This post is part of the Flashback Series featuring posts from the site archives. It was originally published on November 9, 2007. I thought I’d re-run this one since this book was the inspiration behind the five-second prayer concept I was talking about the other day, and since the holiday season always temps so many of us to paralyze ourselves with perfectionist tendencies.
When I first sat down to read this book back in late July, I was in “nesting mode” for the impending arrival of my third baby. Now, what “nesting mode” means for me is probably different than what it means for other people. I think that, for most women, it means that they get their houses all cleaned up and organized before the new baby comes. For me, it means sitting around and drawing up grand plans that will take my house from plain and cluttered to something fit for a spread in Architectural Digest in about three weeks. My plans are so grand that when I go to start the work I end up shuffling around in an unfocused daze, hopping from one to-do item to the next, working hard but having only unfinished projects to show for my effort.
So as I sat in bed one July night, a pile of clothes stacked on the floor in the corner from an unfinished closet reorganization attempt and a stack of boxes at the foot of my bed for a storage project that never got off the ground, it once again felt like St. Francis de Sales was talking directly to me when I started reading. In discussing how to determine which “inspirations” are from God and which are from a more malevolent force, he writes:
We should not want to practice many exercises at the same time and all of a sudden. The enemy often tries to make us attempt and start many projects so that we will be overwhelmed with too many tasks, and therefore achieve nothing and leave everything unfinished. Sometimes he even suggests we undertake some excellent work that he foresees we will never accomplish. This is to distract us from the prosecution of some less excellent work that we would have easily completed. […]
Very often…the evil one deludes us, and to distract us from achieving some good, he proposes another that seems better.
It only took a quick glance around my bedroom to see that this was advice that I really needed to hear. Not that any one unfinished household project was a big deal, but in total they spoke of a life of distraction and disorder, as well as a certain level of sloth — when a project got challenging and required discipline and hard work to carry it through, I would suddenly be “inspired” by a far better, more valuable task that I could go start.
St. Francis continues:
Just as a shrub that is often transplanted cannot take root and, as a result, cannot come to maturity and yield the desired fruit, so the soul that transplants its heart from plan to plan cannot profit or gain proper growth in perfection, since perfection does not consist in beginnings but in accomplishments. […]
Possession of a little treasure actually found is worth more than expectation of a greater one we must still go out to seek. An inspiration urging us to give up some true good we already posses in order to pursue a future better good is suspect.
Until I read this it had never occurred to me that a spiritual attack could come in the form of a suggestion of a good plan. I assumed that as long as I wasn’t being tempted to do anything sinful that I must be on the right path. But then, thinking of my recent attempts at regular prayer, it was glaringly obvious that suggestions of good — even great — things could be dangerous hindrances to spiritual growth.
For example, for months I had been planning to incorporate daily prayer into my routine. Each night I thought about praying before bed, but my circumstances were never “good enough.” The only prayer I could muster tonight would be a quick, sleepy, rushed endeavor, so I should really wait until tomorrow, when I’ll have everything under control to have time to pray a full Rosary. And, really, I should have a special place in the house to pray to put me in a properly reverent state of mind — how uninspired would my prayers be if I simply said them while lying in bed! In fact, I should designate a separate area for prayer in my room, complete with a table for a Bible and a prayer book, candles, maybe even a kneeler! I wonder if I could find a cheap kneeler online? And maybe some incense…
And so on and so on. Meanwhile, no actual praying was getting done.
Now, I don’t know whether that was an actual spiritual attack or not, but I do know that my planning to do great things to glorify God in prayer were not actually glorifying God. I was just wasting time. And I was surprised at how hard it was to change.
Inspired by this advice, I decided that every night I will simply kneel down at the side of my bed, cross myself, and say a quick prayer. If I am able to do more, I will. But I will at least do that. It’s not as much as I’d like to do, there are so many “better” options, but at least it will get done. Simple enough, right? Not for me. Every single night I still hear myself think something like, “Kneeling down at the side of the bed? That’s for children! The real way to show respect for God would be to go downstairs to the office, light a candle, read from the Bible for a few moments, then spend at least thirty minutes in deep prayer. Now, of course, there’s not time for that tonight. Maybe I could just do it tomorrow…”
It’s been surprisingly difficult to silence this voice that always distracts me with suggestions for “better” options for growing in my newfound faith. But, when I have been able to stop planning and just do it, the results have been great. Almost every night I do kneel down and say a very quick, very imperfect prayer, and I have received noticeable grace from it. The past few weeks have been difficult ones in terms of sleep deprivation and the usual challenges that go with having a three-year-old, a one-year-old and a two-month-old, yet I have felt closer to God than at almost any other point. I think a large part of it is from following St. Francis’ advice and simply keeping my head down and getting things done, even if they’re only very small and humble tasks, even when I’m strongly tempted to wander off to do something “better”.
As I kneel to say my little prayer, even though it’s not long enough or serious enough, as I put that stack of books on the shelf, even though I haven’t had time to create that grand Master Plan for Book Shelf Categorization, as I clean up the house before my husband comes home, even though it’s still pretty messy, I realize that this is how you glorify God. As Mother Teresa once said in her famous quote, God doesn’t expect us to do great things in life, only small things with great love.
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