Why Do I Do The Things I Do?

Although I discontinued my subscription to many of the things that come into my e-mail inbox daily before I left for my Camino pilgrimage, among the things I continue to daily receive are the daily meditations of Richard Rohr from the Center for Action and Contemplation. I often find them challenging, as well as thought-provoking.

One day last week the reflection, adapted from Rohr’s Francis: Turning World on its Head, Subverting the Honor/Shame System, addressed our motivation for performing religious actions, taking as its starting point Jesus’ admonition in Matthew’s Gospel to give alms, fast and pray secretly. Rohr observes

Whenever you perform a religious action publicly, it enhances your image as a good, moral person and has a strong social payoff. Jesus’ constant emphasis is on interior religiosity, on purifying motivation and intention. He tells us to clean the inside of the dish instead of being so preoccupied with cleaning the outside, with looking good (Matthew 23:25-26). The purifying of our intention and motivation is the basic way that we unite our inner and our outer worlds. (Please read that twice!)

All through the spiritual journey, we should be asking ourselves, “Why am I doing this? Am I really doing this for God, for truth, or for others? Or am I doing it for hidden reasons?” The spiritual journey could be seen as a constant purification of motive until I can finally say, “I have no other reason to do anything except love of God and love of neighbor. And I don’t even need people to know this.” When I can say this I have total and full freedom.

While some of us are susceptible to scrupulosity, most of us could benefit from greater self-examination of our motives. Do I do what I do for love of God and love of neighbor? Or do it do it out of a desire to look good? Or out of fear of consequences of not doing so?

I was reminded when I read Rohr’s reflection of something Shane Claiborne wrote in his wonderful book titled The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Claiborne quotes his teacher Tony Campolo as asking, “Even if there were no heaven and there were no hell, would you still follow Jesus? Would you follow him for the life, joy, and fulfillment he gives you right now?” Claiborne writes, “I am more and more convinced each day,” he says, “that I would.” In the words of St. Paul, “The love of Christ impels me.”

Is it the love of God and others that impels you, or something else? A question for all of us.


Saint John Chrysostom

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John Chrysostom, an eloquent preacher of the fourth century. (Despite the quality of his sermons, I’m guessing the length would annoy many today – they sometimes lasted two hours!)

St. John Chrysostom invites us to examine not just what we do, but the attitude with which we do it. Regarding helping others, he said:

Helping a person in need is good in itself. But the degree of goodness is hugely affected by the attitude with which it is done. If you show resentment because you are helping the person out of a reluctant sense of duty, then the person may recieve your help but may feel awkward and embarrassed. This is because he will feel beholden to you. If,on the other hand, you help the person in a spirit of joy, then the help will be received joyfully. The person will feel neither demeaned nor humiliated by your help, but rather will feel glad to have caused you pleasure by receiving your help. And joy is the appropriate attitude with which to help others because acts of generosity are a source of blessing to the giver as well as the receiver.

Not a whole lot to add to that one; res ipsa loquitur as the lawyers among us would say.

Chrysostom also challenges us to think about how we deal with those who have done harm to us and others, saying

When your enemy falls into your hands, do not consider how you can pay him back and let him feel the sharp edge of your tongue before sending him packing; consider rather how you can heal him and restore him to a better frame of mind.

What an enormous difference that would make on a social and individual level! To have an aim of restoration and healing rather than punishment and shame. I’m sure we can all think of situations where we’ve had the less noble aim in mind. And I’m guessing we could imagine ways in which acting in accordance with John Chrysostom’s advice might have made a difference.

Motive Matters

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples against hypocrisy:

Give alms quietly, “do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.”

Pray in an inner room in secret, not “like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.”

Fast in a manner that no one will know you are fasting, rather than looking “gloomy like the hypocrites” who “neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.”

Motive matters, not just acts. Are we doing things for God’s glory or our own? Are we giving out of love and compassion, or to get a pat on the back? Are we praying or fasting out of a desire to deepen our relationship with God or so others will be impressed with us?

I suspect that most of us act with mixed motives most of the time. Our purer motives are often tinged with more base ones.

Maybe most of the time the best we can do is hope that our primary motivation is God’s glory not our own. But I also think that greater self-reflection and awareness can help in purifying our motive.

Checking our Motivation

I’ve been thinking about a comment someone made at our Weekly Manna gathering at UST Law School last week. Our Dean of Students, who offered the reflection for the day, spoke about our motivation for doing the “good” things we do. He asked people to consider whether they were doing the “right” thing out of a conviction that it was right or so that they would be praised by others. Part of his thrust was that if we are doing the right thing out of a desire to be praised, we will often be disappointed and resentful when praise and recognition do not come.

