I haven’t been inspired to write anything lately, and I find that if I just force myself to write something, the product is much more filled with my passions that usual. However, I do occasionally write to parishioners, or former parishioners and others who ask me questions about the spiritual life. Seldom does the correspondence go beyond the first one or two exchanges. I can be rather brusque.
But one young woman has been able to bear the blast of my grumpy-old-manness for a couple of months of weekly email exchanges. She recently told me that a couple of my responses have been particularly helpful, so I thought I would share them with you. Truly I am amazed that anything I write would help someone draw near to God, for I constantly struggle to stay near God myself. But I think God loves so much those who reach out to Him that he tricks me into saying something to help them.
This first piece is a response to a question about sacramental confession and her frustration that she does not seem to be making any spiritual progress because she confesses the same thing over and over again. I responded:
This phrase of yours concerns me: “He is not changing me.” What is concerning me is that you seem to think you are the judge and arbiter of God’s work in your life. Does a child see herself grow? Does a child know what medicine is right for her?
Repentance is a gift from God; it’s something that God grants. We can only pay attention, strive to repent, and confess when we fail.
What if there are deeper wounds that God is working on in your heart and mind that must be healed first, before the sins that you perceive can be healed? Let God do what only God can do.
Trust in God. Hope in Him. Pay attention to your thoughts. Strive to reject thoughts leading to sin. When you fail, confess it and ask God for mercy. Continue to trust in God.
You should have sacramental confession as often as your confessor recommends. You don’t have to have sacramental confession every day, but you do have to confess in your heart and mind the moment that you notice that you are entertaining sinful thoughts, or that you notice that you have let sinful thoughts blossom into sinful action. Then immediately turn your mind to God and ask for mercy.
This next piece was my response to her honest frustration with my advice that she wait for God. She asked, “Am I just supposed to wait?”
There is no “just” waiting. To wait means to anticipate with attention and awareness—like a butler or waiter at a high-end restaurant. To wait means to be doing all you can so that when the miracle happens you are prepared to receive it. To wait means to have your attention on your Master. There is no “just” waiting.
Miracles that involve an increase in virtue or a decrease in vice seldom happen without our participation. That is, the miracle is that God gives us what we strive for, even though we know (through painful experience) that our own striving is not enough. But to stop striving is to tell God you don’t want it.
Why does God ask us to strive even though we keep failing? Because it teaches us humility and dependence on God’s grace. Because it tells God that we want it enough to suffer and strive for it. Our waiting is our suffering, and our suffering is our waiting.
Furthermore, and I said this in my last email, we don’t know what has to be healed in us first before we are able to receive the thing we are asking for. So perhaps someone is, for example, lying because they are afraid. God has to first heal the fear. Or someone may lie because they are proud, God has to heal the pride. There could be many reasons why a certain vice has a strong hold on us.
That’s why waiting involves attention. We have to pay attention to our thoughts. We have to notice what is happening in our minds and thoughts and feelings leading up to and when and after we sin. And learning to pay attention to our thoughts takes time. It’s something that we have to practice. It is, the Fathers tell us, an important part of prayer. When we practice prayer with attention (attention to what we are praying, to being present and not allowing our mind to wander), then we develop this ability to pay attention to our thoughts at other times too.
My friend, you are growing in God. That you notice and hate your sin is evidence of the Grace of the Holy Spirit in your life. However, that you are so impatient is evidence that you have a lot of growing to do—we all have a lot of growing to do. Reread what I wrote last time. Continue to pray, continue to struggle not to sin, continue to confess when you have sinned. Let God heal you the way He knows how.