When all around us we see so much that disturbs our spirits and robs us of peace, we are tempted to either succumb to despair and cynicism or to raise our voices in angry defiance. We instinctively want to get into the fray and make our voices heard in the clamour around us. But Jesus’ message to us within the drama and complexity of life around us is very practical: “get on with the mission of witnessing and trust that I will be with you – be faithful to the simple tasks you have been given, and do not be overcome by what is happening around you.”
This brings to mind some words of St. John of the Cross that I have been reflecting on for some time: “Wisdom enters through love, silence, and mortification. It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others.”
St. John of the Cross urges us to remain in the calm centre – the place of stillness and peace. To be silent. Not the silence of apathy or resignation, but the silence that knows that all these things shall pass, and that all the drama and angst of this particular issue will very soon be replaced by the excitement or outrage over some other issue. Sometimes, I think, we can be a little too interested in what’s going on in other people’s live or be too willing to involve ourselves in situations and issues that bring us nothing but restlessness and leave us feeling empty. Or sometimes we can allow ourselves to be unduly affected by the behaviour of others or by their positions on the issues of the day. Or we take too much to heart the words or actions of others towards us – we misread and overinterpret or just simply take things too personally. All this disturbs our spirits and brings us into conflict within ourselves. How often have I found that my getting too caught up in certain issues or my reacting negatively to the lives of others leaves me feeling upset in myself or empty and hollowed out inside. Or more likely, feeling guilty that I wasn’t more gentle, kind and patient. We need to maintain a healthy detachment from many of the things outside of us – things that rob us of a deeper interiority, a reflective disposition and an equanimity of spirit.
I know that with myself, I would benefit enormously from keeping a certain prudent distance from many of the goings on in the world, the Church and my life. When we’re caught up in the drama of these things we tend to react from our more superficial feelings and the passing inclinations of our moods, rather than from within our deeper beliefs and convictions. Rather, if we learn to reflect carefully on the situation and on the underlying dynamics at play, we might be able to withhold judgement or action, and if felt called to respond we might do so more authentically and in a way more consonant with our truer and deeper selves. And so perhaps bring a gentler and kinder wisdom to prevail.
St. John of the Cross’ wisdom counsels that through silence, love and self-discipline, we strive to just step back for a moment and not get caught up in the things of the world, and attend rather to the concerns and responsibilities of our own lives. Attend rather to the weaknesses we are struggling with, to living more authentically the challenge of the gospel in our daily lives. Attend in stillness and patience to the presence of God within us; a presence that heals us and brings peace. It’s a great challenge, because we are all too human and sometimes we even welcome or indeed, seek the distractions presented by the events around us and the goings on in other people’s lives. But self-discipline in these matters is something towards which we should constantly strive, consciously practicing moments of detachment, and guarding against those things which contaminate our interior lives.
Having said all this, I feel the need to say something to bring some balance, because we are nevertheless, also called to live the gospel within the challenging complexities and suffering of our world. The healing and peace we derive from a healthy detachment from the drama of daily life leads us to share this with others. When we know peace, then we instinctively feel the need to reach out to those who are trapped in the painful circumstances of their lives and to share with them the balm of peace and healing we have experienced. We cannot be indifferent to their suffering, and here the words of St. Francis of Assisi are instructive and challenging: “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”