Radical Spirit

Radical Spirit

How Loving God Helps Us Become Better People

The pin illustration is of the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “I Love You” from the Deaf culture. Artwork by Penelope Dullaghan

The popular images of the presence of God in life are stern ones. Forbidding ones. They speak of mistrust and punishment, of rules and sins, of dread and control. God the Policeman, God the Disciplinarian, God the Spy are all more familiar to the common mind than is the tender, caring God, the Good Shepherd. We have all grown up with too many of the controlling images. But not here. Not in Benedictine spirituality.

Here, in the very first two steps of humility, all those ideas of God as the Master Rule Giver, or God the Autocrat, evaporate. Here God becomes our perpetually present Lover—Mother, Father, Refuge—whose will for us is shalom, peace. This is the God who created us—and knows us.

Not even the Ten Commandments assume the extinction of our human errors. That is impossible in the realm of the human. No, it is rather a belief in the possibility of human growth, your growth and mine, particular to each of us and yet universal to all of us.

The presence of God is not about our being under suspicion. On the contrary, the Commandments themselves are all about right relationships. Their subject matter is manifest: Love God, love your family, love your neighbor, love well, do not seek satisfaction in amassing what is not yours. But most apparent of all, one message rings through every one of them: The will of God for the world—peace and justice—is all you need. When the will of God for the world finally comes, you will have what you need, what you yourself have been seeking all your life. The only bewilderment, perhaps, lies in the fact that we ourselves must be part of bringing the will of God.

The spiritual implications of such a life are plain. We cannot capture God. No amount of pious record keeping—a rosary a day, Sunday church attendance, so much tithing, or yoga, or meditation, or minyans—can guarantee us depth and authenticity in the spiritual life. Only this merging of two wills—God’s and mine—cements the human–divine relationship.

Humility is the virtue of liberation from the tyranny of the self. Now we have bigger things to be about in life than personal aggrandizement. The humble, no matter how great, do not spend their lives intent on controlling the rest of their tiny little worlds. On the contrary, once we learn to let God be God, once we accept the fact that the will of God is greater, broader, deeper, more loving than our own, we are content to learn from others. We begin to see everyone around us as a lesson in living.

To become open to the rest of the world, to people of other colors, to countries with other customs, to the devout of other religious traditions is the spiritual gold standard of inclusiveness. It says without doubt that I have finally accepted that I am no longer the center of the universe. Conversely, at this point I see that my God is also the God of the universe. I have come to realize that if, indeed, there is only one God, then the message of that God to the rest of the world must be the same as God’s will for me and mine. The well-being that God seeks for me is likewise sought for all others. How can I not speak for their needs, see their values, argue for their rights, work to support their children?

Most of all, perhaps, humility frees me from the need to wrestle life to my own designs. My public goal now is not to make others just like me. It is to see that my goals are no obstacles to theirs as they strive to achieve their own share of the gifts of God.

My clear obligation now is to see that God’s will for people everywhere is not being deliberately thwarted, not being ignored in favor of our own. How can we enslave a people to make our shoes and our children’s toys and our clothes in sweatshops across the world? How can we agree to buy without protest foreign imports that pay their makers—often children under 12 years old—$.70 a day and then sell here for $125? How can we allow the genetic manipulation of seeds that cannot reproduce so that we become the food basket of the world as well as the arms merchant of the world? How can we count our will to power and wealth a greater good than others’ will for a decent life? And how can we call ourselves humble—spiritual—if we do?

Equally critical to my own spiritual depth, perhaps, is the fact that in these first two steps of humility is the spiritual lesson that gives emotional stability to life. They enable me to accept unplanned change with dogged, steadfast equanimity, with imperturbable faith. If God is God and I have learned to trust the God of Surprises, there is little now that can really rock, convulse, or upend my emotional ground. I learn to expect the unexpected. More than that, I learn to expect that, in the end, this moment of change, however devastating, will be to my good.

Finally, I learn from these two steps of humility what religion seldom teaches: that being sinless is not enough. It’s being steeped in the mind of God that is important. It’s coming to see the world as God sees the world that changes things. It’s giving my life so that the mind of God for the world might actually become the way of life for the world.

The demon that masters me is the arrogance of self-development. The second step of humility frees me to realize that life’s singular purpose is becoming what I was created to be—co-creator with the God of Life. Now I am free to grow bigger than my focus on my small self would ever otherwise allow.

Adapted from Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life by Joan Chittister. Published this month by Convergent Books.

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