Living an Authentic Life
or What does it mean to be holy?
A monk in his travels once found a precious stone and kept it. One day he met a traveler, and when the monk opened his bag to share his provisions with him, the traveler saw the jewel and asked the monk to give it to him. The monk did so readily. The traveler departed, overjoyed with the unexpected gift of the precious stone that was enough to give him wealth and security for the rest of his life. However, a few days later he came back in search of the monk, found him, gave him back the stone, and entreated him, “Now give me something much more precious than this stone, valuable as it is. Give me that which enabled you to give it to me.”
—from a story told by Anthony de Mello
We know [true spirituality] when we see it. We may not be able to articulate what it is we see, but we see it. We all, at one point or another, seek to be in the presence of [such] a holy person because we somehow sense that if we can sit at the feet of such a person, the inner disparities of our own life will be gathered together and resolved. That is why people search out spiritual guides and gurus. There is a hope and anticipation that there is someone who is somehow closer to divine truth than we are and that their truth will somehow be conveyed to us.
When we seek out holy people and find them, what is most palpable about them is that they have a sense of "completeness"—they seem free of the anxiety, duplicity, and complex desires that so characterize and plague our daily lives. They seem to have become detached from what is extraneous. They have a single-minded focus and there is a peace and contentment about them that seems strangely absent in our own lives.
While this is attractive, we are shy about seeking to become holy ourselves. Partly this is because we misunderstand holiness. We think holiness is something that can only be acquired by heroic effort. We are sure it will require all night vigils, being a member of a monastery community, living a life devoid of fun and frivolity, meditating for hours each day, wearing out our knees and our backs in prayer, never lying or cheating or feeling lust in our heart. Or, if none of that, at least it will be a life that is dreary, so concentrated and focused as to be boringly dull.
Let me suggest to you that holiness is not what you think it is. In theological terms we talk about holiness as being ‘set apart'—set apart for God. Even that, however, is a misunderstanding of the word. The actual root word is hool with "w" placed at the beginning, and it literally means whole. The simple duty of us all becomes nothing more, nothing less than becoming whole. Holiness is the process by which we integrate the loose threads of our life into a whole tapestry of beauty and divine grace. This is a creative task for the entirety of our lives. The good news is that we can set aside all the to-do lists of things that we think are required for reaching some standard of moral and spiritual perfection, and open ourselves instead to the invitation and creative possibility of becoming whole in God.
To become whole in God means aligning our lives with God through such things as seeing the world and ourselves through God’s eyes; forgiving others even when the pain of hurt and betrayal sticks in the throat like hard, dry clay; not judging others even when their behavior makes our heartbeat quicken and our breath shorten; having the courage to face evil and overcome its power with the goodness that is foolhardy in the eyes of the world; staying in the place of unconditional love even when love seems imprudent and so difficult as to make us want to run away.
These are the loose threads that we spend our lives weaving together into the beautiful tapestry of holiness— wholeness in God. Far from being a dull chore of the soul, becoming whole in God can be an adventure as thrilling and dramatic as the latest Hollywood action movie, and the result is that we no longer need someone else's holiness to rub off on us just so we feel better about ourselves.
At some point, we, as human beings, become aware of this gap between our beliefs and our experience and begin to wrestle with our questions about how to live authentically. The desire to enter those questions, and as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, to "live into the answers," usually occurs in mid to later life—though not always. God created us in such a remarkable way that we are actually wired for growth that leads us closer and closer to communion with God—to knowledge of God, not merely about God, a knowing of the heart, not just the head. Evidence of this wiring (our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee, according to St. Augustine) is found in what most of us experience around mid-life. We get this yearning to live with more authenticity, and if we respond to that yearning (instead of shoving it back down again), it can be an unsettling enterprise, not only to ourselves, but also to those in our relational orbit.
We yearn to say what we mean, to be boldly who we really are … to live each day with growing integrity, to connect with the true self (where, by the way, we meet God)—or to put it in the familiar language of the Velveteen Rabbit, one of our childhood heroes: to be REAL.
I realize that phrases like "getting real" and "finding out who we are" may have become hackneyed in the past few years. Our bookstores are literally bulging with books telling us how to do this ad nauseum. But no matter how many books we read, how much information we soak up, no one can do it for us; the individual journey becomes uniquely our own. Secondhand information may inspire and entertain, even guide us, but in the final analysis, it is still secondhand.
“Getting from Sunday to Monday”
The pane of glass freshly cleaned opens us to the world beyond. The dust has been cleared away so that what was a blur can be seen with definition. This is an image of the authentic life. When we have cleaned the pane of our life in order to be authentic, we find we become a window for others to the world beyond. This authenticity is grounded in being the best we can be without sham, excuse or apology. It is to love our 'self' into what it can become. It's so seductive in our culture to be other than what we are—to be like someone else, to hide our inner being, to be what people want or expect us to be—rather than dwelling in the truth of our own unique, yet universal, being. A lack of authenticity drives us far away from our own beating heart, fills us with anxiety and stress, and ends up destroying inner beauty, because it is the living of a lie. Facing who we are, no matter how inadequate we have come to believe ourselves to be, is the beginning of living an authentic, real, honest and beautiful life. And, it's the only way to truly make a difference in the lives of others.
St. Benedict is, as usual, uncompromisingly prosaic when he describes the monastic community as a workshop. It’s a place where we use specific tools, and he lists those tools with blunt simplicity in chapter four of the Rule, tools that are lent to us … to be returned on the last day when we receive our wages.
It’s an imagery that, for me, conjures up a landscape in monochrome: a gray sky, a stone wall, the tools, worn smooth with long use and skillfully patched up over time, taken from the shelf each morning until finally hung up when weariness and age arrive.
[An authentic spiritual] life is one in which we learn to handle things, in businesslike and unself-conscious ways, to handle the control of the tongue, the habit of not passing on blame, getting up in the morning and not gossiping. A [spiritual] lifetime is one in which these tools are fitted to our hands. Simone Weil wrote somewhere about how the tool for the seasoned worker is the extension of the hand, not something alien. And Benedict’s metaphors prompt us to think of an [authenticity] that is like that, an extension of our bodies and our words that we’ve come not to notice.