To paraphrase something one of my spiritual teachers once said: “Sometimes ego and Spirit seem to point in the same direction. Be wary of allowing your distrust of ego to prevent you from following what you believe is the guidance of Spirit.”
Sometimes we find ourselves at a crossroads and can’t clearly sort out the various motives and intentions in our desires to move in some direction. To oversimplify, we can find ourselves uncertain as to whether or not a particular turn would be driven more by ego or by Spirit, more in selfishness or in selflessness. When we are at such an intersection, it can be tempting to choose inaction, fearing that our motives and intentions aren’t pure enough, or that our judgment isn’t true enough to ensure that our actions are righteous, healthy, or good enough. So it is that we become stuck in our want for clarity and confidence. It’s as if we are waiting until we can sufficiently quantify the various factors to plug into an equation that will solve the problem, or until circumstances appear to force movement in a particular direction. Yet discerning the urges of the ego from the call of spirit is not really a matter of mathematical calculation, and doing only what external factors drive us to do is often just a strategy to play it safe and have a ready-made excuse if things go wrong. So we can see that to fully and joyfully engage life is a matter of wisdom that transcends ordinary logic and a matter of courage that transcends playing the odds.
Of all wisdom’s attributes, the awareness of how to be most loving is central. There are various ways of attaining such wisdom in Christian practice, but for now let’s note two broad approaches:
- psychological – examination of the self, with the aim of becoming thoroughly familiar with the various factors of the psyche and ways they interact with each other, both internally and in relationships;
- mystical – opening to the infusion of Divine Wisdom, which is, in effect, a way of trying to remove the personal elements of the psyche from interfering with the action of God’s love in and through us.
We can then divide the methods for both of these approaches into those that are more internal or external. Yet, at least for an incarnate human, there is no real separation between the internal and the external; these two realms are as interwoven for us as the rays of light traveling back and forth between a candle and its reflection in a mirror. It is further suggested that the psychological and the mystical approaches to wisdom are just as interconnected, and thus both must be involved in the work of spiritual formation, illumination, sanctification, or theosis.
Please understand that I am not addressing the possibility of Divine Wisdom expressing itself through a human soul without regard to any personal disposition. Considerations of that possibility lead beyond the scope of this post. The present aim is instead to consider how we can most fully engage life. To that end, Jesus taught, “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thine understanding; and thy neighbour as thyself.” (Luke 10:27) He further said, “anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me” (Matthew 25:40). These two passages indicate that Christian life includes a responsibility to integrate every aspect of our being as fully as possible in the realization – internal and external – of love.
We can become more attuned to wisdom psychologically and mystically, and thus our ability to experience and express love, to be an instrument of the absolute within the relative is enhanced. But attaining wisdom is not as simple as having a book of rules and answers to reference; it is a matter of hard-won experience and the grace of inspiration or infused contemplation. Furthermore, to the extent that we find our wisdom lacking, or the risks of serving wisdom seem to mount, we discover that wisdom alone is insufficient for being as loving as we might.
Another teacher once said: “Concern yourself more with the presence of love than with the absence of sin.”
Both the attainment and the enactment of wisdom require courage, which is simply the willingness to take risks. If we never test ourselves and knowingly take the risks of being in error, then we do risk stagnating, growing in neither wisdom nor courage. That observation is likely to be patently obvious in the most mundane contexts, but it is also true in religious and spiritual life. Many of us spend our lives with hidden lights, stifling our potentials and putting on a show of meekness that is really a mask over our anxious self-torment in the fear of sinning (“missing the mark”) before God or offending our fellow human beings. This choice can also be about protecting our pride, slyly avoiding the possibility of having our ignorance, foolishness and vices laid bare, even if it is only to oneself.
This anxious state of being is tragically ironic. On the one hand it connects with a deep sense of genuine humility, while on the other it is confounded by a powerful desire to hide one’s ignorance and vulnerability. It belies a denial of faith and hope, a refusal to trust that we can, with God’s help, make the best of our mistakes. It is succumbing to the fear that our sins are not, will not, or cannot be forgiven; and it is being blinded with the misunderstanding that the only remaining option is to attempt minimizing the multiplication of our sins by putting our spirits to sleep and waiting for death. In actuality, this burying of our talents compounds the irony of this state of being because it entails a willful missing of the mark set by Jesus and his Apostles, who joyfully went about acting in ways that were widely considered sinful and taking the most serious of social risks.
When we speak of joy in this context, we are not speaking of it in the sense of great personal elation or sensual pleasure, but rather an abiding sense of peace, freedom and assurance. It bears a kind of childlike innocence and comfort that can remain with us even when we are doubtful and suffering in many ways. It is the Spirit’s lasting affection for the beauty of life, even when the personality is most disappointed with the world and its own existence. In Christian terms, this attitude is a gift of grace to which we can awaken through the heart-centered embrace of faith and hope in the Good News, opening to the infinite love of God revealed through Christ in us. It is not that our faith and hope bring that grace upon us, but rather that through them we recognize and welcome what was already present. In short, joy is the sense of liberation we feel as we more fully realize the presence of God’s loving grace in our lives.
One of the greatest experiences of liberation in this joy is the letting go of fear, gaining trust that we are not doomed to damnation for our sins. This confidence gives us more courage to take risks, to make mistakes, to accept their consequences and learn from them, and thus grow wise as serpents and harmless as doves. By continuing this renewal of our minds and the “proving” of God’s will, the ego’s voice becomes more harmonious with the voice of the Spirit; joy is further realized, courage further overcomes fear, and love’s evolution naturally spirals wider open within us and out into the world through our lives.
As beautiful as this process sounds, it should be clear that greater blessings often come with greater challenges. It is with this thought in mind that the picture of St. John Bosco was chosen to illustrate the face of joy. His pictures always shine with his characteristic smile, and he was known for his commitment to gentleness and kindness despite the poverty, injustice and violence he personally suffered and bravely confronted in society. Other exemplars whose great spiritual joy has been accompanied by great personal suffering are the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., countless saints, and certainly Jesus and many of his Apostles. So it would be foolish to presume we have, at least while here in this present world, ever evolved beyond the experience of fear and pain. We must all pass through our own Gethsemanes and hang upon our own crosses. And then, even if we should momentarily be lifted into some beatific transcendence of the ordinary human condition, love leads us back into our humanity through broader reaches of compassion, “feeling with” the suffering of others, calling upon us to respond with wisdom, courage and joy.