“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like wise persons who built their houses on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But all who hear these words of mine and do not put them into practice are like foolish persons who built their houses on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”Matthew 7: 24-27
Theodore James Ryken spoke of the aspiration of living a “non-dichotomized life of contemplation and action.” This concern is not one that is limited to religious types or religious professionals. A very strong current in the western philosophical tradition, perhaps from neo-Platonism on to Descartes and continuing to the present, is our tendency to live split lives, seeing life as a conflict and a dichotomy between mind (spirit) and body (flesh). Many if not most of us are living contradictions, between the thoughts and ideas we espouse and our day to day actions. How well I know the parable of the Good Samaritan, and yet how many homeless people do I “pass by” in the course of a day. How well we Christians know the words of the Beatitudes, while at the same time pursuing “happiness” in the most contrary of ways, not through poverty, meekness, rejection, humility, and so on.
When I was an undergraduate student at our scholasticate, one of my formation directions, with whom I didn’t at all get along, once said to me that I had and spoke the right “ideas” but I did not practice them in daily life. For all of my dislike of him and my rage at this statement to me, it is a teaching that has remained with me and challenged me throughout my life. To have the words, without the music, is to build on sand. Jesus says we have no foundation, and he even says he will not recognize us, if we do not practice his word. Yet, life is teaching me how difficult it is, given the dichotomy between spirit and flesh, mind and body that is so deep in me, to really understand what it means to practice the words of Jesus.
We have many ways of reducing the “word” of Jesus. One way we do this is to make “human laws” into his word. This puts us in the position of some of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they turn mere human precepts into God’s word, and thereby they discredit the word. In the Roman Catholic Church, as I suspect in all traditions, people are willing to tear each other apart over the interpretations and the regulations of the institution that are mere human constructs. How did papal infallibility, certain teachings of sexual morality, the ways of celebrating sacraments and so many other accretions to the faith become the core by which people’s fidelity and commitment is to be judged? Is it not, in good part, the refusal to actually practice and be transformed by the word that leads us to reduce it to conformity to the teachings of our human institutions?
The word of Jesus, as word of God, is the source and the creative activity of life itself. To practice it is not primarily to practice conforming to teachings, although the teachings are meant to inform us, but rather to practice living out our lives “in spirit and in truth.” From my early life I learned the gratification of being recognized as “a good boy.” I quickly learned that the elements of being “good” included conforming to the expectations of the big people, doing well in school and at other tasks I was assigned, and being responsible, which meant behaving in such a way as to elicit praise from others and to avoid being judged poorly and upsetting their lives. Of course, I could not always be successful at this effort, but when I did fail the experience was a burning and unforgettable feeling of shame. Whatever I thought or felt that I was not conforming to this personal demand of myself, I distanced and dissociated from myself in that respect. When faced with those solitary and hidden times when the ways I was not “good,” as I had defined it, would manifest, I would relegate these moments and experiences into a separate (dichotomized) area of consciousness which I would designate as “not me” to anyone who saw this behavior. So, I suspect not unlike many, I experienced my life in a truly dichotomized way. There was the acknowledged “good boy,” and there was the “not me” that contained much of the life and energy that would manifest in my unappropriated anger, ambition, sexuality, resentment, and countless other manifestations of my vital drive and energy.
Well into adulthood, my ability to compartmentalize, as we would say today, began to falter. I became increasingly anxious and depressed, until I reached a point where I would become afflicted with anxiety or panic attacks. I was being forced to grapple with the way in which I had reduced the word of God to the demands of the adults of my boyhood. I came to see that my talk of God’s love for me was hollow if I remained unable to know God’s love in those places, those significant aspects of my being, where I feared and even hated myself. In terms of today’s gospel, Jesus was calling me to practice his word not only in my efforts to be virtuous and good but in those moments of consciousness and act that I had kept hidden and separate not only from the world but from my own consciousness and from God. In fact, I slowly came to recognize that those places in me I had kept hidden from my practice were the only ones on which a solid foundation could be built.
To practice the word is not to practice strengthening our ideal selves, but our actual selves. It is not to create a world, even if we call it the Kingdom of God, that is made up of our idealizations. It is to live, through practicing, the actual life that is ours, that God has given to us. What makes this so difficult for us is that we can learn much from the great wisdom traditions of the ages and from others around us, but our practice is also unique. No one can tell us, ultimately, how we are to practice the word. Father Adrian van Kaam taught that the strength of a tradition depends on the degree to which its adherents have uniquely appropriated it. In my efforts to be a “good boy,” I thought that my worth was dependent on the degree to which I conformed my life to the demands of the significant people around me, and I then transferred that to conforming myself to the tradition, as it was presented to me. When others approved, I “knew” I was good. When they disapproved I felt the shame of failure. But I was not “uniquely appropriating” the depth of the tradition and the summons of the word.
This, however, is the way to have spent our years and never to have lived our own life. It is to build on sand because the “demands” of the outside are constantly changing. If our life task is to meet those demands, we shall never experience the solidity that comes from standing in the truth of who we are. “Standing in the truth of who we are” is St. Teresa of Avila’s definition of humility. To stand there will require the courage and honesty to practice in our strength and weakness, in our “niceness” and in our aggression, in our virtue and in our vice. It will mean being with and in the reality of the moment and practicing in that reality, not dissociating from it or denying it.
In short, the call to practice the word for each of us is to accept responsibility for our own lives. It is to stand before ourselves, others, and God, not just in our societally ratified strengths and competencies, but in our inadequacies and failures. It is learn how to be ourselves without shame but in the humility that allows acceptance and even joy in the gift of our own life. To this day, when I am criticized or countered, I get angry and defensive. I still want everyone to see me as good and appreciate me. Living in service and fidelity to the word of God above all does not come easily. We are social beings who are always tempted to identify ourselves by the responses of others. Yet, this is to build on sand. It is to become someone that Jesus cannot recognize. In time we can begin to learn the difference between practicing the word and practicing our social performance. Even as we waver between the two, we can understand this as an opportunity to practice, trusting that our desire to become a disciple of the word and our willingness to practice that desire moment-to-moment is all God asks of us.
We have complete freedom of practice, complete freedom of expression. Our practice is the living expression of our true nature or reality. So for us it is not possible to stick to anything. Moment after moment, we practice in a renewed, refreshed way.
Our practice should be independent from past practice and future practice. We cannot sacrifice our present practice for some future attainment, because all the Buddhas attained enlightenment in this way, all the Buddhas in the future will attain enlightenment in this way. In this way means not any particular way. Sometimes it may be Soto way, sometimes Rinzai. According to the circumstances, it may be the way of another school.
Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen, pp. 141-2
Someone may attain enlightenment when she sees a flower or hears a sound. Someone may attain enlightenment when taking a hot bath or going to the rest room. Rich and poor may attain enlightenment in various ways. So actually there is not a Soto way or a Rinzai way.
We have discussed practice rather abstractly, but this is what it means: whatever it is, we should accept it. By various means moment after moment, we practice our way. There is no other way to attain enlightenment.