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Troubled Hearts: Conference
Disturbers of the Peace and How to Handle Them
- Why Is It So Hard?
- Scenario #1: The Faith-Filled Person
- Illustration: St. Thomas More
- Scenario #2: The Faith-Pilgrim
- How Can We Grow in Self-Knowledge?
- Mental Prayer
- Discovering Self-Worth
- Discovering the True Ideal
- The Sacrament of Confession
- Spiritual Direction
- Conference & Questionnaire
We have been meditating on the centrality of interior peace for the Christian life, and on Jesus’ own example of how to cultivate and protect this interior peace amid life’s struggles.
Now we are going to switch gears a little bit. In this conference, I want to ask and answer — answer at least partially — two questions. The second question will flow from our answer to the first question.
Why Is It So Hard?
The first question is this: Why is it so hard to keep our hearts from being troubled? The short answer to that question is pretty simple: Because we are fallen human beings living in a fallen world.
St. Augustine defined peace as “tranquilitas ordinis,”
or, loosely translated, “the tranquility that comes from having things in their proper place.” Now, because we are fallen human beings in a fallen world, we live in the midst of dis-order, and this is constantly disturbing our interior peace. To understand this idea, let’s take a look at two scenarios.
Scenario #1: The Faith-Filled Person
Scenario #1 is that of the Faith-Filled Person. Our faith tells us that God loves us infinitely and unconditionally, that he is all-powerful and all-wise, and that his Providence is always watching over us.
If someone believes that completely, in such a way that those truths completely fill their mind, their heart, and their whole being, then nothing – not even horrible tragedies – will be able to disturb their interior peace for long.
The Catechism points this out in #222: “Believing in God, the only One, and loving him with all our being has enormous consequences for our whole life.”
The Catechism then goes on to list a bunch of those consequences.
In #227, it points out the consequence that this faith “…means trusting God in every circumstance, even in adversity.”
And then the Catechism quotes a beautiful, powerful prayer of St. Teresa of Avila that expresses how this faith can keep our souls in peace:
Let nothing trouble you Let nothing frighten you Everything passes
God never changes Patience
Whoever has God Wants for nothing God alone is enough.
So, the person who is completely Faith-Filled will be able to live this deep interior peace in spite of any storm — exterior or interior — that may come their way.
And we see this exemplified in the lives of the saints, those Christians whose faith has really matured.
Illustration: St. Thomas More
One example that has always struck me is that of St. Thomas More. He was a layman, a husband and father, and a scholar. He had risen to become the Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII.
But he refused to go along with Henry’s plan to make himself the head of the Church of England, but that required rejecting the God-given authority of the Pope. As a result, he was accused of treason, imprisoned, repeatedly interrogated and bullied, and then executed by beheading.
Witnesses to his execution tell us that they were amazed at how peaceful and recollected he appeared as he knelt down and put his head on the chopping block. In fact, it seemed that the executioner was noticeably more nervous and perturbed than the victim.
The executioner was so distraught that the future martyr had to intervene and calm him down. St. Thomas More looked up at the distressed executioner, smiled, and said: “Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office.” That’s the kind of interior peace that flows from being mature in our faith, from being completely faith-filled.
Scenario #2: The Faith-Pilgrim
The second scenario is that of the faith-pilgrim. This is the person who believes, but who has not yet integrated every sector of their life with their faith. They are still on the way to being completely faith-filled — they are pilgrims.
Most of us fall into this category. We believe, but our faith is not yet fully mature. Our fallen nature, and this fallen world, are still blocking our faith from filling to the brim our minds, hearts, and souls.
There are two things we can do to move forward along the path to becoming completely faith-filled.
First of all, we can nourish and exercise our faith: we do this by prayer, study, worthily receiving the sacraments, and intentionally growing in virtue.
And secondly, we can remove the blocks that are keeping our faith from reaching every corner of our being.
If we only do the first, our progress will be very slow. We need to do the second as well — even though it is a bit harder.
This is why all the great spiritual writers in the history of the Church agree that self-knowledge is so central to spiritual growth. We have to discover those aspects of our personality, character, background, and tendencies that are impeding the flow of God’s grace in our lives.
