Progress in our spiritual lives, especially in prayer, is often imperceptible. We don’t see great leaps and bounds propelling us up the holy mountain. In fact, there are days when we find ourselves discouraged by the lack of progress or because of a fall that sets us back. We also have a tendency to want things to be easy and to come with instant results. In fact, our instant gratification and fast-paced culture is a major stumbling block to our progress in prayer and union with God.
The greatest impediment to our spiritual growth and our progress in prayer is the one that is often least talked about today: sin. We are called to wage the arduous battle against our own sinful tendencies, character flaws, and weaknesses. We must become detached from the world to truly dwell in full communion with the Most Holy Trinity.
This battle is brutal at times, which is why so many disengage or only enter it with a half-hearted attitude. The abysmally short Confession lines at most of our churches show us how little we understand that the spiritual life is a battle largely waged against ourselves, guided by grace.
In order to achieve intimate union with God—which is the path of all saints—we must be deeply grounded in prayer, but the connection between sin and our prayer lives is inextricable and we cannot separate the two. So long as we are indifferent or lack commitment to overcoming not only serious sin, but all sin, we cannot progress to greater heights in prayer.
St. Teresa of Avila—who is one of the greatest spiritual teachers in Church history—discusses this in all of her major works on prayer, including her autobiography and her classic work, The Interior Castle. Her insistence on the connection between prayer and sin is absolutely essential in an age when we are content with counterfeits and the call to simply be a “good” person, which cannot in principle lead us to the heights God made us for. The spiritual life is hard work and the hardest part is allowing God to lead us away from sin and our worldly attachments.
Fr. Thomas Dubay points out in his book, Fire Within, that the starting place for progressing in prayer must be detachment from sin and the world as taught by St. Teresa of Avila:
St. Teresa’s starting point is the absolutely basic condition for a serious prayer life: an earnest, continuing effort to rid oneself of sins, imperfections and attachments…Christic communion cannot be produced by techniques, because it is above all a love matter before it is anything else—and precisely because interpersonal intimacy is its heart, it is suffocated, even killed, by selfishness in any form.
At the heart of prayer is growing in a deeper and more intimate union with God. Much like our relationships with others—whether a spouse, child, parent, or friend—we cannot grow in deeper communion with the other person if we are overly concerned with our own wants and desires. A husband who puts himself over and above the needs of his wife, because of his sin, cannot grow closer to his wife. His sin will create a barrier and distance between the two of them.
The same is true of the wife attached to her own selfishness. It is also true, to a much greater degree, in our relationship with God.
Intimacy with God is found in a life of dedicated prayer. But it cannot begin in earnest until we are willing to relinquish all the things we place before God, most especially our own ego. If we truly love God and want to follow Him, then much like the two spouses, we must forsake our own wants and desires for God’s desires. We must seek to overcome our sinful ways, guided by His grace, in order to enter into greater depths with Him. We must seek to destroy all barriers between us and God, which is only accomplished through a radical dependence on Him.
Christ will lead us into the depths of His Most Sacred Heart to the degree we are willing to relinquish our grip in this world and on our own wants. If we place any worldly attachment before Him, then our progress will be slow or come to a grinding halt all together. In every moment, we are choosing whether we will surrender ourselves to Christ or the world.
St. Teresa’s teachings are essential for today, when there is a great danger in Catholic writing to a more sentimental or superficial understanding of the spiritual life. Any work that promises instant results, or that leads us to believe that we only need to be as we are with little effort, should be promptly thrown out.
Overcoming sin is a non-negotiable aspect of growing in union with God, which is how we progress in holiness. We cannot become saints if we are not people grounded in prayer, which is nourished by the desire and willingness to be free from sin.
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