You Are Special, No Matter What

At UST Law School, we begin each fall and spring semester with a weekend vocation retreat for interested students. As a follow-up to the retreat, a different participant “volunteers” (i..e, with their consent, I assign each person a week) to send the rest of us an e-mail of “Spiritual Nourishment.” The messages take various forms – sharing of a reading, a poem or a prayer, some incident in the life of the person that has brought them some insight, some issue someone is dealing with – and usually also include some thing or things for which the writer is grateful.

This week, the student who distributed our weekly Spiritual Nourishment, Sam, shared an internal struggle that had been causing him some difficulty but that he had finally worked through. Since the issue he raised is not one unique to him and his realization was one we all need to attain, I asked his permission to share his thoughts, a request he graciously granted.

Sam started by talking about his battle with pride over the years, which reared its head in many different capacities, causing him to always “try to appear intelligent, clever, attractive, funny, talented, fun, and so many other great things.” When he reflected on why he was driven to want to be better than other people, he concluded that what he really desired was to feel special. He wrote:

So I thought that my problem was this desire to feel special. I have tried to drive that desire out of me, but it doesn’t seem possible. There is something intrinsic in me, something I can’t get rid of that is at the root of that desire.

This seemed to be an impossible dilemma. My pride was caused by my desire to feel special. So to get rid of my pride, I needed to get rid of my desire. But it is impossible to get rid of that desire! This is the struggle I have lived in for the past weeks.

When it finally came to him, he realized how simple was the answer to his struggle. As with so many of us who are parents, an experience with his baby gave Sam insight into how God looks at us. As he watched his baby one evening he realized that no matter what she does, he believes “she is the most beautiful baby ever” and that his love for her “has nothing to do with what she can do, it has nothing to do with how she compares to other babies. I am her father, and my love for her is unconditional.” And that realization had a profound impact. He wrote:

Then I remembered that Christ instructed us to call God our Father, and told us that God loves us as a father loves his children. It doesn’t matter how good we are at sports, how smart, attractive, funny, or whatever, we are. God loves us because He made us. And that is the answer to my struggle.

I had been working to tear this desire out of myself, thinking it was the cause of my pride. But the cause of my pride is not the desire to feel special. The cause of my pride is that I attempt to fulfill my desire with something that is not able to fulfill it. …[T]he fulfillment of that desire has nothing to do with how I value myself, or how other people value me. The only thing that can fulfill that desire is an unconditional love… What I really desire is God’s love.

We all want to feel special, and that desire manifests in many ways – some healthy and some not so healthy. My hope for you is the same as the hope Sam expressed in sending his message to us – that his experience “reverberates with some of you and can help as a reminder that you are special, no matter what!”

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“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.

What Do You Want?

Today’s Gospel from Mark tells the story of Jesus’ healing of a blind man. Bartimaeus is sitting by the roadside begging, as he has probably done day after day. When he hears that Jesus is passing by he begins to cry out to him. Despite the rebukes of the people around him, he keeps crying out for Jesus, who calls for Bartimaeus to be brought to him. Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

What do you want? In the Gospels we hear Jesus asks this so often of the people he meets. What do you want me to do for you? And he asks the same question of us.

One of the dynamics of Iganatian prayer is asking for a grace. We begin each prayer period asking God for what we need, for what we desire most deeply. We ask God for the blessing we need from him. The purpose of asking for grace is to create a disposition of openness, of making ourselves more available to receive God. Asking for a grace acknowledges our dependence on God; it recognizes that we need help that only God can give us.

When we ask for a grace, we are articulating that which we most desire. It is not about what should I want but what do I really want. (We can only pray from our actual feelings.)

Jesus asks, What do you want? What do you want me to do for you? What is your response?

