When I first began learning about Stoicism a couple of years ago, I was drawn to the distinction between things in my control and externals. Freedom from anxiety and negative emotions depended upon focusing upon the former. This I related to my experience of the Serenity Prayer, which I had learned in Alcoholics Anonymous. So the seed was the pursuit of serenity, a mental health issue. However, in my mind this was part of a larger interest in transcending desire and the material world — drawing on my experiences in Buddhism and Christianity, especially Contemplative Christianity.
Then, in Marcus Aurelius, I discovered the broader Stoic emphases on both responsibility as a member of humanity and the embrace of the Universe as fundamentally right and good, exactly what it needed to be, and ruled by God’s (perhaps unknowable) Will. He understood our own will as a kind of allocation of the greater Divine Will, with the truly good life requiring harmony between my will and God’s. This theme concerning God is even stronger in Epictetus, who was possibly Marcus’s primary source. Epictetus repeatedly emphasizes the goodness of the World, its creation by God and our obligation to act according to God’s will. Some modern Stoics try to deny his belief in anything non-material, but I have consistently found Epictetus’s belief in a mystical, Logos-like God to be inspiring.
Even though I recognized the need to harmonize my life with the Divine (since long before my interest in Stoicism), I remained agnostic about how to do this.
But other threads converged. My interest in the contemplative pursuit of the Christian God dates back at least as far as my retreat at Gethsemani in 2009. Yet I always balked at what I viewed to be unnecessarily rigid doctrines, and beliefs that just seemed too fantastical. Another important limitation was my general tendency to avoid sustained commitments.
But other forces have come to bear over the last seven years. I have always believed these were sent me by God. I have experienced material misfortunes, my own irresponsibility, and family values crises; I have faced the role of alcoholism in my life. I have encountered the goodness of others in a way I never had before. A major thread of learning from all this has been awareness of my own negligence, stupidity and sinfulness. I have much to regret! This isn’t a matter of wallowing in my past; but rather a facing up to my errors and limitations. Humility and surrender, as well as gratitude, have become very important. I have stumbled along this new path for a few years now. It included my too-narrow AA experience. Then a couple of years ago I started a journey into Benedictine Oblation that was cut short by the need to make a living. The fundamental questions have always been: Surrender to Whom? Gratitude to Whom? To what end?
The answers have become obvious: Surrender to God, the source of all being, with whom I need to align my life. Gratitude to that same God for both the gift of the World (which to me appears to be boundlessly good) and the unceasing flow of new chances for me. These new chances are obviously opportunities for me to go beyond my past sins and to (finally!) take up the responsibilities of a complete relationship with God, which has always been my assignment. The Catholic Church, with the Trinity and Mary and the solid body of Doctrine and the deep theology and wonderful mysteries, is the one place I see where this surrender is possible. But surely this is really just a response to a Call, a belated surrender to a Call that has resonated for decades!
I just watched a video of a talk by Sr. Bethany Madonna. Wow! What an example of someone so full of energetic love for God, and faith and inspiration! I must admit it seemed to draw my attention to my own tepid and cynical tendencies. She asked about the time I first fell in love with Jesus, and her eyes burned with joy at her own recollection — I couldn’t think of anything that felt remotely akin to that.
I feel a need to awaken my own heart. I’ll have whatever she’s drinking!
As I have clearly revealed in what I just wrote, upon hearing of the path of another, especially one that seems appealing and righteous far beyond my own present state, I am tempted to comparisons. I feel inadequate. What a destructive temptation! It doesn’t really matter whether I come off as better or worse, what is really happening is a shift of attention from the other and God himself to my own pitiful self. Dear God, help me to forget myself and to simply surrender to the inspiration You offer me through others.
It may well be that my pilgrimage will in no way resemble that of the dazzling “star” I envy. That’s not for me to decide. I have only to follow the call and to fix my gaze on God.