When we cease to dream
Rev. José Mario O. Mandía
Terry Laughlin, the American swimming coach who developed Total Immersion, a method that teaches how to swim with ease and efficiency, believes in the principle that one can always and should always aim to improve. Every time he goes into the water, he asks, “What aspect can I improve in my stroke today?” Anyone who does not do this falls into what he calls “terminal mediocrity.”
The same thing can happen in the spiritual life. Once I say, “Oh, I’m okay, I’m satisfied with the way I am,” then I am slipping down the spiritual slope, I have lapsed into “terminal mediocrity.” The mediocre man is the man who has ceased to dream. He is the man who has given up, the one who has abandoned all hope.
Jesus always warned his apostles to be on the lookout, not to rest in their past achievements, but to always aim higher. Otherwise, they would turn mediocre and eventually succumb to the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (cf Peter 5:8).
Using the story of Peter’s denial, Archbishop Fulton Sheen once explained the steps that lead to mediocrity and lukewarmness, symptoms of spiritual decay. Let me describe them briefly.
When Jesus prophesied that his apostles would abandon him once he is arrested, Peter swore, “‘Though all else should lose courage over thee, I will never lose mine. … I will never disown thee, though I must lay down my life with thee.’ And all the rest of his disciples said the like” (Matthew 26: 33, 35). Don’t you and I keep making the same empty promises?
Yet, Pope Francis reminds us of the sad truth. “We are all sinners and we are all tempted and temptation is our daily bread,” he said on 31 January 2014. He went on, “If one of us said: ‘I never had a temptation’, either you’re a cherubim [an angel] or a bit stupid, no?”
Two months earlier, on 20 November 2013, he had already remarked, “Priests, too, need confession, even bishops. We are all sinners. Even the Pope goes to Confession every two weeks because the Pope, too, is a sinner,” he said. “My confessor hears what I say, offers me advice and forgives me. We all need this.”
In his tweet on the 18th of February this year, the Pope wrote, “Lord, grant us the grace to know we are sinners.”
When was the last time I admitted my sinfulness and asked for forgiveness?
GIVING UP ON PRAYER
Jesus told his apostles to pray with him. But he had barely begun when “he went back to his disciples, to find them asleep” (Matthew 26:40). Do I believe the Lord’s words that one “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1)? Do I have a regular appointment with my Lord every single day, or do I wait for problems to crop up before I go down on my knees? Do I easily invent excuses to put off or cancel my meeting with him? Do I only tell him what I want him to do for me, or do I ever ask what he wants from me? Do I keep on talking, or do I let him speak to me? Do I ever thank him for the things he has given me, for the people he has placed by my side? Do I share my joys with him? Do I ever praise him? Do I worship him with a sincere heart?
RELYING EXCLUSIVELY ON HUMAN MEANS
“One of those who were with Jesus lifted a hand to draw his sword, and smote one of the high priest’s servants with it, cutting off his ear” (Matthew 26:51). Our soul is in great danger when success in our human projects makes us think we are supermen. In his Lenten message this year, Pope Francis spoke about “the diabolical temptation of thinking that by our own efforts we can save the world and ourselves.” Speaking through John, God says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:15-17).
NOT GETTING TOO INVOLVED
“Yet Peter followed him at a long distance….” (Matthew 26:58) The paradox of the lukewarm person is that he wants to save his soul but is not willing to go all the way. He is happy with half-measures. He doesn’t want to be damned, yet he is not willing to shoulder the cost. He settles for the minimum, and so has never learned to love. Saint John of the Cross says, “At the evening of our life, we shall be judged on love.”
One becomes spiritually mediocre when he tries to avoid grave sin but is not sorry for venial sins. But Saint Teresa of Avila warns us, “Always be fearful if you do not feel sorry for the faults you commit, for even venial sin ought to fill you with sorrow to the very depths of your soul…. For the love of God, take care not to commit any deliberate venial sin, even the smallest….”
LOOKING FOR CREATURE COMFORTS
“It was cold, and the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, and stood there warming themselves; there Peter stood too, warming himself with the rest” (John 18:18). As one moves away from the warmth of God’s love, he looks for other sources of warmth. Technology provides us with comforts we have never known before. But we should beware lest the comforts become an addiction. “One has to give the body a little less than its due. Otherwise it turns traitor.” (St Josemaría Escrivá, The Way, 196) After Judas had made friends with his Master’s enemies, he “sought an opportunity to betray him” (Luke 22:6).
WHAT TO DO, THEN?
So what should we do so as not to succumb to this terminal disease? We need to catch the Lord’s gaze in prayer, look him in the eye, and pick ourselves up – with his grace – and make a fresh start. Let us recall the scene after Peter had denied Jesus three times. “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered what the Lord had said to him …. And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:61)