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What is actually happening in our spiritual life, can be different than what we believe it to be

by Deacon Mark Plaiss

      On Tuesday of Holy Week, Sara and I drove up to Door County, Wisconsin and stayed at an inn in Sister Bay. We did not have reservations at this place. Since we were going up there during the week in the “off season,” we bet reservations were not necessary. Our plan was to drive up, do what we wanted and then stop by the inn to see if a vacancy was available. If not, we would just drive back home. We won the bet. We were given room 304 with a lovely view of Green Bay.

      I awoke early the next morning, and from the balcony of our room, I watched the dawn of a new day. The sky was cloudless and slowly grew blue. A layer of pink stretched between that sky and what I assumed was the water of the bay. 

      However, as more light filled the sky, I discerned that what I was seeing was not the water of the bay, but instead, fog, so I was actually seeing three layers - blue sky, the pink of the rising sun and the white of the fog hovering over the water. This fog had not yet rolled inland and the leafless birches that surrounded the inn stood clear in the crisp air.

      Not for long, however. The far side of the bay began to grow visible, and as the calm water of the bay began to sparkle in the rising sun, the fog rolled inland. Soon those birches were shrouded, and the air grew colder and more humid. I beat a hasty retreat back into the room.

      I mention all this because I think our spiritual life is like that morning in Sister Bay. Things can be rolling along pretty good in our spiritual life, but what we believe we are doing, and what is actually happening in our spiritual life, can sometimes be two different things.

      We tend to deceive ourselves in our spiritual life. This often plays out in two different ways. The first way, I believe, is the most common: We go too easy on ourselves. We tell ourselves that, yeah, we have our sins, but we’re certainly not like “that guy” we see on the news – the arsonist, burglar, armed robber, or murderer. 

      I saw this a lot when I would minister at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. I would be talking to an inmate, and another inmate would walk by. The inmate I was talking to would whisper something like, “Man, at least I’m not him!” Of course, the inmate with whom I was speaking was himself a violent offender.

      But such self-deception is certainly not limited to inmates in a prison. How about high school students? Countless times over the years, students have said to me, “Well, it’s not like I’ve killed somebody or anything like that.” Murder seems to be the gold standard against which all other vices and sins are measured, and if the vice or sin doesn’t measure up to the level of murder, well, you’re okay.

      The other way is just as deceptive, but not as prevalent. Still, it has the potential to be far more harmful. Let’s stick again with high school students. I’ve seen students carry around loads of guilt and try to unload it by diving into more service hours, praying a million rosaries, trying to plow through chapters of Scripture (often Old Testament), or trying to memorize the Prayer to St. Michael.

      Now, don’t misunderstand me, here. Reading Scripture, praying the rosary and the prayer to St. Michael are all good things. Serving others is a good thing. 

      My point is that I’ve seen students burst out of the starting blocks on all of this, only to burn out mere days later due to not being able to keep it up. 

      The result? More guilt. And ironically, the sacrament that would actually help them out of their deception is ignored: Reconciliation. 

      In other words, they think they are seeing the water of the bay. They are not; they are seeing the fog, and the fog is rolling in on them. But unlike that morning up at Sister Bay when I could retreat to my warm safe room, they have no room into which to retreat and be safe.

      Here is my suggestion in your fight against self-deception: Find a good spiritual director. Don’t sign up with someone who will coddle you, but rather find someone who will challenge you. We all need someone who will not only notice us falling into self-deception, but who will struggle to pull us out of it. What does C.S. Lewis have Screwtape write to Wormwood? “Keep his mind off the plain antithesis between True and False. [Rather] Nice shadowy expressions – ‘It was a phase’ – ‘I’ve been through all that’ – and don’t forget the blessed word ‘Adolescent.’”

      Watch out for that fog.

         

      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

      

         

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