I was 29 when my first daughter, Erin, was born. In my third year of ordained ministry I was beginning to slowly emerge from the condition of being “wet behind the ears.” When we brought her home from the hospital, my wife put her into my arms, this beautiful mystery of being, and I looked at her with a sense of awe and wonder and said to myself: “Now, what do I do?”
Sure, I learned to mix the formula, change the diapers and all the tasks that could be what I call, “measured” by following the directions. But these matters were not what my question was addressing.
There was a human being inside that little body and even more so, a soul. How was I supposed to interact, connect, guide, support, love, allow the correct amount of autonomy, maintain boundaries and somehow father the child of God in my arms and who would be soon running around me revealing how little I knew the mystery of life that was living within her. It wasn’t always about having the right answers, because people aren’t objects that respond to a general pattern of how things should be. They respond uniquely out of their own sense of mystery contained within. How could I help her find the God who created her, who lived within her while at the same time I was still learning (and am still learning now) how to remain connected to the One whose Peace passes all understanding?
There’s a danger in being a human being when we think we know the “answers” when we haven’t even known how to ask the right questions. Our past becomes the conditioning of our present and future if we aren’t careful enough to gaze deeper and listen to the still small Voice that touches our soul more than our mind influences our thinking. If we lose presence of mind and reduce God to a thought or set of rules, missing out on the omnipotence of Being who desires to immerse his Spirit within our own, who is already living within us and is waiting to emerge, then our lives can become a hollow shell without our even knowing it as we become lost in the details of the day.
This is why worship, particularly the Eucharist, and a personal prayer life, specifically for me, contemplative prayer, is so necessary. Anthony de Mello S.J. said that the most difficult part of the spiritual life is waking up and remaining awake to the presence of God in us, in our midst and in others. Without this way of marking time, of maintaining contact, we go from awake to what is known now as a form of “woke” which can take many forms, none of which are worth living because woke isn’t life at all.
St. Benedict, nourished in Eucharist, the Daily Offices and in silence in the midst of a community of believers realized this and wrote the sacred truth: “Every day, we begin again.” It brings me back to Erin as a babe in my arms, which was truly a new day begun again and leaves me asking still, “What do I do now?”
May we all ask this question day after day because the idea of today being like the “same old, same old” of yesterday is simply a delusion. It’s not the same at all. If we think so, we’re asleep again.
By asking the question, “What do I do now?” means that I won’t see you today as I did yesterday, going by the past history of stereotypes that my conditioned mind acquires over time. After all, God could have acted in you your life and if I don’t ask the question, I’ll never see it and we both will be the poorer for it. Every time we observe God acting in another person’s life, God gets bigger. It’s not that God gets bigger, but that our cataracts fall off.
One of the saddest experiences I go through as a priest is to hear people talk of others, of their idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and faults without looking for the God and good who lives within them—for the beauty that does live within them if we just wake up long enough to look. The result? We screen out people. Then conflict emerges in the congregation between neighbors, in town, county, state and country.
God knows I have my faults. I struggle with organization sometimes, can forget things, be self-preoccupied with other “to do’s” so that I don’t hear what others are telling me and there are times when I need more time to make decisions because I’m in a spot where there are about a half dozen choices and the clarity just hasn’t reached the space between my ears yet. These are the parts of life that defy an easy answer that Dear Abby could give you. Discernment is a lifelong practice of patience, listening and waiting. It’s called being Spirit led and praying that the decisions we make on a day to day basis don’t come from our own perception but God’s Wisdom.
Erin is now 40. When I look at her, sometimes the question still comes from within: “Now, what do I do?” If I don’t ask the question, I am projecting who I think she is on her rather that look for the person that God created her to be within her—as she is this day. Forgive me for the times that I forgot to ask.