Healing of our Memory

Many of us go through life carrying heavy burdens from our past. Maybe we cannot shake off shame and regret over our sins and failings. Maybe we struggle to believe that anyone would actually love us for who we are. Maybe we keep clinging to bitterness and resentment towards those who harmed us. Maybe we find ourselves never truly trusting anyone, never letting anyone get too close, tightly guarding our innermost self. If so, over time, we will come to feel ever more alone, misunderstood, and unloved.

The saddest aspect of these burdens is that they prevent us from trusting and surrendering to God as a loving Father, placing ourselves totally into His loving hands, and truly obeying Him in Faith. That loving surrender to the Father is perhaps the deepest holy desire of my own heart – and also that of which I am most afraid! I have always loved the surrender prayer of Charles de Foucauld, although my heart usually clutches as I speak the words. I encourage you to pray it now, and gently notice the lines that you find difficult:

Father,

I abandon myself
into Your hands;
do with me what you will.
For whatever You may do I thank you.

I am ready for all,
I accept all.

Let only Your will be done in me
as in all Your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into Your hands
I commend my soul.
I offer it to You
with all the love of my heart.
For I love You, my God,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself
into Your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for You are my Father.

What a challenging prayer! But in reality, it is just a variation of the prayer that Jesus taught us. We are so familiar with the Our Father that we sometimes forget how radical the requests are!

Why is it so hard to surrender ourselves into the hands of a loving Father? He knows our hearts better than we do ourselves. His providence is so much more trustworthy and reliable than our own flimsy foresight. He is totally in charge of our past, present, and future.

But there is the challenge! If God the Father was Lord of my past, that means that He willed for me to be harmed in those ways. And if he willed such a painful past for me, then surely it’s just a matter of time before He will harm me again in the future… Blasphemous thoughts, you say? If we tell the unfiltered truth, most of us will admit that we have often felt that way.

The unhealed pain of our past fills us with anxiety and fear of our future. It also causes ongoing pain in our present, as we “overreact” to everyday situations that keep poking at old wounds. Well-meaning Christian friends urge us to “move on,” “forgive and forget,” and “leave the past in the past.” But that is not how human memory works!

Our memory is a marvelous and mysterious gift. Without it we do not know who we are. We’ve all seen TV shows or films in which one of the characters develops amnesia. Disconnected from their past, they are disoriented in the present, and incapable of knowing who they are.

“Memory” translates the Latin word memoria and the Greek word anamnesis. Both words have a strong sense of “mindfulness” in the present – not just dredging up the past. From our Jewish fathers in the Faith we have inherited a sense of “remembering” holy events like the Passover in a way that makes those events present here and now. Every Catholic Mass prays an anamnesis prayer that calls to mind saving events both past and future: the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as his coming again in glory. We enter God’s eternal memory and the healing it brings.

Memory is the root of our identity. Memory is what makes the virtue of Hope possible. The more integrated our memory of the past, the more our hearts can expand in a deep desire for eternal life – not merely as a future reality, but as something substantial that is present to us here and now. For the Saints, the joy and peace of the Kingdom is present in every moment of surrender to the Father’s will. They become the Kingdom, visibly present and active.

I recently returned from my annual retreat. I was blown away by my reading of Wilfrid Stinnissen’s book Into Your Hands, Father. It spoke deeply to my desire to surrender to God the Father and be blessed by Him. I wept over the pages about surrendering our past and allowing it to be healed by God.

Stinnissen makes a shocking claim: “We receive a completely new past.” As you allow your wounds to be touched by the wounds of Jesus, “the healing goes back into time and transforms the very moment when you were hurt into a moment of grace.”

How is that possible, you ask? Surely you cannot change the past! True. The past no longer exists. But our memory of the past abides, and is often laden with lies. It is partial and fragmented and distorted. It needs to be taken up into God’s eternal love and truth. Jesus teaches us that He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He makes all things new – even our memory of the past.

Remember that our painful memories are often from the point of view of a very frightened little child. Even secular therapists can be quite skilled at helping an adult to go back in time in order to coach the hurting little child into seeing a much bigger and happier picture.

Faith can do much more. If we ask and seek and knock, God will reveal Himself in our painful memories. He was there blessing us. Our sorrowful memories are then transformed into glorious ones, and we discover our deeper identity in Christ. Our wounds become like the wounds of Jesus, radiating risen glory, and a source of healing and blessing.

