Our Most Important Works

Happy Birthday Sally. Today marks the 35th time we’ve celebrated your birthday together. In honor of your special day, this post will center on an insight you’ve shared with me, sparking ongoing contemplation and conversation.

A critical aspect of living virtuously centers on the good works we do in the wider world. We are called to works of charity in service of others. We are called to make a difference by the way we give of ourselves and our gifts. Responding to that call entails the things we do in our communities as well as broader efforts of mission and service in the wider world. Sometimes these works are ongoing, sometimes they are bursts of time and investment. The needs of our world never end and opportunities abound.

Why do we do such works? Duty? Guilt? The good feeling they create when we give? Adventure? Togetherness? Love? For most of us, the answer is some combination of “all of the above.” Over the years of service projects, church missions, charity events, healthcare missions, and donations, we’ve seen, and felt, all of the above and witnessed the great results from our, and others’, efforts to make a difference. With such great good being done, does our “why” really matter?

Changing the World

And so, my prayer for you is that truth will bring prayer in our homes, and from the foot of prayer will be that we believe that in the poor it is Christ. And we will really believe, we will begin to love. And we will love naturally, we will try to do something. First in our own home, next door neighbor in the country we live, in the whole world.

St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), from her 1984 Nobel Prize acceptance speech

Does the end justify the why? Just because I’m there because of guilt or wanting to feel good from giving of myself doesn’t lessen the impact, right?

Over the years, Mother Teresa’s quotation above has morphed into a similar but different version: “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” The internet version is a bit of soft-soap relative to how Teresa of Calcutta lived and what she really said. Sure, try to “do something” in your home and move-on from there. However, her first call was to love.

And here we come to Sally’s insight. As much as works in service of others matter, we must first do the works necessary within ourselves. Works within ourselves? Yes. Our “why” matters. Though going through the motions of doing good works still produces an outcome, without love, they are hollow. Without a conversion of our own heart, we could actually be doing those external works for the wrong reasons.

If we do our duty at the soup kitchen but feel impatience or anger with those close to us, where is our heart? If we donate money to our church but find ourselves acting uncharitably while driving, where is out heart? If we do a toy drive for Christmas, but find ourselves gossiping about our co-worker, where is our heart? If we do random good deeds but still fail to love in the small moments, where is our heart?

Works on Self

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.

Matthew 11:12

The hard work begins with ourselves. To love first at home is to focus on the things within us that hold us back from greater charity. But what are these works on self? The violence is in our battle with the extremes of our own tendencies. The sensitivities. The insecurities. The jealousies. We are in a state of tension with our own inclinations and it is in the struggle with those tendencies that we become. We become more or less charitable, more or less patient, more or less kind, more or less forgiving, more or less honest, more or less sincere, and on and on.

The Holidays bring it all home so clearly. Tensions in relationships appears in gatherings. Old wounds are re-opened. The behaviors that annoy become grating. The need to be right, better, recognized, or appreciated, turns into an internal courtroom where justice is administered in our own absolute judgment. Surrendering to our instinctive response to the slights breeds reaction, resentment, and discord.

The difficult works are in the wrestling match with our own self-centeredness. Our own pride. Our own vanity. Our own need to control, influence, and demand. What is it to work on oneself? It is to recognize our tendencies and fight with them until we have mastered them. It is to get knocked down by their fierce grip on us and pick ourselves up in humility. It is to swallow our pride and admit we were wrong. First to ourselves and then, gulp, to the other.

Walking the Path

We cannot manufacture a change of heart. We cannot make ourselves love. Conversion of this sort requires something greater. But we can open ourselves to Grace by working at it. We can lower our barriers in the effort and allow our hearts to soften in the struggle. This is the space between. Between light and dark. Between wrong and right. Between virtue and sin. Between our own extremes and our need to temper them.

Walking the path is seeing it, naming it, and wrestling it. Sure, our inclination will be to surrender to the reactive, instinctive, and self-protective, patterns that mark our own brokenness. Tension tends to trigger those instincts and we fall into our lizard-brain decision tree surrounding fight or flight. However, the path to conversion of heart often lies in the other direction. Docility, patience, and charity begin to emerge when we remove ourself from the center and detach our identity from a situation.

We become in the struggle. Thriving, living fully, becoming our best self, happens in that struggle. We often fixate on the external battles but it is the internal ones that are forming us. Our why does matter. The war of virtue begins in small skirmishes and those works on self live within the choices we make in the tough moments. The moments when everything within us is screaming in reaction.

Can we become love in the process? Will we bring more justice or more mercy? The why of our works does matter. First in our home, then with our next door neighbor in the country we live in, and finally, the world. Our most important works begin with self, and they are battles worth waging.

Showing 4 comments
  • Frederick W McClaine

    Great reflection today Phil…..after sharing a current relationship issue this week with you, it feels that something I need to pray about. Many of the things you mention would certainly clear my heart. Appreciate your words and Sally’s life giving attitude!! Merry Christmas to you and the family!!

    • Phillip Berry

      Thank you Fred. I’m always astounded at how things converge and though we all must walk our own paths, we are sharing unknown struggles with so many others.

      Fr. Mike Schmitz’ series over the last few weeks entitled Main Character is a great commentary on self. All good reminders of the tension, necessary struggle, and ultimate surrender to Grace, that must occur in each of us to live fully.

  • Trish+Berry

    This was a beautiful follow up to the reflections from “Hallow” this morning. Thank you for taking the time to share your “inspired” thoughts.

  • Frederick W McClaine

    I will watch that, have been meaning to….he always has great advice for reflection, thanks!!

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