It occurs to me that there is a very fine and often incomprehensibly loving line between doing for people and letting them be. Much of what is expected of love has to do with negating self and putting the interests of others first. This is usually conceived of as doing something: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, praying for people, etc. In this doing we probably also include teaching, sharing, guiding, and giving good example. Yet, at certain times love demands that we accept people for who they are and where they’re at – and leave them alone!
This seems to present something of a spiritual Catch-22 especially in regards to knowing when to do nothing. Our doing may be recognized as hypocritical patronizing and, therefore, a turn-off. In this case leaving folks alone may be the best and most loving thing to do even though something in us tells us to push harder. Nowhere is this truer than in close relationships such as family.
The family is a school of learning when, where, and how much “charity” can be tolerated; and when, where, and how much backing-off is necessary. It’s delicate business. But love really shows when we are able to master this touchy balance. There is a lot of painful self-negation that’s part of this because we’re naturally enthusiastic about showing our charity and having it be seen. The charity of acceptance and leaving-alone is pretty invisible. Yet, so many times in doing something an attitude of “I’m right about this and you’re wrong” shows through and this, again, is a turn-off.
I think, for the most part, we do not wish to be hypocrites even when we act hypocritically. We think it is better to do something, even hypocritically, than to do nothing at all. But in certain cases – especially in close relationships where we’re known well - this may not be so. It may be better (and more loving) to do nothing.
A spiritual life, the quest for God, the seeking and searching, all lendthemselves readily to various analogies from our sentient everyday life. I was thinking recently of comparing my life to a “career” with You as my CEO.
There is, in my way of understanding it, a difference between a job and a career.One is what we may have to do, the other is what we choose to do. In the world of work a career is the path we follow to make a living and survive in the world. Our life is the vehicle through which we open ourselves to Your grace and move in spiritual directions. Likening it to a career is significant. Like a career, life is a commitment – a long –term work with help and guidelines from superiors.
For 30 years my career was as a school teacher; but for my whole life my career has been discerning and pursuing ways to grow in Your love and the love of others. We can be diligent, apathetic, or slackers in this work. Much depends, to begin with, on our relationship to our superiors and with our boss. In the career of life we may choose the superiors we wish to follow and work for, but the boss is always the same. If we are judicious about picking those we follow our work may not be easier but it will be more in line with our boss’s hopes for us and our career will be successful. The pay, along the way, is grace. We can accept it and climb the “corporate ladder,” reject it, or go on strike for something else; but the boss remains solid and forgiving. Despite our machinations, the boss does know what’s best for us and does look out for our welfare.
So, it is a wise employee who keeps his eye on the boss in the career of life.
In 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10, St. Paul says You spoke to him saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This seems both profound and confusing. I pondered it trying to figure it out.
I think what You were saying to St. Paul was that no matter what we may think about our own situation, Your graces are all we need. The power to accomplish a goal or become what we want which, in our weakness, is often so lacking in us, our cowardice and inconsequentiality -all of that is covered by Your grace and love; and that is extremely empowering.
A position of weakness is humbling and a position of humility maintains fewer obstacles to Your graces. True power in our own lives comes from the ability to accept, welcome, and embrace Your graces as sufficient. We are less likely to be able to do this from stances of power and pride.
The only power that matters is the power to love and love is made perfect through the “weakness” of humility. The paradox may seem confusing, but what’s confusing is that we consider it (like so many other spiritual truths) a paradox. We struggle over the way weakness can perfect power while, in reality, the perfection of power is in weakness. Maybe if we were some other type of being other than human we could understand this. But, as it is, we consider weakness a liability. Why not? Look at all those other things we’ve got backward.
The first reading for Transfiguration Sunday is the one about Abraham and his son, Isaac. It is a reading I’ve always found pregnant with meditation fodder. Apart from the obviously analogous redemption scenario foreshadowing the Father’s giving You up todeath for the good of all, there is the more immediate consideration of consenting to the will of God over one’s own will.
I find myself reflecting on my own actions if I were in Abraham’s place. First, we must accept that God is the “be-all and end-all” of our very existence. Nothing should matter more to us than our relationship with God. Thus, even if He were to ask us to do the unspeakable, even the unthinkable, there should be no hesitation in our answer. This was Abraham’s situation. Whether the story is fact or fiction the point is made. If we truly understand who we are and who God is in our lives, and if we truly profess to believe in and love God, then there is no hesitation in doing whatever he would ask of us.
