“God has no rivals, and therefore as a child of God, neither do I,” the monk taught. I was on retreat attending a class at Saint Meinrad Archabbey—a Benedictine monastery in southern Indiana—taught by Father Adrian Burke, OSB. “I have no rivals,” he repeated.
He said the statement was one of his mantras. It is a good thing, I think, to adopt monk mantras. I thought I might try to adopt the monk mantra.
When I thought of the word “rival,” I thought of someone in opposition, someone who I was supposed to hate or conquer or perhaps prove wrong. You know, Game of Thrones type stuff…or the tension between superheroes and villains…or two politicians slinging mud at each other on a debate stage. I did not have many rivals, I felt. Not in this sense. Whereas some have a natural distrust for others, I perhaps trust others too much. I really had no desire to conquer anyone, that is, unless the Chicago Cubs were playing the Milwaukee Brewers. Hating and conquering and destroying the Brewers was quite okay.
But even though I did not feel like I had “rivals,” as in human enemies whom I hated, I found the mantra to be freeing for some reason. Why?
Perhaps a rivalry went deeper than dethroning Queen Cercei or beating the Brewers. Maybe superhero movies connect with us so deeply, not because we necessarily relate to having a nemesis in a mask that’s always trying to torment us and disrupt us, but rather because we deeply understand how it feels to be tormented and disrupted by something that keeps invading our sacred interior space. We understand what it’s like to feel as if a potential enemy is always right around the corner. The Joker is simply perfectionism, depression, self-doubt, anxiety, insecurity, negativity, worthlessness, or whatever darkness you carry, in a mask. It even seems that most human rivalries emerge more out of what is represented or reflected in the other—whether it be an idea, political view, competition, or past pain—rather than who someone truly is. The actions of a backstabber or betrayer can be forgiven, but it might take years or decades to untangle the knot of insecurities within.
A rival, in this sense, is anything that intrudes upon my interior domain—any force or energy that fights to steal my identity or tricks my mind into believing lies about myself or reality, pulling me into fear-based thinking (where I make decisions rooted in insecurity) or desire-focused reacting (where I make decisions enslaved to passion), the subject of the monk’s talks that weekend. The evolution of our spiritual consciousness, I learned, moves from fear-based thinking to desire-focused reacting to freedom-rooted abiding, from insecurity (where we let our egos run the show) to love (where we are guided within by God’s indwelling spirit), deeper into contentment, without attachments, or using anyone or anything to dictate our worth. The force of the intruder, often triggered by the actions of a person, is the voice that tells me that I’m a failure or that I’m worthless or that I’m not enough or that it’s all up to me in some way or that I'm going to lose something that I think I need to survive. It’s the illusion that I must do more in order to attain peace of mind…or fulfill some idealized version of myself...or arrive at some fantasized destination.
Often times, like any kind of athletic rivalry, the rivals in my own life are born out of competition. One of the main themes the monk talked about that weekend was how people tend to either venture through life with a mindset that is rooted in scarcity—the feeling that you must pursue or cling to things of this world out of fear of who you’ll be or who you are without them—or a mindset that is rooted in abundance—an acceptance that you already have everything you spiritually need right where you are; that you already possess every spiritual blessing in Christ; that the world has a depth, beauty, and mystery to it as it is, that is to be experienced here and now.
Scarcity produces frantic doing and desperation. It leads to more competition, and therefore more illusory human rivals. Abundance births contentment, peace, and acceptance. I toss and turn some nights trying to figure out the next professional move I want to make, and I can tell whenever I become desperate because I stop trusting who I am and what I am meant to do, evidenced by my neediness for affirmation, affection, validation, or lust for results. Desperation reflects a lack of trust, a lack of faith in the goodness of the world and in yourself, a lack of hope in benevolence.
Whenever my thoughts are dominated by one thing—usually something that I do not yet have, an uncertainty in my life yet to be solved, a tension in my life yet to be resolved—I know that I’m slipping into fear-based desperation or spiraling into my desire, the curse of my ambition. My inability to surrender, a lot of times, is a reflection of my entanglement in rivalry. Just as it is difficult to pull one person away from the other in a heated fight or debate, in the throes of rivalry, it is difficult to surrender, to let go, to trust that everything will work itself out in and that the fight isn’t yours to be won in the first place. As my dad has mentioned to me, it seems that winning is often tied up in getting what we fear is scarce, whether it is power, prestige, or money.
What is winning then? The simple question seems to deconstruct the concept down to the illusion that it is.
In a spiritual dimension, there’s no such thing as winning because there’s no such thing as competition—and therefore no need to prove one’s worth, no need to obsess over destinations, and no need to have rivals. There is no such thing as rivals because nothing can shake one’s identity as a child of God or his or her union with the divine. Similarly, Satan, the monk said, is not a rival to God because nothing and no one that God created can stand against God on equal footing.
Though words fall embarrassingly short here, it would be like the Chicago Cubs wasting their energy on hating a Little League team from Milwaukee. This would be quite petty and impossible to justify. They aren’t on equal footing. It makes no sense. God does not hate anyone, nor needs to conquer anyone, or prove anyone wrong. Because God is God. Because God is Love. And therefore, as children of God, animated by the divine, our abiding in who God says that we are can liberate us from the throes of competition.
I am thankful for my passion, for my drive, but it becomes detrimental whenever I allow it to be hijacked by fear, desperation, and neediness. I am thankful for my desire to love and to be loved in return, but that desire becomes muddied and manipulative whenever I begin to doubt my own belovedness.
It seems that most of us just simply want to be valued—to be heard, to be seen, to be validated in our efforts, to feel less alone. It seems that these naturally human desires can either lead to us acting upon them out of fear or making our home in liminality, the mysterious abundance of the desert; to trust our home in a spiritual realm that transcends competition and rivalries; and to let God replace the void with the truth of who we are as his children.
I think that is what the monk meant when he said that he had no rivals.