If I have told you this story before, no matter, I want to tell it again. It was such a great help to me in my own spiritual life, that I am hoping that it might be of help to you too. During a series of talks that I gave to Cistercian monks in the Cameroon, I was able to spend many hours with the holiest man I have ever met. He was in his eighties and I learned far more from him than his fellow monks learnt from me. He told me how for many years he had been in spiritual darkness where many times over he questioned the faith that led him to the monastery where he was called upon to guide others. Then, one day he became ill and was admitted to the monastery hospital where he received Holy Communion each day. On three distinct occasions, just as he was about to receive communion, he heard these words, “Only you have been keeping me out.” He insisted that he did not hear them in his head, or through some sort of inner revelation, but, “Out loud, and as loud and as clearly as you have been speaking to us during your talks.” Simultaneously he found himself immersed in the love of God in such a way that he became continually caught up in what he could only describe as a weak ecstasy. In other words, he did not lose consciousness, but the profound experience of Presence remained with him, continually restoring and surcharging the faith that had all but deserted him before.
In one way or another we all must be purified of the selfishness that prevents the pure love of God from possessing us. The spiritual life is a journey from selfishness to selflessness, because only a selfless person can become one with the utterly Selfless One, who is all pure undiluted loving. This is a lengthy business that will be commensurate with the whole of our lives. Unless a person makes a genuine attempt to rid themselves of the selfishness that keeps God out, then they will make no spiritual progress. Unless we try to change our self-centred lives outside of prayer, our prayer itself will never develop beyond the most rudimentary stages. Even from a psychological point of view, if we have behaved badly all day, then prayer will be quite impossible at the end of that day. In fact, one of the reasons why people run away from prayer is that they know full well that it will mean coming to terms with themselves, and doing something about their shoddy lifestyles.
Even though we may make our morning offering as sincerely as possible, and genuinely try to implement it in the forthcoming day, we will ultimately fail unless something is done to cure the scourge of selfishness that can destroy even our best of intentions and our sincerest efforts. God wants us to do all that is within our power to strip away all and everything in our lives that prevents us from being totally united with him at all times. Only then will he be able to possess us as fully as he has planned. If we do not see the sin and the selfishness that prevents our growth in the spiritual life, it is not because we are sinless, it is simply because we are blind, and so we need to cry out with Bartimaeus, “Lord, that I may see” (Mark 10:46-52).
In one of the most memorable retreats that I have ever attended, Archbishop Anthony Bloom began by telling the story of a retired headmistress who offered her services to him as a chauffeur. As they were returning home one Monday afternoon she stopped the car in Kensington to pick up her new glasses from the opticians and proceeded to try them out for the remainder of the journey. It was less than a mile, but it turned out to be the most terrifying journey either of them ever made; her driving was atrocious. She climbed out of the car shaking all over, opened her handbag, took out her driving licence and ceremoniously ripped it into little pieces. “I’ll never drive again.” she said. “Why ever not?” asked the Archbishop. “Because,” she replied, “there is just so much traffic on the road!”
So, if we don’t see the sinfulness and the selfishness that is the sclerosis of our soul it is not because we are even relatively pure, but it is because we are spiritually blind and need to do something about it. That is why we all need to examine our conscience each day, to pause for a few moments to review our lives since we last prayed. It is time to ask God to show us everything we have done or failed to do that has kept him out. For it is this selfishness that prevents him from making his home within us, as he would wish and as Jesus promised on the night before he died. After this has been done, it is time to make an Act of Contrition for how we have failed in the past. A formal Act of Contrition could be used, or perhaps the recitation of what came to be called the Jesus Prayer said several times over, slowly and prayerfully. “Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” but a sincere expression of personal sorrow, in our own words would be better still. Then we could make a firm purpose of amendment, in other words a genuine decision to try and behave better in future, beginning now.
Some years ago I shared a flat with a man called Carruthers. If morals make the man, and manners make the gentleman, then Carruthers was the finest gentleman I ever met, or so I thought for the first few weeks. However, as the weeks went by, I began to see that his manners were no more than a thin coat of veneer that hid the chipboard man within. Casual visitors were as impressed with him as I was to begin with. He was always so terribly sorry for everything. He was so terribly sorry for beating me to the bathroom; so terribly sorry for keeping me waiting for half an hour; so terribly sorry for failing to clean the bath. He was so terribly sorry too for emptying the fridge when his friends came around, for leaving the washing-up for me the following morning, and for leaving my car with an empty tank when he borrowed it without asking. The trouble was, he was not sorry at all and he kept on behaving in the same old way day in, day out. It is one thing to say you are sorry, it is quite another to mean it. If you mean it, you do something about it. No act of sorrow, no promise to do better next time however heartfelt it might sound, will do us any good, if we do not resolve and seriously endeavour to do better next time around beginning now!
However we should never be put off by our failings and even our sins, because they can in fact be used to enable us to become ever more aware of our weakness and therefore of our utter need for God. In short, what we sometimes see as the stumbling block that can prevent our spiritual progress, can with humility be seen as stepping stones to sanctity. My brothers and I used to laugh at an old Victorian painting that our aunt used to hang on her kitchen wall. It depicted a brook flowing down from the mountains. The left hand side of the brook was in all but darkness, the right hand side was bathed in light. In the foreground there were stepping stones and under the picture, written in bold Gothic script, were these words, “Make all your stumbling blocks into stepping stones.” I do not know why we found it so funny. I suppose the combination of the Victorian picture and the Gothic script made it all seem a little too twee, at least to us. But the truth of the matter is that the little epigram was true, and it still is true. Our stumbling blocks can in fact become the stepping stones to sanctity, if we only have the humility to see it and are open to the grace that can enable us to begin again no matter how many times we fall.
Finally, as we become a little more aware of the moral stumbling blocks that usually trip us up, it is time to try and forestall them. If there is a lazy streak in us, or if we have a hot temper, it is the time to take the necessary steps to avoid falling into these same faults in the forthcoming day. St Paul was the first to realise with such clarity that it is in fact our very weaknesses, and that even includes our sins, that can become stepping stones to sanctity, if they only convince us of our utter need for God. For, as Christ himself said to St Paul, “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The difference between us and the saints is not that they did not sin and we do, for we all fall into sin; it is in the speed with which they get up without delay to begin again no matter how often they fell. This is good news, because the truth is, in this life we will never stop falling. “When you stop falling you will be in heaven, but when you stop getting up, you will be in hell!” (Peter Calvay in Wisdom from the Western Isles).
The themes in this article are detailed in far greater length in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from The Christian Mystics