Regarding the spiritual life, we are more apt to speak in a derogatory manner about the role of the senses than in praise. Traditional asceticism is prone to consider a sensory life one that is dedicated to pleasure, self-indulgence, and comfort. Each of the five senses is seen as the potential perceiver of that which distances us from the inner spiritual urges.
There is a valid point to considering the senses this way, but a strong case may also be made for the goodness of the senses, for they indeed are the windows of the body in which our spirit resides. The goodness of the senses is shown in the fact that, as humans, they are our primary means of perceiving that which is considered by our intellect as good or bad. Imagine the beauties of creation that could not be taken in fully without the senses. But like everything that has been bestowed on us we have a reactionary penchant for twisting them. It often seems as important to us to expose and explore the dark as well as the light.
In my own case, I cannot tell just where my spiritual life would be without the sense of sight. The things I read and the things I see in others are good. But, in truth, there are things I use my sight for that are bad. It occurs to me that actual hearing and touching have, at times, almost become metaphors for inner hearing and being touched by You. Yet, it’s also true that my hands and my ears are used for purposes that are not so good. I guess the point is that, like life itself, the use of the gift of our senses is left to our choice as to how we use it. As one of us You, indeed, used all five senses as instruments to carry out the will of Your Father and, at the same time, proved their inherent goodness.
There are times when I look to the character of Your love of human beings for consolation, strength, and hope. I am amazed at how much You love us despite our flagrant fickleness.
Last week was a time of oppressive darkness for our family and the pall still hangs over us. My brother is in a rest home that’s giving us a hard time about releasing him after a long recuperation that seems now to have run its full course. Add to this that we had to euthanize our 15-year-old family dog who was very sick. Then, my wife’s older brother died 2000 miles away and the trauma of it all sent her to the hospital for three days.
I think of Job in the Old Testament; and I also think of how hard it is to think of You and keep You present at such times; but mostly I think in terms of being “tested.” Such times try the mettle of my love. For the people we love who are involved along with us at such dark times, it is hard to know what to do. We often have good intentions but do the wrong things. We do what we think is loving but are rejected. At times, even that which we think is an act of love is not wanted. What we think is best, is worst. What compassion we might show is considered phony and pragmatic. What do we do then?
Relying on the perceptions and feedback of others at these times can be disconcerting. It can dash our hope and make us doubt our own take on the situation. As much as it has become a cliché, the best answer is to simply place it in Your hands – even if others might think this is a cop out – and let it go! The hard realities (which we choose not to deal with) are that my brother may have to spend the rest of his life in a nursing home; our dog is not coming back; the mental, emotional, and physical problems that plague my wife may be permanent; and her brother is gone from this life. It sounds a bit callous, but accepting the reality of these things and then letting them go helps us to move on. Yet there always seems to be a residual of memories that stick with us – and some are not very good. These too we must find a way to release into Your loving hands and move on.
Wise men spend a lifetime seeking the truth. Then there are those like me who, in the name of seeking the truth, seek their own truth. There’s a big difference!
The truth I most often delude myself into thinking I’m pursuing is the truth of my being right about what I’m doing, believing, or defending. I have a great need for this truth because it affirms me. It tells me I’m right and others are wrong. I seek the truth that gives me comfort – not the pure truth. We feel we need to embrace the fabrications we make about ourselves; but thus we thwart our search for real truth. If we consider that everybody else is also seeking their own truth we might be able to see why there is so much hatred and vindictiveness in the world. When each individual is right, everyone else is wrong.
It is both humbling and discomforting to admit that we do not have the truth – that our truth is not the pure truth. We are slaves to our own truth but the pure truth sets us free. Everyone has access to this truth no matter how deeply it is buried beneath our own truths. It is the truth of the center of our being; it is the truth of life; it is the truth of forgiveness and salvation; it is the truth that God’s unconditional love sets us free. We need no other truths!
Sometimes some of the truths we fashion for ourselves are harmless, sometimes they are even necessary, but never are they absolutely essential. The only thing that’s needed is the pure spiritual truth of our inner being – our true being. All the rest are manufactured to cope with the physical being that exists between our birth and death. When we get caught up in these the pure truth of our being and our relationship with You is clouded.
To my way of thinking ethical relativity and situation ethics are not to be dismissed out of hand. There are still Pharisees to whom the letter of the law is an idol. They would rather punish than forgive. There are still fundamentalist Christians for whom there is one right, one wrong, and one way. Such a philosophy allows for no moral speculation and it cultivates the iron grip of righteousness. I believe that this philosophy is also the source of a great deal of religious intolerance, misunderstanding, and attitudinal friction. Couldn’t it be imagined that there are two, three, or more rights, wrongs, or ways?
