I have shared that I am working on consistent prayer this year, that is I am trying to take time every day for some kind of prayer time with God. I’ve been pretty consistent with this which I want to point out is only happening by the grace of God, and no doubt fueled by setting the coffee pot on auto brew for a few minutes prior to my alarm going off. I dislike old coffee and pretty much think that the best thing is the world is a fresh cup of coffee, so this is certainly motivation to get out of bed and pray.
I, as I assume many people, struggle with what to “do” or say during prayer. In response to my concerns on prayer, I started searching and shared on a recent post about my discovery of the Church’s teaching on the different forms of prayer. You can find that post here. These insights helped me feel that I might possibly be on the right track, but that I also have lots of room for improvement if I want to reach a much deeper relationship with God. I have discovered that for me personally, I feel closer to God when I learn more about him, his Church and his teachings so some kind of religious book usually occupies my prayer time; however, contemplative and meditative prayer is different than acquiring knowledge and quite frankly I don’t know that I completely “get” these kinds of prayer. They are foreign and feel unattainable to me. I often feel frustrated that I don’t feel or “see” progress in my prayer life and spiritual life like I do with all other earthly goals that I set, work toward, and achieve with a tangible end result. I often wonder like Thomas Merton’s prayer,
“My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you….”
All of these and many other questions have led me through a series of books all of which I would highly recommend. (I am working on a new website that will contain a page of all my favorite books and short descriptions so stay tuned for that.) Each has brought its own insights, and revealed different truths that I needed to hear.
I am still working through 443 pages of The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin, but what has been most valuable up to this point of my journey in his book is where he outlines the stage of the spiritual life in three steps. Many saints have written about their spiritual progress in different steps or stages giving them different names, but he simplifies them into three stages:
- The Purgative Stage – “…includes the initial phases of the spiritual life, including coming to conversion, turning away from sin, brining one’s life into conformity with the moral law, initiating the habit of prayer…” (Martin 11)
- The Illuminative Stage – “It is characterized by deeper prayer, growth in the virtues, deepening love of neighbor, greater moral stability, more complex surrender to the lordship of Christ, greater detachment from all this is not God, and increasing desire for full union. It is accompanied by various kinds of trials and purifications and sometimes by great consolations and blessings…” (Martin 11)
- The Unitive Stage – “…deep, habitual union with God, characterized by deep joy, profound humility, freedom from fears of suffering or trials, great desire to serve God, and apologetic fruitfulness. The experience of God is almost continual…” (Martin 12)
I don’t know about you, but seeing these stages was exactly what I needed to know to realize that not only do I have a long way to go in the spiritual life, but it also makes sense that many of the saints have seemed so out of reach for me (you can read about my journey of with saints here.) because they are in a stage of their journey that does not yet make sense to me. Here’s the other ah-ha moment that these stages revealed to me, that I want more. A better life, a better relationship with God is out there and there are others who have reached that kind of union with God, so it is possible! We are made for more in this life not and especially in the next.
Naturally, I learn about these stages and I automatically go into achievement mode. What are the steps I have to take to accomplish this goal? Guess what? This isn’t like an earthy goal. All the books I’m learning from point to a truth that makes a type A like me freeze up: I cannot achieve or white knuckle my way to a deeper union with God. Fr Jacque Phillips in a new favorite book of mine, Finding and Maintaining Peace, (check out the Abiding Together podcast for a book study they are currently doing) states this so eloquently, “Abandonment comes from the Holy Spirit.” And the Catechism talked about this in the prayer life, stating that “…prayer comes also from the Holy Spirit and not from themselves alone.” (CC 2726) Ralph Martin explains John Paul II’s thoughts on the subject, “Union with God of this depth is totally unattainable by our own efforts; it is a gift that only God can give; we are totally dependent on His grace for progress in the spiritual life.” (Martin 4) Finally, Fr. Jean D’Elbee states in I Believe in Love, “Since it is through Jesus that everything must be accomplished, the more I let him do, the more the work of grace will be beautiful and perfect.” (D’Elbee 81)
Ultimately, it (frustratingly for me) keeps coming back to letting go. Even St. Teresa of Avila struggled with this and said, “This self reliance was what destroyed me” before she went through a major conversion in her life. The Holy Spirit is in charge of this journey and not me. I have to provide the openness and willingness and effort, but I don’t get to dictate the “progress.”
As I keep reading, I keep hearing confirmation from those with great faith journeys talk about the little windows they opened that allowed the grace of God to work in their lives and lead them down amazing and miraculous paths not through their own willpower. In another book, the author talks about a gentleman who was struggling with his own traumatic past and he tells him to just simply ask God to come get him. That small act of asking the One who loves us most to come get us changes the course of his life and allows grace to flow in. Whether it is a Bible verse or an invitation from a friend to a prayer breakfast or a self reflection on a mistake made, I have read many times of the grace of God entering and flooding a willing person’s life through little life events. Fr. D’Elbee puts true abandonment to God perfectly, “It is good to say, ‘Jesus, make reparation for me; supply for me.’ It is better to say, ‘Jesus, I know – I am sure that You will do it.” (D’Elbee 60)
So now what? Why do all this searching and seeking and abandoning to God? Simply, we were made for more. There is so much more out there than just getting by, there is the possibility of union with God if he wills it. Martin sums up what this “Call to Holiness” is all about. When I read these paragraphs at the beginning of his book, I was shocked by the truth of his words:
“What really holds us back from a wholehearted response to the call of Jesus…is not really the external circumstance of our lives, but the interior sluggishness of our hearts. We need to be clear that there will never be a better time or a better set of circumstances than now to response wholeheartedly to the call to holiness. Who knows how much longer we’ll be alive on this earth? We don’t know how long we’ll live or what the future holds. Now is the acceptable time. The very things that we think are obstacles are the very means God is giving us to draw us to depend more deeply on Him…
And finally, it is important to realize that there is only one choice; either to undergo complete transformation and enter heaven, or be eternally separated from God in hell. There are only two ultimate destinations, and if we want to enter heaven we must be made ready to the sight of God. Holiness isn’t an “option” for those interested in that sort of thing, but is essential for those who want to spend eternity with God…
The whole purpose of our creation, the whole purpose of our redemption is os that we may be fully united with God in every aspect of our being. We exist for union; we were created for union; we were redeemed for eternal union. The sooner we’re transformed the happier and the more “fulfilled” we’ll be. The only way to the fulfillment of all desire is to undertake and complete the journey to God.” (Martin 7-8)