There is a French spiritual writer named Fenelon who is often quoted by other writers. He was quoted in something I read recently saying, “...you donot need to acquire new knowledge half as much as you need to put into practice what you already know.” For me, what strikesclose to home about this quote is my strong spiritual thirst for the waters of continually new spiritual insights. All of a sudden it hits me that this path may be a diversion from living my life according to what I already know.
My contrary rationalization is that I must grow. Yet, constant pursuit might become something of a treadmill. The arrival at any new point of insight instills the desire to go another step farther, etc., etc. The consequences are that the pursuit morphs into the goal. When this thirst becomes unquenchable we need the words of one such as Fenelon to remind us that what we seek may already be there, but in our dash for new insights we may have left it in the dust.
I have written to You before about the “spiritual urge” which I believe is present in every human. It is something we know even if we ignore it. Fundamentally it is all we need. This gift, this grace, which is inherent and exclusive of all other “insights” is enough to move us toward that which we seek while, at the same time, not existing as a goal in itself. There is no need to pursue that which we already possess. The desire to pursue ever more elusive insights is a self-generated quest for embellishments of that which we already know.
At the same time, however, to ignore this “urge” and do nothing about it is to ignore Your beckoning. The ongoing pursuit of ever-increasing spiritual insights does not necessarily answer this call. The things we know simply: prayer, love, the examples of Your life and teachings – these are all we really need.
My granddaughter called me recently and asked me what I could tell her about the three wise men. Her grandfather’s knowledge, which she presumed, was sadly lacking. So, I told her I’d call her back with some information. I then looked up “magi” on Google. I learned a lot about them which I never knew. One thing was that they were probably never at the manger where You were born. Current thought is that they probably never showed up till well after Your birth – possibly a year or more.
It got me to thinking along other tangents about these men. How is it that we always refer to them as “wise” men? What was their particular wisdom? It may have been true that they were court magicians,alchemists, mathematicians, or astronomers, but I don’t think that’s why we refer to them as “wise” men. I think it’s because they continued seeking You until they found You.
There’s wisdom in singling out what is truly important and pursuing it with single-vision perseverance. The wise man seeks the truth – the ultimate truth! The wise man carries with him gifts of gratitude if that truth be found. Neither the search nor the gifts are given up. Thus, it makes no difference whether the story of the magi is a myth or a fact. It is a metaphor for our own lives. If what we seek in life is You, and if we pursue it single-mindedly throughout our lives; and if, in doing so, our life is our gift of gratitude to You, then truly we are, like the magi, wise men.
A life of ethical imperatives is a Pharisaical life. When we consider our journey to union with You as if it was defined by adherence to a set of rules, our conformity itself becomes the idol and, like the Pharisees, we miss the forest for the trees. In looking upon this frequently perceived panorama of life’s directions a particular frustration pops up: so many of us, so often just cannot make the transition from following rules to connecting with You in our hearts.
The church starts us out with rules. You Yourself were not averse to taking the childlike mentalities of Your disciples and starting them off with rules or guidelines. But inherent in this approach is the dependence that growth in the relationship will bring us to the next step, and the next step, and so on to the point where the ethical imperatives have served their purpose and fade away.
How often You debated the lack of spirit in the Pharisees literal interpretation of the law. What You brought to the world was not more rules but a way of the heart. In our times we have doctors of theology, canon lawyers, and biblical interpreters and commentators all of whom have something to offer us from different perspectives. But a loving relationship with God is far less complex than the historical and current intricacies of those disciplines. It is, I think, an unwitting choice of many of those who shepherd us to fall victim to promulgating a spirituality based upon ethical imperatives that are given precedence over the kind of love and compassion You meant for us to absorb from You.
Still, there may be something to be saidabout the childlike disposition attached to a sense of obedience to Your will. If we must become like children to embrace the kingdom of God then maybe blind, dependent, trusting adherence to what we are told to do contains the necessary simplicity that the pursuit of complex mysticism and spiritual attitudes does not. The difference between the Pharisees and those they influenced may have been the difference between complex, self-serving teachers and the simple, obedient children that attended to them.
I have a tendency toward impatience and a proclivity for being a “controller.” My confessor thinks I should work harder on humility. How can you be humble when you know you’re right? – and that’s the problem! Very often I honestly believe that I not only know what is right but also that I know what is best – especially for the people I love most.