I shudder and convulse at the picture of me standing over my son or daughter with an instrument of death awaiting Your command to proceed. My sensibilities are less offended if I consider this whole scenario a story meant to make a point about obedience to God’s will. Maybe I make this choice because I know I could not kill my child and I also know that God held back Abraham’s hand. But Abraham put God first and was actually willing to do it.
If asked, I would say that I love God more than myself or anybody else. But my actions don’t always support this. I would not bet the farm on my faith. Abraham was willing to bet the farm; and there is the difference. The faith of Abraham was so staunch that he was able to see clearly that doing Your will was more important than any relationship with a human. Abraham was at the entirely opposite pole from the rich young man in the New Testament. But even him You looked upon with great love.
If we’re serious about our relationship with You we think often about our relationships with others; for it is in seeing You in others, as the Father sees You in us, that we flourish.
My wife and I recently saw a movie in which You, Jesus, were portrayed as the proprietor of a contemporary diner. There were many thought-provoking elements to this movie. One of the most salient to me was that the distinctions made between friends and enemies are distinctions made by us – not by God. In making these distinctions I think people often use the rationale that this or that person is, in the eyes of God, not a good person, a sinner, a scoundrel, a traitor, and, thus, an enemy. But these judgments are ours.
It is quite likely that, in reality, the “enemy” label is a convenient way of pigeon-holing those with whom we disagree. This, of course, gives us and those in our corner the status of “friends.” We, at least subconsciously say, ‘God must not like this person. Therefore he/she is an enemy.’ Even when we repress these sentiments their residue remains. There is, however, a difference between recognizing and condemning those who may be against you.
Your Father knows full-well who is against Him. You knew full-well who was against You in Your own time and who is against You now. Yet Your Father and You write off no one. Writing people off is what I do. If I would see through God’s eyes I would have no enemies – only friends, some of whom do not agree with me nor I with them. With us humans there are degrees of friendship. That is because the unconditional love of God is so hard for us; but we seek to have it. A good starting point may be to reflect on why we have enemies.
There are many ways our humanity makes all of us the same, butwithin our humanity there are many, many things that make each of us unique. I tend often to write to You about the common elements of our humanity but usually say very little about things that distinguish our uniqueness.
In reflecting on my own uniqueness I cannot help but focus on my faults, failings, weaknesses, and mistakes; and further, I cannot help but considering them my unique way of finding You. It may seem something of a “back door” approach to our uniqueness but when we step back from ourselves it becomes apparent that often the first things people think of us when they call us to mind is not our virtues but our faults. If they are the first consideration of our uniqueness they are also the first things that must be overlooked (forgiven) to get to our goodness. I tend to think that You too must look at our uniqueness this way. Those things that obscure our basic goodness are the very things that characterize Your concern for us and should also characterize our concern for others.
My faults, failings, weaknesses and mistakes paint a vivid picture of my uniqueness and that uniqueness is the acquired milieu in which our spiritual formation takes place. To love much is to forgive much. Each of us in our own uniqueness has a trail of debris and baggage that needs much forgiveness. This load affords You the opportunity for great love. We, in turn, considering the heavy burdens of others and forgiving them, are likewise afforded the great opportunity to love.
Love is given in different ways to match the uniqueness of each individual. But it cannot be denied that love is greatly involved in the uniqueness of the loved one; and that means that love is greatlyinvolved in overlooking, forgiving, and accepting all the baggage and debris attached to the one who is loved. This is a most fundamental element of Your teaching. For myself it is my own uniqueness that makes it so troublesome to master.
Co-dependency, detachment, and complicity are some key words descriptive of stretches along the path of our spiritual lives. Life, as spiritual writer Fr. Richard Rohr says, is not pure detachment nor pure attachment but a dance between the two that might be likened to Your own desert detachments and returns to the attachments of the big city of Jerusalem – with all the steps that went between. Detachment is necessary to re-center and gain perspective – a perspective we’re compelled to take back to “the city” – a compulsion to which we “attach” ourselves.
Without at least periodic detachment life becomes a steady stream of co-dependency, says Rohr, making the culture addictive and absorbing individuals’ identities. The contemplative individual knows that he/she is complicit in this push-pull. Such a person places the spiritual journey between the necessary detachments and compulsive attachments of daily life, sometimes co-dependent, and always complicit in the good and evil in the world – but able, in stretches, to be independent and detached.
