As I am, coram Deo

Image result for you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free

When we are truly ourselves, we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.” ― Thomas Merton

Many years ago, I went to Confession and revealed a particular habitual sin I had grown weary of confessing over time. We all have them, and sometimes they can lead us into dark places of despair or apathy. But this time, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I gained a deep insight into a root cause of this well-worn habit. I guess it was an experience of grace and nature in sync.

The root I saw was certainly run of the mill, as they go, but the link of the root to the weed of this particular sin was new for me. What I saw was a deep-seated tendency to measure my worth by reflexively comparing myself with others, and what I saw I saw with jarring clarity. As I expressed it in my journal, “I have a very dark fear that who I am is simply never enough.”

Now, I think it’s important to say here that I am not referring to healthy self-knowledge that we humans always have room for growth; or that we need to know our sins, weaknesses or shortcomings so as to remain grounded in reality and aspire to what is better. Nor am I referring here to the importance of seeking out heroes and heroines whose greatness challenges and inspires in us the pursuit of excellence.

No, what I saw in that Confessional was a manner of comparing that only led down into a pit of self-loathing, judgment, resentment, and an envy that grieved over others’ good things. The fruit of this dark self-knowledge was the collapse of hope.

How magnificent is the Sacrament of Mercy! In the shadow of this Sacrament my dark knowledge was filled with light. As I wrote it down in my journal later that day:

John 8:32 became in me today a recapitulation of Genesis 1:1, i.e. the truth has set me free to become a new creation. A seed was planted in me today that I must now tend to if it is to grow and bear fruit. This seed demands that Old Man Adam die within me, and that New Adam rise…

These years since have been immensely fruitful, if challenging, in that regard.

Skip ahead to this last Friday night. My wife and I went to see the new Mr. Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. There was a scene in the movie where a reporter asked Mr. Rogers if he thought he was a hero. When Mr. Rogers responded that he simply saw himself as an “everyman,” the reporter then asked, “Well, then do you see your character as a hero?” Mr. Rogers responded with alarming sincerity, “I don’t understand your question.”

That response tore me open.

The person Fred Rogers “presents” to the public is the same man who is the everyman, the man he is at home, on set, deep within coram Deo, “before God.” He was a man at peace with himself. That for me is his beauty, a man so reconciled to the reality of who he is, that he’s capable of entering fully and freely with others into a non-competitive arena of redemptive relationships.

Seeing all his inner darkness and light coram Deo, Fred Rogers lived loved by God’s redemptive mercy. Thus reconciled, he could then pass on to others not the dark shadows of a comparing and critical spirit, but the gentle light of self-acceptance that opens him to the peaceful pursuit of true greatness…

Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious
or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.

I also saw anew 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I wrote, “To know God in my weakness is to know this: I am as loved by God in the moment of my greatest failure as I am in the moment of my greatest virtue. The only change is my capacity to perceive and receive this love. This alone frees me to be a man at peace, a man of peace.”

Stay

“In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.” – St. Anthony of Egypt

St. Benedict in his Rule greatly values stability of life, and makes of it a lifetime vow. How much wisdom there is in this insight for our hyper-mobile society.

Nowadays Benedict’s “itchy footed monk,” who endlessly flits about from monastery to monastery, might be seen as the “all options open” American man or woman who skips from commitment to commitment, app to app, fad to fad, relationship to relationship, job to job, gender to gender, parish to parish, never to remain long enough in one place to sink roots, face hardships and boredom, develop relationships of substance and grow the magnanimous virtues that are called forth only by persevering in the longevity of a stable commitment.

I can feel my insides rebel.

My wonderful spiritual director, whom God placed in my path soon after my conversion, responded one day to my complaints about prayer-time being distracted, dry, and frankly hard to sustain as a daily commitment: “Stay faithful to what little I have asked you to do for the next twenty years, and then come back to me and we can talk about the troubles you are facing in prayer. If you don’t go long, you’ll never go deep.”

When you feel the itch for novelty, for a release from your present place or commitments, wait and ask yourself, “And I running away from, or closer toward the greatness that is to be found in the will of God?”

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. — John 15:4

Good Grief

[On hearing of the death of his son,] the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

It was told Joab, “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” The troops stole into the city that day as soldiers steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” — (1 Sam. 18-19)

We Americans live in a culture that has largely lost its shared social scripts and rituals for grieving. How does one grieve loss, failure or tragedy? For how long? How do we move on? How do others respond rightly to those who grieve? With whom should we share our grief? Do we mourn with our clothing? Do we weep and wail aloud in public or in private? Do we share our pain or remain silent? How do we pray in the midst of grief? When do we pray? How should we eat?

And how does faith shape the way we grieve?

Grief is how we bury our dead — the injustices and injuries, losses, failures and tragedies we undergo in life. Grief allows us to heal, surrender, forgive, and move on into new freedom with reverence.

