About two weeks ago, I had a new prayer experience.
Prayer has been difficult this year. There have been days when I felt that I would rather do anything else in the world than pray. This is quite hard to hold in tandem with the compulsion I feel to actually pray. It’s a bit like putting the positive ends of two magnets together: the more that little (frankly bloody annoying) voice calls me to chapel, the further I run. YouTube, Facebook and FIFA 15 have been the beneficiaries.
Problem is, things fall apart without prayer. I mean, seriously. That’s the benefit of having had a regular prayer life, you see the difference, and most importantly, you feel it in your soul like a big anchor hanging around your heart. Things really have fallen apart this year, for me, and I have avoided God like the plague. Thus the vicious cycle: one ceases to pray, and things fall apart from the inside and the outside, but then we’re too afraid to return to the source, in case we fail again. Worse still, we don’t return to the source because we’re too ashamed, thinking that we have to make things right before we can speak to Him again.
So I eventually dragged myself into the Church, heavy hearted. I sat there, and as usual when nothing happens, I picked up a book. I opened on this paragraph:
Love consists in the fact that we do not love. As long as we haven’t grasped this by experiencing our own incapacity to love, as long as we aren’t at home with this truth, charity won’t be able to find a home in our hearts or flow freely within us. First of all, we have to accept the fact that we do not love, that we are incapable of breaking the circle that closes us in on ourselves. We must be absolutely convinced of this; otherwise, charity will remain for us just a good desire, a sterile seed incapable of producing genuine fruit.’
It really hit me hard, so much so that I began to squirm in my seat. At that moment, I didn’t know what it was that had hit me, only that the words I had read were true. I wanted to lay down, I felt heavy and depressed. I found that the gap between the altar and the tabernacle was just a few inches longer than my body length, so I lay there, still squirming. Then like the whistling steam from a stovetop kettle, these words left my mouth: “have mercy”.
The same pattern repeated itself over the next few days. It felt like a relief, and yet I was still sad afterwards. I carried my heavy heart into the session with my spiritual director. I told him what had happened and that I didn’t quite understand my response. He asked me how I felt now and I said “I feel like I’m mourning”. That was the nail on the head.
“What are you mourning?”
“I don’t know… I feel like I’m failing as a priest”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, in every area of my life, I’ve been falling desperately short of the ideal of the priesthood….”
“Is that your ideal?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so.”
“And the image you set up is dead?”
It all started to click into place. I had been spiralling further away from God as I tried desperately to hold on to my own graven image of what I wanted to be for him. After every failure, I would pray for him to restore me to that state. But why would he, if he loved me? The image had to die, the sarcophagus had to be torn open. Brutally exposed to my total need and dependency, of my nothingness before him, I realised that I had to offer him precisely that, nothing. I did not love. I mean I did, obviously, in the human sense of the word. But not in the way I thought I was loving, not in the way we’re all called to love. I can’t love with the love God wants me to love. Only he can do that in me. Something has to die, and it is hard to let go.
That was why I was relieved at the words of Bishop Alan today, at our Mass for vocations. I expected the same old yarn about how you get happier every day as a priest, how it’s an exciting wondrous adventure. It really doesn’t attract vocations. Just tell the lads the truth, they’ll lap it up! Tell he did. He said, “as a priest, every day you should feel empty. You should remain empty so that God can fill you”. No glittering pitch, only a truth-laden gauntlet, filled with real redemptive suffering. If a man wants to be happy, there is no happiness greater, as long as he lets go of what he thinks happiness is or should be for him. If a man wants to love, there is no love greater, but he is called to be possessed of an eternal love not of his own making. To know mercy, something has to die. God became a man so that the old man, the graven image set up by sin, could die. From the tomb rose the new God-man. Only by this supreme act of mercy can the new man live, love and rejoice.
So I get to the end of the year renewed. I’m not under any illusions, I’m only at the beginning of God’s project. So much has to die. But I am so relieved, there is a crack in the tomb, light is peaking through. At the Mass today, while Bishop Alan pronounced the words “Behold the Lamb of God…” I looked down at the host in my hand and thought “bloody hell, what am I still doing here?!” and then I smiled. It was a moment of sheer gratitude. Lord, you are merciful, so tender and understanding, so gentle and kind. Have mercy on me, a helpless sinner, and thank you for calling me to be your priest.