After Angie and I got married, like many couples we moved to a house in the suburbs. This was a whole new (and daunting) experience for me in many ways, not least of which because I don’t have any handyman skills whatsoever. One area though where I put special focus and even enjoyed a little success, was in having a nice green lawn. It began with getting rid of the sea of weeds we’d inherited, then relentlessly seeding, watering and fertilizing, until I made headway. It even got to the point where I took the sight of a weed as a personal affront and went after it with a vengeance. What quickly became clear to me was that the thicker and healthier the grass, the less the likelihood of weeds. In reading something recently about St. John of the Cross, it seems there might be a parallel in our spiritual lives.
Our lives include many “weeds”, that is, behaviors or habits with which we are not particularly happy or proud of, and would like to change. It could be our tendency to gossip; our impatience with others especially those with whom we don’t agree; our addiction to certain habits; getting angry when we feel we are not respected; our self-centeredness or inability to empathize with those in need; and sadly, the list could go on. We try to correct our shortcomings with good intentions, New Year’s resolutions, maybe even self-help books and hopefully some prayer. However, for most of us, we find ourselves being “repeat offenders”. Even when we work up the fortitude to go to confession, it can be disheartening to find we are repeating some of the same old faults. So what’s going on here: Are we doomed to bad habits for the rest of our lives and what the heck was God thinking when He made us like this?
Before we get to some of the good news here (and yes there is some), it’s worthwhile acknowledging that much of the time, our unhappiness with our flaws, has a lot to do with our egos versus our relationship with God. We realize that perhaps we are not quite the wonderful people we would like to be: it’s humbling. And while we do have free will to make good choices, maybe in fact we are not as totally in control as we would like. But now for some good news: this is all part of God’s plan. So what do I mean by that?
As we know, God makes use of everything, even our flaws. That’s not to say that the bad choices we make are indeed good, merely that God in His infinite mercy and goodness, is able to make use of everything. A simple example would be that our repentance for our failures can bring us to our knees in heartfelt prayer. And just as when we sometimes have a falling out with a friend or partner, where the acknowledgment of our fault can strengthen our bond with that person, so it is in our relationship with God. We grow closer to God in that moment of sorrow and resolve (with God’s grace) to do better in future.
So where does our friend St. John of the Cross come into this? Apparently, his advice would be that while we should do our absolute best to do the right thing, we can achieve little by willpower alone. Rather that we should emphasize doing all of the things in our lives that bring us closer to God. Fr. Rolheiser, paraphrasing St. John, puts it this way:
“What are you good at? Where, in your life and work, does God’s goodness and beauty most shine through? If you can grow more and more towards that goodness, it will fan into an ever larger flame which eventually will become a fire that cauterizes your faults.”
And so whatever our position or status in life, we must use our gifts to the fullest extent, so that there is little room for those“weeds” in our lives to take root and grow.