In the face of my parents’ death over the last two years, I have given much thought to this. I have one simple observation.

I and my family were overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, support, care, prayer and compassion shown to us. Cards, texts, emails, gifts, flowers, prayers promised, countless Masses offered, meals brought, memorial donations to charities, sincere words of condolence. One friend had a magnificent chalice made, inscribed with my mom’s name, and donated it as alms to a poor diocese so that my mom would be perpetually remembered in the offering of the Sacrifice.

Absolutely overwhelming. How can one possibly begin to offer gratitude sufficient to repay these acts of kindness? “Pay it forward,” as one friend suggested. Lovely, right and just.

The beauty and power of all these gifts notwithstanding, what I found most powerful personally was the sacred space afforded me by two people I know. Each offered me a guarded sanctuary within which I could grieve.

One of them, while my mom was dying, asked me, “How are you?” I knew he meant he really wanted to know, and was prepared for whatever would come out. So I told him. He just listened as I dissolved in front of him. He didn’t attempt to mute my pain with pious words of comfort or counsel, neither did he say he knew what I was going through by telling me of his own tale of loss. He simply listened, revering the infinite power of silence.

At the end he said, “I’m so sorry.” And embraced me. We left in silence.

For me, he was the weeping Christ-with-me. A real Presence reserved in the Tabernacle of compassionate silence.

Aside from the Funeral Mass, nothing has allowed me to bury my mom and return her to God more than that hour I spent with this friend. He brought alive for me the beauty of the words of Job 2:13

[The friends of Job] sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

May I be able, by God’s grace, to pay that forward…

Acedia

Along these same lines, I would mention another subtle and dangerous attitude, which, as Bernanos liked to say, is “the most precious of the devil’s potions”. It is also the most harmful for those of us who would serve the Lord, for it breeds discouragement, desolation and despair.

Disappointment with life, with the Church or with ourselves can tempt us to latch onto a sweet sorrow or sadness that the Eastern Fathers called acedia.

Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík described it in these terms: “If we are assailed by sadness at life, at the company of others or at our own isolation, it is because we lack faith in God’s providence and his works. Sadness paralyzes our desire to persevere in our work and prayer; it makes us hard to live with… The monastic authors who treated this vice at length call it the worst enemy of the spiritual life.” — Pope Francis in his Letter to Priests

I will offer a few of my journal thoughts on acedia, which were prompted by a discussion I had the other day about this remarkable Letter with a faculty colleague. We reflected together on acedia’s spiritual poison. This is just a simple meditation, not a grand exposition on a complex topic.

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Acedia’s symptoms include a persistent sadness and constant restlessness, the loss of a desire to pray or of the will to remain faithful to daily prayer, a flagging of interest in (or even emerging hatred of) the things of God, resentment toward those who make demands on me, a desire to flee struggle and hide away, all of which leads to the waning of hope, love and trust in God.

The desert Fathers locate acedia’s origin in our suffering of some evil, personal failure or sin; or in our unmet expectations or disappointment in others/God — all of which eventually opens out into a persistent sadness, sorrow, anger, resentment unto despair that grows, is held onto and nursed, remaining unresolved or unhealed like a festering wound.

The spiritual Tradition also identifies other causes for acedia, like the setting of unrealistic goals/expectations, over-committing beyond one’s strength, illusory belief that God will make all work out as we think best, a lack of patience in the face of evil, vain dreams of success, or seeking to dominate and control everything and everyone.

As Pope Francis argues in his Letter, this deadly sadness of acedia acquires a certain sweetness, presenting a seductive sense of ‘consolation’ that only leads us further into self-absorbed isolation, resentment, self-pity as we slide with increasing speed into the pit of despondency. Indeed, this “inward turning” cuts us off from the remedies awaiting us in God and others, and so is the heartbeat of acedia’s power. Isolate, destroy.

Britta Phillips’ song, Luck or Magic, captures perfectly the resistant inner state of mind that develops toward God and others:

I don’t want your mercy
you can’t help but hurt me
I don’t want my heart to get dirty.

Kathleen Norris also says this about acedia,

When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet you can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

So what to do? While there are no single silver bullets or magic cures for any malady in life, the spiritual tradition does offer a medley of prescriptions. These are some of the ones (not all!) that have helped me most in life, in the many times I have fallen into the grip of this demon:

Pray. Never surrender prayer. Just show up to the times of prayer. Keep it simple, unrelenting. Ask God with simplicity for the desire to pray, to work, to hope, to believe, to love, to taste again joy. Pour out to Him your cares, look at a Crucifix, sit before the Eucharist. Sit in silence when you can, and just open yourself Upward. Pray for the gift of tears, to grieve, surrender and bury whatever evil it is that is holding you fast in its grip. In all of these, open yourself wide to God and wait. Here in the night, greatness is born.

Work. Be faithful to your duties. Be present to the present moment, to the real, and not to ruminating fantasy. Simplify your commitments if your life has become unnecessarily complicated. Do manual labor, work your body, sweat hard.

