August 3, 2009

Ruthless and Selfish

These two words might seem out of place in a discussion of the spiritual life, but over the years I have come to appreciate a certain sort of selfishness and a certain practice of ruthlessness in the Christian life.

A spiritual director once told me that the spiritual life demands a particular selfishness; we have to make the sanctity to which God calls us as individuals an absolute priority. It's like when people in recovery say, 'nothing comes before my sobriety.' We have to say that nothing comes before our prayer, devotion, and daily right effort to follow in the footsteps of Christ. This doesn't mean that we ignore the requests and demands of people we love, people to whom we are committed by circumstance or state of life, or even strangers. But it does we mean that we discern these relationships carefully and ask ourselves if the time and energy we give to others are demanded by charity and justice, or if what goes into the relationship is a distraction. This can be very difficult, as most relationships mix both; in some ways they give glory to God and lift us up, and in other ways we conspire with each other to commit the distractions and dissipations of gossip, detraction, and the enabling of destructive behavior and sin. When someone gets selfish about sanctity, his refusal to participate in these comfortable sins of ordinary human interaction will earn him accusations of being conceited or proud. This can be a terrible loneliness and a difficult cross to bear and though I have not yet made a beginning of this myself, I pray for the grace of accept this burden with joy. "Blessed are you when they insult you and and persecute you and uttery every kind of evil against you because of me." (Matthew 5:11)

the spiritual life also demands ruthlessness with self. Patterns and habits of thought and action and ways of relating must be subjected to intense scrutiny. From our ways of praying all the way down to the manner in which we do the plainest activities of daily living, all must be examined to see if they give glory to God or distract us from our vocation to holiness. This can be very difficult, and when someone consents to be converted to God he usually has no idea what he is getting into. When the Holy Spirit finds a soul willing to work, the work will arrive. God is a jealous lover, and wants the whole person--the "whole person" being more than we even know of ourselves in the consciousness we have in this life. When a soul is asked to let go of habits and to adjust the patterns of external life it seems like the hardest ascesis there could be. But this is nothing compared to the work of the Holy Spirit in converting our maladaptive habits of heart and mind. It is one thing to let go of things and activities that we thought we loved, but it's quite another to begin to let of internal habits and dispositions, things we thought were our very self. But who we really are is hidden in God. We must be ruthless in this process and ready to let go of everything that keeps us from utter freedom in our response to God's gracious invitation to joy and sanctity. "If your right hand causes you sin, cut it off and throw it away." (Matthew 5:30)

7 comments:

KAM said...

Great post, Father, and two points stood out for me; "a person has no idea what he's getting into." and the true meaning for those who wish to closely follow Our Lord, "If your right hand causes you sin..." I used to think that part of scripture was some abstract statement made to be used as a scare tactic, but once one begins to evaluate ones life and to slowly chip away at the bad habits and distractions, the true nature of it's meaning becomes clear. Three years into my conversion and the excitement of the early days of eyes opened to Christ have changed, but changed to a love beyond all love, and... and... words fail me.

Qualis Rex said...

I second Kam's comment; great post. There is a story of Mother Teresa's early years when she set out as a missionary after being cloistered. She spent her entire day trying to look after and care for others, even offering her own meals to them until she finally succumbed to exhaustion. A fellow missionary told her she needed to look after her own health; physical and spiritual or else she would be of no use to anyone. How true your words are. If you are going to be a priest and do not put God first, how can you bring God to others who are in desperate need of him?

Julia said...

"We have to say that nothing comes before our prayer, devotion, and daily right effort to follow in the footsteps of Christ. This doesn't mean that we ignore the requests and demands of people we love, people to whom we are committed by circumstance or state of life, or even strangers. But it does we mean that we discern these relationships carefully and ask ourselves if the time and energy we give to others are demanded by charity and justice, or if what goes into the relationship is a distraction."

It's funny you post this today, Father, because I found myself facing this dilemma just a few hours ago. I ended up choosing to miss Mass and my normal prayer time in order to pick my mom up from work. She offered to stay at work late so that I could pick her up after going to Mass, and I actually began to drive to the church before I changed my mind, turned around, and got her directly.

Yes, I missed the Eucharist, and I missed my normal prayer time, but I can pray this evening and make a good spiritual communion. This move also allowed me to visit a Catholic bookstore and pick up a good spiritual book that I've been meaning to get.

There are lots of interesting decisions in the Christian life.

pennyante said...

I am reminded of the time Jesus left the crowds in order to go away by himself to pray and be alone with His Father. (the priority you speak of)

I imagine he would have been exhausted by His ministry among the people; healing preaching, etc.. This reminds me of your lines: "we have to make the sanctity to which God calls us as individuals an absolute priority." and again, "We have to say that nothing comes before our prayer, devotion, and daily right effort to follow in the footsteps of Christ."

So Jesus went away. However, the people followed him. There appeared to be no rest for the weary one. Jesus saw that the people had followed Him and He couldn't help but feel compassion for them and He ministered to them.

Despite His own need to pray and be alone, He gave that up for the needs of others...

Jesus' priority seemed to have been to be there for the people; not to give in to His own need for prayer and silence.

Help me to square this with the particular selfishness you are talking about...

Thanks, Fr. Charles...

Brother Charles said...

Jesus withdraws to deserted places, and the crowds follow him. That's what's remarkable, to desire and trust him enough to follow him into the desert.

I'm sure the Lord made time for prayer before he was found again.

The Ironic Catholic said...

This is an excellent post--thank you!

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Very helpful and inspiring post. I like this part especially: "When the Holy Spirit finds a soul willing to work, the work will arrive." Interestingly, in my experience, the willingness does not necessarily have to be conscious willingness.