15 September 2013

It is only with the Heart that One sees Rightly

In one of the best selling books of all time, The Little Prince, there is a dialogue between a fox and the Little Prince. It occurs over a period of time. The Fox begins by explaining about what it means to be "tamed,"  and he notes that it involves forming ties with others. He begs the Prince to "tame him" and over time (the prince agrees to "waste time" in this way!) the Little Prince does so while the Fox allows himself to be tamed; in other words the Prince works to become the Fox's friend and the Fox becomes his. As a result the most mundane parts of reality are also transformed. Golden fields of wheat which hold no interest for the Fox ordinarily (he eats only chickens!) now remind the Fox of his friend's golden hair and occasion joy. When the time comes for the Little Prince to leave the Fox is sad, and then he gives the Little Prince his most precious secret, a secret he says most men have forgotten: [[It is only with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.]]

In last Friday's Gospel story Jesus knows that there is more than one way of "seeing" and he equates one of these with a destructive blindness which will lead everyone into the pit together. He warns that an untrained person is apt to harm someone and needs to get proper training before trying to act as a teacher. And he reminds us via this story that we ourselves are often afflicted with a beam in our own eye but that we are equally often one who blindly criticizes and offers to extract a splinter from another's eye. We hear one of Jesus' most damning judgments as he says: "You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from in your brother's eye!"

Jesus clearly understands several things; he knows what the fox reminds us most "men have forgotten": First, that seeing rightly (compassion) is something we do with our hearts and this requires a kind of training. It is the kind of training one does when, over time, one helps (trains) a child to grow in a certain way. It takes years to "train" a child's ability to stand upright, to help them become persons who love themselves and others, who are capable of giving themselves to the world in a way which makes it better, richer, more holy. It takes years to help a child become responsible for their own hearts as we ourselves are called to be responsible for our own hearts Our hearts are, as I have said here a number of times, the places where we meet and respond to God, but they are also those places within us where obstacles to this meeting reside; for this reason they need to be "trained" (formed, healed, nurtured, strengthened, aided) to see rightly. The responsibility for forming our hearts, for taming them (what Christians call growing in holiness), is a lifelong process of being made capable of compassionate seeing.

Secondly then, he knew that the way our attention is avidly drawn to the splinter in another's eye SHOULD lead us to suspect the beam in our own; that is, we should suspect the real obstacles to accurate vision, to compassion, exist in our own hearts. They represent ways of seeing we have made our own whether they have come from our culture, from peer pressure, from our own needs, successes or failures, from the hurts of childhood, or wherever. Because of this I think Jesus understood very well that we ordinarily operate from habitual ways of seeing and behaving which are less than Christian; we operate from characteristic attitudes of the false self that serve as lenses which distort our own vision and prevent us from seeing rightly or compassionately with the heart. In terms of the Gospel, and the story of the Little Prince, they are the lenses which prevent us from making neighbors of those we meet or know, the lenses which prevent us from loving others, from letting others "tame us," and therefore from becoming friends.

 Two pieces of monastic truth:

Monastic life encapsulated Jesus' teaching in a number of ways, but there are two pieces which are especially important here. The first is the monastic teaching on what are called "the passions."  The passions are obstacles to humility, that is, they are barriers to recognizing and celebrating the truth about who we are in regard to God and others. Thus they are also obstacles to compassion, to seeing others with the same kind of loving truthfulness. They are most often the beams in our own eyes and hearts which cause us to overreact to the splinters in our brother's or sister's eyes. They are the symptoms of woundedness and disease in our own hearts which cause us to project onto others and fail to love them as we ought and as they deserve. As Roberta Bondi reminds us, "a passion has as its chief characteristics perversion of vision and the destruction of love." (To Love as God Loves)

Common passions we are all too familiar with include perfectionism, a kind of habitual irritation with someone or some situation, anger, envy, depression, apathy or sloth, gluttony (which often has more to do, Bondi points out, with requiring novelty than it does with eating), irritable or anxious restlessness, impatience, selfishness, etc. In each, if we consider their effects, we will notice these habitual ways of relating to ourselves and our world cause us to see reality in a distorted way (this is one of the reasons we think of seeing reality through the green haze of envy, or the red film of anger, or the black wall of depression, and so forth). Further, they get in the way of being open to or nurturing the truth of others --- that is, they are obstacles to love.

Similarly they are destructive of sight and love because they cause us to project onto others our own flawed expectations, values, failings and woundedness.  We know this by its psychological term: Projection. It is a serious disease Jesus apparently understood well, a result of our own brokenness and sinfulness, and it assures not only that the person being projected onto CANNOT be heard or seen for who they are, but also that the one doing the projecting becomes more and more locked into their own blindness and inability to love the other as neighbor. The wisdom of Jesus' admonition, "Remove the beam from your own eye before you attempt to remove the splinter from your brother's" as well as the appropriateness of his anger in calling others on their hypocrisy is profound.

The second piece of monastic wisdom here we should remember, and one which is closely related to the importance of dealing with our passions has to do with the nature of really seeing another truly. In our own time we are very used to acting as though we only know someone really well when we see their flaws. We approach people and things "critically," searching out their failings and weaknesses and when we have discovered them, we believe we have discovered their deepest truth. How often have we heard someone say something like: "I thought I knew him, but the other day, he acted to betray me. Now I really know who he is!"

But monastic wisdom is just the opposite of this notion of knowing. It is strikingly countercultural and counterintuitive. In monastic life we only really know someone when we see them as God sees them: precious, sacred, whole, and beautiful. We only see them rightly when we look past the flaws to the deep or true person at the core. We only see them truly when we see them with the eyes and humility of love. As we were reminded by Saint-Exupery and as tomorrow's Gospel implies strongly, "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly," --- and only once we have removed those distorting lenses monks call passions, that is, only once we have removed the beams from our own eyes will we be able to do this!