Re-post from 2013
Seeking one’s self in God is to seek for comfort and refreshment from God; that is contrary to the pure love of God. Seek rather seek God and love Him with a pure love … Do you think that such persons will love none and delight in none save God? No; they will love others much more than they did, with a more genuine love, with greater passion and with a love which brings more profit; that, in a word, is what love really is. And such souls are always much fonder of giving than of receiving, even in their relations with the Creator Himself. — St. Teresa of Avila
I was speaking with a woman recently about her own spiritual journey over the last twenty years, and as we talked about our common love for the “Jesus Prayer” she shared with me a truly extraordinary story that revealed profound insights into the nature of conversion and what it means to pray, and not just say, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” I will attempt to accurately summarize what she said, blending it with what she later emailed me. I am grateful that, for others’ benefit, she was open to having the general story-line shared.
I grew up in a high-achievement family where we were all expected to prove our worth by achievements in school, sports, and music. And it wasn’t just that my parents wanted me to be successful and reach my potential, but the clear message was: we value you inasmuch as you earn that value. Once I left college and began working in a successful and ascending career, I began to suffer from anxiety and depression, and got involved in relationships that were destructive; where I felt compelled to ‘perform’ for the men I dated and felt a failure if I didn’t meet their demands. It all fell apart in my early thirties, and I ended up coming back to my faith with a vengeance. It was liberating in ways that I cannot express.
But I was still who I was, and even if Jesus had come and given me new hope I still operated in the prove-my-worth mode. But now, my compulsion was spiritualized, and I began to be obsessed with being an Über-Catholic who gained the admiration of my Catholic peers. I found myself constantly finding subtle and not-so-subtle ways to make known to my Catholic peers my dedication to prayer that made me feel a mystic; to make known the trials and tribulations of my life that made me feel a martyr; to make known the simplicity of my life that made me feel a veritable nun; to make known the goodness of my deeds that made me feel a Mother Teresa; and to make known the orthodoxy of my thought that made me not-like-those-half-baked-Catholics who just weren’t up to my level of radical-ness. And at the core of it all, un-admitted, there was seething anger that drove me; lots of anger; anger that no one really measured up, and that I never measured up. And that God’s face toward me was a mostly a grimace.
Then it all came crashing down again as I suffered from a fresh bout of anxiety from all the pent-up anger, from trying to be what I was not, and failing to feed sufficiently my voracious, though well-cloaked appetite for others’ approval. And from the midst of this real suffering and this real poverty, in my breakdown, I suddenly faced who I was: a weak, needy and fragile woman who was ready to surrender my anger and say, in the secret of my heart, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
And it was undoubtedly the first time I ever really meant it, that I meant those words I always said to causally at Mass; and maybe it was even the first time I had ever really prayed.
After that, my anger withered and I lost my compulsive need to seek others’ attention, approval, admiration; I lost my need to be a saint for others and without God; and I gained a new — so new! — desire to seek not God’s admiration or applause, but his mercy. And it was all like a second birth, a second conversion, and it set me free from me. My anxiety melted away, and though I flirt now and again with these old habits and patterns, there’s something new in me that makes it all different.
And I remember the first time after this all happened that I knew I was different. I met up with one of my Catholic friends, and for the first time in my life I felt that my interest in being with her wasn’t about me. I forgot I was there, and I didn’t even think about what she thought of me.
My favorite song became the spiritual, “Freedom.” That’s my song.
In ways great or small, O Lord, deliver us all likewise. Listen here: