“When you give alms, therefore, do not trumpet it aloud before you, as those who are playacting do in the synagogues and in the streets so they may be lauded by others; amen, I tell you, they have their recompense in full. But when you are giving alms do not allow your left hand to know what it is your right hand does, so that your almsgiving is in secret. And your Father, who watches what is secret, will reward you.”Matthew 6: 2-4
One of the passages of Shakespeare with which almost everyone is familiar comes from As You Like It (II, vii):
All the world’s a stage’
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.
His acts being seven ages.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus summons us to resist allowing our lives to become only “playacting.” He says that God’s vision of us is of the one we are when we are not on the stage. It is who we are beyond the view others have of us, and even more, the images we have of ourselves. God’s vision of us, the person we are that God recognizes, is the one who exists before any story we have of ourselves, before our left hand “knows” what our right hand is doing.
The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki has a striking way of speaking about this. He says that sometimes when we are holding something it can look as if our left and right hands are not cooperating with each other. Yet, what may look like confusion and be incomprehensible to others, may well be the very time that we are acting in the way that is only ours to act, not principally out of conformity to others’ or our own story about ourselves but as we actually are.
The other day I heard a podcast from the series The Hidden Brain. It spoke of a young couple who were determined not to impose on their newborn any societal story of gender identity. Their aspiration was to allow this infant and then child to discover on its own how to be her or himself. The young person is now 16 years of age and appears to be a very self-aware and self-confident person. My first reaction to all this was ambiguous. While respecting the aspiration behind the attempt, I also wondered if the lack of direction was not too much “freedom” for a child. I also wondered if the effort it took on the parents’ part to deny the child any gender-oriented clothes or toys might not create a far too anxious environment. Yet, despite the conflicts that resulted in their extended families from this stance, it did appear the child herself developed well.
The episode was a reminder of how much the person we take ourselves to be is socially constructed. When the young person, now 16, spoke, it was clear that she had her own “stories” about herself and her world. Even when we are receiving and giving form to our lives in reaction to the current cultural norms, we are always developing a story about who we are. Our left hand is always coming “to know” what our right hand is doing, and then responding accordingly.
As a necessary condition for living authentically, a deep value in the spiritual life is that of solitude. Two of the most prolific recent authors on the topic are Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. They both speak directly to how we can not know true communion with others until we have discovered and fostered that communion in our own solitude with God. I then turned to some of their more familiar passages on the topic, all very compelling and beyond dispute. It then occurred to me, however, that these two significant and influential spiritual teachers, who had spent much of their lives seeking the direct communion with all that comes only in solitude, experienced crises of intimacy with others late in their own lives. For Merton, it was falling in love with a younger nurse whose care for him opened him to the depth of his need to be cared for. For Nouwen, it was the realization of the pain of the lack of intimacy in friendship which had come about in part due to his lack of acceptance and appropriation of his own sexual orientation.
Fr. Adrian van Kaam often told the story of a person who said to him that he must be very gentle to have written so well on the place of gentleness in human life. His response to the person was that if he had been gentle he wouldn’t have needed to write about it. And so, I ask myself, “Why am I so often thinking about and writing about the same topics?” These topics are the themes, the stories of my life as I attempt to make sense of it. I am certain, however, that as Merton and Nouwen (not to compare myself with them in any other way), there is much hidden in my repeated articulations of the stories. Even as we attempt to penetrate through our performances to our reality, we tend to play yet another role on the stage.
Why is it that a great mystic like St. Teresa of Avila exhorts her sisters, if they are able and called, to seek the prayer of quiet. It is because for all of our words, and I, for one, love words, we cannot know God’s vision of us and the world until we touch a place beyond them. St Augustine famously said that we cannot describe God because whatever we describe could not be God. So it is with our own selves. The end of our “speaking” in prayer is to come to a place where we have nothing more to say. The end of our being authentically who we are is when we act without a story, or as Meister Eckhart says, “without why.”
Personally, I occasionally tremble as I am reminded that after all these decades of life my own “identity” is still such a mystery to me. I hope and pray that there is something of the one whom God sees in what I say and do. And yet, I am very aware that my capacity to “playact” before others and myself seems infinite. A great teacher of ours used to remind us that “When things fall apart, that is the reminder that everything is okay.” Pope Francis has said that the result of the action of the Holy Spirit in the world is chaos. “I” am forever getting anxious because I fear that things will not work out. But I measure this from my own narrative of self and world. I fear that things will not work out as I want them to, and therefore I shall not be seen favorably by others. Today Jesus reminds us that God sees what is hidden in secret, not only from others but from ourselves. When all I value crumbles, I am reminded of the difference between my sense of value and God’s.
In meditation, when all is stilled in us, we touch for a moment that reality in us that need not be anxious because it need not play a role. All that is required is for us to “be still and know that I am God.” For, of course, as we ourselves and our world are mysterious to us, the ultimate mystery is God. Every God we think of is not God. Every idea of God is an obstacle to knowing God. I am anxious about myself because I have not yet received the “rest” that comes from ceasing to fulfill the role after role that I give to myself. As St. John of the Cross writes: “I die because I do not die.”
Suzuki says that if our practice is strong enough it is able to hold the images we have “without being enslaved by them.” How exactly can we do this? Perhaps it is by giving up our tendency to be anxious about who we are in favor of living with “a lighter touch.” If we live our lives always open to formation and reformation, we can move from one “current life form” to another trusting that this is how we live “on the way.” It is to live, to some degree at least, with a sense of humor about the quality of our own performances.
When I was in the eighth grade, my middle school, as almost every middle school in the English speaking world, did a performance of the play within a play from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I had originally been given the small speaking part of Moonshine, played by Starveling. I was to walk onto the stage carrying a lantern and say: “This lanthorn doth the horned moon present; / Myself the man i’ the moon do seem to be.” And a few lines later: “All that I have to say, is, to tell you that the lanthorn is the moon; I, the man in the moon; this thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog” (V, i, 230, 235). Well, from the first words out of my mouth, it was clear to the director that my speech was lifeless. After several tries, I was changed to a non-speaking role.
When, as quite often, I am prone to take myself too seriously, I remember this incident of 60 years ago. Of course, I was ashamed and humiliated. It was not that I was incapable of understanding the lines, but I was so fearful of “being on stage” that I couldn’t think, let alone express myself convincingly. In my performance anxiety, I couldn’t access my own thoughts, let alone my own voice. Great actors are convincing because they find something of the character they are portraying in themselves. Our various performances in life vary greatly in terms of their congeniality with our own deeper identity. The closer they are, the more natural and convincing they appear to others. To live as a person on the way, we are always seeking a greater convergence between our current and apparent forms and our foundational form. To appreciate this is to have the humility to have and to hold our images without confusing them with the truth of who we are. Yet, who we are before God is always alive and at work in us. If we can keep from becoming enslaved to the images, that “light” will, as Cardinal Newman says, find a way to “shine through us,” often, ironically enough, because of the weakness of our performance.
Sounds come to your ears when you are practicing zazen. You may hear various voices, and sometimes you may have various ideas in your mind, but if your practice is good, your practice owns or includes the things you hear and the images you have. They are a part of you. Your practice is strong enough to have them, to own them without being enslaved by them, as you have your own hands and eyes.Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen, pp. 111-112
Sometimes it looks like the left hand and the right hand are not cooperating when you are holding something, but they are trying to do something. When you are really the boss of everything, even though it looks like confusion, it is not confusion. It may look like you are doing something wrong, and people may say, “Oh, he is doing something wrong,” but this is their understanding. You are not doing anything wrong because you own everything, and you are managing things as you manage your own hands.