Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mediocrity

When discussing the "Dark Night of the Spirit," St. John of the Cross says:

Poor, abandoned, and unsupported by any of the apprehensions of my soul (in the darkness of my intellect, in the distress of my will, and the affliction and anguish of my memory), left to darkness in pure faith, which is a dark night for all these natural faculties, and with my will touched only by sorrows, afflictions, and longings of love of God, I went out from myself.
Sometimes I fear that the spiritual perfection I claim to long for is forever out of my grasp, and that I've wasted many chances. Not because I doubt that God can convert and give grace to a great sinner, but perhaps because I feel like the fervor of conversion is a chance given once, or at least only at special moments.

I had my "real" conversion as a 12-year-old, and yet it did not translate into great sanctity as we are perhaps "supposed to" expect. It translated into first a hot-headed (but identity-crafting) zeal for the Church and the Faith, and wound up as something that often feels like a sort of hobby rather than a radical transformation of my self.

I have no doubt it has profoundly affected my outlook on life (or maybe it simply has sustained an outlook I already was naturally inclined towards as a child), but what good is an outlook without results? Often I have the realization: I'm going to put energy and suffering and stress and even near-depression into something either way, so I might as well be having spiritual dark nights as opposed to my mere trivial temporal ones.


And yet, I would be hesistant to claim I've ever seen any spiritual advancement at all, and certainly wouldn't claim my sorrows are the sort of divinely infused purgation the mystics discuss. Mortification they may be, a cross that can be embraced to uproot self-love, yes. But they are still clearly of the "ascetic" order, not the mystical in any sense of the word.

And yet, if I'm going to suffer either way...why not choose the path towards that sort of mystical dryness and withdrawal of consolation rather than the perfectly natural and logical sufferings of this world of sin? Wouldn't suffering as a consequence of holiness be better than suffering as a consequence of sin and self-love? And yet, I think it is the path of least resistance (not of least suffering) that gets us in the end. It's not that we don't see that virtue = happiness, or desire to be there more than where we are now. It's that we're weak. So very weak. It's not that we find our current state happier, it's that we find it easier.

Sometimes maybe I fall into the trap of thinking that God can, of course, turn around the life of some dissolute prodigal villain and in an instant, like Scrooge or St. Francis, will do a miraculous 180...and yet despair of the ability to make progress in my own merely "okay" spiritual life, having fallen into a pattern of the bare-minimum. Of Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation, of attempting to avoid mortal sin but having an almost presumptuous notion that confession is always there in the back of my head, of holding to all the right dogmas and intellectual notions of virtue but then not actually being involved much in volunteering or in parish community life.


I'd like to think I somewhat "minister" to friends and readers by inspiring, or advising, or supporting...and yet advice given by a hypocrite is tainted, and I am a novice myself, have no particular spiritual director yet, and too often let pride and my own motives get involved. Of course, recognizing all this and airing it gives some temporary relief. "Oh, well, if I admit it, then I'm humble. At least I know I'm wretched." But really, isn't knowing and still remaining lazy and avoidant even worse?

Perhaps the early Church had it right with Penance being a chance offered only once. Someone who goes to confession once and turns their life around is a more inspiring case than those of us (and I do think it is many of us) who go back week after week or month after month with the same sins...

Part of my problem may be perfectionism; I build up grand plans in my head of a whole cycle of daily prayer and fasting schemes and volunteering and founding ministries and spiritual reading...and then it's so daunting I procrastinate for years on beginning, or do it just for Lent and then slack off again.

And yet, I think we must also remember that we are not Pelagians or Semi-Pelagians. Really, our conversion, our sanctity, our holiness...are in God's hands. Yes, we must "cooperate" in the sense of non-resisting grace...but the Thomist interpretation, at least, would suggest that even this non-resistance is a grace God must actualize too.

Well, I'm sitting here waiting, then. I really really want a huge infusion of grace to get me out of my ruts and spur me on to real action; another conversion 10-years on. Maybe I'd be more ready now that I'm not a child, now that the process of learning the basics, and integrating it firmly into my identity, and fleshing out my positions and attitudes and arguments has reached a certain plateau. With the theoretical groundwork laid, with myself thoroughly inculturated in the thought-world of the Church...maybe the real project can begin? Now that I'm out living independently and have tied up many loose ends and don't plan to take on (and procrastinate on) many more distracting projects of a mundane or secular nature besides the day to day business of life.

And yet, it only ever can start now. And that scares me, because it hasn't started yet, if I'm honest it won't start this week or probably even this month. And yet I have now idea how many tomorrows I'll get. Maybe this whole ramble indicates that I still impute way too much self-agency in the question of my own holiness, when really God can only ever be the active force and will accomplish just what He wants and how much He wants in His own good time. Maybe we aren't all meant to be mystics, and the real notion of grace is something much more subtle like in Brideshead Revisited, where God does get everyone in the end, not all as great heroically holy Saints, but at least finally saved (even on a deathbed or with a lot of Purgatory!)

And yet I do feel a desire for more than just that sort of minimum, and I'm not quite sure what that contrast between idealism and reality is supposed to be telling me.

4 comments:

Max said...

This is my first comment here, though I've been reading this blog for a while and have found much that resonates with my own thinking and experience.

For now, two things: 1) please know of my prayers in this time of uncertainty - I hope that you do ultimately find some clarity, and I hope you find some consolation and peace in the meantime; and 2)in light of what you write about not having a spiritual director, it certainly wouldn't hurt to try finding one - a good director should be able to help you sort through all of this without pushing you in one direction or another.

Pax,

M.

Who Am I said...

@Pecator: You should read The Book of Ascents to further aid you.

Anonymous said...

As I read this post I feel a lot of sympathy for you, I recognise myself in it and feel moved to write. You seem very WORRIED about your sins and lack of advancement in the spiritual life. Don't worry about your sins, God can forgive them. To worry about them is in fact an affront to His mercy. Remember the Exultet of the Paschal vigil 'O felix culpa' - Adam's disobedience won us a very great redeemer indeed, and our sins are nothing compared to Adam's, as he experienced original blessedness, unlike us.

Reading this post, I see that you desire to 'seek the things that are above' as befits one who is risen with Christ in baptism. So, it has definitely 'already started', in contrast to what you say. Your salvation is happening already. What more do you want? It may indeed be your state of worry itself which is hindering your good purposes. Moreover worry can lead to despair and we know where that comes from! Don't give the evil one his opportunity. Remember God's nature as revealed in Christ - love. It is actually not about us or our projects, but about the mind of Christ being formed in us by his Spirit until His return in glory. 'Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam'. Let the Lord build your spiritual life by His grace and don't become bogged down through introspection.

Pray for the right spiritual advisor/director, in God's time He will send you one.

Mike said...

"God made the world rich enough to feed and clothe all human beings."
-- Bl. Theresa of Calcutta