During the admittedly brief time when I was visiting the gym regularly, I was thrilled with how neatly quantifiable everything was. Hop on a treadmill, suddenly you know how many calories you’re burning, how fast you’re walking, your pulse rate, which muscle groups are being targeted, the incline of the imaginary hill you’re going up, and how you’re doing compared to last time.
Knowledge is power, and the numbers on the screen are proof that looking silly and sweating up a storm is, at least, producing results. It’s a lot easier to keep going when you know that you’re not wasting your time.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a little assurance that your hard work is paying off, but when the same attitude sneaks into your spiritual life, it wreaks all kinds of havoc. I’m not talking about counting beads on the rosary as if they were sit-ups, although that can be a temptation. I’m talking about the habit we fall into of self-evaluating our spiritual life, and the value of our prayers and good actions.
As a good priest used to say, “Your spiritual life is none of your damn business!” I’m starting to see his point.
Okay, so we shouldn’t be so complacent that we never try to improve, and a healthy self-awareness is part of what makes for a thorough examination of conscience. Self-awareness isn’t the problem, though. It’s when we get caught up wondering what the prayer did, how much it was worth, and whether we’re measuring up to what we think we should be achieving, or worse, what those other people seem to be achieving. (Who those others are will depend on your own situation and temptations; if you’re a mom, other moms; if you’re a priest, other priests; or really anyone we find we’re tempted to compare to ourselves.)
Trying to evaluate our spiritual progress not only doesn’t actually help us improve, it’s also a big reason that prayer gets so discouraging.
The problem isn’t that I’m trying to grow in my spiritual life (we should be trying!); it’s that I’ve assumed that I have any way at all to know the value of my prayers and actions. It’s an assumption that I can see things the way God does. I’m acting as if virtue can be boiled down to its component parts. Plug in the effort, the precision of execution, the level of emotional involvement, and voila! A top-notch prayer and spiritual life. God’s got to love it.
No matter how well I know myself, the bottom line is that God knows me a lot better. My progress is his business.
When we set ourselves up as the judge of our own spiritual life, we’re really just inserting our own ideas of what makes the prayer or action valuable into the equation. But we don’t have God’s perspective, and our own perspective usually involves dumb assumptions and red herrings. “Did I feel the appropriate emotions? Was my prayer authentic?”
But that’s all backwards. Look what Pope Francis explained a few years ago at a general audience: “We must bear clearly in mind that sanctity is not something we can procure for ourselves, that we can obtain by our own qualities and abilities. Sanctity is a gift, it is a gift granted to us by the Lord Jesus, when He takes us to Himself and clothes us in Himself, He makes us like Him.”
So, we have to leave our progress in his hands. Seek out his vision. Never compare ourselves to others or even some idea of how I used to be or might be in the future.
The only thing we have to do, as St. Therese emphasized, is to keep on trying.
A good workout can be pretty unpleasant, but at least I know I’m improving. But it’s no wonder that prayer starts to be burdensome and unpleasant too, when we want assurance that our efforts are paying off. Let’s just try to stick with what we know is our job, to love, pray, and hope, and leave it up to God to track how we’re doing.