“Choose life, them, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.”Deut. 30:19
“For whoever wishes to save his soul will lose it; but whosoever loses his soul for my sake, this one will save it. For what profit is there for a man gaining the whole cosmos but losing — or being deprived of — himself?”Luke 9:24-25
What does a more intentional heeding of God’s voice require of us? As T. S. Eliot writes in Ash Wednesday, we must first ask that God “teach us to sit still.” There have been times in life when being and sitting still have seemed much easier to me. If, as we read yesterday from 2 Corinthians, that “now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6: 2), then my current restlessness, my difficulties in being and sitting still are the truth to be confronted this lent. It is one thing to heed God’s voice when our life feels settled and whole; it is quite another to try to listen to the voice of God when our mind is troubled and anxious.
There is an inextricable connection between the depth of our listening and the quality of our action. When I am excited, angry, troubled and anxious, I experience the compulsion to do something to relieve those feelings. Almost everything in me wants to do something to restore my sense of stasis and composure. Yet, as compulsion, to act from such a place is often rash and violent. The result of such action is often only to make matters worse.
So when I am agitated and anxious, when I am fearful for the state of my being in the world, I tend to seek relief by choosing either hyper-activity or imaginative distraction, in other words either violent compulsive reaction or indolent passivity. Because living with the feelings is so difficult, I attempt to dissolve them prematurely, without listening to and heeding the voice of God that they contain. As in every moment, such a time is a moment of choice of life or death that Deuteronomy describes.
To be a believer is, at its core, to trust in the Mystery of creation and life. In the words of Octavio Paz, it is to realize that “I too am written, / and at this very moment / someone spells me out.” Loving God requires that we listen to God and hold fast to God. The way we listen to God is to heed reality, the truth of things. But to do this requires of us that we deeply understand what Jesus teaches in today’s passage from Luke. What blocks us from listening, from dwelling on the truth of things is our preoccupation with our own desire for well being and security. At the bodily and functional levels of our personalities, we are driven toward comfort and satisfaction. If we are obsessed with saving our own soul, in whatever form that takes in us, we shall lose it. But, if we cease to care in the first place for ourselves, we shall begin to find ourselves.
When I am agitated, troubled and preoccupied, it is largely because I do not appreciate, or perhaps feel that I cannot stand, the experience I am going through. I want to restore myself to a place of comfort and ease. And so, I do not want to be still, until I feel like it, until life is settled in the way I need it to be if I am to feel satisfied. At this moment, I no longer act responsibly in the world. I will do anything it requires to “gain my soul,” that is, to feel comfort and pleasure again. I am not heeding the voice of reality, the voice of God, but am rather listening only to my own needs and drives.
For some reason, I find it almost impossible to keep listening at a time and in a situation when I don’t know what to do. Instead of being still and listening with an open mind until I begin to receive what God is spelling out, I frantically pour through all my own perceptions until I seize on one that I can then compulsively act on. Thus, I am focusing my attention not on the real world but on myself. I am at risk of losing myself because I am preoccupied with it. It is not by holding on to ourselves but rather by loving God, heeding God’s voice, and holding fast to God that we choose life. When we are enormously stressed, or confused, or anxious, we are at risk of becoming locked into ourselves. Paradoxically enough, it is at this time that we are most called to be still and to listen.
So, this lent I know that I need to learn to listen better, to heed God’s voice more intently. To do this will require doing that to which I am at the moment least inclined. It is to make more space in my life and my psyche. It is to take more time to sit still. When we sit still long enough, we discover that those difficult feelings and experiences, including that of not knowing what to do, are as transient as all else, including ourselves. We experience that a feeling that seemed to demand some kind of immediate and reactive action from us will, in its own time, pass. As those feelings move on from our consciousness, we slowly become more available to see and to hear the truth of things. And embedded in that truth is the direction that is written in it, what we call the will of God.
The soul that Jesus tells us we must be willing to relinquish is that soul whose sole concern is ourselves. It is what in us fails to heed the Lord’s voice but rather heeds the voice of the pleasure principle in us. This is what stands between us and our perception of and presence to reality. At most moments of inner conflict, I find myself in the place that Deuteronomy describes: the choice between God and self, between life and death. I am conflicted at these moments because “life” in me intuits a need to speak or do something that seems to me to be against my own “self-interest.” Sometimes it is the choice to be silent when I might otherwise burst out in anger. Sometimes it is the choice to speak when I would much rather be silent and avoid the social conflict that such speaking engenders. SometimeS it is the choice to confirm the other when my envy would rather not. Sometimes it is the choice to challenge another, when I would far prefer to appease him or her. Sometimes it is the choice to keep working when I would rather give up, and sometimes it is the choice to be still when I feel as if I must act.
We become who we are by our choices. The way in which we choose will, overtime, create those dispositions and habits that give form to our hearts. When we react compulsively, however, we are not making the kind of choice of which today’s scriptures speak. Rather, instead of heeding the voice of God which is spoken in the truth of things, we are following the voice of our unconscious obsession with our own soul. Bernard Lonergan, the famous Jesuit philosopher and theologian of the last century, defined what he called four “transcendental precepts.” They are: “Be attentive; Be intelligent; Be reasonable; Be responsible.” As this lent begins, we may ask ourselves in what ways do we need to become more attentive to God’s voice and how can we practice overcoming our own unique obstacles to such attention, so that we may become, in the deepest sense, more responsible to God for our unique life call.
I am a man: little do I lastOctavio Paz, Brotherhood: Homage to Claudius Ptolemy
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.