Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Lord, I place the water of my life completely in your hands; change me as you once changed water into wine." (Reflections on the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, John 2:1-11)

I was asked by one of my students at the end of one of our philosophy classes this past week: “Is it possible to explain or trace a philosopher’s thought to his psychological makeup or his upbringing?”

Rene Descartes was a mathematician who valued certainty. Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx were all brought up in overly pious households. Raised by his devout aunts, Nietzsche rebelled against the suffocating strictures of his childhood. Immanuel Kant had a personality like Sheldon Cooper in the “The Big Bang Theory”: rigid, methodical, and flat-out weird. [We could probably say the same thing about theologians; for instance, Martin Luther, was said to have a rather scrupulous personality.]

The answer to my student’s question, then, is “yes and no”. Yes, in the sense that one’s psychological, emotional, and personal make-up does color one’s way of seeing things, and thus one’s philosophical (or theological) outlook. They’re inescapable realities that, to a considerable degree, determine us.

And yet they do not do so completely. We are never simply reducible to any of these factors, no matter how powerful they are – and even if they do stay with us throughout our lives. [And so to explain a philosopher’s or a theologian’s perspective by reducing it to his or her personality, character, or background, wouldn’t only be inaccurate; it would also be intellectually shallow, even downright dishonest.]

What’s true of philosophers and theologians, is true of the saints.

This Friday and Saturday, I revisited two books I read many years ago in seminary – I’d recommend you to take a look at them if you get the chance. You’ll find them interesting, especially those who have read Adrian Van Kaam’s “Religion and Personality”, and would like to know more about the profound connection between personality and holiness.

The first book (an older work), by Henri Joly is entitled, “The Psychology of the Saints. The other, entitled, “Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint” was written by William Meissner. Both authors are priests and psychologists. 

Joly and Meissner put forward similar ideas, the most important of which is perhaps the fact that God seems to specifically choose men and women with particular backgrounds, temperaments, and psychological make-ups for specific tasks. But what’s even more astounding is that, these men and women, to a very great extent, were defined by their character and psychological make-up for the rest of their saintly lives.

Consider the following persons, for instance. Francis of Assisi,  joy-filled, exuberant, and care-free man that he was, at certain moments of his life, seemed rather careless. Thomas Aquinas was reserved, thoughtful, and detailed, even nit-picky. Augustine was deeply passionate, though at times he seems a tad fanatical about certain things. Ignatius of Loyola was committed and thorough, though he also exhibited a certain compulsiveness at times. John of the Cross was undeniably a romantic, though reading his works, one couldn’t help but wonder if he had a melancholic temperament. Peter was certainly child-like, though he was also brash and impulsive. Paul had very strong opinions, but was quite stubborn. John XXIII was cheerfully optimistic, some say a tad too much. Mother Teresa was very strong-willed, though some say that at times she could be stubborn, even inflexible. And John Paul who lost his mom at a very tender age had an almost legendary devotion to the mother of God.

One thing’s for sure, holiness didn’t blot out the personalities, characters, and temperaments of these men and women. Rather their commitment to God, allowed them to transcend these and offer them as worthy instruments that God used in order to communicate his grace with those whom they encountered and served.

What is true of the saints, is true of each one of us.

I learned that from my spiritual director when I was a seminarian. You see, I was rather stubborn, skeptical, analytic, cynical, and deconstructionist as a student. I felt easily suffocated by rules. At the same time, I always marveled at the simple and devout ways of some of my more pious classmates and friends.

Two of them in particular, still stand out in my mind. Whenever I was in chapel, ripping to shreds, in my mind, whatever I was reading, and then I’d glance at these two guys, heads bowed, eyes closed, fervent in their prayer, I always felt bad. And on several occasions, I asked my spiritual director, “Why do faith and piety and devotion seem to come so easily to them?” “Is there something wrong with me?” “Maybe I’m not meant for the priesthood”.

His response to me, I now share with you: “That’s not what God made you to be. That’s not how you’re made up psychologically, temperamentally, and intellectually. Never wish to be anything other than what God made you. That wouldn’t be grateful. You will also be missing out on the very things in you that God wishes to use. Learn to accept and offer to God who and what you are, and let Him transform you in the way He wishes”.

Jesus changes ordinary water into wine in today’s Gospel reading, the best wine at the wedding feast, which was then served last. Who we are, and what we are – the totality of ourselves: our character, temperament, psychological, emotional, and intellectual make-up, our background and upbringing – no matter how good or dysfunctional – this is the “water of our life”, which we must bring to Christ in order that he may transform it, into that kind of wine served at Cana.

The saints were ordinary men and women – just like you and me, but what made them special and remarkable, and what would make each one of us become like them –instruments in the hands of God, who can transform us, as he did the water at Cana, is our willingness to stand before him and to say with all sincerity and humility of heart:

“Lord, this is who I am. This is all of me: my strengths, my weaknesses, my fears, my worries, my anxieties, my talents, and skills. I hide nothing from you; I keep nothing from you; I hold nothing back. I stand before you, just as I am, with no masks, no pretensions, no made-up ideal image of myself. Just me. And I am truly grateful. Use me if you will. Change me, as you changed water into wine. I place the water of my life completely in your hands, like the water at Cana, I am totally at your disposal”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)