Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019


While I was on retreat, the priest hearing my confession gave thanks for my gift of a humble heart. This surprised me, because I couldn't see any humility in what I'd just said. Indeed, it reminded me of the time a few years ago when a priest complimented me on making a good confession, when all I'd done was apply some character analysis to a situation. Sure, I sounded incisive, but was I really humble?

Then, as part of my penance, I was asked to think of a specific grace I'd been given and to thank God for it. So I sat in Adoration and considered this cynical talent of character analysis. Is character analysis a grace? It's a gift, sure, as it's part of who I am and how I respond to the world. As such, it's given to me by God. But what's the grace that underlies that? Most of the time, when I'm analyzing character, it doesn't feel like humility. It feels like pride. 

When I write, when I look at life, I may not be lyrical, but I hope I'm honest. Is that humility? What is humility? Is it honesty? Is it a sense of the real, a truthful way of viewing the world? I don't think it can be meekness, or simply meekness. Humility, it seems to me, is everything in its place. But how can that feel like pride? Or perhaps it's that I need to pull myself out of my character analysis, so as to look at reality without feeling that my analysis reflects any glory on my own understanding. 

And relying not on my own understanding was what I specifically resolved to pray for while on retreat. 

Often in Adoration, I posture and arrange my prayer time to fit some preconceived notion. Pray a rosary, because that's what you're supposed to do. Try to feel something like adoration. Read the same devotional manual everyone else reading. Pray like others. And praying like others is fine for Mass, a liturgical and ritual form. But I'm not like others, and neither is anyone else, because "others" is just a collection of individuals. If I am specific, it's because God made me specific. He wants me to see and love all things in him, not to suppress the gifts he's given me. So if words and analysis are what I do well, why should I not pray that way? In the beginning was the Word. If that's how God has granted me to encounter reality, that's how he wants me to pray.

I'm not supposed to change myself, but offer myself.

So I sat in Adoration and studied the Blessed Sacrament intensely. If God is truth, then here he is, truthfully -- not symbolically, for us to draw tidy lessons from, but as he actually wants himself to be revealed: bread to be consumed. The humility is in the exposure. Nothing is hidden or held back. 

The humility lies in simply being. In the Eucharist, God doesn't use force or manipulation or any artifice to draw me closer to him. He simply is, on the altar. I can approach or not, as I please. As on the cross, he is fixed in place. I am the one who changes. 

He does not hide in the form of bread. He is revealing his true nature. He is to be consumed. He is to nourish. He is for others. He is still. He is.


Part of living and thinking in words is the enforced humility that comes when the words don't come. Being truly myself before God means having the honesty to admit that the words dry up frequently when it's time to work. It's so easy to write stories in my head, where I have total control. It's not so easy to be faithful and carry on without inspiration. When I look back later, it's hard to tell what was written in a dry spell and what was written in the blazing fire. Only the words remain.

The dry spell is me. The words are You. Make me faithful.


Recently I've had opportunities to peel back the scab of self-love. I had to finally admit -- in words, written, formal, that I was not going to be able to finish the textbook I said I would write. The opportunities for serious work were too few and far apart, in a house filled with children, and when I did have the opportunity, the words wouldn't come. It cut to the quick of my self-image as someone who can be professional, who can finish what she commits to, who is capable of working at an adult level. 

Even now, as I sit in my room, at the table and chair I dragged up to make a private writing space for myself, I have four children hanging over me, begging for computer time, for something to eat, trying to draw angry lines in my journal, trying to drive cars over my laptop screen. And I think of Jesus in Adoration, completely exposed, holding nothing back. I hold a lot back. I hoard my mental space, because my physical space is not my own. My room, my bathroom, even my body belongs to others who have a legitimate claim on it. I want something that is completely, unequivocally mine, something no one can make me share with anyone else. 

I want a space so private even God can't see it and make claims on me.

And there, if you like, is pride. There is idolatry. In this day and age, I don't violate the first commandment by making public idols and worshipping them communally. I am my own private idol and worship myself in cramped, grasping, solitary rites. Like the early vineyard workers in today's gospel, I want what rightfully belongs to me, by my own determination of rights.

In Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) quotes: 
Non coerceri maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est.
Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest -- that is divine.
We're used to the absurd question, "Can God make a rock so big that he can't lift it?", but constantly, we live the notion that there is a thought, a sin, a mental corner so small that God won't know about it. Yet there is nothing so small that the core of it is not God himself. This is the essence of the Christian life: to let God shine through the smallest, most obscure actions, motions, thoughts. The big showy projects of Christian life are an afterthought, the least effective means of communicating his presence, and the most likely to fail. 

I don't know yet how to square this with my desire to maintain something that is distinctively my own, but I do know that I don't have to do that work myself. Rely not on my own understanding. 


Brandon said...

This is a good post. It's too bad about the textbook, but I've very much been in the position of having to concede that something is just not going to happen given everything else and the fact that I have, in some way, shifted out of it already. It's very human to discover that not being superhuman is strangely hard to bear. That, I think, is mostly just the human condition in this fallen world. The dangerous temptation is to let oneself think that somehow one was entitled to the superhumanness, and that often comes, as you say, by associating it too much with one's self-image. But our task is not to do impressive things; it is to do just and good things in all the situations that arise, and it is the nature of humility that the result of that is in the long run greater than any of the impressive things we imagined ourselves doing.

I'm reminded a bit about one of my frustrations when I was helping out with confirmation classes, in trying to find good resources for the gifts of the Spirit. In all of the usual confirmation materials that had been approved by the diocese, the gifts of the Spirit were characterized as if they were things we did. But the whole point of the gifts of the Spirit is that they are gifts. You can't even know for sure that you are acting because of them -- it's just that if you act with love of God and love of neighbor, your deeds will be wiser than you could have planned, more understanding than you could know, more courageous than you could have ever prepared yourself to be, etc., in ways you will often never see or even suspect. Our greatness is made in heaven, which means we have no means to make it ourselves. You just get it by gift.

MrsDarwin said...

I have had several instances lately of feeling the frustration of not being superhuman, and of God's call not playing out how I expected. (Viz: my attempts to transform religious ed.) I think it's a sign of my wanting to do the big thing and see dramatic results -- a textbook under my name, containing my unique insights! an exciting new parish religion program, with returns of 30- or 60- or 100-fold! -- instead of, as you say, using the gifts without being the direct, obvious beneficiary of the results

I have a great affinity with the Elder Son, and something I realized recently is that whereas the Younger Son, the prodigal, wants to know if he's forgiven, the Elder Son wants to know, "Does anyone even care what I'm doing? Am I seen?" And human understanding isn't enough, because everyone has their own blindnesses. It seems odd at this stage of the Christian game to wonder, essentially, "Does God love me?" (when one drills down to the core of the matter), but I assume that it's a common problem, or Jesus wouldn't assure us of it so much.

And then, after I wrote this post yesterday, I read the "Descended into Hell" section of Introduction to Christianity by Ratzinger, which touched exactly on this point in such a cogent way. I really can't recommend this book enough.

Banshee said...

You're a performer. Of course you want to accomplish concrete things and to be noticed. The performing gift isn't given for oneself, but for others. It isn't fully used unless it is used for things performed and finished. It's not wrong; it's not even ego-oriented, necessarily.

And of course it's disappointing to see a project that needs doing, and not be able to do it, or to know that something has been done or improved (even incrementally).