In talking about meditation, James Finley, in his book The Contemplative Heart,says, “…no idea of God is God. Every idea of God is infinitely less than God….we are not created by God to think about God, but rather are created by God for God beyond all ideas of God….we forget that no idea of us is us…no idea of God is God.”
I see the truth of this, but it makes me puzzle over what it is I seek when I say I seek God. I have a need to put words to the object of my seeking. It seems a very human need to want to do this. Thus I see it as quite human and natural to try to find words that color our picture of God.
While it is very human and natural to do this, we must not quit doing it simply because we comprehend the truth that even the most elegant and well thought-out words fall abysmally short of ever beginning to touch the reality of God. There is a subtle urge though in each of us to never stop trying. Yet all the while we seek and meditate we will never find the words.
So how, other than in You, and through You, and with You can we progress in grasping God. Our hope is in Your words: “He who sees Me sees the Father.” Thus the best words that we will ever discover (short of private revelation) are the words of the gospel writers that describe, as best they could, Your teachings, Your example, and Your life for it is, in fact, in recorded scripture that we even find the statement that quotes You as saying, “He who sees Me sees the Father.”
It is desirable and noble to seek God directly – but futile! It is, I believe, God’s will that we seek Him solely through You. It is ostensibly for that reason that He gave us His Son. Every meditation upon You from the gospels or on some aspect thereof treated by spiritual writers is an inch forward in our seeking. It is a marvelous endeavor to spend time regularly seeking to move forward one inch knowing full well that the grasping of what we seek is light-years away.
Love must dominate one’s will. This is what putting on Christ means. This is the sign by which others know who we are. We see daily in the world what happens when something other than love dominates the will. When the will is controlled by self-interest, anger, vengeance, self-indulgent pleasures, gluttony, etc. it’s not Christ we’re putting on – it’s self! And these are the signs by which others know us.
When the will is dominated by love it seeks first the good of the other. If human nature’s original fault was the overwhelming inclination to seek what is good only for oneself, and if that inclination is what we’ve all inherited, then it is that inclination in our nature which another subtler, deeper inclination in our nature seeks to transcend. And each time that struggle is won it tends to instill more firmly in our wills the desire to serve rather than be served.
If we ask, “What would You do?” this, in a very real sense, is the answer. You transcended Your human nature by Your will – which is also the will of the Father – which is love!
So, when we will to love we follow You and we transcend our nature, as You did. Yet the milieu in which we attempt to accomplish this is fraught with other people all around us whose wills have directed them mostly to serving their own wants. Indeed, whole cultures operating under this intent often surround us with their influence. Hence we are dominated by the “me-first” philosophy of life, or by flagrantly pragmatic socio-economic systems, or by the politics of the state. Transcending these results of our human inclinations brings us back to our true selves, our true spiritual center within society and culture. The acknowledgment and concern first for the other pre-empts ”me-first” and pre-empts pragmatic philosophies and systems based on “rugged individualism.” Our true self is the image and likeness of God in us.
There may be times when we ask ourselves what mode of thinking (philosophy of life) puts us in closest alignment with You in whose name we say we are Christians. Basically, there are only a few simple answers to this, one of which has to do with the putting forward of others rather than ourselves.
It’s good, in solitary prayer, to lose the self we present to the world. Equally good, though, is minimizing and hiding the self we would present to the world by magnifying and putting forward others over ourselves. The will to act in this manner is at war with our natural inclination to extol ourselves at every opportunity. We convince ourselves that others will benefit from us and their lives will be enriched by exposure to what we think, say, or do. How lucky they are to have us! With this philosophy we distance ourselves from You; we become “anti-Christian.” But most of the time we don’t actually realize this. We just go along as if we were the center of everything. Most of the people around us operate the same way. Thus we erroneously elevate conformity to a virtue and are content to live out our lives with ourselves at the center. We often proudly give ourselves full credit for the things we have accomplished without putting forth those without whom any accomplishments of ours would have even been possible.
Our disposition toward Your gifts is enhanced and becomes truer when seen through the instrumentality of others; others who should be extolled first before we say any “Thanks” on our own behalf.
Self-punishing asceticism aside, it is not frivolous to say that “feeling good” is sometimes considered a measure of our spiritual condition. On the other hand, “feeling good” emanates from the self’s contentment with being comfortable, secure, loved, healthy and happy with the conditions of one’s life. This “feeling good” is not so much a measure of our spiritual goodness but rather a certain selfish defect that affects our spirituality in consoling but not nurturing ways. If we are stuck in these feelings we may be spinning our spiritual wheels.
There is another kind of “feeling good” that has more to do with “good feelings” than feeling good. There is a certain good feeling when we make ourselves uncomfortable for the sake of the comfort of another. There is a certain good feeling when we risk our own security for the security and well-being of another.
And there is a certain good feeling when we abandon trying to get love in order to give it to others, etc., etc. The difference between “feeling good” and “good
feelings” is in the discernment of the grace to be willing to give up feeling good for the good feeling of having done so for others.
So, it’s a good thing and a measure of spiritual progress to have good feelings about sacrificing feeling good for the good of another.
All this being said, there is, nevertheless, a certain “smugness” in my case with which I struggle – a smugness that is something like patting oneself on the back
when I give up my own “feeling good” for the “good feeling” of having done so for the sake of another. It therefore seems that my actions are often calculated to ultimately massage my self-image; and this seems to run contrary to my efforts and desire to erase the self.
It is terribly difficult for me to be totally unconscious of self when I have done or am doing something I have chosen to do because I think it is good. Even that tiny residue of self refuses to unglue itself from what I do.
At the same time there paradoxically seems to be some kind of a need for an awareness of self in order to work on erasing it. Despite the wonderful meditations provided by Bernadette Roberts in her works, for me a state of pure “no-self” is a good worth striving for but unattainable except sporadically and in a mystical sense.
Why do we try to do good? When others do good things they are attractive to us. We like people who do good! When we do good it makes us feel good and confirms our own goodness, and we like to feel as though we are good persons. We wish to imitate You because You gave us an example of a life full of doing good things. We believe, therefore, that God wants us to be good and to do good, and we wish to please Him. We believe we show our love for God by doing good things.
But the more I think about the ways people do good, and the more I think about the ways I myself go about doing good things, the more I realize that in almost everything good anyone does there can be found at least a sliver of something bad – maybe not evil, but imperfect, drossy, or flawed. By nature we are persistently hounded by sin. There is no living a human life without it. Thus, my perception of the good I may do may be tainted by selfish intentions, conditions, and/or expectations. Acts of pure goodness are difficult if not downright impossible even though we should never stop trying. When the desired outcome of an act of goodness is that it makes us feel good, that expected outcome renders it flawed. Sometimes we get angry or upset at a third person whom we perceive as getting in the way of our doing something good for someone else. Sometimes the effort we put in to doing some difficult good thing for another carries what we believe to be added advantages for our own agendas. Sometimes we just want to score “brownie points” with God. There almost always seems to be something hidden in the good we do. Maybe that’s why it can be said with such certainty that “only God is good.”
Thomas Merton has said that the whole notion of “worthiness” is preposterous. When we deal with God we are really dealing with ourselves and we must accept and embrace our total dependence on Him.
I am my own mistake! I am not God’s mistake. I am not the mistake of anyone else. I am not the mistake of heredity or environment. I am my own mistake! I write upon the blank slate God has given me in my own words. I absorb from others things of my own choice. I ultimately am the captain of my ship. It all seems so contrary to denying my self, but it also seems to be the way God wants it. Even the choice to deny or amplify self is mine. Other factors influence us, dispose us, interest us, or repel us with varying degrees of power, but it is we who allow them to do that; we who make the choices.
Though it contradicts the philosophy of life I’ve grown into, it cannot be categorically denied that I am responsible for the “me” in my life. The very reason I can be judged individually is because the history of my choices reflects the image of “me” I have fabricated instead of the “I” that has been given to me. This false self, warts and all, says a lot about who I have become.
Philosophically I may contemplate the spiritual side of my existence as a mystical bond with the existence of God – a welcome fact not of my choosing, yet offered for my acceptance. My choices are intimately connected with facts outside my will. God has given me life. God loves and cares for me as His child. God beckons me to Himself.
We like to blame others, or circumstances of life, for our faults. But there is much wisdom in recognizing the futility of blame. We make our own mistakes and we choose the way we react to our circumstances. As much as I embrace the concept of the “self” as being the most potent obstacle to spiritual growth, it cannot be denied that the “self” makes our choices.
Dear Jesus, Spiritual writer and retreat master, Father Anthony DeMello, S.J., and American humorist, Mark Twain are not two individuals one automatically pairs up; but they both have an interesting observation in common. DeMello has said, “We do everything to please ourselves. And Twain has written, “No man who ever lived has ever done a thing to please God – primarily! It was done to please himself – then God next.” There seems more than a little truth in the idea that what we try to do unselfishly, humbly, charitably, and even secretly is, in some way, still selfish. We all too often carry an inner desire that somebody, especially You, notices what we’re doing. So there is a legitimate question as to whether we’re performing purely for the benefit of another, or to score points by being noticed. Even the attempt to hide what we do, ostensibly purifying it, is tainted by the knowledge that You see even what we try to hide. Sometimes we just do good things for a bit of recognition. Sometimes we do good things in order to not feel badly. Sometimes we do good things to create and cultivate a certain image. But in every instance there is some tinge of self – even when we convince ourselves that we’re doing it for God. So, DeMello and Twain have a legitimate insight here – but maybe not entirely! So often we think of God and speak of Him as merciful and forgiving. God understands that as flawed human beings we can do no good without the self somehow being a beneficiary. But this is not to say that we can do no good. We can do a lot of good; and God knows this too, and while forgiving the selfishness in such actions He graces our wills to do good. If we pray and go to church because we say we love God, but deep down we also know we want to score points with Him, God accepts the love and forgives the pragmatism. If we donate time, goods, or money to some charitable cause, we say we do it to help those in need, but deep down we know we like to tell our friends about it, and besides, it’s a tax write-off. God accepts the desire to help the needy and forgives the bragging. If we protest or demonstrate peacefully on behalf of some moral or social justice issue and say we do it because it is right and just, but deep down we know it gives us a sense of belonging to something important and besides, we like to be seen taking a stand; God accepts our sense of righteousness and forgives our displays of conceit. Thus, notwithstanding the truth of DeMello and Twain’s insights, good does get done. Good intentions, sincere intentions do trump our flaws. It is the grace, love, and mercy we receive from God that enables us to do good things. He works in the world through our flaws. Therefore we must not let our flaws get us down. We must see them as the tainted means of a being through which God can work miracles. Despite the self, with God we can do good!
