By Randy Roche, SJ
Below is a title and brief description of each essay. To read an essay, click on it's title.
Savoring - We are not limited by the calendar or the clock, but are free to reflect on selected experiences whenever we wish.
Breathing - Breathing in the signs of love that are offered to us by God and others enables us to love
Do Not Be Afraid - On those occasions when we turn to God, how do we receive reassurance for the kinds of apprehension that sometimes beset us?
Who Did It?- Our essential freedom is not impeded by the reality of the many influences upon us.
Doubling Our Thanks- Gifts are always interpersonal, involving the intention of the giver and the acceptance of the receiver
Sirens- All sirens are warnings.
More with Less- Frail and limited as we are, we still have reason to acknowledge that we are truly “wonderfully made.”
Useful?- To pray for another is an expression of love.
That's the Spirit- We have a built-in honesty detector that requires no batteries or Wi-Fi connections.
Nothing- Ordinary reflection often reveals to us some of the extraordinary gifts that we have received and in which we have freely participated.
Beautiful- Seeking the beautiful is wholly in keeping with our humanity.
Ladders- Ladders can serve as a useful metaphor in describing our experiences of reaching higher in terms of personal development.
Dirt- The dirt of life does not make us “bad” any more than the dirt that nurtures growing things is somehow an error of creation.
Gift of Tears- The gift of tears is related to many spiritual experiences.
If we come upon an exceptionally tasty food, whether in a home or at a restaurant, we might eat it a little more slowly than usual, so as to more fully appreciate the flavors of that particular dish. After we have eaten, we might recall how good it was, perhaps describe our pleasant experience to others, and experience gratitude for it. But we soon forget, and move on.
Christmas Day is now past, with so much that happened in so short a period of time that we might not have savored many of our experiences with people and events, or with our thoughts and feelings in relation to them all. We cannot hold on to Christmas any more than we can keep enjoying a favorite food for hours on end. However, our capacity to relish the meaning of our experiences far exceeds our memories of physical sensations of taste. Christmas is not over for us until we decide that we are satisfied. We might choose to take time for treasuring particular experiences, some that were anticipated, some that surprised us, but all of them still available to us in reflective present moments.
One of the beautiful aspects of spiritual savoring is that we are not limited by the calendar or the clock, but are free to reflect on selected experiences whenever we wish. A meal ends, and after a while most memory recedes of whatever we tasted. But whatever has happened at a Christmas meal or in a brief moment of providing food for a homeless person, we can ponder the incidents at any time and more than once, enjoying more deeply the meaning and value that we thereby receive.
In addition to savoring some aspects of Christmas that have taken place, we are free and welcome to join with those who continue the celebration by engaging with some of the significant events that are directly connected with the birth of Christ. We have available to us the commemorations of the Three Wise Men, the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple, the attempt on Jesus’ life by King Herod and subsequent family escape to Egypt, to name a few. We have the option of continuing to engage personally with the full Christmas story of God’s love for us that is continually revealed in all the events accompanying the human birth of our Creator. We can re-visit this great mystery of love at any time, and appreciate the taste of it perhaps more fully and with deeper appreciation than when we were busily occupied with people and actively engaged in the events of Christmas Day.
We might naturally think of a person on his or her birthday or other significant anniversary, but we are not limited to those annual occasions. We might spontaneously recall some particular saying or action, some shared event or other encounter with a friend, and actually deepen our regard for him or her as we delight in one or other memory. Considering the birthday of Christ, we have the faith-capacity to cherish at different times, and in a variety of contexts, a particular aspect of God being God and at the same time being one of us: savoring.
We can hold our breath for a while, consciously stopping the normal cycle of breathing in and out, but once we release such control, we start breathing normally again, for our hearts cannot function without breathing. If someone has stopped breathing because of a heart attack, we take whatever means we have available to get that person’s heart re-started, trusting that breathing will then become regular again. Both heart and breathing are closely related and are essential for life.
