“Anti-racism” was a new word for me in 2020. I have so much to learn. I have so much to rewire in terms of my own understanding of privilege and systemic oppression. And of the fear that lives in a body and keeps it from sitting still in times of great fear and panic.
“Why didn’t he just do what the cops told him?” Understanding this is part of my spiritual journey. Understanding that the answer may still confuse me, that I may not agree with the answer or resonate with it, and still see Daunte Wright as a victim, with love and compassion first, that is what my faith calls me to do.
Father Clay didn’t write about anti-racism, but his letter below on the spiritual journey is enlightening on the work that is in front of us – to different degrees and starting from different places. He also doesn’t use the word “performative,” but I think it could slide in when he refers to doing good for the sake of being seen as good. It’s not bad in and of itself, but we still have work to do to grow in love and compassion.
This week I am praying for the families of Daunte Wright and George Floyd, and for all the families further traumatized by systemic racism and a justice system that fails them. I wanted to share two things: the letter from Father Clay I mentioned, and a recent post from Cole Arthur Riley, the Black Liturgist on Facebook (or Black LIturgies on Instagram). Her prayers and messages are challenging and inspiring. Be well, pray deeply, and love more.
Perhaps we have wondered what is meant by a spiritual journey. I can think of various answers. The best answer for me is that the spiritual journey is growing in love and compassion.
Let me describe one way to look at the process this journey takes. This journey can be made both by those who believe in God and those who don’t believe. For believers, the Love we name God is involved in this process.
We start by seeing the “bad” things that mess up our lives, for example: lying, stealing, using our sexual desires in ways that hurt ourselves and others, injuring others physically and/or emotionally, using alcohol and ither drugs in ways that can lead to bad behavior
This beginning of the spiritual journey is foundational. When all of those “bad” things are dominating our lives, we will not be able to go deeper in the spiritual journey. When we are reasonably successful in not having these behaviors dominate us, we then become able to enter more deeply into spirituality.
There is, however, a bridge that is necessary before going more deeply into spirituality. That bridge is feeling gratitude that these “bad” things don’t dominate us as they used to. Unfortunately, we will be tempted to take pride and credit for what we have done. Then we will likely think that we are superior and better than those who have not been as successful as we have. This means we ware still on an ego trip even though our behavior is better.
The paradox is that we can’t make ourselves get rid of this arrogance. If we could, we would just be arrogant about not being arrogant. All we can do, as I see it, is admit that the pride is there and be willing for it to go away. For us believers, it means giving it to God and acknowledging that we can’t do it by ourselves. In fact, I find this necessary along the whole journey. Sometimes the pride will leave us because of some tragic event in our lives or some unexpected love and understanding that occurs.
Whatever the cause, as we feel grateful and humbled by our good fortune, we can also see that the “good” things we do are not as good as we think they are. We can see the shadow side of our good behavior.
I am reminded of the saying: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves us not to judge the rest of us.”
When we start to think that we are good and holy, it is a sign that we are not aware of our shadow side. A lot of this as to do with motivation, both conscious and unconscious.
Let’s suppose that I am generous in helping the poor and I support other good causes. That is obviously good. When I look inside myself, I may recognize that I revel I the praise and honor that brings me. I may recognize that it makes me feel superior or better than the ones I help. I need to see that it is important to realize that both the “bad” things and the “good” things need conversion.
Another example: I do religious things. I attend Mass; I say my prayers. I fast and abstain according to church rules. These too are “good” things. Again, when we look inside, we may find something else. Perhaps I enjoy people noticing how religious I am. Perhaps I do it so that I will be rewarded in heaven. Perhaps it makes me feel holy. Perhaps I think I am better than those who are not so religious. This allows me to be both religious and mean. I love the quote from Fr. Richard Rohr: “Religion is a wonderful place to avoid God.”
Let’s continue to look at the conversion of “good” things.
Another example I am very helpful to other people. This is, of course, a “good” thing. When I look inward, I may discover that I help people in situations and in a manner that keeps them from doing for themselves what they are able to do themselves. In Alcoholics Anonymous this is called enabling. In such a situation, the feeling good or not feeling guilty that I experience overrides what is really good for the person. I may also enjoy feeling like the good one.
Another example: I like to do things perfectly. Doing things well is certainly good. When I search my soul, I may find that what I do is never good enough. I am afraid that people will think I am not competent. I may find that underneath, I don’t think that I am okay. This usually comes from not getting enough real love when I was little. Perhaps I can learn that I am good in myself. I don’t have to prove it by being perfect. Being perfect never works because no matter how well I do it, it doesn’t heal the wound. For those of us who believe in God, it may help to remember that Love loves us and we are good enough for her.
Another example: Perhaps I have strong convictions. Conviction is a “good thing.” As I look inside myself, I may realize that I think that I am right and good. Those who disagree are wrong and bad. I don’t need to listen to other points of view because I have the truth. This is a special problem for those of us who are church leaders when we think we speak for God.
I continue with one more example of the need we have to undergo conversion of the “good” things we do.
Let us suppose that we are honest. We don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Those are obviously good and important virtues to practice We might certainly question how these can need conversion.
Suppose that I am honest because I want people to trust me. That is not a bad motive. If we look more deeply, we will see that we are not honest because that is good, but because it benefits me in the long run, it is still self-centered motivation. This can be very helpful along the way. We should not discount its value. Indeed, I don’t think we shul try to start our spiritual journey with the conversion of the “good” things. This is a conversion that can take place much further down the road.
However, I think that at some point it is valuable to become aware of how deeply selfish motives are embedded in our humanity. In fact, I think that this selfishness is valuable. At the same time, we must look at its shadow side.
If we don’t ever look at this shadow, we will think of ourselves as superior to others, as more deserving of others, and so on. My experience is that these motivations never fully go away. I find that knowledge very valuable because it helps to keep my pride and arrogance in check. It keeps the pride and arrogance from resulting in behavior that is harmful to others and myself. Without that check, we can think of ourselves as very good and still be mean and oppressive people.
The spiritual journey is something like peeling an onion. As you peel away one layer, there is always another that is very much the same.
This realization can help us not take credit for our progress (this seems strange, because we have to cooperate in the process), but instead just be grateful. At some point it seems to me that our cooperation is only by the grace of God.
Smile, God Loves You
From the letter “Spiritual Journey” in Awesome Love. By Father John Clay (c)2013