Many people are frustrated in their spiritual lives. For whatever reason, something about it just doesn’t seem to be ‘working’. The common frustrations we’ll focus on here all have a similar flavor: “I don’t find myself changing”, “I don’t experience anything life-changing”, “I don’t feel anything at all”, “I don’t find any deeper hunger for God,” “I don’t find myself to be happier,” “I don’t seem to be getting anything out of it!”
The kicker is that these frustrations are experienced by people who have really gone ‘all in’ – they want God, they want to launch off down the path which all the great saints have tread. They want to be holy. So, what is a person to say to someone who, by all accounts, seems to be taking the right steps (prays every day, frequents daily Mass, has a men’s or women’s group and reads spiritual things) and still finds more frustration than life in their ‘spiritual life’?
Of course there are a fistful of things that could be going on (and blog posts can only be so long). Let’s focus on one that is quite common, but not underlined all that often. That is, the devil has tricked this person into looking at themselves too much.
Now, it will never really seem like this is the case. Remember, this person is all about the ‘spiritual life’. They are doing everything they can to be holy. But, along the way, this person is ‘taking their temperature’ a little too much. They turn prayer into introspection. They keep looking in the spiritual mirror to see if they see the finish product they yearn to be. They go on feeling their pulse to see if they are feeling the presence of God. They keep analyzing their psyche to see if they have found the experience they are looking for – and where else can you look for that but inside yourself?
They are like a person checking to see if a burning candle is hot or not by heaping their hands onto it – and snuffing it out in the process. The way they are looking for God assures that they won’t find Him. They don’t find what they are looking for because they have turned God (and the experience of Him) into a concept, a ‘thing’ – a thing that can be found and contained in themselves. Prayer can then be turned into an inward self-gazing that tries to anxiously locate within oneself the experience that correlates with God. And, stuck inside themselves, all they experience is claustrophobia. Of course that would make you frustratingly feel like something was ‘off’.
When we look inward and examine our psychological conscience our vision ends in ourselves. We become aware of our feelings, our inward activity, our thoughts, our judgments, and our desires. It is not healthy to be too constantly aware of all these things. Perpetual self-examination gives an overanxious attention to movements that should remain instinctive and unobserved. When we attend too much to ourselves, our activity becomes too cramped and stumbling. We get so much in our own way that we soon paralyze ourselves completely and become unable to act like normal human beings.
It is best, therefore, to let the psychological conscience alone when we are at prayer. The less we tinker with it the better. The reason why so many religious people believe they cannot meditate is that they think meditation consists in having religious emotions, thoughts, or affections of which one is acutely aware. As soon as they start to meditate, they begin to look into the psychological conscience to find out if they are experiencing anything worthwhile. They find little or nothing. They either strain themselves to produce some interior experience, or they give up in disgust. (Thomas Merton)
Eventually the putrid fruit of this spiny tree is self-hatred. As we search for God (unintentionally) by holding up an introspective mirror – and we keep coming up empty – we eventually hate what we’re looking at.
Why does all of this happen? It is our fallen nature (the way of our flesh) to curve in on ourselves (incurvatus in se). Satan is fine with us pursuing holiness as long as he can still trick us into a prayer life that tastes like holiness and spirituality, but turns rotten quickly because it is an unintentionally self-absorbed state that perpetually curves in under its own weight. Frozen in this frustrated, stuffy, lifeless, undiagnosed self-absorption that looks like prayer (but produces insidious self-hatred), we begin to taste Hell.
To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell. (Thomas Merton)
The devil tries to make it so frustrating for us that we blow a gasket, turn into an unloving sourpuss or bail altogether, writing off prayer, holiness and pursing God as ‘unhealthy’, ‘cramped’ and ‘unrealistic’. For who can stand to live on the doorstep of Hell for long?
So, what is the remedy for those of us who are particularly prone to this? Stay tuned.