Letters: what was at stake
This is an excerpt from an email from Andrew Hamm a few years ago, written after a weekend at St Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC. Reprinted here with his permission.
I spent part of this past weekend on retreat at the monastery at St Anselm’s. Saturday was a really powerful experience in prayer. I felt more emboldened in front of God than I often am. I found myself begging (but more like telling) Him, here I am in this small room away from my usual distractions, I beg for You to come, I want to encounter You, but You need to come to me here in this small room where I’ll be waiting. …
For how great Saturday was, Sunday was awful (I left after mass, so most of this is now happening outside of the monastery). I felt beset by anxiety. What did it mean that I had this powerful experience at the monastery? Did that mean I was supposed to become a monk? But what about all the positive strides I’ve been making in regards to work and the institute, were those all lies if I’m supposed to become a monk?
So I really didn’t know what to do with this. I wasn’t going to betray the experience on Saturday, but I knew I couldn’t live like this, that maybe this was the cross but if so I couldn’t do it. I thought back to the last time I felt like this, which was after I had decided to move but before I had actually moved. And I tried to remind myself that this was how I felt, but that once I persevered and completed the move it turned out to be amazing. I’ve also been working on this book on Ignatius’s discernment of spirits, in which he advises that for those moving towards the Lord it is the method of the evil one to place bitterness and obstacles in the way. So it seemed clear that I had to persevere, but to what? To what seemed like it would be a prison? I trust God but this was paralyzing.
Then yesterday leaving mass it suddenly hit me. I was thinking about everything completely wrong. Discernment is not of states but of spirits! Honestly, Jenny, when I said this out loud it was tremendously liberating. Discernment is not of states but of spirits! I’ll try to explain more what I mean.
What was distressing me was thinking about religious life as a state of being, and I was contrasting it in my life with the married life as a state of being. But that is not the point. That is not what vocation is about. The point is ongoing relationship with God. The fruit of that ongoing relationship will place us inside of a specific vocation, yes, but to think just of the vocation is to make God abstract and to isolate ourselves as individuals apart from our structural relationship with God.
Also, to think just of states invites logical considerations to which there is no end. If you discern between states you are just doing an analysis between hypothetical options. That’s not discernment (at least how it seemed to me yesterday and still does today). Discernment is of spirits — recognizing and affirming the good and rejecting the bad, and I could clearly see that all the distress I was under Sunday and Monday morning was because I was giving ear to the evil one. He was trying to interrupt my desire to grow closer to God.
What was at stake was not making a decision to be a monk, what was at stake was recognizing that the voices I was listening to were not of God and to reject them.
What was at stake was not a decision of what I would do in the future, all that was at stake was a decision to choose to listen only to God in that moment.
What was at stake was only our relationship, the Lord and me, in that very moment. And how liberating this was! And, whereas last year I would have despaired of knowing whether it was the evil one or God, I know now that I am right. How do I know that I am right? I know that I am right because of how free I have felt since this realization and because my heart is infallible.
Never forget about the infallibility of your own heart, Jenny! Suddenly I was eager again to grow closer to God through prayer. Never before had I condemned a thought of mine as specifically from the evil one. I think I’ve always subconsciously thought of him as something somewhat abstract; when I am tempted, have I really thought of it as coming from something external, or just as a temptation? So yesterday this seemed to me to be a big stride forward. Once again I was on fire to grow in the interior life, to grow closer to God by rejecting the evil voices with a new certainty and listening only to His.
So, Jenny, hopefully this might be of some help to you too. It’s at least felt helpful to me so far. You naturally have an attraction to a lot of different pursuits, and I think that is good because these different things are good, or at least contain good even if it is not fully shining through. But I think to compare things like art v. business is to assume the position of a logical comparison, like a cost-benefit analysis of different options, and what one’s done by doing that is abstracted their freedom, their desire, and their structural dependence on God out of the equation.
This next thing is what I said at school of community on Friday, and I think it applies here. Someone was expressing a frustration that they wanted to help their friend but felt unable to properly explain Giussani since her life has changed so much in the past year with the movement. But what a minute I said! Is it Giussani who has changed your life or is it Christ? No, Giussani is not our Savior, only Christ is our Savior! Now, of course, Giussani provides this incredible education to Christ; nothing about what I am saying is meant to disparage him or the movement [Giussani is the founder of a movement, a group within the church]. But if you want to really help your friend, then give your friend what really saved you and saves you, and that is Christ. In front of the human person, one’s concern should only be the person and Christ. If it’s Giussani then we have just become an ideology. So how does one give Christ? The answer is the Incarnation. Giussani can provide an education to Christ, but you can provide Christ 100% directly in your flesh, your eyes, your embrace, your tenderness, your wounds, your vulnerabilities, your fears, your hopes, your desires. Everything about you that is human is Christ and that is what your friend needs.
So maybe after a conversation in which you share something you are suffering with and you are in solidarity with the other person, they won’t necessarily say, ah I understand more now, but if we believe the Incarnation than we have to trust this method. Of course share Giussani and the movement, of course do that, but don’t let your distress at the end of the conversation be whether you explained Giussani well, let it be whether you have shared yourself well.
But how can I have confidence in this method without feeling like I am flippantly disregarding everything I’ve learned from the movement? Begging. The answer is begging. Moreover, the answer to every question that begins with “how” is begging. Because begging automatically puts us in a position of dependance on God. And anything less than this position will not satisfy. Even any line from Giussani.
At a recent assembly this priest from Italy spoke about the prodigal son, and people keep talking about it at SoC as being really moving. But it’s like, if you are suffering, reminding yourself of a story is not enough! If there is no “you” then it is just an idea, and fuck ideas.
If you are suffering at work wondering what is the point of your life, you cannot remind yourself, “God loves me.” That is just an idea! It has to be, “God, you love me.” Then what you have just said is relational, then God can respond, then you can progress. Any time you have spoken to yourself of God in the third person, not the second person, you have made Him abstract and into an idea.
Anytime I address myself I’ve isolated myself. As such, for instance, I try with my notes in my notebook now to always write, “Lord, help me to remember…” not “Remember…”
Discernment is not of states but of spirits.