Think about it like this. If you pour water into a glass that has stones inside of it, the glass may appear to be full of water, but in fact it could hold a lot more, if you took out the stones. That’s our fallen nature.
We are full of complexes, emotional and behavior patterns, prejudices, and attitudes that are not in harmony with the truths of our faith. They are like the rocks that make it impossible for the water to fill the glass completely.
These produce fears and attachments that work against our faith and, when they are triggered by some circumstance or experience, they become disturbers of our interior peace.
Unless we discover what they are, acknowledge them, and allow God’s grace to dissolve, remove, transform, and heal them, we will simply never become completely faith-filled, no matter how much water we keep pouring into the glass.
That’s our fallen nature, constantly being aggravated by the fallen world in which we live, and that’s why it’s so hard for us to keep our hearts from being troubled.
How Can We Grow?
Having answered the first question (why is it so hard for us to not let our hearts be troubled), we are now ready to pose and tackle the second question.
We have seen that in order to become completely faith- filled, and so to enjoy the deep and lasting peace of the saints, we need to grow in self-knowledge. We need to learn to identify the hidden blocks to our faith so that, with God’s help, we can remove them – that’s what self- knowledge helps us to do.
So how can we grow in this necessary self-knowledge? In a certain sense, every aspect of the spiritual life is supposed to help us grow in self-knowledge. But three spiritual practices are especially helpful. I call them
the self-knowledge accelerators, and I would like to comment briefly on each one.
The first self-knowledge accelerator is mental prayer. Mental prayer is also called Christian meditation. This is the kind of prayer that involves reflection on God’s word, listening to God’s voice within us, and conversing with God in the quiet of our hearts using our own words.
We don’t have time in this conference to explain how to do a Christian meditation, but I do want to point out why this kind of prayer is so powerful in relation to deepening our self-knowledge.
When we engage in mental prayer on a regular basis, we give the Holy Spirit a chance to speak to our personal needs, to enlighten us as only we need to be enlightened.
When this happens, we begin to see ourselves from God’s perspective. We begin to see ourselves as truly loved, valued, and treasured by God.
This nourishes in our hearts a deep and true sense of self-worth — one that does not depend on unstable foundations, like the opinions of other people or the excellence of our own achievements.
With this foundational sense of self-worth in place, we find ourselves much less afraid to face our own flaws, weaknesses, wounds, and needs.
In other words, as mental prayer enables us to see ourselves from God’s perspective, we become free to accept ourselves as we truly are — and that is essential for healthy self-knowledge.
Discovering the True Ideal
Mental prayer also helps us discover and fall in love with the true ideal for our lives. The fallen world is full of false ideals. It measures the meaning of life in terms of money, or popularity, or achievements, or pleasure.
When we compare ourselves to those ideals and pursue them, we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. We are not made for those things; we are made for God. True meaning in life comes from living in communion with God. In mental prayer, that’s what we meditate on: what communion of God looks like, what it implies, how to deepen it…
In mental prayer, we turn our gaze over and over again to Jesus, our true model. We turn our attention to the true goal of our lives, the true, God-given ideal: to know, love, and imitate Jesus.
As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it:
￼…[L]et us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us, while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.
Having a false ideal distorts our understanding of our true identity. The habit of mental prayer gradually corrects the false ideal of the fallen world and replaces it with the true ideal and our true identity: Christians, other Christs.
The Sacrament of Confession
The second great accelerator of self-knowledge is the sacrament of Confession. God invented this sacrament because he knew we would need it. We need to hear the words of forgiveness and mercy spoken out loud, in a particular time and place.
We need that because we are human beings who live in the midst of time and space. But we also need to speak out loud our own sins, faults, and imperfections. This makes our repentance — one of the essential tools for peace of soul — ongoing and unmistakable.
When we say our sins, faults, and imperfections
out loud in the confessional, we own them and take responsibility for them — they can’t stay lurking in the shadows and continue doing their damage in secret.
When we make confession a regular part of our spiritual lives — which the Church highly recommends — we also make the examination of conscience a regular part of our lives.
Every day we take a few minutes at night to reflect on how God has been acting in our lives, and how we have been responding, and what has kept us from responding well.
And before going to confession, we take extra time to identify not just the isolated falls and failings, but the trends of weakness and selfishness.