I see myself engaged in this dance but I never looked upon it as necessary or helpful. My perception has always been that a “balancing act” between detachment and attachment was the hallmark of spiritual tepidity. But if one stops to think about it, its value holds true even in the cloister – even for a hermit! Our greatest attachment in any situation is to ourselves. To detach from that, even if only occasionally,re-centers our focus and we can take that back with us regardless of our complicity in the foibles of our race.
The coincidence of three things, all meshing within a fifteen-minute period recently, offered pretty convincing evidence of Your conspiring to whisper to me about myself.
First, at Mass, I was shamefully aware of avoiding a semi-crippled old lady who often shuffles into church with her clunky walker.Someone usually rushes to help her up the stairs and through the doors to a pew, but I do my best to avoid being involved in that situation. Second, the gospel a few minutes later was about the student of the law asking You what was needed to be saved and then answering his own question which you then illustrated with the story of the good Samaritan. Third, right after that, the homily was preached about self-centered spirituality.
These days I am more and more aware of the impenetrable arena of my self. I find it a major fault coupled with the even greater fault of not caring much about doing anything about it. With others not of my own immediate family I am quiet, introverted, and private. In fact, I go to great lengths making efforts to stay that way. My assumption is the more invisible I keep myself the less imposing there is of my self upon others. I regard this as a good thing. But, in my actions, the residual of this is that I tend not to act because doing so diminishes rather than magnifies my self.
I do have strong opinions and beliefs, and I do, to a certain extent, express them to those closest to me. Furthermore, what I see in this is not just a negation of self but, on the contrary, a fear of being wrong and a concern that my image of myself as well as other’s image of me may be damaged by whatever might smack of self-righteous assertiveness.
It’s paralyzing for anyone who wants to be an influence but not be perceived as such. There is no question that I could be more gracious – and more selfless.
There are instances in the gospels where, after performing a miracle for someone, the recipient was told to go home and not say anything of it. It’s almost as if to say, ‘This is just between you and me, and your ministry is in your own home.’
I like that! And it’s kind of the way I think about my relationship with You. But I keep bumping into contradictions of this elsewhere. For instance, how many times did You urge the disciples to go out and proclaim Your message? And what about hiding our light under a bushel basket? Or, if we’re silent even the rocks will shout? There would seem to be a real tension between the interior and exterior aspects of spirituality. Wrongly or rightly I am prone to nurture an attitude that says in the final analysis it’s all between You and me – it was never really between me and anybody else – except, maybe, my family and my closest friends.
My feelings are that I find You best in my family and friends and, hopefully, they find You in me. I am bold enough to declare that You have touched me in special ways through them. Maybe the emphasis in “go now and tell no one,” is on the word tell, for what we say seems to have negligible effects compared to what we do – what we live. For most of us the place where we live is with our family in our own homes. In this setting it’s clear that what we say counts for far less than what we live.
As one’s concepts of spirituality and spiritual growth mature and change, so do one’s concepts of sin and the temptations that lead to sin. There was never a time before now when I would have considered the calculated benevolence for what I believed was the good of another as a temptation. But as I grow older I begin to see that the desire I have for my wife, my children, my brother, and my friends to be a certain way, to live a certain way, to behave a certain way, is a temptation leading to the fault of self-righteousness. We are further tempted, along these lines, to believe that such feelings are the workings of the Spirit. Oh, what dreadful damage we are capable of dealing ourselves in the name of what we consider justifiable desires! Our compassion is blind-sided by misguided desires.
There is an ongoing story in the news right now of a British school teacher in the Sudan who is being marked for punishment, deportation, and even death, because she allowed her class to name a teddy-bear “Mohammed.” Even if her intentions were blasphemous, what self-righteous indignation tempts the members of a major religion to call for such reprisal in the name of a “merciful God?”
Yet, I believe there are those Christians who are among the Pharisees that would do the same if a Moslem teacher in this country had her class name the teddy-bear “Jesus.” Generally this culture is more cavalier about such things, but the Fundamentalist Christian Right is certainly capable of the same things in the name of religion as the Fundamentalist Islamic Right.
What we do, say, or believe in the name of religion – even within the contexts of our own families - can be very irreligious. It seems to be a temptation we are drawn to as we get older.