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A Spiritual Exercise

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
Romans 8:6

On Valentine’s Day, in Alexandria VA two cars were involved in a fender bender. One driver began cursing and yelling at the other. He blocked the other car’s path with his, exited, and approached the other driver. Frightened and not knowing what to do, the second driver tried to push the first one away by opening his car door. At that point the first driver pulled out a knife and attempted to strike the object of his rage. Police appeared and arrested him, which probably ruined his day.

And for what?

I often wonder at the quantities of time and energy we invest in things that really do not matter. When one reacts to something with such intense emotion, one is elevating that something to a level of ultimate concern. Is a minor car repair that important, and does it matter in the final scheme of things? Or if the actual root of the rage is perceived disrespect, is that even real, and even if so, does it deserve that much attention?

I ask myself how often I get upset about things I would not remember a year from now, or even a month from now - a question I’d be embarrassed to answer. What could I accomplish if I put all of that energy to better use?

Wouldn’t it be great if we had some guidelines about what is worth getting really concerned about, and what isn’t? Actually, we do. They are in the New Testament.

The Kingdom of God (Mark, Luke), or Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew), is one of the most powerful biblical symbols. It comes from Jewish apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic theology grew from the experience of people suffering under the domination of foreign powers, as Jewish people did so often in their history. It expresses the hope that the forces of God will overthrow the powers of this world, that those powers will be destroyed and God’s reign will be established on earth. It is the hope of seeing the Kingdom of God replace all earthly kingdoms. And the agent of this transformation will be the expected Messiah.

The Kingdom of God is quite magnificent, and its coming was expected with a complete upheaval of the present order. Jesus preached often about the Kingdom of God, and people came to him with this expectation. It was how the Kingdom of God was understood - that is, until Jesus gave it a completely different meaning.

What Jesus had to say about the Kingdom must have come as a shock to those who heard him.

Just consider these sayings from the Gospel of Matthew:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:33).

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).


God’s glorious, triumphant kingdom is a small mustard seed? It’s yeast, mixed with flour? It’s hidden in a field? What kind of messianic victory is this?

Now to Luke:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ’Look, here it is!’ or ’There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20-21).

So the Kingdom is right there, and they don’t even see it?

And finally, a story from Mark:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ’Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ’he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ’to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ’to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ - this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. (Mark 12:28-34)

Love God, and your neighbor as yourself, and you’re closer to the Kingdom than you think. But where is the conquering hero? What does any of this have to do with the great battle to be won at the end of the age?

Nothing, and everything. Jesus is indeed talking about God’s divine order, which people hoped would be established on earth. But he used kingdom language differently from every apocalypticist of his time. Jesus transformed apocalyptic language and used it to point to something much different from what people were expecting. He must have completely confounded and alienated a number of listeners who approached him hoping for something closer to the end-times prophecies with which they were familiar.

People thought the Kingdom would be huge, would come in a blast of righteous aggression, and was not yet but hopefully soon. Jesus taught that the Kingdom was small, unobtrusive, almost imperceptible, would hardly be noticeable when it arrives, and yet is here already. Clearly he was talking about something different. Whatever it was, he used kingdom language to draw people’s attention to it.

The real Kingdom of God, Jesus taught, was not something apparent to our physical senses. It is an unseen yet real dimension of existence, which was always here, which is here now, but to which we pay hardly any attention. We may call it eternal life. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” people would ask him. In other words, what must I do to become aware, and feel myself part of, this unseen order of existence, where God’s will prevails, and our lives follow God’s direction towards fulfillment?

Theology uses different terms to describe it. The present world is “temporal,” meaning bound by time and impermanent. The other order is “eternal,” meaning timeless and unlimited. The present world is “material,” meaning governed by physical laws and subject to decay. The other order is “spiritual,” meaning free of the limitations of time, space, and matter.

The most important thing to understand about the Kingdom of God is that it is not a thing existing “out there,” separate from our present life, or that we get to experience only after we die. It is endos imon, “among you” or “within you,” or literally, “inside you.” We belong to both orders, the temporal and the eternal. How do we know this? At certain moments in our lives, we feel the eternal order breaking into our temporal existence. These may be moments of prayer, of captivation by great music or art, or in nature, or in sharing non-self-interested love at any level with another human being. At these moments we can become aware of a reality beyond ourselves and greater than ourselves, which inspires awe and reverence.

When Jesus says “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20) he is telling us that some actions we take in this world are noted in eternity. But not everything that happens in this time-bound world is of eternal importance. What is? Here are some guidelines:

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4).

“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18).

God will “see” whether you give charity not to aggrandize yourself but out of love. God will “see” whether you pray not to look pious but out of love. God will “see” whether you are fasting to impress others or as an act of sincere devotion. This is a way of saying that some things we do in this world of time and space “register” in eternity.

Does everything in this world register in eternity? No. Here are a couple of examples:

“And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking…. to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared’” (Mark 10:37-38,40).

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ’Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.‘ But he said to him, ’Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’” (Luke 12:13-15).

God/eternity is not concerned about honors or titles. Nor is God/eternity concerned about material things we want but may not need.

