Saturday, January 3, 2009

Please, Lead Kindly Light

Ok, I'm sorry to bore everyone, but I'm going to write one of those serious year ending/beginning posts. Bear with my rantings if you are inclined to. Or not.

An acquaintance of mine recently wrote a profound reflection, looking back over his life from the age of 30. In that reflection, he included these words. The rest can be found at his blog here:
As I draw closer to my thirtieth birthday, increasingly I find myself looking back on my twenties with sadness, regret, even disgust. That may sound harsh, but again, when you know what I know, the only possible conclusion is the latter.

Instead of growing in holiness, I seemed to peak, spiritually speaking, at college, and have managed to do most of the things I swore I would never do in the years hence. In fact, I distinctly remember being at college and thinking, I don't want to be struggling with this or that in ten years, I want to be this person having accomplished all these great things by this time. And what happened? Evil got easier and easier. Good became harder and harder. And instead of a progressive ascent up the mystical mountain, at times I find myself, almost thirty, wondering where God went, starting to forget even what he sounded like, what intimacy with him felt like. Some have told me this experience is not all that uncommon for people my age, precipitating a kind of second conversion, a conversion to grace. I remain dubious (or perhaps just jaded).
I don't think it's farfetched to wager that most of us who have striven from a young age to follow God wholeheartedly have had very similar experiences. I often look back at my high school years, and I see there a young man who took a vow of virginity at the age of 14, zealously desiring to imitate the early Church virgin martyrs. I see a young man who would wear a burlap sack under his shirt once a week for mortification, desiring to emulate Thomas More and Francis of Assisi. I see a person who fasted twice a week on bread and water; who wore a pebble in his shoe for mortification; who prayed the Stations of the Cross every Friday; who gave up sugar for 5 years as penance; who prayed for an hour every morning almost every day of his high school years. Sometimes I hardly recognize that man. It is all too easy to apply to myself that convicting verse from Revelations 2:4 that I have so frequently applied to myself over the years: "Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first."
When I entered seminary, a classmate and I had taken an old Ford Ranger with a missing gear across from Seattle to Chicago. Upon arrival we immediately stopped and went to the chapel and knelt before the tabernacle. We asked the Lord to bless and strengthen our vocations, and we spent time simply resting in his presence. How simple things were then, how pure! Not that I was perfectly pure for that matter, but the hope and the lack of hesitation, they strike me as strange and alien, like a painting tucked away in an exhibit that obviously does not belong. Perhaps it is a great work, but the contrast can only now come across as dissonant. Four months later I left, upset with myself for becoming (I thought) a mediocre seminarian, upset over my sins, empty of desire and zeal, instead lonely and frustrated. I did not visit the tabernacle when leaving.

The world cannot satisfy. As Walker Percy would say, the rotation of aesthetic means of transcendence can only prepare a terrible re-entry into the immanent world of the everyday. Soon enough, the rotation wears thin, or happens less often, or eventually fails.
The putrid stench of the mediocre clings to us all, and indeed, seems to touch us even more as we strive for a zealous existence. Nor does the "aesthetic means of transcendence" solve the problem. It has its place, no doubt about it. I myself, a rather hopeless romantic, know of its power. Over Christmas I went down with a friend to the Grand Canyon and spent four days exploring its magnificence. Unless you have been to the Grand Canyon, you cannot imagine its beauty. It is absolutely breathtaking. And in this case particularly, in which it snowed twice, it was even more beautiful. Light snow dusted the bright red rocks. It was almost too much to hike at points, since all I wanted to do was stare and admire. But these moments of transcendence, as incredible as they are, cannot solve the problem of the human spirit. They raise, but they cannot elevate for long. They are expressions of Beauty, a transcendental known by the person, but it is not they which inspire and give perseverance to the desire to do good. Nor for that matter can a burlap sack.

Inspiration by beauty; inspiration by mortification; both play a role. Yet neither satisfy the most unique need of the human spirit. The aesthetic dazzles. But it does not speak, since it is not a person. Mortification purifies. But it does not speak. It is not a person. One of the great contributions of Ignatian spirituality is its theology of attachments. Ignatius saw the primary purpose of the Spiritual Exercises as offering to the exercitant freedom from attachments. All attachments are to be released, so that the most important thing of all can be clung to with a pure and undiluted attachment. This is true of all things, so teaches the great wisdom of Ignatius. Only the voice of one person matters. Nothing else counts if it does not bear the echoes of that voice.

