It has long been my habit to read a passage from the Imitation of Christ each day. The sisters let me bring home the library copy that I had been borrowing for most of my religious life in order to try to find the same translation. I feel very happy to have found a paperback version of this exact text. It was just this last weekend that I returned the hardcover book from the 1940s to the sisters. I’ll miss it, but I can live without the elegant cover and ribbon.
I read in my unattractive paperback version, during this morning's spiritual reading, a passage that spoke to what I have been pondering these last couple weeks especially during election time. Here is the passage from Chapter 3 of Book 2 on the Interior Life:
GOODNESS AND PEACE IN MAN
FIRST KEEP peace with yourself; then you will be able to bring peace to others.
A peaceful man does more good than a learned man. Whereas a passionate man turns even good to evil and is quick to believe evil, the peaceful man, being good himself, turns all things to good.
The man who is at perfect ease is never suspicious, but the disturbed and discontented spirit is upset by many a suspicion. He neither rests himself nor permits others to do so. He often says what ought not to be said and leaves undone what ought to be done. He is concerned with the duties of others but neglects his own. Direct your zeal, therefore, first upon yourself; then you may with justice exercise it upon those about you. You are well versed in coloring your own actions with excuses which you will not accept from others, though it would be more just to accuse yourself and excuse your brother. If you wish men to bear with you, you must bear with them. Behold, how far you are from true charity and humility which does not know how to be angry with anyone, or to be indignant save only against self!
It is no great thing to associate with the good and gentle, for such association is naturally pleasing. Everyone enjoys a peaceful life and prefers persons of congenial habits. But to be able to live at peace with harsh and perverse men, or with the undisciplined and those who irritate us, is a great grace, a praiseworthy and manly thing….
Excerpt From: Thomas À Kempis. “The Imitation of Christ.” iBooks.
I have been feeling less at peace within myself lately. I have allowed myself to be drawn into a mindset of needing to have an opinion or make immediate judgments about everything and everyone. This is not a healthy or helpful way to live, but it very easily becomes habitual. I am struck how often all that I can come up with to say is "I like it","I don't like that" or "That's good". It’s a good day, good weather, good food. Even my adjectives imply judgments: pleasant, delicious, favorite, poor, ugly, unfair.
In studying early childhood education years ago, I remember how challenging it was to try to break myself of making value judgments about young children’s artwork and crafts. It is easy to say, “That drawing is so pretty.” But however correct it may be to be generous in appraising children’s artwork, our encouraging praise may not actually be true. Scribbles are not usually pretty. It also can teach children to seek empty praise rather than the intrinsic joy of the activity. As future teachers, we were encouraged to try to find objective comments spoken enthusiastically in place of convenient words of praise. For example, “There is so much purple!” or “These lines are so squiggly!” or “You covered the whole paper with paint.”
In the monastery and influenced by the ancient advice in the Imitation of Christ and other spiritual works by saints, I went a step further and sought to die to my preferences. Surprisingly, I found that it was harder to give up my dislikes than my likes. For example, since my childhood, I have not liked peanut butter. My older sister still teases me because I mixed up my extreme distaste for it with an allergy. Part of the practice of voluntary poverty is to eat what we are served as much as possible. This meant occasionally eating foods that I do not like including peanut butter. However, I discovered much to my horror that I could eat them and even sometimes with enjoyment. Yet I continued to avoid peanut butter. Disliking it had become part of my sense of identity.
Over the years, I have been challenged to accept and even grow to like many things I had previously discredited. Philosophy is one major example. I actually cried the day I was informed that I had to take metaphysics as a temporary professed sister, but I profited very much from that course. I still remember that the professor answered one of my objections by assuring me that I was more real than a rock. Of course, I have had to give up many pleasures and likes too in my journey to follow Christ. Self-denial is not an easy task, but whenever, by the grace of God, I have been stronger in this area, I have recognized that I do experience greater interior peace. I can accept whatever comes in the present moment without worrying or anxious fear. I will likely always avoid peanut butter if given the opportunity, but I am free to take a peanut butter cookie made by my dear friend using her grandmother’s recipe, and even truthfully affirm that its delicious (at least after the first bite which always has the strongest punch of peanut butter flavor).
