One of the perennial struggles I have in the spiritual life comes from a form of pride that is lodged fast in me and manifests itself in an “all or nothing” attitude toward spiritual life and other life disciplines. It can take various forms in different arenas of my life, but it always follows a similar pattern. The pattern goes like this: I set a goal or rule or ideal for myself, one that I could easily achieve if I only apply myself a little. This goal could be a goal for work or for prayer; it could be a rule for conduct (such as how much computer time I will allow myself or how much and what I will or will not eat or drink); or it could be an ideal such as what a priest should look or act like. Any such goal or rule or ideal I set for myself I tell myself is reasonable and attainable if I only push a little, if I only apply myself.
However, what I don’t tell myself, what my mind never reveals to me in this process of creating “shoulds” for myself, what is so obvious but what I never see, is that my mind accepts these goals and rules and ideals for myself assuming a very idealized view of myself, of my abilities and my circumstances. That is, on a good day, on a day when I have had enough sleep, no recent crises, no interruptions to my schedule, no meltdowns in the people or things I depend, on such a day, such a perfect day that only rarely comes along, on such a day—if I only apply myself a little—I can indeed do most of the “shoulds.” On such a day I can indeed attain my goal, follow my rule and live up to my ideal. But such days are very rare. And then what? What do I do on the other days? Well often, I do nothing. I give up. I tell myself things like this:
• “If I can’t do my rule this morning, then I might as well just stay in bed.”
• “ Since I’ve already broken the fast, I might as well eat the whole thing.”
• “If I can’t be as kind as I should be, then people will just have to get used to me being grumpy.”
• Since I’ve already sinned by watching or listening to something I shouldn’t, then I might as well continue doing it.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
I have, however, over the years discovered a strategy, a sort of trick I play on myself, that has helped me a great deal on most days, on days that are less than ideal. I discovered this trick when I was coming to terms with the fact that much of my despondency is rooted in pride, rooted in an idealized view I had of myself. I become angry with myself when I don’t live up to this, frankly, unrealistic self image I have. It is unrealistic because it only exists in my mind, not in the actual way I live my life. This was a frightening realization and I suspect is for everyone who experiences it. ‘Will God love us?’, we wonder. Can we really come to God in the condition that the brokenness of our lives reveals to us—rather than in the idealized image of ourselves that exists only in our minds? Can we, unlike Adam and Eve, step out of the bushes without covering ourselves with the fig leaves of our idealized image of ourselves? Can we say to God, I am naked and I cannot clothe myself?
Of course, God already knows we are naked. God already knows that we fall miserably short of our goals and ideals for ourselves. God already knows: we are the ones who have to come to accept it. Jesus said of the Holy Spirit that when He comes, He would “convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement.” I wonder if this realization of our miserable inadequacy is not actually the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God, who already knows we are naked, the work of the Holy Spirit in us, convicting us of the idealized, worldly ways we think about ourselves and revealing to us the painful truth. The painful truth is that we are indeed the Laodiceans spoken of in the book of Revelation. We have not known that we are “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.” Rather, we have struggled to ignore the cracks in the walls of our ego; we keep busy; we reassure ourselves that we are alright, or at least that we are not as bad off, not as broken, as some others. But the Grace of God is persistent. Like a dog owner house training a puppy: God keeps rubbing our nose in it. God won’t let us go. God will not let us easily live in our own idealized view of ourselves.
You know I have noticed something about the size of God, about the greatness or smallness of my view of God and His love and care for mankind. When I see myself in my idealized form, when I don’t seem so bad, when I’m pretty good, when I’m basically on the right track, God seems relatively small: it’s not hard to imagine that God could love me. However, when by God’s Grace I see my sins, when I see my failings and my brokenness, when I am forced by circumstances and experience to see, Oh so painfully, that I am much more miserable, blind, stupid and selfish than I realized –when I see myself as I really am, then God is huge, God’s love is amazing. God’s love must be amazing if God could love even me. And if God can love even me as naked, blind and wretched as I am, then it’s not so hard to see how God could love everyone. And if God loves everyone, then God must love me too. (I know this is a circular argument, but logic is just another ideal I try to put on myself. In reality my mind is seldom logical).
In the past (and still every now and then), when I would see myself as strong, as someone who “should” be able to do it (whatever the “it” is), when I viewed myself this way and yet at the same time I fell miserably short in an area, I would often just give up, I’d often just cave in to my weakness and do nothing. But when I start accepting that I am naked and that God loves and has loved me knowing all along that I am naked, then I can begin to pluck up the courage to step out from behind the fig leaves of my inflated view of myself. I can look at my failures to meet my goals, keep my rules or live up to my ideals and say to myself, “Well of course. What else would I expect from someone as messed up as I am.”
