Once upon a time I was a teenage Catholic who wanted to go to heaven when I died, someday. I figured I would get the going to heaven thing taken care of and then get down to the business of living life, knowing that I had the afterlife under control. I suppose there was a sort of wisdom in that. That is, I recognized a fundamental principle that "what does it matter if one gains the whole world, if you pay for it by losing your soul." I realized that it would be a bit embarrassing if I made it through life acheiving all sorts of great things, and found that I had missed the grade by a few Masses or a good confession. So I set out to find for myself what I had to do to get to heaven.
I knew, of course, from my years in catechism class, that if you died after making a good confession you would eventually end up in heaven, by way of purgatory. Bonus points could be acquired by receiving communion and last rites at the hour of death, and, if all else failed there was always an "act of perfect contrition." At the moment of death I would simply make an "act of perfect contrition" and be forgiven and end up in heaven a few minutes later. (My naivete in that regard is subject for a whole other blog!)
All of this was well and good, but I had a sort of idea that I wasn't doing enough. I didn't want to put the whole Catholic thing on autopilot until I was sure it was on the right course with a little wiggle room to left and right, just in case. Given that life could last for a while and unforeseen circumstances might arise, it seemed wise to me to have a fallback plan, a little something that would put me over the top.
In the course of my extensive reading of somewhat childish hagiography I had somewhere come across the idea that if you said three Hail Mary's a day, every day, you were guaranteed to save your soul. There were other options out there, such as wearing the brown scapular or the medal of the Immaculate Conception, but three Hail Mary's seemed the least bother and most reliable. After all, a medal or a scapular can break and fall off, but I am not likely to lose my ability to say the Hail Mary. So I said, "Three short prayers a day, about two minutes of praying if I really stretch it out, in exchange for guaranteed eternal life? Deal!!!"
Little did I know! You think you're just going to say three a day, no big deal, not super
crazy or anything. You can rattle through them no problem, and it
needn't interfere with your busy schedule at all. It's a sweet deal, but
you need to read the fine print.
That is really the reason I am writing this, to warn other innocent teens out there to be careful about saying Hail Mary's. It like the marijuana of the spiritual life. (All sorts of jokes about "Mary-uana" are being consigned to oblivion in my brain right now.) You start out with three a day, and you go along just swimmingly for a bit, but sooner or later a little voice in your head is going to start saying, "Well, three are nice, but wouldn't five be nicer? What about ten? That's only about five minutes of prayer time a day, and then they become a decade of the rosary, which is super extra bonus points!"
But you cannot say just a decade, you have to say the "Apostles Creed," "Our Father" and "Glory Be" as well. And then you have to have something to think about while you are making your way through those five tedious minutes, so you start looking up the mysteries in the Gospel to read about them. Then you start feeling like maybe you should at least try to pay a little bit of attention at Mass, you know, not like getting into it or anything, but maybe, you know, like actually thinking about the Mass and stuff instead of video games.
Who knows where you go from there. You see, it starts out with a little Mary-uana, and then you decide to try out some Eucharist, maybe some spiritual reading, even a holy hour now and again. It is a slippery slope, and, all jokes aside, it is utterly terrifying.
I remember two such instances, both from when I was 19 in Korea. That was when I committed to saying a decade of the Rosary every day, and when I committed to reading for chapters in the Bible every day. Both choices scared the Hell out of me (in the most literal possible sense). In the case of the Bible reading I was afraid of failing, and getting bored with it. I argued myself into it on the grounds that it was not a valid argument against. After all, how is trying and failing in any way inferior to not trying at all? And why would I fail? What was there to prevent me from following through other than my own laziness?
In the case of the Rosary I was frightened because I had a feeling I would like it, and then it wouldn't be enough. I would then be called to a whole rosary, five decades, every day. I was okay with offering God 7 minutes a day, but not 20, and I knew if I gave Him the 7 it would not be long before He would demand the 20. It is the same with giving money or time to ministry or the Church. It is not enough, and we know it is not enough when we give it, and we know that as soon as we are accustomed to this level of "generosity" a higher level will be required. Best not even to mess with it.
This is how it has always been. I have come a long way since my three Hail Mary days, and I know that I have not gone far enough. I have become a hardcore user, I am into Mass, Eucharistic Adoration (the ecstasy of the spiritual life), and spiritual reading. This is where it becomes a slippery slope. You lose the "what is He going to ask from me next" and you turn a corner and you just want to give it all to Him. Not give away, necessarily, because in reality He takes very little from you. Instead you want to give it to Him in the sense that you want everything you have and are to be available to Him for His use, every second of every day, 24/7/365 until the end. You lose all fear of being drawn deeper, and instead fear not being drawn deep enough. Instead of asking "How much do I have to give to make the grade," you ask, "How can I squeeze out just a little bit more to give?" You look back on all the times you have held back and they break your heart. I look back and see how even as recently as this morning I held back, I did not give everything, and I wish I could go back and change it. You see how far short you fall, how enough is never enough because we are utter emptiness waiting to be filled with utter fullness, and anything that at present seems to fill us is nothing but an appetizer. The insane abandon and reckless radicality of St. Francis, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. John of the Cross, and St. Therese of Lisieux, begin to make sense, and to accuse you. When St. Paul's hardcore zealotry begin to make sense, you know you've hit a new low.
Then even the weaknesses in your prayer become the subject of your prayer: "Lord, I pray so poorly. Make up what is lacking in my prayer. My lips are moving but I do not know you in my heart. Reveal yourself to me. I think great thoughts but do not live them in the office, at home, in the world. Live your life in me."
And the descent continues.