Life is much more for us than breathing and having a regular heartbeat. We sometimes say of one another that he or she “has spirit,” or, “has heart.” In speaking this way, we refer to their spiritual qualities. Breathing is often related to spirit, because the life-giving visible act of breathing depends upon inhaling and exhaling invisible air. Likewise, the indispensable beating of our hearts is associated with our equally crucial exercise of love. If we had no spirit, we would be of no worth to ourselves or anyone else; if we were without love, our lives would be meaningless.
We verify the closeness of breathing to spirit whenever we consciously take in a deep breath, hold it, and then exhale as much air as possible. By taking physical control of a process that normally is unconscious, we become increasingly able to perceive interior spiritual movements that we might otherwise miss. Those who are desirous of gaining control of a constantly over-active mind make use of regulated breathing to promote experiences of inner peace. From such an easy exercise, various modes of meditation and prayerful contemplation become much more possible than when we try to engage in such practices immediately after we have been occupied with intense mental concentration.
Love and spirit are as closely allied as are breathing and heart-beat, and are of even more value to us, if we reflect on the events of our daily lives. Whenever we choose not to love, we receive warning signals from our spirit similar to the distressing constriction that many people feel when their physical hearts are beginning to malfunction. If we notice the inner sign of something not being quite right about our choices, we can take immediate action, perhaps as simple as taking a deep breath. Then we can consider how better to bring love to bear in the present situation, thereby reorienting ourselves spiritually.
At other times, perhaps we have not given sufficient attention to our spirit in terms of inhaling positive inspirations and exhaling negative thoughts. Or, we might have become aware that we are dispirited, with symptoms that are akin to shallow breathing and low heart rate. Our best remedy is to take any action requiring love, which moves us beyond ourselves in thoughts, words or deeds on behalf of others. The benefits are twofold: we are enlivened ourselves, and others receive gifts from us.
Breathing air is natural to us. In terms of our spirituality, breathing in the signs of love that are offered to us by God and others enables us to love. And exhaling the hurts, anger and thoughts that are in some ways demeaning to us or others is a manifestation of love.
Breathing can be a significant spiritual exercise.
We have heard “Do not be afraid” or similar expressions from people, and have used them ourselves when reassuring others. When we speak such words, they bear whatever authority we have with the persons we are addressing. We are serious in affirming that it is possible for someone to change from a disposition of fear to not being afraid any longer, and our words carry the power of our presence and also the knowledge and experience that we bring to the situation at the time.
Quite possibly, we are more adept at giving assurance to others than we are at receiving and accepting such pledges for ourselves. If we consider some past experiences of having our confidence encouraged or restored, we can become more open to seeking remedies for the kinds of anxieties and concerns that will sometimes affect us.
The qualities of our relationships with people often determine the effectiveness of any reassurance we might receive. If a friend who had no experience with a procedure were to tell us that a projected surgery is nothing to be afraid of, we could draw strength from their care for us, but not reassurance about what might happen to us. If a nurse who knows the surgeon and also our particular condition were to tell us that we are highly unlikely to have either pain or difficulties after the procedure, her words might allay our fears quite effectively. We learn who to trust for particular kinds of support, since all forms of fear have both mental and affective components.
Personal presence, whether it is of God, family members, friends, colleagues or professionals, is often quite reassuring. But the degree of reinforcement they provide depends partly on them, partly on us. If we expect of God or others that they will “make everything OK,” we might limit greatly whatever real support anyone can give. When we seek healing for our fear rather than having everything turn out exactly as we wish, we open ourselves to the very real and significant support that is available to us from others.
On those occasions when we turn to God, how do we receive reassurance for the kinds of apprehension that sometimes beset us? We can’t expect to hear words in the same manner as with other persons. But some very helpful “God words” are provided for us in Scripture. One of the ways of understanding passages such as “Do not be afraid” (as for example in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke), is to consider them as messages from God directed personally to us. When we consciously apply our trust, we will be able to recognize that such words are indeed what God wants to convey to us whenever we find ourselves afraid, concerned or ill at ease. However, God is not limited to using words, either those of Scripture or those which are sometimes inspired directly into our minds. Many experiences of reassurance are experienced more as a loving Presence directly affecting our hearts, rather than thoughts or concepts.
When we bring our felt concerns to God, we can be sure that the authority behind “Do not be afraid” is absolute, and that our welfare is of personal concern to our loving creator.
