“Life is like running up a down escalator,” I asserted in a talk I gave at TEDxFlint back in 2010, explaining that things tend to drift downward, so if we want to improve we have to constantly fight for it. Standing still takes us away from our goal.
I think at a certain point, most of us realize that standing still isn’t an option, that we have to fight the downward trend of the down escalator we’re on. We might even call standing still by a different name: stagnant. I think we’re more apt to realize it on measurable things, like career or finances.
Fewer still recognize standing still isn’t an option on things like relationships or health. Maybe it’s because our culture emphasizes money and production so much, maybe it’s because relationships aren’t very measurable.
Fewer still apply the same spiritually. “I’m all set,” is the common phrase heard in the Northeast, especially if someone wants to talk about Jesus or growing in faith. “I’m nice and comfortable where I am. No need to panic. No need to grow. I’ll just stand here.” And the down escalator continues to move downward.
I know I definitely want to think I’ve “arrived” spiritually and then be done (hint: that only happens in heaven). It’s a tendency I’ve had to fight especially since becoming as a missionary. Ask most missionaries to share their testimony and chances are it ends with “and then I became a missionary.” For my first two years on staff that’s exactly what I did, until another missionary called me out on it.
Know what God is doing
The first and most important part of the spiritual life is to know what God is doing. He desires to be with us far far more than we desire to be with Him. He desires us to be happier than we desire it for ourselves. Our whole spiritual life is a response to Him. Throughout the rest of this post, I will focus on the things we can do to respond to God, all of which assumes what God is doing.
In Soul of the Apostolate, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Chautard, OSCO writes that certain kinds of work are more difficult than others. Intellectual work is more difficult than manual labor. But he writes that the interior life (spiritual work) is the hardest of all.
Anyone who’s ever attempted to do mental prayer for longer than 10 minutes can attest to that. You hardly sit down before all your cares and anxieties, to-do lists and random thoughts come crowding into your head. And then when it seems to be going fine, I realize I just spent the last 10 minutes thinking about Star Wars instead of the Bible passage I was just reading. Whoops.
And, it’s tough to measure prayer. How can I tell if I’m getting closer to Jesus? There’s no Jesus-o-meter. Or, if it’s measureable it’s in the wrong ways, it’s measuring external things like number of prayers or length of time, which might have a bearing on our relationship with Jesus but might not.
It’s much easier to just stay in the same place. The spiritual life is hard work, and I’m a fallen human being who likes to stay comfortable and not have to work hard. But I know that staying the same place doesn’t work because I’m on a spiritual down escalator.
On a theological level, the fact that we’re on a spiritual down escalator makes total sense: Satan be hatin’. That explains how the whole world is on a down escalator too. We broke our relationship with God and so the rest of creation is out of whack as a result, not following the order it used to have. Even each of our interiors doesn’t follow the order: reason and will don’t rule anymore.
Well, no use sitting here and complaining about it, not much point in that. What are we going to do about it?
Pretty self-explanatory. Except it gets really hard when prayer is dry. It’s easy to keep praying when there are intellectual insights, strong emotions, answers to our intercessions, clarity and direction on discernment. But if I was friends with someone only because of what they did for me, it’d be a pretty shallow friendship. Except I do that to God all the time.
The vast majority of my first year as a missionary was very dry prayer. I was convinced I was doing it all wrong. What used to work wasn’t working anymore. Reading the Bible meant nothing stood out, and it’s hard to pray with that. The Rosary resulted in inability to visualize any of the mysteries.
I thought I was bad at praying. It turns out, what makes prayer good or bad isn’t what we get from it, but what we put in it. Do I show up? Did I choose to pray?
I didn’t figure that out on my own, though. Hence the need for a spiritual direction.
Get a coach and some good friends
All Olympic athletes have a coach. The most successful businesspeople have coaches, mentors, mastermind groups. The people who do the best have the best help. So why would I try to run up the spiritual down escalator without a coach? Makes no sense.
Oh wait, it’s because I’m lazy and like to stay comfortable. All the more reason to have a spiritual director, then.
With someone who’s been where I’ve been, who knows the spiritual life better than I do, who can help me pray better and better understand how God is moving in my life, I can grow spiritual and run up the down escalator faster, better, stronger.
Not only do I need a coach, having good friends helps too. We can keep each other accountable and see what’s happening. This is why I love being on a team as missionaries, I have three other people close by who it’s normally to talk about prayer.
“What’s Jesus been doing in prayer for you recently?” should be a normal question we ask each other a lot. We can run up the spiritual down escalator together.
Join the conversation: What do you do to help run up the spiritual down escalator? What have you found most helpful in prayer? Join the conversation on social media or in the comments below! You can leave a comment by clicking here.