Imagine you are a spiritual director. You are meeting with a directee, Jun, who is a Christian, who is seeking God, who has gone so far as to seek out a spiritual director. You ask Jun to describe his prayer, and he responds thus:
Sometimes when I pray I remember something I’ve done in the past or thoughts I’ve had or things I’ve wanted, and I see how far short I’ve fallen, and I can’t stand myself. I want to die. I just say “Lord, kill me now.” So far he hasn’t answered my prayer, but maybe someday.
Pause, consider. What is this person seeking in prayer?
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
What advice would you give?
What strikes you about the prayer? What is it that Jun is seeking?
Discernment is necessary. Is Jun actually feeling suicidal? If he were, it might be necessary to refer him to someone trained in such matters. But it doesn’t sound as though he is suicidal—he never makes such a suggestion. Instead, he seems to be expressing strong remorse or shame or contrition at what he sees inside himself. It seems as though he is describing a desire to be free of the pain of remorse. Or maybe he is expressing a desire to die to self. Or perhaps the pain he is putting into words is the pain of dying to self.
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
Contrition is of course a fundamental part of the process of death and rebirth. It’s the death part. One would not wish to stay at the death stage, but neither is it possible to proceed to the rebirth stage without going through it.
Actually, it’s probably not accurate to talk about death and rebirth as disjoint stages. Instead, we increasingly die to self, and at the same time we are increasingly reborn in Christ. Contrition grows. For those who walk this path, it grows until it is their greatest pain, greater than any external loss or suffering, for it is a taste of the pain of purgation we will experience when all things are revealed.
When the light of grace shines within, the first thing it illumines is ourselves. In the Ladder of Divine Ascent, John Climacus says that the light of discernment is given to us in three stages—knowledge of self, knowledge of the world, and knowledge of God. This knowledge of self that Jun has received, then, is the first stage of the gift of discernment.
St. Symeon the New Theologian puts it this way: “you may recognize that grace is active in you when you truly feel that you are a greater sinner than all other [people].” (Philokalia, IV, p. 59)
The pain of contrition doesn’t end in this life—instead, we come to terms with it. We agree with the voice that accuses us. We see that it speaks the truth. We understand that we truly are like that, that we don’t deserve any good from God, that we cannot save ourselves, that there is nothing good in us by nature, that any good in us is of grace. And we accept it. This is the source of deep humility, but also of gratitude to God for his grace. The pain transmutes into thanksgiving and praise. We are at peace. I am nothing, I have nothing, I desire nothing but Jesus.
Humility does not hold itself in unduly high esteem. When humble people see that they fall short of the mark, they are saddened but not surprised. Instead, they resolve to fly truer toward the target next time. Thus, Jun’s reaction betrays some lack of humility, or maybe a humility that is growing but not yet fully mature. He should be directed away from self and toward God, away from the pain of self-knowledge and toward gratitude and praise.
Jun, it is true that you are the worst of all sinners, just as it is true that I am the worst of all sinners. But Jesus died for sinners, not for the righteous. Look to him alone for salvation—which should be easier for you to do now that you see what is inside yourself.
St. Teresa said that God told her not to think about herself so much—that she should think about God and let God worry about her. You should do the same. Be at peace and give thanks in all situations.
Meditate on this statement of the pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim:
But my ignorance has gained more light from interior prayer than from anything else, and that I have not reached by myself, it has been granted me by the mercy of God and the teaching of my starets. And that can be done by anyone. It costs nothing but the effort to sink down into silence in the depths of one’s heart and call more and more upon the name of Jesus. Everyone who does that feels at once this inward light, everything becomes understandable to him, he even catches sight in this light of some of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. And what depth and light there is in the mystery of a man coming to know that he has this power to plumb the depths of his own being, to see himself from within, to find delight in self-knowledge, to take pity on himself and to shed tears of gladness over his fall and his spoiled will!