During high school years I tried desperately to deconstruct and then reconstruct my personality. For starters, I hated being Southern. Television programs like The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw embarrassed me, and I cringed every time I heard President Lyndon Johnson open his mouth: "Mah fella Amuricuns … " Since the rest of the nation in the 1960s seemed to judge Southerners as backward, ignorant, and racist, I wanted to disassociate myself from my region.
Vowel by vowel, I worked on my accent, succeeding so well that people ever since have reacted with surprise when they hear I grew up in the Deep South. I began a campaign to read great books in order to remove provincial blinders. I shunned any behavior that conformed to "appropriate" or "proper" Southern etiquette and sought only the "authentic." I worked to gain control of my emotions so that they were my servant, never my master. I even changed my handwriting, forcing myself to form each letter in a different way than I had before.
By and large the makeover worked, giving me a personality that has fit comfortably in the decades since. I became less vulnerable and more open-minded and flexible—traits not cultivated in my upbringing but useful in my profession as a journalist. It was only years later that I realized the limits to a self-constructed personality. In most ways important to God, I had failed miserably. I was selfish, joyless, loveless, and lacked compassion. With the exception of self-control, I lacked all nine of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. These qualities, I came to realize, cannot be constructed. They must be grown, under the direction of an inner power, the Spirit.
I have since made it a regular practice to pray through the list in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Do I show love, experience joy, feel peace, exhibit patience? I am humbly aware that any progress in those qualities comes as a result of the Spirit's work. I agree with J. Heinrich Arnold that Christian discipleship "is not a question of our own doing; it is a matter of making room for God so that he can live in us."
Ultimately I came to see that my entire project of reconstructing personality had been misguided. God did not want to work with a wholly different personality; he chose me, as I was.
Mark van Doren, the former literature professor of Thomas Merton (and subject of the movie Quiz Show), visited his ex-student at the Kentucky monastery after a 13-year absence. Van Doren and other friends of Merton still could not comprehend the change that had come over Merton. What power could have transformed him from a New York party animal into a monk who cherished solitude and silence? Van Doren reported, "Of course he looked a little older; but as we sat and talked I could see no important difference in him, and once I interrupted a reminiscence of his by laughing. 'Tom,' I said, 'you haven't changed at all.'
" 'Why would I? Here,' he said, 'our duty is to be more ourselves not less.' It was a searching remark and I stood happily corrected."
The New Testament presents the realm of the Spirit as the culmination of God's work on earth, and as I compare it to what went before, I catch a glimpse why. An Israelite in the Old Testament approached God with fear and trembling, through an elaborate series of rituals under the auspices of professional priests. Jesus' disciples had a much more personal connection. Even so, they seemed to grasp only a portion of what he said, and until the end badly misconstrued his mission. The Holy Spirit, though, "personalizes" God's presence in a way uniquely tailored to my own soul.
According to one account, Queen Victoria had very different impressions of her two most famous prime ministers. When she was with William Glad stone, she said, "I feel I am with one of the most important leaders of the world." Benjamin Disraeli, on the other hand, "makes me feel as if I am one of the most important people in the world." Reading that description, I thought of the difference between reactions to Jehovah of the Old Testament and the indwelling Spirit: one provokes awe, while one provides nurture.
Henri Nouwen said toward the end of his life that prayer had become for him primarily a time of "listening to the blessing." "The real 'work' of prayer," he said, "is to become silent and listen to the voice that says good things about me." That may sound self-indulgent, he admitted, but not if it meant seeing himself as the Beloved, a temple in which God chose to dwell. The more he listened to that voice, the less likely he was to judge his worth by how others responded to him, or by how much he achieved. He prayed for that inner presence to express itself in his daily life, in such things as eating and drinking, talking and loving, playing and working. He sought true freedom in an identity that was anchored in a place "beyond all human praise and blame."
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