It is often said that animals are always just the way they are supposed to be, but human beings can actualize their existence. We must, it seems, “do” something to become fully who we are. But what does this “doing” look like? And can we really achieve or actualize our own being, or does it nor rather need to be gratuitously given to us from the outside, through the love of another. Perhaps the answer can be found in meditation and prayer? Is this something that we do, or something that we allow to be done to us? I will try to provide the answer here. In our world there is a great thirst for meditation and prayer, for contemplative experiences and contact with the divine. But this is often, indeed most of the time, an agnostic, new-age kind of meditation. For example, there has been recently (so I have heard) a lot of talk about so-called “flow states,” in which one’s consciousness is actualized in a full presence to one’s existence. (An example used is losing track of time while writing a paper, which, to me, seems like a very poor example, for this can often be nothing but a being “submerged” by busy-ness, and not a full aliveness to one’s existence at all, but that’s another story…)
There is a seed of truth here, in the whole concept of “flow states,” even if there is also great need for correction and elevation. There is indeed a beautiful Latin axiom that refers in large part to precisely this reality: Age quod agis. Do what you are doing. That is: be fully present, with the attention of your entire being, to the sacrament of the present moment. Listen to your senses, your body, your emotions, your mind, all in an attitude of quietude and rest, fully engaged in whatever rightfully occupies your attention in this moment, all the while abiding above all in contemplative leisure and childlike docility before the One who comes to you at every instant at the very heart of created reality. But to mention “the One who comes” is immediately to leave behind the limitations of the agnostic and new-age and instead to immerse oneself into the fullness of reality, illumined by the light of the Incarnation and Redemption. For only in Christ can we fully understand what it means to be present with the whole of one’s being to reality, for only in him is the body itself redeemed, healed, and sanctified, and only in him is the entirety of creation itself made radiant with the light of the Trinity’s love and presence—which is not an abstract “idea” imposed from the outside, but rather the supreme gift, opened up through divine revelation, the sacraments, and prayer, and unveiling the very essence of all being as personal love and intimacy.
It is this conviction, born of faith, that unseals within us the capacity to open our hearts, to relax in trusting surrender, and to let ourselves be engaged, without defenses and in vulnerable trust, by the fullness of reality as it comes to us at every moment. For it is always not only reality itself that we encounter—that is, impersonal or created reality—but the One who loves us, and who never fails to draw near to the heart that yearns for him. And in this attitude, we are also truly capable of receiving, listening to, and reverencing other human persons as they deserve. Indeed, this contemplative receptivity to the goodness and beauty of the other person, before doing or willing anything, is the primary act of love. It is the passio of love that gives birth to and enfolds all actio, the letting-be that cradles and brings forth all doing, and to which doing is oriented anew, as all flows back together into the pure and gratuitous experience of intimacy between persons in the cradling embrace of the Love that is the truth of all things.
This attitude of being fully-present, of course, also lines up exactly with what Conrad Baars described as “the affirming attitude.” Baars wrote:
“I lead the affirming life by being continuously present with the full attention of my whole being to everything that is; by being fully capable of being moved emotionally by all I encounter in the world around me; and by allowing the delight and joy that I experience to be revealed naturally and spontaneously so that the object of my delight can be moved too by his or her own goodness. It is in this way of being present to another, prior to my doing anything, that the other is born psychologically, delivered from the prison of his loneliness and self-centeredness, is strengthened and made firm in the realization that he may be who he is and may become who he is meant to be in his own way and at his own pace. It is in this process that the other is gradually opened to the goodness of all creation and to God Himself.
“It is in being affirmed that a person’s psyche is allowed to flower fully in its own unique way, to become open to its own goodness and that of others. Thus affirmation can be said to be truly life-giving, and as such is the source of another’s psychic [psychological] birth. [I compare] the affirming process to the effect water has on something immersed in it. The water respects the object and lets it be. The water surrounds it perfectly and adjusts itself faithfully to the exact contours of the object without destroying it. It allows the object, if a living one, like fish, coral or plant, to grow and develop without hindrance by adjusting its own weight in relation to it. Moreover, it hides its defects from view”.1
Here, of course, it also becomes apparent how all that I am writing is significant for the community, and for the homes of communion and houses of affirmation that you, my God, desire to flower through the intimacy that we live within your sheltering embrace. This patient, tender, receptive presence to the goodness of every person, and indeed of every created reality, should permeate our homes and make them true atmospheres of affirmation and human flourishing. This is flourishing in which the richness of nature is unsealed by being utterly wedded to grace, and indeed completely permeated by grace, since all of our existence is explicitly known and lived only in the light, in the all-enfolding and all-pervading presence, of the intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in our call to share in this intimacy.
