Last weekend, our little Ordinariate parish held a requiem Mass for a dear friend and confidant who experienced a long and debilitating illness. In her last year of life, my friend suffered as well from a rare form of dementia that affected her insight and judgment. Otherwise, except for some persistent delusions, her intellect was intact as well as her short-term memory. This was a tragic development for someone who was so gifted, so loving, so faithful as a new Catholic. Because this was a result of an organic or biological impairment, it was impossible to make her see certain things or to get her to see that her behavior (due to lack of insight) had certain consequences. She could not see cause and effect except in a most basic way, and it was frustrating and difficult for those of us who loved her because she was still so incredibly smart.
I mention this only as a way of leading into a reflection on insight, especially insight into our own behavior, which is a gift from God, and a terrible thing to lose or to lack –whether through a thickening and scarring of blood vessels in the brain as in my friend’s case—or for other reasons, whether mental illness; perhaps demonic strongholds that take hold perhaps through childhood abuse or trauma or perhaps a stubborn and persistent refusal to forgive.
My spiritual awakening began on the vernal equinox of 1973, 42 years ago. I was with someone I loved very much who persuaded me to take mescaline (obviously he did not love me very much, but that’s another story). I became so affected by this drug that I could not speak. Everything slowed down to the point where time seemed to stand still. It was as if I could see the cells in the plant nearby pulsating with life and the hum from the fish tank filter was so annoyingly loud my friend had to turn it off. When a class of cream soda was put before me, all I could do is watch in fascination as the bubbles from its carbonation rose and hit the air. My limbs seemed to change length and shape. I was hallucinating in other words.
My friend asked me a question: How would you like to have a baby? have a family?”
Because I loved him so much, I wanted to give him an honest answer. So, in this immense sense of the present moment, I closed my eyes and began to look for an honest answer.
All I could see in this hyper-aware state were lies.
No, this wasn’t an honest answer, that’s a lie. No, the honest answer isn’t here, that’s a lie too.
So I strove to go deeper, searching within myself for an honest answer, and seeing how my life was built on an edifice of lies and those lies were built on resentment and blame.
I began to weep with sorrow that my whole life, my whole identity was based on lies, still going deeper, until I began to see a dappled white light. But this was not just light. It was love, like the love light you might see in the eyes of a holy man or woman. It was the most profound, amazing experience, having this Love that I knew beyond a doubt was the most Real of anything, more real than the very universe, was present at the same time I could see this false, blame-filled, resentful identity, which seemed obscene to me in the face of that Love.
Though I had no vocabulary for what happened that day, I believe now I touched the hem of Christ’s garment and from then my conversion began with an experience of repentance, where I was repented, turned by encountering this amazing Love, Truth and Beauty that had to be from God. And because of that experience of Divine Love, no matter how much I suffered subsequently, no matter how much I was tempted to depression or negative thinking, I had this vision, this touch from God that helped me to persist, and persist and persist like the importunate woman in the parables.
So, one of my first God-given insights was this: it’s obscene in the face of this Love to resent or to blame. That no matter how “justified” I might feel in my anger, I knew I had to rise above it, choose to forgive and let it go. I then discovered a spiritual, contemplative practice that helped me develop a discipline of observing my thoughts and emotions instead of being caught up in them, or being carried away by them. As someone with attention problems, a vivid uncontrolled imagination and attendant anxiety issues, this discipline helped me towards much greater objectivity and insight into myself and other people.
It was not pleasant or easy. I used to have to set the clock and make myself sit still for say a half hour. I would sometimes nearly writhe with anxiety and boredom, then weep as God’s presence would reveal to me how I was still smoking with resentment and the Holy Spirit would convict and cleanse at the same time, setting me free little by little from huge bondage to sin.
That was all a long, long time ago and now my spiritual disciplines have changed. I do not have to struggle so much to have a quiet mind that is free from unwanted thoughts or chatter. When something does upset me and my mind and feelings start churning and grueling as an old friend used to say, it is so much easier to take thoughts captive to Christ than it once was. I now have access to sacramental Confession, Holy Communion and other graces and spiritual disciplines like the Rosary and the daily offices which help with the renewing of my mind in Christ and in resisting the devil.
Which is a long preamble to say I still encounter way too many instances among Christians where a profound lack of insight is at play, where all these people can see is the fault of the other person and not how they might be contributing to whatever has befallen them.
I see people over the years who have become extremely angry—perhaps over something I did inadvertently—and then in their anger have done something over the top, or hurtful to me in response—doing in anger something far worse than what I was perceived to have done—but they are so blinded by their own hurt and judgment on me they feel justified in what they have done to me or perhaps do not even realize what they have done to me. Please forgive me if I have done something like that to you!
I see fights going on among Christians who are so angry at each other all they can see is the fault of the other person and they react in ways that are far worse than what the other person has done to them, but still feel justified in what they have done, feel like victims, in other words.
Each action is met with reaction, in a cycle of retaliation and blame and self-justification—among parties who all say the Lord’s Prayer. What part of “forgive us as we forgive?” don’t they understand? Do they not see how they resemble each other?
The gift of insight. So, so precious. Pray for the gift of insight and discernment. But you will never receive it if you are all puffed up in self-righteous indignation, judgment and anger. You must resist all that. Indignation, anger, resentment are never attractive on anyone, especially Christians.
There’s an old cliche about when you point your finger at someone you have three fingers pointing back at you. Often when I am angered or upset by someone it’s because they are doing something that I do, but that I am still not owning, or admitting to myself.
Again, let us all pray for the gift of insight.