Thursday, November 27, 2008

Spiritual Exercises V

"A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

"Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!"

He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge's, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

"Christmas a humbug, uncle!" said Scrooge's nephew. "You don't mean that, I am sure."

"I do," said Scrooge. "Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough."

"Come, then," returned the nephew gaily. "What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough."

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said "Bah!" again; and followed it up with "Humbug."
(Dickens, A Christmas Carol, pp. 4-5)

During the holidays, it's easy for me to become aware of how much I *don't* have, especially as stores get engorged with gift items that are all "must-haves". This time of the year I become more keenly aware of my vow of poverty than any other time.

The more I dwell on what I don't have -- either for myself, or to give away to others as gifts (gifts that would impress with their extravagance) -- the more stressed and inadequate and genuinely grumpy I feel. I can lose sight of all the blessings in my life, and either become afraid they'll be taken away, or feel upset that I don't have "more" or 'what others have'.

If you've not read A Christmas Carol in a long time, download a copy and read the description of Scrooge in the first chapter. Ebenezer Scrooge epitomizes how I can get to be feeling, if I'm not careful. "He carried his own low temperature always about with him..." One line in particular stands out for me: "Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it."

If A Christmas Carol is unknown to you, think Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, but without his generous nature, good humor, and gentle spirit.

So what's to be done when I'm getting more Scroogy than even I'm comfortable with?

I've been taught a simple spiritual exercise that can help: I practice being satisfied. I act as if it's OK to be where I am, as I am, right here, right now.

I make a conscious decision of the will to accept my situation, just as it is, as being sufficient for this present moment. I deliberately attempt to let go of expectations (my own and/or others') that things/I/situations ought to be different. I focus on gratitude, rather than on misanthropy.

It's tough -- especially for a curmudgeon -- and takes a lot of repetition, but it works.

Here's a vignette to illustrate my point.

A number of years ago I found myself in a new city and not particularly happy about the confluence of events that brought me there. So I started hanging out with people who were trying to live one day at a time, and develop and improve their conscious contact with a Power greater than themselves. On a wintry day a couple of months after I'd arrived, I was with a group of those folks as we listened to a man talk about how he had been complaining about his life to his AA sponsor.

The sponsor had told him to practice being satisfied.

That was a new concept for the man, but he decided to give it a try. Much to his surprise, it was working, and his life was improving. The guy spoke with authenticity and authority.

People in rooms like that tend to be able to spot someone who's not really telling the truth. That guy was telling the truth.

Weird thing was, the guy was homeless.

It was winter, in the midwest. There was snow and slush and cold. I felt grumpy for being there, and annoyed at having to scrape off the car before going on my merry way anywhere. I felt put-upon at having to trudge through snowbanks and navigate icy sidewalks on my way to and from work. (I didn't have to do that when living in California!)

I had, what many of those friends of mine would say are "country club problems."

That guy, on the other hand, was HOMELESS.

He felt serenity as he practiced being satisfied.

I, on the other hand, felt restless, irritable, and discontented.

He made a habit of listing ten things/people/events for which he was grateful several times a day. I was rehearsing how wronged I'd been by others, multiple times a day. He tried to go out of his way to do something nice, anonymously, for someone else at least once per day. I was waiting for "them" to apologize to me.

(Never happened, of course.)

His serenity was leading him to be able to take actions -- sober -- that he'd never been able to do before, and he had gotten a job which he'd thus far managed to keep for several months. He was beginning to pay off some of the huge debt he'd accumulated, and had a line on a place to live, if he could demonstrate his reliability and trustworthiness by keeping the job. He figured he could be off the streets in a week or two more at most.

I was in a rut that was keeping me bitter and resentful and endangering my sobriety.

He was loving life as a sober person. His life was very tough, but as he practiced being satisfied, his life was improving because his attitude kept improving.

I kept my focus on what I *didn't* have, how much *more* I *deserved*, how wronged I was, and how UNFAIR life was -- all the while having a job, having a place to live, having food on the table (and living in a place where I didn't have to cook it or do the dishes), having friends and family who loved me and supported me. I was not exactly loving life as a sober person.

But that guy at that meeting was!

I was speechless.

If it could work for him, perhaps it could work for me.

It did.

It's still working -- when I apply myself to engaging this spiritual exercise -- even over here in Iraq. Even when we get mortared, and things here get blown up.

Go figure.

If the holidays are proving to be a challenge for you, try this small spiritual exercise which has worked for me: Practice being satisfied.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks, Fr. Tim. Only son, Cormac, is on my mind today as he is completing the spiritual exercises of the 30 day retreat. Can't reach him, of course, so I decided to check up on you and found your reflection with the words "spiritual exercises"-- Just what I needed. Thank you very much. I add your intentions to those of other of C's friends whom I think of just before nodding off at night. For him and for his friends, I offer the irish blessing..."God hold you in the hollow of his/her hands...." Marilyn Brissett-Kruger

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