If it is the case, as the last post discussed, that our pursuit of God can turn into an introspective house of mirrors, then how do we get out? Here are a few reference points.
1) Don’t force anything (that’s the problem, remember?), just ask. Release your cramped muscles. Prayer, our spiritual life, holiness, life itself – these are not our little projects that we try to chisel into brilliance. God is leading this thing and he knows when we start pursuing dead ends. When we see that we need to make a change but don’t really see exactly how we are supposed to go about it, the first step is always to imploring God for help. “Send in the paratroopers, Lord!” We need to ask for saving. At every turn it seems that life is about being rescued. We are in need of salvation not just from our obvious sins, but in far more ways than we at first realize. Getting out of a spiritual fog is no different.
2) If the root of the problem is that we are trapped within ourselves, we need to let ourselves be pulled out.
At times the psychological conscience quickly gets paralyzed under the stress of futile introspection. But there is another spiritual activity that develops and liberates its hidden powers of action: the perception of beauty. I do not mean by this that we must expect our consciousness to respond to beauty as an effete and esoteric thing. We ought to be alive enough to reality to see beauty all around us. Beauty is simply reality itself, perceived in a special way that gives it a resplendent value of its own. Everything that is, is beautiful insofar as it is real…
One of the most important – and most neglected – elements in the beginnings of the interior life is the ability to respond to reality, to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us in the creatures of God. We do not see these things because we have withdrawn from them. In a way we have to. In modern life our senses are so constantly bombarded with stimulation from every side that unless we developed a kind of protective insensibility we would go crazy trying to respond to all the advertisements at the same time!
The first step in the interior life, nowadays, is not, as some might imagine, learning not to see and taste and hear and feel things. On the contrary, what we must do is begin by unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling and so forth, and acquire a few of the right ones.
The soul that pricks and pries at itself in the isolation of its own dull self-analysis arrives at a self-consciousness that is a torment and a disfigurement of our whole personality. But the spirit that finds itself above itself in the intensity and cleanness of its reaction to [beauty] is “self-conscious” in a way that is productive as well as sublime. (Thomas Merton)
If we are unable to be gently stilled to the core by beauty, it will be hard to imagine having a prayer life that is the wellspring of our life. Still – we can’t manufacture that. Simply finding something beautiful, whatever it is, and letting it lead us into contemplation, letting it pull us out of ourselves, is a place to start.
3) Love someone. The way to peace is love. Whenever we are out of whack, the greatest way to put all our joints back in place is to do something good for another, simply for this other’s sake. It could be baking cookies, shoveling a driveway, calling your Grandma or writing a poem for someone – whatever. Nothing breaks us out of the diseased, age-old human tendency to curve in on ourselves like loving someone else simply because you want to affirm, in word or deed, that it is good that they exist. It’s no mistake this sentence from Paul on love leads into a sentence on peace.
And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. (Colossians 3:14-15)
4) A particularly potent antidote to this specific kind of spiritual fog is to make prayer less of a business meeting, less about our own agenda. We need to be liberated from prayer always being about results. Prayer often reaches its deepest cavern when it is useless.
Why should I spend an hour in prayer when I do nothing during that time but think about people I am angry with, people who are angry with me, books I should read and books I should write, and thousands of other silly things that happen to grab my mind for a moment? The answer is: because God is greater than my mind and my heart, and what is really happening in the house of prayer is not measurable in terms of human success and failure.
What I must do first of all is be faithful. If I believe that the first commandment is to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, then I should at least be able to spend one hour a day with nobody else but God. The question as to whether it is helpful, useful, practical, or fruitful is completely irrelevant, since the only reason to love is love itself. Everything else is secondary.
The remarkable thing, however, is that sitting in the presence of God for one hour each morning — day after day, week after week, month after month — in total confusion and with myriad distractions radically changes my life. God, who loves me so much that He sent His only son not to condemn me but to save me, does not leave me waiting in the dark too long. I might think that each hour is useless, but after thirty or sixty or ninety such useless hours, I gradually realize that I was not as alone as I thought; a very small gentle voice has been speaking to me far beyond my noisy place.
So: Be confident and trust in the Lord. (Henri Nouwen)