Stop, Calibrate, and Listen: 25th Sunday OT
It was the summer of 1990. I was between fifth and sixth grades, and spending the night at a friend’s house. He had the single. He was a pretty cool kid and seemed to have his finger on the pulse of that magical time when the new wave pop of the ’80s was still ringing in our ears and before all those Seattle bands took over and put everybody in a bad mood for half a decade. He explained most emphatically that “Ice Ice Baby” was the coolest thing to drop basically ever. It was the new hotness and everybody liked it. It was the soundtrack of the summer. He pressed ‘play.’ I said I loved it. It is possible that I used the words “totally rad.” We listened to it a whole bunch of times in a row. But I went home the next day with a dark and terrible secret: I did not like “Ice Ice Baby.”
I was on the verge of beginning the social crucible of Junior High, and I didn’t like the cool song. This was a problem. I got my own tape, probably by recording it off the radio. Kids, ask your parents, I swear that was really a thing. And I set about the project of making myself like “Ice Ice Baby.” I listened to it over and over, willing myself to like it. It worked. By the time school started, I was right on the bandwagon.
Psychologists and theologians have both studied this kind of thing in their own way, and it’s interesting how their conclusions converge. The bottom line is this: we learn what to want. You can see this really clearly watching little ones with toys. Jimmy is playing with blocks and ignoring the toy car. Johnny comes in and starts playing with the toy car. Suddenly Jimmy abandons his blocks, and starts competing for the car. There’s a big fight. But he didn’t even want the car until he saw someone else wanted it. You’ve seen this kind of thing, right?
The truth is, we never entirely grow out of this. We do the same thing in picking clothes, possessions… It drives fashion and style. Much has been said about how our ideal body image is conditioned by society. Even whether we find someone attractive can be affected by seeing others wanting them or rejecting them. This is sometimes hard for us to admit. For example, we don’t like to admit that our behavior might be affected by advertisements. But it is. And it’s a fool who thinks that only other people are so affected.
I like to think of it in terms of calibration… you know what calibration means? Like if you’ve got an instrument or indicator, it’s properly calibrated if it gives you the right reading. If your speedometer gun isn’t calibrated right, it’ll show the wrong speed.
I think our passions need calibration. The first thing we need to know about passion and desire is that it’s good. That makes it sound like a romance novel… romance is part of this, but I’m talking about any passion, I’m talking about having drive, that fire in your belly. That’s a good thing. Have you ever seen someone in whom that flame seemed to flicker out? Or maybe you’ve gone through a time like that yourself. It’s a terrible thing. It’s a terrible spiritual sickness, one of the worst. It’s one of the blackest elements of true depression, the loss of desire, the lack of any drive.
There’s a mistake people make about Christianity: they think it requires us to shut down our passion, to cage our longing and deny our desire. That’s one hundred percent absolutely wrong. Christianity is not about desiring less - it’s about desiring more. We don’t fail as Christians because we want more for ourselves than God wants for us. It is not possible to want more for yourself than God wants for you! We fail as Christians when we settle for less than the eternal, uncreated, undying fire of love that God made us for.
When we set our hearts and our desires too low, we will find only frustration, and frustration leads to inner conflict, and inner conflict leads to outer conflict. James lays it all out.
…if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
James is writing about what the tradition calls disordered desire. People sometimes bristle at the word ‘disordered,’ but it’s just the truth, and it’s the truth about all of us. It’s one of the results of original sin: what is best and what we want are not always the same thing. How could anyone argue with that? James describes some of the results: jealousy, worldly shallow ambitions, eventually fighting and war. The conflict outside comes from the conflict inside, he says, from the war of our own inner passions. So before we will ever have peace among ourselves, we must have peace within ourselves.
OK, granted, that sounds pretty fluffy and new-age-y. But it really isn’t, when you get down to it. James says that we are responsible for our wants, our ambitions. We can even change them. Our will can be the master of our passions. We can choose and encourage the better angels of our nature; we are not doomed to live as slaves of our appetites. When I say peace without can only follow peace within, I’m not talking about something you can buy at a spa. James points the way, and it’s a hard way. It’s the way of self-denial, discipline, and prayer. If you’ve ever actually tried those things - and I know you have - you know that they are not easy to come by.
But, he goes on, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” To find that peace, we have to learn to calibrate ourselves to what is truly good, which ultimately is God. And to do that we have to put our brains in charge of our passions. I don’t have to tell you what happens when we get that backwards. And I don’t have to tell you how hard it can be to get it right. But really, it’s fantastically good news. Because it means we actually can recalibrate our hearts toward what is really good.
So how do we do that? It’s a lifelong project and we do it a little at a time. Christian life, and I would say especially Catholic life, is one long rehab program to replace our sin addiction with a healthy desire for God. Fasting is indispensable. We make little acts of self-denial to train our will, denying little things that don’t matter much so that we’re strong enough to deny big things when they do matter a lot. It’s a way of taking our appetites to school. Fasting teaches and reinforces and testifies that we are supposed to be aiming at the highest good. We do this sort of thing especially during Lent, but I hope not only in Lent.
Remember the part about how our desires sometimes imitate others? We can even work that to our advantage. When I read the Lives of the Saints, or the writings of people who love God more than I do, my heart is stirred. I realize that I sometimes have been ambitious and desirous for the wrong things, for things that are too small and worldly. On any given day, I might want to be lazy and eat too much and just entertain myself. But when I think about St. Kateri, for example, I realize that there’s something I actually want more than those things that seemed so appealing. There’s something I want more than to be comfortable and entertained. There’s something I want more than to have money or cool gadgets or great clothes. I look at the Saints, and I remember what I really want. Or rather, Who.
Another great tool in Catholic life is the rhythm of our worship together, the liturgical seasons, and the cycle of consecrating the world to God by offering the Holy Mass of Jesus Christ, every week. Jesus is carefully hidden in the Blessed Sacrament, and maybe it isn’t crazy to think that one reason is to teach us to look deeper at things and learn to hunger for what’s real and true, instead of what’s flashy and attractive. Regular Confession gives us the chance to periodically reset, to recommit, to turn away once more from whatever we’ve chosen over God or instead of God.
We could go on and on. The point is, James tells us that all the division and rivalry and war around us and between us comes because we’re trying to satisfy ourselves with things that can never satisfy. But he says, you don’t have because you don’t ask, or at least you ask wrongly, selfishly, foolishly. If I can recalibrate myself to like an extraordinarily cheesy rap song, perhaps I can calibrate myself toward holiness too.
Some of you share my fondness for Robert Barron, now one of the newest bishops in the Church. Bishops customarily choose mottos, and Bishop Barron has taken for his motto the words of his intellectual and spiritual hero, St. Thomas Aquinas. It’s said that at the end of his life, Jesus appeared to Thomas and said “you have written well of me, Thomas, what will you have as your reward?” And Thomas replied “Non nisi te Domine,” “Only you, Lord.”
If you can honestly say that, and mean it, and act like it, you will know what is meant by ‘the peace that surpasses understanding.’ If your wish is God, you will get your wish. I know this about myself, and I know this about you, and I know it about everyone we will ever meet: what we really want is God. When we pursue love, when we pursue beauty, when we pursue any kind of bliss, that’s the Kingdom of God calling us. And when we pursue the corruption of these good things, that’s our passions being miscalibrated. But God can heal that, and He will. You might never have thought of it this way, but just imagine this part of heaven: you will never want anything that’s bad for you! How great does that sound?
We aren’t there yet. But God’s grace is working… if we’re willing to stop, collaborate, and listen … God’s grace is working and we’re not finished yet.