+THE ART OF AFFIRMATION Chapter Talk-23 April 2017
Some months ago I was sent a copy of a book called The Art of Affirmation by a Dr Robert Furey, the new president of Consultation Center in St Louis where I went some years ago to be with other priests and religious dealing with issues in their personal lives. When I did my final session there this past March, I had a chance to meet and speak with this Robert Furey and found him giving witness to the Art he writes about. So I thought to share some of his ideas and how they have particular relevance for our own lives.
Let me begin with a clarification of what the Robert Furey means by affirmation. “Affirmation,” he writes, “is the sincere expression of appreciation for a person’s remarkable qualities. It is through this recognition and appreciation that these abilities emerge and grow. Affirmation is a universal need. It is essential for human growth and happiness.” We have all heard or read of young people who, having been affirmed early in life, develop into gifted and mature human beings. To affirm someone is not just about telling them you are a wonderful person and are doing great. It is a real and heartfelt appreciation of the person’s gifts and potential for growth.
Reflecting on this and on our own Cistercian spirituality, I became more aware of how much of St Bernard’s theology is based on an affirmation drawn from Scripture where we are told of our being made in God’s image and likeness. Our likeness to God has been lost through sin but the image of God in us is ever present. It continually beckons us to regain our divine likeness by recognizing our pride. Through the practice of humility, we then allow grace to once again govern our lives.
How this idea of affirmation resides deep in our own tradition again came home to me as I read through the sermon of Bl Guerric of Igny that we heard yesterday morning. He tells us: “Thanks be to God who has given us the victory both over sin and over death, through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Wholly innocent of sin and therefore free from the debt of death, he yet paid it, dying of his own will on our behalf; and rising he has set us free from sin. For as St Paul says, ‘Christ died for our sins and rose for our justification.’ By dying he underwent the punishment due to our sins, and by rising he established for us the form and the cause of everlasting justification.” In so far as we come into a living awareness of what Christ had done for us, we are affirm for our greatest potential.
The demands of our way of life become much easier to embrace as we recognize this divine initiative, realize how much grace is at work in us as we learn to trust in God’s loving support. And as we see grace at work in our lives, we more easily see it at work in the lives of all those with whom we live.
To quote from Robert Furey again: “As you get better at seeing people’s special gifts, the world becomes more beautiful. You see more and more the valuable qualities that people offer. Your journey in life becomes more scenic when you recognize the beauty in people.” There are times I wonder whether we realize how privileged we are living among brothers who are so highly motivated amid whatever personal failings they may have. Sometimes we have occasion to really get to know one or other of our brethren and see the beauty of their lives and usually because of the recognition of the beauty in our own lives.
There are times then we think so and so has been greatly blessed, he doesn’t need affirmation. Dr Furey admits as much about himself when he writes: “I once believed that successful people didn’t need affirmation. I just thought there were some individuals who already knew how valued they were and thus didn’t need to hear it. I know now this isn’t true. Over the years I’ve met many accomplished people who yearn to know that they are appreciated. The lesson is simple: we all need affirmation.”
A bit further on he writes: “..There’s an unfortunate myth about the relationship between affirmation and arrogance. According to this misconception, if I acknowledge your positive traits, I will contribute to your conceit, grandiosity, and naricissim. In other words, the human ego is so prone to extremes that encouragement is likely to make someone feel superior. This myth has killed many kind words.
Here lies an interesting twist [he says]: real affirmation does not typically lead to inflated egos. In fact, it more often produces humility. Affirmation is an expression of gratitude. Where there is gratitude there is humility. Good affirmation guides us to feel grateful for what we have been given.”
So much of our life, it seems to me, is learning to live with gratitude, to learn to give thanks in all circumstances as St Paul tells us, knowing that God’s grace is ever at work in us. Learning to affirm, which is a real art, helps those around us to live humbly as the Rule calls us to do. It enables us to live in an abiding sense of divine grace ever at work at the center of our being.