Men see appearances. God sees the truth. Among the appearances men see is religion. Men are judgmental, but God sees the truth. Men are judgmental about religion. The judgments of men about religion have probably been the cause of more dissension in the world than anything else. Only God sees the truth about religion.
Men study geography and equate patches of the world’s lands with certain religions. Men see the differences and wish everybody else believed as they do. But God sees the truth. God sees that men are judgmental and look at appearances. But God knows exactly what is in men’s hearts.
In the guise of many different religions and all their branches, men, who do not reject You out-of-hand, seek You; and then they become narrow-minded and judgmental about You. There is something fundamentally counter to the idea that man, because of his own limitations, can define and contain God according to those very same limitations and promulgate that view as the correct one.
I am a Christian because I believe God sent You to show men – all men - how to live and You set them free from their own limitations to do that. I believe Muhammad may have had similar intentions about himself as Allah’s messenger. I believe that in recorded history man’s monotheistic relationship with God stemmed from Yahweh. The dissension comes not from the belief in one God but in the different “spins” we definitely place on that one God. It is apparently very difficult to simply allow others to pursue their notion of God when it does not conform to our own. Such appearances intervene between common sense and reality. But I think the truth that God sees is man seeking God; not Christian man, Muslim man; or Jewish man, etc. Faith means belief, not religion.
Thomas Merton says that one of the true pleasures left to modern man is the illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, his thought is dominated by an overpowering, anonymous, and massive they that does his thinking for him while sustaining the illusion of independent thought, identity, and freedom. The age of mass media has cast this in granite.
How much of what we think, believe, and value comes not from our innermost independent comprehension, but from the popular propaganda of the times? Indeed, we are undeniably formed by others. Our education, upbringing, and mindsets must come to us from somewhere. This, for each of us, is inevitable. But the scariest part of this is the very strong possibility that we have actually become incapable of original thought while, at the same time, thinking most of our thoughts are original. Here is where we unwittingly allow the subtle power of the outside world to dominate the whispers of our inner world – the whispers that come from our true selves.
There seems to be no stronger detour to the path of our journey (and none more subtle) than the attention we give to the voices all around us coming through friends, associates, books, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and movies. We pick and choose from these sources to form thoughts we claim as our own. But they are not; and we allow them to govern and guide our daily lives.
Attention is easily stolen from where our focus should be. An analogy of my own distractibility at Mass might serve as a parallel of how we are so easily pulled away from what we should be attending to: I cannot sit in church near unruly small children, odd or quirky-acting individuals, or attractive females. Each pulls me away and redirects my attention from what should be my focus. But the difference here is that I know I’m being distracted. I own the distractibility but not the distraction. With thoughts and ideas I tend to unconditionally accept and own my paraphrases as original ideas. I own the distractibility and the distraction.
Maybe in this age we’ve all come to the point of being unable to tell the difference. Maybe the best we can do at originality anymore is to throw our hats into the ring of that with which we agree rather than reject, allowing ourselves to accept our agreements as original.
Madison Avenue, politicians, and television programming each, in its own way, tries continuously to propagandize us to influence our thinking, to compel us to act or think in a certain way. It is almost unavoidable in our world – but not quite!
It is said that the hardest people to propagandize are those who are unaware of the news – those with their heads-in-the-sand. This “ostrich” attitude is often encouraged by traditional religion as long as we maintain a close relationship with You. For myself, I pretty much subscribe to this attitude, though I still read the newspaper daily and watch TV. So, my head is not totally in the sand. Whose is? Maybe some monks, but not all. Certainly not Thomas Merton, who paid heed to whatever news he could gather.
Am I propagandized? Certainly I am! Was Merton? Yes, I think, to a certain extent. I often go out of my way to avoid ads and TV commercials, but I know they influence me. Merton was propagandized by those he loved most, those who molded his thinking – just as he molds me. He was also influenced by the politics and ethics of his time. But most of all, he was propagandized by You and Your good news. It’s really the only news we need to keep up on. But in order to keep up with it we cannot have our heads totally in the sand.
Your good news bears heavily upon all the other news that goes on around us. Your good news plays out in the news of our daily lives. The trick is being able to distinguish the prophets from the charlatans. I think that’s what Merton was good at – and you can’t keep your head in the sand to do that. In this sense the “What-Would-Jesus-Do” movement seems to have the right idea. It helps focus one on the good news. As for the rest, I think, for me, it would only serve a pseudo-pragmatism. I’d probably feel more “cloistered” but, perhaps, somewhat spiritually debilitated.
