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When Less is More

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So what does this Spirituality of Subtraction mean in the light of the self and the center?

Father James J.

I was reading something the other day that introduced me to a novel concept: The spirituality of subtraction (Meister Eckhart, 1260-1327). The author of this article suggests that in almost everything we do in life, we are getting and adding on. For example knowledge, possessions, experiences, friends and relationships are all "things" we accumulate. There are even more items that we seek, buy and consume. Our prayers -- we learn them and add them on along with our understanding of our Catholic faith. Even our relationship with God is one we acquire, develop and grow. The whole mindset of the self as the subject and everything else as the object makes sense, to an extent. And yet such a perspective so easily makes the self the center.

As children we are notoriously egocentric, and it is usually cute! Not so as adults! And so we modify our ego in all kinds of ways, making space for others in a more give-and-take lifestyle. More often than not as adults we learn to do this, while at the same time maintain the self as the center. And there is a great paradox within this development; the self cannot become fulfilled, complete and know the full promise of the person one is created to be, unless and until the self stops being the center.

In our Catholic tradition, this teaching is at the core of all spirituality and is modeled perfectly in Jesus. He is the One who came to serve and not be served, the One who taught that the greatest among us is the one who serves the rest and/or the one who becomes little like a child. Nowhere is His teaching more graphically modelled than when He washes the feet of His disciples and from that evening supper, proceeds to His passion and death -- emptying Himself for our salvation.

So what does this Spirituality of Subtraction mean in the light of the self and the center? It seems to me the idea makes great sense, for instead of accumulating "stuff" we subtract stuff, in the sense that it is no longer solely mine. In so doing, I can strive toward a point where that which truly defines me is not the accumulation of my stuff, rather a self that gives itself away in acts, choices, words and works that express compassion, love and service.

The beloved Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi captures this well:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

To be understood, as to understand;

To be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.


Father James Ronan is pastor of St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena parish in Charlestown, Massachusetts

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