Like most Catholics, I’ve lulled myself into thinking that I’m doing pretty good: Mass on weekends, daily Breviary, contemplative prayer… until I had a rude awakening. During a recent residency week in a spiritual direction formation program I am in, I discussed the challenges I have with my job. I mentioned issues with management, “working for the man,” a desire to go in a new direction and the pressure of being on the hook for several dependents as my professional career is winding down.
I talked of the anxiety, the loss of self, and fear of the risk in choosing “freedom” from company expectations and focusing on my own expectations. I mentioned that this challenge can strain a marriage when one’s spouse fears financial security while the other feels that such security is coming at too high of a price – i.e. my health. Listening to myself as I spoke, I came to the realization (or in a spiritual direction sense – the “Spirit and I came to the realization”…) that I had placed myself in a personal Hell. One definition of “Hell” is the “absence of God.” In all these struggles I realized the source of my fear, my risk, my…, my…, my…. etc. was the absence of God and this absence as being “Hell” to me.
My moment of rude awakening was something I am not particularly proud of. I saw myself as being a classic example of not “walking the talk.” As a Deacon, I saw myself preaching a merciful God who wants to be part of our lives on Sunday and going through the week speaking to Him without listening. While telling people to focus on God’s plan, I, like others, was bringing myself down with too much of a focus on mine.
I took some bad advice recently and applied for a company recognition of my science. I knew the odds of being supported were poor. I knew that I shouldn’t care anyway but, in a moment of weakness, ego…I did the dance only to find that I was right – I danced alone and was turned down. As a “3” on the Enneagram, this whole scenario was as self-destructive as it gets for me. Yet, in turning to Ignatian Spirituality, I was able to recapture my freedom with a discernment on letting myself be persuaded to focus on the ”wrong world.” Gaining my perspective back brought a joy to my soul. I was proud that I noticed the joy I found in this freedom. Yet, this “joy” was hard to maintain as my management kept asking me to go further down that self-destructive path. This is where the Enemy of my soul introduced the notion of “risk.” Do I risk financial security, family security and perhaps my marriage by turning around and going back down that secular path? Or, can I do both so as to not let go of that joy in my newfound freedom? I began to get mad at my boss for putting me in this position and not leaving me alone to simply do a job I was successful at.
Look at all the times I used “I” or “my” in the last paragraph. Right there is a sound indication of “ego” leading the dance. My rude awakening was that nowhere in that paragraph was “God” mentioned or thought of. There’s something to be proud of Deacon… I hadn’t realized in all this emotion that I was not living the life I preached on weekends. To quote one of my favorite books, I did not Walk the Talk. I didn’t feel “freedom” until I refocused myself on God’s Kingdom. Yet, even then I failed to realize that the “Hell” I placed myself in was the absence in living and knowing that God is there with me. I failed to live a faith knowing that as long as I am following His plan, whatever happens will be what is best for me. God’s plan may include suffering but, it is always with the goal of an eternity with Him. My only true “risk” was in following my plan and not God’s.
The longest distance in faith is from the head to the heart. As Americans, we have a fear of giving up control – whether we are really in control or not. As Catholics, our faith is weak because we live a faith that remains in our head. We never let go and allow it into our hearts and let Divine love take us over. That is why we have a faith that can be challenged in secular notions. Without the experience of God in our lives, we can never fully open ourselves to the faith in God and his Church. Living without seeing God in all things dispels us to not see God in most things. And yet, each Sunday we find our favorite pew.
The tragedy in this is that this world still hurts. No one wants to dance alone. We focus on the pain; we focus on our personal Hells and forget why we placed ourselves there in the first place. We grasp at material satisfactions that in the end fail to satisfy. We become addicts without even knowing it. Instead of drugs we crave money, titles, sex – all the “stuff” Jesus tells us is an empty notion of joy. We see freedom in chasing our addictions all the while forgetting it is really these addictions that take our freedom away.
Jesus brings us a better way. We forget this because sometimes following His way still hurts. Rather than focusing on this hurt, we need to stop and look at why we are feeling this hurt. For me, I’d say 95% of the time…99% of the time… 99.99% of the time… OK, nearly all the time, it is because my ego got bruised. I feel alone in getting victimized without looking up to the cross and seeing a God who willingly got victimized for me. I am never alone and I am only victimized when I let myself be. God gave me a dignity that no one can take.
Mark Strobel recently reflected in Give Us This Day that:
Faith means casting our lot with Jesus and entering a tough course, a narrow path. There are times when faith will set us at odds with the world. But the book of Hebrews reminds us, ‘Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come’ (13:14) The values and visions of the Gospel do not always match the values and visions around us. We have confidence that God remains faithful to Jesus and, in him gives us life.
Do we speak this faith from our head or live it from our hearts? If the “values and visions of the Gospel do not always match the values and visions around us,” our reality exists of empty words we speak, agree with, and live on Sunday. As such, our faith becomes an empty vessel. And such vessels easily break upon facing hardships in life. We must, therefore, embrace our confidence in God and live as if nothing else matters. Why? Because nothing else truly does matter.
I will forever default to be an Enneagram “achiever.” Yet, it is in discerning what I need to “achieve” that will be the true key to my freedom in the years to come. Let us pray for a discerning faith that lives in our hearts and overrides what we constrain in our heads.