Contrary to what I know to be the right thing to do, I have a stubborn tendency to dwell too much in the world, being drawn into different media under the false pretense of, “staying informed.” However the more I read and watch, the less peace I have. The more supposed “knowledge” I gain, the less wisdom I use. The more I seek to understand the ways of the world, the less I behave in an understanding manner to those around me.
Bare branches and bushy trunks
An image keeps coming to my mind. A couple of weeks ago, I took my teenage children to the library. While they went inside, I chose instead to sit outside, pray a rosary and enjoy a bit of the fleeting summer sunshine. As I was praying, I felt a Holy Spirit nudge to contemplate the five locust trees planted nearby. All of their branches were barren, but their bases were covered in bushy “shoots”, clambering over each other for space in a wild tangle of doomed growth. These “shoots” are also called “suckers” because they suck the life right out of a tree. In addition to ruining the tree’s appearance, they deprive it of all necessary nutrients and gradually starve it to death.
That’s what my stubborn tendency to indulge in media does: it saps my strength and starves my soul. As I get worked up over the latest gross injustice, my energy is spent in the wrong way entirely. So why do I do it? I believe what I am doing is grasping at control and clutching at relevance. My baser instincts kick in when I see society disintegrating at a rapid rate and my body of knowledge and understanding becoming obsolete. All I can control is slipping away. And so, by diving into what is often a cesspool of information, I make a sad attempt at controlling my world and remaining a valid part of it. I feed the suckers and starve the tree.
Think about these things
When I brought this to prayer later that day, the Lord brought these verses to mind:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
While I ponder and think about things that are the opposite of lovely, the God of peace cannot be with me! Instead of thinking and reading about all of the problems in the world, the only way I can really be “relevant”, really have “control” is to let go of my clutching and grasping and dive into His life for me, His Good News. If my tree is starving and my suckers well fed, I am not bearing Christ’s peace and love to the world. If I am well informed of all the problems and questions facing the world, but don’t live in a manner that shows that I know Jesus is the answer to all of those problems and questions, then I will be truly irrelevant and out of control. By pondering whatever is lovely, I will have and spread His peace.
The Information Overlord
As Christians we are known by our fruit, the most important being love, peace and joy. We have all likely heard about “information overload”, that state of mental nausea which comes from taking in too much worldly news and data. There is also a term being bandied about which gives a sort of unholy incarnation to information: the Information Overlord. The dominating force of the media is personified into a spirit that we all must attach ourselves to and serve. When I freely choose to submit to this spirit, all of that Holy Spirit fruit shrivels and dies.
As I prayed deeper on this, I heard the interior words:
You are dwelling too much in the world, being drawn in by the false pretense of “staying informed”. The only true information is this: the world needs My Mercy. What truth can be added to this? Dwell apart in prayer. It is a necessity. When you become aware of a bad situation: pray. Then move on with your day. Your heart is not built to bear the burdens of this world. Trying to do so only saps your strength for what you are called to do, which is love and pray. This struggle you are going through, trying to let go of clutching and control, is a battle for your mind, and ultimately for your peace, which is your only real force for good in this world.
Comment Box Confession
Permit me an example of how this sucker (me) grew a “sucker” and starved a branch, just recently. A few days ago, I was driving to pick up my children, something I spend a lot of time doing as we live a bit outside of our metro area. I had already prayed a rosary, a chaplet and the other daily devotionals I pray while driving and thought I had “earned” some free time to peruse the radio dial. In our market, we are spoiled with Catholic and Christian music stations, as well as Catholic and Christian “talk format” stations. Did I choose one of these soul feeding fonts? No! I freely chose to listen to news talk radio instead.
As I tuned in, two gentlemen were discussing the apparently bigoted actions of an artist who was scheduled to perform in our town. They were bemoaning the fact that, because this apparent bigot was also politically liberal, there would be no protests outside of the performance venue, but had the artist been a conservative, they posited, protesters would surely be present. As not-so-righteous-indignation started to rise in my heart, I thought I’d better turn the dial or, better yet, indulge in some silence. Too late. The sucker was already fed; the branch already starved. What I had “earned” for myself that afternoon was a trip right out of the stream of peace.
