We Choose Who We Let Walk Away and Who We Let Stay

During a particularly difficult semester in college, I went to see someone at Georgetown’s Counseling Center. After a few sessions, I decided I didn’t like the advice the counselor was giving me and so cancelled my last appointment. After I did, I got a short letter from the counselor, which said, “You can lead a horse to water, but…”

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. That – to drink, the horse has to choose.

As I was driving home the other day, it occurred to me that “you can lead a horse to water…” is a different, more secular, version of something someone had posted online recently:

God determines who walks into your life….
It’s up to you to decide who you let walk away,
who you let stay, and who you refuse to let go.

It is an important thing to remember. I think of all of the people God has put in my path at different times in my life. Some I have let stay, and they have been real blessing. Others, like the Georgetown counselor, who I probably could have benefitted from, I pushed away. God put them in my path, but gave me the choice whether to welcome them or reject them.

I have to remember the words in a different way as well – a way that is actually harder for me. Just as God puts people in my path, God puts me in the path of others, people who could benefit from their encounter with me. Some of those people will welcome my presence. We will grow in relationship and learn from each other, and they will benefit from my presence in their lives.

Others, however, will push me away, and when it happens, it is a really hard thing for me to accept. I need to remind myself that the fact that I think I have something to contribute to their lives doesn’t take away the fact that it is their choice whether to let me do so. I can’t force my presence on them any more than one can force a horse to drink (or any more than the Georgetown counselor could have forced me to take his advice). And I remind myself that even Jesus let the rich young man (and others) walk away from him. He always let it be their choice whether to go or stay.

God determines who walks into our lives. It is our choice who we let stay and who we push away.


Heaven and Hell

During my retreat I started reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. I wish I could remember who recommended the book to me so I can thank the person; it is a really wonderful book. The title comes from Rohr’s conviction that it is by falling down that we grow from a first-half-of-life spirituality and way of being to a second-half-of-of-life one (a move not everyone makes).

One of the things Rohr talks about is heaven and hell. He talks about hell in a way that is not dissimilar from some others I have read and that resonates with me. Indeed, it is the only way I can understand hell. Rohr writes

God excludes no one from union, but must allow us to exclude ourselves in order for us to maintain our freedom. Our word for that exclusion is hell, and it must be maintained as a logical possibility. There must be the logical possibility of excluding oneself from union and to choose separation or superiority over community and love. No one is in hell unless that individual himself or herself chooses a final aloneness and separation.

I confess this is not a understanding of hell that fits well with those who prefer to see those they label as sinners cast down into punishment. But it is one that is consistent with a God who has unconditional love for us.

That explanation of hell also helps appreciate an important reminder Rohr makes in the chapter: that heaven and hell are “primarily eternal states of consciousness more than geographical places of later reward and punishment.” That reminder helps us understand why we can taste heaven or hell during our lifetimes.

Lent: 40 Days of Rehab

“Nothing kills a great buzz like 28 days of rehab.” Thus began Fr. Dale’s sermon at Mass at Christ the King yesterday morning. He talked about the self-absorption and isolation that addiction to drugs and alcohol fosters, how one addicted to alcohol shuns friends and family who might disapprove of their behavior and locks themselves away with their bottle (and perhaps some cooking shows on television). Why, he asked, would one choose alcohol over loving community – the darkness and isolation of addiction over the light and love of family and friends?

In today’s Gospel from St. John, we hear the line so frequently quoted or cited: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. But the offer of eternal life isn’t always accepted. The Gospel goes on to say that (like the addict) “this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light.”

Why would anyone choose darkness to light? Why, when God offers abundant love and eternal life, when God keeps trying to draw us closer and closer in God’s loving embrace, do people choose to stay in darkness?

The darkness is less satisfactory, but as Fr. Dale observed, it is also familiar. We can hide things in the dark, we can avoid the hard truths that the light exposes.

