It was once suggested to the Nobel laureate Patrick White that he enter psychoanalysis. He flatly refused because he said that if he got rid of his demons then his spark of genius would evaporate.
Somewhere we have to learn how to live with our demons rather than simply get rid of them. And by this, I mean, that we have to learn how to live with what we consider to be flaws in our personality, vulnerabilities in our make-up. We have to let go of a frenetic attempt at perfection in which we seek to become somehow flaw-less. It’s not the presence of flaws that is actually the problem for us; it is the denial of them. It’s the relationship that we have them that is of critical importance. “Life flows from springs both clear and muddy,” wrote Jung. “Hence all excessive ‘purity’ lacks vitality. A constant striving for clarity and differentiation means a proportionate loss of vital intensity, precisely because the muddy elements are excluded. Every renewal of life needs the muddy as well as the clear.”
Though this may be so, there is within each of us this tendency not to cope well with the paradox of ourselves and its unavoidable ambiguity. In our drive for clarity and all things linear, we find it difficult to enter into paradox and celebrate its potential. We instinctively try and do away with contradictions in our desire that things be one-sided and clear. Richard Rohr goes further by noting that “we are fascinated with absolutes and answers. We are terrified by ambiguities and paradox.” With this mindset, the experience of paradox becomes regarded as a temporary annoyance to be eliminated as quickly as possible. If only we could make things straightforward.
Prayer, and the prayerful participation of Scripture particularly becomes the space in which we can simply hold the paradoxes of ourselves, attend to them. It is in the silence of prayer before the Word of God that we receive our contradictions as a paradox rather than as a problem. If something is regarded as a problem then it must be solved. However, a paradox is not a problem, and that response to a paradox is not seeking to solve it, but rather to attend to it. We solve a problem, but we attend to a paradox. The art of spiritual living is to acknowledge both the presence and the potential of paradox. The art is in holding the paradox not in eradicating it.
And when we do this in our prayerful attention to the Word of God, we are doing it in the presence of a gaze upon us which attends to our paradoxes and which understands them far better than we do. It is the gaze of Christ which ultimately holds all our paradoxes and transforms them in a way beyond what we could imagine.
When we bring the paradoxes of our life before the gaze of Jesus, then, as John O’Donohue once wrote, nothing is denied, excluded or forced. Attention is focused reverently on the whole complex of one’s presence. In the light of this reverence to one’s self the places of entanglement, limitation, blindness and damage gradually reveal themselves in ways that suggest and invite changes in the configuration of one’s heart . . . In this way false and destructive configurations loosen and the depth and intensity of one’s inner life finds new configurations which heal, clarify, and challenge one’s longing. This is slow soul-work where rather than forcing one’s soul to submit to the arrogance and interference of neon-analysis one keeps back from getting in the way of the soul’s luminous instinct and wisdom. The soul is the best guide to its own wells of wisdom and healing.
In this work, the soul is guided by the Word of God, for as Pope Francis reminds us recently in instituting the 3rdSunday of Ordinary Time in the Church’s liturgical year as the Sunday of the Word of God:
“God’s word constantly reminds us of the merciful love of the Father who calls his children to live in love. The life of Jesus is the full and perfect expression of this divine love, which holds nothing back but offers itself to all without reserve. . . To listen to sacred Scripture and then to practice mercy: this is the great challenge before us in life. God’s word has the power to open our eyes and to enable us to renounce a stifling and barren individualism and instead to embark on a new path of sharing and solidarity.”
Yes, a life of mercy to ourselves in the first instance, a path of sharing and solidarity with our own needs and demons and vulnerabilities. Through the pages of Scripture, we are led to recognise the creativity of God even in the midst of all our vulnerabilities. This was what Mary, the Mother of the Word, knows deep within herself: her barrenness becomes the place of great fruitfulness. Again, turning to Pope Francis
“She is the one who was called blessed because she believed in the fulfilment of what the Lord had spoken to her (cf. Lk 1:45). Mary’s own beatitude is prior to all the beatitudes proclaimed by Jesus about the poor and those who mourn, the meek, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted, for it is the necessary condition for every other kind of beatitude. The poor are not blessed because they are poor; they become blessed if, like Mary, they believe in the fulfilment of God’s word. A great disciple and master of sacred Scripture, Saint Augustine, once wrote: “Someone in the midst of the crowd, seized with enthusiasm, cried out: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you’ and Jesus replied, ‘Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it’. As if to say: My mother, whom you call blessed, is indeed blessed, because she keeps the word of God. Not because in her the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, but because she keeps that same word of God by which she was made and which, in her womb, became flesh” (Tractates on the Gospel of John, 10, 3).”
So, let us pray with Michael Leunig “God bless our contradictions, those parts of us which seem out of character. Let us be boldly and gladly out of character. Let us be creatures of paradox and variety: creatures of contrast, of light and shade: creatures of faith. God be our constant. Let us step out of character into the unknown, to struggle and love and do what we will. Amen.”
And then maybe, too, our own genius, like that of Patrick White’s, might shine forth!
 Carl J Jung, Collected Works Volume 6 (London, 1971), 244-5, quoted by R. Cote, “God Sings in the Night: Ambiguity as an Invitation to Believe,” Concilium1992/4, 97.
 Richard Rohr, “The Holiness of Human Sexuality,” Sojourner (October 1982), 1.
 John O’Donohue, “The Priestliness of the Human Heart,” The Way, 45.
 Pope Francis, Aperuit illis, “Instituting the Sunday of the Word of God,” Motu Proprio, (30 September 2019), n.13.
 Pope Francis, Aperuit illis, n.15.
 Michael Leunig, The Prayer Tree, (North Blackburn, Victoria: Collins Dove, 1991), 14.
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