Whom Do You Seek?

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Elijah stepped out in front of all the people. “How long” he said “do you mean to hobble first on one leg than on the other? If Yahweh is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”
1 Kings 18:21

Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.
Matthew 5:17-18

As a child I would often hear my parents, in the midst of familial struggles, repeat the familiar saying: “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives.” The other day someone mentioned in a conversation he too little noted reason why the family is and must be for us a primary school of spiritual and human growth, a truth to which the common wisdom of my parents’ saying pointed. It is by sharing life with those whom we would not choose to be with that we learn how to love. All the ways that the members of our families can frustrate, irritate, and anger us are means to a deeper self-knowledge and awareness of our intractable tendencies to selfishness and laziness.

We live in a time in which what we often call “spirituality” (as opposed often to “religion”) is identified with certain narcissistic tendencies that are inherent in our cultural goals, informed by tenets of ego psychology, of self-actualization. We can seek a kind of “fulfillment” which is but the ratification and deification of our own unconscious. We pursue the goal, by any available technique, of “feeling good about ourselves” without any serious consideration of the identify of the “self” we are enhancing. The nature of our belief in God can, at times, be not all that different from those whom Elijah addresses in today’s reading from 1 Kings. We “hobble first on one leg then on the other” vacillating between belief in Yahweh on the one hand and gods of our own making on the other, gods who serve our needs and desires rather than the other way around.

Although the living awareness of our union with and in God is a gift, it is not an entitlement.  In 2 Corinthians 5:15. St. Paul reminds us: “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” While we live for ourselves, we cannot know the life of God in the Spirit which is most truly our life. We must convert our lives in every respect from our natural tendency to live for ourselves to our transcendent possibility of living for others, and for God. Love is the “completion of the Law” but before we can experience the “completion” of the Law, we must allow the Law to teach us how to love.

Every one of us knows the experience, when it happens to us, of the violation we feel when one who claims to be loving us is actually using us for his or her benefit. We know at that moment that we are merely an object that the other, for all his or her pretensions of love and caring, is merely using for the “building up” or gratifying of him or herself. While we recognize this in an intuitive and spontaneous way when it is inflicted on us, it is much more difficult for us to realize when we are doing this to others. When it is our unconscious drive for discharge and gratification that is driving us, we believe what it (“id”) is telling us.

So, how do we come to recognize and so learn to deny the voice of our unconscious, our tendency to see as love of others that which is merely self-aggrandizement? It is by examining our words, actions, and persistent dispositions in light of the “Law.” It is by recognizing our reactions and dislikes of those who do not satisfy and gratify us. It is by reflecting on our use of our goods and our time in terms of on whom we spend what we have, our wealth and our time. Is it primarily for ourselves or in love of God and neighbor?

While it is true that the Gospel of Matthew is attempting to illustrate the continuation of the wisdom and practice of the Jewish tradition in the life of the followers of Jesus, the gospel’s teaching also contains a very immediate truth for us. Do we exist to serve God, or have we created a god who exists to serve us? If we are not aware that there is always active and alive in us an infantile self who desires to be the center of all and who believes that the world exists for our benefit, then any of our religious belief and talk will cloak that idolatry. It is the demands of reality that summon us to awaken from the sleep of that illusion. Those difficult and unlikable family members, the requirements of our state of life, the demands of the “Law” and the responsibility, reverence, respect, and self-denial it requires are all aspects of “the way” by which we learn to love. They are the means by which we empty ourselves of ourselves, so that “the law” can come to completion in us as God transforms and fills us with the life of “the one who died for . . . [us] and was raised again.”

A genuine spirit seeks rather the distasteful in God than the delectable, leans more toward suffering than toward consolation, more toward going without everything for God than toward possession, and toward dryness and affliction than toward sweet consolation. It knows that this is the significance of following Christ and denying self, that the other method is perhaps a seeking of self in God—something entirely contrary to love. Seeking oneself in God is the same as looking for the caresses and consolations of God. Seeking God in oneself entails not only the desire to do without these consolations for God’s sake, but also the inclination to choose for love of Christ all that is most distasteful whether in God or in the world; and this is what loving God means.

St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 7, 5.

 

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