Wednesday, January 19, 2011

JUST SAY YES TO NO!: THE SPIRITUALITY OF IMPERFECTION



I’ve been pondering a quote about St. Thérèse of Lisieux from the excellent Ida Friederike Görres biography, The Hidden Face:

 “[S]he rejected all ascetic efforts which were directed not towards God but toward one’s own perfection.”

More and more, I see this is a very deep point.

Because I, for one, have a way of trying to be perfectly accommodating, perfectly forgiving, perfectly available, perfectly responsive which is somehow not about the other person, but about me and my idea that if only I can manage and control my environment--instead of if only for once in my life I could rely on God--all would be well. 

One reason I've had a chance to ponder the point is that, as happens in life, I've had a number of incidents lately where people have in one way or another approached me and after I've responded with as much grace, patience, compassion and generosity as I can muster, have proceeded, in the most unnerving way, to nitpick, bully, and scapegoat. In the past I've tended in such situations to offer a long, heartfelt explanation of how they had misunderstood, and why I thought and felt as I did, thinking my job was to be friendly and open.  Now I’m more likely to respond, “You may be right!”--or not respond at all--mentally wish the person well, and move on.

As an introvert, part of my spiritual discipline is making sure I do a certain amount of participating in the world: socializing, visiting, supporting other people’s work. At one point, this translated into never saying no. If someone had invited or asked me to do something, in my mind that meant I was obligated to say yes, and so no matter how tired, wrung out, or overwhelmed I felt, I would be there, cheerfully, ready to give.

Now I feel confident enough in my willingness to participate—which for me is always a “contrary action”—that I don’t have to say yes every time. Now I feel sure enough that my basic stance is goodwill and generosity that, unless I’ve truly done or said something that requires an amends, I don’t have to go on and on explaining myself. I know the hours I have spent patiently answering every e-mail, writing thank you notes, sharing whatever experience, strength and hope I can: whether the other person knows doesn’t matter. I know the years and years of trudging to Mass and Confession, of writing and sharing moral inventories, of praying, meditating, pondering in order to develop some basic ground of integrity: whether the other person is convinced of that doesn’t matter. (Plus, you can always defriend him or her on Facebook).


No, but seriously, I'm also deeply aware of the myriad ways I fall far, far short every day: of my selfishness, my jealousy, my petty spite, my obsessive-compulsive thought patterns. But what Christ came to say, it seems to me more and more, was you are never going to get where you want to go by merely following the rules. The rules are important, but only to let you know whether or not you’re moving in the right direction. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” [Matthew 5:17]

Part of the fulfillment is that you get to take yourself into account. You don’t embark on some willy-nilly saying yes to everything even though you’re hungry, angry, lonely and tired; out of some misguided sense of martyrdom, which for me is often a thinly-veiled disguise for my fear that the other person won’t like me if I say no. Maybe not everyone can relate, but as the oldest of six in a family affected by alcoholism, the delusion that if only I were good enough, accomplished enough, pretty enough, perfect enough I could save them  ("them" being my family, the poor, the sick and suffering, the world) has been seemingly hard-wired into my psyche since practically my first sentient day. 

Of course there’ll be many times when you “sacrifice.” Your friend calls you because her car broke down on the way to the airport: of course you “give up” your quiet evening of reading to go pick her up. But you’re not trying to get good spiritual marks. You’re not doing it to get straight A’s on some cosmic report card; you’re doing it because you’ve prayed long and hard enough, you’ve developed enough of a relationship with Christ, so that you can now actually feel and somewhat gauge the stirrings of your heart. You’re able to discern your motives. You say yes because you know you’re going to be able to reciprocally participate in the flow of give and take. You devote your energy to the people and things that nourish you instead of frittering it away trying to win useless arguments.  

But you're also not operating out of some vague, abstract "Let’s-all-make-up-our-own-rules" notion. You're based on the solid-rock belief that our prayer, actions and life are toward moral conversion. To love each other as Christ loved us necessarily, almost instantly, calls up moral conversion. Because the second you try to love another as Christ loved us you come up against your complete unwillingness—and even after you become willing, your utter inability—to sacrifice, examine your motives, work, stretch, or change.  You come up against the fact that your idea of love is really love for yourself, and your comfort, security, and needs. 