Here, too, our desires find their healing and proper orientation: first of all simply in being set free from the fear and shame that may bind and repress them, keeping them buried and hidden; and second, in these desires being allowed to expand to their true proportions and to find their authentic expression. On the one extreme is the attitude of repression; on the other is the reality of being “spoiled.” And the experience of being spoiled, of having one’s desires “dwarfed,” occurs in three dimensions:
1) The first is that one receives many things before one even has the opportunity to develop a desire for them; this happens for example in “mediated” forms of enjoyment which are not essential to human flourishing itself, like all forms of technology or even toys. Rather than letting the child’s sense of wonder and desire spontaneously awaken through a direct and unmediated contact with the real world that God created, and especially with other living beings, both animals and human persons, the child is suffocated with enjoyments and pleasures and sensations which, rather than awakening desire and letting it expand, rather dulls it and keeps it from developing. This often happens in our culture, in which the default “love language” of parents for children is often giving them things, whether money or possessions or pleasures, rather than the true experience of affirmation, and the education in authentic desire which this inaugurates and accompanies.
2) The second dimension of having one’s desires “spoiled” is by never being taught or learning the importance of waiting. This is the problem of instant gratification, as if any waiting is a sign of abandonment, of being rejected and left alone in one’s need. Rather, waiting needs to be understood as an important and beautiful space in which desire is allowed to unfold, to expand, to unfurl its wings, as it were. This is very beautifully expressed in the whole movement of the Song of Songs, for example, which can be seen as the drama of the bride’s ever-deepening desire for her Bridegroom, a desire that is purified, matures, and comes to full flower through the dynamic dance of encounter and longing—of encountering awakening deeper desire, and of desire reaching out for another encounter—until the definitive encounter of heaven in which every desire is fully developed in the same moment that it is perfectly fulfilled, in the eternal face to face, in the everlasting kiss and embrace of God, which fully unseals, and simultaneously fulfills, our desire for the fullness of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, for the fullness of Being, which in the end is nothing but Love and Intimacy.
3) This leads to the third. One can also be “spoiled” if one does not understand and experience the “hierarchy” of desires, if one does not live the “directionality” of desire, its trajectory toward authentic fulfillment personal and human fulfillment in its holistic meaning and integrity. This is where the three kinds of importance explained by Dietrich von Hildebrand are tremendously helpful: the subjectively satisfying, the objectively beneficial, and the inherently valuable.2 Our whole world is filled with goodness, beauty, and meaning, and yet there is a rich hierarchy in which some things are more important and others are less important. Indeed, there is not only a hierarchy, in which higher values are to be chosen over lower ones, but also a “directionality,” in which this multitude is ultimately reduced, again, to something very simple and unified: the longing for interpersonal love and intimacy. In the end this alone gives meaning to all other desires, orbiting, harnessing, and taking them up into the one ultimate desire for intimacy, which will be perfectly fulfilled when all values, all of created reality, is utterly personalized, virginalized, made utterly transparent to the pure light of the Trinity’s love and intimacy.
That is enough of the way in which desires can be “dwarfed” through being hindered in their expression, not only by a fearful repression (which is also clearly a great danger, particularly in certain spheres of our ecclesial atmosphere), but also through being suffocated by the hedonism and materialism which would satisfy us immediately and thus keep us on the surface of things, hindering us from feeling them and being moved by them as deeply as they deserve. Part of the attitude of affirmation, therefore, is the dilation of desire, the willingness to “suffer” this desire in order to enter ever more deeply into the vulnerability of encounter and the nakedness of love, where alone true intimacy comes to full flower. After all, perhaps the surest way to have a healthy community of persons living together is for them all to be love-wounded persons, persons restless with ardent longing for intimacy with the divine Bridegroom, and for intimacy with one another in his all-enfolding embrace.
