The other day as I was walking up the hill from the Georgetown Jesuit Residence to the Hospital in the midst of the DC heat at noon a strange thought crossed my mind which hadn’t crossed it in nearly 8 years…… that thought was “you know what its really hot out here right now and my face itches, maybe I should shave my beard.” Yes, for the first time since January of my freshman year of college I was almost clean shaven. Now I know that most of my reflections to this point have been somewhat sublime to the point of bordering on the absurd, but stick with this one for a second.
Much to the chagrin of my mother, as well as a few other important people in my life, I have had a beard since I was 17. At this point I have gotten used to looking in the mirror and seeing some form of facial hair staring back at me. While it’s not a particular point of pride or anything, I have just gotten used to it, and have come to recognize it as a part of who I am. Then the other night came along. I went to Best Buy in Alexandria and bought a beard trimmer. I stood in front of the mirror and trimmed down my beard to a level 1 on my new trimmer (the lowest setting on the trimmer) and low and behold, it looked simply like I hadn’t shaved in a few days, and for the first time in nearly 7 years I have a fairly clear view of my chin. Now I know this really short beard thing is in vogue, though my intent was simply to be a little cooler in the noon day sun. (Frankly anyone who knows how I dress and knows of my inability to wear anything fancier than a Red Sox or Patriots Jersey and Jeans on many occasions knows that to be the case.)
The thing is though, I looked in the mirror, and I saw and still see a different person. Sometimes we all can get an image of who we are stuck in our head, and sometimes that image that gets jammed in there is an image of how we are too. Often the things which dictate this for us are superficial realities (like my beard) and when we get rid of them we can be left a little disoriented sometimes. The reality remains however that we are still the same person, and perhaps by letting go of those superficial things we see something we haven’t seen in a long time. Practically, this can mean something as simple as shaving one’s beard, but the reality holds for things which are much more sublime too. We can often stack roles and self images on top of the image and likeness of God which is in each of us, so that it becomes so obscured that it becomes hard to recognize when we pull all of that other stuff away. For me the temptation is in the image I have of myself as philosopher, as a particular type of friend to some people, or in the role I feel like I should play in community life. None of those things are necessarily bad, but they need to all be subservient to the reality which lies underneath, the reality of the Holy Spirit within impelling us, pressing us forward, and bringing us together in the most important of ways, as Church, as the Body of Christ.
It’s strange, because when we let those images get in the way of seeing the image and likeness of God in which Genesis tells us we were all created we engage in a perverse sort of idolatry, an idolatry of the self. In this idolatry we become worshipers of our own selves, our own egos. We can become strangely self obsessed, and even the vocation that God has called us to can take the life out of us. But if we are really worshiping God, and if what we really seek to venerate is the image of God within, then that vocation, and any other role becomes what it was meant to be, the relationship of love made manifest through actions. Then that role, that self image can, in the proper context, be what St. Ignatius talks about in the Contemplation to Attain divine love, it can be a sharing in love which manifests itself in deeds more than words.
So my beard suffered a near death experience…. It’s till there to some extent, I think I will let it grow back. Some members of the community here in fact have already told me that they miss it. It’s not a bad thing, but like all things it’s good to remember that the most important self image I can have is the image and likeness of God.
Monday, June 05, 2006
So I am the chaplain on call here at Georgetown university hospital and I can’t sleep. The call room we have is a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare and it seems every time I am getting to sleep my pager goes off, and here is the catch… its dealing with stuff I feel woefully inadequate to deal with. I am good working with the poor, and with young people, but I am really ill equipped in many ways to handle death and dying. Some of it is my meticulous nature, some of it is a real and deep desire not to look foolish, but most of it is really wanting to help and feeling my complete and utter poverty of spirit to do so.
Poverty of spirit, it manifests itself in me both as a real need to rely on Christ and as my own inability to do this kind of work outside of his grace and his love for me. Metz was right to say that poverty of spirit is the foundation for the rest of the beatitudes. Sometimes too I think it might be precisely being in that moment of having no idea what to do that we actually end up doing the right thing, perhaps even in spite of ourselves. The gospel says that Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, even though he would raise him from the dead a few minutes later, something about that experience left even Christ himself in his full humanity stand before death and feel what every human feels in front of it, confusion, frustration, anger, and sadness. The letter to the Hebrews says that we have a high priest who bears all of our iniquities, and so I suppose he bears this too. All of that also leads to the moment of realizing just how dependant upon the Father each of us is, a moment in which the sharing of life between Christ and the Father made Lazarus come out of the tomb. Without this moment of poverty of spirit we can never really live in that connection.
So its 2:40am and I will with the psalmist await the dawn, knowing that in the dark sometimes we are left only with our poverty of spirit.
Posted by Mike, S.J. at 8:47 AM