He was in his eighties. I learned far more from him than his fellow monks learnt from me. He told me how, for many years, he had been in spiritual darkness where many times over he had questioned the faith that had led him to the monastery, where he was called upon to guide others. Then, one day he became ill and was admitted to the monastery hospital, where he received Holy communion each day. On three distinct occasions, just as he was about to receive communion, he heard these word – ‘Only you have been keeping me out’. He insisted that he didn’t hear them in his head, or through some sort of inner revelation, but, in his words – ‘Out loud, and as loud and as clearly as you have been speaking to us during the your talks’. Simultaneously he found himself immersed in the love of God in such a way that he became continually caught up in what he could only describe as a ‘weak ecstasy’. In other words he did not lose consciousness, but the profound experience of Presence remained with him continually, restoring and surcharging the faith that had all but deserted him before.
In one way or another we all have to 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. It is a subject that I will return to many times over. For the moment, let me just say this – 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 you’ve behaved like a prize pig 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 We May See.
Even though we might 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 effort. 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 and at all times. Only then will he be able to possess us as fully as he has planned. That’s why the letter ‘E’ in the OUR FATHER is a memory-jog to remind us to examine our conscience each day, to pause for a few moments to review our lives since we last prayed. It’s 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 he promised on the night before he died. If we are so blind that we are oblivious of the personal faults and failings that hinder our attempts to reach out to God, then we need to begin by crying out with the blind man – ‘Lord that we may see’. ( Luke 18:41).
I don’t think it’s healthy to encourage people to become morbidly introspective, but it is necessary to keep a close eye on the way we treat others, and endeavour to live out the teachings of the Gospel in our daily lives as best we can. That’s why from the earliest times the practice of examining one’s conscience grew rapidly, particularly amongst the Desert Fathers and then amongst those who were influenced by their spirituality.
After this has been done, it’s time to make an act of ‘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 what used to be called ‘a firm purpose of amendment’; in other , a genuine decision to try and behave better in future. Without this, the sincerity of our contrition must be called into question.
A Cautionary Tale
Some years ago I shared a flat with a man called Caruthers. If ‘morals make the man, and manners make the gentleman’, then Caruthers was the finest gentleman I’d 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 had been 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 he had his friend round, 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 wasn’t sorry at all and he kept on behaving in the same old way day in, day out. It’s one thing to say you’re sorry; it’s 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 don’t resolve and seriously endeavour to do better next time round.
Finally, as we become a little more aware of the moral stumbling blocks that usually trip us up, it’s 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’s 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. For God’s power can find full scope in our weakness. (2 Corinth 12:9) This is good news, because the truth is, in this life we will never stop falling no matter what. Remember the words of the hermit, Peter Calvay -‘When you stop falling you will be in heaven, but when you stop getting up, you will be in Hell’!
The Difference Between Saints and Sinners
The difference between us and the saints is not that they didn’t sin and we do – they sinned just as we do, make no mistake about it. But what distinguishes the saint from the sinner is the speed with which they get up after having fallen. The saint doesn’t waste precious time by pretending that they didn’t sin, or by making endless excuses, or blaming others for what they know only too well was their fault. They get up again the moment they fall to seek forgiveness and begin again, knowing that they have sinned, but trusting implicitly in the mercy of God. St Francis said that the very moment that a person sins must be the moment when they turn back to God begging his forgiveness – immediately and without delay. Herein lies one of the main differences between the saints and sinners like us. Only too often people simply cannot face their guilt so they run away from God and hide as Adam did in the Garden of Eden. When God called out ‘Adam, Adam, where are you?’- he knew exactly where Adam was, it was Adam who didn’t know where he was, for he had lost his way trying to hide his sin and the guilt that shamed him. Sometimes we can spend years on the run, because pride won’t allow us to admit what we have done and, our inability to eat humble pie, means that we can spend half a lifetime suffering from spiritual starvation. What’s even worse then, than the pride that comes before a fall, is the pride that follows the fall, because it stops us from getting up, sometimes permanently!