Those who enjoy detective stories like to think about who might be the perpetrator of the crime. When we reflect on our experiences of inspired thought and action, we might enjoy considering who is involved in the ongoing mystery of our lived spirituality.
Rather than finding and naming one person as the sole agent of each of our acts of kindness, we might discover that two or even several persons have had a significant part in our individual actions. On one occasion, perhaps we were asked by someone to help solve a problem that he or she could not unravel alone, and we participated in a solution. Reflecting further, we might recognize one or two interior movements prior to our own action: perhaps a surprising impulse to say “yes” to the request, when our thinking process suggested that we would not be able to help with that particular difficulty. We might also, as we became involved with the situation, have received an inspired thought that provided us with a key to resolving the challenge. Although we were solely responsible for our choices, we did not act in a completely autonomous fashion.
When our decision-making is conscious, we are engaged in a spiritual activity that always involves others in some way. Our essential freedom is not impeded by the reality of the many influences upon us, from memories of the past, to interactions in the present. Even when God gives us inspired thoughts, we are free to act as we choose. We do not even have to acknowledge that we receive inspirations. But there are distinct advantages for us in reflecting upon our experiences and noting the help we have received from God, from our own memories of prior thoughts and actions and from the many people with whom we related directly and indirectly. We were able, with the help of all these others, to make choices that surely contributed positively to the human environment in which we live, and benefited ourselves as well.
One perhaps surprising consequence of reflecting on who has been a part of our own good actions is that our capacity for gratitude expands greatly. When we are willing to acknowledge some of the specific positive influences of others on our behavior, we become grateful for them, but we also become more capable of recognizing and properly rejoicing in the essential contribution we made, and for which we are solely responsible. By exercising our freedom to choose not only our own thoughts, words and actions that we recognize as being good, but also to accept all that we receive from others, we have increased our causes for gratitude.
When we are able to gracefully admit the help we receive from God and from others to the point of believing that we “could not have done it without them,” we are also in the position of honestly being pleased and grateful that if we had not spoken or acted as we did, it would not have occurred at all.
“Who did it?” In a spiritual context, answering the question with honest reflection leads us into the mystery of gratitude for the gift and awesome responsibility of free will which we exercise within a community that is both human and divine.
As an interesting variation on “counting our blessings,” we can call to mind how much we receive whenever we give thanks to others. We gain a particular blessing for ourselves by expressing gratitude and by acknowledging the gifts, graces and kindnesses that have been given to us. An exercise of this kind, reflecting on the interior and exterior consequences of giving thanks, can be both revelatory and consoling.
Most of us have been taught to say “thank you” for the favors, courtesies and thoughtfulness that people have provided for us, and we have likely developed habits of thanking people who were good to us. Giving thanks is an important positive aspect of our own personal development. But we have the capability of transcending our words and deeds of gratitude through the interior action of reflecting. We receive increased additional benefits for ourselves whenever we reflect on our experiences of giving thanks and whenever we become more aware of how we are affected by communicating our gratitude to others.
Our spiritual nature provides the basis for giving thanks as an appropriate action. That is one level. A deeper level of our spirituality is involved by consciously accepting the consolations that result when we reflect upon our experiences of giving thanks. Our attitude regarding the significance of gratitude grows and develops by choosing to make note of the effects upon us when we communicate our thanks to others. It is possible to say “thank you” almost entirely from habit, which is still quite positive. But when we pause for even the briefest of reflections to consciously advert to what we have done, our thanks are doubled.
God blesses us with very many gifts that come to us through others. Thanking God for all that we receive from our fellow humans does not at all detract from the thanks we give to them and our appreciation for their relationship with us. Rather, in acknowledging the source of all goodness, we become alert to the beautiful truth of how much God loves us. In a similar fashion we ourselves are grateful to little children for their small courtesies while at the same time being thankful that their parents and guides have set them such a good example.