And here is where the little trick that I mentioned above comes in. The trick goes like this: When I sense that I am failing or am about to fail again, I ask myself, “Since I cannot offer God what I should, what is the least I could do in this situation?” For example, if I can’t seem to get out of bed to say my prayer rule in the morning, then I ask myself, “What is the least I could do?” The answer I give myself might be something like, “Well, at least you can get up and say the Trisagion prayers and then get back in bed.” Or I might say something like, “Well, the least you can do is say the Jesus Prayer in bed.” Or “the least you can do is reset your alarm with just enough time to get up and light your vigil candle and say the beginning and end of your rule.” I tell myself, “well it is the least I can do.”
In such circumstances, I see myself as the fellow in the parable of the talents who received only one talent. The Land Owner tells him that the least he could have done, instead of burying the talent, was to give the talent to bankers so that it could collect interest. That’s me. I’m that fellow with the one talent. I cannot do what others do. I cannot invest and double my “talent of Grace,” as the hymns of Holy Week tell us to do. But I can at least do the least. That is, if I am going to break the fast because (well, because of any reason), then the least I can do is not give in completely to my craving: At least I can eat the cheese rather than the fish, or the fish rather than the chicken or the chicken rather than the steak. What is the least I can do? At least I can do that. And I have found that when I do this, when I offer to God the least, that God graciously accepts this.
I can imagine that some of you are screaming, or something inside you is screaming, “but we should give God our best, not our least.” And of course, you are right. But here’s the painful reality that we are not willing to accept about ourselves: often the least is our best. Best is not defined by the idealized picture we have in our head about ourselves. Best is defined by what we really are and what we really have and are able to do and offer God in the particular circumstances and reality of our life as it is, not as it should be or as we wish it were. What we really have to offer God comes from who we really are, not who we think we should be. And when we begin to offer to God the two widow’s mites of our reality, of who we really are, then we begin to really change. Then, I think, metamorphosis really begins. Up to this point everything has been getting us ready, ready to see ourselves as we are, ready to accept God’s love for us in our miserable condition, ready to offer to God, not what we should, but what we are.
And this experience, this movement from should to be, has been for me one of the more painful transitions of my spiritual life. And it is on going. I sometimes amaze myself at the depth of self delusion when I see anew the height of my arrogance, the breadth of my selfishness, and my unwavering good opinion of myself even in the face of daily, hourly, evidence to the contrary. Daily I have to return to myself. Daily I have to step out of the bushes naked before God. Daily I have to humble myself and offer to God the least, offer to God so very much less than what I should, so much less than I imagined I would. And yet, this is what I have and what I am. It’s not much, but at least what I have, what I am, at least this little bit I give to God. And God receives it, in his great love for mankind. And God receives it as he received the two copper coins of the widow. And God receives it, small as it is, taking the least and making it not just enough, but making it great, because that’s what God does.
Thank you, Father. I have read, and re-read and re-read this post and am so grateful for it. My least is indeed my best. But my pride, very active, oh so active, thinks it 'should' be otherwise. And those moments of judgment when I again bump into my pride remind me again and again that my least was indeed my best. And God loves me. And will turn that tiny little mite into what He will.
And today since is it now Pascha – thanks be to God! – Christ is Risen!
Christ is risen!
Just a note to say very deep "thank you" for your blog. Your pastoral approach to writing is hard to find and never ceases to warm my heart towards prayer. As a person who tends towards delusions of grandeur followed by despair over my failures, this one especially resonates with me.
How wonderful it is to come out from the bushes and stand naked before God–and how difficult!
Ben from TN
Thank you so much, Father, for this reflection (and practical tip). This habit of "shoulding" all over myself because of a vainglorious delusional "idealized" view of myself is extremely ingrained in me. This past year, the nature of this problem has really been coming into focus, and you describe it so well here. I've been looking for ways to get out of this vicious circle, so thanks for the great practical advice–I'm going to try your approach.
Christ is risen!
Fr Michael, this post (which I heard you read on AFR on my way to confession today) was exactly what I needed to hear, at exactly the right time, and a tremendous consolation. Glory to God.
Father, thankyou, I have only just found this and it could be me. I have been feeling that I can’t measure up, then a small voice says well do what you can. Then I feel I am giving in to my weakness and making less effort, then I condemn myself, and give up. It’s cyclical, and destructive. Your blog here is very encouraging, it’s time for me to approach who I am from a different angle, thank you very much.