In her masterful book, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, Ruth Burrows has a section within which she lists the faults of those who are beyond initial conversion. What are these faults?
Burrows has her own list, what I offer here is the perspective that Henri Nouwen gives in his spiritual masterpiece, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Among many things in that book, Nouwen tells us that as persons who understand ourselves as already committed, we still need to make a three-fold conversion movement: i) We need to move from being a bystander to being a participant; ii) from being a judge to being a repentant sinner; and iii) from speaking about love to actually letting ourselves be loved. What is involved in each of these?
From being a bystander to being a participant: In essence, what we need to do here is to move from studying life, speaking about it, teaching about it, writing about it, and perhaps even at times mimicking it, to actually living it. I know this sounds very much like a cliché devoid of substance, but a lot of what is wrong in the world, the church, and within our personal lives today is precisely the fact that we study things, talk about them, strongly voice our convictions about them, but often, in fact, do little or nothing about them. For example, we do not lack for literature, moral rhetoric, or good analysis on social justice. But there is, in fact, very, very little being done. This is not so much because our passion for justice is insincere, but because at the end of the day we are bystanders not participants.
The same holds true for prayer. There is no shortage of literature in this area (and no shortage of workshops either). We talk enough about prayer. We just don’t pray a lot. In terms of deep private prayer, we pray very little. Again, we are much more in the position of the bystander than participant. Therese of Lisieux once wrote: “I always preferred to pray rather than to have spiritual conversations about prayer.” For most of us, the opposite is true.
Robert Moore suggests that this failure to move from bystander to participant is a disease that particularly afflicts those among us who do any kind of ministry or are in any teaching or healing profession. Invariably we end up studying life and speaking about it rather than living it. It is no accident that those of us in these vocations frequently feel anger towards anyone who actually does anything. It will also be no accident that when the last tree on the planet has been cut down there will have been libraries of studies written about the ill-effect of cutting down trees, but very little will have been done by a way of action by those who wrote all those books. We generally respond to the issue of violence against children and women in the same way – with yet another study. We are too much bystanders, not participants.
We must also move from being judge to being repentant sinner. What is meant by this? All of us pray the prayer of the Pharisee – Thank God that I’m not like that other person! ” We are all self-righteous, it is only a question of what we are self-righteous about.
We used to stereotype self-righteousness in one phrase: “Holier-than-thou”. We are all “holier-than-thou”, except we each define holiness according to our own idiosyncratic preference, that is, as “more–sensitive-than-thou” ”brighter-than-thou“, “less hypocritical-than-thou“, “more-experienced-than–thou”, “less-bigoted– than–thou”, “less rigid–than-thou”, or “more-of-a-victim-than-thou”. In subtle and not so subtle ways, each of us is more judge than repentant sinner.
We stop being a judge only when we claim our proper place among the broken, among God’s little ones, the unfaithful, sinners. Only when we watch the news at night and recognize that every pathology, every act of violence, and every sin we see on our television screen is also inside of us will we lose all interest in making comparisons and be content to let God’s grace simply work in us.
Finally, we must move from speaking about love to actually letting ourselves be loved. Nouwen uses his own life as an example. For years, he went all over the world giving talks about love, even while not letting those around him really love him. Only after moving in with the physically handicapped, with people who were not interested in what he had to say about love, did he actually allow himself to be loved. What was true for him is true for most of us. It is far easier for us to speak about love than to let ourselves actually be loved.
Those around us, family and friends, already know all these things about us. It’s time we recognized them too.