When the king heard the contents of the book of the law, he tore his garments and issued this command . . . “Go consult the Lord for me, for the people, for all Judah, about the stipulations of this book that has been found, for the anger of the Lord has been set furiously ablaze against us, because our father did not obey the stipulations of this book, nor fulfill our written obligations.”
2 Kings 22: 11-13
Jesus said to his disciples: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.”
Many years ago when I was in graduate school, a teacher of ours told us that anyone who claimed to be “an open book,” who declared that “What you see is what you get!” was either lying or deluded. I have never forgotten this lesson because it punctured a hole in one of my most cherished illusions, that I myself could become such a person.
I am certain that the point of this teaching was not that we shouldn’t attempt to be honest and sincere. It was rather to be aware of the reality that because we are not ever fully known to ourselves that it is impossible to express all of who we are to others. Even as we try to be who we think we most truly are and to be “good” in the ways we are called to be good, we are reminded that “No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
Today in 2 Kings we hear of Hilkia’s rediscovery of the Torah in the temple, which he gives to Shaphan who reads it aloud to the King. As the words of the Book penetrate into his heart, the king rends his garments and commands the people’s return to the Lord. Every time we pick up the Word or hear it read, we too are called to rediscover it as if we have never heard it before. How can this be for those of us who read or hear it daily? It is because there are unknown parts of us that truly never have heard the Word before. If we just keep reading the scriptures, and for that matter living our lives, out of the well developed habits of our own surface identities, then it is all only repetition. This is us as an open book, open because there are not many pages there. We are living our lives merely by habit, by how we have conformed, as Paul puts it, to the “present age” (Romans 12:2). When we dare approach the unknown in ourselves, however, we rediscover the message and call of the Word.
We have recently spent several days in meetings of our Congregation on the international level. We are attempting, and often struggling, as a group to enter into the unknown, the Mystery in which we truly live in communion with each other, for all our differences of language, culture, and formation. We share a common Word, of Scripture, of call, of Congregational mission and charism. Yet, the place in us which shares it is very difficult to access. There is layer upon layer of difference, of prejudice, of cultural conformity, of prideful arrogance. There are unconscious contentions for power, for recognition, for superiority, for the maintenance of control, comfort and spiritual laziness. And this is true of every one of us.
What makes group discernment of spiritual direction so difficult is that we are all far too ready to think that “we” are open books. We tend to believe that colliding opinion based on unconscious self-interest will somehow reveal God’s call for us. Yet, we forget the experience of Elijah who hears the Lord not in the earthquake, or in the fire but in the “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). Be it in solitude or in group discernment, we must first quiet the clamor of our most immediate and urgent needs and drives if we are to be available to the “gentle whisper.” Yet, quieting the immediate ruckus is not enough.
In the teachings of St. John of the Cross, we learn that the Ascent of the Mount must pass through not only the “dark night of the senses” but also the “dark night of the spirit.” The purification that would fully open our ears and our hearts requires of us that we cease not only to cling to our physical desires and our functional ambitions, but even our functional (rational) notions and ideas of God. God’s ways are so much not our ways that to begin to discern them requires of us an entrance, alone and together, into a darkness wherein lies our deepest transcendent potency to receive the life of God.
The spiritual journey cannot even begin until, in the true sense, we begin to doubt ourselves. This is why humility is always the ground of any spiritual development. Humility in this sense is very far from self-depreciation or self-hatred. It is not despisal of ourselves in the way many of us experience it. Rather, it is a humble and compassionate acceptance of the truth that we bear both good and bad fruit. No less than the scribes and Pharisees, we are at times those who come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. When I dare to truly reflect on the movements of my own heart, I discover that pride, envy, resentment, comparison, competition, wrath, and hatred are never so far from the surface. The best protection I can give others from these largely unconscious effects of my wounded eros is to be aware of them.
Adrian van Kaam would often remind us that “formation is sheer work.” If our hearts are to be reformed and transformed into the heart of Christ, we must fight our tendencies to laziness that would demand of our lives that they be but repetition of our early developed habits. We must become available to be shocked, as the king is shocked in today’s reading, by the collision of the Word with his habitual and tranquilized life. That in us which remains hidden and untouched by the call of love must be opened to the confusion that comes with the first flashes of self-recognition.
As we come to know our place, in this light, we begin to experience the truth of our communion. When we cease to be at the center of our own consciousness, we discover that we have a common center. We are each no more nor no less than the others. Our lives, then, have, for all their uniqueness, a common direction toward union and communion. But there is no way to communion by prideful exertion strivings. Rather we must be brought low, to where we are together in a position to receive the gift.
We both are and are not the one we take ourselves to be. The first step in true self-knowledge is the realization that we don’t know ourselves fully. It is the willingness, then, to be purified by being shown those aspects of ourselves that we are so invested in ignoring and repressing. Thus, to declare we are an “open book” is in fact a declaration of the extent of our being closed. Perhaps what makes group discernment most difficult is that it requires of us the greatest of vulnerabilities, the admission that we don’t even know ourselves. It is one thing to speak and to share what we know. It is quite another to express and to share what we do not know. Yet, this is the way to conversion and transformation. We cannot be reformed and transformed until we are open to that conversion and transformation in ways we do not even know. Then we can experience the rediscovery of the Word, for what is hidden in us hears it for the first time.
So your love should be sincere: You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you.
From these and from many other things you should be able to tell if your love for me and for your neighbors is still imperfect and that you have been drinking from your vessel outside of the fountain, even though your love was drawn from me. But it is because your love for me is imperfect that you show it so imperfectly to those you love with a spiritual love.
All this comes of the failure to dig out every bit of the root of spiritual selfishness. This is why I often permit you to form such a love, so that you may come through it to know yourself and your imperfection in the way I have described.
Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue