I guess what I think is that life is very short and then we die, ourselves joined up into God in endless love. This is the very best thing that could happen to us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But for now we live in great distraction, like the wobbling arm of a novice archer who lacks the strength and focus to stay on target except for the briefest moment. And we get ourselves into unnecessary trouble, while other trouble just comes regardless of what we do.
Given our situation I think there are three or four things worth doing in life, worth working on. In order of importance:
1. Think About God
I suppose you could call this “contemplating the divine mysteries,” but that really just means thinking about God. Reflect, wonder, ruminate, ask, question, behold, praise, thank, desire, sit, wait. All this is prayer. And it’s a comfort and gives strength and hope. And it’s never wrong. It’s always a worthy way to spend your life. I feel like if you could spend most of your life doing this, you wouldn’t lack anything.
2. Find Inner Tranquility
Many, if not most, of our suffering in life comes from our own minds. Although we can’t control all our thoughts or the pain, we can practice detachment from our thoughts and feelings, and we can root out those many distractions and dead-ends in our thinking. Instead of endlessly pursuing high levels of stimulation, we can find relative calm and clarity of mind. When you stop pushing and grasping and demanding, there is a quiet, natural happiness that rises up in every moment and in every thing.
Brother Roger of Taize
Grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.
Every time I put a little emphasis on that word ‘courage.’ When I first started going to an Episcopal church it struck me as a little out of place. Courage? When during my week do I really need courage? And what does it mean to ask for the courage to love God or for the courage to serve God with gladness?
Though as the years have passed I’ve clung more and more to that prayer: “Grant us courage to love you and serve you with gladness.” This journey is dark, and so often without warning our inner fires dim, and we seem to be all hands and knees, groping, as if we had never known light at all. There is a lot of pain, a lot of weakness, a lot of seeing potential and not reaching it, but worst of all, not believing any change in the future. Sometimes my frustrations overwhelm me and even in those moments I know there are those near me who have it even worse than I do, and I marvel at their strength.
Confusion often arises between two very similar but opposed concepts: withdrawal and detachment.
Withdrawal seems to be a response to threats, either external ones or internal ones. It is a way to avoid conflict or frustration, to disengage from a relationship. Withdrawal could also include the idea of suppression, a kind of gritting one’s teeth, or screwing down one’s will. While withdrawing or blocking one’s problems works on the very short term, it often has an ironic effect of bringing upon one’s self double the conflict later on. Withdrawal can even been an unwise response with good intentions—for example, say, a mother who is afraid she will harm her children so she resists disciplining them even when she feels like she should (only to later explode and punish them twice as hard later on or beat herself up in some impulsive act when alone by herself).
Detachment is also a kind of passive position. It doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on goals or intentional, productive action. But it does seem to require a distinct mode of observation or listening. Somehow, I don’t know exactly how to describe it, it takes in with full acceptance apparent conflicts in a kind of objective way, that is neither emotionally intense nor cold and distant. Periods of detachment in my own life have been some of my happiest and most productive—times of immense gratitude, not for particular good outcomes, but a general warmth that pervades everything in my ken. The hardest part is that detachment itself is not a seizeable object. Once you find it, you can’t grab hold of it and keep it forever. And sometimes it’s tricky to find one’s way back to it. (The worst possible thing you can do is beat yourself up for not being detached.)
Like many good people, I think, I’ve often mixed up these two ideas because they are so very similar—and most importantly because they can both emanate from a good nature. It *is* a good thing to avoid conflict, to try to keep the peace—but if one does that in an artificial way that buries one’s resentment, one is only damming up the flood which must be directed somewhere in the future. People who want to be moral or pious often double-down on willpower, connecting their devotion to their outward expression, so they may avoid a particular bad behavior but inside they are seething, toxic sewer.
Brother Roger of Taize