I write this during Donald Trump’s fourth year in office as President of the United States. I have, over a lifetime, formed and nurtured an inherent aversion to politics and politicians. I vote, and I honor the memory of some great patriots including some presidents. From the memories of childhood I recollect
having to sit through boring and unintelligible political conversations at the meals of larger family gatherings.
As I grew and began to exercise some critical thinking I weighed the morality I was being taught against the hypocritical words and actions of many politicians. The occupation itself seemed to be tainted with deceit. I wondered why anybody would ever want to become involved in such a self-serving mess. There have been glimmers of hope now and then, but not for some time.
I’ve maintained these expectations of shadiness for over 70 years now, and along comes President Trump to crown me with a definitive halo of wisdom. If there was ever a better time to shout, “I told you so!” it is now!
But all 70 of those years of indifference were cast into an entirely different light last Saturday at Mass at St.Michael’s. The priest delivered a homily that included the notion that not only now but always we should pray that anyone in so significant a position as the president should receive our prayers for integrity, truthfulness, dignity, and compassion. I had never considered this before! Under the present circumstances it made a great deal of sense despite the personal incongruity of it.
If we should forgive and pray even for our enemies, why not for any head of our government aside from what we might think of him? There is no argument, when I think about it, that these qualities should always be prayed for in our president. I
guess it just comes down to the fact that you don’t have to like or agree with somebody in order to wish for and pray for the qualities you think are needed in their position.
In our relationship with You we are often given to believe in the simplicity of just leading a “good life.” But leading a good life is an extremely complex process involving a lot of conflicting dynamics.
In outline form three major dynamics seem to dominate with many and varied sub-topics. First, there are the motions of a good life. We act out the motions of kindness, caring, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, servility, etc. Hypocrisy,
selfishness, pride, and ego are more likely to creep in at this level than anywhere else. Often our primary concern is that others see what we are doing. What we do and why we do it is an indication of what is truly in our hearts.
That leads us to the second major dynamic of a good life – motivation. Intention or motivation comes from our inner spiritual self. With proper intention and motivation we can eliminate the possibilities of self-serving hypocritical actions
and postures – at least most of the time. With a motivation of sincere love and concern, and an intention to do God’s will, we minimize the obsequious self and its “me-first” proclivities. In this dynamic of a good life the other always comes first and self-assertion is replaced by an honest attitude of altruism.
The third major dynamic of a good life involves a kind of fear that others will mistake our good intentions for something else. It’s a well-founded feeling because most of what we do is not based on unconditional love but rather on our own agendas. We often feel that leading a good life is useless unless witnessed by others including, especially, You. This, for one reason, is because of what Anthony DeMello calls our need for the drugs of appreciation and recognition.
In each of these dynamics there are minor things, thistles and traps that arise from circumstances and attitudes. Thus, simply leading a good life is not so simple. The motions, ostentations, intentions, and anxieties involved in leading a
good life are constantly modified and manipulated by the life itself we are trying to make good.
No matter what progress in a spiritual/contemplative life I perceive myself as making, and no matter how many spiritual insights light a metaphorical bulb above my head, I still have the feeling that I am just scratching the surface in my spiritual life.
As we intensify our search for the truth and the true self, we pile up words, concepts, ideas, insights, and metaphors into towering constructs of Babelian proportions in direct opposition to the “unknowing” of “The Cloud…” and the “still point” of Merton, and the “nothingness” of the Buddhist “mu.”
I have learned many things about the mystical annihilation of those quasi-spiritual concepts that nepsis has derived from our sentient lives and to which it has urged us to attach spiritual meaning. Yet through all this I feel a recurring dissatisfaction and an increasing curiosity that I think will never be satisfied in this life. Very often I think I attach too much importance to what I on my own can learn or discover. I revel in insights that I believe I discover. I describe deep thoughts in writing. I express delight in any morsel of new understanding; and I readily accept the deception that it is me when, all along, it is You!
As Fr. James Martin says, quoting a Fr. Kelvenbach, in our quest for God, “…it is less a matter of searching for God than of allowing oneself to be found by Him in all life situations.”
I pray each morning and night for help in overcoming my self. Whenever there are times when that overcoming of self actually materializes I realize it as a “still point,” a point of “nothingness” demonstrating what it is I pray for. But in me it is unsustainable. However, You can sustain it in me whenever I allow You. The goal of the quest then is simply to allow oneself to be found.
Online I recently watched a video of Fr. Keating (of centering-prayer fame) during the course of which he referred to an individual’s involvement in the “transformational process of mankind.” The phrase “transformational process of mankind” lingered in my mind and became more and more meaningful to me the more I thought about it. An answer to the question, “Why am I here?” or “Why did God give me life?” might be contained in the concept of a transformative process.