Gifts are always interpersonal, involving the intention of the giver and the acceptance of the receiver, whether we exchange a carefully wrapped package or a brief smile. Most of us appreciate receiving insights and inspirations when we are writing, planning, problem-solving or otherwise involved in creative activities. We do not have to attribute these experiences to God’s care for us as individuals, but if we do so, our pleasure in the experience will be enhanced. Likewise, the breezes and sunshine, all the observable aspects of the natural world and the universe can all be appreciated as carefully wrapped packages and loving smiles from God.
Doubling our thanks is a gracious opportunity that costs us nothing and requires only that we notice what takes place within us whenever we are grateful.
In the classical tale, The Odyssey, the Sirens do not make sounds similar to those of emergency vehicles, but they do present attractive hazards to the stories’ hero in his progress towards home. In every use of the word, a siren is a sign of danger. An ambulance siren is an annoying sound, but it alerts us to a necessary movement away from a possible traffic accident. The Sirens in The Odyssey sang beautifully, but sailors who listened would forget their responsibilities and crash their frail sailing ships on the nearby rocks. For the sake of spiritual safety, we need to distinguish which “sirens” are warning us away from harm, and which are inviting us towards damage or injury.
The sirens we hear in our streets are hard to ignore, even if we are used to the sounds and only give them our full attention when we are in close proximity to some action that might affect us directly. Interior sirens are easier to disregard since their loudness and stridency depend partly on our openness to the information they might offer us. Just as we accustom ourselves to pay no attention to the background sounds of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances, we can build habits of ignoring the warning signs that arise in our minds and hearts.
If we are driving a car or are a pedestrian at a street crossing, we want to keep alert to sirens as a protection for ourselves and for those around us. We do well to take the same reasonable care of self and others by valuing the “sirens” that warn us of the dangers inherent in some of the options we have under consideration.
If we reflect on some of our recent experiences, we will likely be able to recall occurrences of interior warning signs and the degree of our taking them into account, as part of our decision-making. For most of us, these sirens are not loud, unless we are struggling with an issue of great importance to our welfare or that of others. Rather, we receive movements that are like the looks that a good friend might give us implying an unspoken question, such as “Are you really going to do that?” The attendant feeling is a bit uncomfortable, just as an emergency vehicle’s siren is to our ears, but it serves us as a warning. We do not have to listen, and we do not have to make use of it in deciding what we will do or say. But it is a real warning.
Some of the other internally experienced sirens are more like those of The Odyssey; invitations to speak or act that are both attractive and at the same time include a sense of risk. And the risk is not that of physical harm, nor that of disapproval from others, but of offending our own sense of what is right for us in the present situation. Again, we are warned, but we do not have to give such notifications a place in our decision-making.
All sirens are warnings; the ones inside us are often the movements of the Spirit of Love offering us some gracious guidance.
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity explains the huge amount of energy that is fundamental in even a tiny amount of matter. In our every-day lives, our concern is not so much about atomic reactions, but in finding the energy with which to do all that we want to accomplish. We might wish that we could covert a few atoms of our bodies into all the energy we would like to have, but from a realistic perspective, we learn how to accomplish more with less expenditure of energy, and thereby transcend the Theory of Relativity.
Whatever we mean when we talk about desiring to have more energy, our context is always linked to our purposes. We are not interested in measuring the quantity of available energy, but in managing our personal resources for the sake of achieving our goals, whether going for a walk, thinking through a problem or dealing with some of our feelings.
Our bodies are made up of atoms, and our bodies do convert some matter into energy, though on a quite small scale compared to the sun or to a nuclear power plant. However, we do not think and speak of ourselves as being defined only by our physical bodies. Whether or not we use words such as spirit or spirituality in describing those aspects of our lives that are not merely corporal, we act as though we possess a kind of freedom that is not wholly related to the conversion of matter into energy. We are able to use both matter and energy to do what we want, though always within limits that are both physical and spiritual.
We recognize how difficult it is to think carefully when we are tired and hungry; how hard we find it to pray or to care for others when we are ill or have not had enough sleep. We need food, rest and reasonably good health in order to maintain emotional and mental balance. And yet, we have seen in others, and in some of our own experiences, demonstrations of kindness, compassion and selflessness that cannot be equated with normal concepts of requiring and expending energy. Hospice patients manage to say “thank you,” little children with serious illness yet smile back, and even when thinking that we “had no more to give” we still continued to care about others.
