June 17, 2011

Religion Fail, Salvation Success

I remember the moment in the first years of my conversion when I noticed the following negligence in my prayer. How many times had I been at Mass and had folks ask me to pray for them in the Confiteor:

...and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God

All around me people made this request of me, and yet it hadn't crossed my mind to fulfill it. I was very bothered by this when I first noticed it. Had I not been listening? Did I not consider myself, or at least desire to be brother to those with whom I was praying?

Confession presented a similar problem. How many times did I proclaim in my act of contrition my 'firm resolution' 'to amend my life,' knowing that I had made little or no effort to do any such thing since my last confession?

I was a liar and a hypocrite before God. At first this threw me into a panic which lasted, with varying intensity, for some years. Praying through it all, however--and by the grace of God alone--I came to realize that all of this was precisely the point.

The glaring gap between the high piety of our prayers and the lowliness of our actual spiritual condition makes all of our prayers a sort of confession of our mediocrity and failure. This is the realization that the saints called compunction. As Thomas Merton puts it:

But when...you see that your nature is still twisted and disfigured by selfishness and by the disorder of sin, and that you are cramped and warped by a way of living that turns you incessantly back upon your own pleasure and your own interest, and that you cannot escape this distortion: that you cannot even deserve to escape it, by your own power, what will your sorrow be? This is the root of what the saints called compunction: the grief, the anguish of being helpless to be anything but what you were not meant to be. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 263)

The negligences and lies of my prayers revealed this truth to me in the course of my efforts at Christianity, and made me realize how much I was 'trusting in the flesh,' as St. Paul puts it. Religion, as a human project, has no power to save us; its virtue is not itself saving, but in helping us get to the place where we notice the depth of our need for salvation.

I don't pray because I think that by praying I should make myself holy or worthy of God's grace (though sometimes folks mistake the peace received from prayer on the natural level for these things; hence the popularity of spirituality without religion.) I pray in order to be made aware of the dire condition of my soul and my need for God. It's like the bathroom floor; as I walk through the bathroom during the day, often without my glasses, it doesn't look like it needs to be cleaned. But when I get on my hands and knees and really look, it is then that I see how filthy it is.

This is part of the reason I am increasingly uncomfortable with Christianity being placed in the genus 'religion.' If religion is considered as a human activity, or as an aspect of human culture or set of human values and intellectual propositions (and this is what the world thinks, it seems to me), then Christianity is a religion in only a very ironic sense. In fact, it is a sort of unreligion.


Anonymous said...

You do have a gift of timing your posts to speak precisely towards my spiritual condition. Just this morning I was thinking how distracted my prayer life is. I generally pray the rosary on my way into work on the subway, and I find that as time goes on, it becomes just words. Once upon a time I cherished every word in awe of the promise of hope of Christ. At times I question why I even bother going throught the motions. Then I realize the devil's temptation and smack myself into obedience. I continue on reasoning that God would not scorn feeble prayer offered in humility. If memory serves me right, I believe our Lady of Fatima criticized the quality of prayer in the faithful and urged devote prayer for the protection of Portugal.

Metaphysical Catholic said...

Thanks for this. Makes me feel much less awful about my twisty-self-directed-yuckieness. I wonder if the thorn is Paul's side was just himself?

GL with the writing.

Greg said...

Wow. Brilliant analysis. Inspired.

I can imagine Francis would love to see a friar tapping on shoulders and delivering this humbling message.

May I hand out a printed version of this to a class I am teaching next month on Franciscan evangelization?

(Better yet — what are you doing this summer? LOL )

Brother Charles said...

Per the license I display at the bottom of the blog, anything may be reprinted or remixed, as long as attribution is given, and a link back is nice too.

Greg said...

Excellent. I have been linking back and sending people, including those who are training catechists. What a refreshing opportunity to expose the faithful to the Franciscan charism. Much thanks. Peace and all good.