I have written to You before about my thoughts concerning the historic and ongoing evolution of man’s spirit. What I think in that regard seems to fall in line with Keating’s notion of mankind’s transformative process. It is, in a sense, the movement of humanity toward the re-perfection of our flawed nature. But there is more than one aspect to it.
For another thing we might say the transformative process of mankind is the means by which we create the Kingdom of God, or the Reign of God. It may also be the generational perfection of the seeking and striving after that toward which our spirit continually urges us. Then too, it is an awareness of and openness to the way the grace of God works in each successive movement of society and culture as the years roll by.
Ultimately we are incapable of grasping God with anything approaching comprehension, but we can and do move closer to it with each succeeding generation. The things we do, say, and think in this life, with others and within ourselves, either add or subtract pieces to the movement of mankind’s transformative process. It’s all much bigger than we are individually, but we are,individually, each a part of that bigger thing – positively or negatively!
When one lives by oneself, as I now do, it seems that one becomes more and more susceptible to establishing certain patterns as daily ways of life – an habitual modus vivendi. The seeds of that life-style were planted while my wife was still alive but after all our children had left the nest. When she passed away it became cast in concrete. For me its most salient recurring theme is “expectancy.” There are shades of both good and bad to the ways I have become accustomed to understand this mode of expectancy in my life.
What is good about it can be pretty much summed up in what it does for my spiritual life. It keeps me pushing forward, seeking, and anticipating new insights and different ways of growing and experiencing God’s grace in my life.
But on the mundane side, the side of my daily routines, this expectancy somehow seems more complicated and darker. It is built around the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc., routines I have established for myself. Hence, I wake up on any given morning actually previewing what I can expect that day. The waking up and previewing becomes an expectancy in itself. My calendar, which I keep up pretty faithfully, also plays into the mix of daily expectations, usually offering some welcome variations.
Typically I wake up and expect to go to Mass, probably do some shopping, and post any mail. Then I expect to come home, make breakfast, read the paper, and clean the designated room of the house for that day. Next I expect to spend time with You, in the music room. If it’s a Saturday or a Wednesday I expect to have a cigar. If it’s Tuesday, I expect to go to the Cosgrove Hunger Center; and if it’s Friday I expect to do laundry. On Thursdays and Sundays I expect to care for my brother. Each day goes through its own litany of expectations. The bad part is that these habitual expectations seem to become so internally mandated that they lock out any other possibilities for that day. There are times when one of my kids will call and ask me to do something for them, and I find myself saying, “OK, as soon as I finish……etc.” – simply because I’m so paranoid about not fulfilling my expectations for that day. This often carries over into my relationship with You when I put You on “hold” because, from the very beginning of that day, I expected to do something else at that moment.
The word “expectations” is a very powerful word. In many instances expectations actually define our lives. For the most part we are influenced by our expectations for ourselves, but also for other people. The expectations others place on us are also powerful influences. These kinds of expectations strongly pressure the way we live. Yet, all things considered, these kinds of expectations seem minor in comparison to our expectations of God and His expectations for us.
When we are very young we learn of God’s expectations for us and we try (and often fail) to meet these expectations. As we grow older we tend to place our own expectations upon God. It’s the difference between the children in scripture and the elders.
In my own life I recognize an ever-widening gap between what I expect of God and the distant consciousness of an earlier time when I learned what God expects of me. My expectations of God now cover a wide range of mostly selfish wants and needs without much thought of what God expects of me. There is irony in the fact that I have no real justification for expecting anything from God, but my expectations are outgrowths of His gifts and graces. God would offer these to me even if I didn’t expect them. But I do expect them regardless of legitimate claim. I expect answers to my prayers. I expect forgiveness, mercy, and salvation. I expect God’s love and His whisper. I expect His safety and security. I expect all these things because He already continually gives them to me. God spoils me!
But what does God expect of me? He expects me to know, love, and serve Him in this world. That’s what we were taught when young. As a child these were important. The way a child perceives them may be why our becoming like children was so important to You. But now, as I age, my thoughts often turn to expectations of how God can know, love, and serve me. Does life teach us to harbor expectations or to meet them?
In the very early days of the church I think there was a real feeling among the apostles, St. Paul, and many of the disciples, to be You in the world. Over the centuries since then I don’t think that ideal has vanished, it has just taken on a wide array of different approaches.
When we look closely at Your life in the world of Your time many things stand out but none so much as Your giving of Yourself. If we would conform to our true selves – Your image and likeness in us – then we would give of ourselves to others as You did. Your concern with doing the will of Your Father meant that You were willingly complicit with His love for mankind. Imbued in that love there was often the necessity to act in conformity with the wills of others: Your Mother, St. Joseph, Your apostles and disciples, even strangers sought to make Your will conform with theirs – and You did! And by doing so You conformed to the will of Your Father who so loved all His creatures.
