Friday, December 10, 2010

Spiritual Growth

O Lord, thou wilt ordain peace for us, thou hast wrought for us all our works
Is 26:12.

This Advent I was reflecting on my efforts at growing in holiness, and what further I could do. I recalled that at this time Mary was also thinking about a growing in holiness, growing within her. I wonder what she thought about her efforts then, and in subsequent years. Her life was so blessed, so different than mine. I seem to struggle so much to attain some degree of spiritual growth, and wonder if for each step I take forward am I not inching back two. Rather than focusing on my weaknesses, however, I decided to focus on my successes, and see what led to them and what lessons I might learn. Where I had some successes in the past, perhaps I could repeat those efforts and succeed in the future. So I considered what I deemed to be my major growth-in-holiness steps.

1. A Pilgrimage. I went half way around the world to visit a site of “supposed” apparitions of Mary. It was a silly thing to do, and I’m not sure why I did it, even today. While there, however, I gained a huge growth in closeness to God, and in particular I became aware in the deepest reaches of my heart and mind that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist, there on the altar at each mass, and that when I came to receive Him, He and I were truly united. It was an awesome and truly humbling discovery. It changed my whole spiritual life. Many other things may have happened to me since then, but none were as life-changing.

2. Giving What I Did Not Have. Finance person, detailed, analytical, all these words described me, yet there came the day when I analytically (and spiritually?) felt the need to help financially someone in distress, and I did not have the money. So I wrote the check anyway, saying “Well, Jesus, I trust in You” but fully expecting the call from the bank or the bounced check fee to hit my account. But it never did. And I have never balanced my checkbook since then, and the jar has not run dry. I learned trust, real trust from this financial example of giving what I did not have, and it spread into so many other things I do.

3. Adoration. Ever since I was asked and took some scheduled hours of adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament my thoughts and my understandings of God’s will have become clearer, and my desire for it stronger. And so it became much more natural to speak of His will, and of doing moral things. I had no embarrassment in Evangelizing; it began to become a natural thing to speak of things from His viewpoint. And with the speaking up, came the words. I didn’t find myself planning or fumbling for words to say, they came naturally.

4. Hourly Prayer. It was a boss who had some irritating habits which led me into praying constantly. Often his words or way of thinking were like fingernails on chalkboard to me, very irritating. Oh, I could have voiced my displeasure when it happened, but with him being my boss, that probably wouldn’t have been wise. So I determined to find a way to ignore the irritations. I purchased a watch which beeped on the hour, a very irritating thing to me, and with each beep on the hour I read a short prayer on patience, which I had pasted on my desk. After a few months I threw the watch away; I could ignore his habits for just what they were, habits he couldn’t change, and not be irritated by them. And I found that the habit of praying often during the day, especially in times of trial stuck with me. Constant Prayer and aware of Jesus being close to me at all times was a major step in spiritual growth for me.

5. Accepting My Talents. I often wanted to be things I could not be, but I often outgrew them or forgot them. We all can’t be spacemen or firemen. But in adulthood there was one thing I had difficulty accepting, and wanted things to be different. I wanted to help people, it was what I was taught was a good thing to do: Love Your Neighbor. Only I wanted to love them on my terms, which included them loving me back. So in all the efforts I volunteered for, I greatly enjoyed the handing out of the food, the giving of the presents to kids, the fixing of the houses, and even the handing out of checks to those in need; I greatly enjoyed these things because the people who received my aid were so grateful --- to me. They smiled, they hugged, and sometimes they cried in their happiness, and I loved it. It’s what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, I often had ideas of better ways of doing the projects, of helping more people, of doing it more efficiently, of helping them in more meaningful ways, and all those ideas inevitably led to my managing those organized efforts --- and suddenly I wasn’t dealing with the people being helped anymore, I was organizing other helpers for them. And the smiles stopped, the hugs stopped, and the tears stopped. And I wasn’t enjoying the projects anymore; they were work.
It was a long time for before I suddenly understood the parable of the talents. What we are given we are expected to use, and not bury in the sand. If I have the ability to organize efforts to help many, then that is what I am commanded to do, even if I do not get the rewards I desire now, or even in this life. If I have money I may wish to give it all away today, but if I have talents to grow that money to raise even more for the poor, to provide jobs for others, then that is something I must do with my money also. I must seek the rewards of eternity, of doing the Fathers will with the talents I have, then I will truly be who He made me to be. Not all can do what I can do; often I wish I couldn’t. The day I was able to accept my talents for what they were was a major step in spiritual growth for me.