Clinging vs. Desire

I was sitting recently with my reaction to a situation where I didn’t get something I wanted. It is not important what it was (no, not a Christmas gift, or any other material thing), but it was something I knew full well I couldn’t have and I understood full well the reasons. Nonetheless, I felt deep inside something of the way a child feels when told he can’t have a sweet or a toy he or she wants. I could almost feel myself inside shaking my head back and forth saying, “No. No. I want it. I want it.” Figuratively holding my hands over my ears saying, “I don’t want to listen to the reasons why I can’t have it. I want it.”

That roiling feeling inside – the “I have to have what I want or I won’t be happy” urge – is the product of what Buddhists would refer to as clinging or grasping or attachment. It is an impulse that produces only dissatisfaction and unhappiness and there is nothing productive about it.

That is very different from the kind of deep desire that motivates us. The desire for union with God that provides energy to our spiritual life. The desire for the “good” that fuels our laboring for God’s Kingdom.

Reflecting on the two feelings in Ignatian terms, it is very easy to distinguish between them. Attachment (what might be called disordered desire) always feels tumultuous, unsettling and lacking in peace. Deep desire has an element of peace in it and it pulls us generally forward rather than roiling uncontrollably. And they are very different in their effects: Clinging and attachment incapacitate, deep desire energizes. Clinging and attachment lead only to pain and a feeling of incompleteness. Deep desire leads to satisfaction and peacefulness.

It is important to distinguish between the two and not fall into the mistake of thinking all desire is bad and should be abandoned. We want to recognize when clinging and attachment arise so that we are better able to let them go. Our desires, however, help energize us and help us be all that we can be.

Living with Purpose

Earlier this week I have a Mid-Day Reflection at the University of St. Thomas law school titled, Living with Purpose: Reconnecting with Our Life Values.

Starting from the premise that we are all called to participate in the creative action of God in the world, the purpose of the program was to encourage students and other participants to reflect on how we discern how we can contribute meaningfully to the world. What is our part in the continual act of co-creation of the world with God.

During my talk, I spoke first about work from the standpoint of Catholic Social Thought and about discernment. I then talked about the role of values in determining our vocation and, thus, the importance of identifying (and prioritizing) our life values. Finally I ended with a brief talk about another important piece of the dicernment task – desire. During course of the session we engaged one exercise aimed at identifying values and talked about another that addresses desire, which I invited participants to pray with following the session.

You can find a podcast of my talk here. (The podcast runs for 21:28.) There are several places where I paused the recording during an exercise the participants engaged in. The exercise is based on this set of value cards.

(You can find all Creo en Dios! podcasts here. They are also all listed on the podcast page of this blog.)

Desire for God

Part of my Mother’s Day gift from my daughter and husband this year was a book titled, For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics, a title that gives more than a hint of the book’s contents. The book contains poets of both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions, spanning the years from the Desert Fathers to contemporary voices. The poems are accompanied by short commentaries by Roger Housden, who put together the collection.

One of the first poems I opened to is a beautiful poem of longing written by St. Augustine, which I had not before been familiar with. It is titled, I Came to Love You Too Late. In it, Augustine comes to a realization that is importnat to all of us – that the God we seek has been inside of us all along. He writes

I came to love you too late, Oh Beauty,
so ancient and so new. Yes,
I came to love you too late. What did I know?
You were inside me, and I was
out of my body and mind, looking
for you.
I drove like an ugly madman against
the beautiful things and beings
you made.
You were in inside me, but I was not inside you….
You called to me and cried to me; you broke the bowl
of my deafness; you uncovered your beams, and threw them
at me; you rejected my blindness; you blew a fragrant wind
on me, and
I sucked in my breath and wanted you; I tasted you
and now I want you as I want food and water; you
touched me, and I have been burning ever since to
have your peace.

The Gift of an Awakened Heart – Getting in Touch With Our Desires

This podcast is the fifth and final podcast in a series based on the 8-day guided retreat I gave in the Summer of 2009 at St. Ignatius Retreat House on the theme, The Gift of an Awakened Heart. In the first podcast in this series, I identified some qualities of an awakened heart and talked about what it means to live out of that awakened heart. The second and third podcasts looked at the misconceptions and wounds that inhibit our ability to fully open our hearts to the world. The fourth was about getting in touch with our call to gift the world with our awakened hearts, to know that we are each individually called by God to go out into the world.

