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Interior what?

I mentioned previously that the most important component to one being able to effectively evangelize is an interior life. So what is an interior life?

Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange in his tome ''Three Ages of the Interior Life'' states that a genuine interior life begins when a person’s intimate conversations within himself turn towards God. Those conversations running through one’s head are a good place to start because we all have them. They can involve replaying a recent conversation with a coworker that didn’t go well, or one that went exceptionally well. They can involve rehearsing an upcoming confrontation that must take place, or reliving a pleasant memory. They can also involve dreaming about and planning for the future, or simply mentally composing a shopping list.

In one sense, beginning an interior life can be as simple as becoming aware of our interior dialogues. Who are we talking to, really? Our own self? A friend or loved one we imagine to be there? A negative inner voice running us down?

Once we become aware of our interior conversations, the next step is to direct them to God. Instead of talking to ourselves or some other person we imagine to be there, we can talk to God. Talking to God is more commonly known as prayer. Prayer is the basis of the interior life. It also changes everything. If we are truly talking to God, well, he’s not part of us in the same sense that those other voices are. This means that we can’t just fill in his response. If we are truly talking to him, then at some point we have to listen for his response, which means we also have to learn how to “hear” him when he speaks. At that point, God’s presence is making an impact in the way those interior conversations go. We have made the transition from simply talking to ourselves to prayer. From that moment on we have an interior life (as opposed to just interior noise).

Once we have entered into interior prayer, even the most basic form, we have opened ourselves up to God making His presence felt, making Himself known to us, and making His mark on us, even going so far as to completely transform us from the inside out. But prayer itself is its own science as it were. There are guidelines on how to pray well, how to open ourselves up to God’s presence safely (meaning being sure we are interacting with God and not some deceiving spirit). It’s one thing to begin addressing our thoughts to God. It’s another thing to become tuned to God where we are truly listening to Him, and where we truly recognize His voice when He speaks. Developing an interior prayer life takes time and goes through fairly predictable stages which many Church approved Christian mystics such as St. John of the Cross and St. Tereas of Avila have written about. Practicing and learning the art of prayer is developing that budding interior life.

Although prayer is a deeply personal and often individual activity, it does not take place in isolation. Our personal prayer life must be firmly grounded in the life and teachings of the Church, beginning with prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture. The Bible is a collection of books written by various inspired human authors over a long period of time and which have undergone a discernment process where they were determined by humans acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be the words of God. The canon of the Old Testament was in place when Jesus entered creation. The canon of the New Testament was settled in several Church councils near the turn of the fourth century AD. The bottom line for us is that we can trust what the Bible says to be true, especially when we respect the Church’s interpretation of its overall meaning. When we believe God to have spoken to us through His word in Sacred Scripture, and what we heard conforms to Church teaching, we can trust that He really did speak to us.

Once we have made the connection in prayer with God, then God Himself will guide and direct our prayer and our interior development with the ultimate goal of completely uniting us with Him. This is where the various stages of the interior life come in. Actually being united with God is much more than expressing the intent to be united with God. It's also much more than feeling close to God during an especially wonderful prayer experience. This union, when it happens, would be consistent and unhampered by our own sin and impurities.

As could be logically deduced, the early stages of developing an interior life where the soul is moving towards complete union with God are going to be heavy on the purification process. God reaches out to us and initially accepts us at whatever point in life we happen to be when we find Him (or rather, when He finds us). There is no need to first get our lives cleaned up or made acceptable for us to begin the journey. Rather, we bring ourselves to God as we are now, including all our sins and imperfections. God loves us so much and is so happy to see His love returned even in the most imperfect and frail way, that He looks right past all our interior garbage and warmly welcomes us. He is like the father in the famous parable of the prodigal son who has been waiting and watching for a long time for our return, and upon seeing us runs towards us to embrace us.

Next comes the celebration. I'm referring to that interior sense of well being and comfort one gets upon first beginning the prayer life. Everything seems amazing and brand new. Being with God is just awesome and you can't get enough of Him and the wonderful blessings He is pouring out on you.

At some point, though, God in His great love and wisdom begins to purify the soul because all those sins which God was so happy to overlook initially really do get in the way of the soul reaching its full potential. If you think of total union with God as two puzzle pieces fitting perfectly together, or a key fitting into a lock, then imagine how that union would be inhibited if one of the pieces of the puzzle were seriously deformed, or if the key to the lock was damaged. God cannot change to conform to us and our unique manner of damage, which means that we must change to conform to Him. The sin needs to be systematically removed, and the damage repaired.

We ourselves can do nothing to heal our own damage, so God does not require us to do so. However, He does ask us to fully cooperate with Him as He does the work of healing and purifying our souls. The soul begins to feel God's purifying action in various ways which include suffering and a sense of dryness or even boredom in prayer, and otherwise less than pleasant experiences. It's actually a really good sign when prayer which likely was very easy at first becomes more difficult and unexciting, so the best thing to do is to persevere in prayer and keep one's focus on Jesus. The suffering (which could be big or small–but it all matters) while unpleasant is actually accomplishing a very important work, and so should be welcomed, or at least tolerated with an attitude of complete trust in God who knows what He is doing, and who does everything for our good.

Sin runs deep in a soul and pretty much taints everything, so it's a big job to get rid of it. Purification can take many years and won't feel good, but it's an important part of the process. We won't be able to be completely filled with and united with God as long as we continue to hold onto sin. When we become aware of sin, the best thing to do is turn away from it and bring it to sacramental confession as soon as possible. God imparts His grace to us through this sacrament in ways that we may not realize or understand at first. Sacramental confession works closely with personal prayer and suffering to purify us of sin. We can think of these as specialized tools Jesus uses in His delicate work of soul repair.