And since we do all this in the context of a sacrament, we know that God is also at work during all those moments of self-reflection and examination.
By preparing for and going to confession on a regular basis, we give the Holy Spirit a chance to show us the blocks, the behavior patterns and attitudes that are at the roots of our selfish acts.
And all of those benefits come in addition to the grace of forgiveness and renewed strength that always happens in confession, and the sound advice that we often get from a good confessor. This is why regular confession, lived with humility and simplicity, is a powerful accelerator of self-knowledge.
Mental prayer and frequent confession are the first two self-knowledge accelerators, so important for helping us to become more and more faith-filled.
The third is Spiritual Direction. Spiritual direction adds an objective perspective to our own self-reflection. Often, we are so immersed in the struggles of our faith- journey that we can’t see the whole picture.
Like a player on the field in the football game, we only see a small part of what’s going on. A spiritual director is like the coach up in the booth during the game, able to see the whole field and provide a more complete and accurate analysis of the situation.
Spiritual direction also gives us a remedy for our blind- spots. We are often simply unable to see certain factors that are at work in our spiritual lives, and so we need someone else to help us.
It’s like you wanted to check the brakelights on your
car — you can’t do it unless someone else stands behind the car while you press on the brake pedal.
Here’s how Pope Benedict XVI put it in an address to future spiritual directors
Everyone, in fact, and in a particular way all those who have received the divine call to a closer following, needs to be supported personally by a sure guide in doctrine and expert in the things of God. A guide can help defend oneself from facile subjectivist interpretations, making available his own supply of knowledge and experiences in following Jesus.
– Address to Discalced Carmelites of the Teresianum, May 19, 2011
But in order for spiritual direction to be effective, we have to keep a few things in mind. The most helpful form of spiritual direction is when we have a real, ongoing relationship with our spiritual director. If we are constantly switching spiritual directors, or just meeting when we are in the midst of a crisis, we lose a lot of the benefits.
Likewise, we need to be open and honest with our spiritual director. We can’t just say what we think we should say — we need to talk about what we are really experiencing in our faith-journey, the real problems, the real joys, the real challenges.
And finally, we need to approach spiritual direction with an open mind, with a humble and sincere willingness to change. Otherwise, we may filter out what we most need to hear. Spiritual direction, by giving us objectivity and overcoming our blind-spots, is the third important self-knowledge accelerator.
Conclusion & Questionnaire
The fight to follow Christ’s example of maintaining peace of soul even in our own Gethsemane-moments requires continual growth in self-knowledge Without that, we won’t be able to identify the attitudes, behavior patterns, and complexes that impede our faith from penetrating every corner of our lives We are all pilgrims of faith, and we are all seeking to become more and more faith-filled.
And that requires taking the rocks out of the glass — removing the blocks that impede the flow of God’s grace in our lives — which in turn requires continual growth in self-knowledge.
Take a few moments now to go over the personal questionnaire; it is designed to help you reflect on how you can take better advantage of the three self- knowledge accelerators, so that your faith can better spread the peace of Christ in your soul.
￼￼1 Am I more faith-filled today than I was a year ago — in other words, am I gradually growing in the Christian virtue of interior peace? What signs indicate that I am or am not?
2 What is my attitude towards my own spiritual neediness? Do I tend to be more demanding and harsh with myself than God is with me? If so, why?
￼￼￼3 Reflect on the situations that most often tend to steal my peace of soul. How might a deeper faith
in God’s personal love for me, in his goodness, power, and providence change my reaction to those situations?
4 Am I a better pray-er today than I was a year ago? What signs indicate that I am or am not?
5 How would I describe the ideal I am striving for in my life (in my practical, day-to-day life), and where does that ideal come from?
6 What could I do this week to improve the quality of my mental prayer?
7 How important is the sacrament of confession in my mind and heart? Do I go to confession regularly and frequently, as the Church recommends? Why or why not?
8 How prayerful are my examinations of conscience, both the ones I make at the end of each day, and the ones I make as I prepare for confession?
9 How convinced am I that spiritual direction is an especially useful tool for every Christian who wants to “live responsibly… the new life in Christ,” as Pope Benedict XVI put it?
10 What inhibits spiritual direction from being more fruitful in my life, and what can I do to make better use of it?