Some aspects of energy that scientists have discovered apply to our physical and biological lives, but do not directly affect some of our most important activities, such as making decisions, setting goals and ideals, noticing beauty, reflecting upon experiences and, most importantly, loving in all the great variety of ways that we exercise that transcending power within us. Frail and limited as we are, we still have reason to acknowledge that we are truly “wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)
Though we grow older every day, and notice that we have less energy than when we were younger, we continually find ways to live more fully in accord with our deepest desires, exercising our spirituality to a greater extent, while using less energy: more with less.
What is the use of praying? How effective are prayers on behalf of others? To answer such questions, we might as well ask another: Of what use is it to love anyone, including ones’ self, or even God? Whatever answers might occur to us will likely be incapable of proof but we might hold them with strong convictions.
If we cannot prove that we love anyone or anyone loves us, we are yet capable of unequivocal affirmation that we do love and are loved. We have become convinced based primarily on our experience, rather than on anything that we have learned through study or being told what to believe. If we have any doubts, we can experiment with trying out an opposing perspective, and paying close attention to the results in our minds and hearts: “I am not loved and I love no one.” While such words might be an appropriate expression of how badly we could feel in a particularly painful situation, it is not a statement that honestly describes our orientation in life. We do love, and we are loved, however imperfectly or partially that might seem to be.
Because we care about people, we think of them, and we want for them what we desire for ourselves in life: happiness or fulfillment of our purpose; food, clothing and shelter, peace, justice and a sense of self-worth, to name only a few. Our desires become expressed in words and deeds, as well as in attitudes and habits of thought. Though we might have some awareness of the number of times we visited someone in a hospital, we do not really give a thought to measuring the time, effort, thought and care that, over time, we exercise in ever more natural and spontaneous ways. Nor do we attempt to measure the value or usefulness of caring for others, as if calling a friend who has suffered a loss would be worth 10 points, and advocating for better treatment of homeless persons would count for even more. Love, in all the myriad of ways we express it, cannot be measured in either quantity or in quality.
In our love for others we sometimes enlist friends or associates, or seek assistance from those who have either the requisite skills or a suitable responsibility. In an emergency, we might call 911; when a family member or a friend is due for a birthday, we might arrange a party. And we always have the option of praying for them. To pray for another is an expression of love in which we ask God to care with us about the person or persons we have in mind. At the same time, we ourselves benefit from praying, for whenever we pray, we participate in a movement of the Spirit of Love that is always present within us. All prayer is in some manner an action of “us,” we and God, in which we grow a bit closer together just as any two persons who are intent on the welfare of a third person become a team in their common desires and actions.
Prayer is as practical and useful as are all manifestations of love. We have nothing to lose by praying, and lots to gain.
When youngsters get up after a fall, or act with generosity, they might be told, “That’s the spirit.” We have in that expression of a small number of words a useful means of communicating significant encouragement. Perhaps these same words might be meaningful for us in our own situations this very day.
When we say “the spirit” we have a limited and positive focus in mind. We do not mean just any kind of spirit, which might include a spirit of pride or a spirit of competition, but only that spirit which encourages, supports, inspires and guides us to the fulfillment of our calling in life. Implicitly, we refer to the spirit that is operative in all of us when we think, speak or act in a manner that elicits heartfelt approval. And the approval we give to others, or even experience within our own minds and hearts, arises from our resonance with that very spirit within us.
We do not have to have a clear, agreed-upon definition of spirits for us to recognize what kind of behavior is positively inspired and which is not. None of us would deliberately seek to be moved, advised, guided or in any way affected by mean-spirited persons. However, with the help of some honest reflection, we might find that our minds can at times furnish us with negative thoughts and interior expressions that could, unchecked, diminish our basically good intentions. By saying “that’s the spirit,” when we are truly pleased with what we observe, we distinguish it from the influences of other spirits, where the results of our accepting their guidance are not so agreeable. Recognizing the different movements within us enables us to make better decisions.
