A while ago, I did something thoughtless that angered a good friend. I was faced with the realization that one foolish decision had the potential to irreparably damage this valuable friendship. Although the conflict was ultimately resolved, and the friend forgave me, the feeling of uncertainly beforehand was gut-wrenching. I was horrified by what I had done, and while I certainly apologized, I also lost sleep over my poor judgement.
When I made my examination of conscience to prepare for confession a few days later, I was struck by a question. Why didn’t I feel the same degree of horror when I sinned against God that I felt when I hurt my friend? Why was I not equally distressed? It is certainly not because I am unaware that the wages of sin is death and yet Our Lord paid the price: His death for mine. I owe Him everything. Every time I look at a crucifix, I can see what Our Lord has done for me and I am reminded that each of my sins hurts Him. And certainly, I feel bad when I sin against Our Lord, but not in the same way.
It made me wonder why.
Aside from the obvious residual effects of original sin, I think it comes down to relationship.
I came to Catholicism on a convoluted path through various forms of Protestantism and modernist Jesuitical “Catholicism” before I found the fullness of truth in the actual Catholic Church. Once I found the fullness of the faith, I was overjoyed, but I was also overwhelmed at all there was to know. Words and phrases are tossed about, and I am terrible about nodding along when I do not understand something like a ferial day, or the concept of perfect contrition. I seldom ask for clarification in the moment because I do not like to feel ignorant. It’s a bad habit, and I’m sure I am not fooling anyone, but I do it anyway.
So the first time I heard about mental prayer and its importance in the spiritual life, I nodded along. “Sure. Of course.” I was pretty sure that mental prayer was “just talking to God,” and I had tried talking to God in Adoration. But then, I also rambled in my thoughts in adoration, and before I knew it, I was thinking about something else, like what to feed my family for dinner. To avoid this feeling of directionless distraction, I ended up spending all my Adoration time reading before the Blessed Sacrament and none of my time actually praying. This is partially due to my struggle with linear thought in a conversation that seems pretty one-sided, but I am afraid that if I stop talking or stop reading, there will be silence.
What will I do if God is silent?
I spend a lot of time talking about God, reading about God, and learning about the Church. That is not the same as a relationship with God. Maybe it’s laziness, but mostly I think that my reluctance to build a relationship that goes beyond me either rambling or silently reading is due to fear. If I am perfectly honest, I want to have God on my terms and not on His. His terms are hard. There is self-denial and suffering. I want the consolation without the pain, the resurrection without the cross. What if He asks too much? What if I cannot change, or my sin is too grave? What if He does not say anything at all?
Most of all, I wonder how I can even approach Him for a relationship when I am so unworthy and filled with vice. Over and over, I fall into the trap of thinking I will have a relationship with God when I have overcome the habitual sins that plague me; the sins I confess week after week, month after month, year after year. I will become close with Our Lord when I am good enough, when I am holy enough. Of course, intellectually I know I will never be either of these things, and certainly not through my own strength, but I fall into the same trap again and again.
However, as I examined my conscience that day, I realized that, despite my fears, I needed an actual relationship with God. I thought this relationship might have something to do with mental prayer, but I was unsure where to start.
Providentially, I happened upon a handout with step-by-step instructions on mental prayer and I remembered hearing about the vital role of this type of prayer in the spiritual life. At the top of the paper was a quote from St. Alphonsus Liguori that said, “All the saints became saints because of mental prayer…We know from experience that it is far from easy for a person who practices mental prayer to fall into mortal sin.” That certainly caught my attention. Maybe it would help me to battle every kind of sin.
I started with the very imperfect intention of defeating the habitual sins in my life, but I hoped that perhaps I could end up with some sort of relationship with God. I was sure that anything would be better than the parallel, pseudo-relationship I currently had.
Each part of the instruction sheet guides the pray-er through the steps of mental prayer, from preparation, through meditation, to conclusion, from affections to petitions, to resolutions. It is exceedingly helpful, especially for someone like me who is easily distracted by trying to do it right. Even though it is a general guide, I use the handout like a script. I was sure that praying with a script was not what the saints did, and I surely know that I am not a saint. Thankfully, my priest explained that “Every saint started with discursive, meditative prayer like this. Even with the saints…it is exceedingly rare to just be given infused contemplation from the beginning of their attempts at real prayer.” These words were a great relief to me as my attempts at prayer had seemed so fumbling and my striving for a relationship with God, so inept.
Not long after I started praying, I was gifted a copy of Divine Intimacy, which seems written specifically for mental prayer. Each day’s entry is divided into sections, the first to put the reader into the presence of God, the second, a meditation, and the third, a colloquy with God. While there can be a reading component to mental prayer, the short entries in Divine Intimacy ensure that I do not substitute the reading for talking and listening to God. This book has helped my thoughts to become more coherent because I have specific examples of where I stand in relation to God. Every day I have a chance to tell God that He is God, and I am not. He knows this, of course, but I need the reminder.
I have not had any profound exchanges with Our Lord; however, neither has He been silent. A few weeks ago, I was considering whether I needed to get to church a bit early so that I would have time to go to confession before Mass began. Of course, that involved the fast-tracking of Mass preparation for a family of 11. It seemed like a lot of work, and while I thought the state of my soul was probably ok, there was one thing I felt the need to take to confession. By late Saturday night I had decided to wait until later in the week, but then, when I opened Divine Intimacy early on Sunday morning, what was the title of that day’s meditation?
I went to confession before Mass.
Maybe this little signal grace was a coincidence, but I like to think that it, and others like it, are beautiful reminders that God is there. If God’s grace had not motivated me to spend time with Him, I might have missed this rather direct prompting altogether.
While mental prayer sill involves me following that same torn and tattered instruction sheet, and I still ramble and I still struggle with fear, I no longer feel like I am talking to a stranger about whom I can recite many facts, but who I do not really know. My “just talking to God” is more scripted and less spontaneous than I would like, but now it seems that we are moving past the parallel-living and awkward getting-to-know-each-other phase.
Finally, it turns out that my fear of being unworthy to have a relationship with God is spot-on. I am unworthy, but maybe God wants me to spend time with Him anyway. I hope that my relationship with God will be enriched because of our daily conversation, however stilted that conversation may be. Most of all, I pray that I will be as horrified when I sin against Our Lord as I was when I was thoughtless toward my friend.
After all, I owe Him everything.