For starters, I want my head to stop hurting.
I want to pit the cherries in my refrigerator, cook them into a gooey mess and then eat them with some Greek yogurt. Warm and cool in my mouth at the same time. Sweet and tart together. Mmm…
I want to paint my socks. (I don’t have time now but it’s on the list.)
I want to sleep long and deep tonight.
I want to get up tomorrow feeling refreshed and having energy.
I want just enough rain in the morning to water my garden and fill my rain barrels. Then I want the sun to come out and make everything sparkle.
I want to get my work done tomorrow. See a few patients – but not too many. I want a restful day. I want my paycheck to come in the mail so I can get my banking done.
And I want desperately to visit my dear friend who isn’t well but not yet ready for visitors.
As this post has been gestating over the past few days, I have observed quite a few of these “I want…” statements in my mind. In fact, they seem to pop up as fast as weeds in my garden when I’m not watching.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with “wanting” things. We are, after all, hardwired to want what feels pleasant and to avoid the painful.
Yet all of these “wants” can be more than a little problematic for my spiritual growth. As I listen to them forming in my mind, the most concerning part is how much the word “I” is present in my daily thoughts.
My continual reference point seems to be…well, me.
Having just written two posts on asceticism, it seems rather apparent that I am much better at writing about it than I am at living it.
But perhaps this is what the “struggle” in asceticism is all about. It is much the same with repentance.
The former is not about uprooting all enjoyment in life. The latter is not about lashing myself for my faults and weaknesses.
No, I sense they are both much more concerned with orientation, i.e. getting myself properly oriented in a universe that does not have “me” at its center.
As I become oriented, He will come into focus as my (false) self fades away. And, ironically, this will ultimately lead me away from suffering toward a joy much greater than any I can now imagine – the joy of being fully alive.
To get properly oriented, I must turn. I am not facing the right direction if what I see most of the time is me.
At one time, I thought it rather silly that some Christians make an issue about facing east when praying. After all, God isn’t any less in the west than He is in the east. It is simply a human tradition to think this way.
I cannot say that I have really changed this opinion. I still believe God is everywhere and in all things. And He hears me, regardless of the direction I am facing when I pray.
It wasn’t my opinion that changed. It was something deeper within. Something that led me to set up icons on the east wall of my house and pray facing them first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
My icons, it might be noted, include both Catholic and Orthodox saints, as well as the Virgin and Christ Himself.
Something moved me to do this.
This movement, I sense, came both from me and from beyond me.
If I had acted alone, one might readily think, “Ah, she is just going through a phase. She’s imitating the Orthodox now. Soon it will be something else.”
There is always that danger with movement, I suppose, a danger that I am allowing myself to be re-directed by a false or evil spirit.
But I do not suspect that is the case now.
I believe there is One moving me as I most long to be moved – but in a direction I cannot find on my own.
It is much more complex than simply finding east – for it is movement away from myself and into the infinity of God.
When I am facing “me”, it would be like my life constantly looking in a mirror. At first, it would become boring. In time, it would come to be repugnant.
Facing Him, on the other hand, is like spending eternity being a mirror, knowing His light and allowing it to reflect from me wherever, whenever, however He wills.
And His will is my delight – a much greater delight than any of those I concoct for myself on a daily basis.
It is now about 24 hours after the time I began this post. Let’s see what has occurred.
Interestingly, only a couple of the “wants” I listed above have been fulfilled during the interim.
I am grateful for the gift of a head that no longer hurts. Also, that I was able to see a few patients today (but not too many), making for a relatively restful day.
Those other wants? Well, they will happen at some later time – or perhaps not at all. It is not for me to know or dictate.
What is most clear is that “what I want” at any given moment is really of very little significance in the grand scheme of things. While this may be readily apparent with the wish to paint my socks, it is far from obvious with my desire to visit my ailing friend.
I have discovered that perhaps one of the most profound fasts to which one can be called is the fast from another who is loved so very much.
Seldom do we choose to fast from someone we love. Why would we? Though I imagine that we might do so if one has something important to do and the other cannot join in, this sort of fast typically has a known beginning and end date.
We are just as unlikely to choose to fast from health or security – for to do so is like fasting from our sense of control over what feels most essential to our being.
But there are times when God chooses a fast for us. He does not do this because He relishes our suffering or wishes to control us, but because He alone knows what we need to pass through in order to be completely and utterly His.
I do not know how to turn to make this happen. I cannot find the direction by myself.
And this I believe is at the heart of true asceticism: the struggle to trust – not myself – but Him. To trust that when He leads me to the brink of what appears to me to be wrong or confusing, painful or frightening, it is indeed the only way home.
For this is the Cross, the Cross that I both fear and long for, the Cross of my Savior.
To say that I do not want the Cross would be an understatement of massive proportions. On a human level, even Christ did not “want” it at all.
Like the Lord Jesus in the garden of His agony, I fear it. And I would probably fear the Cross even more if I truly understood what it entails.
How then can I long for it?
Every one of my wants, those listed and those not, direct my being toward something transitory. Yes, even my friendship of many years is not endless, though we both hope to one day share the eternal life we have been promised.
My longing, my very deepest longing, is to be taken beyond my false self, that odd collection of wants, weaknesses and abilities that I have come to think of as “me”, and become one with Christ in eternal love.
And there is only one way this deep longing of mine can be fulfilled: I must follow Him to the Cross where I willingly and lovingly learn to surrender my very self.
With Him, I will say, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” and, at that moment, my life will no longer belong to me – but to Love.
All of my little wants – there is nothing wrong with them. They are not bad anymore than flowers or butterflies, peaches or puppies are bad.
They are just very small and transitory. I love them and enjoy them but I know not to cling to them because they cannot last.
I love and embrace them with open hands. They may rest in my hands for short moments or long before slipping through my fingers like water into the pool of life.
I cannot lie. I will suffer. In my humanness, there will be times when I will cry out in pain, most especially for the human loves that bless my life. Yet this too is part of the Cross, the surrender of self.
This – this is sacrifice – the very heart of eternal love: to grasp nothing and give up all, everything that I know and want, so that all of the small loves may come to the fullness of life in God.
May He name be praised forever.