This final podcast, which had taken me a while to get to, addresses something critical to our ability to live out of the core of who we are (one of the central aspects of an awakened heart) – getting in touch with our desires. Our deepest desires reflect the longings of our heart and we cannot gift the world authentically if we do not make choices that honor those desires. In the podcast, I talk about the role of desires and about the need to separate root desires from more wishful, instinctive or tentative desires. I then talk about how we know we have uncovered our deepest, most root, desires.

The length of this podcast is 15:30. You can stream it from the icon below or can download it here. (Remember that you can also subscribe to Creo en Dios! podcasts on iTunes.)

When I Do Not See the Road Ahead

This week, those participating in my Praying with the Mystics retreat in daily living are praying with Thomas Merton. One of the things I shared with the retreatants is a prayer of Merton’s that I love, perhaps because it expresses so well something we can all relate to.

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to faced my perils alone.

There are times when, no matter how hard we seek clarity, the road is not clear. We think, hope, believe we are doing what God wills, but somewhere there is nagging wondering whether we are, in fact, getting it right. In those moments, we can do nothing but trust – trust that our attempt and desire to do God’s will itself pleases God, trust that God will lead us the right way, and trust that we are never alone, even in those moments when we don’t feel the presence of God.

What Do You Want Me to Do for You?

Today’s Gospel is the story of blind Bartimaeus.  Sitting by the roadside begging, when he hears that Jesus is passing by he begins to cry out to him.  Despite the attempts by the people around to shut him up, he keeps crying out for Jesus, who calls for Bartimaeus to be brought t him.  Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

What do you want?  Jesus asks this so often of the people he meets.  What do you want me to do for you?  And he asks the same question of us.

One of the dynamics of Iganatian prayer is asking for a grace.  We begin each prayer period asking God for what we need, for what we desire most deeply.  We ask God for the blessing we need from him.  The purpose of asking for grace is to create a disposition for openness, making more available to receive God.  Asking for a grace reveals our dependence in the best sense of that word, that is, in knowing that we need help that only God can give us.

When we ask for a grace, we are getting in touch with our deepest desires.  This is not a time for editing – it is not about what should I want but what do I really want.  (We can only pray from our actual feelings.)  We need to recognize that our deep desire originates in God’s heawrt, so when I name what I want, I name what God wants for me.

Jesus asks, What do you want?  What do you want me to do for you?  What is your response? 

        

Father, they are your gift to me

John’s Gospel reading for today is the final part of Jesus’ prayer to his Father before he is arrested.  This last several verses of this passage (John 17:24-26) have been special to me since praying with the passage during a retreat I made several years ago.  My director instructed me to hear Jesus praying this prayer to his Father about me, to replace “they” with my name.  So I sat and heard Jesus say: “Father, Susan is your gift to me.  I wish that where I am Susan also may be with me, that she may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world…I made known to Susan your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in her and I in her.”

What a powerful experience!  I was so struck by hearing Jesus say that he wanted me to be with him always.  It is one thing for me to always want to be with Jesus – there is only one of him.  But, with all the millions and billions of us, to hear that it matters to Jesus that I be with Him always took my breath away.  What an amazing thing to hear – that being with me is Jesus’ desire. 

The fact that Jesus was expressing this desire not only to me, but to the Father made it even more powerful.  It somehow made it more than just an aspiration on Jesus’ part.  I realized that there is nothing the Father will not give Jesus; if Jesus desires this and asks it of the Father, it will be done.  So the prayer to the Father became for me almost a level of guarantee that Jesus’ desire would be fulfilled.  What an amazing feeling it was to experience the reality of the extent of Jesus’ desire for our togetherness.

What Jesus desires with me is no different from what he desires with each of us.  If you have any doubt about that, try praying with the passage as I did.  Experience Jesus’ prayer to his Father about you.