Lately, I find, especially as I get caught up in too much social media and news, that I am forming needless opinions on more weighty matters than food. I am concerned that these opinions grasping for my attention interfere with my ability to process what is actually happening around me in a manner open to faith and to allow for the truth that is bigger than my view of the world.
In order to vote, I had to consider the facts of several issues and relevant opinions and use that to make judgments. I did. Then I tried to surrender the final decision to God in prayer. I certainly felt concerns as elections came and went. Some things I voted for went the other way, but now is the time to let go and not cling anymore to my voting judgments. My judgments were the best I could come up with using the information and counsel I had at the time of voting. They are certainly not infallible.
God knows what is good for us better than we do. Sometimes our good involves trial and suffering. Sometimes we have to walk a little way down the wrong road to find the right one. We are called to trust and we are called to walk together.
I realize that listening and forgiveness come from open hearts and minds, not ones that are clinging to pre-formed opinions or protecting preferences. I believe in the truth. It is bigger than any one of us can comprehend or express. Even where there is an objective right and wrong, what is right and good will become more clear and be more easily accepted through patient dialogue where the opinions of both sides are honestly considered. In every human dialogue, there is going to be at least little wrong mixed in with the right and a little right mixed in with the wrong. We are limited creatures. By talking and listening respectfully, we can better detect our errors, small or great, and come together to a fuller understanding of truth. Furthermore, listening is easier when I know I have been heard. Hearing is easier when I am not locked into rigid judgments. I have often found that the more I form an opinion, even about trivial things, the more I am stuck with it.
I strive to be well-informed, but I am working on accepting what I learn and hear without needing to decide once and for all if it I like it or not. I also aim to be satisfied with only the information that is necessary and useful for bringing the matter to prayer and rational consideration. I am aware of a real temptation to feed both my positive and negative emotions on scandals, speculations and gossip, which are all so readily available these days.
At this point, I am convinced that the best I can do is prayerfully surrender to God's Divine Will and watch His plan unfurl and surprise us all. Moments to take action will come. That will be the time for making the judgments and choices, knowing that the Holy Spirit guides us in the present moment, not in imagination, not in the past or the future. I trust that all things, whether good or bad in themselves, work for good for those who love God.
My plan, therefore, is to begin by practicing with comments like “It is really sunny today” or “This breadstick has plenty of garlic.” In each particular moment, I will allow the observation to mean different things for my choices and mood. At the same time, I hope thereby to allow those with whom I am speaking to have their own emotional reactions and value judgments that also can change in each moment. Emotions are not right and wrong. They are not rational at all. I hope that my value judgments are based on faith and reason working together, supported by emotions, never decided by emotions.
I want the statement “We will have a new President” to be open to new possibilities and hope even if I have some reservations about who was elected. I want the statement “this singer hit a really high note” not to be a comparison with the one whose voice is so deep, even if it is a singing competition. I want “Black people have suffered in history and continue to suffer from racism” to stand alone as a fact and so become a true acknowledgement of the reality of suffering that we all share in and a catalyst to reflect on how I am called to respond to the current situation in light of the redemptive suffering of Christ.
I am going to insert the final paragraph of today's Imitation of Christ passage that I omitted above. I could easily introduce another line of thought I have been having recently, but I think that in light of this reflection on giving up the comfort of my personal preferences, it might be thought provoking here on its own.
“Now, all our peace in this miserable life is found in humbly enduring suffering rather than in being free from it. He who knows best how to suffer will enjoy the greater peace, because he is the conqueror of himself, the master of the world, a friend of Christ, and an heir of heaven.”
Excerpt From: Thomas À Kempis. “The Imitation of Christ.” iBooks.
For everything there is a season, including the expression of likes and dislikes, the determination of whether something is good or bad. Making rational judgments is an integral part of how our intellect works. It is part of what makes us human, so are our emotions. It is my hope to continue to learn how to allow my natural preferences and opinions room to evolve with a growing knowledge of truth and with freedom to respond to each present moment and each new encounter with sincerity and kindness.
Some days I like the rain; some days I would prefer sun. Today is a sunny day. I mean to make the most of the gift of light that God has given. When it rains, I will thank God for life-giving water and drink a hot cup of tea as I watch the water pour down through the window. In the meantime, I will probably cut way back on social media and the news going forward. I found, as I did with TV, that I did not miss either one during my years in religious life.