Sunday, July 29, 2007

The reality of paradox and the necessary tension it creates

There have not been an abundance of personal posts on my blog lately. Therefore, there has been almost no spirituality. I'll be honest about this lack. I have been and remain too busy and too engrossed in stuff. I am too busy to spend 15 minutes, let alone an hour, in prayer, in lectio, in silent contemplation, or to take a walk. Of course this is a ridiculous state-of-affairs that I regret and resolve daily to change. It does not mean that things are going badly, that my daily life has fallen apart. Were that the case, my present situation would be easier to resolve!

More troubling is that, despite my daily resolution to pray more, to sit and be silent more, to take more walks, etc., I find myself actively avoiding spiritual nutrition and settling for a bag of chips. Then again, when going through times like this, I have learned to wait on the Lord. I have learned through much trial, impatience, and even whining that it is only Jesus, my Lord, my Master, my Teacher, my Savior, who stoops to be my friend who can change my heart. Yet, I also know He is not absent from my spiritual idleness that amounts to frentic busy-ness.

Paradox is an inescapable dimension of the Christian life. While that sounds cool, the reality of it is as frustrating as can possibly be. Paradox creates tension. Tension is something I seek to avoid and, yet, it is something I need, like exercise and fiber. The late liturgical scholar Mark Searle wrote something about the liturgy that captures well what I am trying to express about my inner life: "Tension creates energy" (Liturgy Made Simple, pg. 25). Far from being negative, our worship and spiritual lives require "a tension between the present and the future, between the personal and the communal, between the ideal of the Kingdom and the realities of present experience in the world" (pg 25).

All these musings put me in mind of my two best spiritual guides down through the years (it even seems odd that I can write about my spiritual life way- I am getting older): St. Augustine and Pater Tom (a.k.a. Thomas Merton and Fr. M. Louis, OCSO). From Augustine I learned that having a longing, restless heart is part of being human, part even of being a person of faith. This world will never satisfy me, only God satisfies me- "You satisfy the hungry heart with gifts of finest wheat". From Pater Tom I have learned that God does not want or call me to be someone other than myself, as disappointing as I find this at times. God calls me to be the true self I was made to be for God, the Father who delights in me. So, in a very real and practical sense, I am to become nobody other than me. As Michael Spencer wonderfully points out in a post on his internetmonk blog, Pater Tom was also restless. It seems that restlessness, like humor, is a sign of a genuine and balanced spirituality. On the other hand, maybe that observation is just a pathetic attempt at self-justification.

This becoming sounds simple enough, but then living the Gospel only requires me to love God with all my heart, might, mind, and strength and my neighbor as myself. Yet, in order to walk the path of becoming, keeping these commandments must be done out of a genuine desire, a genuine longing, out of my love for Jesus, who first loved me (Jn 14,15; 1 Jn 4,10). This brings me to two other spiritual guides for my life: Luigi Giussani and Joseph Ratzinger. Gius teaches me that it is only through my own, very personal, acceptance of these Gospel requirements, which is the result of "an event born of an encounter", and not by having them externally imposed on me, that I begin to walk the path of becoming myself. Joseph Ratzinger teaches me that, paradoxically, this path ultimately leads me beyond myself, toward the other in love. It is in becoming other-centered that I become my true self. It is by being myself that I become a gift to others and allow them to be gifts to me, not threats that cause me to put up my ego defenses. Frequent readers know that I never tire of the brilliant luminosity of our Holy Father's words in number one of Deus Caritas Est, in which it is easy to see the impact of Gius on his life and thought, "We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."

I tried to point out in my recent post on St. Mary Magdalene, using Dr. Cynthia Crysdale's book Embracing Travail, that our resurrected and living Lord confronts us, calls us, summons us, even jerks us toward becoming our true selves. To be painted into this particular corner by the resurrected Lord Jesus is scary, especially when I think about how much I shrink from really examining myself. I am not talking about the vague awareness that only leads me to feel mildly ashamed, but the kind of examination that forces me to my knees in need, in gratitude, in awe because I realize in such moments just how much God loves me despite everything. Such experiences create tension- tension between becoming who I am made to be and the all-too-often false person I am.

(West Salt Lake Valley in summer)

Friendship plays a vital role in my becoming, as Fred, author of Deep Furrows, wrote about yesterday. Part of how I know I am too busy at present is that many of my friendships have withered. No doubt it is by relating to others that I become who I am and who I am meant to be. Cultivating a genuine openness to other people is part of being truly alive, and is what constitutes loving my neighbor. The fear of this becoming, which takes many forms, of bridging this chasm, which seems at times to span the universe, is overwhelming. Frankly, sometimes in my arrogance it pisses me off when I realize that I can't bridge it on my own, that I need help. In this I commit the original sin of wanting to be my own god. Besides, you don't need a doctorate in theology to know that ego-centeredness is hell. As The Police once sang: "In this desert that I call my soul/I always play the starring role/So lonely . . ."

Alas, it is only in my weakness that I am strong. The Lord said to Paul, as he lamented his own weakness, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." To which Paul responded: "I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me" (2 Cor 12,9). This is the most difficult paradox of all!

(Picture taken by my friend, Rob)


  1. Dear Deacon Scott,
    Thank you for the post. I was reading it with my girlfriend, Laura, and she shouts "wonderful man!!"

    But, back to the post. Yes! the restlessness, and the tension is something I too avoid most of the time. I am learning learning slowly that it is a necessity in life, and it is a gift to be in that tension. I am slowly reading through the Spiritual Exercise booklet, and one of the theme is certainly this.

    Did you get one? If not, would you like me to send it to you?

  2. First off, thanks to both you and Laura for the encouragement and (long-distance) companionship on-the-way! For whatever reason I have not received the Spiritual Exercises booklet and would love one.

    Also, due to my idleness, I have not yet undertaken to establish a SOC here in SLC. I'd appreciate your prayer (and suggestions) on that score.

  3. Hey Scott.

    Just wanted to say hello. Got your comments, went to comment on them today and found you had deleted them. :(

    Anyway, just a friendly wave. I always value your thoughts.


  4. Thanks, Julie. Same here, I always enjoy reading what you've written because you always give me a lot to think about. I just didn't want to sound argumentative, but dialogical.

    Wave righ back atcha!