One of the dangers and blessings of studying Church History is that you begin to know (or think you know) what sanctity and faith look like. We have so many heroes: apologists, scholars, poets, servants, teachers, healers, mystics. They did God’s work and in many cases left us with a record of the ways that their work was inspired by God. They were faithful people, models of heroic sanctity, our role models.
Lately I have felt preoccupied and discouraged about a number of things, and my prayer life has suffered because of it. Once upon a time I dared to put a tag on this blog titled “prayer”, and I was surprised at myself for thinking that I could write about prayer and spirituality. For years I hadn’t known anything about it, but as my prayer life grew I felt that I could write about it well, and did. I am back to not knowing anything about it.
As I wrote recently, the tape playing in my head hasn’t been a great one lately, and I’ve been beating myself up much more than I usually do. This is not, we are told, how saints behave. How can I say I believe that God loves me unconditionally, but still tell myself I am a piece of sh*t for not being able to hang a picture straight? How can I believe God has good plans for me, but still be heartbroken when the plans I had for myself don’t work out. How can I believe that the God of Love is the most important force in the universe, but not let the great love in my relationships be enough for me when other discouragements challenge me?
I don’t feel very faithful lately, and I don’t feel very hopeful. It’s not that I am any less convicted – I still hold the same intellectual beliefs I always did, I just fail to find the same inspiration that I used to. Because of this I have been keeping God at arms’ length, subconsciously saying “just give me a little while to get my house in order: I’ll get back to you when I am saintlier”. But that’s not how it works, and I know better than that, even if I can’t convince my soul right this second.
A few years ago the private writings of Mother Teresa were published, and to great surprise we discovered that she struggled with feelings of lack of faith and a dry spiritual life. I read certain commentators who rejoiced at this, finally having a good example of those hypocritical do-gooders who say that God inspires them to do stuff but don’t even have any real faith.
But was there faith realer than hers, if as Ignatius tells us “love ought to show itself in deeds more than words”? Sometimes the act of getting up in the morning, of continuing to try, is such a monumental act of faith that feeling flies out the window, and what we feel or don’t feel has nothing to do with our faith anymore, because our faith is a verb, not a noun.
I’m no Mother Teresa, but I’m wondering if it’s a good time for me to read her writings. If I am feeling a lack of faith but continue to show faith through my works, am I failing? The only failure is to fail to welcome God into desolation, but even for that I trust I will be forgiven.
Familiar feelings. I too think of Mother Teresa and her apparent feelings of abandonment and aridity where one would expect to find great spiritual richness. It gives me comfort to know that such people also struggled mightily with how we maintain contact with the Divine, and what we do while we are trying to re-establish the connections that seem to have been attenuated or broken. What I have come to believe is that prayer is cloaked in so many garbs and assumes so many identities that we may not recognize it when it comes upon us. And perhaps its myriad possibilities are God’s way of refreshing us or teaching us to hear with new ears or speak with new voices or simply develop the gifts we might not develop if we always felt God’s presence and support.
I have to believe that every time Mother Teresa touched a suffering person, that was prayer – a connection between God and her, an active communication of devotion and love. Whatever we do that carries through with what we know to be God’s essence – Love – is, I believe, prayer. Whatever calls forth the richness of our imaginations and our powers of creativity, whatever enhances those gifts in others and whatever relieves the suffering and loneliness of our world a bit is prayer, every bit as much as is a quiet time of meditation or words spoken from the heart, if not more.
I believe we shortchange God and we don’t give ourselves due credit when we assume that prayer must assume any particular shape or that God has to be perceptible to us in some expected form in order to participate in prayer with us. Prayer is an attitude more than an act, I believe. And many different actions can be prayer, depending on the attitude we bring to them. An amazing human being I once knew, who himself shared some of Mother Teresa’s gifts and attitudes, spoke of the human necessity of relying on the “last word we had” from God, his way of saying that even in our darkest hours when God seems to be distant or even absent, we somehow know to act consistently with what we in our clearer times have known to be true and to rely on God to know when we need word again. I guess that’s what it means to be faithful as Mother Teresa was faithful, and perhaps that is the true test of faith, like Jesus on the cross – abandoned, but not about to change course because of it – acting consistently with the last word he had.