“For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”Matthew 6:21
Sometime in early adulthood I became aware for the first time of how difficult to answer I found the question “What do you want?” In today’s passage from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us how important this question is, for our answer will determine the form that we give to our heart. Until we know where our treasure is, what it is that we really desire, we shall live our lives half-heartedly. We shall be like Patrice Mersault, the protagonist in an early work of Albert Camus, A Happy Death: “a miserable wretch who has no roots anywhere.”
What makes it so difficult to answer the question of what we want, what is our deepest desire is that we are such a multiplicity of desires, many of which are contradictory. We want pleasure and security, but we also want growth and love. We want connection and closeness, but we also want independence and autonomy. We want recognition but we don’t want to be held responsible. We want to be cared for, but we don’t want to be overly dependent. And on and on it goes. We also want to be inner directed, but we also have appropriated the values, norms, and directives of our culture about what constitutes an acceptable and approved of life direction.
Adrian van Kaam says that “formation is sheer work.” At least I experience this as true especially in this difficult task of identifying where my treasure is so that I may choose accordingly, so that I may give form to my heart in accordance with the demands of that treasure. A part of the difficulty in doing this is that, at least in my own experience, I have not done this once and for all. I once thought that in the act of vowing for life to live “for the sake of the kingdom of God and the service of God’s people,” I had realized my treasure and proclaimed it publicly. I felt certain that this would direct my heart and so my actions for the rest of my days. Yet, the truth is that the living of this life call requires that I reaffirm for myself as well as others my choice for this treasure in every decision that I make. To do this requires, I think, to give form to both the contemplative and the active dimensions of our personality.
Psalm 1 tells us that the person who walks in the way of the Lord, the one for whom “the Lord’s teaching is his desire,” is like a tree planted by streams of water. Such a person’s actions are deeply rooted in his or her desire for the Lord’s teaching, or, we could say, in the love of the Lord. We become increasingly rooted in this desire by growing in our awareness, our consciousness of it and by day after day bringing our thoughts, words, and deeds into conformity with it. It is said that St. Ignatius of Loyola taught his companions that the consciousness examen was the one irreplaceable component of their lives. Even if they had no time for any other prayer, they were to let no day go by without attending to where their consciousness and their hearts were during the course of that day. We can only do this, however, to the degree that we are rooted in the Lord’s teaching, that our desire is above all to do God’s will.
The spiritual practice by which we become more and more aware of and rooted in our desire for the Lord’s teaching has both a cataphatic and an apophatic dimension, that is both a conceptual and an awareness strategy. As Psalm 1 teaches, consonance or happiness comes to the degree that our lives conform to God’s teaching and will. Our two-pronged “dialogue” with God’s teaching begins with our immersing ourselves in God’s word. It is our daily practice of discipling ourselves to that word, of studying it in the mode of the student who longs with all his or her heart to understand and to live that word. This attention to the word is not merely cognitive in nature. It is bringing ourselves to that word as to a spiritual (or in our time psychological) teacher or therapist. It is listening with the ear of our heart, which means with a willingness to change our heart in its light. So the cataphatic dimension of the work is the attending to and meditating on the word that we receive. As we do so, we are moved into the apophatic dimension. If we read and study and meditate the word in this way, there will arise in us all that in our hearts both resonates with the word as well as resists it. There will emerge in us those deeply held desires that are different from the desire for the Lord’s teaching.
As in psychotherapy, as these desires come to light and become conscious, we are able, if we are willing, to make a choice between them and the teaching in the word we are receiving. Sigmund Freud came to believe that the therapeutic effect of the speaking cure came about through the resistance of the client to the therapist, as the representative of the call to change. I often experience my strong resistance to becoming aware of those desires that I do not want to give up or let change. I don’t want to recognize my own ambition, or greed, or lust, or will to power, or laziness, or self-centeredness. I don’t want to face the countless times in a day that given a choice to be for another or myself, I choose the latter. I don’t want to give up my anger and resentment toward others.
When I became involved in the work of formation in my community, there were confreres of mine who saw my change from teaching to formation as a kind of retirement from work. I remember one in particular who described my life as merely sitting around and thinking beautiful thoughts. This was his view of spiritual formation. Of course, there is always the question of why, if the work of personal human and spiritual formation is so beautiful, more of us don’t devote more time to it. At least one aspect of the reason is that the thoughts are often not that beautiful. All of us resist the truth and the demand for change that comes with recognition of the truth. Becoming a disciple of the word, realizing more and more that God’s word is a call to lose our life for the sake of the world, is not “navel gazing.” Rather, it is at its very heart a call to deeper and fuller and more self-sacrificing engagement with the world.
