When the Needle on the Spiritual Tank is On “E”

barren, soil


So I went to Confession last Saturday (March 25). I don’t go to Confession nearly often enough. I go so infrequently that I have an app to remind me how to say the Act of Contrition (Laudate). I won’t tell you when the penultimate time was, but I will say Obama was President. That was one of the things I had to confess.

The last few times, I blurted out my biggest sin first. Without fail, the relief of having got that off my chest was so overwhelming I forgot to confess other sins. This time I managed a full examination of conscience and managed to get everything out, despite the sense I got that Father was trying to rush me through it.

Sunday Morning Follies

No, dagnabbit, not quite everything, I realized to my dismay at Mass the next day, having been reminded of two more besetting faults by the sight of an attractive young lady in the pew in front of me. (Yes, yes, I know — men are pigs). My purpose of amendment may be firm, but my power of amendment, like my body, seems rather flabby right now.

Six years ago, I wrote a post on Outside the Asylum about sedevacantists. The same Sunday morning after I went to Confession, I found two responses on that old post from the same person. First, the respondent said I misrepresented sedevacantism. Then — in an incoherent blither of false assertions, bad grammar, and condemnations of Pope Francis as a heretic — he justified everything I’d written. Having just confessed to a radical lack of charity not sixteen hours previously, it was all I could to not tear into him. That combox is now shut down; I’m seriously considering doing away with comboxes altogether.

Fifteen minutes after   I was reading a post by The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named, in which he admits he also went to Confession that day and apologizes to those whom he had written of disrespectfully. The Blogger is a knowledgeable fellow who has an endearingly goofy sense of humor; however, as a culture warrior, he is often his own worst enemy.

But then, so am I. So are we all, in this world of sin and sorrow. Satan can only lead us to sin if we choose to follow. I can’t take the speck out of his eye until I take the plank out of mine. [The Blogger’s faults, real or imagined, are NOT the subject of this post. If you simply must mention him in the combox, make sure your comment is moderate and on topic; otherwise, it will be deleted!]

Anatomy of a Spiritual Crash

It hit me then, like the proverbial ton of bricks: My spiritual gas tank is almost empty. My prayer life is almost non-existent. I haven’t lost faith in God or the truths of the Catholic Church. However, I have lost most if not all my hope and faith in my country and my fellow man — crucial things to have in order to function as a healthy human person. (“I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish,” the late statesman Daniel P. “Pat” Moynihan once said, “if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.” That foreknowledge, however, doesn’t lessen the pain or the feeling of having been abandoned.)

Moreover, as a writer, I’ve become a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1) — that is, when I write; my output has been slacking off for a couple of years now and has almost dried up. I’ve been doing the “culture warrior” shtick since I started my long-lost first blog fifteen years ago. But now I’m perfectly sickened by what secular ideology and partisanship have done to the Church in America, never mind the lies, the labeling, and the demonization of each tribe by the other in what now passes for public discourse. And my participation in it, as well-meant as it was, has only sapped what little charity I possess.

I’m tired of being angry. I’m ashamed of the way I’ve treated others in my zeal to “instruct the ignorant” (one of the seven spiritual works of mercy). It wouldn’t be accurate to say I don’t suffer fools gladly because I suffer myself all too well. But most of all, I’m sad and shocked to realize how little I’ve been Christ for others. You can go to Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, you can know the teachings of the Church by heart, you can tailor your politics to conform to those teachings, and still be a Catholic In Name Only.

“By this sign shall all men know you are my disciples: that you persist in correcting their every error until they acknowledge your superior reasoning.”—Things Jesus Never Said.

“Assume a Virtue”

So okay, my spiritual well has run dry. What do I do about it? “Fake it ’til you make it.” Break the cycle of negativity.

Assume a virtue, if you have it not. /That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat /Of habits evil, is angel yet in this, /That to the use of actions fair and good /He likewise gives a frock or livery /That is aptly put on. … For use almost can change the stamp of nature, /And either master the devil, or throw him out /With wondrous potency. (Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:iv, 181-186, 189-191)

I think of St. Teresa of Calcutta, who continued to work and pray despite half a century of crippling doubts and spiritual dryness. It takes great faith to devote your whole life to serving a God you’re not sure even exists, and shows the meaning of the ancient paradox, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

Sincerity is not the issue. Or rather, it’s the idea of sincerity the judgmental and the non-believer invoke when they say, “If your Christianity were really sincere, if you really believed what you say you believe, you’d do a lot better job of living up to your standards.” Yes, this is a perfect-solution fallacy … which doesn’t make it any less persuasive or popular. Besides, “when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what is our duty’” (Luke 17:10): the least required of us is nothing less than our absolute best.