6. Understanding Jesus’ Example. It was when my prayers for an end to abortion were answered that I understood Jesus’ example, of how to live our lives. I understood what the commandment to Love Your Neighbor meant. My nightly prayers to end abortion were focused on changing the Supreme Court, to overturning laws, to changing congress, to having every abortion doctor be struck by lightning --- I prayed, “Lord I don’t know how You would do this, but I trust You can.” (And in the back of my mind were these ways I hoped He was seeing.) But then I heard of a small group of people who were helping women considering abortion to have and raise their babies. They WERE eliminating abortion, one baby at a time. And I suddenly realized that is the way Jesus worked, that was His example for us. He spoke to, He called, and He healed one person at a time. He changed no laws, He didn’t bring manna again for all the hungry, He helped people one at a time, and He asked us to follow Him, and His example. Loving my neighbor isn’t some distant thing, some poor child in a far off country. Those things are good, but first I must help the neighbor I see, the one I come in contact with every day. I must love him as Jesus did, indeed I must love the Jesus within Him, the image of God that gives him worth, the worth of each and every person. When I realized this was the example of Jesus, some of my focus changed. I became aware more of the people I met and passed every day. Sometimes I helped them financially, physically with my time, or just valued them and listened to their ideas and problems. I tried to treat them as Jesus would. My love of neighbor became a much more personal thing – and sometimes I DID get those hugs I longed for, or just a “thank you for listening to me.” And I was using all those spiritual growth steps up to now in the way Jesus would --- or at least I was trying.

7. Scripture Meditation. I read all the books about the proper ways of reading and interpreting Scripture, (although I admit I didn’t always remember the various terms used). And so I saw Scripture set in time, as saying what the authors were thinking in their culture, and I saw Scripture set in total, as the story of Creation and Salvation, and I saw Scripture very personally, what God was saying to me, today, with each passage. There came a time however, a sudden awakening, when I learned to read the personal messages from many viewpoints, in fact from every viewpoint of every character. So I came to consider the parable of the Prodigal Son not only as me being that son, or even me being the father dealing with my children or neighbor, but also me being the son who stayed behind, and even the feelings of God who was viewing the whole story. I looked at the story of Abram offering Isaac and saw myself not only in their position, but also in the position of God, and even of the lamb which was eventually offered. Looking at each and every viewpoint gave me new wisdom and new insights to myself and my relationship to God. Reading Scripture this way, putting myself in the place of all of the characters, helped me grow in love of God, and of neighbor. It was another major step in spiritual growth for me.

It was only after I wrote down the above that I noticed the totality of what I had written. I intended to write of my successes, but instead I found things happened because I was asked to do something, that suddenly things changed for me, or even that I didn’t have the slightest idea why I had success in my spiritual growth. These things that were “my successes” in spiritual growth weren’t my successes at all. They were gifts, strictly gifts. The fact that I may be growing closer to God is not through my efforts, but His, His coaxing, His urging, His giving me wisdom. Gifts, strictly gifts.

My only success was in accepting them.

I think God will continue to offer me gifts, and it will be up to me to accept them. I’ll try to stay close to Him, to be aware of His presence, and of the opportunities He gives me to serve Him --- to accept His gifts. I guess that’s what growing in holiness really is, being ready to accept gifts. When I look at it that way, it doesn’t sound like too much work for me to do --- or you.

O Lord, thou wilt ordain peace for us, thou hast wrought for us all our works

Some have asked about where I worship, so I think I’ll show you some pictures, like above, of the churches I worship in.


  1. Tom, this is an excellent list! I find "accepting my talents" to be the most helpful! I've recently been asked to take over a worship group that holds holy hours for vocations and special Masses for Marian feast days. While I love attending these events and praying at them, leading them is another story. I don't think it will be much of a source of consolation, but instead, a source of discomfort and irritation. Yet, if I truly love God and want to serve Him, I can best do it by accepting this position and giving Him my best without looking for those little perks of quietly praying on my own and then going home. I am called to a life of discomfort and challenge, not a life of peace and joy, and it is through the challenges that I will grow spiritually.

  2. I read a quote this weekend that made me think of your comment:
    "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would have not a single bit left and could say, 'I used everything You gave me.'" --- Erma Bombeck

  3. oops --- how do you edit these things??? The quote was: "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit OF TALENT left and could say, 'I used everything You gave me.'" -- Erma Bombeck