Some twenty years ago, while on a retreat, an elderly nun was assigned to me as director. She proved to be a woman of rare maturity, providing the guidance that I needed at the time. Being young and intense, I too easily made a cosmic drama and tragedy out of every ordinary desolation or setback and she challenged me with a wisdom, an earthiness, and a sense of humour that continually helped deflate my pompousness.
At one stage of the retreat, sensing my Hamlet type propensities, she gave me a little proverb: Fear not you are inadequate!
Through the years, that little adage has come back to me, off and on, mostly at times when I have been a bit overwhelmed by my own inadequacy or have been, usually without a lot of success, trying to console somebody else. There is a deceptive depth in that little saying.
On the one hand, there is a certain consolation in it. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a minister, a priest, an advocate for justice, or simply a friend to someone in need, there are countless times when you come face to face with your own inadequacy, when you are helpless in the face of all that you should be doing. At times like that, it is important to remember that God alone is adequate, that you are not God, and that God is more parent, teacher, minister, priest, advocate for justice, and friend than you are. Obvious as this is, it is not always evident to us, as our history of needless worry, being angry, feeling overly self-important, living with ulcers, and being chronically overextended give ample testimony to.
Great spiritual writers have always said this. For example, John of the Cross, in a treatise on spiritual direction, reminds directors that God is the real spiritual director and that they are only secondary instruments. That is also true for every parent, teacher, minister, priest, justice advocate, and friend. God is the real parent, the real teacher, the real minister, the real advocate for justice, and the real friend and alone is adequate for that task. We are instruments, mere instruments, albeit important ones, and, unlike God, we are not adequate to the task.
Knowing this should give us some consolation at those times when it seems that, somehow, we should be doing better than we are. However, that consolation, expressed so well in the proverb, should never give us an excuse to slacken our efforts, be lazy, or to shirk responsibility. God may be the real parent or the real teacher or the real friend, but God, in the incarnation, has tied divine power to human hands and human effort. Hence the fact that nobody, save Jesus, is adequate to give expression to God must not however deter us from trying.
Be that as it may, this adage, the common sense faith of a very good nun, is itself a prayer. How so?
Healthy prayer functions paradoxically: On the one hand, it connects us to God and links us to divine energy. Conversely, at the same time, it dissociates us from God by making it clear to us that we are not God. Hence, a good prayer life is paradoxical too in its effect, namely, it connects us to God and thus saves us from depression even as it dissociates us from God and thereby saves us from inflation and self-righteousness. Simply put, if someone does not pray, in some way, he or she is forever falling either into depression or into infantile grandiosity, either there is a lack of connection to God or there is an over identification with God. Both have negative effects.
Thus, for example, when looks at someone like David Koresh – the Cult Davidian leader who burned to death in Waco, Texas – one sees precisely an over identification with God. There was plenty of energy, plenty of fire, but too little in the way of dissociation. He might well have meditated that little proverb on inadequacy and come to understand that he was not God. Conversely, when we are chronically depressed (as opposed to being clinically depressed) we are too out of touch with divine energy and stand in need of more connection. Accepting our inadequacy can help bring us to prayer.
Fear not you are inadequate! To accept the truth of that is to be make a little prayer. It is both healthily humbling and uplifting to accept the fact that we are not God and that we are not asked to try to be. When we are overly discouraged it is because we have forgotten that truth. When are overly inflated, it is for the same reason.