I have to admit, when it comes to doing menial and repetitive tasks I tend to look for distractions to temper the burden. For instance, when I work out at the gym or clean my bathroom, I insist on doing these things with the aid of one of my custom playlists. I do this because I get bored. Really bored. If I could, I would listen to music or a Podcast whenever I did any routine or mindless task: rooting out weeds from a yard, folding laundry into uneven squares, washing myself with soap in the shower. I find focused repetition boring and dull. I still manage to get these tasks done — otherwise I wouldn’t be a functioning adult — but when I do them I’m usually distracted. If it’s not music, then in my head I’m trying to solve a problem related to my work or replaying a conversation from earlier that day — usually while doing something mundane like checking for cracked eggs in a carton at the grocery store.
I’ve gotten much better over the years, and now I make it a discipline to do certain things without the relief of external or internal stimulation. I have to make sure I’m intentional about living in the moment—in its total and unflattering fullness—as much as I can.
There is undeniably something beautiful about the thirsting human spirit. Our continued desire to progress and ascend to great heights is commendable, an indelible mark of our image-bearing identity. In athletics, the sciences, literature, art and every other activity under humanity’s domain we as a race seek comprehension, expansion, perfection.
In some cases this quest for more can lead to unimaginable places. I recently came across an article about a diet known as the Bulletproof Diet. Like most other diets, it’s somewhat ascetic with its demands—eliminating grains, sugars and other staples from the standard American diet—with the aim of bettering health, shape, and fitness. Yet, unlike other diets, this one places great focus on maximizing mental capacity by removing hindering “toxins.”
This is all good and well. If you can safely increase your mental capacity through a certain diet, for example, then go right on ahead. We have an obligation to take care of our bodies and to ensure they are healthy. And like an athlete who trains with diligence and discipline, there is a spiritual dimension to catapulting the body to its greatest potential as a way of glorifying its masterful Creator.
A couple times a week I run along a small bay that neighbors my house. In the early mornings, if I’m able to get out at that time, I’m always struck by the stillness of that stretch of mirrored silver. The bay’s anchored tranquility brings me a sense of peace if I only take a moment or two to look at it. It’s an image that in some way soothes my soul.
In Father Jacques Philippe modest little book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, he calls to mind this metaphor for the soul:
“Consider the surface of a lake, above which the sun is shining. If the surface of the lake is peaceful and tranquil, the sun will be reflected in this lake; and the more peaceful the lake, the more perfectly will it be reflected. If, on the contrary, the surface of the lake is agitated, undulating, then the image of the sun can not be reflected in it.”
It’s a deeply simple, yet profound stroke of insight—our souls can only reflect God’s love and grace if they are calm and delicately moored. The peace promised to us by Jesus Christ two millennia ago only flowers in the soil of a serene heart.
We move and have our being in a material world, a world that in many ways can be estimated, codified and measured. We do certain things with the hope and expectation of being able to tally up tangible results. We seek education and skills in order to procure a rewarding or meaningful job. We work hard so we can give our loved ones good lives. We seek to realize our dreams so we can catapult society beyond the wondrous heights achieved by all those before us. We act in order to produce: to create a visible good to which we can attribute value. In placing such heavy stock in the results and value of our actions, we are able to validate not only what we do, but who we are.
Naturally, such an aim—to instill meaningful change and effect through our actions—is noble and good. We were created to tend to the garden of human flourishing—to use our gifts, abilities and circumstances to bring about God’s kingdom. Let us recall the parable of the talents, where the servant who buried his single talent is condemned for having squandered his responsibility to act, multiply, create.
Though in the form of the material, we are also made of the immaterial—we possess an eternal soul created and gifted to us by God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church elucidates the unification of these two aspects—body and soul—to form a single, inimitable nature:
In recent years, there has been a breached interest in self-discovery: a search to uncover the secret to the inner self in hopes of procuring purpose, meaning and abiding happiness. And so many have taken to scouring the self-help sections of bookstores — online and off — to essentially unlock the secret to being. A few years ago I went through my own self-discovery phase. I had just ended a long relationship with a woman and now had the time and freedom to explore myself in ways that I hadn’t before. Here I was, single and in my mid-twenties, wondering what my next step in life should be. I had come back to my faith only a few years prior, and so there was so much I yearned to explore about God, the spiritual life, and myself.
So I dove in.
To be sure, in many ways it was a rich and necessary experience. Being able to peel back the layers of my unacquainted self was exciting, fascinating and informative. I did this in a host of different ways: Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder and charisms tests, endless books and articles on discernment and vocation, conversations with friends and mentors, time spent in prayer, even by taking “What Movie Character Are You?” quizzes featured on my Facebook feed. I didn’t discriminate. If it could lead to greater illumination, I was all for it. And much of it did indeed prove to be illuminating: tools that helped me understanding who I was and what role I might be called to play in the world. But at times it also became limiting and stressful, not to mention spurring an obsessiveness that worked against my efforts for clarity. On my less-than-stellar days, I spent hours analyzing every gift and flaw, affinity and quark I had, with the subconscious expectation of wresting a comprehensive, nicely buttoned up understanding of myself. When this happened, my quest for self-knowledge turned sour, an egotistical exercise in concocting a falsely comforting illusion. Continue reading
Please help me get the word out by liking and sharing!
