For the past three months, James Finley has been my spiritual guide. As soon as I wake up in the morning, I walk in a nearby park and listen to a podcast from Turning to the Mystics. Then I sit for twenty minutes of centering prayer.
I was inspired and encouraged by Finley’s meditations on Thomas Merton. But when I listened to his reflections on Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle, I found myself getting discouraged. I don’t love God or pray unhindered by distractions the way Teresa could, even in the fourth mansion (if that is where I am), never mind the seventh.
Even though I have experiences of God’s presence in my day, my silent prayer is full of distracting thoughts. They never let up. They take me up and out of the present moment, and I lose the awareness that it’s even happening. This is not new, and I’m not new at this way of praying. I’ve been practicing centering prayer for sixteen years. Shouldn’t I be further along by now?
Then I heard Finley say that one of the habits which Teresa calls “reptiles” is discouragement.
It isn’t just that when we got into the castle, we were careless of these reptiles; that is, these habits got in with us. But we realized that we’re raising them as pets . . . these little ongoing habits that we know compromise the fullness of the love that we’re called to, to surrender ourselves over to in the love of God. And I also think that what happens in all of this then is that we’re being asked by this love to give up the ideology of perfectionism; that is, the ideology of our inner peace being dependent on our ability to measure up to the standard of love we feel called to. We’re being asked to give that up and handing all that over to being surrendered over to the infinite love that loves us so unexplainably in the midst of these unresolved matters that we have not yet been able to work through. And so, this is the gift of tears, see? This is the gift of tears is this being invincibly loved and being so unexplainably precious in the midst of so many, very real, tangible shortcomings and unresolved things that end up compromising ourselves and others and not responding to the love of God.
What I heard in Finley’s words is that I need to give up measuring myself and surrender my progress to God. I also heard that God wants me to surrender my inability to pray or love better and to rest in the reality that I am being invincibly loved and am unexplainably precious to God in the midst of my unresolved habits and unpassionate love for God.
I can offer myself compassion. I can put my hand over my heart and say to myself, “This is hard. You thought you would be in a different place right now and you are disappointed that you aren’t. We all get discouraged when we don’t see ourselves progressing. But you’re not in charge of this, and God isn’t disappointed. God’s infinite love unexplainably loves you right here, right now in the midst of your discouragement and distractions. Breathe in that love. Breathe out that love.”
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
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In this short video, James Finley, clinical psychologist, former monk, and Center for Action and Contemplation faculty member, encourages us be lovingly present to the overwhelmed, reactive, and flooded parts of ourselves and others during the COVID-19 crisis. To touch this suffering with love is to dissolve it, revealing the deep peace of God that depends on nothing but upon which everything depends. (Center for Action and Contemplation)