The thoughts of a sufi master: When I was young my prayer was, “Lord, give me the energy to change the world.” As I reached middle age and saw how futile my initial prayer was I changed the prayer to, “Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come in contact with me – my family and friends.” Now that I am old my one prayer is, “Lord give me the grace to change myself.” If I had prayed for this right from the start I should not have wasted so much time. At this moment in history we as a society are pushing for changes – changes in race relations, changes in health care, changes in economics. People keep yelling their point of view at each other and there seem to be six sides to every issue. What would happen if we took the wisdom of the sufi master to heart and looked at ourselves? In almost every letter St. Paul writes he urges unity. That shows the divisions we have in the country and in the Church today are nothing new. He wants the Philippians, he wants us, “to be of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” Instead of trying to change the system or the structure he asks us to change ourselves. “Have the same attitude in you that is also in Christ Jesus.” Seems like a tall order. How can I have a Christ-like attitude? I’m not as patient as Christ. I’m not as kind as Christ. I’m not as forgiving as Christ. Getting to unity will be a challenge! However, St. Paul describes the Christ-attitude not so much in terms of the virtues we possess as in the actions we perform. The Apostle says that the Christ-attitude that gets us to unity requires stopping doing one thing and starting doing something else. As he puts it Christ, “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped but he emptied himself.” Stop grasping and start emptying and we get the Christ attitude and thus change ourselves and then the world.
The image of grasping is as old as the Bible. Grasping is what got us all into trouble in the first place. Adam and Eve grasped after, snatched at, grabbed for, that apple and as a result we have systemic racism, global warming, cholesterol in fried chicken and algebra homework. So we can see that grasping after that nasty old apple is a bad thing. But if you remember, the snake did not tempt Adam and Eve to do something evil but something desirable, something pleasing. “Doesn’t that apple look good?” That is how temptation plays out in our lives. No one starts out by saying, “I will now commit this sin.” No, they grasp after something that looks good. There might be a Snidely Whiplash out there who delights in tying Little Nell to the railroad track but I haven’t met him. No one has come to me in confession saying they wish to do evil. Rather, my sins and the sins I hear about are about grasping after something we perceive to be good. I grasp after my freedom so I don’t have to wear a mask. I grasp after my opinion so I don’t have to listen to anyone else. I grasp after happiness so get out of my way. None of these goals are bad in themselves but we should be wary of grasping. As Adam found out, grasping after something that looks good to you, can get you kicked out of paradise.
Once you stop grasping, then you start emptying. That was the other attitude Christ had. Stopped grasping and started emptying. How do we do that? And what are we to empty ourselves of? To answer those questions I am reminded of a prayer that St. Ignatius wrote five hundred years ago. Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Is that what we must empty ourselves of: liberty, memory, understanding, will? Those are the very things that make me, me. Without freedom who am I? We’ve all experienced how sad it is when someone loses their memory. My understanding of who I am and my will to act make me a human being and not a machine. No one would want to empty themselves of those things? Or would they? I am thinking of new mothers. The first thing a new mother loses is her liberty. Because this newborn is so demanding the mother she doesn’t go to parties or the movies, can only do things in short bursts since the infant will soon need care. Interestingly, a new mother also loses her memory and understanding. Scientists call it “mommy brain.” Research shows that a mother’s gray matter in the brain is altered by having children. A new mother’s memory is impacted and her focus becomes narrow and intense which causes other aspects of life to blur. This modifying of memory and understanding equips the woman to be a better mother. Finally, of course, a new mother surrenders her will to that of her child. The child’s needs override what the mother would prefer to do. So in this instance, at least, we see what emptying oneself looks like, giving up one’s own preferences for the sake of this new life.
What does the experience of new mothers tell us about emptying ourselves? Back to the prayer: St. Ignatius situates the “Take, Lord, receive” prayer as part of what he calls a “contemplation on divine love.” The prayer ends: Give me only your love and your grace, for this is sufficient for me. Love and grace are enough. The attitude of Christ was love. A mother acts out of love. The way we imitate Christ is love, a love that acts for another. We empty ourselves of ourselves in order to be filled with the love of God. We empty ourselves of all those things that we think we need even our understanding and will and come to rely on the one thing we truly do need – God’s love. That’s how we change ourselves to get the Christ attitude and in the end that’s what will change the world.