Total novices in the spiritual life often think they are well advanced in the spiritual life, and those who walk with our dear Lord throughout the day and night often think they are the most knuckleheaded among Jesus’ little flock. Truly. You just cannot, cannot, cannot judge yourself, proclaiming that you know you’re “advanced” because of this or that whatever that you think you recognize, say, in the writings of an Elizabeth of the Trinity, of a Thérèse of Lisieux, of a Teresa of Avila, of a John of the Cross, of…. of… Just. No. It doesn’t work that way.
Those who think they know where they are at are putting their attention on themselves. They walk with themselves. They do not walk with Jesus.
Here’s the deal, we do not have the beatific vision. We have no standard of comparison of where we are at. We are never adequate to judge ourselves. And even if we could get a somewhat accurate idea about ourselves before God, we would still be wrong. Indeed, even the great Saint Paul says he cannot judge himself. We are here upon this earth, while hopefully on our way to heaven, not in order to stagnate, but in order to grow. And that demands that we admit that we have room to grow.
A couple of years ago I met a young man who was thinking of going on a certain retreat for vocational discernment that had strict requirements for minimum and maximum age for participants. I asked how old he was, stupidly guessing 18 years of age. His response was utter dismay. He was 19 years old, and therefore, he insisted, so very much wiser, so very much more experienced, so very much more capable in every way than a mere 18 year old. It is he who has the wisdom of age. And how DARE I guess that he was a mere 18 years old. He was apoplectic about it. Well. Goodness. Alright then.
Any self congratulation is self condemnation.
Having said that – condemning myself, because that’s exactly what I do if I look to myself in any way whatsoever – I should like to relate an experience I had the other day here in the rectory, where there is a little chapel with the Blessed Sacrament. [The above picture is of our parish church the other day, not the chapel in the rectory!]
I was passing by the open door of this little chapel – greeting Jesus and Mary as I walked by – as I do a hundred times a day, but this time I was stopped dead in my tracks. It was as if Jesus and Mary were looking upon me with… well… with an attitude similar to that which I rejoiced to see in Rome with the Missionaries of Charity while the sisters would try to organize the geriatric street people in their hostel situated between the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. These sisters were really tough, but with charity. But, oh my, they were tough! You have to be tough with street people, and with geriatric street people to boot. Jesus had to be tough, hanging on the Cross as He did for us, Innocent for the guilty. His good mom, Mary, had to be tough, standing under the Cross in solidarity with Jesus, and therefore in solidarity with us.
Back story: Many years ago, during the most intensely academic of my years at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, I determined that if I were to survive as a priest of Jesus Christ, I simply had to have an apostolate of some kind. Volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity was a natural choice for me since I was great friends with many of them all over the world. The sisters were desperate for a man to give showers to some few of the helpless geriatric men who were to be in residence with them long term. “Showers.” That’s a euphemism. “Shower” means literally scrapping off of these helpless geriatrics their diarrhea which was long dried and caked and melded into their stand-on-their-own trousers. The stench! After that, maybe some of their other medical problems and issues could be dealt with. But first things first. I did this one morning every week for years. And, yes, if you’re wondering, this did lead to the spiritual life where there was none before. Tears on their part. Rejoicing on my part. Seeing a soul contrite before the living God, even while getting dried and caked diarrhea scrapped off of you is entirely beautiful to behold. “What you did for the least of these you did to Me” and all that.
Which brings me back to my stopped-dead-in-my-tracks walking by the chapel door at the rectory experience. I was instantly in the place of any one of the geriatric street geezers at that hospice, while Jesus and Mary were in the place of the Missionaries of Charity. Jesus was discussing with Mary what could possibly be done for me to wake me up to the glories of the Living God right before us, with me being so blind to all of this. I have no idea about that discussion, except my own two-fold reaction to the fact of it:
- On the one hand I realized a bit more of my dire need, also that I was ignorant of knowing most of that of which I am in need.
- On the other hand I rejoiced that Jesus and Mary had me in mind.
Those are both things that we can know and rejoice in on an intellectual level. It’s just that this were very personally to the center of heart and mind and soul, with the emphasis on a personal connection with them, even if I was just another of the geriatric old street geezers needing a bit of help from them. I could see that they did this in their great love that had nothing whatsoever to do with anything about any worthiness or unworthiness of mine. This was about their entirely gratuitous great love.
That’s the kind of thing that wins my heart over to the Heart of Jesus, you know, like the soldier on Calvary, after he had thrust his sword into the Heart of Jesus. That’s when that soldier knew that Jesus was the One, the only One. That soldier then immediately said: “Truly this is the Son of God.” No self congratulation there. It’s all about Jesus. Jesus is the One. The only One.
Should anyone proclaim that surely I’m a sinner in this way or that, you know, the usual, that I’m lazy because I don’t bilocate, that I’m gluttonous because I’ve had to go on a Keto diet (44+ pounds now lost in 2.5 months), that I’m a slob because I didn’t trim my beard today, and so on, my response is that they should update their condemnations, and say that I’ve crucified the Son of the Living God. I have. But while I have Jesus’ words “Father! Forgive them!” ringing in my ears while I continue to do my worst, piercing open the Heart of Jesus like that soldier, in recognizing that that’s what I would absolutely do if without the grace of God, that’s also my invitation to take the attention off myself and put it on Jesus, proclaiming “Truly this is the Son of God.”
And that’s how Jesus and Mary scrape the s*** off of yours truly and have me know that I’m part of the family, rejoicing that I can thank not me for this, but them alone.
Experiences like this speak nothing whatsoever about one’s growth in the spiritual life. Such experiences might speak to the fact that one needs special help, because of almost being a lost cause. Although nothing is impossible with God. Whether we notice that we are noticed by Jesus and our blessed Mother, we are nevertheless taken under their charge. We are all their special projects. We are all in need of being set right by them. For me, it is perhaps that I am in such need of getting a kick in the back end that I noticed the two of them noticing just me, a donkey priest. Not a vision, not a locution, no. Just my blackest and beadiest of black and beady hearts averting to the fact that Jesus is the One, the only One, and that His Mother is ours. Please God I will follow up on this. Our time is so short upon this earth.