Healing of our Memory is not an erasing of the past – quite the opposite. It is a plunging into the whole truth about our past, found only in the Father’s love. Our past becomes more God’s past than our own. We reach a point where we truly give thanks and praise God for our past, because it is part of an amazing story of a child of God who is fearfully, wonderfully made. Healed and integrated, our memory opens us to an abundance of God’s blessing in the present, and a total freedom to surrender our future.

Holy Desires

To be human is to desire. Our hearts are made by God to thirst and to be satisfied, to seek and to find. The very virtue of Hope is defined as a desire for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Our whole human journey begins with small seeds of divine desire planted within us, slowly growing until they reach full fruition.

Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls for Christians is to think of desire as “selfish.” True, we are ultimately called to lay down our lives in imitation of Jesus. But we cannot make a gift without first having something to give. Far from being a “selfish” thing, our desires are actually the way in which God’s grace effects the most growth in us, so that our self-offering to him will truly be for the praise of his glory.

Let me begin by making a distinction between our urges, our needs, and our desires. They often feel the same to the undiscerning heart, but are quite different once we start paying attention.

By “urges” I mean the daily temptations that entice us to grasp for things that we do not actually desire or need, things which will actually harm our relationship with God, self, and others. Typically that comes in the form of one or more of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, envy, anger, sloth, or pride. In the throes of these urges, we experience them as something to be grasped and possessed, indeed as something that we must have. For a visual, just think of Gollum seeking after his “precious” in The Lord of the Rings.

Resisting unhealthy urges can be a battle – a fierce battle indeed if we have been ignoring our authentic human needs. In my last post, I described those needs – on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. We can choose to disregard them. But when we do, our humanity is walking wounded, and we make ourselves much more susceptible to urges and temptations that promise us much and deliver little. Our own brain will propose the urges to us as a way of trying to feel better. Or the devil will enter in and attack. The devil is not God; he cannot create. But he is definitely the enemy of our human nature who loves to torment us, to kick us when we’re down. When we are feeling empty or desperate in our human needs, he finds it so much easier to sow his lies and ensnare us in habits of sin.

As important as it is to acknowledge our authentic human needs and distinguish them from our urges, it is our holy desires that matter the most. It is there that the grace of God meets us.

Last year, I had the joy of participating at a priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee. The presenter, Dr. Bob Schuchts, focused on this theme of “Holy Desires.” He reminded us that the very word “desire” is of French origin, meaning “from the Lord.” We discover who we truly are by getting in touch with our deepest and holiest desires. It is there that we encounter God the Father’s love for us, and our own unique identity and blessing from Him.

It is through our desires that spiritual growth happens. One day, Scripture tells us, our capacity for God will be so great that we will see Him face to face and, by that experience, be transformed to become like God (1 John 3:2). The great and mighty Moses was warned that no man could see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20). Holy desires change all that. Little by little, they help us to become ready. They stretch and expand our hearts, slowly but surely increasing our capacity to receive divine gifts. The more we desire, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more we desire. The process transforms us as we become who we are.

There is an old medieval axiom, quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur – “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In the case of God’s grace, He always fills us when we ask him, but our capacity to receive is limited. Saint Augustine puts it this way: “God wants us to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it.”

In some cases, it is our selfish urges that constrict us. Until we are willing to die to self, we cannot be filled. We are coming to God with clenched fists rather than open hands. I suspect He smiles at us. We are like little children clutching our pennies when he is ready to give us hundred dollar bills. He patiently waits until we are ready to trust and surrender. In other cases, we genuinely have the desire, but need more time to grow. Even though God’s grace moves swiftly, all authentic human growth happens slowly. Little by little, his grace stretches us through holy desires, careful not to break us.

Gregory the Great describes how this transformation happens in our hearts: “When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow, they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a love.”

Have you burned with such a love? Are you in touch with your deepest desires? They are God’s gifts to you. It is He who has planted them.

As God lays bare our hearts, we might be surprised to discover that what we desire the deepest is also what we fear the most intensely, namely, to lay down our life in love. As we get in touch with those deepest desires, we can start responding and growing in them, removing any obstacles and seeking the nurturing we need. Little by little, God will see to the growth and fruitfulness.