Besides a dialogue of our selves with the word, there is then a dialogue with the world. Jesus says that where our treasure is our heart will be. Because as humans we are always receiving and giving form in our lives, the conforming of our heart to our treasure is a lifelong work. We are called at every moment of our lives, until death, to form our hearts in consonance with the our deepest desire, with our treasure. Camus’ character is a “miserable wretch” because, as he admits, he has “no roots anywhere.” He spends his days “traveling for a living.” He keeps moving without direction. He does not perceive each moment and each encounter as an invitation to incarnate his deepest desire, because he has none. St Ignatius understood that to become what we love we must work at every moment at incarnating that love, to the best of our understanding and ability. We must choose based on the deepest desire of our heart.
This is not at all easy for us because there are lots of desires on the way to that deepest desire. I often don’t have an answer to what I want because to have one brings on the burden of responsibility. To acknowledge what I want makes me responsible for its being brought to fruition. It also means suffering disappointment when it cannot be fulfilled. So, I well may act out of a lesser desire that is more realizable. For example, when a difficult conflict arises with others, I may settle for the desire for everybody to get along rather than for the truth that may make things more difficult for a while. I may, as Camus’ protagonist, keep running away to avoid the limits and miseries of my own current existence, rather than bearing the suffering that working through those limits and miseries may entail. I may overwork to be seen by others and myself as productive and acceptable, rather than ever dare to discover my own actual call by opening to my deepest desire.
Jesus confronts us today with a very difficult and transformative question. Where is my treasure and so where is my heart? Our hearts are formed by the choices we make. Each time we speak or act out of the treasure that is our true call and deep desire, our heart is formed more and more in consonance with that desire. This makes our consonant or loving response to life and world more and more spontaneous. On the other hand, each time we fail to speak or act in such a way, we develop alternative habits of heart. The more we do this, the more that our spontaneous responses will be based on our lesser desires and the more that we shall experience alienation from our own lives.
Patrice Mersault concludes his description of his time in Vienna with the simple and pathos-filled line: “The only thing missing is the sun.” In his experience of Vienna, “Beauty has been replaced by civilization.” What our treasure is will determine what we build. In our time we have discovered that the treasure of our “civilization” has led us to build a world that is on the verge of becoming uninhabitable. Yet, in the past year the carbon emissions in the United States have risen by 3.4%, the largest in eight years. Our treasure, whatever exactly it is, seems not to include the health and well-being of our children, our grandchildren, and all to follow them. All rationalization aside, this is the truth of things. It is not a consoling thought. It is difficult to imagine that we could continue to do so if we really dared to encounter the truth of God’s teaching.
As our heart’s are formed in accordance with our treasure, our world is formed in accordance with the dispositions of our hearts. We deform it to the degree that our hearts are deformed. Jesus teaching is not merely a question of individual perfection or even happiness. It is rather a matter of global survival. In 1996 Daniel Jonah Goldhagan published a book entitled Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. In this he argued that there was a long term eliminationist anti-semitism in German culture that made the holocaust possible. The spirit of a culture is the spirit of its people. Our culture manifest where our heart and so our treasure lie. Can we dare to come before God and God’s word and allow it to show us the truth of our hearts and our treasure? Do we have the courage to allow that word, the true treasure of God’s teaching, to reform and transform our hearts, or shall we also be willing contributors to a selfish and willful destruction of our planet?
Dear Children,Albert Camus, A Happy Death, trans. Richard Howard, p. 77
I’m writing from Vienna. I don’t know what you’re doing, but speaking for myself I’m traveling for a living. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful things with a heavy heart. Here in Vienna beauty has been replaced by civilization. It’s a relief. I’m not looking at churches or ruins. I take walks in the Ring. And in the evening, over the theaters and the sumptuous palaces, the blind steeplechase of stone horses in the sunset fills me with a strange mixture of bitterness and delight. Mornings I eat soft-boiled eggs and thick cream. I get up late, the hotel people shower attention on me. I’m very impressed with the style of the maîtres d’hotel and stuffed with good food (oh, the cream here). There are lots of shows and the women are good-looking. The only thing missing is the sun.
What are you up to? Tell me about yourselves and describe the sun to a miserable wretch who has no roots anywhere and who remains your faithful