Friday, January 05, 2007

I Have Learned to be Content

Those aren’t my words but St Paul’s, though I’m trying to make them mine more and more. They are from his Letter to the Philippians, 4:11. He wrote:I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content… in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. [And here’s the secret:] I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”

I unsuspectingly opened to this chapter in my daily Scripture reading a few days ago, during my current illness. Feeling quite under the weather, I read: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” My pious response was: Thank you very much! Sometimes you feel even worse when someone tells you to cheer up out of your misery. But I read on. It really is a consoling chapter, full of confidence and passing-all-understanding peace.

Then I arrived at the contentment part. It may at first sight seem to be a more or less standard “stiff upper lip and all that” type of exhortation, but there’s really more to it if you reflect a bit and try to make some application to your own life.

I had to take seriously the “whatever state I’m in” part of it, for at the time I was not in a pleasant state: ill, restless, uncomfortable. I thought about the previous sleepless, congested, and sweat-soaked night and tried to see how I could be content with that. With another such night looming large, I had to face the issue. First of all, I saw that “content” doesn’t not have to mean happy or cozy or having every need met. To be content in whatever state I find myself, is simply to accept it peacefully, seeing the will of God in it (one way or another), and trusting that all things will work for the good—and perhaps are at that very moment working for the good through some unseen connection in the Mystical Body of Christ of which I may be wholly unaware.

So even though I may not be “happy” about a given situation, I can be content with it, and eventually may even be ready to hear Paul’s injunction to rejoice in a Christian fashion. (Of course, we are not required to be content with some manifestly evil situation that God requires us to change, but we are content with his guidance and the means and the timetable He provides for getting the job done—without raising our blood pressure too much.)

Paul’s secret of contentment was not some extraordinary measure of emotional equilibrium or a placid temperament (no one would ever accuse him of having one of those!), but rather Christ Himself, in whom he lives. He said in another place: “I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities…” (2Cor. 12:10; for some of these, see 11:23-29). He had a lot more to complain about than we do, but he was content, for he knew Christ who strengthened him, who made it possible to peacefully accept both the good and the bad of life. For Paul (like all Christians) was a citizen of Heaven, and there he looked for his everlasting contentment, the hardships of earth being part of the training, the obstacle course of the race to the finish, where he fully expected to receive the prize.

We ought to try to broaden our vision when trials and sufferings tend to narrow it. We can remind ourselves that it is OK to be content with unpleasantries and disappointments, because Christ is with and within us, not only to enable us to endure well the difficulty, but to lift us to a higher level of awareness and vision, one at which we are even able to rejoice in the midst of struggles. So let us learn to be content in whatever state we find ourselves, looking to Jesus for strength and peace and the wisdom to see how his will is at work to make all things good—as the Everlasting Contentment draws nearer day by day.