One can be attached to penances, as I was as a teenager. I do not regret in any way my mortifications at that age. But I do remember, for example, when I had decided to do bread and water for the 40 days of Lent. My parents forbade me to continue after a week, and characteristically, I was angry and resentful. I had of course learned nothing from my penance. I was attached to it as an idea -- in a rather romantic way, to tell the truth. The aesthetic can inspire the same degree of attachment. Once again, the mean is taken for an end. Especially for romantic and reflective souls, this is a terrible pain. Why does the beautiful not satisfy? Why do all my penances and works serve to so little purpose? Why does the inspiration of poetry not solve the problem of my indifference to the migrant down the street? The great novel not take inexorably draw me to my knees at the abortion clinic?

There is only one thing that we need. We need to hear a Personal Voice. If there is one thing I have come to believe, this is it. Only the personal draws; only the personal inspires without dropping one back into darkness. And so I have found myself left in only one place at the end of this year. I am left, not looking for beauty or inspiration. To look for those is to be looking for the wrong things. The one thing I must look for is the personal voice that is speaking to me at this moment. I am not wrong to look for this in beauty, but I am wrong if I do not hear the sound of beauty as a personal voice. The same is true with penance. If with penance I only hear myself, then I receive nothing. It must be Christ. That child must speak to me. And he came buried in hay.

More and more, what I hear that voice tell me is that I have been given a Way. In the Society of Jesus, I am offered a path. Dorothy Day frequently speaks about the need to follow a way of life, to have a Plan by which one lives. The voice will give us that plan. I was given mine. It means doing the Examen twice a day; praying the breviary; hearing the Voice speak through the lives of the poor and the unborn, the helpless. Yet how I struggle to live this life. And it is in these moments that I look back at the rosy glow of high school. Or even college years. Years when I went to regular adoration and prayer meetings. And then I look at myself now and think, have I grown? Am I any different except for being worse? Am I the Jesuit I want to be? Or do I do many of those things that I always despised in other priests and Jesuits? And then I have to realize again that it does not matter if I am the Jesuit that I want to be. What matters is if I am the Jesuit that Christ wants me to be.

Yet I do approach my second semester as a high school teacher with hope. I can look back at my years in New York and recognize a healthy change, at least for myself at this point in my life. In New York, occupied as I was in studies, my life was fairly unscrutinized by others -- even by my rector. I could disappear into the 6 million people of Manhattan, and no one would know what I was doing. Here in New Orleans my entire life is under scrutiny. And with this comes freedom. Freedom to fully be a Jesuit, since that is what I was created to be. When others look at me and hold me to what I am called to be, then I am free. I may struggle and complain, but I am free.

So I guess that is where I am, in rather muddled language. I'll conclude with a quote from Father General Francis Xavier Wernz when he missioned the first Jesuits from Leon to work in the now New Orleans Province. Let these words urge us all on to listening more closely and confronting with more strength -- strength does not come from ourselves -- the demons of our age. Abortion continues to bloody the hands of our country. Israel is bombing the hell out of the Gaza strip. The Congo is a mess. Human lives are bought and sold for science and sex. So we listen:
For a certain languid way of living and laboring no longer suffices. The work which lies ahead demands vigorous men and those who reach out with great -- nay, the greatest -- alacrity and courage, and who, not content with the labor of some few days and years, press on toward ampler things to be endured or undertaken, desiring only that thence the greater glory of God be derived.
I think of Father Thomas, SJ, founder of the Lord's Ranch, lying for 9 months on his deathbed, praying intensely for those around him. The voice of Christ in the poor and the unborn was too strong for him to focus on his own problems and pains. That voice speaks too insistently for me to sit and watch television in the evenings when my appointment with the Lord remains unkept. Such are the challenges of this year. Peace to all.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ


Jason LaLonde said...

Thanks for that, Nathan.

corey said...

Nathan that was very convicting. Thank you for writing and sharing. I so want to be a holier person this year and God willing I will be.

Aaron Burr said...

Thanks so much for that reflection, Nathan.


Aaron Burr said...

BTW, I think what Father Neuhaus had to say prior to parting is very relevant to where we are now in our lives:

"When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of "justification by faith alone," although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways—these and all other gifts I have received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone."


Nathan O'Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell said...

Thanks Paul. I was sad to see that he passed away. Those are inspiring words. It's always good to hear the words people have to share at the end of their lives, when the complexities of life are pulled away a bit and light shines through.