If I was to make a list of the most profound influences in my life it would include You, my parents, my wife and family, some friends, Thomas Merton, Anthony DeMello, and, I’m sure, many others. But also on the list should be included they or them.
I’m not always precisely clear on who they or them are, but I know they put great pressure on me. I am very concerned with what they will think and what effect I will have on them. You see, they or them are other people and, in certain circumstances or situations, others exercise a powerful sway over me. It’s not just their witness of what I say or do, but the fear of what they might think. So, while my parents, teachers, Merton, or DeMello may move me in one direction, concern for what they might think moves me in another. If we think peer pressure vanishes after the teen years we are sadly mistaken. It never goes completely away.
While I might spend time reflecting on the possibilities that You may speak to me through another individual, I am much less sure that You speak to me through they or them. In my perception they or them are much more likely to pull or push me in directions away from You. They lurk out of sight in both my conscious and subconscious awareness. I am anxious over being “steered” by them in directions I know aren’t right but are advantageous. In this sense they or them are great scapegoats. It’s so very comforting to be able to point a finger and say, “It was them, they did it, or made me do it.” Maybe that’s the prime reason why we keep they or them around – to blame them for our own faults.
Nevertheless, I remain skittish about they or them, and it’s notimagined. You, in Your public life, were surrounded by theys and thems, but You went right ahead with who You were. You offered they or them acceptance of You, not vice versa. There’s a lesson in that.
We like to be dazzled. What dazzles us impresses us. Yet this predilection is a blind spot that can be numbered among the flaws of our humanity.
The people who were, for whatever reason, attracted to You during the three years of your public life were continuously looking for and asking for signs that would dazzle them so they could believe whom You said You were. In my imagination these “tricks” were a bore to You. You came to show us how to live and grow in Your love and the love of each other without any “tricks.” The miracle of miracles is pulling this off in one’s own life.
Another case in point of this same nature is that to this day we still demand at least one miracle for the canonization of a saint. It is as if a phenomenon beyond nature must first be displayed, then we are possibly dazzled enough to make a declaration of sanctity.
It strikes me that this standard overlooks the natural wonders of an individual’s life that, in themselves, may be a sign of something more. What about the miracles of love; the miracles of compassion; forgiveness; self-denial; generosity; and service that typified Your own day-to-day life and the lives of so many saints? In a very real way, when taken in the context of life on this planet, they are miraculous signs of something sanctified. If we look around we can see people whose lives are signs of this. It is this by which we should be dazzled.
When it came right down to the end, I’m sure people around You fully expected to be dazzled by an amazing escape from Your fate at the hands of the Jews and Romans. Such anticipation may have caused them to miss the sign of total self-giving and unconditional love – the sign of the cross. They looked upon that ignominious execution hoping to be dazzled by something miraculous. It was right before them, but they couldn’t see it. It’s possible (even likely) that in the spiritual life we do the same thing. We miss the truly miraculous while waiting to be dazzled.
The story in the gospels of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes comes up at least a couple times in each cycle of the liturgical calendar. I recently heard a homily on this event in which the priest approached it from an interesting slant through which I think You communicated a new insight to me.
The traditional sermon on this gospel is based around its precursory symbolism of the Eucharist – which is true! But the angle this priest took was based on his seminary remembrance of one theology professor’s explanation of the “miracle.” He said this prof offered the possibility that rather than Your directly and miraculously changing a few loaves and fishes into food for thousands, what happened was that all these people, seeing Your intent and example, brought out from under their cloaks or wherever, parcels of food they had brought along for their own sustenance and they began sharing it with those around them. Either way, there is a miraculous aura here, and a precise foreshadowing of the meaning of “eucharist.” It does not demean the miracle if we consider this hypothesis factual. The spirit and example of God can move us to do ordinary things that become miraculous.
The moment we forget ourselves for the sake of others miracles can and do take place, and it can become infectious. It can spread in a most miraculous way. Isn’t this the fundamentally miraculous tenet of Christianity itself? We truly are the witnesses of wonderful miracles each day if only we practice seeing them. Every time one person forgets him/herself for the good of another, a miracle takes place.
Our mind is the one mode of transportation that can take us anywhere we want anytime, without costing us a cent. It is even capable of time-travel, forward or back. Yet, as Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, “What we leave behind, or what we look forward to is nothing compared to what we have within.” But it is toward that venue that our minds are ostensibly least inclined to visit.
