As this first week of Lent comes to an end, and we are preparing to head into our month long silent retreat, I find myself dwelling on the question of integrity... what is it, and how do we grow in it? This question is prompted by readings from mass this past week, for instance from the prophet Ezekiel 18, where God praises the person who mends their ways and returns to a path of integrity, from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5, where he instructs his followers to be more righteous than the religious leaders of his day, and then later in this chapter, where Jesus tells them that they must be perfect as God is perfect.
Now, lest we get hung up on words, I know that the word "righteousness" has come to have a certain negative connotation, suggesting "self-righteousness"; however, in the Greek, the word for righteousness is dikaiosune, which means:
- in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God
- the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God
- integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting
- in a narrower sense, justice or the virtue which gives each his due (New Testament Greek Lexicon)
Righteousness also suggests integrity, or wholeness... a sense of being whole, healthy, sound.
If this still feels a bit abstract, we might think for a moment about times when we don't feel like we are whole, or integrated... when we have experiences of feeling fragmented (due to anxiety, or being overextended), or dishonest, or self alienated. During these times, we know that something is missing, and that we'd prefer to feel differently. I recall, for example, the experience of being caught in a lie as a kid... how awful this felt inside. In such times, if our conscience is working, we feel a bit guilty, maybe even ashamed when we are not living with integrity. Hopefully, these distressing feelings prompt us to change, to be honest, for instance, or to stand for what we believe in, or to embrace those parts of ourselves that cry out for integration. (The great danger is when we shut down our moral instinct and close off those feelings, losing any motivation to change.)
Integrity seems to have something to with wholeness more than perfection, and with a kind of harmony with Life more than a simple consistency between word and action. When we are thinking, feeling, and acting in harmony with Life (the will of God), we know it because we feel like we are in the Flow of something bigger than ourselves. We may experience what St. Ignatius called consolacion, which he described as a kind of energy, one which increased his sense of faith, hope, and love.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, the author reports how human beings are born naked, and die naked, and cannot take with them any fruit of labor that they can hold in their hands. By this, I interpret the author to be saying that the purpose of human life is not accomplishment (I get stuck on this one), not the acquisition of wealth, nor the building of prestige in the eyes of others. The purpose of human life, and the only thing that we will take with us beyond this life, is something less tangible, yet more precious than all these.
If I am not mistaken, the readings I mention earlier point toward this precious and intangible purpose... that of living in harmony with Life, and of being whole. In this state, we come to the realization that integrity is really a kind of love... for God, for one's own self, and for our neighbors as (if they) are ourselves.