For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.Romans 7:19-23
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain—and so it does; and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?Luke 12:54-6
St. Paul’s description of the struggle with himself that we read in Romans today is one of the passages of the Christian scriptures with which we, at the level of experience, most resonate. We know, that as we become acquainted with and formed by the Law, which for us includes the life and teachings of Jesus, we often experience a powerful struggle between the demands of that teaching and our own spontaneous desires and reactions. What the letter to the Romans teaches, however, is that “the Law’ is not merely an external code of living but is rather the “natural” and “spontaneous” direction of our own “inner self.” So we have contending “laws” in us. The “law of our mind” which moves to the good and the “law of our members” which moves toward what Paul calls evil but what we might see as the law of survival and the pleasure principle.
In the gospel from Luke, we see that these contending laws in us also have their own way of seeing. What makes the struggle between them so powerful for us is that they are each seeking the good, as they perceive it, and so they actually see the world, the other, reality in light of their desires and ends.
Many, many years ago I told a therapist whom I was seeing about moments in my life of which I was deeply ashamed and which I had never expressed aloud before. I framed this “confession,” however, by declaring that this person I was describing was not me. What I meant, of course, was it was not the person I thought I desired to be. His response to my declaration was a question: “Well, who was it then?” The power of his question struck me immediately, and I realized that, of course this was me, just as much me as the one who acted in ways of which I was proud.
So, there is a real sense in which Paul’s description is not quite accurate. When he says he does what he does not want, he is failing to recognize that if he does it, he, at least to some significant degree, wants to do it. We make a serious mistake in terms of human flourishing and spiritual growth, as we pointed out yesterday, if we dissociate from the wants and desires of the “law of our members.” Given my life as a celibate religious, I have not spent a lot of time around infants. It is therefore a great gift to me to be able to spend time with my friends and their recently born daughter. To observe her physical and cognitive development from week to week is a truly “spiritual” experience. One thing that is very clear in the developing infant is that she lives in total obedience to “the law of her members.” She smiles when she feels delight, and she screams when she is in need or uncomfortable. Her very survival requires that she recruit the attention of those who can help her and that she communicates the physical experience she is undergoing. So, the needs and demands of our members are not to be despised. Our very existence and survival is dependent first upon the care of others to meet those needs and then our own capacity to obey them.
Because as humans we are also spirit, however, we develop in time the life of what Paul calls “the inner self” or the transcendent self. As we grow and develop, this “inner life” in us grows ever stronger. From the view of the spiritual traditions, we become distinctively human, that is we flourish as truly human persons, to the degree that this transcendent or spiritual dimension begins to permeate all other dimensions of our life and personality. As Adrian van Kaam puts it, our vital and functional dimensions can become disciples of our transcendent dimension.
We see this in the course of everyday life and culture. Our relationship to food, for example, can be that merely of the vital dimension whereby we ingest it for survival and for gratification. It can also, however, become a means of shared life and celebration, and ultimately a sacrament of communion. We can relate to other persons as objects of manipulation for our security and gratification, or we can reverence them as manifestations of the Other and the Mystery. If our vital and functional dimensions are cut off from our transcendent dimension, then the wants and needs of those dimensions will be the source of our actions. These needs and desires will always be present and a factor in our choices, but they can become servants of the aspirations of our transcendent or inner selves. This does not happen spontaneously, however, but only through a continuing conversion and transformation of our personality.
These different levels of desiring have also different ways of seeing. Freud says that what we take to be our “personality,” our ego, is actually a shell, a defensive structure against the pain of our experience of loss. This shell, he says, not only determines how we act but even what we see. So, the answer to Jesus’ question of why we can forecast the weather while being unable to recognize the presence of love before us is that it is safe enough for us to see the clouds coming but not safe enough to dare to recognize a love that may disappoint us. In Matthew’s rendition of the Last Judgment in Chapter 25, both those who are saved and those who are damned fail to recognize Jesus in the least of their brothers and sisters. The difference is that the one group served them anyway and the other did not. This points to the place of law, scripture and tradition in our human and spiritual development.
For all, or at least most, of us the spiritual integration of our personality will not be fulfilled in this life. Our vision of reality will become, hopefully, more and more clearsighted and egoless. Yet, in our wounded eros, we shall probably never fully see all of what is to be seen, and never fully selflessly appraise the call of reality. But in the sacred word in all the ways it comes to us, our transcendent self, our inner self, is being appealed to. It is being called forth into the world. So, there are those who no doubt at times did not feel like attending to the least, let alone recognize Jesus in them, but who did so anyway. The place of tradition for us is that it reveals to us something of the truth of our inner self, even before we are able to recognize it.
We fail the call of reality in the moment because we refuse to recognize the truth. We respond to a world of our own imagination, an imagination formed by our fear of loss and extinction, of suffering and pain. We fear our own powerlessness, and so we react to the world and others out of our blind ambition. We feel unable to suffer the truth that everything and everyone we love passes, and so we constrict our hearts and react to the world’s appeals with violence. We fear the loss of our life as we know it, and so, as those who encounter Jesus today, we refuse to read and respond to the signs of the times. In all these cases, we cannot see because we continue to be dominated by the “law of our members.”
The great paradox is that to relativize the impulses of those unconscious drives we must first recognize and appropriate them. If we must live the illusion that “this is not us,” then our only recourse is to live a false idealized form of an inner self. We then must live by dissociation instead of integration. To live in this way will inevitably result in moments when our lust, greed, violence, ambition manifest themselves in frightening ways, for our mode of living the desires of our inner life will be but affectation.
Everyday life, through our interaction with others, is always helping us to see the ways that our view of reality is flawed and limited. It is by openness to what the others are telling us, to the results of our actions and their effects on others that conversion and reformation become possible. It is by little and by little that the law of our inner self and the law of our members become more and more the one law of love.
In spiritual terms, this concerns the transformation of our “profane experience of reality” into a “sacred experience of reality” — a development to which many traditions refer as a (continuing) “conversion.” This conversion is also characterized as the transformation of a “materialistic” attitude towards life into a “spiritual” one. In more philosophical terms, one can refer to “appearance” and “reality” or also, as Lacan does, of “the imaginary (l’imaginaire)” and “the real (le réel).” The nature of appearance is to present itself as reality. The contemplative transformation concerns freeing ourselves from “appearance,” i.e., fictions, self-deception and illusions, by learning to see them for what they are. Another both philosophical and contemplative formulation is one that uses the terms “relative reality” and “absolute reality” or, as abbreviations, “the relative” and “the absolute.” Progress along the Path means that we learn to recognize and let go of our “relative reality” as such. In this way, we begin to live more and more within “absolute reality.” In contemplative psychological terms, we speak of the “egocentric experience of reality” and the “egoless experience of reality.” We use these terms in a spiritual sense as well: we can see our egocentric experience of reality for what it is only from an egoless perspective.Hans F. deWit, The Spiritual Path, pp. 69-70