This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 24 February 2011.
Let your “yes” mean “yes,” and your “no” mean “no.” Anything more is from the evil one.
— Mt. 5:37a
The meeting was called for Sunday — to begin at 8:45 at night. I’d agreed to serve on this group in the fall, knowing that it would entail some meetings out of regular hours, but now I was grumbling about the outrageous scheduling of this last meeting to anyone who might listen (and probably a few who wished they hadn’t asked).
Then I went to Mass. The last line of the Gospel was like a splash of cold water in my face: Let your “yes” mean “yes.”
Ouch. All afternoon, as I read the materials for the meeting, took a walk then made dinner, that one line of the Gospel danced in front of me, insistently asking the question: did my “yes” really mean “yes”? It wasn’t just about this particular meeting, but about all of the yeses in my life.
Two years ago this week, I had just come home from a 30-day silent retreat, during which I made St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. I learned much over the course of the retreat about discerning how to say yes to God in my life. The Exercises end with a contemplation about how to say “yes,” wholeheartedly and without reservation, to God.
A friend, herself experienced in directing Ignatius’ Exercises, had suggested I mark the anniversary in some way, but I let the day come and go quietly. Three days later I found myself plunged back into that final contemplation — hearing God asking if my “yes” meant “yes.” While I’m not sure if that’s quite what my friend had in mind, it seemed to fit.
There is a story told by one of the desert fathers about a widow who comes to beg for grain. The almoner invites her to help herself to the barley, but when he weighs it to see how much she has taken, he tells her she has taken too much. After she leaves in embarrassment, one of the hermits wonders if the grain was a loan or a gift? “A gift, of course,” replies the almoner. “Then why were you so exacting in your measure?”
The gift St. Ignatius encourages us to make at the end of the Exercises is of ourselves. If I intend to make God a gift of myself, and not just a loan of my time for which I expect a careful accounting and repayment in full, why am I so exacting in my measure at times?
I wonder if my yeses aren’t as unconditional as they could be because my noes aren’t either. God is not calling me to be a drudge for the kingdom, being all things to all people at all times or taking on more and more until I collapse into a heap.
The Exercises asked me to consider how God has made me in particular, the purposes He intends for the gifts given to me and to let that inform the yeses and, perhaps as importantly, the noes of my life.
Perhaps I should have said “no” and meant it to a committee meeting that left me almost too tired to teach the next day. Sometimes it takes saying no in one place to be able to say yes in another without needing to grudgingly mete out my gift. The other thing the Exercises taught me? Ask for the grace you need.
You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.
— St. Ignatius of Loyola from the Spiritual Exercises, 234.