Back 20 some years ago when I retired from teaching, a common question often put to me was: “What are you going to do with all your time?” Those asking apparently didn’t know my inherent capacity for fabricating minute details of busyness.
Over time I have molded my days into cycles of habitual daily “checklists.” So strong have the pulls of my routines become that I feel guilt if each detail is not routinely checked off. Most of the outcomes of this busyness produce results having to do with my self – my needs, my comfort, my security, my pleasure.
I have come to consider this matter because a close look at Your life (which I ostensibly wish to imitate) reveals that very little of Your busyness was directed to Your self, only to others. There is undeniable wisdom in continuing to ask ourselves as we pursue a life of Christian spirituality: “What would Jesus do?”
In asking ourselves this we are challenging ourselves to take on Your courage and fortitude with joy and passion. It requires selfless love, but that was the point of the example of Your life, and that is the meaning of being a Christian. It is not found in the routine busy work of maintaining one’s house or one’s body – only in every encounter with another human being. At the very beginning of each such encounter we need to habitually call to mind that question: “What would Jesus do?” The answer may require more commitment than we are willing to make, but if it does, it is probably the right answer!
Making selfless commitments, even in the little details of daily social life is to grasp St. Therese’s “little way.” We must look for You in every encounter with others.
If we can accept that our true self is the image and likeness of You in us, then how do we intuit what that image and likeness is? Of course we can refer to our images of Your actions – Your examples. You showed us what it means to be like You by the way You lived. But even beyond that the record we have in the gospels of the things You said paints an even more specific picture of what the image and likeness of You really means. There may be nothing more definitive to which to refer in trying to determine just what it means to seek our true selves in the image and likeness of You than Your very words to us as recorded in scripture. So, when we look there, this is what we find:
John 14:12, “…he who believes in Me will also do the works that I do.”
Luke 2:49, “Abide in God.”
Matthew 3:15, It’s all right to understand God in human terms.
Matthew 4:4, We must feed our spirits.
John 1;39, “Follow Me.”
John 3:18, Faith forgives much, and, we are loved.
John 4:24, Worship in spirit and in truth.
Mark 1:15, “Repent.”
Matthew 5:3, Be poor in spirit.
Matthew 5:16 and Luke 6:22, Be a witness.
Luke 14:10-11 and Matthew 5:5, Be meek and humble.
Luke 6:21 and Matthew 7:9, “…seek and knock…”
Matthew 5:7, Be merciful.
Matthew 5:8, Be pure of heart.
Matthew 5:9, Be peacemakers.
Matthew 7:2, “Don’t judge others.”
Matthew 6:25, “Do not be anxious.”
Mark 5:19, Proclaim God at home.
Matthew 9:58, Pray for the harvest.
Matthew 10:32, “Acknowledge Me before men.”
Matthew 16:24, Deny self.
Matthew 18:3, Be like a child.
Mark 9:35, Be a servant.
Luke 12:1, Beware of hypocrisy.
Luke 12:15, Avoid covetousness.
Luke 17:1, “Be not a source of temptation.”
Matthew 22:37, Love God and your neighbor.
Matthew 24:4, Don’t be led astray.
Matthew 28:19-20, Make disciples, teach.
If we sincerely seek to discover and nurture our true selves, and if we conclude that our true selves are the reflections of the image and likeness of You, then we can do no better than to pay heed to Your words: “Follow Me. He who believes in Me will also do the works I do.”
Many of the events recorded about You in just three short years of Your public life are templates for our own life- journeys. From Cana to the cross certain exemplary actions of Yours held out demonstrable reflections of Your approach
to the comprehension of human existence.
Cana is a template for service and selflessness in opposition to our own agendas. It places properly the compassion for others and concern for their needs above our own.
Calling Peter to walk upon the stormy waters is a template for reaching out and touching another who loves greatly but whose faith and trust need a helping hand. It is a template for invitation and support.
Both the Centurion at Capernaum and the Samaritan woman at the well offer, by Your actions, templates of love, compassion and acceptance of these “enemies” of the Jews – a template of acceptance and non-discriminatory compassion and concern as well as invitation.
The washing of Your apostles’ feet is a template of unconditional service – a template of doing unto others with humility and love. It set an example. If Your apostles (and everyone) would conform to Your image and likeness then they must humble themselves and serve others.
If we would fit ourselves into the template of Your cleansing of the Temple we would come to see that justice, respect, and even righteous anger have places in the lives of those who seek to imitate You.
These, of course, are just a few of the many templates Your life offers, but the core of each of them embraces all the others as well: service, selflessness, compassion, concern, acceptance, invitation, non-discrimination, humility, and righteousness.
There is still one more, for which we look to the cross – forgiveness!
Why did so many saints write? Why are there so many spiritual writers? Why do I write? It seems to me that there is a potential flaw in the act of writing. When we write we hope to be read; and in that hope there is the belief that what we have to say is of value. I think of this first in terms of myself.
