I remember when Mr. Peak stopped lecturing about Hamlet and started talking about raccoons. This is back in Freshman English. I stopped drawing in my notebook and looked up to listen. He said that raccoons like shiny objects. If you want to catch a raccoon, you can build a box with a hole in it. Make the hole no larger than the raccoon’s open paw. Place a shiny object in the box - a key, an earring, some tin foil. Then secure the box to the trunk of a tree. The raccoon will look in the hole - because raccoons are curious like that - and he’ll reach his paw in the box grabbing hold of the shiny object. Having now made a fist, his paw becomes too large for him to take it out of the box. He tugs, He tugs some more. He hears footsteps approaching - a man looking to solve the raccoon problem with a twenty-two rifle. If our raccoon friend lets go, he can pull his paw from the box and run free. Please let go little guy. The story doesn’t end well for the raccoon. I don’t think Mr. Peak liked raccoons.
Sometimes I think about that raccoon holding onto the shiny object. He could be free if he’d only let go. I think about my own life – about everyone’s lives. We do something similar. We hold onto things at the cost of our own freedom.
After college, I discovered what it was like to let go of everything and then later take it back. I decided to go into the Catholic seminary. That means embracing the discipline of chaste celibacy. The discipline enlivened my spiritual life and grew my love for humanity. This discipline did not come easy though. The diocese of San Diego placed me at the University of San Diego for my first three semesters of study. Originally I’m from a small town, and as a teenager my friends and I would wonder where in the world we could find a place with a lot of girls. It turns out that they all went to the University of San Diego. I was facing a real challenge.
At first I stayed focused. I kept my eyes in my text books, or on my instructors as they lectured, or on the crucifix in the chapel as I prayed. But each day my eyes wearied. I’d see girls with their boyfriends as I walked to class or studied in the library, the two holding hands, holding each other. She radiated with splendor. He stood tall with confidence. So I was jealous. I began to resent God’s calling in my life. I began to hold onto something that God had not called me to hold onto.
I think that letting go is much harder than holding on. Saint Augustine struggled. I read his “Confessions” in seminary. Augustine felt the voice of God calling him to a life of chaste celibacy. This call became torturous for him as he held onto his love of women. He writes, “I was compelled - even though unwilling - to agree to a married life which bound me hand and foot. I had heard from the mouth of truth [Jesus] that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” but said he “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” Augustine was compelled to a married life which bound him. He was compelled to resist the voice of God in his life. At the same time, he knew that he would be happiest following God’s call for him to embrace celibacy.
As I read this part of Augustine’s “Confessions”, I resisted his testimony. Augustine, I’d say, you are a buzz kill. Get married - there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s what I’m going to do. This life of celibacy is killing me. I can’t do it anymore.
I decided to leave the seminary and I began to date. Only then did Saint Augustine’s testimony begin to make sense. Eventually I began to date a girl who was everything I could hope for in a future wife. She was gorgeous and bright. However, while I enjoyed her company, I had a sense that my heart was growing smaller - like a tightened fist. On some deep level, I could still hear God’s voice reminding me that he had called me to become a priest and to live chastely and celibately. I began to fear death and lose hope. Life seemed meaningless. My poor girlfriend - she had landed a man who had fled the will of God.
Letting go is a miracle. Jesus performed a lot of miracles; one in particular stands out to me – the one where Jesus heals a man with a “withered hand”. I remember learning in a scripture class that the Greek term for withered hand means something more like a tightened fist. So Jesus healed this man with a tightened first. I know Jesus performed a physical healing of this man, but I also see it as an image of a spiritual healing. When we want something that isn’t God’s will, our hearts take hold and harden like a fist. It’s as if the heart becomes stone. I think that letting go is a miracle.
Jesus worked this miracle in my heart. One evening I sat visiting with my grandpa in his living room. My Grandpa asked me if I wanted to watch a documentary on Catholicism. I said sure. We sat and watched as the priest, Father Robert Barron explained the doctrine of hell. He used illustrations by Gustave Dore to talk about Dante’s Inferno. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Dore’s illustrations, they’re black and white and full of feeling and drama. I sat on the sofa looking at Dore’s illustration of Satan as Father Barron taught. Satan wasn’t surrounded by flames like you might expect, rather he was frozen and still. Fr. Barron explained that it’s because he has removed himself from the warmth of God’s love. This image frightened me. I had a sense that my own life was freezing over in a state of self-absorbed melancholy. I had removed myself from the warmth of God’s love in my pursuit of marriage. As I looked at this image of the frozen Satan, I begged God to reveal his will to me. As I prayed, God’s love poured into my soul and I felt a deep and renewed desire to go back to the seminary. I suddenly was not afraid to embrace celibacy. I knew that I would be free if did.
Breaking up with my girlfriend was painful for the both of us – still is – but I now have the joy and peace that comes with knowing that I’m on the right path. My heart is open again and I’m freer to love God and others. Like the raccoon I had to hold onto the shiny object, and pull with all my strength with no success, until I felt my life no longer made sense. I had to hear the footsteps of death approaching. In a moment of grace, Christ broke into my confined little world and opened my white knuckled grip, and he showed me a vision of freedom. My hang-up was that I wanted to be married – or so I thought. Marriage was my shiny object. I think everyone has a different shiny object: addictions, worries, riches, pleasures. I’ve learned that these shiny objects will never bring me the life that I long for. If I don’t let go of them, I’ll die. I’ve learned that I want to walk through this life with open hands. Only with open hands can I reach out to the poor and lonely - or take up my cross - or receive the gift of God himself - and only with open hands can I enter His kingdom.