From a very young age we’re taught the value of accruing knowledge, relationships, popularity and success—a storing up and clutching onto good things that can help us sail effectively toward a happy life. We’re groomed not to dispense of anything we own or acquire that has value, but instead to cultivate it, protect it, hold onto it with tireless resolve. What we have and collect—our education, gifts and talents, intellect, possessions—we are expected to use strategically to our advantage. We become hoarders so we can navigate the world and be victorious within it.
From a rational vantage point, it makes complete sense. It seems an absolutely necessary mindset to have in order to be successful in the world. These things, in their goodness, can point to God and allow for happiness. When I review the many good things in my life—my family, group of friends, job, health, home in San Diego, access to delicious food at will—sometimes I’m met with an overwhelming sense of comfort and contentment. For me, such a realization invites me to thank God, acknowledging that such things can work as refreshment on life’s journey. These moments, as good and nourishing as they can be, though, also have the capacity to dim my reliance on God. I can easily take comfort in the things around me, becoming resistant in handing them over to God should he ask for them.
Silence. It can be a reservoir of flowing peace and nourishing grace. It can call to mind our cherished identity, compelling us to respond to God and others with that same, first love he has shown us. Or it can be cold and sterile, a state of abandonment, loss, frustration and sorrow. It’s in the silence that we can choose to trust in his loving presence or his aching absence. We all know of people—maybe even ourselves at times—who turn away from God because in a time of great need they were met with the cold, bitter sound of only their own cries and tears. It’s an experience, I imagine, we can all relate to on some level.
Submitting to God, and the mystery of his sometimes peculiar and painful ways is a sobering challenge, one we can’t escape as we journey back toward the Kingdom of God in this life. God gives us enough grace and light to have a reasonable, firm and joyful belief in him, but so much of our lives remain unclear—we’re asked to trust in his plan even when it appears chaotic, unfair, or meaningless. When the eyes of our bodies are darkened, we are called to rely evermore on the eyes of our faith. This trusting in his will gradually and—at least on our worse days, suspiciously—throughout our lives is hard. And we experience moments in our lives when we cast a full-throated cry to God in words that echo those same ones from Job himself:
There are certain days when it takes every ounce of willpower to drag myself to work and attempt to render what can rightfully be called a semi-productive day. We all have days when we just can’t see the purpose of our work, or if we do, we still can’t be bothered to do it. The general feeling of malaise might stem from a lack of passion, boredom, restlessness, laziness or any other number of things, including an underlying feeling that our work is a time devouring inconvenience that prevents us from doing the things that would really make our lives more meaningful and rich—nurturing relationships with friends and family, helping others, reading scripture, and of course, spending time in prayer.
I do like my job, and I’ve had other jobs in the past where nearly every day I dreaded punching my timecard. I’m grateful that I’ve found something that I enjoy on most days, but I know there are many who struggle to find value or joy in their work. For some, their work is pure toil and unforgiving labor, while for others, though it may not be awful, it’s not life-giving or fulfilling.
Still, it’s a great misconception to view our work—this mandatory, hefty chunk of our lives—as a means to an end. It’s easy to assume that we work so we can take care of our loved ones and ourselves, and that our jobs are merely something to occupy our time and render us “productive” in the vacant eyes of society. And while work does allow us to provide for others and ourselves, there is something deeply mystical and spiritual about it as well that we must not overlook.
If you look at what all successful people have in common—from sports to entertainment to business—it’s that they have a singular devotion to a specific goal. They have concentrated all of their efforts toward some end, harnessing all of their talent, energy, stamina and will into achieving that particular thing—even to the point of sacrifice, suffering. It’s no mystery that in order to be great at something—not just good, but truly exceptional—you have to give it your all, literally.
When it comes to the spiritual life, for some reason that logic doesn’t seem to sway so obviously. Maybe it’s because at a certain level, we know the journey toward spiritual greatness—to sainthood—is tremendously difficult. We may see the gap from where we are to where we have to go as equivalent to a vast ocean running endlessly into the horizon. Instead, it’s easier to throw up our hands and concede how laughably far from sainthood we are. And besides, it’s God’s job, right? His grace? Of course, we can do nothing without the grace of God, but still, we have some skin in the game, so to speak—we have to respond to his gift of grace. And we’re called to respond with the whole of our lives. Not a sliver, not a fraction, not even a good majority. All of it. God doesn’t ask us to be good, very good, or even extremely good. No. He asks us to be perfect, just as he, our Heavenly Father, is perfect. And so if God is asking for perfection, why do so many of us still lack a singular devotion to the life of God?
Enter your email below to receive updates of my latest articles and podcast episodes, offering insights, reflections, advice and commentary on discerning God's presence and call within the culture and responding with love and faith.
Enter your email below to receive updates of my latest blog posts, offering insights, reflections, advice and commentary on discerning God's presence and call in the culture and responding with courage and faith.