This weekend, I got to see my best friend and my spiritual director. I saw Atticus, the children and the cat, too, of course, but you hear about them every day, so let's move on. The best friend and the director live in Omaha, so I don't see them as often. Saturday, I had the chance to see them both, so it was a good day for accountability.
You don't really need to know, and you probably don't care, about the things I was struggling with. Like most of us, I have the same things arise again and again. My spiritual director compares God's work on these issues -- anyone's issues -- to an onion. God peels away a layer or two at a time, helping us to get closer to the core. My best friend has always compared it to an upward spiral: our struggles keep coming up, repeating themselves, which can be discouraging. But we are being pulled upward.
Both analogies work on the same level: we're making progress, but it's slow. Sometimes painful. Sometimes we don't feel as if we've gotten very far.
When I was an atheist, I assumed that people who had conversions were all like St. Paul: instantly different in every way. What I've learned, as a Christian, is that some things are instantly different (let's face it, to become a Catholic is to adopt some rather dramatic changes in one's life) but other things are lifelong learning experiences. Core sins or ways of being take time to change. Most likely, though the substance of the struggles is the same, the accidents, or the way in which those struggles manifest, is very different when we are 30 or 40 or 50 than it was when we were 15 or 20 years old.
I like to take the spiral analogy and visualize it even further. I picture the spiral as something very tightly, painfully wound at the bottom -- wound so tightly it can barely be moved or untwisted. But, as God' work begins, the spring begins to loosen. And as it is unwound, the spiral opens, and widens, and moves ever upward, widening our perspective of it as well. So, as we move upward on this spiraling, expanding path, we get a better view, a clearer and wider sense of the things we're untangling and dealing with.
I share this because if you are ever discouraged by the fact that you seem to revisit the same sins or the same patterns of behavior repeatedly, I hope you won't despair. Compare yourself to where you were five years ago with the same sin. What about ten years ago? Do you handle it differently? If you're striving to seriously live your faith life, my guess is that you do handle it differently. A particular temptation or inclination might still be there, but you're probably approaching it in new and better ways all the time.
Does an alcoholic stop wanting to drink? Usually not. Does a recovering alcoholic stay away from alcohol? Yes. It's the same thing with all of our sins and temptations. We're still the same people, but the ways in which we live and behave do change, with God's grace. Sometimes we even stop wanting the drink, the sin, the temptation. God can transform us that completely.
Having said all that, I'm rerunning something that I need to revisit regularly and so I'm assuming you do, too. It's what my director called the "A-R-R-R" method of prayer, and what I then dubbed pirate prayer. All you have to remember is "ARRR" (but you don't have to add "Matey" or do anything that makes you feel really foolish. You can even eschew my silly pirate label and call it something respectable, such as "a method of prayer for those of us who enjoy acronyms.")
ARRR stands for:
These steps in prayer are especially helpful to me when I'm responding to something with a great deal of emotion. At times, I find (or my spiritual director oh-so-gently points out) that I've intellectually sifted through a problem, but I'm still reacting strongly to the situation. Intellect is not enough. It's time to take it to God in prayer, and "ARRR" helps me in this way:
Acknowledge what I'm feeling -- what I'm really feeling, not what I think I should feel, what I wish I could feel, what I think God wants me to feel. Acknowledge -- to myself -- my true feelings. No matter how irrational, unjustifiable or unpleasant they may be.
Hand those feelings over to God. Tell Him everything -- tell Him what I've honestly recognized in myself. Lay it down at His feet. Give it utterly and completely to Him.Tomorrow: Discernment
Receive what God has to offer me in return. Is He calling me to forgiveness? To healing? To action? To grieving? Be open to what He offers. (This may not come right away. Be patient.)
This is self-explanatory. What did I receive from God, and how will I put that into practice, into action?
These steps don't always occur as neatly as I've spelled them out. The "Acknowledge and Relate" stages may stretch out over many moments or sessions of prayer. Sometimes I find that I have to acknowledge over and over again what I'm really feeling about something before I'm ready to move on. So, the "Acknowledge and Relate" stages may include tears or times of simply pouring my heart out to our loving God. Because I have to empty myself of my self before I'm ready to receive anything from the Lord.
But, I also have to remember that I can't get stuck in the "Acknowledge and Relate" stages. Reminding myself that I'm in the middle of a process is so helpful. When I've really and truly given up to God all that I've been holding on to, He will pour out new graces that I'll then be ready to receive. Knowing that I'm only two steps into a process wards off despair and nurtures hope. And it keeps me from stagnating in self pity or sadness.
I know that there will be gifts to receive, and that He will give me the strength to respond to them.
"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13)