Lent, he suggested, is like rehab. We come to this time each year to try to respond more fully to the invitation God always offers for us to come into the light. To cast off the familiar in favor of that which is not only more satisfying, but which is the most, the best, that we can be. Coming further out of the darkness can be hard – some hurtful and painful things can get exposed when we come into the light. But the payoff is priceless.

Fr. Dale closed his homily by observing, “Nothing cures a Christian like 40 days of rehab.”

We are now 26 days into Lent. How is your rehab going?

A Feast

I love today’s first Mass reading from Isaiah. Although there are not many scriptural passages of longer than a few verses that I can recite from memory, this is one of them. I learned it before proclaiming it in 2003 at the Mass of Transferral for my dear friend Fr. Don Shane. We used the same passage later that year for the funeral mass for my father. Isaiah writes:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, The web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces; The reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth; for the Lord has spoken. On that day it will be said: “Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! This is the Lord for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!” For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.

I think it is more than the actual promise itself that affects me so powerfully in this passage – the promise that, notwithstanding all the suffering and all the tears, God ultimately will make all things well.

The promise, of course, is what gives us hope. But I think the affective power of the passage comes from the imagery. We, of course, have no idea what heaven will look like, what total and perfect union with God will be like. So Isaiah gives us the beautiful feast image, the vision of God setting before us this amazing banquet designed for our happiness and replacing our tears with joy and gladness. I hear the words of the passage and I can feel the fullness and the joy. I love to just sit with that feeling, letting the power of God’s love and promise wash over me.

Today’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew, however, reminds us that there is a catch. In the parable of the king who gave a wedding feast for his son, Jesus tells his disciples that many invited to the feast will make excuses for why they can’t come. Family affairs, matters of business, other distractions.

We’ve all been invited to the banquet. But it is up to us to decide whether to accept the invitation.

“Ask Something of Me”

In today’s first Mass reading, taken from the first Book of Kings, God appears to Solomon in a dream and says “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon, the reading tells us, humbled by being called to serve as King and knowing how difficult the task will be, asks for “an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” The reading goes on to tell us that God granted Solomon’s request, pleased that he asked for this and not for something like riches or long life.

When I read this passage, what comes to mind is the answer given by Salome when given a similar offer by Herod: ask for anything from me and I will give it to you. Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist on the platter.

A good thought experiment is to ask yourself: what would your answer be. If you were given the offer God made Solomon, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you,” what would you ask?

I think the exercise is valuable only if you are willing to answer it honestly. The idea is not: what should I ask for if given the opportunity to ask for anything (i.e, what would make me seem as noble and holy as Solomon, and as far away as possible from Salome), but what would I actually ask.

I say that because when I sat with this passage and asked myself the question, the answer that came out was that I would ask for healing for a friend who suffers from a debilitating illness. My reaction to myself when that came into my heart was: well, shouldn’t I be asking for something like the transformation of everyone’s heart and soul or at least for world peace. But, if I were being totally honest to myself and God I would say that if I were offered in that moment the ability to ask one thing and have it granted, I would ask that my friend be freed from his suffering.

What happens when you answer the question is between you and God, as it was for me in my prayer. That is, it is for you and God together to evaluate the “merit” or wisdom of your request. But I think asking yourself the question is a good way to enter into dialogue with God about your desires.

The Need For An Exit Strategy

As I walked past the parking area of the retreat house the other day, I felt a familiar tightness in my gut. I recognized it immediately as my discomfort with not having an exit strategy.

Exit strategies are important to me. I need to know I’m not stuck somewhere and can leave when I want. When in a restaurant and the choice is between a bench or chairs against the wall or chairs on the outside of the table, I choose the outside. I try to position myself at the end of pew in Mass, not in the middle. And my law students in NY knew that I would go to any party they were having except the ones that involved 3-hour boat tours around Manhattan; the idea of being stuck on a boat and not being able to leave the party when I was ready was too intolerable.