Think. When dark thoughts come, redirect your thoughts to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).  Ignore negative ideation. Don’t dialogue with the devil, you won’t ever win. St. Benedict said, “When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.” The Jesus prayer. Repent, forgive.

Reveal your thoughts to a trusted other who will listen without judgment, but who will not reinforce the self-absorbed, wound-licking self-pity. Opening oneself to another defeats self-reliant pride, which is the workhorse of acedia. Bringing dark thinking out into the light, and to persons who live in the Light, sets captives free.

Meditate on death. This may seem morbid or counterproductive for one in the grips of acedia. But the spiritual Tradition’s wisdom is that there is lasting freedom in becoming aware of the passing nature of life, in gaining perspective and attending to the truth that, in the end, all will be surrendered back to God without remainder. Life is an unfolding vocation to make of all a sacrificial offering. Every day presents new opportunities to let go, to hand over, to give away, to leave behind and to return whatever we were, even if but for a moment, given “to have and to hold.” The trick is to learn to do this freely, willingly, trustingly as to an Abba.

Serve. As my great grandmother used to say, so I am told, “Do others a good turn and you’ll do yourself one.” Or as Dennis Prager said,

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

Messy Magnanimity

God instructs the heart, not by ideas but by pains and contradictions. ― Jean-Pierre de Caussade

Why? I, for one, would prefer ideas. But ideas alone remain in the head, allowing us to become spectators of Truth. Acquiring Truth through the brambles of “pains and contradictions” frees us to choose it or reject it, to pay a price for it and so revere it and love it, whence Truth enters the heart. There knowledge gained transforms, metabolizing ideas into wisdom and virtue, making us not simply knowledgeable but magnanimous, “great souled.”

A friend of mine was going through a really rough patch in work, and spoke to his Confessor about his woes. The priest gave him advice that, he said, was bitter to the taste, but sweet in giving him a sense of freedom. I wrote my own thoughts that night in my journal, reflecting on the priest’s advice. Here’s part of what I said:

You have a real choice to discern. Learn to embrace the cross in your work as a path to sanctity, and stop kicking against the goads, or humbly acknowledge your limits and try to find another job. But you can’t have it both ways. To live in a constant state of dissatisfaction, complaining endlessly that God is not showing you His will is a dead end you’ll never exit from.

If you choose to leave, know the cross awaits you wherever you go next. Have no illusions. But also know He is there bearing that cross already for you. Realize also that if you choose to stay and embrace the cross you shoulder now, while it won’t necessarily make things any easier, it will make you a saint. The key to both? Knowing His will is always found entirely present in every moment, regardless. We’re only tasked with embracing the cross in trust and love, not with resolving every problem.

And “embrace” doesn’t mean you just grit your teeth and bear it Stoically, stupidly. It means finding grace in each moment, and then using your graced wit to discover ways of creatively and courageously maximizing the good and minimizing evil. Then each Sunday, unload on the Altar the whole unruly, stinky batch of dough you’ve kneaded, and give a hearty consent for its consecration by the Spirit in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mess.

Then meditate when you receive Holy Communion on the truth that, in that consecrated Host, you’ve already received the whole Answer to your every cry and plea…

You fill my heart with your absence

Who are you, that you fill my heart with your absence?
Who fill the world with your absence? — Pär Lagerkvist

I was speaking with a woman who shared with me her marital struggles, and she said something that captured powerfully a truth:

I feel [my husband and I] have forgotten why we married. Work, children, our own lives intervened and we lost sight of what made us choose each other. My fear is that one of us will find that answer somewhere else.

When I asked her what made her aware of their crisis, she said, “When he came home after a week away, and I realized I never even missed him. That feeling of emptiness frightened me.”

In a relationship of love, absence evokes longing. In the death of love, absence is apathy. This is what the spiritual tradition calls acedia, a listless loss of desire for the good, a loss of resolve to keep promises, as loss of will to struggle for love.

Love is free in its offer, but costly in its reception. Love requires sleepless attentiveness, labor, sacrifice, cultivation, planning, guarding, defending. Yes, there are times we can (and must) rest in the beauty, joy and pleasure of love, but only after six days of work have nurtured those fruits.

If we take for granted the love God has given us, that love granted us “will be taken away and given to a people that produces the fruits” (Matt. 21:43).

Love is not ours to take, squander and cast away. Love is a gift that belongs properly to God alone, for God is love. He entrusts it to us afresh each day, as first in the beginning in the Garden, to see if this time we might — only with His grace — cultivate the life-giving fruits of enduring love that last on into eternity.

Or not.

At the end of my conversation with that woman, I said, “You know that empty feeling you had when your husband came home? I believe that was a gift from God. The gift of emptiness that, more like a stomach than a glass, reminds you you are starving. Even when the feast is right in front of you. Choose the feast…”