The situation, for example, of the woman taken in adultery allowed the Jewish Pharisees and elders no other choice but to stone her. But in that situation You saw something less wrong than their wrong. You saw something more right than their right. You saw a better way than theirs – and it all revolved around love, forgiveness, and mercy. The scriptural account of this is not just the record of an historical event, it is an account of You teaching us a lesson. Notions of one right, one wrong, and one way are not Your notions. Who and what You are, and who and what we should be allows for tolerance and acceptance of another right, another wrong, another way. The love, forgiveness, and mercy at the heart of Your message demands this.
Men search for You and pursue You in their own ways. As we cultivate a personal relationship with God we should take into accountindividual differences in others. You, indeed, are THE WAY in capital letters. But here are those who do not accept everything about that WAY yet believe in and pursue God. Their ways, in small letters, are sincere and genuine and not worthy of intolerance or derision. That isnot Your way.
The “self,” which I so often decry in these letters to You, is, in reality, the sensory consciousness whose whims and pleasures enslave us. But there is an ineradicable self beyond sensory consciousness. This unique individuality subsists beyond total dependence on sensory consciousness. We could not get rid of this “self” even if we wanted to. This “self” is a prerequisite for being human.
Thus we might refer to an “earthly” and a “heavenly” self. What we so often fail to consider thoughtfully about this heavenly self is its necessary preeminence over the earthly self. It’s the difference between the physical and the spiritual – the surface and the depths.
The genuine fundamental reality of the spiritual self is customarily subordinated to the perceived reality of the physical self and its whims. The physical self, with its sensory consciousness, can be controlled by us. It can, if we so wish, be demoted, diminished, denied, and even destroyed; but like powers over our spiritual self are not in our hands. Our only power over it seems to be to ignore it. It is the diminishing of our earthly, physical self with its sensory consciousness of the material world around us that, to a certain degree, facilitates the enhancement of our heavenly, spiritual self.
For me, confronting the spiritual self is often like entertaining a stranger. That’s how “at home” I am with my earthly, sensory self. However, we must cut through and push away many things about our physical selves in order to begin to touch our spiritual selves. The nature of contemplative prayer, I think, more aptly suits this pursuit than any other mode of day-to-day life.
I want to talk about “the obvious.” Obvious is a word we use to describe what is pretty much self-evident. Yet, so much of what is obvious we either miss or regard precisely because it is obvious.
It was quite obvious who You were as You made Your way around Galilee, healing the sick, curing mental and physical handicaps, and performing signs contrary to the laws of nature. But the Scribes, the Pharisees, the religious elders, Your own disciples, and even the apostles continually demanded some sign as to who You were. It was obvious – too obvious to be simply accepted! And we, had we been there, would have been just the same.
We’re almost always like that. We fail to grasp what is meaningfully obvious. In our spiritual endeavors we keep looking for signs of who You are, and we run straight past the obvious. Why does it seem so hard to simply accept what is obvious? Maybe it’s because we mistrust our own judgment.
It really doesn’t matter much whether a story is fact or fiction. We still miss the obvious because ofwhat seems more obvious to us. Our senses miss the truly obvious because they are stimulated by what hits them first. In the stories of creation, the flood, the exodus, David and Goliath, or Jonah, etc., we miss the truth because the surface stories are more obvious. We miss what is most obvious in the Eucharist when we focus only on the bread and wine. All this is to say that our senses can deceive us when it comes to what is meaningfully obvious; and this is an issue with which You seemed very much concerned in Your ministry.
The problem with the human senses is that they jump at what is on the surface, what is easily perceived, or some obviously striking first impression. There is little effort to consider that what is really obvious is what is behind or beneath what we first perceive as obvious. We miss what is genuinely obvious because of the way we process what our senses take in. It is the way of all humans. Therefore, for us, what might be considered a plausible definition for the word “obvious” would be our perception of whatever first jumps out at us. With a minimum of reflection this can be seen as a stumblingblock in the growth of our relationship with You – just as it was with the people of Your time. One great obvious fact is that You love us and wish to draw us to Yourself. Whatever else we perceive about You is not as obvious as this.
We wonder, we guess, we speculate, we conceptualize, but we are never able (nor will we ever be) to fully grasp the wonder of God. In fact, we’re never able to fully grasp the wonder of another person. Even further, I’m not sure we ever really grasp the wonder of ourselves. We are beings of our senses and we form what we know through them. Yet they never tell us the whole story, only what we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell; and there is more!
