The first time that I met with a spiritual director, he gave me a simple practice to do every day.
Each morning, I was to go into the chapel for 15 minutes, be quiet, and experience how much I was loved by God.
(And the word might not have been experience… it might have been listen or contemplate or the like… but the point was to know that I am loved.)
Predictably, I immediately fell short on multiple levels. I did not wake up early enough. The chatter in my mind never quieted. I exerted way too much effort. I became attached to my evaluation of each session.
Seventeen years later, I see this practice, to know that we are loved just as we are, is the practice of a lifetime. This experience anchors us, roots us, and enables a bold life lived out of this love.
I still show up to the practice, however imperfectly, knowing that I do not control the experience. The result is not up to me. My job is show up consistently… to ready the sails for whenever the wind would blow.
When our sons can’t find the toy or the book that they are looking for, we’ve learned that the most productive thing to do is to start cleaning up the mess. When we clean up, we inevitably find the thing we were looking for.
The mess is where things go to hide.
In our church and world, there is plenty of mess. And by mess, I do not mean conflict. Conflict can be healthy and will always be with us.
The mess I mean is what happens when we do not practice empathy on the “other side” of the conflict, choosing instead to whip up the indignation of “our side” against the other. This failure of empathy creates a mess: layers of wrecked communication, triggered egos, activated amygdalas. This mess confuses the important issue at hand and barricades us more deeply on our illusory moral high ground.
Too often, the mess is where we go to hide, and almost always unconsciously. Hide from our own vocation, our own capacity for connection, commitment, and contribution.
It is far easier to focus on someone else’s mess than to do the hard work we are meant to do.
Holiness, I think, consists in realizing that we are not better than anyone else and all need grace in a profound way. This humility frees us to begin to clean up the mess and find the love we were seeking in the first place.
I am a big fan of our realtor, particularly in how she introduces us to a home on the market.
She is calm and kind as she walks with us through a new space, attentive to any question that we might have. And while offering this warm presence, she also seems to be one step ahead. Somehow she is always able to turn on the lights in the next room and to open the doors, closets, and cabinets.
Her seasoned attentiveness frees us to see more than we might, and act, free of pressure, from this expanded vision.
Folks who are skilled at accompaniment do something similar, I think. They are able to tune in, freed from their own inner chatter. Their attentive, generous presence helps us see our own experience in better light. Their questions open doors and turn on the light switch that we couldn’t quite reach.
What would it take for the church to be a network of people who accompany each other like this?
We know the conscience to be the “most secret core and sanctuary of a [person]. There [we are] alone with God, Whose voice echoes in [our] depths.” (Gaudium et Spes, 16)
The capacity of conscience, though, is not automatic. It needs certain things to grow. Grace, certainly, and particularly in the form of encounter with people of varied experience as well as space to reflectively integrate this encounter. Conscience thus formed leads us to a life animated by and in the service to deep love.
The silos of our world (often ideological, reinforced by social media algorithms and the pesky confirmation bias) hem in our consciences, and make the above ideal hard to experience.
Pope Francis names this as the isolated conscience, and calls out its contours in Let Us Dream.
“The indignation of the isolated conscience begins in unreality, passes through Manichaean fantasies that divide the world into good and bad (with themselves always on the good side), and ends in different kinds of violence: verbal, physical, and so on.”
When I was around seven years old, I started playing YMCA soccer. Soccer is a tough sport for kids that young and we were, predictably, not very good.
I recall that we would often be so scattered on the field that, without realizing it, we would try to take the ball from our own players.
When this would happen, our beleaguered coach would yell across the field: “Same team! Same team!”
He hoped that we would stop, understand what is going on around us, and play with more awareness and teamwork.
In work, in family, and in the church, we could use someone calling out that we are on the same team. If we are mired in pettiness or turf battles, recalling that we are on the same team can give us the energy we need to get close enough to love.
Think of that person who gets under your skin. Maybe they do something that you do not like. Maybe they do not believe what you believe or think how you think.
What would happen, though, if you became genuinely, intentionally curious about them? What if there was no aversion, only an intense desire to learn how they see the world?
Here is one way in. Picture yourself in a classroom with them. Now, hand them the chalk and go sit down. Let them teach you. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t prepare a rebuttal while they are talking. Let them really sketch it all out for you. Let them cover the whole board.
When we are able to listen like this, a whole world opens up. Our vision becomes expansive. We see that they, like us, carry fear, and this fear makes us all do things that don’t make sense. We see a way forward in relationship.
These days, I think this is what is meant, in the prayer of St. Francis, by the lines: “O Master, let me not seek as much…to be understood as to understand…”