The Lord said to Martha in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”Luke 10:41-2
Realizing my agitated state of mind, a good friend sent me last evening a reflective quotation from Marcel Proust: “My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.” As I did reflect on Proust’s insight, I began to understand the truth that my “agitation” was the result of my limited way of seeing. Like Martha I was “anxious and worried about many things,” and that worry and anxiety was due to my seeing reality out of my own project orientation, my need and desire that my own projects prove valuable and fruitful. The oft-quoted gospel passage of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary is not about being active or not; it is rather about the source and nature of our agency. As a friend with whom I shared the quote expressed this morning, the very expression of the possibility of “a new way of seeing” is actually itself a change in consciousness. As for myself, in entering the few words of Proust, I could actually experience a change in my own mood, in the “way” I was in the world.
The Buddha says that life is suffering because our cravings and aversions most often constitute the direction we take toward our desired destination. More often than not, we are seeking a destination that seems to offer us pleasure rather than pain. What Proust reminds us of, however, is that it is our way of seeing, our point of view that constitutes pleasure and pain for us. It is our attachments to persons, things, feelings, thoughts, and so on that determine our state of mind and body. As Martha, we live most often out of our anxious form of life.
One of my favorite stories from The Little Flowers of St. Francis relates his description of perfect joy. It is in the form of a dialogue between Brothers Francis and Leo as they walk on a cold winter’s day from Perugia to Santa Maria degli Angeli. Francis says to Leo that it would not be perfect joy if the Friars Minor would spread to all lands and be a perfect witness to holiness, nor if they had every gift of healing, including raising from the dead, nor if they were to become so enlightened that they could reveal all the secrets of the universe, nor if they were so given the gift of preaching that they would convert all infidels to Christ. None of this would be perfect joy. Francis says perfect joy would rather be if they were to arrive cold, hungry, and exhausted at the convent gate and be refused entrance, rebuffed, and insulted by the porter as imposters and bore “such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who made him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.”
The Fundamental Principles instruct us:
At times you will discover
that God’s ways are not your ways,
and God’s thoughts are not your thoughts.
When this happens,
try to surrender yourself trustingly
into the arms of your Father,
who knows you,
and loves you.
Perhaps you can repeat
with your Founder
this simple prayer
which he cherished”
O Lord, I cannot understand your ways,
but I must adore them.
The power of the story of St. Francis for me is that it makes real the truth that what is likely most unpleasant for me, what seems most unjust to me, and what most evokes rage and hatred in me is not only what I perceive it to be. This is not to say that it may not actually be unjust and even vile. Yet, I am a capacity to see it and so relate to it in more than one way, the way of the immediate reaction of my infraconscious. As Adrian van Kaam points out, we also have a transconscious, a capacity to perceive and receive the work of God in our world and experience. At every moment and in every event God’s ways, often mysterious to us, are forming us into our own unique Divine image. That image is very different from even those aspects of ourselves that we and our society most value.
Much of our life formation is conformation to the values of first our families and then our cultures. We desire to be recognized as valuable and significant by others. As a result we tend to give form to our lives mostly out of the directives that we receive from others. Yet, St. Paul admonishes: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We are to receive form not only from our families and culture but also from God. The perennial truth of Isaiah’s words that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts is a direct result of the inevitable differences between the values of “this age” and the will of God.
St. Francis tells Brother Leo that it is the craving for recognition, acceptance, and respect from others that inhibits our potential for deeper joy. Meister Eckhart teaches that as long as we want to be something, we shall never know the depth of human and spiritual consonance that wants nothing else but merely “to be.” The deepest moments of consonance and joy I have known in life are those fleeting moments when the most intense appreciation and gratitude for the gift of being wells up in me. As Eckhart says, it is not an appreciation or gratitude “for this or for that.” Yet, the strong pull of craving “for this or for that” is always present. When that desire is disappointed, there are always the strong reactions of sadness, pain, or hurt. It is precisely at this moment that I forget that all I really want, all I am truly grateful for is “to be.”
When all we can see are our cravings and aversions, our desire for social recognition and approval, we are spiritually blind. We are living in conformity to the present age. We can know some levels of gratification and satisfaction when we do so, but we can never know true joy and consonance. Our anxieties are most often about our success or lack thereof at conforming. When it doesn’t matter to us how the porter welcomes us or doesn’t, we are touching our potential for perfect joy. When we can see the ways and thoughts of God in the events of our lives, we not only can be more available to the experience of joy, we can also be more “ready to answer God when he asks you if you are available for Him to become more present in your life and through you to the world.”
We are not a spontaneous openness to this more nuanced way of seeing. After many decades of life, I still experience myself as living so often out of the reactions of my own unconscious drives and needs, ones largely determined by the ways of my culture and my own fearfulness. Detachment is a life-long process, but not one that can forever be denied. Our lives are not our own. Finally, all that we tend to value will be taken from us, including our physical being. It is not easy for us to see “the work of God” in death. It is perhaps in those moments of life that demand of us a different way of seeing that we can best practice for the ultimate detachment. St. Francis speaks, as did Jesus, of a joy no one can take from us. We cannot acquire that joy, no matter how hard we try. But we can receive it, as we learn and practice that joy, as our very life, is sheer grace and gift. Despite the teaching of our culture, we have no right to all we deem ourselves entitled to. The joy lies in recognizing that all we really want and need is given to us out of love as a free gift from God.
I find no other virtue better than a pure detachment from all things; because all other virtues have some regard for created things, but detachment is free from all created things. That is why our Lord said to Martha: “One thing is necessary” (Lk 10:42), which is as much as to say: “Martha, whoever wants to be free of care and to be pure must have one thing, and that is detachment.” . . .Meister Eckhart, On Detachment
Perfect detachment has no looking up to, no abasement, not beneath any created thing or above it; it wishes to be neither beneath nor above, it wants to exist by itself, not giving joy or sorrow to anyone, not wanting equality or inequality with any created thing, not wishing for this or for that. All that it wants is to be. But to wish to be this thing or that, this it does not want. Whoever wants to be this or that wants to be something, but detachment wants to be nothing at all. So it is that detachment makes no claim upon anything.