For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.
2 Timothy 1:6-7
This morning’s news features a story about a famous fashion designer by the name of Kate Spade who apparently ended her own life by suicide yesterday. It seems as if she may have suffered from bipolar disorder, although most acquaintances of hers seem shocked at how someone who seemed to them so unlikely to despair did so.
It need not take the suicide of a celebrity to remind us that truly living our lives authentically and to the full is not a task for the faint of heart. Recently it was reported that a class on “Happiness” at Yale University became the most attended class in school history. For the most part Yale is populated by young people of privilege, those whose families have “made it” in terms of the culture’s values. Yet, what their response to this class indicates is that they have reached young or public adulthood without an awareness of how to live their lives so that they experience joy in living.
In today’s reading from Timothy we hear that the gift of God in us, the stirring in our heart of the flame of God’s love, is not “a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” One of the greatest mistakes I make in attempting to respond to the direction of my own life from moment to moment is that I allow myself to spend far too much of the time of my life living out of instinct, habit, and reaction. In the terms of the author of Timothy, I fail to make real the “power” of the spiritual or transcendent form potency that I possess and that is capable of living a life of “love and self-control.”
What makes life difficult for us, and so requires courage of us, is that we are “spirit through and through.” This creates in us the “restlessness” of which St. Augustine so famously speaks. In the teachings of St. Paul, to live is to live an ever-present conflict between the demands of sarx, the flesh, and pneuma, the spirit.
Less this sound hopelessly ethereal and theoretical, let me offer a recent example. Examples are easy to find because we live this struggle daily. Over the past couple of days three of us have gathered to reflect together and to plan for an important upcoming meeting in the Community. For hours each day we worked very hard to listen deeply to ourselves and to each other. We brought into our deliberations all the reading and thinking we have been doing for some time. Most of all we came into the discussion without preconception and demand to have our way. We tried to practice the “self-control” of our instinctual desire to have power over the others and to dominate the discussion and its outcome. We also attempted to control our own anxieties about getting a result of a certain kind within a certain time frame.
As a result, we found ourselves, late yesterday afternoon, exhausted but feeling fully alive. I think it is fair to say we experienced love for our lives, for each other, for those we were attempting to serve. Most of us who do work of a certain kind know well the asceticism of meetings. So often they are debilitating and discouraging experiences. We endure them because we must, but it usually seems as if they were just a needless and ineffective expenditure of time. Yet there is another possibility. It requires, however, a very particular type of courage, the kind that the letter to Timothy implies.
This courage, as the word etymologically suggests, is daring to live from the heart. That is, it is daring to suffer the longings not only that come not from our instinctual desire for immediate gratification but also from what St. John of the Cross calls the “urgent longings” of our spirit. These longings seek a peace, joy, and love that is not subject to our vital impulses or functional ambitions. It is a power of a very different order from the power to satisfy ourselves or to dominate others. As Blaise Pascal famously noted: “Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.” “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.” These “reasons” are the reasons of the heart.
Part of the courage required to gather together to really collaborate on a task, as we did the past two days, is to face the fears and the truth of our own impotence. As Elizabeth says to Mary, “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me“ (Luke 1:43). It takes courage to hand oneself over to the task at hand in full realization of one’s smallness and poverty to really serve that task. It takes, perhaps, even more courage to give all one has to the work in light of that very realization. Yet, to deny our demands for self-satisfaction and for dominance allows a new form of potency to emerge. To keep at once giving what one has while letting go of the compulsion for an outcome that satisfies oneself results in a result being given that comes from a place far beyond the capacities of one’s own reason. In every experience I have known of working together in a way of such courage and generosity, the experience has always been that the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.
In the words of the famous prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola,
Teach us, good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
In the Ethics Aristotle taught that happiness is not attainable by seeking it directly. It is, rather, a byproduct of doing the right and the good. At our pre-spiritual or pre-transcendent level we are a demand for pleasure, satisfaction, and what we take to be accomplishment. This is all of what St. Ignatius describes as what we are not to count, heed, seek, or ask for. That’s because the longings and desires of the heart and soul, which in a beclouded way reflect the desires of the spirit in us, are so much more subtle. It is very easy for us to live in such a way that we, rather than being heedless of the wounds, are heedless of the call to real, to deeper life.
There’s an old familiar song by George and Ira Gershwin entitled “Someone to Watch Over Me.” A line of the lyrics goes as follows: “There’s a somebody I’m longin’ to see / I hope that he, turns out to be / Someone who’ll watch over me.” We are a capacity for love of all. Yet, sentimental as the song may be, it points to another desire that we have appropriately and powerfully within us. It is the desire for one who will be for us uniquely, to love us and to watch over us. We want to be desired beyond all others by another person. In recent times my life and especially my work with others is having an unexpected consequence. It is reorienting my affective life I am discovering that love comes to me from unexpected places and persons. And, in turn, that it is the unexpected who are willing to receive the love I am offering. The other side of this is that I’m also discovering that those relationships which I experienced as central in my life are, in some cases, becoming far less so. One effect of this on me, so far, is that I am learning by surprising and sometimes painful experience that love is different from what I thought and felt it was. Perhaps my hand-picked version of “the communion of saints” has been woefully inadequate, incomplete, and even mistaken. Perhaps Jesus commanded us to love our enemies because it is they who are most capable of teaching us the reality of a love that is not selective, submissive, or self-gratifying but “common to all.”
I received yesterday an email from a friend who spoke of her aunt who is now 94 and falling more and more deeply into the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. She reminded me of something I shared with her and with others whom I was teaching at the time I was caring for my mother in her illness. As my mother and I went through her 20 year experience of the disease and she became less and less aware of and so present to me, I realized that this was only bearable to me because I had learned and come to deeply believe that “we are always and everywhere in formation.”
Knowing this does not mean that to really live and to attempt to live life “to the full” in all that it brings ceases to require courage. In the sufferings and difficulties of life, our pre-transcendent selves will seek to flee life in the illusions that we seek to ratify by pleasure and dominance. To have courage is just the opposite of fleeing. It is to dare to become yet more vulnerable to life and to the world. It is to dare to give all we have, even when we feel and fear that it is far too little to be worth anything. It is to attend fully to the wisdom in others, even or especially those whom we see as foolish. Finally it is to live in forgiveness, even when every fiber of our being desires the gratification of getting even.
St. John of the Cross incisively reminds us that this kind of courage can only spring out of love. It is in realizing that we love God more than we love our own needs and illusions and more than even our need for a person or persons to watch over us that we are able to live, to love, and to work as St.Ignatius describes. We all have the tools to live lives that come to know the depth of love, joy, and peace for which we have been created. They need not be given from the outside, yet we can access them only by means of detachment and dispossession. We must love the truth of who we are and of the God who sustains us more than we hold as our own possession our demands for pleasure, gratification, and power over others.
The soul, then, states that “fired by love’s urgent longings” it passed through this night of sense to union with the Beloved. A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure. A more intense enkindling of another, better love (love of the soul’s Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure. By finding satisfaction and strength in this, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites. The love of its Bridegroom is not the only requisite for conquering the strength of the sensitive appetites; an enkindling with urgent longings of love is also necessary. For the sensory appetites are moved and attracted toward sensory objects with such cravings that if the spiritual part of the soul is not fired with other, more urgent longings for spiritual things, the soul will be able neither to overcome the yoke of nature nor to enter the night of sense; nor will it have the courage to live in the darkness of all things by denying its appetites for them.
St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I,14,2)