times when compromise makes me feel less than loyal to You. Thomas Merton’s journal entry for April 8, 1967, at least consoles me with the reality that I am not alone in these feelings. We are both beneficiaries and victims of our compromises.
In writing on solitaries, Thomas Merton has said, “...it is very difficult to become a saint by doing what you want.” Of course that does depend on what one wants, but I think we’re talking here about the will of God and a person’s will. This has a great deal to do with self. Merton’s contention becomes quite obvious if all the things I want to do are about me, for me, or controlled by me. I, so to speak, become my god. This is hardly the disposition of a saint. When my will to do what I want clashes with discerning and doing God’s will, I intentionally distance myself.
I think Merton came to this meditation because of all the extraneous elements that attached themselves to his life because of his writings, his fame, and his very human sympathies and weaknesses. If what he wanted (and what I want) is the same as that which You want, then the gap is closed. We do well to think of what You would do especially in the little things of each day’s routine. And it is in just that context, I think, that the solitary fits.
Part of a prayer that Merton composed says, “...the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You actually does please You....”Wanting to do what I think You would want me to do, especially in the little things, is what I want to do.
For the last few Lenten seasons I have been working on saying “yes” to people when they ask me for something. There has been some progress, but it is very slow. I do fairly well during Lent but have a hard time carrying it over when the season is done. I continue to work on this but I still usually find myself thinking of myself first. This leads me to ponder why, in the first place, I would say, “no.”
Invariably the times I say “no,” or change the subject, or make excuses are the times when I regard my own priorities, my own plans and agendas as more important. In other words I say “no” to others because the “yes” to myself is somehow impinged upon. Often I try to avoid doing complex, dirty, difficult, time-consuming things. But in all such cases the “yes” of Your life resounds. If I would be in You so that You could be in me, saying “yes” to people when you want to say “no,” is necessary; and doing things for others that you really don’t want to do is a major step toward negating the false-self. Saying “yes” to love, and to life, and to all the nitty-gritty that goes with it is what You did; and it is what You preached and taught. So I will continue making it my Lenten task and try harder each Lent to carry it over to the rest of the time.
In pondering the nature of contemplation we must not allow ourselves to characterize it exclusively as a life of concentrated introspection to the exclusion of outward love and compassion. There is real caution involved in so emphasizing the inner-life that the self becomes our center. The joy, the peace, and the insight that contemplation brings carries the pitfall of spiritual conceit. We fall into this trap when we, like the Pharisees, become centered on what spiritual activities can do for us.
In a sense, it’s understandable. We seek heaven – a place of union with You, a place of joy, peace, and happiness. These are all good and desirable for us. Contemplation, then, is a little bit of this heaven on earth; a touch of that union. But the reality is that no matter how good we are at contemplation, we do it within the context of our humanity in this world. Thus, it is done within the context of the cross. Suffering, self-denial, compassion, and love thus become the facts of life of contemplation. It was so in Your union with the Father and it is so in our union with You. Our union with You is facilitated by the attention given in contemplation to Your presence; but that presence, as facilitated by the attention of contemplation, is placed inevitably within the context of our daily lives. It is affected by it, and our union solidifies through it.
You are found not just in me but also in others. Seeing the image (union) of God in every other person was and is the fulfillment of God’s vision which could only be accomplished with the selfless love and pain of the cross. We do well to reflect on this as much as on our own inner inclinations.
Asceticism is one aspect of spiritual activity that I have very seldom embraced. I do not profess to fully understand how it effects spiritual growth. The disciplining and self-denial of the body historically has been the mark of the pursuit of holiness. Training our wills to fast, abstain, and inflict discomfort on ourselves may get the attention of our wills like the proverbial two-by-four upside the head, but does it synonymously add to the intention of aligning our suffering and discomfort with our love?
I concede that discomfort, adversity, and suffering are great teachers. They do help us to grow spiritually. But I think, for the most part, they easily find us during the course of our lives without having to actively pursue them.
Now, if we don’t feel we’re getting enough adversity, discomfort, or suffering in our lives to grow, then there are ways we can inflict them upon ourselves as a “jump-start.” Personally, I’ve seldom been able to wring anything out of fasting and abstaining other than a growling stomach. But trying to be compassionate and patient with difficult individuals can be far more profitable than enduring the itchy tickle of a hair-shirt – and more ascetic!
If I look at the way You love us, I see a willing acceptance of life and all the joy and pain it brings with it. This, to me, is asceticism. Self-imposed physical discomfort can be an act of love; but, if the key to such acts is pain there is probably enough in our day-to-day lives to afford ample opportunities for interior self-flagellation. I am more of St. Theresa’s persuasion that bearing patiently and compassionately with the little annoyances we constantly encounter is the ideal asceticism. It’s more about self-denial than self-punishment.
In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton writes, “I refuse to believe that the spiritual life, as willed by God, is nothing better than organized masochism.”
One of the most ingrained feelings we Christians carry around is that suffering, pain, grief, and discomfort are marks of a properly cultivated spiritual life. Are we not indelibly stained with enough guilt that we have to add self-incriminations about loving You but feeling no pain?
Actually there’s something to this. The natural inclination of humanity toward suffering is to avoid it. In our concept of the perfect world, utopia, or paradise (all of which seem realistically unattainable) pain, grief, suffering, and sorrow have no place. But in the factual human condition they are unavoidable – an inevitable part of life itself. That being the case, we still try to avoid them. How then have they come so prominently into play in the spiritual life? Maybe psychologically what we try to avoid, but simply cannot, is mollified by giving it value.
Looking to Your life as our model, we do not see (in what we know of it) daily pain, sorrow, and discomfort. Furthermore, when these things did pop up in Your life, they were not sought by You. If there was any source of suffering, apart from Your passion and death, it was brought about by disappointments in those around You – but You were patient through it all. But, patience notwithstanding, in our lives, more often than not, we equate Your pain and suffering with the manner of Your execution. We look upon Your willing acceptance of this as leaving us with a debt to join our sufferings to those You endured for our redemption. Thus we give our own sufferings a redemptive quality. But we are already redeemed. How can we be more redeemed than we are?
I have maintained (and still maintain) that the value of suffering in our lives is that of a teacher – a pedagogue of life and love. It is from this professor that we should take notes while class is in session. It is not that we should masochistically seek it in Merton’s terms, but patiently accept it as You did. Thus, if I experience no pain, suffering, grief, or discomfort during a day, I should not feel sad or disappointed, nor should I zealously seek it – it will find me. And, if I’m patient, quiet, and accepting, it will teach me.