27 March, 2007

Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.

(Note: I drafted this, dawdled on it, then decided not to post it. After reading this post at Claw of the Conciliator, I realized that Elliot and I seemed to have experienced a similar discouragement simultaneously, and even wrote something vaguely similar. So I'm publishing it after all, although I'm still uncomfortable with it.)

I attended last week's Lenten penance service at my parish. I felt rather discouraged before I went. My general opinion is that I have regressed, spiritually speaking.

Our parish used a curious format for the service, one which I have never seen before. They had the usual priests to hear confessions, but rather than tell the priest one's sins, the penitent wrote them down on a sheet of paper they provided. As is Catholic custom, the parish also provided an examination of conscience to direct the reflection. When reading the penitent's sins, the priest would ask two questions:

  • Are you sorry for your sins?
  • (Sorry, I don't remember the second...)
The pastor told us that we should be ready to answer yes to both questions. Otherwise, he joked, you might as well go home now, because you've sort of missed the purpose of this service.

After reading the penitent's sins, the priest would tear up the paper. The penitent would then place the shreddings into a big pot. The pastor burned the shreddings afterwards.

As I said, I've been quite discouraged with my spiritual progress, or rather my spiritual regress. I filled the paper quickly—I'll spare you those details ;-)—then rose and moved to the back of one of the lines. There I waited patiently. Each time someone went to see a priest, the line moved slightly forward.

I finally found myself before a Latin American priest whom I'd never seen before. He asked me the questions first, then read over my list. He assigned me a penance, adding as gentle explanation, ...so that you will see how good your heart is.

I appreciate very much his esteem, but things haven't worked out that way. I haven't peformed the penance yet, although more than a week has now passed. I wonder how bad that is; I don't remember how promptly one must perform the penance. I'm quite certain that I should complete it before Easter.

I might as well say what it was: the priest instructed me to perform "an act of charity." I am sure, dear reader, that your jaw just dropped. That's all? Yes, that's my entire penance. And I haven't done it.

Or maybe I have. One problem is that I don't think of it often. When I do think of it, I don't dedicate much time to considering it. What opportunities do I have to perform an act of charity? and my mind wanders onto some other topic. This is of course ridiculous, since opportunities arises every day, every hour really. I may even have taken one or two such opportunities over the last week. If so, I didn't think of the act in terms of my penance until after the fact, long enough that I've forgotten it. In any case, I'm quite sure that I should peform the penance with that intention in mind, although I could be wrong.

So, my discouragement has deepened a little. Really, I have no excuse. The delay is a matter of pride. It would be trivial to buy a can of soup and leave it with a local food bank (say). Bingo: I'd be done. But noooo, I want to do something more meaningful, which means that I've ended up doing nothing at all. And why do I want to do something more meaningful? Because I want desperately to show my love to God with something more than a can of soup. As if God, who alone can read the human heart, needs me to "show" him my love.

This brings us full circle to my sense of spiritual regress. Imagine someone on a long journey through an unsettled region. He finds himself alone on a long path during the night. Dusk brought with it whispers that tell the traveler that he's on the wrong path. As the night deepens, the whispers increase in number and insistence. The path does not lead home, they say; it leads nowhere! They point to the obvious solitude; that no one else travels it; that it sometimes intersects other roads where he will find large groups of people who have never walked, or who have even abandoned, the way, and denounce it as a chasing after wind. Only rarely does he meet anyone along the same road. They all surpass him, so that he finds himself alone again. (Some of this is his fault. He often likes to be alone. It's quieter, when there aren't whispers.)

At times, the traveler lets himself fall to the ground in frustration and exhaustion, tossing about some pebbles that lie here and there along the path. He looks back, remembering the other, more populated paths that he has crossed or even traveled on, and he is troubled. Just when he has made up his mind to turn back and take another path, he senses the gentle beckoning of his home, so he rises and continues the journey.

(Whispers: You must be mad. You feel the beckoning of a home which you've never inhabited, nor even see? You know of it only from what others have told you?)

I find myself in the position of this traveler more often than I'd like. Ironically, I feel Christ (our home) beckon only once I feel convinced that the whispers have a point after all. Somehow, this very act of surrender convinces me that the whispers are mistaken. I don't quite know how to describe it, except that I have to abandon my self and, becoming ever more aware of my failings, place more confidence in God. ("My self", not "myself".)

This is very, very difficult for me. Some would have you think that religious faith is some sort of easy cop-out. A lot of religious people insist that faith ought to be easy, and if you're struggling in your faith, something's seriously wrong with you.

Not in my experience! The confidence of faith is not something that resides "in my head", the place I am most comfortable residing. Nor is religious faith something that resides "in my heart", as a sort of passionate and irrational fanaticism. I'm not sure how to describe it but to say that faith resides in my soul. My head and my heart follow after it, but something apart from them leads the way.

(Whispers. Scientists have shown that more or less everything we consider to be "conscious" or "deliberative" thought actually transpires in regions of the brain associated with "unconscious" activity, and brain activity in the "conscious" regions follow it.)

How far I am from God! Or, as I wrote on the last line of my confession, I seem farther from God than I should be.

I am sure—I am absolutely convinced—that I am failing as a father. I am also sure that neither my wife nor my children are aware of this conviction. Of course I make mistakes, who doesn't? But it's not the tactics that worry me so much as the strategy. I feel helpless, in the long run, to direct their lives, to raise good people. (Whispers. What is a good person?) I worry that I am driving my children away from those principles that I value highest: virtue, honor, science, and Christ. (If they can be called principles. I trust the reader will interpret my clumsy words gracefully.)

This feeling is much the same as the one that, in the end, drove me from seminary. I felt quite convinced that I was doing the wrong thing. I felt empty, and could only see the path back, not the path forward. Ironically, several people told me after the fact that they were stunned by my decision to leave seminary, because I seemed so assured and certain in my decision to pursue the Catholic priesthood.

The seminary faculty told us all the time that we shouldn't fancy that the demons with whom we struggled in the world would pause at the seminary gates and wait for us there. To the contrary, they said, seminary is not a relief from the battle for holiness; rather, the battle only worsens.

They also told me—after I decided to leave though—that those very hounds pursue one outside the seminary as well. Though the angel may stay them from inflicting their worst so long as one clings to the path, they pursue you nevertheless, and you tremble at the prospect of being an excuse for someone to turn away from Christ, rather than toward. Being a father doesn't help.


Elliot said...

Whew. You have my sympathy. You're right, I think we have some similar feelings going on. I don't know if there's anything I can say, other than, I feel for you, and I suspect that you are a better man and husband than you feel you are. Maybe there's something big that needs to change in your life?

Matthew said...

I can assure you that if you're even half of the educator you are in class, your children are learning more from you than you think. I've only been in one of your classes and that one's not even over yet but I have learned some very amazing things so far (even though my grades may not show it). Take it from someone who grew up with only half of his parents, any father is better than no father. And as far as your faith goes, it'll come. All in God's time. You have my respect and you are in my prayers.

jack perry said...

Thank you both for your comments & prayers.

Maybe there's something big that needs to change in your life?

There always is. :-)

I can assure you that if you're even half of the educator you are in class, your children are learning more from you than you think.

Thank you indeed. I rather despair in that regard, too, yet teaching is nevertheless easier insofar as the results are seen soon. I can't foresee how my children will turn out in 10, 20, or 30 years, and although they have a great deal of goodness, they also have great character flaws (don't we all!) and correcting those is not easy.