How can you say to your brother or sister, “Let me remove that splinter from your eye” while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s or sister’s eye.
Some claim that the greatest insight and contribution of Sigmund Freud was his recognition of the reality of the “unconscious.” Long before him, however, the great spiritual teachers of humanity were fully aware of the presence and effects of our unconscious. For those of us formed in the Christian tradition, the image of Jesus in today’s gospel is very familiar: we must remove the beam in our own eye if we are to see clearly enough to help our brother or sister remove the speck in his or her eye.
We are blinded by the needs, drives, and compulsions in us, particularly by those of which we are unaware. We tend to order our relationships and in fact our whole view of the world out of the distortions of that blindness. For the past week, several of us have participated in a very significant and important meeting in which we began, in a new way, to recognize that this small apostolic community of the Xaverian Brothers is far more than the limited understanding of it we have had as Americans. As much as we have appreciated and been grateful for the presence in our Congregation of younger brothers from Congo and Kenya, we have tended to see them as somewhat “foreign” appendages to our experience and understanding of the Congregation’s life in the United States. Yet, almost from the beginning of this gathering, it was the faith, commitment, strength, and dedication of the Congolese and Kenyan brothers who were present that challenged us to a different, and, in truth, disorienting sense of our identity as a band of brothers from very different worlds and experiences.
We older brothers from the United States were put in our place by the challenges to our complacency and certitudes which came from our younger brothers. We experienced, and continue to feel, the disorientation that comes when our unchallenged unconscious view of ourselves and the world dominates our own view. In Jesus’ terms, we may have begun, and at this point the awareness is only seminal, to recognize “the beam” in our own eye. Our unconscious seeks discharge, pleasure, and complacency. It is from this place that we blindly do our judging of others. In our Congregation, as is the tendency of all of American culture, we live out of an “America first” perspective. This is culturally the perspective of “me first” that we each live out in our personal lives to the degree that we are driven and controlled by our own unconscious.
That to which Jesus calls us in today’s gospel is really a life long task of continual formation. As our Fundamental Principles remind us: “. . . a continual conversion is needed.” Unfortunately we too often limit the call to conversion to the ethical or moral realm. Of course, it is a call to leave behind and to replace the persistent evil tendencies of our own heart and nature. Yet, it is even more, perhaps, a challenge to live in such a way that our habitual habits of mind are open to reformation and transformation. Conversion is a growing realization that the way that we see things is largely limited by the beam in our eye.
The recent meeting was a quite focused and intense encounter among those who were gathered. In the course of the several days, I became aware of how greatly my feelings swung from one extreme to another. At times I felt filled with life, hope, and promise. At others, I experienced profound sadness, discouragement, and fear. At times I felt an incredible bond of brotherhood among us, and at others I felt disappointed with and enraged at others. The challenge, of course, is to discern the source and meaning of these feelings. At times, felt consolation is a sign of the call and presence of God’s spirit, and desolation is a sign of the work of the “evil spirits,” of moving away from fidelity to God’s call. However, just as often my positive feelings seemed to be indicative of my own needs and compulsions for ego gratification. I would respond positively when someone agreed with or supported me, and negatively when they challenged or disagreed with me. I would feel good when I thought the group was moving in the direction in which I wanted it to move, and I would feel bad when the direction seemed different from or even counter to my own desires.
Removing the beam from our own eye is a lifelong work. It actually requires of us a change in our usual or taken for granted relationship to our own emotions. It requires that we be put in our place as regards our own unconscious demands of others and the world, that we take some distance and learn some detachment from “our ways” so that we might see reality more clearly. In 1966 Philip Rieff, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, wrote: “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased.” There is an essential difference between the end of ego psychology and the call of the great wisdom traditions. Long before Freud, the religious traditions recognized, by a different name, the struggle of human life to transcend the drives and demands of the unconscious, the reality of the “pleasure principle.”
It would be painful to have a beam in our eye. A remarkable truth about human life, however, is that most of us have become inured to the pain that the beam in our eye causes us. In fact, we devote most of our energy to strengthening and enlarging that beam, and so enhancing the pain it creates in us. We often actually feel good when that is happening. When we become aware of the beam’s presence, however, we begin to experience it as pain. The realization dawns on us that we have been trying to manage the world and push others around in an attempt to reduce their reality to our own blindness, to the demands of our beam.
Conversion, reformation, transformation is not inherently gratifying. In fact, it often feels a lot like death to us. A mode of survival for us, individually and communally, is to become blind to all in the world that does not support and encourage our own gratification. We resist and grow angry at all that reminds us of how small we are and of how little we really know. The only way to pass from the fragile and vulnerable pleasure of our own gratification to the peace, joy, and love of Reality is through the pain of conversion. The “way” to coming to know our place, so that we can truly come to know that the essence of life is love, is to first come to experience the pain that the beam in our eye is causing us. We find the truth painful because we have become accustomed to the pain of our own myopia. To the reduced and distorted human experience of our own unconscious, the beauty and joy of real life feels like pain.
The Fundamental Principles remind us that in our life “of constant searching,”
At times you will discover
that God’s ways are not your ways,
and God’s thoughts are not your thoughts.
When this happens,
try to surrender yourself trustingly
into the arms of your Father,
who knows you,
and loves you.
To really encounter the world and others will inevitably reveal to us the beam in our eye. That realization, of how small we make God’s world, will be a painful one. The Fundamental Principles tell us that when this happens, when we want to fight for our way rather than God’s way, which is the truth of things, we should try to surrender trustingly to the truth, daring, in the nakedness of faith, to trust that “the God of small things” knows us, understands us, and loves us.
A Method to Avoid Impeding the All
When you delay in something
you cease to rush toward the all.
For to go from the all to the all
you must deny yourself of all in all.
And when you come to the possession of the all
you must possess it without wanting anything.
Because if you desire to have something in all
your treasure in God is not purely your all.
In this nakedness the spirit finds its quietude and rest. For in coveting nothing, nothing tires it by pulling it up and nothing oppresses it by pushing it down, because it is in the center of its humility. When it covets something, by this very fact it tires itself.
John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I,xiii,12-3