I write to You with an honest sincerity to share with You my innermost thoughts and feelings. But on the side I nurture more than a twinge of desire that others too read it.
Did Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila and, indeed, Thomas Merton, not share this twinge? Did they not wish to be read and maintain a belief that what they wrote had value? Somehow it seems a little presumptuous and ego-centric.
In my own case I have even blogged these letters to You online as well as submitted them for publication. My rationale
bases itself on a quote from spiritual writer Henri Nouwen: “Ultimately I believe that what is most personal is the most universal.” Therefore, like responsible witnesses, we should not be reluctant to testify.
Yet, that prideful twinge that makes me think what I have to say is important keeps popping up. But I ignore it and keep writing. Here’s the thing for me: in my spiritual journey towards God I do many things: reading, meditating, praying; but with none of them do I experience the intimate whisper of Your voice more than when I write. So, I cannot stop!
The way we think about You and the way we think about The Father are different. Much of what we imagine about God is derived from the language of our senses. In Your case there is some accuracy in this because You, as man,were a tangible physical presence. You could be seen, heard, and touched. Accuracy is waived though when we apply our sentient vocabulary to God The Father. But we never stop trying to grasp Him.
The being of God is so far beyond what the eye can see, what the ear can hear, or what the hand can touch that none of the words we’ve formed from the experiences of our senses apply. Since not only our speech but also our thoughts and musings are formed in the words we know, we are very limited in describing God. We are, of course, limited in framing any concept by the
words we use to characterize it. The words we use are mostly derived from our senses. Even our abstract thoughts are imprisoned by our vocabulary.
But in the matter of God, eye has not seen, ear has not heard – so, for us,there really are no words to use for Him. All we can do is feel Him, intuit Him a la a sixth sense – a spiritual sense which, though faulty, goes beyond words. It is this sense by which we are able to say we know Him without being able to say how. In truth it’s more like this sense helps us to know that God is, not what He is.
The Father was never a tangible physical presence as You were, so we take Your words that You and The Father are One, and we go from there. It is unavoidable that we treat God anthropomorphically. We are like the spider whose web is continuously swept away but who keeps rebuilding it in the
same place and in the same way over and over again. It is the only thing it knows to do. We can only know God in our own way, but we cannot know Him.
There is no getting around it. We are, without a doubt, creatures of habit.We have to establish certain rhythms in our lives and we suffer discomfort when our habits are interrupted – more so as we grow older.
Before I started this letter today I had no idea what to write about to You. By rights I should not have forced the attempt. But I was compelled. It is repetition over time that forms habits and I have been writing to You regularly
for over 40 years. To miss even once is like missing a beat to the music. I prefer not to miss a single opportunity to connect with You. So, I write to You about this habit, and about the necessity of writing to You even when I have nothing to write.
I regularly draw from a well of words that are too lame to describe the deeper connection I seek through these letters but they are the handiest useable instruments I can gather. Thus I construct our relationship with words even though I understand their faults. If only I could master just "being" for You in the way You are being for me; no words, written or spoken, would ever be necessary. But, You see, to frame that thought itself I must use words.
So, I am resigned (not unhappy) to write to You regularly using words. I must suffer their weaknesses and You must endure them. It’s telling that I’m already thinking about what to write in my next letter to You, but I’ve come up with nothing so far. If I can’t come up with something maybe I should just let it go –but I won’t!
My thoughts about God have been cast into a squall of swirling winds and tides with the rediscovery of apophatic theology and Meister Eckhart. The full impact of the tiny word “is” packs the dynamism of an atom bomb. The word itself is an
invention within many inventions of the English language. It means something to people because people have assigned it its meaning. It speaks to that of which it is predicated in terms of existence – what can be physically or intellectually perceived. The fact that we can say, “This is an apple.” actually has no effect upon the existence of the apple. Similarly, when we say, “God is this or that.” it has no effect upon God’s essence because the words themselves are human concoctions which cannot begin to encompass what is beyond human concoction.
In my apophatic/Eckhartian turmoil I have learned that it is more authentic to say what God is not. The "via negativa" may be the most fruitful approach to any human comprehension of the God beyond our God. And it is that God (termed the Godhead by Eckhart) for whom all human efforts of comprehension are futile. Even to sum Him up in His entirety with the single word “is” fails. “Is” is just a morsel of knowledge and, because we just can’t know, it might be labeled “theoretical.” But even though this knowledge might not be life-changing it does, somehow, (at least in me) satisfy a small portion of that desire to know, which is such a huge part of seeking God.
It is knowledge to know that we can’t know. What we know in terms we can use and understand is You, the incarnate Word of the Godhead we cannot otherwise comprehend. And it should be enough. Though we might feel strongly compelled to seek, all we need to know of God is You.