Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Autonomy and Freedom, Part 3

It is said of St. Teresa of Avila that a young nun asked her how she knew what God said to her. Aren't the thoughts that we attribute to God only our imaginations? St. Teresa responded, "How else would God speak to us if not in our imaginations?"

Now St. Teresa is using an older, scholastic idea of the imagination as a faculty of the soul. I believe that our modern concept is much less extensive and therefore impoverished. For us, imaginary things aren't real in the end. By contrast, in the Christian psychological tradition and especially in the monastic tradition, the images in the imagination are quite real, and therefore require constant surveilance and attentiveness. The traditional teachings on discernment deal primarily with the thoughts that capture our imagination. Which ones will we allow to linger and 'solidify', so to speak, becoming incarnate in our behavior? And which ones will we purge so as not to allow them to see the light of day?

To pose the question in this way begins to answer it. Christ, the Word of God, became incarnate. This says a great deal about the heart and the imagination of His mother: she was so formed inwardly by God's Word, that He literally took on flesh. Each of us is called upon to imitate her example.

Thus the Word of God should be constantly in our hearts, insofar as this is possible.

But what about ambiguous thoughts? The monastic tradition locates three origins of thoughts and other stimuli: thoughts can come from God--these we hold on to and put into action. Thoughts can come from ourselves--we naturally feel hungry, respond to praise and insult, respond to beauty, and so on. These thoughts need to be measured by the virtues of prudence and temperance. We cannot let appreciation for beauty slide into lust, or hunger drive us to gluttony.

Third, and less popularly appreciated today, thoughts can come from demonic forces: the 'world' and the ruler of this world. These thoughts should be let go of or even driven out, if we can do so by the power of the Cross.

Sorting our thoughts into these categories might seem difficult at first, but like anything, we get better at it with practice, and we can learn from the advice of others. The first step is simply to be aware that we are thinking! This is more difficult than it sounds. We tend to identify our 'selves' with our thoughts when in fact, they are separate. We are not our thoughts. If I could urge one mantra for today's young people, that might be it. You are not your thoughts! Separate from your thoughts and examine them! Let God's Word and the teachings of the Church help you to reject thoughts that are not of God: fear and anxiety, anger, sadness, selfishness, party spirit--these sorts of lists are readily available in Paul's letters (see Galatians 6) and in the wisdom literature, as well as in the gospels.

A good inspiration that seems like it comes from God should be tested against the Church's power to discriminate. The devil does appear as an angel of light and never suggests things that are outright harmful to begin with (by the way, this means that most of our obvious inclinations to sin are from our fallen selves--sorry to say! We can't blame the devil for the vices that we have either chosen or slid into by sloth). There is a story of St. Francis staying up and praying all night and then the next day being grumpy and short with his friars. He reflected, "I gave the night to God, and then I gave the day to the Devil." And so he gave up his all-night vigil as being beyond what God was actually asking.

If we feel moved to begin a project for the Church, or to seek to live the religious life, we should check out these movements with our spiritual directors, with our pastors, with religious who have some experience with these things. I believe that Bob's follow-up comment to Connie's question contains some helpful 'caveats' about the good and bad motivations that we all have when we come to serve God. Since none of us hears God perfectly, He has given us the Church to help sort out what is and what is not of God.

Next time, I will conclude my long answer to this question with two observations: first, that we can become better listeners to God through humility and formation; second, that modern 'autonomy' makes the mistake of confusing the ego with thoughts. This is why we should keep repeating to ourselves, "We are not our thoughts!"


Bob said...

Christ, the Word of God, became incarnate. This says a great deal about the heart and the imagination of His mother: she was so formed inwardly by God's Word, that He literally took on flesh.

I am confused as to what you are trying to say in the above statement. Could you elaborate a bit?

Connie said...

Thank you so much Father for answering my questions! Your statement "we are not our thoughts" was very potent, particularly as you stated for young people. Actors are taught that "a thought propels an action." For better or for worse. We wouldn't cross the road without a thought nor would we defy God without first having a thought. The Desert Fathers seemed to have realized this because many of their writings tends to focus on the "mind." If you notice many of their statements, prayers, and even the old liturgy, (the prayers before the priest ascends the altar and when he descends the altar) stressed the importance of stilling the mind and/or purifying the mind. St. Isaac of Syria was particularly notable for such sayings.

In regards to Bob's response, perhaps I was not as clear in my questioning and/or statement about secular life and a life devoted to God. I was being intentionally subjective in my question. I stated, "It is very difficult for ME to live in duality." The jobs that I have had, as a secretary/receptionist in the medical field and lastly in an animal hospital, did not lend themselves to contemplation! The phones were constantly ringing, there was constant pulling of my attention, not to mention principles, here and there in a very hurried/harried environment, money was a constant issue, how to make more of it, etc. All of these things pulled me away from what was then and is now at the forefront of my mind and heart: prayer and contemplation.

Again, this has been my experience. It is not meant to reflect anyone else's. I know that for whatever reason, I have not been able to mesh secular job responsibilities such as the ones I listed above, with prayer and staying focused on God. But perhaps other people, other women, have been able to do so and continue to do so right at this moment. However, I must say that there is a vast difference between working as a secretary in our American healthcare system and the jobs Bob listed. The latter lend themselves to quite reflection where ones work becomes a prayer, which is the intention of work in a monastery I would think, along with livelihood, but yet the latter must never be more important than the former, I would think. Not in monastic life, not in lay/secular life.

If the monastic life is not my calling I know that I must find a job where I can carry out my duties and responsibilities in a prayerful manner, going from daily Mass seamlessly into my work, and not jolted into a bombastic secular environment that shuns the mere mention of God, and abhors if not outright legally forbids, the name of Jesus, in, on, or around one's workspace.

Thank you again Father! God bless you! I'm eager to hear/read what you have to say about the ego.

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Dear Bob and Connie,
I will respond to your comments here, so as not to lose the thread of the argument I've been working through in the past few days.

My observation about the purity of Mary's heart and the consequent Incarnation of the Word in her womb, while stated in my own terms, is a common trope, especially among the medieval Cistercians, speculation that eventually led to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The basic insight is that all of us are called to imitate Mary's 'fiat'. By doing so, each of us allows Christ to be born in our hearts and to become 'incarnate' in our actions. In the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary, however, this image has an unrepeatable literalness about it.

In iconography of the Annunciation, it is common to see Mary holding a Bible or a Breviary of prayers. So in her meditation on God's Word, she prepared herself to welcome God's Son, the Word made flesh.

Thank you for your kind words, Connie. I would add that your experience is very much shared by conscientious Christians everywhere today. The primary difficulties I hear from those seeking spiritual direction at the monastery are 1) there is not enough time for prayer and 2) my work environment is toxic and not conducive to holy living. I agree with Bob that in the latter case we may be called to soldier on as best we can, and it can be an opportunity for a kind of martyrdom. On the other hand, it is not necessarily a sign of weakness to desire a different environment, or even to desire religious life as a result of these reflections. Saint Benedict was disgusted by the worldliness of Rome in his own day, and so he dropped out of school and retreated to a cave. Each person will have his or her own gift from God for dealing with this situation.

Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I really appreciate the feedback!


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
Locations of visitors to this page