Friday, July 29, 2011

How Would You Rank Your Priorities?

I grant that there's no easy way to gnothi seauton - to know thyself, as the Oracle at Delphi was famously said to have said to Socrates. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to some extent. I say to some extent because I'm not so sure that I am meant to be the object of my knowledge, surely a component therein, but not the object. Why do I make this distinction? Because I am an imperfect being, and thus it is impossible to imagine that knowledge of an imperfect being can constitute the goal of man's spiritual-intellectual journey. God is, of course, the object of my journey, and He is an object Who supplies the means to know Him.

Okay, good to know, but not the point of this post.

As you know, we are __________-ly (throw in any number of appropriate adverbs here) awaiting the imminent birth of our fifth child. It is a time of, yes, as I've said, joy and all that, but, whether you'd like to admit it or not, also a time of stress. Anne-Marie won't mow the lawn, move the furniture around the living room - as I've repeatedly asked her - or change the cat's litter...

This is hard on me. No one ever thinks about me...

I hope you are with me so far.

Pregnancy and the post-partum period are certainly times that call for an evaluation of one's priorities. Why am I doing what I am doing with my time? How can I do better? What does God want? - these are the types of questions I ask myself, and I am sure you do too. Choices have to be made: you can either do X or Y, you certainly cannot do both. Having a healthy sense of your limits is very important, as anyone knows who has ever tried to exceed them (as I try to do about every three months). So, we have to prioritize. We get from the Gospel that our priorities are to look something like this:

1) God,
2) self / neighbour,
3) all those things that do not fit into category (1) and (2).

But it's often extraordinarily difficult to figure out where items X, Y, and Z fit in to those three categories.

The more you think about it, and the further you go down the path of the spiritual life, the less workable these become as hard and fast categories. Everything I do for my family I do for God... or at least that should be the case. Everything I do for God redounds upon my family... and so on. I love reading the Sayings and Lives of the Desert Fathers. It is easy to see that sorting this out was one of the essential problems they had to contend with. They had an awfully difficult time determining what was about loving God and what was about loving neighbour. That they too had this problem is comforting to know. In one sense confusion can be considered a hallmark of Christianity. Do you know who had no problem with this issue? Plotinus. He eloquently described the spiritual life as the journey of the alone to the Alone. An intriguing expression, but equally horrific to Christian ears. Do you ever feel that way, like you are on a solitary journey to the solitary God? I know I do.

So, it's time to fess up. What do you value most? What concerns you most? Reading so many Catholic sources as I do, you might get the impression that what's most important to us looks something like this:

1) stopping abortion,
2) promoting good, condemning bad liturgy,
3) stopping homosexual 'marriage',
4) limiting government,
5) stopping environmentalists,
6) having lots of children,
7) decreasing sexual content in popular media,
8) exposing liberals: priests, school boards and politicians,
9) God (at least insofar as He relates to prayer in public venues).

This is not a scientifically precisely ordered nor exhaustive list, obviously. I think my point stands, though, that what we talk about does not often reflect our real priorities - or does it? Does our tongue give faithful witness to what is in our heart, and does our heart conform to our mind? There is nothing wrong with anything in the above list - they are obviously all good things. Yet are they in the right order right and does it exclude anything?

Being as honest and as reflective as I can be at this precise moment, my list of concerns - though it's impossible to say for sure (I don't have a 'caremometer') - probably looks something like this:

1) myself (my happiness)
2) my family's happiness / welfare
3) acknowledging God in my heart and mind
4) God being glorified in the world
5) increasing my own knowledge
6) making my friends happy
7) mass
8) sharing my knowledge with others
9) my possessions (might be more important to me than # 7)
10) people I don't know (the pre-born, the suffering, Joe Anybody)

There's probably something to be said about a list like this that you spontaneously spew out. Who knows whether I'd make the same week in a week from now. I think that it is fairly representative of my general values. Of course, it is evil to prefer self to God in any sense, but what one means by saying I prefer myself to everything else is a sort of state of depravity that might nevertheless differ greatly from person to person, and from moment to moment. After all, what comes to mind when I imagine my own happiness? - the sexual exploitation of others, the emotional thrill of singing, the pride I feel from helping street people? These seem to have radically different moral value.

What does it say about me that I have not included in my top-ten defending marriage, defending political issue X, promoting good liturgy, or what not? I think it implies several things. First, that I like learning more than I care about these things. Second, I don't care all that much about "the way the world is going." That's just the way I am. Not that it's necessarily a good thing. However, neither is it necessarily a good thing to be obsessed about any issue: 'true nature of marriage,' the machinations of governments, the shape of popular media, whatever.

I had no idea where to fit in the value I place on what others think of me. I suppose not knowing where it fits in is probably a sign that it's rather high-ranking for me, since my ignorance denotes a lack of self-awareness. Dare I say it sits at #5? Of course, every sin is a sin against God, and for that reason ranks that thing - at least temporarily - above God. But then, you wouldn't really be ranking it higher if you went to confession, would you? It all depends, I guess, on the degree of your contrition.


  1. Dear Readers,

    I know there are various typos in this post. Blogger will not let me fix them at this time. Be forgiving!