Christ’s way is less harsh but also calls us higher. You’re going to go way beyond following the rules. You're going to move into the uncharted area of relationship. I mean look at the face on the front of that Görres book. Does that look like the face of a timid sheep who unthinkingly followed a set of senseless, arbitrary rules? No. That is a face annealed by suffering. That is the face of a warrior for love. That is a face that cared not for the approval of the world, but for the heart of Christ. 

So here's my current manifesto: Quit explaining yourself. Give yourself permission to say no once in awhile. Leave the scapegoaters to their own sad and secret sorrows--and pray for them, for we are all scapegoaters in our way. Listen to the birds. Take a walk. And as my ex-husband Tim would say: Come on in, the water's fine....

DETAIL, BAPTISM OF CHRIST
PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA, 1448-50

11 comments:

  1. Thank you, Heather. I needed to read this today. :)

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  2. Thank you, Heather. Hard-won wisdom, clearly described and beautifully articulated.

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  3. Wow. (and a little bit of "ouch," too!)

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  4. Reminiscent of the Townsend book "Boundaries".

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  5. Now I’m more likely to respond, “You may be right!”--or not respond at all--mentally wish the person well, and move on.

    Thank you. After years of struggle (I'm still struggling) this is something I learned from Therese, who was accused of all sorts of ridiculous things.

    senseless, arbitrary rules

    The 2007 biography by Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, Everything is Grace, describes what a shock the Little Way was to Jansenist perfectionism.

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  6. I was just reading about this in Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth" (He quotes Christ alot, btw.) He challenges the reader the next time he is reproached to say nothing, to not respond from ego, to merely let the observation be.
    I think Christ's life is about one man's complete willingness to let go of ego and be in God. It's the struggle all on a spiritual path share, I think.

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  7. I have trouble reconciling these two truths:

    “[S]he rejected all ascetic efforts which were directed not towards God but toward one’s own perfection.”

    ...and this:

    "The rules are important, but only to let you know whether or not you’re moving in the right direction."

    It seems like the rules inevitably lead to self-measurement? If I'm monitoring whether I'm moving in the right direction, isn't the emphasis still on me, on my perfection?

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  8. No--what I'm saying is that you have to have some basic "law" that's not relative, that you don't decide on your own whim or what's even scarier, by virtue of some way that God "has told you" to act. So that if you're sleeping with someone else's husband, or having abortions, or not going to Mass at least once a week, or waging war, or executing criminals, you're prima facie not moving in the right direction. You don't have to wonder. That's an entirely different matter than trying to "perfect" yourself by never saying no, or by always trying to be "nice," and all kinds of other situations where what's right in one situation or for one person might not be right in another situation or for another person. For someone who never accepts an invitation, saying yes might be the indicated action, whereas for someone who feels she has to accept every invitation, saying no might be the indicated action. The point is whether our actions are directed toward our own ego, toward "looking good in the eyes of the world" in some way, or toward God, which is to say toward truth.

    In fact, you can have a "perfect record" in all kinds of departments, large and small, but if you don't have love, as St. Paul says, you're like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal...Love is not afraid to look foolish or risk inconsistency. Whereas self-love always seems to have something formulaic and rigid about it...

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  9. What you are articulating sounds very much like a book I just read, Interior Freedom by Father Jacques Phillipe. Have you read him? He quotes St. Therese frequently and tells a personal story of being able to go into the cloistered Mount Carmel Convent where she lived and died. It is a profound book and a very easy read, maybe 100 pages or so, but pierces into your soul.

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  10. Thanks Heather, that makes sense. Wish you were my spiritual adviser!

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  11. Well, I have got my reading cut out for me: Derek's Marilynne Robinson's excerpts, Interior Freedom by Jacques Phillipe, and Joseph M. Schmidt's Everything is Grace...I'm not familiar with any of these, so many thanks, and let's hope they're at the LAPL--I did in fact pick that Townsend book Boundaries off a "free" pile at a retreat house not long ago, and yes, it is right along these same lines...what's interesting, too, is that you (you, meaning I) can be a "people-pleaser" in some situations and, however unthinkingly, sort of aggressive and cruel in others...which all goes to show that following rules like "never say no" or "give till it hurts" in a RIGID, unthinking way never works....it's always an "inside job" and we're called to a constant process of discernment...

    Good to know others struggle with this same issue...

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