Asking and Receiving

“The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.” These words beautifully summarize Psalm 145. We Catholics sing them repeatedly when that Psalm comes up in our liturgical worship. I find them so consoling. God will indeed nourish and guide me; He will indeed answer the deepest needs of my heart. I pray to be able to internalize that truth more and more. When I abide in that truth, my life is truly blessed. Many of you can probably testify to the same experience.

To say that God “answers” all our needs implies a dynamic of asking and receiving. It does not just happen. He invites our free and willing participation in the process. Jesus teaches us to depend upon the Father, to beg Him for our daily bread. He teaches us to seek, to ask, and to knock. And when He answers, it is so often by means of the larger community of Faith. We are not isolated individuals. We are made to be dependent upon God and interdependent upon each other, freely receiving and freely giving love in imitation of God who is an eternal communion of love.

Our wounded human tendency is to take or grasp or seize when we feel empty in our human needs. We might use others and then cast them aside. Or we might engage in more socially acceptable forms of violence as we strive to seize control or manipulate the situation. Perhaps we interrupt or raise our voice; we get demanding or demeaning. Perhaps we drop hints or posture ourselves, silently hoping that the other person will notice and step in. Maybe we punish others with the silent treatment. Maybe we even go into self-punishing or self-criticizing mode, figuring others will feel sorry for us and then will surely give us what our heart is looking for.

None of these methods work, of course. They leave us emptier than ever. None of them involve authentic human freedom.

God always respects that freedom, even when we do not. He never forces his love upon us. Rather, he attracts us, arousing holy desire within us. When we learn to express that desire by seeking and asking, he gladly blesses us and fills us with as much as we are capable of receiving at that given moment. Often, we are choosing to pretend that we don’t really have emotional and spiritual needs. We close off our hearts in self-protection. God patiently waits until we are ready to open up and ask.

When God answers our prayers and touches our heart in its deepest needs, his “answer” often comes through chosen human instruments. Is this not a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures? God hears the cry of his people. He chooses small or weak human beings and sends them to accomplish his mission: Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, Samuel, Isaiah, Jonah, David, Peter, and Paul. In those stories, God connects people together and orchestrates blessing upon blessing, in ways that they the human instruments could never have imagined possible. God is full of surprises, and we never know exactly where our free “yes” to God will lead us.

Still, there are certain patterns in this divine dance, patterns that reflect who we are and what it means to be human. One thing I’ve definitely learned is that it is so much healthier (and so much more effective) to speak our needs humbly and truthfully – and then to remember that the other person is free to say “yes” or “no” to helping us with that need. Perhaps we need a listening ear, some encouraging words, a comforting presence, some instruction amidst our confusion, a hug, advice, feedback, or  assistance with being accountable. When we humbly name what we need and ask someone if they are willing to assist us, they often say yes.

If we have learned the wrong lessons in life, asking and receiving may prove quite difficult. Our family of origin may have taught us (openly or subtly) that it is bad or selfish to ask for help, or that it will get you in trouble. Others may have modeled for us that the best way to (try to) get needs met is to drop hints or manipulate or throw a fit. Or we learned that it’s better not to have any needs (as though that is actually possible!).

Likewise, if we have learned some of the wrong lessons in life, we might struggle to tune into others’ needs, to listen quietly and empathically, or to respect their freedom. Our families (and our churches) are often places in which people barge in to fix other people’s problems. It’s so much easier than facing our own pain or sitting with the pain of the other person. Not all things need to be fixed. We can easily rush in with unsolicited advice when the person really just needs someone to listen or encourage or accompany.

We can watch our words. How often do we find ourselves saying “You need to…” or “You should…”? Is that really for us to decide? Have we learned to wait upon the Lord? He truly knows our needs, but bides his time in allowing us to grow.

Those who frequently say “You need to…” often have difficulty articulating their own personal needs. They are avoiding their own emptiness by rushing in to “serve” others – whether those others desire it or not!

Desire is key here. Even in those moments when we may see with great clarity what other people really need, if they do not desire it, they will not be able to receive. They are not yet ready. God waits for them to be ready. Hopefully we can learn to imitate his patience!

I think of the times in which I have been truly helped in my needs. Far from stealing away my desire or freedom, the other person helped me become more fully aware of what was really going on, of what my heart most deeply needed and desired. I was then free to ask for help and receive it. We typically do not “figure out” our own needs. We learn them in healthy relationships, healthy community. But healthy relationships and healthy community respect our human dignity and freedom. They bring out the best in us, without violence, coercion, or manipulation.

