By Michael Rossmann, S.J.
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it.” This line, from the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, has often given me tremendous hope.
Recently reading it, however, I could not help but laugh at how the message could be twisted. I can only imagine someone telling me, based on this Scriptural passage that indicates that the good work is not yet completed, “Hey, Michael, about your column, wow… isn’t it great how much room for improvement you have?!”
While my need for improvement is certainly true, I am struck by Paul’s example in choosing to highlight God’s good work in the world rather than focusing on how we fail. This does not mean that we ignore sin and injustice, for example, though it does highlight for me a path for working together and a call for all of us to encourage one another.
I have shared previously that I was greatly struck by some of the language I commonly heard once I joined the Jesuits. Never had I heard people use the word “edify” in so many conversations, for example, and while I initially saw such frequent use of the word to be somewhat silly, I am convinced that our personal and communal lives are better when building each other up becomes a habit to be emphasized. This is heightened for me during this season of negative advertisements in political campaigns.
Of course, it can feel a little forced. When I have had a bad day or have felt mistreated by someone, by no means is my first reaction to look at only good things. Still, I think St. Paul, who certainly saw his share of hardship, is on to something.
One prayer very important to the Jesuits and to those inspired by our spirituality is the examen — basically a prayerful method whereby we review the day. One crucial step in this prayer is to look back on the day and spend time in gratitude for this day’s gifts. Doing this day in and day out for a long period of time hopefully begins to change our hearts, enabling us to see the gifts of God quite easily and not just during formal periods of prayer.
Some of my greatest heroes are those who did this excellently. Reading about the life of St. Francis Xavier can lead one to question how a human person could ever do something like this. He was asked to leave his best friend, St. Ignatius, at a moment’s notice to sail around the world and be threatened by pirates, storms and persecution in order to spread the Gospel. Francis himself, however, did not focus on all the difficulties. His companions described a scene in which they saw him threatened by bandits and running through snowy mountain passes in Japan, but tossing an apple in the air and never being happier; he was so moved by gratitude for his vocation and the opportunity to spread God’s love.
What Xavier and others represent is how this practice of gratitude produces joy. When we continue to look at the beauty around us and at how God is working in our lives and in the world, negativity seems to lose much of its power. Of course, moments of great joy often bring us to gratitude, though an intentional and frequent practice of gratitude also seems to lay the groundwork for experiencing greater joy.
There is darkness all around us, and at times we are overwhelmed by it. But, we can also choose to live in the light and edify others and help them to live in the light as well. God has begun a good work in us, but one that is certainly not accomplished. Still, through our participation, God is continuing to complete it.