It’s a good practice to take a moment from time to time in which to reflect back upon our spiritual lives. The spiritual path is not linear – we do not leave one point and arrive at another without any deviations along the way. Rather, it is more like a zig zag much of the time – and we are liable to go off at tangents even without realising we are doing so.
This has certainly been my experience.
Casting our eyes over the ‘garden’ of our spiritual lives, we might imagine it to be filled with exquisite roses and other exotic blossoms – only to discover there are more weeds among the flowers than we had imagined. Or we may be pleasantly surprised to find one or two more roses, where we thought we would see only many more weeds.
And in the same way that a car driver on an unfamiliar journey might frequently make reference to a map or navigation system, so should we; at relatively frequent intervals, we should stop and check precisely where we are. Often, where we actually are is not quite the same as where we think we are.
There are many spiritual exercises designed to help us in this process – perhaps the simplest and most common is the practice of examining one’s conscience, often at the end of the day or else before going to confession, for example.
Simplicity is good. Just taking a few moments to look back over ourselves and considering where we have done well or improved or, conversely, where we have failed or could have done a little better in some way.
The Gospels provide the framework against which we can begin to measure ourselves – they are filled with real examples given by the Lord Himself to those around Him when they asked Him what was necessary in order to follow Him. Are we living out the Beatitudes? Are we acting in a way that is recognisable as being Christ-like? Do we have love for all without exception?
It is also good to look a little deeper within ourselves and at ourselves, having first asked the light of the Holy Spirit. Each of us are different in our make-up, each with our own positive and negative points – these points can contribute to our resemblance to Christ, or they can make it a little harder for us to resemble the Lord in the way we live our lives. This ‘looking within’ is not an exercise in beating ourselves up – it is intended to offer us a way to be more like the Lord by recognising both the good and the bad within ourselves, the areas where we have done well and also those areas where we could improve a little further.
Intention is important here. It isn’t just about what we do, nor even how we do it – but what motivates us in the doing of it. Is our motive disinterested love? Is our motive self-glorification? Is it a need to be recognised? Is what we do alone the same as what we do in public? Seemingly simple questions, but they throw a little light on why we do what we do and perhaps help us to understand ourselves just a little bit better.
There is a line in a film where one character tells another – “we can fool ourselves but we cannot fool God”. And that is very true. We can tell ourselves all sorts of things which we absolutely believe – and yet which are not true. God, on the other hand, sees what is in the heart. That is why we need to ask the light of the Holy Spirit – His divine illumination can help us to see ourselves as we really are; and while that might sometimes surprise or even shock us, it helps us to move forward on the path of life.
Further, His divine light enables us to do this in charity toward ourselves – it is not a form of spiritual flagellation, but simply of trying to do just a little bit better in our lives.
And when we are more charitable toward ourselves, having first seen our own short-comings, we are then more inclined to be charitable toward others should we notice their faults. And that charity is a wonderful thing, which makes demands of us and also offers us hope even while we see how far we still have to go –
“Above all, preserve an intense love for each other, since love covers many a sin.” (1 Pet.4:8)