Many of us have a need to expand our experience of healthy Christian community. If we are experiencing struggle or conflict in daily life, if we are harboring resentments, it is often because we are expecting those individuals to meet our needs. We easily forget that no one has an obligation to meet our own needs – not a co-worker, not even a spouse. If we do not humbly state a need and ask them if they are willing to help, then there is no freedom on their part to say “yes” or “no.” We are violating their dignity – and in many cases expecting them to be mind readers. We also are probably expecting things that they could never possibly give, even if they wanted to.

This often happens in the marriage covenant. Husbands or wives sometimes silently expect (or loudly demand) that their spouse is supposed to meet all the needs of their heart. That is not what marriage is for! Certainly, loving husbands and wives tend to say “yes” willingly to being there for each other in moments of need, but ultimately it is God who answers all our needs. No one else can take his place. We’re merely his instruments.

The wisest and most mature Christians that I know have learned this skill of humbly stating a need and asking others for help. Rather than unreasonably placing expectations on one or two people, they tend to build up a larger support network, whether in the form of trusted confidantes and friends, a support group, or a faith sharing group. They have learned the beauty of receiving love and support from God and others, recognizing that they need it and not hesitating to ask with humility and vulnerability. As a result, they are that much more effective and generous when they freely choose to give and share with others who reach out in their need. They know what it means to ask and receive. They know what it means to answer and give.

My Needy Microwave

In my last post, I described my oversensitive smoke alarm. It is not the only kitchen appliance that gives me grief. There is also my needy microwave. It emits three loud beeps when the timer elapses. If I don’t promptly get up and open the door, it beeps three times again. Another thirty seconds, and it will beep again. And again. And again. It doesn’t give up! It will literally keep on beeping every thirty seconds, per omnia saecula saeculorum, unless and until you give it the attention it so desperately craves.

Part of me has a vivid and rather morbid imagination. Maybe I read too much Dean Koontz. I visualize myself having an untimely accident. Perhaps the smoke alarm startles me and I stumble into the refrigerator. It falls upon me, and there I lie, my pelvis crushed, pinned to the floor for hours or days – alone, that is, except for my microwave beeping at me every 30 seconds! Hey, stranger things have happened…

Thumbing through the owner’s manual left me in a state of stunned disbelief. There is no way of reprogramming the beeping on this particular model. Seriously, what was that programmer thinking? Was he a misogynist secretly hoping to exact revenge on housewives everywhere? Who in his right mind wants a microwave that never stops beeping?

Well, you know what they say about owners and their appliances: they become more and more like each other over time. I got to thinking that, just as my brain has an overactive smoke detector, it also engages in a regular and relentless beeping, much like my microwave. This crying for attention is not a programming glitch or oversight. It is there by God’s design.

Having needs is a human reality. On a spiritual level, we depend upon God through regular prayer, and depend on others for guidance and faith formation. Physically, there are obvious needs like food, water, shelter, and sleep. We can add to those the less obvious yet quite important physical needs like meaningful touch, regular bodily exertion, and regular relaxation. There are also emotional needs like feeling safe and secure, belonging to a larger tribe, feeling wanted, feeling cared for, feeling calmed and soothed, feeling understood, feeling encouraged, and more. If we are running on empty in some of these basic human needs, our brain will start beeping at us.

Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as having so many needs. We fear becoming a nuisance like my microwave – constantly bothering others until they pay attention to us. These fears run more deeply for those of us raised in homes that discouraged us from having or expressing needs. Speaking for myself, I definitely came into agreement with the idea that I should put my emotional life on the shelf and learn to be “independent.” Eventually, I came to believe the lie that I don’t have that many needs. I went through decades of my life convinced that I wasn’t a very emotional person and that it was much better not to depend on others.

We can take that approach to life, but not without consequences. God gave us free will –including even the shocking possibility of living against the truth of our human nature. Eventually it catches up with us.

