Smugness and spiritual progress (or the lack thereof)
Let’s suppose for the moment that you’re in some sense a “nominal” Catholic—not one who no longer practices the faith, but one who sometimes (or even frequently) goes to Sunday Mass but who pretty much draws the values he lives by from a worldly culture. This could be the dominant culture or it could be a conveniently oppositional subculture, neither of which has been subjected to a rigorous Catholic analysis. If this describes you, then you probably haven’t thought much yet about my subject today.
Or let’s suppose that you’re a “nominal” Catholic in another and rather deeper and less obvious sense. You adhere to Catholic teaching in the abstract, and you attend Mass regularly, but though you are aware of and accept the rules of morality you are not introspective, and you rarely reflect on your own characteristic faults (we all have them). As a result, you simply don’t recognize the sinful tendencies which are part of your own personality. You don’t engage often in personal prayer and, when you do, it is mostly rote prayer or read prayer. You seldom place yourself quietly in the presence of God, asking Him to help you to know yourself better so that you can learn how to give Him greater glory. Here again, you may not have thought much yet about today’s subject.
Neither of these profiles is oriented toward union with God. But to one extent or another, of course, we all share some of the characteristics of these two kinds of “nominal” Catholics. Converting these alter egos is a lifelong battle. We struggle to know ourselves as God knows us, and then we struggle to grow out of our poor spiritual habits even after we recognize them.
The Church’s prayer and our own
The Catholic Church holds Divine union at the center of her ministry. The purpose of life, she teaches, is not to get to heaven but to glorify God. A well-lived life is first “for the glory of God” and, in consequence, “for the salvation of souls”. The Church’s emphasis on union with God in glory is evident in many of her prayers and, above all, in her sacraments: Baptism, through which we are incorporated into the Church by the Trinity’s indwelling in our souls; Penance, through which we realign ourselves with the Divine life within by recognizing and confessing our transgressions against that Life; Eucharist, through which we are incorporated into the living Body of Christ as He empties Himself into us so that He may bring us back entirely to His Father.
Then we have Confirmation, which strengthens us as we mature so that we can both consciously and unconsciously join ourselves more firmly to Christ as temptations increase; next the vocational sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Orders; and finally the Anointing of the Sick which gives us still greater strength to make a “happy death”—that is, to die in union with Jesus Christ. In all these we see the fundamental dual trajectory of liturgy and of man’s nature as a liturgical being: Christ’s descent, and our ascent in and through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father. When Our Lord prays that the Father will glorify Him with the glory He had before the world was made (Jn 17:5), He is praying for His “emptied” self, in sacrificial union with His body the Church.
This describes the Church’s liturgical prayer; but what of our own personal prayer as truly liturgical beings, who have been both called and fitted to participate in this descent and ascent of Christ? Since union with God in glory is the entire purpose and goal of Christianity, it is remarkable how little attention we pay to it in our own prayer.
One of the best ways to refocus is to read, pray and meditate on the Psalms—prayers which, like God Himself, are ever ancient and ever new, a staple of Scripture and of the recurring “Divine Office” of the Church. Taken as a whole, the Psalms are not only excellent prayers, but an excellent school of prayer. Our Lord prayed and even quoted the Psalms often; sometimes this is even preserved for us in the Gospels. In fact, the more we reflect on this ancient poetry (and ancient song) we see Christ Himself in the texts, and we more easily pray in and through this same Christ, who wants only to lift us to His Father through the inspiration and assistance of the Holy Spirit.
Here are just two examples. The first captures the voices of both the Son and the Father, and puts us, as it were, on notice:
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son, today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. [Ps 2:1-3; 7-12]
The second captures the voice of the Incarnate Son, with which we can quite frequently join our own:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? …I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; “He committed his cause to the LORD; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” [Ps 22:1,6-8]
In praying the Psalms, we can pray to the Father in and through Christ. We can meditate on His Providence and His love. We can reflect on God’s will, our own weakness, and our own destiny.
Two for personal growth
One practice that has been very helpful to me has been to post a few key passages from the Psalms on the bulletin board above my desk. My two favorites come from Psalms 69 and 19, respectively:
First, Psalm 69:5-6:
O God, you know my folly;
the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me,
O Lord God of hosts;
let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me,
O God of Israel.
Followed by Psalm 19:12-14:
But who can discern his errors?
Clear thou me from hidden faults.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
In all this, of course, we are reminded of Our Lord’s parable of the two men who went up to pray (Luke 18:10-14). The first man, the Pharisee, is each of us failing to act under the impetus of grace. It is ourselves in the two “nominal” Catholic disguises with which I began, and I am sure many other disguises as well. Though we may not bother to express ourselves in close proximity to the altar, we share the same smug self-content. The second man, the publican or tax collector, is like us when we truly welcome the clarity that grace alone brings to our vision. The lesson of this parable was neatly captured by the great seventeenth century English poet, Richard Crashaw:
Two went up into the Temple to pray
TWO went to pray? Oh! rather say,
One went to brag, the other to pray.
One stands up close, and treads on high,
Where the other dares not lend his eye.
One nearer to God’s altar trod;
The other to the altar’s God.
Happy with no real need for Christ and the Church? It is a blindness. Satisfied by thinking with those who matter? It is a snare. Proud of being doctrinally sound? What have you, asks St. Paul, that you have not been given (1 Cor 4:7)?
Everything we have is a gift. Humility is the key to spiritual growth because it is honest. But we all have a touch of the Pharisee deep within us. Even writing this is a risk. For it is the work of a lifetime to root out smugness—and we have to recognize it first.
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