Here at the retreat house, having arrived early on the first evening of the retreat, I pulled my car all the way up to the grass, leaving two car spots behind me. Walking past the parking area, I could see cars on both sides and behind my car. The fact that I’m not planning to leave here until the end of my retreat on Wednesday morning and that, even then, waiting for the car behind me to pull out would not be an inordinate inconvenience was of no import. What I felt was that discomfort in my gut that said: I’m stuck. No exit strategy. (In retrospect, it turns out I was wrong about that. When I later spoke with my director about the experience, she told me that cars in my position drive over the grass to get out, but I didn’t know that at the time.)

I happened that day to be praying with the passage in Deuteronomy 30 where God tells His people, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

What powerfully struck me was that God always leaves us an exit strategy. We can always leave when we want. It is always out choice and God never blocks us in. And what I realized was that I couldn’t have it any other way.

My deepest desire is to always choose God. The phrasing of the desire in one version of the Spiritual Exercises speaks of the desire “to re-order and re-direct all aspects of my life to the praise and service of God.” That articulates well my desire. Yet, that it is my choice to do so matters immensely to me.

What I realized with deep force was that I can stay only because I can leave. Which makes that choice one of the greatest gifts God has given me.

Accepting Imperfection vs. Complacency

I’m going to be 54 years old this year and, in addition to the physical differences between my body now and my body 35 years ago, I see things differently now than I did then.

At 20 and even 30, many more things were black and white or all or nothing for me than they are now. At 30, one of the major reasons I gave up being a Tibetan Buddhist nun was my inability to keep all 36 vows purely – if I couldn’t do it perfectly, in my view I couldn’t do it at all. (When I told my root teacher that I had to give back my vows because I lacked total renunciation, I wasn’t consoled by his laughingly telling me that no one else did either.)

I think moving to the understanding that less-than-perfect efforts are worthwhile, and that less-than-perfect does not mean failure, is an important part of growth. The advice, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is sage. But there is a danger that we move too far in the direction of asking for too little effort on our parts – in areas big and small.

One simple example. Industrial agricultural practices do harm to the environment, are dangerous to health and cruel to animals. If I were going to be perfectly consistent in my objection to those practices I would buy nothing that isn’t organic, would never eat meat, wouldn’t buy certain nonfood products. And maybe I’d have to turn my garden into a permaculture design that better mimics the natural ecosystem of Minnesota. (It was my reaction to reading a column about more sustainable agricultural on a small scale that prompted this post, although I’m also her continuing the theme I sounded in my posts of yesterday and the day before.)

I don’t do that. I do have a CSA share in a local farm from which I get weekly vegetable deliveries. And I do shop regularly at our co-op, where I purchase organic and fair trade goods. But we do sometimes eat meat (there are only so many days my husband is willing to go without any meat), although I try to get it from a local farm. And I do but some produce occasionally that is not organic. And our own vegetable garden, while organic, is not (except some herbs that come back every year) a regenerative one.

Does that mean my efforts are useless? That I should be labeled a hypocrite for objecting to industrial agricultural practices while not completely forsaking them? That unless I’m going to go all the way and do it perfectly I might just as well be honest and not do it at all?

I don’t think so – I think the imperfect efforts are worth it. They do have some positive effect and it is worth trying to engage in those efforts as well as possible.

But it is easy to become complacent and to be satisfied with too little effort. So it is important to monitor oneself and ask – am I doing as much as I can?

In the case of my example, the question is: Am I avoiding industrial agricultural produces as much as I can? But the areas in which we ask the question are many. I say I take seriously Jesus’ command to love the least of my brothers and sisters: Am I making sufficient effort to meet the needs of those in my community who are less well off than I am? I say I am committed to daily prayer: Am I devoting enough attention to God each day?

We don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and decide if we can’t do any of it well enough we shouldn’t do it at all. But, equally, we don’t want to fall into complacency and think anything we do is good enough. It is not always to find the right spot in between those.

