In this life, no one is free from tension. In fact, just on the level of physics, tension creates energy. It affects and has a bearing on force, causing the effect of momentum, which affects movement. So too in life. Our very being experiences tension on very many levels, and these often remind us that we are alive and not dead. Advocates of a stress-free lifestyle recommend that we should have as little tension as possible if we want to live in a happy state. But tension is not always a bad thing. In fact, healthy tension, when balanced well, gives us a sense of being in touch with reality and with life.
The spiritual fathers of the Church have noted this in their writings. Inside each one of us lie the magna anima (great soul) and the pusilla anima (the little soul). What is the magna anima but that part of us which endears and envisions the doing of good, great and godly things in life. Just read any of the biographies of the saints, and you will easily see the magna anima on grand display. It’s the part of St Francis of Assisi which spoke of the possibility of living perfect joy; it’s the stalwart courage of Maximilian Kolbe which gave him the strength to give up his life so that another prisoner could have life instead of him; it’s the amazing prophetic action of Bishop Oscar Romero who dared to speak for justice and human rights, and ended up giving up his life rather dramatically. In short, it’s that part of us that dares to live big, and do big things for God and for our fellow man.
The pusilla anima or little soul is just the opposite. That’s the part of us which hides away from living the Christian life; from being prophetic in our life, and instead, wants to either save the self, or hide in the shadows of anonymity. The times when this part of us shows itself are many –when we prefer not stand up for the underdog; when we give in to temptation and the lure to satisfy the self at the expense of others; and when our own plans, conveniences and comforts become more important than the other person’s. In short, it’s when we are selfish and self-centered.
No one, short of those born without original sin, has not given in to these temptations. Is this tension a bad thing? Not necessarily. It is the presence of this tension in us, and the awareness that there are these poles that exist in us that can make us want to strive for holiness. Of course, the opposite is true, where many give in to despair and think that fighting this is of no use at all, because this tension will always be there without dissipating.
What causes one to live large and not in a small way? Apart from God’s grace without which nothing is possible, it is that part of us that yearns to make God a priority in life.
To be sure, there are many things that pull us away from making God a priority in our lives. I have heard confessions galore that tell me that there are many who place job, leisure, pleasure, money, rest, family and education way above God when it comes to Sunday worship. If that happens on a Sunday where coming to Mass for one hour is an obligation, what more when placing God in the top spot in life is not “obligatory” on the other days of the week? Or when no one is looking?
But this is understandable. Putting God anywhere near one’s list of priorities in life will always seem challenging, counter intuitive and somehow impractical. After all, Jesus never said that living the Beatitudes was going to be a walk in the park. God, it seems, doesn’t make it particularly easy for us to want to love him – at least this is what many tell me when they are at their most honest.
But loving God has to be a commitment, like loving our spouses. I am sure that most of the time, one does not feel like loving one’s spouse. One is not in a mood for romance most of the time. One is not in a particularly forgiving spirit most of the time, and one is usually not in a gentle and communicative mood most of the time. But when these are done out of a decision and not as a response to a feeling, they raise the value of one’s actions, because they become a commitment that is palpable and tangible.
Loving God because he has been showing particular grand evidence of providence and grace in our lives is not big deal. Like when we do well in our careers, or when we seem blessed with financial or social success. But choosing to love God despite the fact that our lives are difficult, despite not ‘feeling’ his presence, despite not getting ‘what we ask for’, becomes for many of us lived out examples of living in the magna anima.
That is what the heroes of our faith did, and that is what we need to do in lives as well.