I remember going to confession once, when I was a teenager, and after I had confessed my sins my Parish Priest said to me, as he always did, “Now make a good act of contrition” – but what is a “good” act of contrition, as opposed to an ordinary act of contrition”? At that time, I presumed it meant saying the prayer without any distractions and I also presumed that it was necessary to say it in this way if my sins were to be forgiven. After I had left the confessional and was making my thanksgiving, I began to wonder whether I had said the prayer properly, so, just to make sure, I repeated it again, and then a second time – but the more I concentrated on trying to mean each word, the less I was thinking about the God to whom I was supposed to be speaking! Was that also a distraction, I wondered, and, if so, I had been forgiven or not?
These concerns are called “scruples” and are symptoms of a spiritual sickness, for they “infect” our spirituality in various ways, but especially with the idea that prayer only “works”, when it is said perfectly and so prevents us from living at peace with our God. It leads us to think that God is always demanding perfection from us both in prayer and in action – but this is not true! St Francis de Sales explains it this way:
“The biggest mistake that most of us make about God, the one that most consistently undermines our peace of soul, is the idea that God demands a lot of us, more than a fragile being like ourselves could ever give. Such a God is frightening! But in reality, God is content with the little we can give, because he knows – and accepts – that we only have very little. We need do just three things:
- Let God into everything that we do.
- Do our part – however little that may be.
- Let God do the rest.
If we follow these three rules, God will live with us and when we live with God in this way we will not be anxious for we will have no need to fear a God who never asks of us more than we can give.”
St. Francis de Sales
Scruples blind us to the fact that the Lord we follow is “The Good Shepherd” – the one who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to look for the one who is lost (Lk 15:4) and so we find ourselves unable to see that no matter how poorly we manage to respond to his coming, this cannot prevent his love from having the healing effect that he intends. Scruples make us feel “guilty of dust and sin”, as George Herbert puts it, and make us want to draw back from God’s love – driven so by shame – but our Lord is persistent, whispering to us – again in Herbert’s words – “ Who made the eyes but I?” The Lord, thus, draws us into responding to his answering him and we try to express our love in words and actions, but it is our love itself which gives life and value to those words and actions – and without it they are empty. I now realise that the very fact that I had chosen to go to confession, on that morning so many years ago, was, in itself, an act of love – a prayer of contrition – a response to the God who loves me and had called me to Himself – and that was all that really mattered.
Scruples lead us to judge our actions by their outward appearance – but true love often wears very shabby clothes – for it uses whatever is available to show its smile to the Beloved. I remember some thirty years ago following a thirty day retreat, during which we were expected to pray for five separate hours each day. At the beginning, I found this very difficult and during one hour’s prayer, I was dry! I tried to pray, but after a while I could not think of anything to say or do and when I looked at my watch and I saw there were still twenty minutes to go, so I turned to the Lord in desperation and said, “Lord, I am bored out of my mind, I don’t know what to say or what to do – but I am staying here and although all I can offer you is the determination to somehow get through the rest of this hour, I hope you will accept it, because you are the One I love and wish to be with.”
I began to learn that day that boredom and distractions are an essential, but, thank God, only a periodic part of our spiritual journey, for when I endure these two terrors for the sake of God and not any pleasure that I might get from prayer, then I am growing in love – for that is what love does. We ought to know this from our everyday experience, for we see it all around us: parents who do hard and difficult work for the sake of their families or someone spends long and often boring hours, nursing a loved one – they do it for those they love – for they know that love needs both sunshine and rain in order to grow and our love for God is no different.
Scruples damage our prayer-life by leading us to identify the way we were taught to prayer with the prayers we were taught to say. Many fall into this trap and come to think, for example, that the form of morning prayers we were taught as a child is “morning prayer” and so not to say these words is to be faithless to God. There is a principle in our Catholic Tradition which says that we cannot demand of someone more than the Gospel demands – and whereas Jesus told us “to pray”, but he did not say that we had to use a particular form of prayer or pray at particular times. These are habits which can help us in our prayer, but if they no longer suit then we should change them and find other ways of praying or others times, which may help us better give voice and expression to the great love which God is causing to grow up in us.
Love takes to herself many forms and disguises and no one form can exhaust her beauty or adequately express it. She can sing in great music and reveal herself in lives of great dedication and service, but she can also be seen in a wilted flower given by a small child to his/her mother. She flourishes best in small actions that often pass unnoticed. I read recently, in a newspaper the other day, of a husband and wife, who had been married for 54 years and who had to be hospitalised because both were seriously sick. As the husband drew near to death, the nurses wheeled his wife’s bed into his ward so they could be together. She was only able to reach out and touch his hand, but he knew her touch and responded with a slight squeeze. He died shortly after and his wife followed two days later. That slight touch of her hand was all she could do to show her great love for her husband, but it was enough. Likewise, our God does not demand great gestures of love from us – the smallest faltering word, the slight touch of a hand, the mere look of hope can open our hearts to the Good Shepherd, who comes to gather us to himself.
I went to Singapore, a few weeks ago, for a short break with a friend of mine and while there I thought to buy some shirts my size. It is interesting that there are plenty of guys around who are even bigger than I, but very few shops that sell shirts for the “larger gentleman!” So I went to a famous store called “Mustafa” and they had shirts of every size and description. I bought one which was 3XL and tried it for size – you can’t trust size labels because a 3XL in one shop fits, whereas a shirt with the same label in another might not. However, this one fitted me well and I liked the colour so I bought it. Then I saw another with the same label and the same size label so I bought that one too – only to find when I got back to Kuching that it was too small! Still, the larger seminarians are always happy to take such things off my hands!
I will be in Kuching for Christmas as the parish priest, where I help out on Sundays, wants to go away with his family on a bonding holiday because their Mum died earlier this year and so I offered to supply for him. I shall miss my visit to Bali but shall include them and all of you in my Christmas Mass. So, if I do not get to write another blog before Christmas – I am suffering from writers’ block still – may I wish you all God’s blessings on you, your family and friends at the coming of Christ and may he lead us all into a New Year of Peace and Goodwill.