How to be… Content on this Journey

Reflections from Dr. Howell

In our last installment, I lifted up Maggie Ross’s great wisdom – that we feel empty, not because we are empty, but because we’re full of the wrong stuff. And so the spiritual life is a sorting through what has occupied space in your heart, and tossing out unnecessaries to make space for God. Remember our verse, Psalm 139:23? “Search me, O God, and know my heart, and see if there is anything hurtful in me.”

This isn’t a one-time Spring cleaning kind of activity; you can’t check it off your spiritual to-do list. It’s a long process; it’s “iterative.” You toss something away – maybe your obsession with buying gargoyles or eating bonbons or a bad attitude toward the grocery clerk. In that same session though, you spot a few suspects who might need to be jettisoned – but you just can’t bring yourself to do so, or you justify that it’s really just fine. My political ideology? But we’re so right! Collecting vintage knick-knacks? So harmless! Binge-watching Netflix? But there’s a new season of the Morning Show!

Most of what clutters your God-spaced heart isn’t harmful or immoral – although some may be! And it’s not that Jesus is anti-fun! His critics accused him of partying too much, and with the wrong people. It’s just that you only have so much time, so much emotional energy. And doesn’t the luster gradually fade from what once seemed so precious? Ask an aged person with declining time left – even one not attempting spirituality. The things I labored so hard for and treasured so? Happy to be rid of it.

After all, How much is enough? The spiritual life asks this question, again, and again, tosses some easy ones, and later tosses harder things. The spiritual life travels light. And lighter. And lighter. “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly” (G.K. Chesterton).

My main thought? It’s wise, but risky: Contentment is one of the blessings of a hard-won spiritual life. What in me blocks contentment? Merton again: “When you accept what you have, you see all you have received is more than enough and you are overwhelmed.” Lovely.

But there can be a kind of prideful contentment. I finally have the great home and another to escape to; my retirement is secure; I have fine wine in the cellar. I can now be content. Or, If I just slave away 2 more years for 3 more things – my list is short! – then I will be content. It’s the devil’s logic. Contentment isn’t related to the quantity or quality of what can be had in this world. People with plenty are dizzyingly uneasy, and people I know with very little are blessedly content. And still others are so crushed by poverty that the notion of contentment is a cruel joke.

Contentment makes a habit of parting with this or that thing that isn’t worn out but still useful and lovely. When you give good stuff to somebody stunned to have it, there’s the immense joy of enjoying them having it more than you ever did.

And there’s an even more important habit of regularly tossing this or that in the soul that seemed passable or even good a while back but – now? Let it go. Spirituality is all about letting go. Contentment isn’t clinging to what we’ve garnered, but gradually letting go.