That Which is Done: The Art of Interiorization

‘Part of the secret of monastic living is moving the emphasis from the objective productivity of what is done to the subjective dispositions in which it is done.’
—Michael Casey, OCSO

Every morning I wake up, I nearly hit my head on a ceiling of all that I might want to accomplish. They accumulate at different heights. Hanging just above me as I sleep is the rent check I still need to deliver. At sitting-up height are two of the articles I could have written by now, which are in the shadows of all the articles I know I can and so probably should compose at some point. Looming on top are the books I want to publish one day. And filling the spaces between are the emails, the chores, the returned phone calls—and my daily devotional practices, to be generous.

One of the greatest lies that I spend these years of my life unlearning is that I am what I produce. The flip side of that belief is this: I am all that I fail to accomplish.

As a result, the temptation of my days is to manage my sense of self and sense of value by what I can check off my lists and look back through the day and feel I’ve been productive. It’s a common measure for our life. How often I hear in answer to, How was your day? “Not very productive,” or, “Good, it was a productive afternoon.”

Our attention is often on the externals.

A Trappist monk for many decades, Michael Casey, OCSO, writes of the transition into monastic life that it requires a crucial shift. Not from active, embodied life to a contemplative, otherworldly life. Far from it. Trappist life is marked by manual labor, and the farming, maintenance and woodcutting done by each able brother sustain their community, letting them eat and stay warm in the winter. Instead, despite the practical need for production, it’s a shift of emphasis from productivity to posture, from what is done to how it’s done—from externals to the interior.

In other words, how much of the field I plow today must be of secondary importance. What’s more important is how I might perform my daily chore in love, nurturing virtues of humility and patience, and practicing moment-to-moment attention to the transformative love of Gød. A monastic community that develops a house full of efficient, diligent laborers motivated by pride, filled with resentment and lacking self-awareness will have failed to sustain itself. The ultimate purpose of monastic labor is to cultivate souls. Learning to do this in the course of our daily activity, Casey suggests, must be patiently learned.

This requires that my attention move inward, to where I am, to where Gød is working with the various states of my mind and movements of my heart, throughout all my activity and stillness.

Likewise, for us, it’s perhaps less important how much we read of the Bible today, how long we pray and how effectively we serve. We might shift our attention instead to how much anything we do or refrain from doing brings us closer to Gød in love, to how we might move toward Gød in ways that inwardly increase our love regardless of their outward reality. This is the ultimate purpose of every activity available to us: religious, recreational, occupational.

St Paul writes, “Whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 11). Whatever you do, Gød’s desire is that it would be a means by which to draw you deeper into Gød’s love for you and for the world. Whatever the external aspect of our actions—however great or little, fruitful or frustrated, faithful or frail—Gød’s desire is for the inside, where Gød will meet you in love.

How We Discern, Part 2: Indifference and Freedom

Whether we’re discerning between alternatives or just discerning a way forward, whatever it’s about, the first thing is always to keep the first thing the first thing. That’s our initial step of identifying our principle and foundation (p&f), or, the big ultimate “why”—as in, “Why does it matter that we discern this well?”—or the big ultimate “what”—as in, “What do we want beneath everything else?” St Ignatius of Loyola identifies this as the core human vocation: to praise and serve Gød. You might personalize it further. Either way, we’re not done with Step One simply by identifying our p&f. We need to make it our p&f actually. That’s where a concept called “indifference” comes in, but it bears explanation. Continue reading “How We Discern, Part 2: Indifference and Freedom”

How We Discern, Part 1: Our Foundation

I’ve been frequently asked since beginning my journey in spiritual direction and as a spiritual director what “discernment” is. I’ll unthinking drop it into conversation as an assumed concept, or someone will spy the cover of some book I’m buried in about discernment. Etymology, the origin of a word, can sometimes provide us a blind lead about its meaning. But in this case, I always return to the root of “discernment” for its clearest explanation. Like all good English words (and there aren’t many), it’s based in Latin: discenere (dis [apart] + cenere [to sift]), literally, “to sift apart.” Continue reading “How We Discern, Part 1: Our Foundation”

Never Give in to the Demands of Christ

“Never give in to the demands of Christ. Give in to the demands of your own love for him.” — Anthony De Mello, SJ

We would do anything for love. Those who have fallen in love know this. I’ve sworn it, because I’ve felt it. And though I don’t know that I’ve ever yet loved well enough for this to be entirely true, the essence of it is, for the simple fact that we are reckless in love, abandoned to it and abandoned to consequences. I’ve unashamedly made decisions and taken risks I wouldn’t have made had I not been in love—not all of them, I hope, selfish. Continue reading “Never Give in to the Demands of Christ”

Child’s Pose and Spiritual Direction: Stopping Along the Journey

I’m a complete novice to yoga, which is challenging because, like most people, I don’t like not being good at things. Worse still, it’s part of my goal as someone who lives in his head to better connect with my body—which I’m terrible at. I can’t study my way being more comfortable on the mat; I can’t brute-strength-train my way to feeling more embodied.

Much like making my beginning with spiritual direction, I find I have to adopt a posture that’s more teachable than determined, more attentive than sure and more playful than linear. Most of my life, I seek mastery; here, I practice, which includes practicing rest. Continue reading “Child’s Pose and Spiritual Direction: Stopping Along the Journey”

Saying Goodbye in Direction

As a young spiritual director in training, one of the common challenges I’ve encountered is finding and keeping directees. A practice I’ve inherited from my teachers is that I ask for an initial six-month commitment, which can become helpful when early conversations suddenly become challenging and uncomfortable, or when the outcomes are not immediately evident or satisfying, or when meetings become inconvenient to schedule. Still, for many reasons, not everyone is able to see that initial commitment through. In my last year and a half of training, sadly, several have simply dropped off the map. Only one directee has stayed with me to term—in fact, for almost a year. Continue reading “Saying Goodbye in Direction”