We have a built-in honesty detector that requires no batteries or Wi-Fi connections. When we listen carefully, we can recognize the usually quiet thoughts and inner words that represent the better options that are available to us at the time. The more we consciously seek to identify and accept every good line of thinking that comes to us, the more proficient we become at being able to honestly say, “that’s the spirit:” the spirit of truth, of personal integrity and ultimately, of love.
Just as most of us are not coerced into taking walks or otherwise obtaining some physical exercise, no one is going to force us to regularly reflect on the different movements of the spirits that can be recognized in our everyday thoughts and impulses. But again, just like those who pass through an initial challenge before finding for themselves the benefits of physical exercise, those who make a consistent effort to monitor the activity of their personal honesty detector will be pleased with the practical results. Those who find that they recognize for themselves the spirit of life and love will be able more frequently to say “yes” to such inspirations, and “no” to some of the other suggestions, impulses and doubts that can enter our minds.
That’s the Spirit.
Something is always happening, though we might think and believe that in some of our experiences nothing has taken place. A bit of careful reflection will enable us to recognize and identify, at least to some degree, whatever has actually occurred during the time-frame under consideration. For example, one of us might have been looking out a window with no particular purpose or intention in mind, and say of the experience that “nothing happened.” We might mean that nothing caught our attention, or that we had no memorable thoughts or feelings while we were at the window. But after reflection we might recognize that we had a quiet sense of contentment, or even a now-welcomed appreciation for a respite from prior intense concentration. Something of relevance has indeed taken place, but could easily have been missed.
Reflecting upon experience is not an exercise in fantasy, as if we attempt to make a loaf of bread rise without yeast or baking powder. Rather, we allow inspiration, often assisted by memory and imagination, to make available to our consciousness some parts of a larger reality than we were aware of at the time. We do not add something that was not there, but we recognize a part of reality which is like reading a truly informative text only after we have viewed the cover letter.
“Nothing” is a common complaint for what sometimes occurs when people are experimenting with prayer or other spiritual experiences. We are accustomed to accomplishing something when we engage in physical exercise or when we occupy ourselves with study, planning or any activity. We might expect to have some notable immediate sensations, new insights or some recognizable results from our efforts at relating with God, meditating on truths or otherwise exercising our spiritual faculties. If our early attempts seem to result in nothing immediately recognizable as valuable to us, we could easily become discouraged. Reflection is essential for finding what we seek through spiritual activity.
Our fast-paced culture of constant moving from one interest to another is not a helpful model for us when we want to become more aware of intangible realities that make life more fulfilling and purposeful in all our associations with others, including our relationship with God. Just as friendship does not consist in the meals we have together but in the sharing of stories that often take place at table, we know that many of our daily experiences have more to them than we would otherwise have from a mere listing of a sequence of events.
When we take just a moment to look within at least those experiences which spontaneously come to mind when we pause, we will be able to recognize some of the particular thoughts, words and actions that elicit gratitude. Something has indeed happened, which we might appreciate as being inspired and very likely spiritual. Ordinary reflection often reveals to us some of the extraordinary gifts that we have received and in which we have freely participated.
“Nothing,” once we become aware of the opportunities awaiting us, becomes a positive reminder to engage in reflection. It does not take much time, only our attention to what takes place within us.
We might exclaim “Beautiful!” when we have an experience that is more than just pleasing to us, as in witnessing a reconciliation between two persons formerly estranged, or viewing a work of art, a scene in nature or a new-born baby. We readily distinguish between those things we identify as pretty from those we spontaneously describe as beautiful. Sometimes we share with others similar responses to the same objects or experiences, some of which are given a societal recognition of beauty. But our individual responses cannot be induced by the opinions of others, no matter how great their authority as judges. We are each solely accountable for recognizing and acknowledging as beautiful whatever we find as such.
As with any mere word, we can over-use “beautiful” as an exaggerated way of talking about relatively trivial things. The word is not as important as is what takes place within us when we encounter beauty in all those forms which transcend mere superficial appearance. Experiences of beauty are marked by movements in our hearts that are in complete resonance with our thoughts, or that are so powerfully affective that only after reflecting on what has happened are we able to think about them.
