I love this Latin quote from St. Benedict of Nursia:
Age quod agis, “do what you are doing.”
Very much like this Zen koan on mindfulness:
When you eat, eat; when you walk, walk.
Or like my grandmother:
Tommy, slow down. Don’t bolt. Enjoy your food. Don’t you know a lotta love went into it?
An accomplished theology professor I know recounted during a retreat I attended a conversation his wife once had with her best friend. He gave permission for me to share it. His wife’s friend said, “Boy your husband is away from home a lot giving talks for work.” His wife replied, “Yes, and even when he’s home, he’s away.”
This really hit me hard. It cut to the heart. When I told her I was hurt by it, she said that while she believes I love my family, I needed to be more present to the children and to her. She pointed out that at dinner each evening when I’m home I seem preoccupied; when we go on vacations I always have to slip away to do “something quick” for work, or to read, write, take a call; when she and I go out on a rare date, all I want to talk about is work. She said she felt it was like I had another wife who consumed far more of my attention and affection than she ever could.
I knew she was absolutely right, but I felt angry and thought to myself, “I work hard for you all. Do you think I do this for me?” Later when I was laying in bed staring at the ceiling, I realized that much of my work really is, in a sense, for me. I really find work much easier to get lost in. Books don’t talk back. And somehow it seems easier to find God in thinking than in doing domestic things. I was working for my family, yes. But I was also using work to avoid challenges family life presents, like the tedium or the constant discipline that’s required. And in all this there’s a touch of avoiding my own inadequacies as a father.
After I calmed down, I turned to her and we spoke that night at length. I realized how far away I had drifted from her and the kids. We cried together. I told her I felt inadequate to the task of being a dad, and that I was too proud to admit it and ask for help. She said, “We don’t need a perfect daddy. Just one who’s there with us. That’s what the kids want. They love you so much and want you around.”
I prayed before falling asleep and asked God for the grace to realign my priorities and face my shortcomings, to find Him in my family. And to abandon my work addiction. That confrontation totally shook me awake.
After recounting this conversation in my journal, I had a storm of disparate insights flood in:
It’s so tempting in the spiritual quest for God to carefully construct a shrine of our own making, full of idols carved in the image of our own preferences and biases, in which we agree to meet God on our terms. It’s safe religion, or, if you like, it’s being “spiritual but not religious.” “Spiritual but not religious” has always meant to me religion under my control, religion with all options left on the table, religion that is an extension of my self-projecting autonomy. And religion embeds me in a history, a tradition, a people, whereas spiritual frees me from the shackles of such things. Spiritual=me, religion=others; or spiritual=pristine, religion=compromised; or spiritual=immediate access to God, religion=mediated access to God. Spiritual insulates ideals from reality, subjectivity from objectivity. Religion intertwines fallible and infallible, pure and sullied, perfect and imperfect, ideal and real, commandments and freedom, whole and partial, holy and sinful, God and all those hypocrites.
Religio, the root of the word religion, means to “bind together.” That’s so exact, as religion binds us to God and one another and the whole of reality. And that’s a messy bundle!
Religion, as I’m describing it here, feels just like the Incarnation which prohibits access to God except through fellow humans, with their seemingly insuperable baggage. And in Christ God sweeps up into Himself all these dire contrasts and nails them to the Cross, reconciling everything by way of His divine-human Bloodshed. In fact, the Meal that grants us supreme access to divinity is served up by the brutal malice and failures of humanity: Take, eat, drink…Body which will be broken, Blood which will be shed. That’s spiritual religion, terribly inconvenient yet unquestionably revealed to us by a God of astonishing surprises.
In choosing to build comfy shrines and constructing agreeable idols, we refuse to meet God in the shrine of His making: the real world. God’s is quite an unruly shrine (Psalm 84:3!) populated not with safely constructed-and-controlled idols, but with living, breathing, annoying, delightful, demanding icons, also known as neighbors — those He has made in His (very uncontrollable and terribly free) image and likeness.
Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen reinforces this crucial point:
There can be so much escapism in our striving for a ‘spiritual life.’ We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence in search of an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action?
And then there’s the Italian theologian, Carlo Carretto, who carried in himself this painful “spiritual and religious” tension — between the institutional church and the “pure” Gospel — and found in this awful tension the very source of all true greatness. And that is the greatness of who God Himself is: love.
The Church has the power to make me holy but it is made up, from the first to the last, only of sinners. And what sinners! It has the omnipotent and invincible power to renew the Miracle of the Eucharist, but is made up of men who are stumbling in the dark, who fight every day against the temptation of losing their faith. It brings a message of pure transparency to God but it is incarnated in slime, such is the substance of the world. It speaks of the sweetness of its Master, of its non-violence, but there was a time in history when it sent out its armies to disembowel the infidels and torture the heretics. It proclaims the message of evangelical poverty, and yet it does nothing but look for money and alliances with the powerful.
Those who dream of something different from this are wasting their time and have to rethink it all. And this proves that they do not understand humanity. Because this is humanity, made visible by the Church, with all its flaws and its invincible courage, with the Faith that Christ has given it and with the love that Christ showers on it.
When I was young, I did not understand why Jesus chose Peter as his successor, the first Pope, even though he abandoned Him. Now I am no longer surprised and I understand that by founding his church on the tomb of a traitor, He was warning each of us to remain humble, by making us aware of our fragility.
How much I must criticize you, my church,
and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone
and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed
and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal
and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything
more compromised, more false,
yet never have I touched anything
more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face
– and yet, every night,
I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you,
even if not completely.
Then too–where would I go? To build another church?
But I could not build one without the same defects,
for they are my defects.
And again, if I were to build another church,
it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
No, I am old enough, I know better.