A few Friday nights ago saw me with a couple of friends at Culver’s – a sort of cross between Dairy Queen and Carl’s Jr. and the new Heaven and new Earth, specifically the new Wisconsin. The menu features “ButterBurgers”, frozen custards and concretes, and fried cheese curds. They offer a freebee “daily flavor” of frozen desserts, which is really a combination of syrups and mix-ins rather than a single flavor, in addition to your choice of candies or cookies or whatever you may want to add. Yes, it was my idea to go.
In some of the circles I travel in, the conversation always turns to spirituality at some point. So I wasn’t surprised when we rounded the corner from Niagara Falls to a light chat about spiritual growth. My friend to the left, I’ll call him Ray, had been to the falls as a seminarian in New York, before deciding to return to his native Texas. He said he had been too young to make that decision for life; he wanted to stay open for a while. Now he is in love and taking a second glance at college.
To my right, our mutual friend, I’ll call him John, talked about his life with addiction. He no longer felt gripped by the physiological craving and mental obsession that had plagued him and plunged him into chaos. He thanked God for helping him through his ongoing recovery. We nodded and laughed, and continued making small talk of the more ridiculous decisions we’d all made.
But the longer we stayed, the more I noticed a nervous, restless affect sprouting in John’s appearance. He was more eager to share from his own experience, strength and hope than Ray and I. His insistence on telling his story and wisdom-won was more than we invited by our own relaxed demeanors.
He reminded me of my younger self, all gung-ho passion and opinion and roiling impatience. Back then, I was much worse than being a little emphatic. Sometimes I’m still this way, but life has worn many of the harder edges of my prematurity into good ol’ nubular immaturity.
John said that now that he has some recovery under his belt, he notices the difference between someone who’s “egoistical” and someone who’s “spiritual” by the way they talk. Which set off a small alarm in me.
Early convert’s mistake, I thought. And isn’t it? As Catholic author and speaker Simcha Fisher has said:
“The human heart is a strange and tangled jungle of motivations and desires. We keep things hidden even from ourselves, and only God knows who is guilty and who is only wounded.”
Initial conversion, whether explicitly religious or to a better way in general, often makes temporary zealots of people. It’s like taking off sunglasses after wearing them for so long you’d forgotten how vivid the world really is. Do you see this tree? Look at it! Oh my gosh, the leaves are so green, not yellowish brown at all! PEOPLE, STOP STARING AT YOUR PHONES!
Which is good. Never begrudge the enthusiasm of a convert. But people tend to make the mistake of embracing a sublime new life by tamping their perspectives with fresh, wonderful, incomplete knowledge. We resist the mellowing and chock-full gradualness of life, which always requires responsibility for keener discernment and deeper relationships.
This is rooted in both ignorance and fear. Ignorance of some aspect(s) of the Gospel. Fear, for example, of “backsliding” into the bad old ways, or of not doing our conversion right and therefore being a failure. Old insecurities and selfish desires have yet to be worked through. We’ve only begun to take up our cross, but now we have something to help us feel better.
Leticia Adams, Round Rock blogger at Ramblings of a Crazy Face, host of a Real Life Radio show bearing the same name, and self-described “hot mess convert who loves Jesus”, said of her neophyte blunders:
I was just walking around as if life was great and acting so “high and mighty” as I’ve been told, as I arrogantly proclaimed how my life was so wonderful because I knew all the rules and was following them while other people suffered because they weren’t following them. When the hard times started coming I had the nerve to look at Jesus on the Cross and accuse Him of abandoning me when I was “doing everything right”. No I wasn’t. I was doing it all to impress everyone around me. Maybe even to impress myself. I wrapped myself in every single political cause that I could and made it my life’s mission to be outspoken about them all even if it meant losing close friends, because if they left then I could add that to my persecuted complex while patting myself on the back for being such a good Catholic.
On her radio show, she’s commented that she initially pushed (and pushed and pushed) her newfound faith on her family. Her husband eventually complained that he felt he couldn’t be himself around her. Her oldest son recently told her that he’s an atheist, which she sees in part due to her using religion to control him (at the time wanting her family to measure up to other Catholics’ perceived expectations).
At Culver’s, I was reminded of this quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Eventually, we learn that our cross only partially consists of everyone else’s failures to do things right, to love us enough. Mostly it’s bearing our own sinfulness, being brought to our knees again and again, becoming dependent upon God rather than being self-sufficient, and yielding to a narrow road for ourselves. There are times for teaching and correcting others, sure. Parents have the responsibility to raise children in the truth. Spouses and singles have the responsibility to love in the truth. With children, sometimes a little nagging is required.
But the truth should not be used to effect submission. When the latter is habitually done out of fear or laziness or the desire for us to be loved, it injects the poisonous aspect of domination into relationships. Because so many people are codependent, seeking unhealthy relief from past wounds, it may take a long time to realize that trying to control others is a sort of spiritual and psychological violence.
We need grace! We need the Holy Spirit. And we need the help of others who can teach us to live from a place of greater wholeness and love.
Leticia (I’ve talked to her a few times on Facebook and via email) is learning to love, support, and appreciate her family with the grace of God. The Catholic faith has taught her not to use them to satisfy her own needs, just as it teaches all of us to love humbly, and helps us to find healing. That’s the fruit of the Good News right there.
Which reminds me of last Sunday’s readings:
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.