Friday, July 27, 2007

On Disappointment

Recently I was disappointed by someone I respect. While the particulars--the how's & why's--of my being disappointed are certainly important, their importance is nevertheless secondary. As an aside, I think that it is essential in the spiritual life that we be on guard so that we do not to confuse what is of primary and secondary importance. By the same token, we should also be careful that we not dismiss or minimize those matters of secondary importance in a misguided allegiance to what is primary.

And this gets me to the matter at hand: Being disappointed.

On the one hand, anything that I suffer or lose in this life pales in comparison to what I have received, and one day hope to receive, from Christ. "More than that, I count all things to be loss" St Paul says, "in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3.8). In one sense, my feelings of being disappointed, let down, or betrayed come flow not so much from what someone does, or doesn't, do as they do my indifference to or forgetfulness of the surpassing value of gaining Christ.

Ultimately, whatever I lose, whatever is taken from me, whatever I give up, I will receive back a hundredfold in the Kingdom of God: "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name's sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19.29).

But on the other hand, there is a real danger in minimizing or dismissing lesser goods in favor of greater goods. Our daily life is constituted by a whole of host of secondary and even tertiary goods that we cannot ignore without seriously deforming our relationship with God, our neighbor, the creation and ourselves.

Think for a moment about the husband who is always faithful, always loving, but indifferent to the myriad little things that go into actually being a husband. While he may never cheat on his wife or treat her rudely, these things are very different then treating her with warmth and affection. And even if he is warm and affectionate with his wife, what is this worth if it never takes concrete, practical form?

This, in a more exalted form to be sure, is the point the Apostle James makes in his epistle:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder (James 2.14-19)
For better and worse, I live my life in the realm of those things that are of secondary importance. The great paradox of the Christian life is just this: In Christ, what is of secondary importance, what in fact seems trivial and transitory, has become of primary and even eternal significance. Human life, for all of its mundane and passing significance, has been taken up into the life of the Most Holy Trinity and has become, again in Christ and the Church, the sacrament of that divine life.

So what does this mean?

Yes, I am often disappointed because my expectations are not met. And while often my expectations are self-centered and unreasonable, they are not wholly that. In fact, they are often a rather complicated mix of "wheats and weeds," of good and bad desires. I can use disappointment to become more aware of my self-aggrandizing motivations and desires.

But I can also use disappointment to discover what is, at least provisionally, of significance for my own spiritual life. More importantly, and armed with this knowledge of what is of real importance, I can respond to others and become for them the kind of person who my experiences of being disappointed, let down, and betrayed, tell me I want in my own life.

Seen in this way, I can by my own effort and God's grace, transform disappointment into something life-giving both for myself and my neighbor. I can't think of one aspect of my life that has lasting value that didn't come through the experience of being let down or betrayed. This really is the power of the grace of repentance, it helps us see the gift that is hidden in the disappointment, and it does so without shaming us for being disappointed.

In the end of course, disappointment, being let down, or being betrayed, is simply my own share in the Cross of Jesus Christ. And in these moments, I also get to take up my own cross. Yes, it hurts, yes I would prefer to let the Cross (and the cross) pass--but as I look at the good that can come from these experiences, I have to ask myself, what good in my life, or in the lives of others, that has come through disappointment am I willing to surrender to avoid a bit (or more than a bit) of pain?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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