Days later, when the review of the artist’s performance was in the local paper, I again indulged in reading to see if there were, in fact, any protests. When I didn’t see any noted, I actually posed a question in the Comment Box, that great font of truths, as to whether anyone knew about the supposed bigoted actions of the artist in question. My “innocent” question was instantly swarmed by the artist’s supporters and political allies. But, I begged, I only want to know the truth! I was then labeled a troll, paid by the leading so-called conservative news channel. You would think this would have been enough to drive me away, but, bless your heart, you would be thinking too highly of me.
Next, I did a little research and found that it does indeed appear that the artist in question harbors a certain form of bigotry. I graciously provided the results of this research to the Comment Box, but amazingly, the supporters of the artist did not accept them! But, Comment Box, I’m being relevant! Don’t you care about the facts? Indignation continued to rise in my now void-of-peace heart, but thankfully, the gnawing at my conscience was becoming more of a full-on bite. Coming to my senses at last, I apologized for disturbing the artist’s fans and left the conversation.
That night sleep eluded me. I hated what I had chosen to do, how I had chosen to serve the Information Overlord rather than my Lord and my God, to serve discord rather than peace. I used the sleepless opportunity to take my sinful self back to prayer and talk the whole humiliating experience over with the Lord. In His usual merciful and gentle way, He reminded me that I am human, that I am little, and that I will continue to fall. The key is to learn from each fall, and to get up again. He also reminded me that earlier this summer, in prayer, He had given me Five Pillars for peace in my life. They are:
1) Prayer (spending time with Him!)
2) Daily Mass
3) Spiritual Reading
4) Frequent Confession
5) Quiet (not only audibly, but interiorly, which is served by not consuming worldly media).
There are times when one or more of these pillars are removed. But in those times I must not go on as normal in other ways. Instead, I must curtail other activities that use time and lean in harder on the remaining pillars. In my situation, this generally works out to be that I cannot make it to daily Mass (pillar 1), and things are not as quiet as I would like (pillar 5). Thus, in every opportunity, I must lean in harder on what remains: prayer first and foremost, then the rest. Crucial always is the true control I do have, that of curtailing media use, as well as other non-spiritual reading, health books, recipes, all “innocent” distractions which serve to knock down the remaining pillars and feed the “suckers”. How beautiful that the Lord sat me in front of five bare locust trees to lead me back to the Five Pillars he had explained to me earlier.
One Body in Christ
I am human and will continue to humiliatingly fail at times. It is also true that I need to remain somewhat informed about what is happening in the world. But when I guard these Five Pillars more closely I find that the Lord leads me to an appropriate amount of media, reading and keeping up on current events. In those times, I learn dispassionately, pray and act appropriately.
In this way, the “suckers” are starved, or even lopped off, and the branches flourish. A flourishing tree provides shade, shelter, fruit and even oxygen! These are necessary, not minor things! When I allow my “tree” to flourish by maintaining peace, I can provide much of what is necessary for my family and all of those whom God places in my life, without which they will fail to thrive. When I instead choose to feed the “suckers”, it is not just my soul that starves, but others are affected as well.
We are one Body. What we choose, for good or for ill, will affect us and the entire Body to some extent. Though Jesus is merciful, He shows us a better way of life that will spread peace to all. Please pray for me that I stay out of the Comment Boxes and stop feeding the “suckers”, that I guard the Five Pillars and let go of relevance and control.
St. Therese wrote some words in Story of a Soul that make an appropriate prayer to end this essay:
O Jesus, You see I am a very little soul and can offer You only very little things: I frequently miss the opportunity of welcoming these small sacrifices which bring so much peace; but I am not discouraged – I bear the loss of a little peace and I try to be more watchful in the future…I am sure that if I persevere in my good efforts, in the twinkling of an eye, at the moment of death, You will cause rich fruits to ripen on the tree of my soul (from Divine Intimacy by Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., pg. 885, Tan Books).
With St. Therese’s prayers and yours, with our Lord’s merciful love, I will keep getting up, unclutching and ungrasping my hands. Now, to turn on some nice Catholic praise music…