The full truth of our humanity involves being needful and interdependent. God alone can fill us, but we depend upon others in the process. This past Christmas, I found myself often pondering the example of Christ, who shows us what it means to be human. Even though he was exalted and perfect and divine, he humbled himself to become one of us (Philippians 2:6-8). He became profoundly needful, depending totally upon Mary and Joseph as well as upon his heavenly Father. Indeed, he spent most of his earthly life growing and maturing, in dependence upon others (Luke 2:52). He spent only a proportionately small part of his life giving and serving and sacrificing. It was precisely because his human needs had been regularly met that he was able to lay his life down so freely, surrendering to the shame and abandonment and rejection of the Cross. He had no doubt of being God’s beloved Son, chosen and blessed and called. Did everyone love or understand or accept him? By no means. But he did receive all of those things with some regularity from those who mattered the most. As a human being, he needed to receive those things, and did not take any short cuts.

We live in an age of short cuts and quick fixes. Modernity seduces us with the lie that we can reshape our human nature to be whatever we want it to be. Perhaps we ignore our physical needs, eating only what we feel like and living a sedentary lifestyle. In so doing, we ignore the truth that our bodies need nourishment and are made for physical exertion. The end result is an unhealthy body, not to mention emotional and spiritual misery. Or perhaps we ignore our emotional needs –to belong, to be understood or soothed or encouraged or accepted. We impetuously insist that only weak people need to worry about those things. But all the while our internal microwave keeps beeping and beeping. If we repeatedly ignore those needs, then our brains will start beeping in other ways: enticing us to fantasy thinking, unhealthy lifestyle choices, or addictive behaviors.

There are consequences if we ignore what it means to be human. St. Thomas Aquinas defines man as a rational animal. We are “rational” insofar as we are set apart from the rest of the animals, “very good” in God’s own image and likeness. Yet we remain bodily creatures, together with the animals – and are invited to respect the goodness and authentic physical and emotional needs that God has given us.

In so many aspects of life, our bodies and brains work like those of our fellow mammals. Our lower brains have a limbic system that helps us to belong, survive, and thrive as a meaningful part of our social group. Those parts of our brain (including the “smoke alarm,” or amygdala) give us a sense of pleasure or fear or anger. They give us a desire for union with others and for fruitfulness.

When authentic needs are repeatedly ignored, we become especially susceptible to the wiles of the evil one. Our genuine needs morph and twist into insatiable urges for things that won’t actually help us. For example, if we totally ignore our need for safety and security, we may find ourselves constantly craving “comfort food” and having little freedom to resist those urges. If we totally ignore our needs for belonging or acceptance or affection, we may find ourselves having unwelcome fantasies – perhaps in the form of envy or jealousy or rivalry, perhaps in the form of lust or flirtation or pornography.

When these things happen, our impulse as devout Christians is to shame ourselves. Certainly, it is wise to avoid the near occasion of sin. But instead of self-shaming, a more helpful approach is to take some deep breaths, step into our “watchtower,” and calmly notice what is going on, with a childlike wonder and curiosity: “Huh, there goes that alarm bell again. I wonder why it’s ringing this time?” On the surface, it seems like it’s a matter of jealousy or lust or gluttony or greed. Those are the urges we feel. But so often, if we really tune in, we will notice that we’re not actually hungry, that we don’t “need” to make that purchase, that we don’t “need” sexual gratification, etc. Our limbic brain doesn’t know the difference! It’s just programmed to go off when our emotions need attention. It needs to be led and guided from there. In fact, it’s made to be led and guided – not just by our higher brain function, but by healthy relationships with God and others. It is often only when we begin sharing our deepest struggles and deepest yearnings with others that we begin to make more sense out of them. We become more aware of our deepest spiritual and emotional needs, and they begin to be met as we learn to receive from God what has always been there. We gain greater freedom to embrace the full and rich truth of our humanity. We begin to abide in love and truth.

Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers

The smoke detector in my kitchen is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, it has been a source of steady annoyance to me and of ongoing amusement for my guests. Take a roast out of the oven – smoke alarm. Fry some bacon – smoke alarm. Even a simple slice of toast will send it screaming. I keep a fly swatter hanging nearby, not because I get flies in the house, but to wave briskly in front of the smoke alarm, hoping to appease its wrath. Sometimes the only option is to reach up, rip it from the wall, and remove the battery until the cooking is over. It is at that point that my guests usually laugh as they hear me say something like, “I hate you! But you’ll probably save my life someday…”

I’ve come to learn that God has also wired our brains with a smoke alarm system: the amygdala. Each side of our brain has a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of neurons designed (among other functions) to set off a swift and strong reaction to threats. For example, I remember the time as a child that I was digging for night crawlers. I began feeling my whole body vibrating heard a deep throbbing hum. I paused in perplexion. Then I felt a sting – and had an immediate realization that I had just dug up an entire nest of ground wasps! My “fight or flight” response flashed like lightning, and I ran a 100-yard dash that could rival any Olympic athlete. Thanks to my brain working the way God designed it to, I escaped with only two small stings. It could have been much worse.