More to the point, though, to be concerned about whether I’m perceived to be “putting on an act” is to implicitly admit that I’m still thinking about me and my precious public image, that I’m still mired in Pride — God forbid that anyone should think I’m a poseur! I’m called to love my neighbor, to treat him with justice and compassion, regardless of whether anyone thinks my motivations are sincere. Don’t overthink it — just do it.

More Than a Feeling

Waiting until  God gives me some special spiritual “feeling” is as much a mistake — a peculiarly modern mistake — as is demanding a miraculous sign. People can “feel” all sorts of things without ever acting on those feelings to anyone’s benefit but their own. It’s all too easy to “love” an abstract humanity without doing anything corporally merciful for those concrete instances of humanity who live right next to us or who cross our paths every day. (Linus from Peanuts: “I love mankind … it’s people I can’t stand!”)

Love isn’t a feeling; it’s a choice. Specifically, it’s the choice to put others before yourself. Many people know the Rick Warren quote (misattributed to C. S. Lewis) about the meaning of humility: it’s “not thinking less of yourself” but “thinking of yourself less.” Love is humility in action. It’s about doing good for the benefit of others, without counting the cost to yourself, and without expecting good in return.

As for prayer, I think we concentrate too much on whether or how God responds. Whether or not God answers, let alone gives us what we want/need, is almost beside the point. We don’t pray to negotiate, or to demand, but rather to surrender. In prayer, we acknowledge just how little real control we have over the things that happen in our lives. Without God, we could do nothing and have nothing because we wouldn’t be — “life without God” is a contradiction in terms: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28; cf. Epimenides, Cretica). In kneeling before God, we surrender to the pure mystery of His will — “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:9-10) — trusting that “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28), and that there is no sacrifice we can make in this life that He will not repay a hundredfold (cf. Matthew 19:28-29).

“Thy will be done.” Not “My will be done.”

Epitaph for a Culture Warrior

To sum it all up: The only way I think I can deal with spiritual emptiness is to stop worrying about it and simply go “back to the basics” — prayer, the sacraments, and community involvement. My parish’s yearly stewardship commitment card has been waiting for 2-3 weeks for my response: send it in and follow up on my commitments. My prayer life has been exiguous: set a scheduled prayer time and stick to it. I have plenty of time that’s better spent serving others than wallowing in self-pity. To paraphrase Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption: Get busy loving and praying, or get busy dying.

Moreover, the time has come for this particular culture warrior to hang up his sword and shield … or rather, to beat the sword into a plowshare. I’ll continue to write; however, the emphases and focus of my writing will shift off political and social commentary onto other matters. In a future article, I hope to explain this decision more fully. For now, suffice it to say that political and social commentary have become occasions of sin.

They’re gonna have to include that on the next version of Laudate.

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2 thoughts on “When the Needle on the Spiritual Tank is On “E””

  1. Tony, I found this piece honest, amusing, and totally convicting! I’ve been much better at going to Confession lately, only because God has been gracious enough to knock me off my prideful pedestal again and again. I admit I’ve struggled with being “technically honest” in the Confessional. It’s like that scene from the movie, “Heaven Help Us” where the young boys are waiting to go to Confession and the school bad boy goes over their lists, making changes to their sins to keep them out of trouble and telling them to add a lie to the list to keep things technically correct. And as far as emptiness goes, I think writers and introverts (and those of us who happen to be both) experience emptiness on a regular basis. It’s a part of who we are and our loving God uses it to make us better at what we do. Thank you once again for a really engaging article. My head hurts now from all that thinking. I’m going to go lie down! (){:o)

  2. Suellen Ann Brewster

    This essay is so chock full of grace and truth I can hardly believe it. I had three “aha moments “! I am new to your writing, sir, and from what you wrote, it would seem I timed it well. I am also done with spending much energy on anything remotely worldly. It’s time to pray and to serve. God bless you.

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