“God sees” is very symbolic language. Jesus even talks about “reward,” but we can have no real idea of what that is actually like. The only thing we really can know is that some things make a difference beyond ourselves, and other things don’t. So we may say that some things and not others “register in eternity.”

Does eternity register only that which is good? Apparently not. Consider the following:

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea…. Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:6,10).

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Abusing those who are defenseless, especially children, registers in eternity. So does mistreating people who are sick, poor, or disabled.

From this we can conclude the following: That which registers in eternity includes anything to do with love or the negation of love.

Let us now return to this basic principle of Jesus: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Treasures can be on earth, where they do not last and ultimately do not count, or in heaven, in eternity, where they are safe and permanent. Not everything registers in eternity. And, what does not register does not matter. That which is contrary to love cannot enter the Kingdom of God, but that which expresses non-self-interested love participates in God’s nature. And some things are simply not that important.

These considerations lead to the following spiritual exercise:

Everybody gets upset about something sometime. What upset you today? Maybe you ordered a meal from a restaurant and it was undercooked. Maybe you dropped a prize vase and it shattered into a dozen pieces. Or waited too long at a checkout line. Or you just missed a bus and were late for work. Or you didn’t get recognition for a job well done. Or someone’s cell phone goes off in the middle of a concert. Or you got into a fender bender where no one was hurt but you wanted to take a knife and stab the other driver.

I’m sure you can think of many more and even better ones.

So when you encounter something that upsets you, it may be helpful to ask, How does God see this?

The purpose of this question is to help us see our situation from the perspective of eternity. From an eternal perspective, which is the only one that matters because it is the only one that is permanent, things may look very different from the ways we are used to seeing them. Eventually eternity will be the only reality we know. There is no point in obsessing on anything that does not last into, or “register with” eternity.

The fender bender that may have you so upset right now may seem apocalyptic, but it does not register in eternity (unless you turn it into a tragic event). Can you imagine, at the end of days, that God will say, “Don’t worry, I took care of that clown who dented that shiny chrome fender of yours; your accounts have been settled!” It is far more likely that God won’t take any notice of it. So why allow it to fester? And if you don’t drive a car (I don’t), substitute your own favorite outrage.

So it is always helpful to ask about any distressing event, “Does it register in eternity?” Or, if saying it that way sounds odd and you prefer more traditional language, “Is this something that God sees?”

If God doesn’t see it, our spiritual senses will tell us. God does not see a lot of things we think are important, and realizing that can come as a great relief. What if God does see it? Jesus tells us that God sees our grief, for we will be comforted. So when we ask, “Is this something that God sees?” and the answer is yes, our next question can be, “How does God see it?” Grief does not take love away. Grief intensifies love. God sees our grief by seeing the love still inside it. Love is eternal, and seeing the eternity in love can become a source of consolation.

Just a note of caution: Do not expect this method to eliminate all distress from your life. It can neutralize much of it, but there are some things we just need to live through on this human plane. The exercise will not eradicate all hardship and heartache, but it will show you a different way of seeing it.

So our spiritual exercise has two parts: “Is this something God sees?” If not, we can let it go. If yes, then “How does God see it?” can transform our experience of it.

Now this exercise will not work if we see it just as an external directive with which we must comply, or a formula to recite. What we are really doing when we practice it correctly is developing our spiritual senses. Every time we ask the question and we notice something that lives eternally, we become more aware of the spiritual reality beyond this material world. That spiritual reality is God’s dwelling place. The more aware of it we become, the more real God is to us. Therefore, this exercise is really all about developing our faith.

So it is helpful to make this a regular practice. We can ask the question when we encounter anything difficult that happens during the day. And we can also use it to end the day, in a manner similar in spirit to the examen of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. It is a method of prayerful reflection on the events of the day, to detect God’s presence in them and develop an awareness of God’s reality. We go through the events of each day, and ask, “What happened to me during the day that touched the eternal?” “What would God have noticed?” The answer need not be anything dramatic. It might be a kind word exchanged with someone who needed it. It might be witnessing a random act of generosity. It might be feeling one’s connection to nature in a moment of retreat. It might be hearing someone laugh at a joke in a way that touches your heart. There is no limit.

The aim of all of this is to “practice the presence,” to strengthen our sense that God is real and with us in the ordinary moments of the day, and by extension also in times of trial. It is to develop our faith. Faith is not simply belief. Faith is the awareness of the power of eternity. It is not just “knowing about” eternal life. It is knowing eternal life here, in the present moment.

The sense of belonging to the eternal is the greatest resource we can have facing any difficulty, even the inevitable prospect of death. If we are not sure whether we will have sufficient faith when life throws us a crisis, we can build our faith from little things now. We all have this spiritual sense, knowing what is real to God, whose essence is love, and what is of hardly any consequence. But like our physical muscles, it becomes weak without exercise. Sometimes spiritual exercises may seem so complicated we may never do them. This one is simple, and the hope it produces provides the motivation we need. For although “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to [eternal] life” (Matthew 7:14), God has graced us by showing us a way.

February 2020