If this book is saying anything it is this: none of us has any grounds for hope and confidence but the sheer goodness of God, the God who never disappoints. Discouragement can only arise when I am thinking that it is what I do that is most important.
No doubt God makes demands of us; all love does, but he alone can enable us to fulfill those demands. All he asks is that we trust him, take him at his word and do what we can and then we shall find that, in him, we can do what we can’t. ‘It is confidence and confidence alone that leads to love.’ We can’t love God; we can only want to love him, and even that ‘want’ is his blessed gift. It is the same whether we are just starting out—we must take God at his word, do what we can to please him, go on trusting, never asking for proofs: or whether we think we are far along the road and then are faced with the shattering fact (in itself too painful to take) that we have scarcely set out—we must cast ourselves into his arms, drop the sense of our own achievement, count it as ‘refuse for the sake of Christ’ and in that act we have leapt along the road further than we can know.
Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, 7-8
Reflection – I had to promise myself, when I thought of doing a series on the blog of quotes from this book, that I wouldn’t just spend the week in delirious fan-boy gushings about how wonderful Ruth Burrows is, how she answered all my questions when I read this book as a wee lad of 20, and how my whole spiritual life was set on a path of truth and freedom from then on (which is… not exactly the case, alas). I don’t want this blog to turn into a semi-deranged infomercial for Guidelines for Mystical Prayer.
It’s going to be hard to hold to that promise, I have to admit. Partly I am aware that Ruth Burrows may not be as well known as some of the other writers I tend to feature here, like, oh I don’t know, Pope Francis or Pope Benedict. Catherine Doherty is also more well known to many of my regular blog readers. But Burrows is a relatively obscure writer, and she deserves a much wider audience. So if I tend to gush a bit about her, forgive me.
This book certainly did help me, though, I have to be honest. For example, the above quote is very much at the heart of Burrows’ central insights. We have no hope, no prospect of success, no chance of getting anywhere in this life—none whatsoever. Except. Except for the gracious merciful love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.
There is a species of holy despair that does not lead to sadness and gloom but to peace and joy. I cannot be disappointed in myself because I expect nothing of myself. I cannot become discouraged because my courage is not my own, but His. I cannot lose heart at my lack of spiritual progress because I am wholly unconcerned with my spiritual progress which is God’s work, not mine.
My work and yours, as Burrows points out, is to “take God at his word, do what we can to please him, go on trusting, never asking for proofs,” and never imagine for a moment that our efforts are going to secure us any kind of spiritual success. Fr. John Callahan, the first priest of Madonna House and Catherine Doherty’s spiritual director, used to say to his directees ‘Your spiritual progress is none of your business.” Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter that salvation was a process beginning at conception and extending past death into eternity, and the only part of it that was any of her concern was the present moment and her response to it.
This is a way of life that is actually very joyful and peaceful, once you get over yourself and realize what a small poor person you really are, and that that’s quite all right with God. We just have to do the duty of the moment each moment, and utterly count on God to meet us there and take us along in his grace to where we need to be next in our lives.
The other option is to live life as a project we have to achieve, a work we have to do, a construction we have to complete. Our spiritual life, our life project, becomes a heavy burden, an urgent ceaseless demand on our energies that we have to respond to with perfection and unflagging diligence. Our whole focus has to be on our own spiritual perfection, on getting our prayers right, on our love of God and neighbor being exactly what we think it should be.
In other words, our whole focus is on ourselves. And this is both joyless and futile. Our whole focus is to be on the Lord, not our own spiritual progress and perfection. It is this focus and this ‘holy despair’ of our own prospects for success that paradoxically makes us successful and gives us to some measure a happy joyful spirit along the way. In other words, ‘whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’