Saint Teresa of Avila has provided us with many inspirational quotes and meditations which can guide us to a closer connection with God. I would like to combine two such quotes as a way of etching an expectation of what getting closer to and serving God entails.
“The closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.”
I once read that the path to God is easy as long as one truly loves Him. While it is very true that we are weak, inconsistent, and utterly pathetic followers of such a wonderful God, it is likewise true that God loves us despite our unworthiness.
We humans tend to avoid complexity. We shy away from complication, and we try to sidestep confusion as much as possible as we scramble through life. The devil knows this and uses it to his advantage. He would have us believe that loving and following God is both complicated and frustrating. After all, he would have us conclude, is not God just a bit too demanding?
The devil banks on our imperfections and emphasizes the absurdity of our efforts to please and follow this perfect God we reach out to! Here we are, so wretchedly defective, and there He is, so supposedly perfect, wonderful, and just. It’s like a functionally illiterate dropout trying to impress a world class expert on language! He would have us believe that we are totally incapable and unqualified to drive our lives toward God.
So how can getting closer to God actually make things simpler when doing so only seems to emphasize our transcendent inferiority to Him? Given the above assumptions, the above quote from Teresa of Avila seems an utter contradiction. However, St. Teresa has never been more profound than in this beautiful and simple observation.
Discard the Unimportant
One’s journey toward God begins with the reality that God must be the center of our lives. He should be the priority of our very being and passage through this twisted and defective world. Being closer to Him should only emphasize and clarify the reality that we must drop everything and ignore everyone that gets in the way of our mission toward God.
Our purpose in this world should be to discern and then actualize our particular purpose in this world. We must be like the Israelites who were ordered to prepare for their journey out of Egypt like those in flight. Like the Israelites we should only carry the most essential items and discard anything less important.
Our lives are flights out of Egypt and toward God. We have become slaves to this world. But we must free ourselves of the world’s chains if we are to approach God. Most often, what we deem complicated, cumbersome, and impractical is only so because we have allowed the priorities and presumptions of this world to bog us down. It is only when we look to God as the true goal of our lives that we begin to realize that all else does not matter.
The closer we get to God, the less luggage, physical and mental, we will carry with us. God is neither impressed nor swayed by how much we have or how much we have done but. Rather, He merely seeks to judge us by how much we have loved and served. Getting closer to God is more about sincerity, compassion, kindness, service, and love than about numbers on a ledger or long lists of earthly accolades.
Comfort and Discomfort
This brings us to the second quite from St. Teresa.
“Prayer and comfortable living are incompatible”
Another essence of human nature is to seek comfort and avoid discomfort as much as possible. However, the famous psychologist Leon Festinger theorized that people facing inconsistency between their internal and external realities do experience discomfort. Consequentially, they try to reduce that discomfort by reducing the gap between those realities. So what does this mean?
Suppose someone is weak in his faith and not really invested in most of his faith’s core teachings. It would follow that this person will probably follow his faith’s dictates as long as doing so will not interfere with things that he is much more invested in, such as his career. Now imagine that this individual is up for a promotion that will require him to do things contrary to Catholic teaching. According to Festinger, this person will most likely compromise his faith in order to get his promotion. He will rationalize as much as necessary to excuse himself.
For many such individuals following Christ and adhering to the Catholic faith is getting more difficult by the day in this world. Doing so is more and more becoming an increasingly uncomfortable proposition. It is much more comfortable to simply sell out and surrender to the world’s values.
Be Not of the World
Prayer is both a sign and a vehicle of investing in our faith. Those who pray regularly are investing in God regularly. They are stepping aside from living in this world to connect with and seek out God. Prayer is at once an ingredient and a recipe for transcending and connecting the temporal to the eternal. It is in essence a tatoo, a branding of our lives to God. Since being closer to God is not very comfortable in this world and prayer is an inherent ingredient of being closer to God, it follows that prayer and comfortable living do not go hand in hand today.
Add to this the reality people most often pray when they need something, are suffering from something, or are bothered by something. Even those who properly pray in thanksgiving are sometimes doing so to recognize relief from some discomfort or another. All of this to say that prayer and discomfort are intimately associated in this world and this life.
Teresa’s profound observation that the comfortable do not usually pray is simply a reality of human nature. A noble goal for all of us then, would be to instill such an appreciation of prayer as to practice it whether we are comfortable or not. Praying when we are comfortable perhaps allows us to pray for others most easily. But we should also instill a love of prayer such that it brings us the true comfort of being closer to God.
Imagine if we all found our comfort in God and not in the dictates of this world! Unfortunately, what should be inherent and obvious if we truly love and trust in God has become a distant goal we aspire to reach. Such is our existence in this world!
Toward a Composite Understanding
We should all aspire to get closer to God continuously. But we can expect that this endeavor and effort will be both uncomfortable and difficult in this world.
Christ’s Via Dolorosa was neither a pleasure cruise, nor surrender to convention, nor an escape from controversy. It was prima facie evidence of confronting and rejecting the dictates of this world even as one might be temporarily subjected to them. It is a reminder that getting closer to God means getting farther from what this world is selling.
In the final analysis, this is going to be uncomfortable. Finding comfort in Christ, in moving toward God as one serves Him and others, is the essence of serving Heaven. The martyrs facing torture, lions, and burning stakes accepted great discomfort in the service of heavenly comfort. We are all called to find the source of our comfort in heaven regardless of any earthly discomfort we may face as a result!
Ultimately, then, we should embrace earthly discomfort in the service of God as the privilege to aspire to heavenly comfort in His Glory!