Let me add here another long quote from Conrad Baars about this reality of affirmation, which brings in another important and beautiful element. And in the light of his words, I will be able to swing back around to the way I began this entry: with the reality of meditation and contemplation. Baars wrote:
“We must learn to be simply present to what is good and to be moved by it…but if I’m rushing around, I can’t stand still and be present, for example, to the goodness and beauty of a tree or another person or whatever it may be. If I do take the time and let the goodness of things move me, then I affirm that creation. I become a co-creator with God of what He has created. That’s another way of saying what an affirmer is: a co-creator. … In order for me to live the affirming life, it is necessary that I be present with the full attention of my whole being to all of creation—not just with my thinking, or discursive mind, but also with the attention of my senses, my intuitive or contemplative mind, my spiritual sense, and my emotions.3 … The discursive mind has to be much less active than the intuitive mind. In our society, the overactivity of our active minds and the overactivity of the utilitarian (assertive) emotions are a tremendous obstacle to leading the authentic human life. The overactivity of our discursive reason and utilitarian emotions also prevents us from being responsive to the other group of emotions that God has given us.
“We call those the humane emotions, the emotions of love and desire, joy and kindness, affection, compassion, and tenderness. These emotions work directly under the guidance of our intuitive mind [I would say the spiritual affectivity, the “voice” of the heart]. Ennobled by the intuitive mind and guided by reason and will, these humane emotions should be the main source of being present to all of God’s creation. [If we do this, then people] will be able to sense our delight in their goodness. When I am moved by the goodness of what I see around me, I automatically feel that I must protect that goodness. I do not wish to do anything that will interfere with this goodness.
“That is the source of my developing this love-with-restraint. I do not restrain the love itself; I always let it be and grow. I do restrain myself in the manifestations of my love, however, when I know that those manifestations cannot be received by the other person, when he cannot respond to me, or when I know that those manifestations of my love would be contrary to the moral order. Only in this way of relating do we allow the other person to be who he or she is and allow the other to become what he or she is meant to be in God’s plan, both in his own time and at his own pace. At that point the deepest and most unbreakable bonds of friendship are formed, of mutual affirming and loving.
“The first need of a person, then, is to be allowed to be himself. The second need is to know the truth. My obligation within this affirming relationship is to help the other to know who and what he is, and what he should do. The other will listen to me only because I have opened him to his own goodness, to the goodness of all creation, and to the goodness of God. When the other is disposed to listen to me, then I can tell him how he must live”.4
This reflection is continued in the next one: “The Kiss of Contemplation.”
1. Conrad Baars, I Will Give Them a New Heart: Reflections on the Priesthood and the Renewal of the Church, ed. Suzanne M. Baars, MA and Bonnie N. Shayne, MA (Alba House: New York, 2007), 46 and 56.
2. See my reflection in A Flame of God Himself, entitled “Love as a Response to the Beauty of the Beloved,” or the thorough summary in the translator’s introduction to von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love.
3. These italics are added. I would also clarify what is meant by emotions, since there are different kinds of emotions or affective responses. What Baars refers to as the “intuitive mind” is much closer to the “heart” than it is to what we usually refer to as the “mind” or “reason.” See Dietrich von Hildebrand’s distinctions between the different spheres of affectivity in The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity. At the risk of simplification, he says that there are: 1) physiological, emotional states caused by some movement in the body, e.g. a low mood, or euphoria caused by alcohol, or sadness caused by exhaustion; 2) psychic states that are caused within us more directly by particular thoughts or experiences; these are what are usually referred to as the “emotions,” such as anger, longing, sadness, frustration, etc.; 3) but there is something even deeper here, which can be referred to as the spiritual affectivity, the “voice” of the inner heart in response to objective values which touch us from the outside. This voice of the heart, this affectivity, does not reside lower than the intellect and the will (as the emotions do in the schema of Thomas Aquinas), but rather on a par with them as one of the three “spiritual faculties of the soul.” Such affective responses are wholly objective, fully intentional (in the philosophical sense, i.e. meaningfully related to an object), and also essential for giving a full response to reality, in other words, a truly affirming response of my whole being, which is precisely what Baars is saying.
4. Reflections on the Priesthood and the Renewal of the Church, 57, 67-68.