When I was nearing completion of Already There, I happened to mention that I was finishing work on the book to a fellow Jesuit who wasn’t aware I’d been writing it. In the nicest possible way, he asked me something along the lines of, “What makes you think you have the experience/authority/knowledge (I forget the exact words) to claim to teach someone what the spiritual life is about?” It was meant sincerely, not in an accusatory way. My first reaction was surprise. How is it, I wondered, that I had gotten this close to finishing the book without anybody else asking me that question? The second was relief, because I had an answer that I didn’t have to fumble around for.
The answer was that I was very deliberate to point out in the book that I didn’t have all the answers. That I had some experiences that suggested answers, and that often those insights came from the experience of screwing things up. I will never lay claim to being a guru who gets or has gotten everything right. At the same time, I can’t pretend that I haven’t learned some things over the years that others might find it helpful to know about. As flawed as my experience is or has been, God has given me the gift of being able to reflect profitably on those experiences and to communicate them verbally and in writing in ways that some people find helpful. (This means also contending with the perception by some that simply by writing such a book I am being presumptuous or am full of myself, which I hope with God’s help I am not)
As unqualified as I sometimes feel to help others in their spiritual lives, I also have come to have some confidence that God can still use me in this way, despite my shortcomings. Indeed, when I am offering spiritual direction or hearing a confession, I often find myself thinking that the other person should be sitting in my chair! They seem to have a much better prayer life than I do, I think. Or, they’re doing a much better job of resisting sin or temptation than I am! It’s very humbling to be put into this position. And it’s even more humbling to know that despite my unworthiness, that through me God is able to bring guidance and consolation to that person.
Though it was not the case with the Jesuit I mentioned, people often do ask us questions like, “Who do you think you are?,” in an accusatory way. As troublesome as it is, we all have to acknowledge that there is (or should be) a gap between who we think or know we are, and who God is calling us to be. Otherwise, there would be no need to advance in the spiritual life, and no need for people like me to write books about how we are trying to bridge that gap, or at least shorten it.
There is a great and wonderful mystery contained in our realization of this reality. We realize that we are all at different places in our relationship with God, and called to different things, and thus the more we find ourselves called upon to help others in their spiritual journeys, the more we realize the need ourselves to let others help us.
Each of us is meant in our own way to stand among both the guides and the guided. Our challenge is to be humble enough to know which of these we are meant to be in a given situation. We might think we are meant to lead, but realize we are being called to follow; and sometimes we are content to follow and find ourselves called to lead. In both cases, we have to contend with our pride, and the question, “Who do you think you are?,” becomes very important. But now it is not an accusatory affront, but an invitation from God.
I think one of God’s greatest challenges is trying to get us to match up who we think we are with who God knows us to be. God doesn’t want us to think either too much or too little of ourselves, and God wants us to trust that by responding to our calling, who we are now is sufficient to achieve God’s purpose, even if we are not yet who we—or God—desire us to be.