This week's readings are: Chapter 9 and 10, both on the subject of "Impediments to Spiritual Progress." I am going to try and keep this simple, since I know it is Holy Week and probably many of you are trying to limit your computer time in order to live out this last week before Easter more fully.
Msgr Lejeune asks why we do not progress as much as we should in the spiritual life and his answer is: because we do not know God well enough. However, this answer needs to be explained.
We cannot love what we do not know. Think about what you love most in your life. ... perhaps your parents, your spouse, your children, your house. If you had never encountered these things, how would you love them? Perhaps you would have an empty space in your heart where they should be, but you wouldn't know them, only their absence.
But knowing the things we love, we still have to keep on learning to know them. A marriage that doesn't keep developing and growing through time becomes stale and damaged. We instinctively love our children but it is a continual progress of continuing to learn to love them as they grow and change.
This kind of knowledge isn't just "head knowledge", Msgr Lejeune points out. We can know our catechism and still have cold hearts that don't let themselves be open to God.
Nor does it depend on intellectual power. He tells the story of the simple Franciscan brother who was overjoyed to find out that he could love God just as much as the great thinker St Bonaventure.
True knowledge of God comes from doing as Mary did, pondering things deeply in our hearts, letting it sink in to the point that it changes our whole outlook.
Three things he especially recommends to meditate upon.
- Our dependence upon God -- how He brought everything into existence and keeps it in existence every second.
- The life of Jesus, our Lord, and especially His Life, Death and Resurrection and the love He showed for each of us in these things, and upon the Eucharist.
- The life of grace that we are called to. He says that the angels behold grace in our souls with wonder and joy. The angels in heaven rejoice when one lost soul is saved. And we are all lost souls by birth.
Another answer to the question of why do we not advance, ie grow closer to God and to our Savior?
We let silly things cloud our attention to and love of God.
In earlier chapters we discussed venial sin and how it should be taken seriously especially if we deliberately choose it even though it hurts our Savior. But here he discusses even those things which are not harmful in themselves but can cause us to become distracted.
During this Lent probably many of us chose to give up something which was not sinful in itself, but which we felt like we were dependent upon. We hopefully gave these things up not to pat ourselves on the back about how strong we were, or because we thought these things were evil, but in order to clear ourselves to focus more on these good things' Creator.
Msgr Lejeune's conclusion:
"If we are not guided and stimulated by the love of God, if we remain entangled in the silly vanities which fetter us to the earth, we shall never make progress in the spiritual life. "My own take on this issue is that I do not make much progress when I simply try to reform my life or squelch my silly vanities and distractions. Any secular self-help book will tell me how to improve my life, but it becomes sort of self-centered and even prideful if that is all I am doing. This goes back to Msgr Lejeune's earlier warning on Naturalism.
A book my Mom read to me as a child, The Tanglewood's Secret, has the aunt telling the rebellious little girl that it makes no sense to chase away the darkness before you open the curtains. Open the curtains, and the light will come in and chase the darkness away. Usually when I am not doing well, I am trying to chase away the dark before letting in the light, which must make God shake His head. If I pray as if everything depended on Him, my subsequent actions are way more likely to be successful. Perhaps this is not a problem with you, but it is with me -- I seem to default to thinking that God loves me conditionally and I need to measure up before I approach Him, but this is seriously a pernicious trap. I can't get anywhere that I truly want to go without His prompting, guidance and aid.
We have discussed learning to know God in order to love Him.... our minds, and our hearts. Our minds should dwell on God especially in relation to the things He has given us as gifts with respect to His Trinity. The Father has created us and continues to hold us in existence, the Son has redeemed us and suffered with us, the Spirit abides in us and gives us our life in grace. Our hearts should focus on this and not get cluttered with silly non-essentials. It is a constant decluttering and simplifying of the soul, but the act of decluttering itself can become a distraction if we don't constantly work under God's eye, and ask Him for help.
Now that we have talked about loving God with our whole heart and mind, we talk about our wills, our "strength". Msgr Lejeune talks about persevering and about being specific. You have probably read the secular articles about goal-setting -- how goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely, etc. It sounds like he is saying something of the same here. Supernatural goals, of course, go where natural goals can never go, and we have the help of our cloud of witnesses to do what we could never do of our own strength. Gentle, timid Roman teenagers faced the lions without a qualm, reckless proud spirits like Augustine's became obedient and responsible, lightminded rich youths like St Francis embraced poverty and disease joyfully.
However, this being said, in the day to day, progress is often slow, perhaps miniscule. St Francis de Sales compares spiritual beginners to turkeys, who fly painfully and clumsily. It is somewhat silly to expect to soar like eagles immediately when we are still fettered and weak. Usually the expectation that we can immediately, right after a commitment to live more closely in God, do amazing things is caused by pride, or laziness, or in my case, a mixture of the two.
So even though we can firmly trust to receive many graces for our smallest true return to God, we still may have work to do, and here the will becomes crucial. The Rule which we have composed for ourselves prayerfully, and modify as time goes on, is a kind of manifestation of our will.
When a priest recently advised me to make a Rule for myself, and examine how I kept it regularly, I asked him what felt like a silly question, but now I am glad I asked: Am I sinning if I don't keep to my Rule? He immediately said NO, which I sort of knew already, but am glad I actually heard him say. A Rule isn't so much about not-sinning but about trying to order your life so that it is in line with your true priorities.
So, say, I told myself to rise early in the morning so I could pray quietly (this is just an example) There is nothing sinful about sleeping late, especially if I need the sleep. However, it could mean I need to regain control of the time I go to bed, say. When I examine myself, part of the examen is considering WHY I didn't keep to my rule. Then, if it is something I can change, like perhaps drinking coffee late in the afternoon so that I went to sleep too late, I should change it. But things like wakeful babies or sick children or even a teen or husband keeping you up late to talk are chances to do Corporal or Spiritual Works of Mercy: the special demands of charity should come before ordinary resolutions, or so I understand it (please drop a comment in the box if you think there is more to be said about this).
If keeping to this detail of my rule seems undoable, then perhaps this aspect of it should be dropped for the time being, or modified. Perhaps I will focus for now on just going to bed at a fixed time, and remembering to at least consecrate the day to God when I do rise in the morning. Again, this is just an example.
I don't have an action for you this week, because I think most of us have our Actions already set for us by Holy Week.
I do want to mention something I have loved for a long time but am only slowly getting better at: the Ignatian daily examen. It is not only an examination of conscience, though it incorporates that element. It is a daily habit (Ignatius recommended twice daily, at noon and night) of reflecting prayerfully on how the day has gone, what blessings God has given you to be grateful for, and where you have stumbled or gone off the path. Combined with a Rule, and done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (this is the part I too often forget, so that the examen becomes sterile and increases my Judas type "bad guilt" rather than true fruitful repentance) it can be a very excellent way to bring your day to day life closer to your aspirations, over time.
- The Ignatian Daily Examen (a whole slew of articles and resources, some better than others)
- Father Hardon on the Examen
- (more on the general and particular examen)
- Here is an Examen for Managers for those of you who feel that your "job" as homeschooling mom is similar to a managerial role.