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The Cardinal Rule: Don’t Bore Yourself!

Hugo Ahlberg

Heather King - published on 07/01/14

Keeping things fresh is not just the job of refrigerators.

My friend Msgr. Terry Richey, former drug and alcohol liaison for the Archdiocese of L.A., is known far and wide for his kindness, wisdom and wit. I once asked him if he had any tips for giving a good retreat.

“I have only one rule,” he replied. “I’m not allowed to bore myself.”

The more I thought about it, the more I saw what he meant. Reflect on what you’re going to say. Speak from the heart. Don’t reduce your words, thoughts and actions to a formula.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that not boring yourself is pretty good rule for all of life.

I’m not allowed to bore myself in prayer.
I’m not allowed to bore myself in conversation.
I’m not allowed to stay in a job that bores me (if I have a choice).
I’m not allowed to become boring in my faith.

That doesn’t mean we’re pledged to whip ourselves into a frenzy of enthusiasm every morning. Father Terry also says, “One sign of sanity is that the person doesn’t go around talking loudly about God with sweat above his or her upper lip.”

I do think we’re pledged, insofar as possible, to keep our faith fresh. Or rather, a sign of God’s grace is that no matter how much we’re suffering; how stuck we feel in our jobs, vocations, relationships; how unbelievably slow our progress seems to be, still we are willing to be surprised. Still we are able to notice the light on the water, the full refrigerator, the faces of our (often also suffering) neighbors. Still, we are interested.

Here’s something interesting: I was in northern Ontario recently. I was pondering an insight I’d recently heard: that God never imposes upon us against our will. So if we want to be changed, we’re invited to get across that we’re open to change. If we’re willing to be the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, we should probably let God know.

Every day, in this rural town in Combermere I’d take a walk by myself. One afternoon, making my way down a deserted dirt road, just me and the birds, I said, out loud: “God, you have my permission. Dismantle me. Take me apart and put me together again however you want. Full permission. Whatever you have to do, do it.”

I don’t know about you, but when I say dismantle me I tend to think God is going to give me third-degree burns or “let” me be in a car crash, or take away my health insurance. You know, to build my character. So I can offer up my suffering in some new way. I’m like the character in the Flannery O’Connor short story, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”: “’She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

It seldom occurs to me that God would dismantle me in a way that is so subtle and gentle I hardly notice it. It never occurs to me that he would dismantle me in such a way as to give me more peace, not less; in a way that allows me not only to love more, but to make me feel more loved. It’s hard for me to accept that God  would give me not more suffering, but more gratitude, more insight, more ease, more joy.

I say all this because I’m doing the month-long Ignatian Spiritual Exercises—in silence—at Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I’ve been away from home a lot, and the retreat was preceded by ten solid days of travel, visiting, talking, talking, talking. For an extreme introvert like myself, that kind of sustained human activity, no matter how much I love the people I’m seeing (and I love them a lot!), is a form of real suffering.

So I’d been surprised to find that I’d held up pretty well. I tend to get short, if not downright surly, when I don’t have enough silence and solitude. This time I managed to enjoy myself, and my family and friends, in spite of the fact that I was suffering. Not only that, I felt in a whole new way that I was not trying to mentally change, rescue, and fix the people with whom I came in contact! I saw I’m capable of loving people the way they are and they’re capable of loving me the way they are! I saw people are fine the way they are. They don’t need me to run their lives. They’re not asking me to run their lives. I got a glimpse of how much easier life would be if I relieved myself completely, for good and for all, from this onerous task which, for some ungodly reason, I took upon myself in childhood .

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