For one such as me it requires great and lengthy reflection to realize that my “right,” and my “best,” may seem very logical and straightforward to me but not to the way another may think. This all plays out most prominently in the relationship between me and my wife. I maintain in my own mind what I regard as a firm commitment to what I consider the responsibility of my marriage vows – at least my interpretation of them. In our autumn years together my wife is a person plagued with all kinds of physical and emotional health problems. These discomforts and disabilities are met by me in what she considers an over-solicitous, overbearing manner that smothers her independence. If, out of my love for her, I constantly look after her, advise her, and do things for her, it is because I think I am right and am doing what I think is best. It, to me, is a way of showing my love for her. But it quite often seems she does not regard it that way; and maybe she’s right.
Maybe to practice being less controlling and more humble I should realize that at this stage of our lives together what she needs is for me to “back-off.” She takes a lot of different medications and I often wonder what effects they all have on her when they’re all mixed together; but using that as a rationalization for being more controlling is not the path toward humility.
Thomas Merton quotes Karl Barth as saying, “...only faith should be taken seriously.” Merton calls it, “a great institution of Protestantism,” and he goes on to say, “Our good works are necessary but they are not to be taken seriously. In the sense of trusting completely in our own rightness, to take our good works seriously is to be a Pharisee.”
It’s not what we do for God, it’s what God does for us that is the pervading reality. Accepting this is turning faith into a good work and being “justified” by that. The act of faith covers belief in that unknowable entity that constantly touches our lives. That which beckons us beckons first our belief. The “good work” of belief opens up, correspondingly, all kinds of other good works that follow quite naturally from faith. Good works without faith are hollow and not to be taken seriously. But the good work of believing, of seeking firmer and better belief, should be taken most seriously. This is what Barth meant. Faith is what generates true good works.
My faith in You is the good work of belief; and my belief moves me to do as You taught. What I do, therefore, affirms my belief; and my belief has no life without being animated by the good works it inspires – not vice versa, for that is belief in self and belief in self tends, in many ways, to displace belief in You.
I do not find it objectionable to regard the thoughts and actions we consider “good” as meaningless in terms of salvation. I do, however, find the thoughts and actions we consider “bad” as bearing directly on salvation. If we believe that by Your cross and resurrection each one of us is saved, then how can we be more saved by doing “good?”
The crux of the matter for mankind is acceptance. The faith connoted by our acceptance of the fact that You have saved us is not activated by our good works. What our good works are, are acts of love and gratitude to You for our salvation. If we wholeheartedly accept You and believe in what You taught and what You did, then the good that we do is nothing more than the way we have of acknowledging our love and gratitude for You. That alone is their meaning. They do not save us;but they most assuredly follow upon our acceptance of and belief inYour salvation.
The “bad” that we do is of grave consequence. It connotes our rejection of Your salvation. Each bad act or fault is a connotativeassault on the disposition of acceptance. The “bad” that we do works on severing us from that disposition.We dispose ourselves to the acceptance of salvation by the good we do. We dispose ourselves to the rejection of salvation by the bad we do. Therefore, since salvation is already in place, it seems our concern for weeding out the bad things in our lives should be our main focus; and weeding them out is a good thing, a thing that acknowledges our love for You.
I think the reason I’m telling You this is because I often find myself choosing what is good because I think it scores “points” for me in The Good Book instead of choosing the good simply as a way of showing You I love You. The disastrous thing about this is that even within the context of choosing the good I often choose the bad. This luke-warmness neither shows my love nor my rejection. It’s a way of burying my light beneath a bushel basket. My faith in You and my acceptance of Your salvation is shown by my love for You; and my love for You is shown by my good actions toward all the others You have also saved. Establishing the primacy of love and good in the world in this way is the hallmark of Your kingdom and the re-perfection of mankind.
What is of consequence in this life? To cultivate a relationship with You and to love – these are of consequence! In trying to see the “big picture” nothing else matters as much as these.
Just what is the “big picture?” Everyone probably has a different answer to this, but I see it this way:The scriptural accounts of creation and “the fall” may be true or they may be metaphorical but, in either case, man exists by and for God. We belong to God in the way children belong to a father. That relationship should be one of love, but love must be given freely, by choice, and that choice is offered to man. Making this choice was, and is, of great consequence. Choosing anything else stands between God and man; yet, from the beginning and on through time man has chosen ways that distance him from God rather than unite him. Man struggles mightily to get back to the state of being an extension of God Himself. To me, the whole history of mankind is not complete until this re-perfection occurs. This will only happen when we accept and live out the love and seeking of God that are of great consequence to our being.
In the collective thinking of mankind we have historically built up a mountain of concerns that we regard as important to God, but they are actually of little or no consequence when compared to loving and seeking Him. That is all that life was meant to be about. But we have accumulated large amounts of outlandish concerns which we attribute to our concept of God. They, however, actually get between us and God.