We humans, together with other animals, are hardwired with survival instincts. Our amygdala sends swift messages to other parts of the brain and body. We receive a rush of stress hormones that bolster us for battle.

This instinctive response can save our lives, but it can also yield a daily dose of anxiety, spiritual unrest, and torment. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) have an internal smoke alarm much more like the one in my kitchen – set off by the smallest stimuli, and disruptive of daily life. Everyday encounters can trigger an overreaction in me. An unexpected interruption or an unreasonable request can bring out the worst in my behaviors – just ask my staff or volunteers! I find myself feeling threatened when there is no actual threat. It’s just the toaster.

Having our internal smoke alarm go off frequently makes it quite challenging to abide in love and truth. Just as cooking in the kitchen becomes much less focused or relaxed so long as the alarm is blaring, so also with our daily life. When our brain is on “high alert” we will find it quite challenging to think clearly, to be tender-hearted and vulnerable, to connect with others, to trust, to have fun, to be spontaneous, or to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I first encountered the analogy of a “smoke alarm” in the writings of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The image immediately resonated with my experience – both in my kitchen and in my daily life. Van der Kolk has dedicated his life to studying and treating the crippling effects of trauma – part of the human experience that is far more commonplace than we realize.

In a truly traumatizing situation, we find ourselves helpless or powerless to do anything. Neither “fight” nor “flight” will save us. We instinctively revert to the “freeze” response and shut down. But our brains can keep producing stress hormones, even years after the threat has passed. This shows up in various undesired symptoms: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, irritability, peevishness, headaches, muscle tension, nightmares, etc. Hence the title of Dr. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.

It is tempting at times to wish away all these unpleasant experiences. Can’t I just take a pill for it? Sometimes we do indeed need to take medications to keep our symptoms under control. But the symptoms (unpleasant as they are) can actually become our greatest allies. They are like the bread crumbs that allowed Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.

That is where “The Watchtower” comes in – no, not the monthly publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but another part of the brain: our medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to survey the scene from above, like a calm and curious observer. In relation to our “smoke alarm,” our “watchtower” can tell us calmly and serenely, “Not a fire – just the toaster.”

In an ideal world, we grow up in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. We find our physical and spiritual and emotional needs well cared for. Our brain easily forms neural pathways between our “watchtower” and our “smoke alarm.” False alarms still happen, but are then much less common, and we are able to recognize them quickly and calmly.  That is the ideal. In reality, for many of us, these neural connections literally do not yet exist, or are underdeveloped.

Thankfully, there is good news from brain science. The newest research backs up what we already know from our Christian Faith: we are capable of changing our habits and growing in virtue. In scientific terms, this involves (literally) rewiring our brain – forming new neural pathways. Throughout our life, our brain remains “plastic” – able to be reshaped. This best happens when we follow Jesus’ advice and become like little children (Matthew 18:3). In this case, it means rekindling some of those childlike qualities: wonder, awe, curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a willingness to make plenty of mistakes along the way.

Think of little children learning to walk and talk. We do not scold them when they stumble or fall. We do not berate them because they mispronounce a word. Quite the opposite – we find it cute and endearing, and cheer them on. Our steady encouragement and affirmation keeps motivating them to take the next step and learn the next word. All the while their brain’s “watchtower” is fully active – noticing everything with the utmost curiosity, making new connections every single day.

We tend to be hard on ourselves, to criticize, or to shame ourselves, thinking, “Why do I have to be this way??” Instead, with encouragement from God and others, we can learn to “just notice that” within ourselves, without criticizing or condemning. We can say, “Yup, there goes the smoke alarm again” and calmly inquire why it is going off. Even when it is not a fire, it is possibly something that needs our attention. From that calm and childlike wonder and awareness, we are then free to make a rational choice of what we will do. As this space of freedom and spontaneity grows within us, little by little, we can learn to abide in love and truth.

