Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, / the Holy One of Israel: / I, the Lord, teach you what is for your good, / and lead you on the way you should go. 

Isaiah 48:17

Jesus said to the crowds: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you and you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’”

Matthew 11:16-17

From a very early age we are formed to value our freedom as probably our most important possession. As a boy in public school, the final words of the first verse of America became imprinted on my consciousness: “. . . from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” The preamble to our Constitution speaks of preserving “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Unfortunately this may take deeper root in us that those values which precede it: “. . . in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, [and] promote the general welfare . . . .” 

The partial understanding that we have concerning freedom is due, in part, to our failure to understand the transcendent or spiritual nature of human personality. If one carefully attends to much of our discourse concerning freedom and liberty, one will immediately recognize that freedom for us is the freedom to act out our cultural pulsations, our vital and emotional impulses, and our functional ambitions. Apart from any particular “spiritual” considerations, we can now recognize that such a view of freedom does not contribute to the goals for forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility and promoting the general welfare. If freedom means giving free reign to our individual impulses and ambitions, then freedom and social justice, concern for others, and the promotion of the common good and general welfare are incompatible. 

From the scriptures we are reminded of a freedom that is not merely different in degree but in kind to that described above. Isaiah tells us that we need always throughout our lives to be taught by the Lord what is for our good. While our impulses and ambitions are a constitutive aspect of our personality, they do not totally define us. We are also aspiration and inspiration. There is a capacity for us that recognizes that our good is inseparable from the good of the whole. We are more than our passions and our ambitions. That “more,” however, is revealed to us throughout our lives only tentatively and gradually. There abides in us a unique form of Christ, or Buddha, or Krishna that awaits our free and responsible choice to realize its incarnation in the world. This is the deepest level of our freedom, and to realize that freedom requires of us that we learn how to discipline the immediacy and urgency of our vital impulses and functional ambitions. 

And so the question we are left with is “How does the Lord teach us the way we should go?” The Fundamental Principles tell us it is “in the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.” As Adrian van Kaam puts it, “We are always and everywhere in formation.” Today is the feast day of St. John of the Cross. Although he lived in the mid 16th century, John is the master psychologist of the Christian mystical tradition. In contemporary terms we could say that John teaches us that to come to a full human life we must learn to mitigate the strength of of our unconscious’ movement to discharge. The discharge of our unconscious is always in service of the pleasure principle in us. In his own terms, John speaks of the need to lose “all solicitude about yourself and your affairs” in the work that you do. 

At the unconscious level our work always has a self-centered aspect. We are looking for our own satisfaction from our work, but not the satisfaction that comes from the work itself. Rather we are looking for the recognition or esteem of others, or a sense of power over others. Thus, Jesus tells the crowd in today’s gospel that their problem with both John the Baptist and himself is that John and he did not dance to their tune or cry at their dirge.

Not infrequently a certain agitation arises in me as I watch or listen to the presentation of the news of the day. I become momentarily aware that the mass media is telling me what I am to think and how I am to feel. it is now time to mourn; it is now time be angry; it is now time to feel patriotic; and so on. What was once a source of information is now but an extension of advertising. Even church leaders instead of teaching us the way to be discipled to the Lord’s teaching in us, attempt (as do many of our political leaders) to manipulate us by telling us what we must think and what we must feel. 

John the Baptist and Jesus were a problem to their societies because they spoke and acted in accord with the direction of the Divine call within them. For certain, they felt the same needs to be accepted and loved by others that we do. They certainly wanted a fulfilled life, as their own cultures would have defined it. And yet, they lived in awareness of their deeper responsibility to their unique call, task, and mission in the world. This meant, as it always does, a certain non-conformity with some if not many of the values of their time and culture. 

What John of the Cross understands is how difficult it is to live in openness and response to the teaching of the Lord, the directing of the Lord, within us. He understands in a very practical way how powerful are the forces of our own unconscious. As St. Paul says, “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” (Romans 7:15) Without living a life of sufficient reflection, we only dance to the tune of our culture and our passions. In turn, we shall only relate to others as if they existed only to gratify us. True human intimacy and friendship require spiritual awareness. Otherwise the best we can do is mutual gratification, abandoning relationships when they cease to gratify us. 

There are those whom we recognize always to be learners, always ready to become aware of what they do not know despite their age. And there are others who seem incapable of change or growth. Whether conscious or not, the difference is a matter of spiritual awareness. This awareness includes a living and continual awareness of the work of our own unconscious. The spirit in us is gentle, humble, docile and pliable. The unconscious is fearful, arrogant, proud, and rigid. It is incapable of admitting mistakes and experiencing and expressing the need for change. It does its work in order to be someone, rather than to simply and merely do God’s will. To know God’s will, and St John would say to know God’s love, we must “abandon [our] own way of acting.” This is because “our own way” is not truly and uniquely “our own.” It is merely a reaction to the playing and the singing of the crowd and the culture. 

The way that God would direct and teach us is our own unique way. If we are ever to come to be as the truly human person we are called to be, we must learn to live “without possessiveness and human respect.” That must, says St. John, be replaced by “good will.” Good will is profoundly honest, about itself and about the world around it. It knows that as God is truth, God cannot be served except in the truth. The truth is not immediately obvious to us. It is clouded by our many needs, fears, and habits of acting and thinking. Thus, contemplation is not an elite call and activity. It is essential to becoming truly and distinctively human. Contemplation is our potential to see Reality. It takes our lifetime for God to teach us this way of seeing and being because the pulsations, impulses, and ambitions that flow from our unconscious are so immediate and powerful. 

So, in Advent we hear the call to be still. To let the pipers’ tune fall silent in us, so that we may hear the “still, small voice” of authenticity and integrity, of call and mission that speaks to our true and original selves. 

Think not that pleasing God lies so much in doing a great deal as in doing it with good will, without possessiveness and human respect.

When evening comes, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own way of acting.

Although you perform many works, if you do not deny your will and submit yourself, losing all solicitude about yourself and your affairs, you will not make progress.

St John of the Cross, The Sayings of Light and Love, #59, 60, 72

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