Some weeks ago I went to a special Mass prepared by a group of laypeople to ask for God’s mercy on them and on their families as part of their preparation for Lent . The readings, the psalms and the prayers had all been chosen to echo the overall theme of asking God to give his loving mercy to all those present and to the whole world that would be lost without it. The visiting preacher came straight to the point. “Why waste your time praying for God’s loving mercy,” he said. “Whether you pray for it or not, his loving mercy has been sent out, is being sent out and will continue to be sent out whether you pray for it or not. Why not save your breath to cool your porridge, or rather save your breath to pray that we will be given the strength to take the steps to receive it, by finding time to do so in our daily lives.”
What Selfishness does to the soul
In the Old Testament the word hesed was used to describe the loving mercy of God. It has been translated by the Latin word gratia in the New Testament that gave birth to the English word grace. Fortunately, nothing is lost in translation, in fact everything is gained. Now that the Holy Spirit has been sent, and is continually being sent, his love is no longer referred to as hesed but gratia, or grace. It is the same love of God that revolved between the Father and the Son from and to eternity, but now, thanks to the glorified Christ, it is sent out by him to do something that was never needed to be done before. For now, its power to forgive sins is seen, as this love is directed to sinful human beings to dispel the sinfulness that would otherwise keep God out. That is why all the sacraments give grace, God’s loving mercy that first forgives the sins that would otherwise prevent him making his home within us, as he promised at the Last Supper. There is only one thing that can prevent God making his home within us and that is the sickness of sin and selfishness that does to the mystical body of Christ what high cholesterol does to the physical body. It must ultimately be controlled, if not totally rooted out.
A journey from selfishness to selflessness,
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-centered 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 it will mean coming to terms with themselves and doing something about their shoddy lifestyles.
Lord, that I may see
Even though we may make the 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 we need to cry out with Bartimaeus, “Lord, that I may see” (Mark 10:46-52).
In one of the most memorable retreats 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.”
We should examine our consciences each evening
So, if we do not see it is because we are spiritually blind and need to do something about it. That is why we should examine our conscience each evening, to pause for a few moments to review the day we have just completed. This is the 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.
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 friend 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.
God’s power is at its best in weakness
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, or are prone to making smart alec remarks at the expense of others, 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. 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).
The great secret of the spiritual life.
Only Our Lady was conceived without sin, that means that the rest of us are not . That is why we are continually falling both inside and outside of prayer, whether we like it or not, and that includes the saints too. Now the difference between them and us is not that they didn’t fall and we do, but that they learnt how to use their inevitable failures to their advantage. St Paul was the first to pen what is in fact the great secret of the spiritual life. It is simply this, that God’s power works most perfectly in human weakness gradually transforming it. That is why no one can progress in the spiritual life without the humility to know their weakness and their need of the only One who can help them.
What further distinguishes us from the saints is the speed with which they turned for help. We keep procrastinating because pride prevents us from accepting our failures and so valuable time is wasted. In fact the greater the pride the greater the length of time it takes before a person finally gets enough humility to seek the forgiveness that they need and the grace to begin again. Like St Peter the saints immediately turned back to God the very moment they realised they had failed him. They did this repeatedly without the endless delays that stymie the spiritual growth of the rest of us.
How Fast are you?
Whether in or out of prayer the measure of spiritual advancement can always be determined by the speed with which we turn back to God from the distractions, the temptations or the sins that try to turn us away from Him. However, what all the saints discovered was that this speed could only be maintained with the help and strength from God. That is why although they may have differed from one another in everything else, they were one in their daily commitment to prayer. They knew without a shadow of a doubt, that without it they had no power to do anything of any real value or worth, let alone advance in the spiritual life. That is why each of them in different ways all echoed the words of St Teresa of Avila when she said:
“There is only one way to perfection and that is to pray and if any one points in another direction they are deceiving you”.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles – The Making of a Mystic, Wisdom from The Christian Mystics – How to Pray the Christian Way and Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love. See www.davidtorkington.com