I discovered a most interesting document the other day, while searching for something else.
Certainly I knew that in my “special box” I had some memorabilia and old journals from many stages of my life. I don’t go digging in that box often but, when I do, I occasionally find a real pearl.
This was one of those times.
What I discovered were notes I had written to God during a retreat made in October of 1983, thirty-four years ago!
Wow. And I remember that retreat. It was a silent retreat, directed by no one but God. I was staying in a small suite of rooms at the motherhouse of an order of nuns. I may have said a hello or two in passing but otherwise, it was just me and God.
And the saints, too, of course. It was no accident that I began the retreat on October 1st, the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Or that I ended it on October 4th, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. They were my friends even then and I do not doubt they prayed for me.
I was 28 years old and emerging from a period in which I had wrestled painfully with anxiety. Though I had made retreats of this type before, I had been avoiding them for a good while because I feared the directions my thoughts would take amidst all of that silence.
But I had decided that it was time. I longed for time alone with God, away from the hectic pace of my young life and I did not want fear to hold me back. (Fortunately, I didn’t know what was coming a year or two later or I would have been far more frightened!)
I realized at the time that there was a strong possibility that I had been keeping myself so busy because I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. Too much focus on myself (of the wrong sort) had become a trigger for panic.
I arrived on a Saturday. The weather was beautiful and it was a comfortable place to spend a few days. But I found myself feeling restless that first evening. I kept reviewing in my mind all of the things I could do to occupy myself, intimidated by what seemed like a vast expanse of empty time before me.
Interestingly, my notes indicate a two-fold response to that restlessness. First, came a recognition that, “as I grow in a deeper, healthier love for myself, I can learn to accept quiet moments alone with myself”.
I was learning to accept and trust myself not to go down the psychologically self-sabotaging path that had haunted me for some time.
The second part of the awareness was that, “You are here – I am not alone…And that focusing on myself is most definitely not the purpose of my being here. In fact, I come with hopes of learning how not to do that. I come to learn how to more completely let go of myself and turn toward You. If I become uncomfortable with myself, may that discomfort remind me to redirect my inner gaze to You.”
I had remembered the retreat – but not the profundity of my yearning for God and the immense help He gave me at an age that now seems to me so very young.
I hope it does not seem indiscreet for me to disclose these prayers made so long ago. I share them for a reason.
It amazes me that, decades later, I find myself offering a similar prayer, though in a completely different context.
Quite possibly this is because the same basic temptation seems to being hounding me throughout my life, though in many different guises.
Yes, I am writing again about temptation. This time – the temptation to think too much about myself.
It may seem odd to some that I would consider thinking about myself a “temptation”. Yet I suspect that some of you can readily understand what I mean.
On the one hand, we are necessarily hard-wired to think about ourselves. If we did not, we would never survive.
It is imperative that we notice the condition of our bodies, lest we leave hunger, thirst or injury unattended. Also, since we are social creatures sustained by networks of relationships, tracking our interpersonal (or world) relationships is vital to our well-being.
Yet there is this other sort of “thinking about myself”… Perhaps it springs from the same basic need for survival but then mutates into various sorts of rumination, eclipsing the healthier process of simply noticing.
Thankfully, I seldom if ever suffer anymore from anxiety about being alone with my thoughts. Extensive psychotherapy and God’s inimitable grace has given me considerable relief from that neurotic suffering.
But, of course, the adversary is quite creative in twisting our otherwise benign personality traits, rendering them potential obstacles to our ultimate union with God in Christ.
My personality, for example, is just a trifle obsessive. Had you noticed? 🙂
The sort of thinking about myself to which I refer is something different from the distracting thoughts that plague most of us from time to time when we wish to go to God in prayer.
Or perhaps I should say it is a distinct type of distracting thought and it doesn’t only appear when I try to pray.
The other evening I was driving home after working late and I addressed the Lord, “God, I am so tired.” Okay, nothing wrong with that. Rather unnecessary, since God already knows the state of my being, but He listens well.
However, before the 17 minute drive was complete, I’m sure I had told Him that I was tired at least 5 more times.
Could I think of no other topic to bring to Him? He is very patient – but, at this juncture, I was trying even my own patience.
I often make similar laments when I am not feeling well. But these many thoughts about myself are not only words of complaint.
Sometimes they are replay ruminations, i.e. a replay of all of the things that were just said – or could have been said.
Other times they are anticipatory ruminations, what might happen and how I will react. Entire conversations that will never actually take place are first rehearsed in my mind.
Some are positive in emotional tone while others are negative. It doesn’t really matter, I think, as long as the topic is me.
Interestingly, I do not find myself often anxious about these things, what was said, what might be said – or even the state of my health. It is just continuous, self-referential blather.
Even if no one else is accursed with having to listen to this endless chatter, I cannot help but consider this self-focus to be a capitulation to temptation. Most likely connected to one of the innumerable tendrils of the monster, Pride.
Being caught by the Pride monster sometimes feels like having inadvertently walked into a giant spider web. I didn’t see it coming or I would have taken a different path. But once captured, it clings to me without mercy.
I turn this way and that, thinking I am almost free, when I discover myself bound by yet another little thread that will not let go. And I never come to the end of the little threads.
However, in reality, there is no mythical monster or tiny threads that refuse to release me. I am the one who won’t let go.
For at least 34 years, I have wanted to let go of self, prayed to be able to let go of self – my notes to God bear witness to this – yet still I hold on.
I am a prisoner of my self – not my true Self, known only to God – but the false self I have constructed from the many myths of modern culture.
Is it not said that hell is locked from the inside? With these reflections in mind, I can certainly imagine how true this may be.
The irony of this post is not lost on me. That, bemoaning how stuck I am in thinking about myself, I then write an article about it… Ha!
However, in bringing up this temptation, I mean to do more than lament my fate.
I am so very grateful. My glance back at my younger self reminds me of how long God has been at work in me, how deeply He works within my weaknesses.
He bears with me – and has, through all of my struggles and woes, every day of my life. I cannot determine whether I’m moving backward or forward in any sort of “progress” toward Him.
But I can see, feel and remember that He has always been with me, giving me the graces I need for the next step.
I still suffer. I do not always recognize these graces right away. But one of the blessings of getting older is developing the perspective to see that it is so.
Gratitude turns my heart Godward. God does not need my gratitude, of course – but He knows that I, in my perpetual self-focus, do.
A remedy for rumination, so close at hand…a simple prayer of the heart.
It is time to add another to the holy repetitions that so often deliver me from myself.
Join me if you will. (Draw in your breath with the first part of the phrase; then allow yourself to slowly release it with the second part. The second part may be said twice for a longer, more relaxing exhale. Repeat often.)
Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;
His love endures forever.
(1 Chronicles, 16: 34)