Fish with Fins

In my last post, I described a rather unique homily of Pope Gregory the Great, in which he compares the virtue of compunction to a smelly bucket of dung that we can use to fertilize a robust spiritual growth. By humbly and truthfully acknowledging our sins and through eager repentance, we can receive God’s grace and bear fruit in good works.

Gregory proceeds to consider the woman who has an evil spirit that causes her to be stooped over for eighteen years. As with the fruitless fig tree, he suggests that she is an image for fallen human nature.

He contrasts homo incurvatus with homo erectus. God made us in his own image and likeness: upright, erect, and good. We are destined for heavenly glory, and have those eternal desires in our heart. But earthly desires have bent us over: wealth, honor, power, and fleshly delights. We have stooped low in our sins, and can no longer stand erect. Like the woman, we must cry out to Jesus, so that he can cast his light on our sins and help us to stand once again.

Luke describes the woman as beyond crippled, as “having a spirit of infirmity.” Even in Jesus’ time, not all cripples were seen as oppressed or possessed. Some ailments are explained by natural causes; others suggest a superadded torment inflicted by demons.

This distinction does not escape Gregory’s notice. He describes all sin as hunching us over, causing us to be “stooped and deeply bowed” (Psalm 38:7). But then there evil spirits who prowl like lions looking for the opportunity to torment us. They are enemies of our human nature and envious of our true human destiny to become like God. So Gregory calls to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah, who describes the plight of God’s people in their sins: I will put it into the hands of your tormentors, those who said to you, “Bow down, that we may walk over you.” So you offered your back like the ground, like the street for them to walk on (Isaiah 51:23).

Who on earth would willingly bow down and give their backs to evil spirits to walk on? Well, many of us. Fewer more truthful words can be found than those of Paul: “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Many of us Catholics find ourselves confessing the same sins over and over again –even sins that we hate intensely. Often it is the lies of fear and shame that oppress us, binding us up. In our false belief that we are not really lovable, we can become mired in habitual sin, face down in the muck. In our darkest moments we think, “Why bother? What does it matter? I’m already ___(fill in the blank)___.”

Deceived by those diabolical lies, it can definitely happen that we bow down and give our backs to evil spirits, allowing them to trample on us. When that happens we find ourselves, like the stooped woman, unable to stand erect even when we really want to. Thankfully Jesus is our Lord and Savior who can bind up the evil one and reclaim our freedom and dignity (cf. Mark 3:27).

Gregory specifically mentions desire for “illicit pleasure” (voluptas illicita) as bowing us over in a crippling way and becoming an entry point for diabolical activity. I think any number of the addictions that are on the rise today (pornography, sexual deviancies, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) can be entry points. Don’t we often talk about “battling our demons”? As Paul tells us, our battle is not just against flesh and blood, but against powerful spiritual beings (Ephesians 6:12).

Jesus is the one who can deliver us from oppression at enemy hands. He is the one who can help us stand erect. He is the one who inflames our hearts with a holy desire for heaven.

To illustrate this point, Gregory turns to the image of fish. The law of Leviticus forbade the Jews from eating fish without fins or scales. Fish with fins are able to leap from the waters, striving heavenward. Fish without scales and fins (in Gregory’s understanding of biology) were bottom feeders, even detritivores, engaging in coprophagia. But for the grace of God, so go all of us. Once the diabolical lies of shame get a grip on us, we can habitually do the things we hate, like the dog that returns to its own vomit (Proverbs 26:11; 2 Peter 2:22).

That is where holy desires come in. Gregory preaches so beautifully about them, here and elsewhere. Holy desires are like the fins on the fish. They propel us to soar heavenward. True, until this fleshly existence is fully transformed, we will always come back earthward, like the fish re-entering the water.

But, returning to the fig tree, holy desires are meant to grow and bear fruit. The greater our desire, the greater our capacity to receive. So often people pray for many years to overcome a certain sin in their life. They imagine it is just a matter of willing the sin away. But God wants to go down to the roots of the tree, to see the whole truth (sometimes painfully), to heal and deliver us. The combination of compunction and heavenly desire will ultimately set us free – thought not always in the way we imagined. Delivered and restored, we can learn to look upward habitually, and so receive ongoing healing and peace.