The wonder of You, of others, even of myself is seen as an image, a human form, or in a mirror. But what I see is not the true You, me, or another. Wonders are heard in the leaves rustling in the breeze, in the bird’s song, in music, in dialogue, in my own voice, in radio and TV; but what I hear is not the true You, me, or another. The sun’s warmth, the tingle of falling rain, the charm of a hug, a kiss, a caress all touch and fall short of the depth of You, me, or another. Furthermore, any taste or smell that delights or creates fond memories – nomatter how vivid – cannot fully encompass the truth of You, me, or another. None of these sensual stimuli, no mater how powerful or concentrated, can capture the entire wonder of You, me, or another; not even when they’re all put together.
So, how can I talk about such wonders? What words can be used to frame them? The one faculty that is only “para-sensual” and thus holds forth the greatest possibility, is thought. While based in great part on the senses, thought has the capability of going a little bit beyond the senses as well as a little bit beyond the words we use to describe what is sensed. It entertains wonder and tries to capture it with wordless imagination. This is good, but because of its subjectiveness its accuracy cannot be guaranteed.
Still, the wonder of God, of another, or of myself seems situated more comfortably within imagination than within the sentient. It’s the best we can do with what we’ve got.
It is a universal characteristic of being human that we seek to know.
We yearn to know whatever we don’t know or cannot know. This inherent drive, I submit, comes from our spirit. The soul of man desires completion, fulfillment, and peace, but cannot attain any of those until it knows. The problem is there are things it seeks that are beyond its power to know. Yet our intelligence, our rationality, our logic, and our common sense are continually honed as we get older so as to increase our capacity just a little more as years pass.
I know that my knowledge is limited, but that does not discourage me. On the contrary, I am quite encouraged by the tiny increases of my capacity as I go along. It is not so much any ultimate knowledge in this life for which I am excited, but rather for the little glimpses, the tiny insights that move me closer to knowing. These are exciting and inviting. These are worth exploring and reflecting upon.
What we do not know, even at our most brilliant, far outweighs what we do know. But life, love, compassion and understanding lubricate our ability to know. There are other “virtues” that also facilitate it. Thus it can be said that the practice and perfection of virtue in our daily lives inches us toward increased insight, and this insight is God’s whisper of knowledge as we go along. The trick is to pay attention to the whispers. They are very easy to ignore. Each opportunity ignored is a tiny piece of knowing that is missed. The more we know, the more we can love; and the contrary is also true: the more we love, the more we can know – another paradox of the spiritual life.
How do we assess the existence of the world as it plays against our own existence? About ourselves we ask: Who am I? What am I doing here? Where am I going? What’s life all about?
Less often do we ask similar questions about our planet. I suppose in the unknown grand scheme of things the world could be compared to an antechamber for waiting, or a classroom for learning, or a crucible for purifying. It’s somehow a necessary stopover in our spiritual life – a finite part of our infinity. Someone (whom I can’t remember) once wrote that the world is not a prison house but a kind of a spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell “God” with the wrong blocks. For me it’s a most apt and graphic description of my own condition. Here is the physical place that anchors us though we would soar. But why then, if we would fly, are we grounded here? What role does the world play in working out our ultimate destiny?
We need a time to recognize and accept Your many gifts - Your love.The place for this realization is here. It was once a far better place but we have made it to our own specifications while You continue to use it to gift us and to beckon us. It is a place where we learn to dispose ourselves to Your gifts and to answer Your call. It is a kindergarten from which we can be promoted. The fact that we may be using the “wrong blocks” is not as important as our continual attempts to spell “God.”
It is here, in this place, now, that we practice getting it right despite so many inappropriate tools provided by the world to do so. Realizing its transience, one who is in it but not of it disdains certain specifications widely accepted as necessary for life in this world.
In death the wealthy of many ancient cultures would be buried with their most precious possessions or with items considered necessary for life after death.
The idea of our attachment to what we have accumulated in our lifetime is quite ancient – and ongoing! But actually, the idea that what we accumulate physically, mentally, or spiritually in our lifetime goes with us after death is, I think, a bit of a stretch. We take into the next life only what we’ve given away in this life, and, having been given away, these things are mostly intangibles.
If we give time or money away, the intangible generosity remains with us. If we go out of our way to offer patience, sympathy, and understanding to others, the intangible compassion remains with us. If we forget our “selves” in all our interactions with others, the intangible love remains with us. If we pray and participate thoughtfully in ritual worship, the intangible devotion remains with us. If we are open, accepting, and reliant, the intangible trust remains with us; and the list of what we give goes on and on accumulating what we take with us: generosity, compassion, love, devotion, and trust. But they don’t go with us unless we give them away.
So the question and the meditation is this: What have I given away? What will remain with me when I die? It’s a sobering meditation to consider how many (or how few) of these qualities might remain with me.