Seeking God and loving are of such monumental consequence that our Father sent You to show us by Your example, Your teaching, Your passion and death just how we, the living, should negotiate these consequences. Thus we might say that scripture is an important guidebook toward these ends. But there existed, even before scripture, an urge to seek God directly and through others as well as a need to love. Both of these great consequences of life I see in the eye of God long before there was scripture and long before You walked the earth.
God always takes into consideration the nature and direction of mankind with inscrutable prescience. But the bottom line is that we make the choices. In order for there to be love, it must be this way. We must not choose things of lesser consequence that come between us.
One of the most profound but subtle flaws in the pursuit of a spiritual life is the self-satisfaction we get from our progress in it. Whatever feeds the self is a stumbling block to actual progress spiritually.
In my own life I know that I not only struggle with feelings of self-satisfaction, but that, at certain points, it actually halts me from moving on. It’s a tricky business! The fact that I am able to pray regularly makes me feel good about myself. Doing spiritual reading is like giving myself a “warm-fuzzy.” There is a powerful feeling of deficiency in my day if I miss Mass. Writing to You is time I continually look forward to; and being able to just “be” in silent sessions of centering prayer is frosting on my cake. I rejoice in all of these. I am glad that I am able to do them. They give me great feelings of self-satisfaction. So, how is it that I feel tinges of guilt about feeling so good?
The most obvious answer is that the desire to do these things is a gift of Your grace for which I should be humbly grateful – and there is nothing wrong with feeling good about that. I guess concerns in this area stem mostly from inclinations to regard both the causes and effects that play out in my spiritual journey as coming from myself. Accepting this, the next great source of wonderment is why Imight be singled out to receive such gifts. That is a mystery! Maybe these gifts are offered to many yet, at some point, the response is up to the individual. The inclination to the response is Your grace, but the actual response emanates, indeed, from the individual.
To feel that one has made a correct response and that one is pursuing it cannot help but elicit a certain sense of self-satisfaction. But You were never satisfied until You gave all. Thus, our self-satisfaction is never complete. The stage of satisfaction at which we find ourselves must be the motivation to continue on. Satisfaction is a temporary cause of temporary effects.
It is not difficult to think of all the ways You love me, but what would You say shows I love You? I don’t know what You’d answer but, if I did, it would be an epiphany of insight.
I would guess that what You’d say would be more insightful of my heart. The answers I might imagine You saying would run something more like: the routine daily “hug” of the Mass, these letters I write You, mindfulness of Your presence during the day, spiritual reading, morning and night prayers, centering prayer, contemplation – these are the things I would initially think You would mention if asked: “How do You know I love You?”
But the more I reflect on these answers the more apparent it becomes that these are not the answers You would mention at all. They are all merely motions and do not go deep enough to really answer the question. The heart must be probed for that. What, more deeply in me, moves me to these motions? Whatever that is, is what You would answer to the question: “How do You know I love You?”
Maybe things like my obsequious desire to seek You in a variety of places with constant persistence; or my idealistic hope that others would want to do the same; or the desire to be one with You – these are all matters of the heart and are more likely the answers You might give.
But the mere fact that I am putting words in Your mouth here proclaims my actual ignorance of what You might really say. Maybe You know I love You because I try in spite of my self; and my self is a big obstacle to me. I take little joy in the guile and pettiness of my busy-self which, nonetheless, pervades what I would wish to be for You. My joy is in You, in Your love and mercy for me, and my hope rests in that joy.
It is important that I amend my faults that get on others nerves. But, if I say it is important because of what others might think of me, then I am once again pandering to self under the delusion of doing something good. But, if it is important because it is a way of giving - of showing love – then the value is placed on the other, not on me.
I know I have many faults that get on others nerves. I lose patience when I think something is not being done correctly, or when what I am saying is not understood. I am not above guile in manipulating others to get my way. I am prone to use sarcasm as a weapon and, of course, there are many more. What a great gift to others it would be if I was able to eliminate these things from what others have to bear about me. To amend such faults takes a dedicated effort. Exorcising these demons in my own life can be a loving and healing gift to others.
If I could learn to say nothing when the compulsion to do so is overpowering; or learn to listen without being patronizing; or agree with and support others when I see they need it rather than looking for flaws – if I could just do these things it would go a long way toward growing, nourishing, and supporting the lives of others. First I’ve got to will it. Changing things at this stage in my life always seems like such a huge effort even though I know with Your help I can do it.