Earlier I wrote about the image of journey in the context of salvation history and about some important implications of this image. Now it seems to me that an obvious implication of journeying that I (and I suspect others as well) often miss is simply the reality that a journey involves change and eventual progress. I think that there are two types of Catholics involved here. Some people of course are simply nominal Catholics. They identify themselves as Catholic on census forms and such but make no real effort to practice their faith. Other people occupy the pews on Sundays but their faith is static. Faith does not challenge them or change them over time. Neither of these two types of people are journeying. Some writers have commented on the difficulty people have in recognizing this reality.
In his book, Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer, Fr. Thomas Dubay quotes St Bernard as observing that there are more people converted away from serious sin than there are good people converted from good to better followers of Christ. In other words, good people find it difficult to change and spiritual growth demands change. The Jesuit Fr. William O’Malley wrote in a high school religion text that inertia was in his view one of the two most basic sins. Another author, M. Scott Peck wrote that the reluctance of people to accept the harsh reality of change was a basic cause of much of the psychopathology that he encountered in his practice.
The Exodus story illustrates the truth of these comments. At the beginning of Exodus 16 the people have just been freed from slavery in Egypt when they begin to complain. They see nothing but threats ahead of them and long for the security of Egypt where they at least had enough to eat. I remember the first time I encountered this as a real – life truth. Some years back I was speaking to a close friend who had left an abusive marriage with her children. Doing this was difficult for her. She had been out of the workforce for some time and all she could see was a future with her and her four children on welfare. She told me that she was thinking of returning to her abusive husband. Now years later she has a good job, has raised a marvelous family and is a happy grandmother. Luckily for her she had the courage to continue on the journey. Other Exodus stories illustrate this reluctance to journey as well. They regularly complain about hunger and thirst and easily forget their covenant relationship with God.
What does this have to do with individual spiritual life? Fr Dubay in his book compares our outlook about spiritual growth to our outlook regarding health and diet. In both cases we know what we should be doing (we know what foods are good or bad) and we have at least a vague intention to do the right thing but we struggle to do so. I was impressed recently when the pastor of our parish was appointed to be the new archbishop of the diocese. In his first homily after the appointment he spoke of his feelings at first in terms of death. He felt like he was dying. He went on to give an explanation of life as a series of moments of dying to what was and being reborn to new realities and new possibilities. This is a good explanation of life as a journey. I think St. Augustine had this kind of journey in mind when he wrote:
So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do – sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress, however, must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith and right living. Sing then, but keep going.
-St Augustine, Office of Readings, Saturday of the Thirty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time