On Spiritual Pacing
I’ve had several spiritual mountaintop experiences in my life. Some have covered extended periods – like the twelve-month period of my conversion where I could feel myself growing rapidly spiritually on a daily basis. Many were for a season – such as the particularly fruitful Lent I experienced this year. Some corresponded with big life events – when I married my husband, the birth of each of my children, and even various career changes. Most, however, are fleeting moments - that quiet prayer time in the early morning before my children awaken, a particularly convicting homily, that verse in the daily Mass readings that I’ve read a million times before that suddenly arrests me, a glimpse of a beautiful garden on an evening run. I love the mountaintops.
As much as I would like to stay in these spiritual heights, most of the time I’m living in the plains. Not exactly a desert of spiritual dryness, but certainly not the mountaintop where I’m continuously brimming over with inspiration from the Holy Spirit. It’s a place of spiritual humdrum, if you will. And although I try to cling to that mountaintop experience, it seems as though it has fizzled. The sheen has worn off. The fruits produced there no longer contain such an intense flavor, and frankly, perhaps they’re even starting to taste a little stale.
This isn’t a unique phenomenon, of course. The Israelites grew weary of their miraculous manna from Heaven to the point where they begged to be allowed to return to slavery and their fleshpots in Egypt. The disciples, after witnessing the Resurrection itself, doubted even as they worshiped Jesus on Mount Olivet prior to His Ascension (Matthew 28:16). While this may seem incredible, it’s really no different from what I do every single day. I leave the spiritual mountaintop of a particularly fruitful morning devotional, only to lose my temper with my children an hour later over something inconsequential.
This week in the liturgy, we find ourselves between two spiritual mountaintop experiences: the Ascension and Pentecost. And after Pentecost, we return to Ordinary Time for a long chunk of the remainder of what has been a very strange year. We are about to descend from the mountaintop into the spiritual plains. How do we hold on to the spiritual fruits of our experiences thus far? How do we savor them, make them last, and allow them to sustain us through the coming months?
We cannot rest on our spiritual laurels. Neither can we blithely assume we have crossed the finish line of spiritual maturity as a result of any particular mountaintop experience, no matter how intense. St. Philip Neri, whose Feast Day is also celebrated this week, counsels that “[w]e must never trust ourselves, for it is the devil’s way first to get us to feel secure, and then make us fall!” While I am not counseling living in a state of constant fear and spiritual doubt, we must also take care to not bury the talents God has entrusted to us. We must instead find some way to invest them and make them grow even more (Matthew 25:14-30).
While the Israelites were wandering in the desert preparing to enter the Promised Land, God gave them the following commandment:
“When you come into the land and plant any fruit tree there, first look upon its fruit as if it were uncircumcised. For three years, it shall be uncircumcised for you; it may not be eaten. In the fourth year, however, all of its fruit shall be dedicated to the Lord in joyous celebration Not until the fifth year may you eat its fruit, to increase the yield for you.” // Leviticus 19:23
While this is good horticultural advice, I think it also applies to spiritual pacing. We are running a marathon, not a sprint. God, in His wisdom, does not grant the majority of us the frequent, intense spiritual experiences of many of the mystics - and even the greatest saints experienced lengthy periods of spiritual dryness. The spiritual plains, deserts, and valleys are going to encompass a large part of our lives. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are not meant to last only for the relatively short span of time on which we are on a spiritual mountaintop. Instead, they are meant to be tenderly looked after - pruned, fertilized, watered – so that they may increase their yield over years to come and sustain us through these lower altitudes of the spiritual life.
St. Paul exhorts us in Hebrews 12:1 to “persevere in running the race that is before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.” St. Philip Neri encourages us to “pray incessantly for the gift of perseverance. We must not leave off our prayers because of distractions and restlessness of the mind, although it seems useless to go on with them.” The disciples, after the Ascension, despite their doubts and most likely still grappling with the emotional roller coaster of that first Easter, dutifully followed the Lord’s command, headed back into Jerusalem, and devoted themselves in one accord to prayer (Acts 1:13-14).
As we are coming up both on the halfway point of the year and a change in liturgical seasons, it’s a good time to take a spiritual inventory. Perhaps you are currently on a mountaintop. Or maybe, like me, you’re trudging dutifully through the plains. Maybe you’re in the desert or a dark valley and you’re feeling abandoned and alone. Wherever you find yourself spiritually right now – keep walking. Keep praying, keep reading, keep searching. Keep doing the next right thing. Ask for the gift of perseverance. The fruits God has given you are still there, even if you’ve lost all sense of their flavor. Trust Him, and tend your garden.