It is not complicated to lead the spiritual life. But it is difficult. We are blind, and subject to a thousand illusions. We must expect to be making mistakes almost all the time. We must be content to fall repeatedly and to begin again to try to deny ourselves, for the love of God.…The thing to do when you have made a mistake is not to give up doing what you are doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try, for the love of God to do it well.”Thomas Merton in Seeds, edited by Robert Inchausti
Progress in our spiritual life differs from how the world measures progress. Early in life, we learn that making mistakes is bad. Failure is often seen as a sign there is something wrong with us. Our advancement (or lack thereof) is monitored and measured. We are compared against others (our classmates, siblings, even people we barely know) and often come up short.
But when it comes to spiritual progress, Merton says we need to reset our perspective on success. We should expect to make mistakes almost all the time. Even when we’re no longer a beginner. We must be content with failing repeatedly and not interpret it as a sign that we’re on the wrong path.
When we’re just starting to incorporate a spiritual practice into our life, we should expect it to be difficult. We may be tempted to believe it’s hard because we’re “not good at spiritual things.” Or, if we don’t detect any change in ourselves, we assume that our practice isn’t working. In these cases, there’s a temptation to stop what we’re doing. Maybe we tell ourselves we’ll stop this practice, but do some research and find something else that will be more effective, and then try that.
But there aren’t clear milestone markers when we’re working on deepening our relationship with God. And often, our “progress” isn’t linear. In speaking about centering prayer, Fr. Thomas Keating says, “The way of pure faith is to persevere in contemplative practice without worrying about where we are on the journey, and without comparing ourselves with others or judging other’s gifts as better than ours…In pure faith, the results are often hidden even from those who are growing the most.” (From Invitation to Love)
Our results can be hidden even from our own view! This means we can’t always trust our perspective on whether or not we’re accomplishing anything. We need to give God the benefit of the doubt and be willing to trust that God will find us exactly where we currently are and reach us in whatever we are doing.
When we’re starting to build a spiritual practice, doing something is better than doing nothing. Even when it doesn’t feel like it. Doing something (anything) extends an invitation and offers a place for God to become part of your life. Everyone with a consistent practice also started at that same uncertain beginning and persevered through those same beginner difficulties before establishing a routine.
For those with a more established practice, it will sometimes feel stale and not very rewarding. This is another case where it’s tempting to discard a practice and instead try something new. But there’s a danger in doing this. The risk is that we always stay at the surface level. If we never put in the time and work necessary to build a solid foundation, then we never get to the point of mastery, where we can realize the benefits. Maybe, rather than dropping our practice (or becoming inconsistent about doing it), we should instead put in a little extra time and effort into our practice to remind ourselves this is a priority in our life.
Of course, not every spiritual practice will be suitable for us. It’s helpful to get input from a trusted adviser when deciding whether we need a change. But my impatience in seeing results has caused me to give up on some practices that now, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had continued. As I get older, I hope that this insight, combined with a greater tolerance for how slowly change can occur, will instill faith that my daily effort is indeed leading to change, even if I can’t see it yet.
A Closing Prayer
Bless those of us struggling with a spiritual practice that feels like it is not working. May we have the courage to ignore the internal voice that says we’re a failure, that we’re not good at “spiritual things,” that we have no reason to believe we can build a relationship with God. Even when we think it’s impossible to pursue a practice because all our time and energy are consumed by dealing with life’s responsibilities, may we have confidence that You see into our hearts and our longing for something more. Give us the patience to persevere in whatever practice we can do right now, in our busy lives, even if it’s just one deep breath followed by a thank-you to God for giving us this day. Amen.