Choosing to be cheerful

by
06 September 2019

A new book celebrates the life and writings of Sister Mary David, a Benedictine nun who died in 2017. These extracts are from her letters to novices

Andrew Ray/Alamy

Sunrise over Crummock Water in the Lake District

Sunrise over Crummock Water in the Lake District

WE ARE not machines that react automatically! Nor if we are cross or upset can we claim that the misery is caused by a job we don’t like, a talk we don’t like, an arrangement, or anything else. It is our choice to be or not to be miserable or agitated or else to ignore it all. We are not made or unmade by what happens on the outside, but by our response to it. When we feel hurt, or angry, or cross, we still have a choice about how to act from that moment on.

There’s a famous quotation from Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz: “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Pocket Books, 1984). The same suffering can be handled in different ways by different people.

So how do we get control in an appropriate way over our actions? Feelings are not the cause of everything. The cause is the discrepancy between what we want and what has come about. We can’t change our feelings, but what we can change is our action and to some extent our thinking by giving the situation a different interpretation. Can I replace this feeling with something more appropriate? Criticism comes from the Evil One. People suffer so much in the world for passing things — can’t I suffer a bit for God, bear a little something for love of him? Isn’t that a more fruitful work? Isn’t someone in the world dependent on my joyful sacrifice for his salvation, holiness? One day I will see the invisible lines joining them to me!

Then choose to act on this new, more life-giving way of looking at things. In other words, no matter how cross we are feeling, we can choose a way of thinking that will lead to a way of behaving differently. This will break the cycle of repetitive, instinctive, limiting reactions which makes you live well below your natural and supernatural capacity! If you choose in this way, you will feel differently and act differently. Remember: it takes no greater effort to be happy every day than to be miserable. A person can choose.

I think it might help you to ponder the fact that the religious life is not about “getting things right”. This is a very liberating truth. To see things always in that light is to be stuck with oneself (and it’s very pagan to boot, and has nothing to do with the gospel). It’s rather about coping creatively with our imperfections, refusing to be discouraged by them; but, instead, to see God working in and through them. Believe me, real peace and joy and freedom lie there.

 

IT SEEMS to me that your reactions are simply a habit — a bad habit. But a habit can be overcome. It’s important to respond rather than react. To react is to reply in a thoughtless, mechanical, impulsive manner. To respond is to interpret a situation, to find meaning in a situation in the light of the gospel, the Rule, common sense! We can allow ourselves to be dominated by our habit, or we can freely decide that the situation is an occasion to go beyond myself, an occasion to grow in self-understanding, humility — whatever.

We bear a degree of responsibility for the meaning we uncover in a situation. It may be that we will not be entirely free of our feelings, our reactions — but that doesn’t mean that our freedom is gone. By taking an inner stand against the feeling/reaction/ habit, by trying to respond no matter how weak you feel, your ability to respond will grow. You will be less a slave to your habit, your angry reactions.

That inner stand may be small and insignificant, but it will make a difference in your life. Your repeated stands will help you to grow in holiness. Our flaws are not necessarily obstacles in the spiritual life! They can be integrated to a certain degree, and used. The daily fight involves a daily dying to self which can bring life.

Remember the parable of the sower, and how the seed produces thirty-, sixty-, a hundred-fold. The amount each seed produces is different. God hopes for the hundredfold from us, but he himself is satisfied with thirty or sixtyfold, provided we are trying to give our all.

There is always some waste product where God is at work — not because he is an imperfect farmer, but because the ground he is working with so often eludes his grasp and is limited. No one is responsible for what another refuses to do, but each one is responsible for doing her part and encouraging others to do theirs by her example.

 

On prayer

I DO feel that you are going about prayer too much as a problem to be solved. It is not. It is, at one level, a practice, but one (like eating with another, or playing tennis, or watching a film together, or spending the day with someone) that helps foster and deepen a relationship. You know spinach is good for you, but you can’t see the effect of how it breaks down and sends out the right vitamins in the right direction. You’ve been told this, so you believe it. So, too, with prayer. You have to believe in it, like you believe you have a liver (which you’ve never seen).

Nor is it a question of drawing God to us, but of bringing ourselves close to him. It would seem from what you say that you are starting at the wrong end.

 

Edited extracts from The Joy of God: Collected writings of Sister Mary David, published by Bloomsbury Continuum at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70) (Books, 30 August).

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