Under the stars
Where I Look, I Go
Snowboarding turned out to be difficult. I remember my first run down the bunny slope. Every time I attempted a turn, I’d catch an edge and receive a face full of snow. It took me half the day to make it down the bunny slope. On my last run (ever, I thought), a guy noticed that I kept catching my edge and so he stopped to let me in on a secret.
“Hey buddy, let me help you.”
“I’m fine. Thanks though.”
“No really, let me help you… In snowboarding, where you look, you go.”
“Where you look you go. You keep looking down at the snow below you. Try looking up towards where you need to go. And you might want to get a bandage for your chin. It looks like it’s bleeding a bit. Later on bro.”
I figured I’d take his advice. There was nothing to lose.
When I looked ahead, when I looked downhill, my legs and body followed. I made my turns the entire way down the slope without once catching my edge. I just looked ahead and snowboarded. Later in life, I’d realize that this principle for snowboarding would apply to my spiritual life. Where I looked, I went.
I like watching TED talks. You download them off of Netflix. The other day I watched Tony Robbins give a talk. As part of his motivational talk, he told a story from his childhood. It was Thanksgiving day and his family did not even have the money to purchase a meal. His father had been struggling to find work. When a person came to the family’s front door carrying a large basket of food, Tony’s dad walked out on the family. He couldn’t bare the fact that his family needed to receive charity. Tony made a decision in this moment. He decided to focus on the fact that he had food, and on the fact that someone would be kind enough to bring his family food.
For the years to follow he would work to bring food to families in need on Thanksgiving. He currently runs a foundation that feeds over a million people each year on Thanksgiving. Tony could have focused on the fact that his dad just left the family. But he made the decision to look in a different direction.
I used to think about sad things a lot. I’d listen to National Public Radio, some in depth news report about death and torture in a foreign land. I’d turn off the radio and think about my own problems, my girlfriend and I aren’t together anymore, I’m poor, I’m not successful…I get depressed. I switch my stereo to sad music, Bon Iver, that band has sad music. I brood in it. It feels bad…and good. At this point, it begins to rain outside. I sink deeper.
I began to wonder what sort of impact this thinking about sad stuff habit might have on my life in the long term. If I get married, will these melancholy benders erode at my wife’s moral? Maybe she’d end up leaving me. Or what about my work, will my down-and-out-ness cripple my productivity? Maybe I’ll end up homeless.
I decided to bring up this concern to my spiritual director Father Dillard. He’s wise. He even looks wise, like Gandolf. He’s seven foot tall with a gray beard and coke-bottle-framed glasses.
I sat in his office, next to his book shelf of hardbound spiritual classics and told him about this habit of mine.
“What can I say Father, I like sad stuff…I like feeling sad.” Maybe because I get to feel like a victim, and so I don’t need to feel responsible for my life. My life is God’s problem, not mine. He created this mess of a world. I’m off the hook.
Okay so I only told him that first line you see there in quotes.
Then he told me through that full beard which I’m a little jealous I can’t grow, “Do you ever tell God thank you?”
“Um…yea, sure. Before meals and such. I say thank you… alright so I don’t think I say it that much.
As our hour-long session neared its close, I asked if he could hear my confession. He began in the name of The Father and The Son and The Holy Spirit, and told him all of my sins, finally I said that those were all the sins I could recall. Then he gave me this penance: “Spend some time before the Blessed Sacrament and thank God for ten specific things.”
I’ve never received a penance like that from any priest. I usually received penances like, say one Our Father for the virtue of patience, or say three Hail Maries for your friend who made you mad.
After leaving his office, I walked to the nearby chapel at the university, and did just as he directed, I thanked God for ten things. I felt good. Later that evening at home, I knelt down and did it again. When I woke up the next morning, I knelt down again next to my bed and thanked God for another ten things: My bed, the clothes in my closet and in my dresser and on my floor, my hands, God’s presence in my soul, my eyes, my life, the box of Gorilla Munch cereal down stairs in the pantry, my heart, my sufferings, my joys, coffee.
That morning, as I walked out the door to go to work, I didn’t see the cracks in the sidewalk; I saw the sidewalk. I didn’t see the dark clouds above; I saw the light pouring through them. I didn’t see a faint vision of the evil I would face throughout the day; I saw the wet grass below my feet, and looked out at the tens of trees and their leaf bunched branches, stretching wide as if waking up to a beautiful day. God dwelled in this place. In my new-found spirit of thanksgiving, I’d begun to look away from evil. I now fixed my sights on the deifying light that permeated into our natural world. Where I looked, my soul went.
Father Dillard called that penance “an examination of thankfulness”. It’s deliberate. We must choose to do it. Counting our blessings is a choice and a discipline. Use your fingers if necessary.
It’s clear to me now, in choosing to give thanks to God, I end up fixing my sights on the things of God. In the beginning, the inspired writer of Genesis says, God created all things good. Everything was good. That which we perceive as evil (or bad) is not fully a thing. It lacks existence. In the same way that darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of good. This means that when we choose to focus on that which is evil, we choose to look into a spiritual black hole. It’s inevitable that our body, mind, and soul follow in this path towards nothingness.
I think we feel more comfortable with nothingness. In his Gospel account, Saint John writes, Men preferred darkness over the light. Of course we’re not happy in nothingness. We weren’t made for it. I’m finally realizing that I want to follow the lead of people like Tony Robbins who seem to choose the light when darkness overwhelms. I want to thank God for everything, things both favorable and not favorable, joys and sufferings, exultation and trials. I want my life to be a journey towards God, and not a constant effort to hide from Him. Where I focus my attention makes all the difference. Where I look, I go.