" Lord, what are you asking of me in regard to this person? This question can stir the life-force within us.
ASHLAND — For about eight years, I as a Catholic have practiced a form of Jewish ethical-spiritual growth called mussar. Mussar means “discipline” — in the sense of continuous cultivation of the soul in a conscious, ordered manner.

Essential to the mussar model is the notion of life-force, which in Hebrew is yetzer. The root word includes several meanings: form, frame, purpose.

Another translation might be: the inner spiritual energy we all possess. This energy, as we know from experience, can be directed toward good or toward evil.

Jewish sages, our older brothers and sisters in faith, recognize that we all have an innate inclination toward self-absorption and acting with a small view of what is best for us. Mussar (and all of Jewish thought and teaching) urges us toward the true good of the other — toward the person nearest us first and foremost, and, in ever-widening circles, toward all those our lives touch directly or indirectly.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Self-respect is the root of discipline. The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.”

Echoing Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s insight, we have a continual option: to say “yes” to the other person and a “no” to our narrow, constricted self. This needs, of course, to be distinguished from our true self with our proper and necessary needs and desires.

Right seeing

Many mystics of various traditions insist that right-seeing is primary to union with the Divine and communion with others. If love is the consummate end of our being and becoming, seeing rightly is the indispensable means.

This true seeing requires a humble setting aside of our own limited self-interests; it urges us to see the other as sacred, as made in God’s image and likeness, as deserving of our love, concern and support.

Discerning and deciding

Once our heart sees the truth of another person as God’s icon and her/his needs and desires, we can discern what we are being called to do to love them in the here and now.

Once we authentically encounter the other in her/his true nature and situation, we can ask ourselves inwardly, “How can I serve you?” This question directs our life-force toward them in a self-giving gesture of loving kindness.

Skillful acting

Then, of course, we are called to enact what we have discerned as right and proper — loving — toward the other person.

Catholic moral teaching reminds us that we always have three modes at our disposal: thought/prayer, word and deed.

For example, we become acutely aware of those who are sick and suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. We may be required to shelter-in-place for health and safety reasons. Our best action might be to pray for them. We could also, of course, choose to donate funds to a responsible intermediary organization in service of the victims of COVID-19.

Let’s consider another situation.

I remembered a young man named Albert, whom I had once encouraged as a mentor. Albert and I had lost touch for about 10 years.

I discerned and decided to try to reach him and to reconnect, hoping to hear about his life and developments during the past decade. Through an online search, I found a phone number and called it. It went into voice mail; the recorded voice greeting was unmistakably Albert’s.

I left Albert a message via text. He excitedly replied. Within a couple of days we found time for an extended phone call and catch-up.


Aware that we, by nature, have a vital life-force, a yetzer that can move toward the good of others or toward self-absorbed narrowness and constriction, we can ask an inward question that can illuminate our choices.

Lord, what are you asking of me in regard to this person? This question can stir the life-force within us, making possible a “no” to selfish isolation and a “yes” to connecting with the sacred other before us.

Murphy is a member of Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland.