In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.Romans 8: 26-7
Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.Luke 13: 23-5
The writings of the great Wisdom traditions have endured because of their power to break through our “common sense” worlds to the deeper truths that are, in large part, suppressed and repressed by us. The Fundamental Principles remind us that:
If you allow yourselves
to be formed by God
through the common,
flow of everyday life,
you will experience
a liberation and a freedom
never before imagined.
Yet, the common, ordinary, and unspectacular can only form us in this way if we are available to the otherness and mystery that each moment contains. We are not formed by the everyday spontaneously, but only by means of an interformative dialogue between reality (and that means a reality that we recognize to be more than our common sense of it) and our personal originality, our foundational life form, the unique image of God that we are in our deepest selves. In today’s passage from Romans 8, St. Paul describes the struggle that prayer is for us. The reason that we find it so difficult to take the time for prayer is that prayer is an engagement with the continual battle between our false and our true selves, between the spirit of God in us and the ego-driven appearance we create. The intentions of our spirit and the intentions of our socially constructed personalities are often quite different.
Yesterday I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast for this week entitled “BS Jobs: How Meaningless Work Wears Us Down.” It was a a repeat of a 2018 interview with anthropologist David Graeber, a professor at the London School of Economics. Graeber’s contention is that our society has developed countless jobs that are essentially unneeded and meaningless. They involve what we might call “busy work,” if work at all, and they are merely supportive of what we culturally have come to value. He challenges our common sense understanding that the person who works, no matter at what, is of more value than the person who doesn’t. But, most of all, he asserts that the effects on those who are engaged in these works that are meaningless and a waste of time are physically, psychologically and spiritually damaging. He insists that, for the most part, these jobs occur at the level of what some call the professional managerial class. It is not the truck driver or those who work in what we call the service sector that are most afflicted by this problem, although whether or not they are adequately paid in our system is questionable. Rather, it is those in “middle management” or its equivalent who are most likely to occupy these positions.
We have an economic model that would suggest that it is, in fact, most desirable to make a good salary while doing little or nothing. The significance of this research, however, lies in what we might call in the spiritual realm, the “groaning of the spirit” within us. For, as the psychology of child development teaches us, from infancy human beings are delighted with the experience of affecting the world, with the fact that who we are as unique beings allows us to change the outer world in some way. When the way we spend a third or more of our day is not somehow an interaction between our own uniqueness and the world we inhabit, we risk becoming discouraged and depressed. One of our deepest desires, as spirit, is uniquely to affect and change the world in a positive way.
Our spiritual and Christian anthropology sees our daily life and world as the object of our groaning spirit, our innermost call. God sees us as a totally loved image of the Divine with a unique task, assignment, and mysterious call. It is the longing and struggle to utter that call, to incarnate in word and deed that uniqueness, that is the constant groaning within us. We have been given a work to do and, despite all our efforts to tranquilize that assignment from God, the spirit in us will never cease groaning in its efforts to find the expression of ourselves for which we have been given life.
The values of our cultures and formation traditions, for example capitalism in the United States, are often apt to be counter to the call of the spirit in us. Thus, we need to be careful that we do not misread the call to be formed by the common, ordinary, and unspectacular as a call to conformity to the “standards of the present world.” One of our brothers had distributed to all of us today an editorial from the National Catholic Reporter entitled “Money Shapes the US Catholic Narrative.” It speaks of how the social and political stance of the hierarchical church in the United States has been unduly influenced by the demands of wealthy donors. It confirms the very reason why Jesus told his disciples to prefer the company of the poor. For, as human, we are all attracted to the benefits and comfort that come with wealth, and readily become willing to conform ourselves to the standards of a wealth worshipping culture.
It is the very nature of human culture to anesthetize the groanings of the spirit in us. This is why the door to the life we share with Jesus is so narrow. Even a form of life that is dedicated to the primacy of the relationship with God and Jesus tends to develop forms that serve cultural rather than spiritual values. Our conversations can tend much more toward the status of our ministries and the liquidity of our retirement plans rather than the groanings and aspirations of the spirit in each of us.
There is an aspect of today’s gospel reading that is discomforting. Jesus seems to be teaching that if we don’t work at entering through the narrow door, if we lack the strength to maintain our efforts, the door may become locked to us. And when we then, belatedly, beseech the Lord to let us in, he will reply that he does not know where we are coming from. Real prayer, real attention to the groanings of the real in us, is frightening because it will inevitably reveal how lost we have become. Day to day, we well may be extending our efforts in being not who we are but whom we are told to be. Even as I write, I am aware that I have some idea of what today is required of me to enter through the narrow door. And I am also aware of how much of my day I spend avoiding doing those things.
Aristotle points out that we are the result of our choices. The Buddha says we are the result of our thoughts. The narrow door requires of us that God’s will for us be first in our thoughts and our choices. It means not settling for a life defined by “common sense.” It means allowing “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life” to challenge our thoughts and our choices at each moment. As Pope Francis would remind us, it means preferring to be with the poor and to hear the challenge in their voice. If Adrian van Kaam is correct and our life is inherently “a task, an assignment, a mysterious call,” then we, as Jesus, must live only in order to do the work that God has given us to do. The demands of our culture have other ideas about what our life is for. It is to be in service to wealth accumulation, power, and prestige. Perhaps the depression the holders of bs jobs experience is a manifestation of the groaning of the spirit within. There is always a “fear of the Lord” in attending to the voice of spirit in us, because it is very difficult to discern how to survive if we dare to obey that voice. Hegel says the the spirit is always seeking new forms. But to serve this evolutionary direction of spirit is a struggle, because the strength of the directives to cultural conformity are so strong. It is indeed a narrow door through which we are called to enter.
We were not made in its imageW. S. Merwin
but from the beginning we believed in it
not for the pure appeasement of hunger
but for its availability
it could command our devotion
beyond question and without our consent
and by whatever name we have called it
in its name love has been set aside
unmeasured time has been devoted to it
forests have been erased and rivers poisoned
and truth has been relegated for it
wars have been sanctified by it
we believe that we have a right to it
even though it belongs to no one
we carry a way back to it everywhere
we are sure that it is saving something
we consider it our personal savior
all we have to pay for it is ourselves