Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Spirituality and My Shmutz

The other day as I was baking oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips, I decided to clean under the oven. Talk about an archeological dig. I found a package of dental floss, two forks, 37 cents, a Valentine's Day card from 2009 and lots and lots of shmutz. (For those of you unfamiliar with this wonderful Yiddish word, shmutz is a little dirt, not serious grime.) In this case it was black, oily stuff that landed on the floor beneath the oven.

And it got me to meditating about all the shmutz on my soul. These are encrusted parts of me that block me from really experiencing reality. We've been talking a lot about this confused "I"  in School of Community, as we read Father Julián Carrón's Fraternity Exercises for 2011. He urges us to first take a look at ourselves in action.

This isn't easy. As Father Luigi Giussani told us: "There is a very strong pressure by the world that surrounds us (through the mass media, or also school and politics) that influences and ends up hampering–as a prejudice–any attempt to become aware of one’s own ‘I.’”

It is work, this stepping back and observing oneself. And it is, for me, a humbling experience. You see, I like to think of myself as a loving, upbeat, patient and compassionate person. When I look at myself in action, however, I see how very often I don't live up to that image I hold of myself. Watching myself in action often is not pretty. Despite my internal public relations, I am sarcastic, short-tempered, and downright negative about people.

Here is an example. I've lived in the same neighborhood for more than a decade now and I have built up certain impressions of people as I have watched them through the years. And so, when I encounter them at the local pool, I do so with shmutz on my soul.

I already know what I think of some of them. It's not favorable. I might not, for example, approve of the way this one treats her spouse, or that one raises her children or another person does or doesn't practice her faith. How far I am in these encounters, from that "loving, upbeat, patient and compassionate person" I tell myself I am. I'm not rude or unkind, but I certainly am close-minded.

Perhaps, as my friend and School of Community leader J. suggests, we are much more than the "I" we think we are. After all, there is the "I" that encounters these people, and that is just as much me as the one who thinks of herself as oh-so-open and kind.

"Therefore, instead of opening up to that attitude of expectation, sincere attention, and dependence that our experience suggests and fervently demands, we impose categories and explanations that constrict and distress our experience, while presuming to resolve it," Father Giussani writes

Why, exactly, do people disappoint me so much? What exactly am I searching for, say, at the pool this summer? The answer for me is, ultimately that I am searching for Beauty. I don't mean beautiful bodies or beautiful faces. By Beauty, I mean I am hoping to discover something bigger than me or them or the way in which I am experiencing my encounters. It is real work, spiritual work, to drop my preconceptions. Sometimes, I can.

I did the other day at the pool. Instead of prejudging the families around me, I simply watched. Two mothers patiently encouraged their daughter to jump off the diving board for the very first time. The older parents of an autistic boy relaxed in the shade and chatted with other adults as their son played in the pool. Senior citizens, unabashed by their aged bodies, swam lap after lap for exercise. A mother, pregnant with her third child,  joyfully played in the shallow end of the pool with her two- and five-year-old sons.

"For, if I look at a man, a woman, a friend, a passerby, without the echo of that question resounding within me, without that thirsting for destiny which constitutes him or her, then our relationship would not be human, much less loving, at any level whatsoever. It would not, in fact, respect the dignity of the other, be suitable to the human dimension of the other. But that same question, in the very same instant that it defines my solitude, also establishes the root of my companionship, because this question means that I myself am constituted by something else mysterious."
-Father Carrón


  1. That's a great post - I love how you find God and the ever-present invitation to be transformed in every little thing.

    Which is where such things are found.

    It is also a reminder that we have to do some heavy lifting and moving of seemingly immoveable objects, like our stove, to get so some of this stuff. And that the efforts are met with surprise, grace and transformation!

    Thank you for this. I need to clean under my stove too... literally and figuratively!

  2. Excellent post.Constant self-reflection is a must for all of us.There *is* beauty everywhere:we only have to look.

  3. Ah, in God's perfect timing I landed here today! Your post just fits my current mood so perfectly. I have been purging lately. Cleaning my house and cleaning out some unhealthy relationships from my life. Your words encourage me to keep at it. There is still much to be done. thank you!

  4. May: Good to see you. The purging too, is internal, yes? Freeing ourselves of preconceptions about what we face and experience. Blessings.

  5. I really shouldn't have been eating while reading about all the schmutz under your oven. I almost couldn't finish my cereal! That's a new word for this Minnesota girl. You are right about seeing things with new eyes after all the schmutz is gone. Good reminder for me too!

  6. My spiritual director differentiates between my 'real' self & my 'false' self. That's helped me over the years to tag the origin of my thoughts & bring them to the Lord. The only thing that's 'real' comes from Him of course. Great post, A!

  7. Sarah: That's what you get for eating cereal after 12 noon.
    TR: Glad you found this helpful. For me, the "true" Self is how I behave, not how I think I am. your thoughts?