Simplify and focus
Peter Gallagher SJ reflects on the gift of our frenzied mind and how we can approach God through simplification and refocusing.
The body, that tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind (Wisdom 9.15). Does your mind ‘teem’? The image is one of abundance. A river might teem with fish. The nave of a great church might teem with families. What teems is plenteous. So has your mind that sort of abundance? With what does the mind teem? Thoughts? Hopes? Imaginings?
At Mass, usually, we hope the mind will not teem. Our prayers and hymns may be full of images and ideas. The readings may be rich and various. The liturgical acts may be freighted with significance. But we trust that all this abundance will simplify itself during the holy sacrifice and focus on God. At Mass, the mind had better not teem: rather it should be centred on the one thing necessary (Luke 10.42). The mind may teem as it approaches God but in his presence it is simplified, focused and concentrated on him.
A teeming mind
Just when we want them not to teem our minds have a way of filling up! Just when we would like to concentrate on God, our thoughts begin a frenzied inventory. We sincerely desire God, but our minds teem with other things. Not all of these rivals to God are idolatrous or frivolous. Our most serious responsibilities and worries can teem in our mind as distractingly as any daydream or reverie. Nevertheless, there are teeming thoughts good and bad which we would rather not entertain when we have set out to lift our heart and mind to God. When we are trying to pray we want to do only that. We will be unable to do everything prayerfully unless we sometimes do nothing else but pray.
Sometimes the teeming mind does our bidding. It settles down and focuses calmly on the matter before us. If this happens at Mass then, wonderfully, we are participating in the mysteries with close attention and devotion and joy. We are speaking and listening to God and we sense His loving and attentive presence. What permits such focus? What enables such success? A desire for God? A longing for peace? Another motivation is obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14.27). He also says: none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions (Luke 14.33). It is Christ’s commandment that we learn to put God before all other persons and things.
That God comes before our nearest and dearest (Luke 14.26) can be hard for us to accept. Fulfilling the obligations of family life ennobles us. However those important duties come a long way after our duty to God. Loving our parents, children, grandparents, siblings and other relations will often be our way of loving God. Nevertheless, these beloved persons are not God. The beauty of creation prompts us to give glory to the creator: but created things are not God. He has priority over everything and everyone else. Jesus Christ, the pattern of divine humility, asserts this order of importance. The sort of crisis in which the priority of God over all else would have to be insisted upon in any of our lives is rare. The crisis is rare but the underlying question needs answering most days.
‘Who has the first place in our life?’ Jesus persuades us that the response to this question is something to be decided not in emergencies and crises – though these may find us out – but in the settled arrangements of our life. He speaks of planning and preparation. What king would not fist sit down and consider (Luke 14.31). We are to calculate our strength before embarking on full-scale discipleship. The measure of our spiritual strength is our capacity to put God first. As the teeming mind searches for its proper focus, does God really come before ourselves? Does God really take precedence over our mother, father, children, house and job? The Lord puts these questions to us with a certain rigour. He knows our self-centredness.
Our being able to give God the first place in our life is a gift from him like everything else. That with which the mind teems, which is not God, is also his gift. It is another important gift that we have the courage and humility to weigh our own capacity for service. All is gift. Realising that will allow us to put the giver first always. Can we train our teeming mind to allow God to take his proper place in our life? Appreciating his real presence with us is something for which we prepare assiduously. As the heart awakens to God’s closeness, the teeming of the mind is stilled.
The preparation for the sublime moment of understanding and love could not be more serious or systematic. Yet the success of our training can take us by surprise. Suddenly, the Lord is with us. Suddenly, our hearts are full at the realisation that Jesus is Lord in our life. Suddenly, God truly is our first priority. Can, then, our mind teem with God? Yes, our life can overflow with his abundance. Yes, our heart can fill with his love. Such a teeming is a wonderful experience of the knowledge of himself which God lovingly confers on us. We simplify and focus. We concentrate on him. We banish distractions. He comes to us abundantly. He is real in our life and is so not meanly or narrowly. God teems. God is enough for us. God is much much more.
Peter Gallagher SJ