We are enraptured of fond memories of the past: good times, places visited, family events, holidays, vacations, accomplishments, etc. Then too there are the anxious expectations of future events where our imagination is fueled by our anticipation. Our minds go in these directions almost automatically. But we must, it seems, force our minds to dwell in the present moment – in the deep, most precious part of our being. The realization that that trip is a destination we can make (though the effort often puts us off) is something we come to only with careful consideration.
Spending time, lost in a reverie of recollected or anticipated moments, may be delightful but it centers quite obviously on the self. How often do we lose ourselves in the memories or anticipations of others? Or, even more unlikely, how often do we consider their present moments and their lives within? It is that inner life in ourselves and others that Emerson spoke of. To whatever point our mind takes us the only true reality is now; and now is where we meet our true inner self which is You.
Curiosity is a built-in human trait. We want to know! Very often we are driven by curiosity; but also very often (once our curiosity is satisfied) it’s not the end of it.
The scriptures give us wonderful details about the important events, teachings, and actions of Your life, but there are so many gaps about which I am extremely curious. We always want to know everything about those we love. Our curiosity always seeks something new to know. I would like especially to know about the routine daily stuff of Your life. What were all those years in Nazareth like? What types of education did You receive? What was the routine of the carpenter shop? What thoughts and/or plans moved You to John’s baptism? What was Your routine for 40 days and nights in the desert? The fact that You withdrew from everything to be alone intrigues me. I’m convinced that in a deep spiritual relationships with God there is a compelling urge of great strength to be alone with Him. Contemplatives, cenobites, and even retreatants all bear witness to this urge. We wish to be alone with God; hence the desert. It was apparently essential for You to balance Your time on earth between people and God. It is a lesson for us.
Furthermore, if we only knew, I would venture a guess that many of the “gaps” in what we know about Your life and about which we are so curious, were filled with time You spent alone with the Father. Your whole life was the perfect prayer, but the scriptures give us very little about the details of Your prayer life. I am sure there is so much more than the few times the gospels mention Your praying. What we know is enough, but I’m still curious!
Here’s a consideration about the self that provides an interesting perspective. In his book Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr talks about the wonderful feeling of freedom people must have had before the proliferation of mirrors around 1500, or photographs later on. Both these “inventions” have drawn us outside of ourselves and have encouraged us to pursue a conformity with exterior images of ourselves and others.
In our own age Hollywood, TV, and Madison Avenue have taken this to the extreme, and this extreme exerts a strong pull on us. How much of what we do or the attitude we take is based on the image we have of ourselves in the mirror, or in a particular photograph; or on what Hollywood, TV, or ads and commercials might say about our appearance? This cult of the exterior influences the ways we think about ourselves, others, and the ways they think about us.
How would it be if our interiors showed in the mirror or in photos? It’s the difference between the true and false self. We often cultivate with great care the appearance of our surface in order to better conceal our interior which just might peep through and shame us. What might it be like if everyone was able to clearly see our true interior selves as in a mirror or photo, and we were able to see theirs? Every deceit, guile, and charade would drop away. One would see clearly who and what everyone was. The sad fact is that this is what we think we do see when we observe the superficialities of every other person, and this is why so many of our “carved in stone” judgments about others are in egregious error. Only with You might we have been able to do this.
With You, Your interior and exterior were so closely in tune as to be indistinguishable. It is this that got You killed! It is this that kills You daily: that seeing and judging Your exterior, Your image, Your picture – and rejecting it, we reject the truth of Yourself.
Regarding the communal versus individual approach to spirituality, Fenelon offers a key bit of advice: “Retire to pray whenever you can and live the rest of your day in love.”This expression appeals strongly to my own perception of a good approach to the spiritual life. Fenelon, in this pronouncement, seems to lay the heavier emphasis on an individual’s personal approach with private prayer, meditation, and contemplation; but along with the personal approach he does not seem to discount the importance of giving love in the shared contexts of each day.
I have written to You before that the morning is my favorite part of the day. The time I spend personally with You from 7:45 to 10:30 or 11:00 each morning is the most “looked-forward-to” part of my day. It’s also the easiest and most comfortable. But instead of denigrating it for that, I choose to think of it as a little foretaste of heaven. The rest of the day is spent, in great part, sharing life’s contexts with other people in various settings. This is often not so easy and can be uncomfortable. But it is in this part of the day that I am given the opportunity to put into action that which I reflect upon in the morning.
It is this combination of the individual and communal that seems to me the ideal of not only the monastic but also the secular, each in its own sphere. Even in the cloister with its silence and individual cells the whole community eats, worships, and works together. It is just this, I think, that offers the most appealing aspect of monasticism.