In my own life I try to consider every last bit of suffering I face, down to the seemingly trivial matters, as a means to my goal of growing in holiness. It's not that I look for suffering (life throws plenty of that my way without my help), and it's not that I enjoy it or anything. But when I recognize that I'm feeling pain, I turn my thoughts to Jesus and ask Him to use it to accomplish His work in my soul. I also ask Him to help me to cooperate with what He's doing. I remember what it is I most want in life, which is full union with God, and that helps me to see whatever it is I'm going through as a means to that end. I think about Jesus Himself, and how much I long for Him and love Him, and I turn my inner self towards Him. He is always there with me. Sometimes I feel like I have connected with Him or felt His presence, but sometimes I have to simply take it on faith. Either way, though, Jesus helps me to remember what it's all for, and why as the expression goes, it's all good, even the experiences that don't feel good.

Growing an interior life–a relationship with God leading to full transforming union–has many challenges along the way. The first is that after an initial period resembling a honeymoon where everything is easy and wonderful, it gets more difficult, sometimes boring, and it involves all kinds of suffering, because quite frankly, getting rid of sin hurts. But it's worth it when you consider the ultimate goal.

Another challenge is that it's very easy to get deceived in prayer because it's not as if we can see or hear God with our natural senses. It's easy to carry on a conversation with God where we ourselves are filling in His part of the dialog rather than really listening for His responses. Also, God may not always respond to us in predictable ways and we could totally miss it or substitute it for what we want Him to say or what we think He ought to say. That gets very tricky, and many sincere souls have fallen astray by thinking they heard God speak in a certain way and then getting attached to the message and acting on it in ways which led to further error. It can be a really nasty vicious circle.

This is why it is very important to be grounded in the Church. This means attending Mass, going to confession, actually reading the Bible during prayer, and educating ourselves about Church teaching, especially moral teaching. A concept which really helped me came from the book ''Holy Abandonment'' by Dom Vitalis Lehodey. There are two general ways in which God expresses His will to us. The first is His signified will, which covers God's basic laws. These include things like the Ten Commandments, the moral teachings of the Church and any other way in which God guides us through His Church. God's signified will is non-specific, in that it applies to everyone and is not specific to the individual circumstances of one's life. The second is His will of good pleasure, which covers those things God wants an individual to do and include specific vocations or ministries, and details such as what kind of house to live in or which job to accept or which geographical location to live in.

In a lot of ways, God's will of good pleasure is more exciting and interesting because after all, it concerns what God is calling me (and only me) to do. For this reason, we are all tempted to skip over attending to God's signified will and instead concern ourselves with His will of good pleasure. However it is very important to know and follow God's signified will because His will of good pleasure will always fall within the boundaries of his signified will. He will never tell you to do something which goes against His signified will. A common extreme example that people are fond of using to illustrate that principle is the absurd notion that God would ever tell someone to go out and rob a bank. God's signified will indicates that stealing is wrong, so therefore His will of good pleasure for an individual will never include stealing. If you ever feel like God is telling you to do something contrary to His signified will, then you need to assume that you are not hearing Him correctly. Hearing God wrong is OK; it just means you have more growing ahead of you. It only becomes a problem when you get attached to the message you think you heard and place the message above God and hold onto the message even when it clearly violates His signified will. It also follows that the way you begin discerning whether a message is actually from God is that you know and value His signified will and you automatically reject anything contrary to that. For the Catholic, that means we strive to live in conformity to Church teaching–all of it. When we discover an aspect of our lifestyle to be in disagreement with Church teaching, we don't insist that the Church change; we allow ourselves to be changed. But in order to find those discrepancies, we need to study God's law and surround ourselves with people who also value it.

Since I know I have non Catholic readers, I want to address something really quickly. As a a Catholic I consider myself to be bound by Catholic Church teaching, including rules such as having to attend Mass every Sunday (or Saturday evening). Obviously, non Catholics do not consider Mass attendance to be applicable to them. I'm not going to argue that point here–we will disagree. I just want to state that many similar disagreements between Catholics and Protestants essentially boil down to a difference in perspective concerning whether a given matter has to do with God's signified will or His will of good pleasure. A Catholic sees Mass attendance as God's signified will, a non-negotiable. You don't even consider skipping Mass unless you're ill. A Protestant (who isn't anti-Catholic) would view Mass attendance as part of God's will of good pleasure–something which clearly doesn't apply to them but which He may be calling at least some Catholics to do. Ditto for being Catholic. We Catholics believe that Jesus really did establish the Catholic Church and that it's His will for everyone to be a part of it. Protestants, on the other hand, believe that God calls some people to denomination A, others to denomination B, and for some incomprehensible reason, He even calls certain ones to the Catholic Church! Attempting to resolve this difference in perspective goes beyond the scope of this essay, but I wanted to at least acknowledge it.

Going back to the original purpose of this essay, which is to give a very basic overview of the interior life, I can summarize it by saying the interior life is a general term used to describe a soul's genuine relationship and interactions with God. Not everyone who claims to be relating to God is actually doing so; therefore an interior life, while individual in nature, has to be lived out and discerned in the context of the Church which has through inspiration and experience set out principles for safely navigating the spiritual world. The Church context includes Church teaching and practice, sacraments and community.

Catholicism | Devtome Writers


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