During the conversation that followed, one student offered the view that perhaps our motivation is not so important. So long as the right thing is getting done, he suggested, what does it matter if the motivation was wrong. Thus, he said, maybe we don’t always be needing to check our motivation.

At one level, this strikes me as wrong. That is, our ultimate goal is a conversion of our hearts and minds – conforming our will more and more to God’s will. That means that our mindset, not just our actions, are important. Motivations are not irrelevent.

On the other hand, at the early stages of our development, developing the habit of doing the right thing is helpful – and aids the process of conversion of our heart. So if the point is that doing the right thing regardless of initial motivation helps to create the habit of doing the right thing – as an initial step in our process of conversion, then I think there is some validity to the point.

My friend Beth talked about something in a recent blog post that illustrates this. She wrote:

Funny thing about this idea of praying for those who persecute you: Both of us reflected that we started slowly and begrudgingly to walk through the motions of praying for those we were angry with and had been deeply hurt by. We just said the words because it was the right thing to do. Slowly, it changed. Slowly, the process moved from saying prayers for them to praying for them. Then, to really praying for them. And one day you look up and realize that you are really praying for them, and Anger has given up trying to hold you in that place where you eat the rat poison and hope the rat dies.

One of the values of engaging in a daily examen, a prayer practice about which I’ve written before, is that it gives us an opportunity to check back over our actions to see what was our true motivation.

A Check on Motivation

In the sermon at our opening retreat Mass, the celebrant referenced in his homily a question that appeared in a recent column by Ron Rolheiser. Rolheiser suggested that each of us who sees ourselves in engaging in Christ’s ministry (in whatever capacity) ask ourselves, “Do I do what I do for myself or do I do it for God?”

At first blush, it may seem like a strange question, since our response surely is an emphatic, “Of course, I do it for God.”

The celebrant cautioned, however, that it is quite easy for a bit of us to creep in. To be aware of when that is happening, he suggested the following check: Ask yourself: Do I think it all depends on me? Do I worry that I have to get it all accomplished?

In short, do I forget this is God’s task and not mine? That I am God’s helper, but it is God’s show, not mine?

Thinking it all depends on me, being unable to give things over to God, suggests a lack of trust. Equally importantly, it signals that we have forgotten that we are not the central lynchpin of the project – God is.

I suspect we could all benefit from a regular check-up of our motivation.

Motivation for (Social) Change

I read an article in Insight Newsletter, the Newsletter of the Insight Meditation Society, talking about efforts of various people involved in social justice work. The article began by pointing out the obvious, that “[w]hen you look at what’s going on in the world, it’s a challenge not to be extremely angry and harrowed.”

There are sufferings of the world that just make me sad – a tsunami that kills many people. But there are also many things generate not only sadness at the results, but anger at the behavior of people or institutions that contributed in one way or another to the suffering that saddens me.

Anger may be a completely understandable reaction. But, as the article suggests, trying to effect change from a place of anger, rather than a place of compassion, is bound to be ineffectual. One problem is that we run the risk of burnout when we are “fueled by reactivity.” Another is that anger blinds us to the perspective of the person or institution with whom we are angry, making it much less likely that we will bring sufficient awareness to come up with workable change.

There is a role for prayer in helping us transform our anger into compassion, regardless of what faith tradition we follow. The person who wrote this article, a Buddhist meditator, observed, “I keep going back on retreat to get grounded, to understand how reality operates. The clearer I am, the more effective I’ll be at making change in a world that needs it.” The same is true for Christians, for whom the central command is love. We need prayer, and God’s grace, to keep us grounded in love so that everything we do in the world is motivated by that love.

Checking Motives

I purchase of otherwise acquire so many books that I confess some of them end up in a pile for quite a long time before I look at them. One book I picked up a while ago had a title I couldn’t resist: Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World (by Joanna Weaver). Yet, somehow it managed to get buried so that I only picked it up recently.

One of the first things I saw as I started to flip through it was a page with a box labeled, Checking your Motives. The thrust of it was that while serving others is important, why we serve is as important as how we serve. It suggested a series of questions, drawn from Jan Johnson’s Living a Purpose-Full Life, that are helpful in ascertaining whether we are doing “the work of Christ with the heart of Christ.” The questions are:

Am I serving to impress anyone?

Am I serving to receive external rewards?

Is my service affected by moods and whims (my own as well as others’)?

Am I using this service to feel good about myself?

Am I using my service to muffle God’s voice demanding I change?

Some useful questions to put to ourselves, particularly when we find ourselves doing, doing, doing.