Sister Joyce sat across from me in a simple, bare room at the retreat house by the sea wearing a borrowed coat to shield her from the sudden ocean breezes. Her eyes were closed for several long moments as she took in what I had just shared with her. I’d been meeting with her for some informal continuing education in spirituality for a few days this summer, and over the days we sat together I grew used to her tousled hair, closed eyes, and raised eyebrows. After speaking I would wonder if I had impressed her, held my breath, filled up with the hope of impressing. “She’s speechless!” I’d think. Once, after a seeming-eternity she responded: “Yeah, OK Keith, but isn’t that a little severe? It sounds like you’re being a little… unfriendly towards yourself.” With a prick I was deflated.
Even worse because I’d just explained the crux of my last post to this wise nun, the ways that I hold out for what’s special and keep myself from experiencing what’s present. I’d been erudite and perceptive, I’d been honest – hadn’t I? Still her piercing question and brief commentary left me feeling like a kid at the fair, dragging a ribbon and a small pile of rubber that used to be a balloon.
What was it that had just happened? I thought I had something that I could hold on to, the idea that I overlook the specialness of small moments and that I need to stop doing this… where’d it go?
Severe. Unfriendly. I repeated her words to myself as the day ticked by, and eventually I gathered up enough courage to let myself realize what to her had been quite evident: those two words were more applicable to myself than I wanted them to be. I trudged back to her office the next day and told her that what she said had bothered me. In reality, it had hit a little too close to home.
“Well, what’s underneath what you told me yesterday?” she said. “You know, there might be some underlying desires there that can be good, even holy.”
But I didn’t know what was there. So I went back to the original insight to dig around underneath it: what’s the desire that leads me to hold out for what’s special? As I sat, so many desires came to mind that I struggled to list them all. Here are a few:
- to be loved
- to be appreciated
- to know that I’m an important presence for others
- to show others that they are important to me
- to know and to be known by others
It was while looking at my list that I began to understand that there was indeed something buried beneath my need for the special. Underneath were deep desires, desires good and holy and that belong to me – me. Underneath were desires that begin to shade in the outline of my inner self, of who I am at my core: a generous man who desires to love and be loved.
How could I not know these desires? How could the feelings have laid there unfelt? Yet they were. I didn’t know these desires, not well. Even more: it was my severity, my unfriendliness towards myself, that wasn’t allowing me to know my inner self. A scary realization.
Holding out for the special is a choice I make, and a poor one at that. It happens when I act out of a feeling that is not fully explored, when my deepest desire is left abandoned or shoved into a closet somewhere, hidden even from myself. It happens when I treat these inner movements as if they didn’t matter, weren’t worthy of my time or energy. It often happens when I’m being severe and unfriendly with myself.
Thank you, Sister Joyce.
In Bruce Marshall’s little known novel The World, The Flesh, and Father Smith there is a particularly striking line. It reads: “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” Though the young man is looking in the wrong place, Marshall is sure that holy desires underlie his poor choice.
They are there, our desires, just beneath the surface. We can unearth them and know them. We can befriend them and own them. We can allow our desires to reveal our most authentic selves. When we do we end up not severe and unfriendly, nor on the steps of a brothel, no, instead we end up as the greatest reflection of who God made us to be: ourselves.