Even though we cannot directly cause the feelings that arise when we experience beauty, we can deliberately place ourselves in the presence of persons, events, and situations where we are likely to have such experiences. We can re-visit outstanding memories of previous occasions or we can follow-up on the recommendations of others, whether given us personally, or through study, reading or other engagement of likely options for encountering beauty. Art museums exist for people to have experiences of beauty more than to simply preserve the displays. And nature: almost anything can be seen as beautiful if we observe with open minds and hearts.
Much of what we recognize as beautiful in life has to do with the choices we make, especially about love. Whomever we love is beautiful to us, though not necessarily pretty. Whatever we decide to deeply consider, examine or study is liable to become beautiful for us, though not necessarily for others. One person can find great beauty in mathematical constructs, but never give a moment’s consideration to the properties of water, while another person can deeply appreciate watching a stream tumbling over rocks, without once thinking about the inherent numerical relations involved in the flow of fluids.
Seeking the beautiful is wholly in keeping with our humanity, and definitely an aspect of our spirituality, for God is beautiful, and the source of all that is beautiful to us. Would any of us deliberately choose to become occupied with anger rather than with beauty? But we are capable of falling into a trap that is like a huge black hole among us: good people, without seriously reflecting on the consequences to themselves, can focus their attention on all that is ugly and disordered in life rather than holding suffering and pain as part of a reality that is ultimately beautiful. Love is our highest calling, not anger or a fixation on the faults of others.
Even a small amount of time deliberately recalling or opening ourselves to a beautiful experience can keep us properly oriented towards God. Love, after all, is beautiful.
Whether we use a step ladder, one that is free-standing or an extension ladder that we lean against a wall, our purpose is to reach higher than we would otherwise be able to do at ground level. Ladders are quite helpful when we need them, but using them always involves some risk, and there might also be an element of inconvenience in bringing them to the specific locations we want.
Ladders can serve as a useful metaphor in describing our experiences of reaching higher in terms of personal development, whether physical spiritual, emotional or intellectual. We cannot continue to remain on the same level where we are now and also attain our persistent desires for “more.” As for our deep desires, we do not consider aggrandizing money or power as worthy of us, but rather those that fulfill the inherent promise of our humanity.
Continuing the metaphor, the risks are about falling, about suffering frustration when we cannot reach our desired goal. Perhaps we tried using the wrong ladder. But we can try another, once we have assessed the situation. We want to select not just any kind of ladder, but the one that is strong enough, well-supported so as to not tip over, and of an appropriate size. Or we might have tried climbing up entirely on our own, without asking for needed assistance. So, we need to consider not only our objectives, but the right means to get there.
When we take seriously that God is present in all things, we want to include our desires among the locations within us were God is active. Rather than only acknowledging that we have aspirations to become better persons and that we need to take some practical means to continue growing, we can rightly expect God to be preeminently within those desires. From such a perspective of trust, we have the firm footing we need, and even have someone to hold our ladders as we seek to continue developing into the persons God inspires us to become.
We cannot avoid all suffering by relying on God, for frustration and embarrassment are a part of life. But, we can gracefully focus our attention on where we are trying to go, rather than on the cost of getting there. Our love, together with God’s love, will make the suffering less of a concern, and not an obstacle to our progress.
For example, we might have wanted to become more peaceful and more balanced in our lives, but we discovered that merely wanting to grow does not result in any discernable changes to our habitual behavior. We might even have noticed a “step stool” book or an article available for us that we left unread because we thought we did not have time, or that any change would be too difficult. But, on another day, we risked taking a step up, and found some of that peace which we desired. Or again, we decided to ask someone with experience about how to achieve a balance of mind and heart, even at the risk of being thought overly pious or inner-oriented. And, by climbing up, we received some practical suggestions about taking brief time-outs for deliberation, and found more of what we were seeking.
We do not artificially “put God” into any of our growth-assisting movements. But upon reflection, we might recognize who was making them available to us at the time when we needed them. God is a loving master of inspirations: “ladders.”
The word dirt has many positive and negative connotations for us, according to circumstances. We appreciate dirt as soil for plants, but we do not like dirt on the floor of our homes. If we work on a project with the understanding that we will likely get dirt on ourselves and on our clothing, we take it as a visible sign of having done something worthy of our time and effort. But when we go to a luncheon meeting indoors, and find that we have made contact with dirt, we wash our hands or wipe it off our clothing.