The Grace of the Paschal Mystery

Catching up on some back issue of America magazine, I came across an article titled Holding On, by Vincent J. Miller, a chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton.

Miller beging by referencing moments of suffering that push us to our limits. He correctly observes that there are sufferings that tempt us “to turn away, to wish to be dealt another hand.”

It is always our choice whether to put everything into the reality in which we find ourselves or to try to do anything we can to forget that reality, hoping for something different. To “give ourselves in love to what is” or to “refuse reality.” And so the question in moments of difficulty is will we “embrace the world or flee into fantasy”?

God, of course, modeled for us the reponse God would love to see from us. In Miller’s beautiful words:

When creation was broken by human sinfulness, God did not turn away or reshuffle the cards. The Creator doubled down on creation: insistently loving it, refusing to let it die of its self-inflicted wounds, respecting its finitude by entering into it bodily – becoming subject even to its sin and violence.

We are not God. But God’s incarnation, death and resurrection, gives us the strength to look into the face of whatever is placed before us, the “courage to respond somehow in love.” It is our source of hope, what allow us to “embrace the world [rather than] flee into fantasy.”

Our Choice to Choose Life

At yesterday’s gathering of Weekly Manna, a Christian gathering that takes place on Wednesdays during the noon worship period at the law school, my friend Chato offered a reflection on a portion of the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy (30:11-20). It happens to be a passage that I love.

The passage begins with God’s characterization of his command. God tells us:

[T]his command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.

So right out of the gate, God is telling us that he is not placing before us an insurmountable task. No tricks – no hiding the ball or other guessing games. Rather, God makes it very simple for us – all you have to do is carry out that which you already know, that which I have already placed in your heart.

God goes on to tell us something fundamental: we get to choose whether to live in the truth of who we are or to choose something else:

Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin on you today, loving him, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy. If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen, but are led astray and adore and serve other gods, I tell you now that you will certainly perish; you will not have a long life on the land which you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy.

And God implores us to choose wisely, because there are consequences to our choice. Although speaking directly to the Israelites in this passage, God lays before us the same choice he laid before them, and implores us as fervently:

I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you, a long life for you to live on the land which the LORD swore he would give to your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

As Chato observed, we don’t always choose wisely. Indeed, we are sometimes not even cognizant that we are making choices – that each day in so very many ways – we make the decision to choose God or not God, life or death, love or disregard, and so on.

It is our choice – to live in the truth of who we are, to live in accord with that which God has placed in our heart, choosing life, or to “adore and serve other Gods.”

Finding Meaning in All Things

Having seen excerpts from Viktor Frankl’s writings and a YouTube video of a lecture he gave, I spent the plane ride to and from NY this past weekend reading his Man’s Search For Meaning, the first edition of which was written during a nine-day period within a year after his liberation from three years spent in Nazi concentration camps.

Frankl believes that one’s search for meaning is the primary motivation of one’s life and the message he want to convey is a straightforward one: that life can have meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable. In part he conveys that message by recounting his concentration camp experiences. Having experienced both brutality and kindness, and having watched the various responses of prisoners and captors to life in the camps, he remained convinced that

man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

Watching men who were able to go to their deaths comforting others, having watched people giving away their last bit of bread, provided for Frankl “sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man bit one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Although most of us will never experience something as horrific as life in a concentration camp, we all face difficulties of various sorts…and some face sufferings that are quite severe. I think there is a temptation to believe in such cases that our choices have been taken away for us, that we are completely overcome by circumstances, and to think that our lives can have no meaning.

What Frankl wants us to understand is that there are always choices. We may not be able to avoid suffering (although he point out that if we can, we should – that undergoing unnecessary suffering is masochistic). But we can always choose how we will respond to our circumstances.

The ways in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life…Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forego the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him.

Nothing I can say here will adequately convey the power of this book. It is well worth reading in it’s entirety (even if you are not flying between NY and Minneapolis.