Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Rom 12:2).
Perched at a busy intersection on Rome’s Quirinal hill, the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria houses one of Bernini’s most famous sculptures: the ecstasy of St. Teresa of Ávila. As you cross the threshold into the small, poorly lit Baroque church, leaving behind the noisy traffic outside, the 17th century and its spirituality (at least one version of it) assail the eyes in various forms. The most striking is the almost languid figure of the mystic in white marble, suspended above a side altar on the left wall. Bernini’s mastery of stone doesn’t cease to amaze me. His artistry and expression are unmatched. But I cannot help but hold him and a slew of other 17th century artists accountable for a serious misconception sown in the minds of many a Catholic.
Holy men and women eerily detached from the banal and somehow lost in otherworldly inspiration, static postures of prayer and a heavenly glow—holiness for these artists seems to be finding the escape hatch from this world and its criteria, transcending to a higher plane to which few gain access. It has to do with rapture instilling extraordinary virtue, a sort of special, luminous feeling.
But Jesus’ message is far different. Salvation and holiness has about as much to do with feeling luminous as bowling does with marine biology. It is certainly not well-being, even “spiritual” well-being as many would conceive of it. It is inner transformation, a change in the way I think, judge, and desire. It is putting on the mind of Christ (see Rom 12:1-2 and Phil 2:5).
Much of our struggle with God has to do with accepting his plan. Frustration with why God asks of me what he asks of me or why he doesn’t reveal his will more clearly can lead us to discouragement. We conclude he is a distant God who doesn’t really listen or get involved. But the problem isn’t God. The problem is our expectations! We are like figure skaters showing up for a baseball game, all decked out with the wrong goals, the wrong outfit, the wrong expectations.
Jesus dedicated time and effort to changing the expectations his closest friends had regarding who he was and what he was about. His whole strategy was calculated to help people understand the Messiah wasn’t what they were expecting him to be. Even so he had to rebuke Peter for “thinking not as God does but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). And Judas betrayed him.
I have been a religious for twelve years and find this is a point I have to come back to over and over. Salvation is not about well-being, not even spiritual well-being. God is not interested in my having things under control. He is not interested in my feeling positive and enlightened. He is not interested in my success or even in my good works. All of those things are far too little for his love. He is interested in transforming the inner me. And that all begins with my expectations and the renewal of my mind (see Rom 12:1-2).
Renewal of the mind is in faith, trust, and simplicity. Faith—the calm certainty that God made me, loves me, and guides everything about my interior and exterior situation right now. Trust—the conviction that how he wants it is best for me and that he will not leave me in the dark about how he wants me to respond. Simplicity—the peace that comes from this letting God be God. “Be still and know that I am God.”
Photo Credit: Peter Miller