We know that dirt is essential for growing our food. More than that, dirt provides an environment for all kinds of living creatures without whose presence and activity life would not be possible for us. We live in a world of dirt, and we see ourselves as making use of dirt, but we are not ourselves creatures of dirt.
Anyone who watched Pope Francis on TV, Facebook or through printed media will certainly recognize that he wears a white outfit, which looks neat and clean. His messages are all like his bright white clothing: no dirt. How refreshing, encouraging and hopeful to receive messages that appeal to the “clean” movements in our hearts, such as compassion and love. We are so used to the “dirty” communications we receive on a daily basis that we might not recognize our need for awareness as to their effects upon us. We read and hear so very many words that incite selfishness, anger and fear that we might not notice how accustomed we become to allowing such grime to soil our thoughts, with consequent absence of peace and joy in our hearts.
In this life, we cannot remain perfectly clean all the time if we are going to live authentically. No farmer can avoid getting dirty. And no one of us can live so carefully as to never become involved in situations with sometimes hurtful consequences no matter how carefully we make our choices. But, after working in an environment of dirt, we can wash. By contrast however, if we do not notice the dirt, we might never clean ourselves of it.
We have within us the capacity, and with it a responsibility, for reflecting upon our experiences and acknowledging the dirt that we invariably contact. Once we recognize the effects upon us of our recent decisions about thoughts to accept or reject we can make effective plans for future behavior, especially if we include the loving presence of God in our process of reflection.
The dirt of life does not make us “bad” any more than the dirt that nurtures growing things is somehow an error of creation. But if our abiding orientation in life is towards all that is true, good and beautiful, then we will be continually cleaning ourselves rather than allowing dirt to accumulate within us. Since we live in a world of dirt, let us make use of it for the sake of growing and fulfilling our purpose in life. We are here to give and receive love, not dirt.
Anyone not familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola might think that “gift” and “tears” do not belong together. Usually, we do not want people to see such an obvious sign of feelings on our faces, even if joy rather than sadness is the cause. If tears are a gift, most of us would prefer that the gift usually be experienced in private, not in public. And that is what Ignatius had in mind: that if we are praying or reflecting in private, we would at times be moved to tears by the meaningful depth of our experiences.
Whether we are alone or in company with others, tears can be a personal witness that whatever we are considering is of so much significance that our physical response becomes undeniably evident to us. We have likely been surprised at times when we began to feel the beginning of tears while we watched a movie, a play or a TV program, and we might have even “turned them off” as unwanted at the time. But when we are in our own space and as we observe or read or remember specific persons or events, we might not be reluctant to let the water from our eyes flow until the feelings pass. Rarely does anyone suffer damage from such experiences!
If we were to personally meet Pope Francis or a media star, we would have feelings, perhaps of excitement at such a memorable event. Tears are only one of many different possible internal responses to some of our more significant experiences. When we encounter God in prayer, and in a manner that somehow brings the reality of the situation powerfully into focus, our spontaneous feelings might sometimes become manifest in tears. The Ignatian suggestion is to let our tears flow if and when they arise, but to reflect and ponder on the issue that has touched us so deeply rather than on the tears themselves.
We know that there is more to life than intellectual knowledge. A sudden unexpected pain around our eyes that precedes a welling up of tears is an excellent indicator that something important is taking place within us that we might only come to understand in a limited fashion, but which we rightly accept and appreciate. For some, a scene in nature such as a particularly beautiful sunset or a soul-satisfying piece of music might elicit a strong sense of peace and joy that overflows in a moment of tears. Any one of us could be caught unawares in a twinge of tearful feelings of appreciation for love of a family member or a friend.
The gift of tears is related to many spiritual experiences, not just to our conscious prayer-relationship with God. Any insight related to truth, beauty or love might be so appropriate for our present state of mind and heart that we become aware of that peculiar sensation around our eyes that precedes the beginning of tears, even if none actually appear.
The gift of tears follows upon the prior and more important event: the movement of spiritual grace within our hearts.
Last Updated: 1/11/16