We, on the other hand, often take conformity to the will of another as a challenge to our independence and autonomy. We inwardly regard our own judgments as superior to others thus substantiating our will over anyone else’s. To be You in the world one must embrace self-surrender. One must embrace the reality that all is gift and giving is all.
You are the perfection of life, but for us to be You to others it is not the perfection (which is beyond our ability) but the effort, including all failures as well as successes. You know this better than we – and You smile!
I watched a feature-length evangelical Protestant film last night called The Finger of God. It was mostly concerned with visually documenting numbers of miraculous healings at the hands of young lay-disciples of a California ministry centered at Bethel Church in Redding. Beyond that, however, it contained a couple of noteworthy insights that gave me pause to consider.
One had to do with the Father’s and Your powerful actions with humans up to and through Your ministry on earth; and then the seeming lack of that kind of powerful divine action thereafter.
The other had to do with Your actual and implied admonitions to people that to follow You meant to say and do as You said and did. To be like You!
Considering the first: I had never really thought about it before, but from their primitive and slowly evolving understanding of spiritual things the chosen people could more easily comprehend their relationship with God when it was backed by powerful interactions and displays that carried understandable meaning for them.
The Old Testament accounts of that relationship were almost always of a caring God but One whose interaction with men was based on power and authority. Even in the New Testament accounts of Your ministry there were the powerful miracles and signs to grasp the people’s attention. Historically, as time went on, our spirituality and theology evolved, becoming more and more sophisticated and the acts of power and authority became less and less necessary for us to comprehend our relationship with God. And so, for the most part, they ceased.
Considering the second: we now understand better that You meet us where we’re at. It became more apparent that the human/divine dynamic reflected through You was meant to be continued by individuals whose spiritual and theological evolution gave them to understand the imitation of Your life embraced such intercessory actions. Thus we have healers and saints, acting as You did and following Your example of healing. The question then becomes: If we would become imitators and doers of what You did, should we not be doing the same?
That was pretty much the lesson taken to heart by the young lay people in this film. They actually went out and “beat the bushes” to find and cure people who needed healing through their prayers.
Look at the life of Mother Theresa or at almost all of the saints and you will see how they all came to the imitation of You by extending the power of Your healing love to others. If we would be one with You who are one with the Father we must be willing to help heal the lack of oneness we have with each other.
“The other” is a pretty nebulous person, as is the term “others.” To love others as we love ourselves, or You, is often too generic a concept to truly make a specific impact on our spiritual growth. But if we give a name to “the other” we can make some progress. I was recently thinking about this in regards to Lent.
It seems like all the people in my family and others around me perennially choose to “give up” something for Lent. At some point in my life I convinced myself that giving something up for 40 days and then taking it back up after that time was something less than a sure bet to improve my spiritual life and/or my relationship with You. It seems more needful to work on “doing something” for 40 days that will contribute to forming a habit or disposition that will carry on when Lent is over. For example, to pick some “other” whom we see or deal with frequently – someone with a name we know – someone in whom we can identify a “need” we might help him/her meet; but not so overtly that they would see it as the deed of a “do-gooder.” In fact, whatever it is that we choose to do should never be mentioned between the two principals. It is strictly between God and us.
A Lent or two, or maybe a few, of taking this approach will establish a disposition of compassion for others that giving up something for 40 days will not, most likely, offer. And, truth be told, we are still giving something up – self!
I recently watched a children’s movie with some of my grandkids. The title was “Despicable Me.” It was entertaining and funny, especially the hoard of little yellow minions who were dopey, servile underlings of the comically evil main character. I do find spiritual insight in a variety of places, but never before, I think, in a children’s movie.
One way we can think about the gift of life to every person is as a gift to be God’s minion – to bring Him into the world – to be His hands and feet as best we can in our own ( often dopey) way. Failure at this is a failed life!
Looking back on one’s life is a scary business; not so much regarding the things we have done but regarding the things we have not done, the omissions, the missed opportunities. I can think of lots of things for which I pat myself on the back (which undoubtedly diminishes them) but I can think of far more that fall into the category of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
Each day at the penitential rite of the Mass I pray that God will diminish me so that He could be magnified through me to others. Yet I find myself not so willing to be diminished, thus giving God a lot of debris to push through. God is magnified through saintly people – people who diminished their egos. People who let go and let God. I am not a saintly person and I make a hypocritical hodge-podge of trying to be one. Yet it is what I desire in order to be God’s minion. Learning to abandon and disregard all the past woulda, coulda, shouldas that fall into the category of missed opportunities is the preliminary action to simply enacting the role of God’s minion during one’s life on this planet while jettisoning the debris behind us. That debris confounds and bedevils us but God pushes through it.