When you are young, you are a being of pure potential. Your life and your future stretch out with endless possibilities. Remember what it was like to one day want to be an astronaut and the next to be a famous athlete and then a ninja. Children have this wonderful ability to shape and reshape themselves over and over. Their lives are like Play-Doh fresh out of the container.
But once out of the container, that Play-Doh begins to harden. Soon, whatever shape that material takes will become, more or less, its permanent shape. To change it would cause it to break and crack all over. This is what happens to us as we get older.
As we age, instead of standing and looking at the infinite paths before us, we have to choose a path to follow. This path limits us and our other choices. Choices about the schools I attended, the social groups with which I associate, the career paths I pursue, and whether or not to marry all cut off the alternative possibilities. We find we can’t easily drop all of our life’s plans at the drop of a hat to pursue some new interest.
This is all a natural part of growing up. We cannot be everything, we must become something. And that something, by definition, excludes the alternatives. I can be single or I can be married. I cannot be both. As our lives solidify around us, we also become less pliant on the inside. Life is often difficult and we easily fall into habit and routine to make it more manageable. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. St. Thomas Aquinas picks up Aristotle’s insight that developing good habits is the definition of a virtuous life.
But there is a problem with this.
The permanence of yourself would be wonderful if you were already perfected. I would not put by clay sculpture into the fires of the kiln until it was exactly the shape I wanted it. If I let the structure harden with a flaw, then it will cause a lot of damage or “pain” to the object to reshape it the way I wanted.
The same thing applies to the soul. Unless you are already a perfect saint, your soul needs reshaping.
I’ve found that as I have gotten older, the spiritual habits of my life have created a wonderful scaffolding to help build my relationship with God. I am blessed to have a very prayerful wife with whom I can spend a good portion of the day in prayer. I also work at a Catholic school which affords me time before the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. And as wonderful as these routines are, I know that this is not wear I must remain.
Please don’t misunderstand, growth in the spiritual life does not always mean doing more. With God, quality is more important than quantity. As Christ said, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. “ (Matthew 6:7) Sometimes we are called simply to break out of the routine.
As helpful as routines are, we can often go on autopilot. How often have we prayed the Lord’s Prayer or the Nicene Creed at mass without much thought behind the words. In our friendships and in our families, sometimes we can fall into routines to the point where we stop having meaningful encounters with each other.
And that is the key to the spiritual life: meaningful encounters with God. That doesn’t mean that each prayer experience must be one of intense emotions. Chasing after that will not lead to growth. But we must strive to be as open to God’s presence as we can. This could involve a re-commitment to the spiritual practices we already have. It could also mean saying yes to new experiences.
I have worked in ministry with young people for a very long time. One of the joys of this life is that the young are open to trying new things and that openness can lead to intense encounters with the Lord. Working with adults has been a different experience because there is often a lack of openness. If we are competent adults, we will have a wealth of experience that helps us make good decisions. While this experience is a gift, it can also be a limitation. We can get caught up in the idea that “this is the way I’ve always done it and it’s worked so far.” This experience is valuable, but it cannot and must not be an excuse to be open.
As we get older, we start to think that there is nothing new we can learn or experience about our faith in a meaningful way. I know I am guilty of this. While I have worked many retreats in the last few decades I have not gone on many. When invited, I decline by saying that I am busy (which is mostly true). But if I am being honest, there is that prideful part of me that says that it will be a waste of time because I won’t experience anything I don’t already know.
But if I do an honest assessment of my soul, I am still very far from sainthood. My heart is hardening, calcifying with age but not in the shape that God wants it to be in yet. I still need to change. But because of this hardening of my heart and soul, the change can hurt. It can feel like an inconvenience or interruptions to our plans. But God needs to interrupt our plans so we can be a part of His plan.
I imagine there is a great advantage to being a parent when it comes to the spiritual life. While it may feel like you have less time for prayer, the needs of children constantly disrupt your plans. You have to a natural flexibility to meet every sickness, emergency, and change of schedule. And while you may have plans for your kids, it may not work out. Sometimes this may even involve things that happen to them or things they do that will break your heart. But even here, this can create a great openness to God’s presence.
When our hearts get hardened, the only way God can reach us is to break those hearts of stone. The calcification of the soul will cause us pain because most of us are not yet what God calls us to be. And He loves us too much to leave us as we are.
It reminds me of the verses from Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol:”
“Oh happy they whose hearts can break and peace of pardon win/ How else may man make straight his path and cleanse his soul of sin?/ How else but through a broken heart can Lord Christ enter in?”