Dear Jesus, If You are our King and we, as Your citizens, accept and obey Your rule over us then the Kingdom of God is populated by people who are willingly loyal, honest, and kind to others and who willingly embrace outlanders into their citizenry. The Kingdom of God on earth is an Utopia. It has no boundaries. It is more like a state of being. It is a state in which the citizens seek to learn and emulate the rule of their King. The King’s rule is Love. Their seeking is, in fact, their King’s seeking them. Why would anyone not want to be a citizen of this kingdom? Of course there are those who simply do not believe in God or His Kingdom. But there are also those “believers” who do not live, move, and think like citizens of God’s Kingdom seeming, apparently, as if they choose to live outside of it. If humanity is considered “obliged” to build up this kingdom, or at least strongly encouraged to do so, there is only one perfect King to follow – only one King whose Kingdom offers everlasting happiness to its citizens. No earthly king, no matter how magnanimous, offers a state of being without boundaries. In the prayer You taught us we say: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done….” It is God’s will as our King that every one of us be a citizen of His Kingdom. That’s what we’re created for. If we say our King wills this, why is it not done?
Dear Jesus, Can the philosophical concepts of existentialism and autonomous freedom mesh with the spiritual concept of humble selflessness? Can we follow a correct path in our cultivation of a relationship with God by pursuing an approach to life as a responsible free-agent that determines outcomes through acts of the will and denies or negates the self which seems so anchored in other characterizations of our existence? Much of my conception of God’s part in His relationship with man is based on my freedom of intellect and will with which He has gifted me and all of us. Such freedom is a prerequisite for the love upon which relationships are built. To love or not to love, to be virtuous or sinful, to seek or to ignore, are matters negotiated with validity only through the free choices of our wills. These are facts of our existential self. The free exercise of the will is, in itself, an assertion of the self, else how could St. Therese of Lisieux say, “I am far from practicing what I know I should, but the mere desire to do so gives me peace.” Intention is an existential assertion of the will - the self. Would we not consider anyone, let alone St. Therese, admirable for making such an assertion? Yet, Meister Eckhart would say, “If we are to have true poverty, then we must be as free of our created will as we were before we were created.” – the point at which the self is non-existent because we have not yet created it. How can the existential self and no-self mesh? In the former we confirm our responsibility, in the latter we defer it. All that is good or bad that has shaped me since I was born does nothing but obscure the purity of the union at the center of my being, but my ability to know this, recognize this, and accept or reject this is an assertion of my self. If this, in fact, characterizes the “mesh,” then it would seem that as far as our relationship with God is concerned intention does indeed become a big factor, for we cannot grasp the simplicity of our infant being, but we can intend to do so, somehow. We grasp for the means to lay aside the existential being of our own creation in order to touch the pure simplicity of our pre-existential being as it was (and is) with God. When we will ourselves to enter into such practices as centering prayer and contemplation our existential self asserts its desire to negate itself and rest in the purest state of our being’s union with God. There is the mesh!
Dear Jesus, Sometimes the verbal expression of what I consider an Insight jumps out of a book, movie or conversation and grabs my fancy so strongly that I dwell on its full meaning for some length of time. In the movie “Phenomenon” the character of George Malloy, played by actor John Travolta, utters the sentence: “Everything is moving toward something.” Each word in that sentence, within the context of the words around it, is pregnant with meaning. The word “everything” means all animals, vegetables, and minerals and every derivative or alloy thereof known to our intellects and senses without exclusion. Thus it could be construed as all creation. “Everything is moving….” The planet and everything on it is spinning, orbiting, traveling. Every material item, living or non-living has a beginning and an end – hence movement! Movement connotes existence. “Toward” signifies a forward direction, not sideways or backwards, only forward, from beginning to end. From start to finish ultimate movement is always forward. And then there is “something.” What is the “something” toward which everything is moving? I submit that for everything but man that “something” toward which everything moves is disintegration, evaporation, annihilation, and non-existence. Only for man is that toward which he moves different. Man moves from beginning to eternity and never stops moving. His own forward motion incorporates, through death, with the infinite movement of the Unmoved Mover. On the other side of our body’s disintegration our being is united with movement itself forever. Heaven is the continuation of our true inherent motion interrupted briefly by our earthly life span which also moves toward this “something.”