Our fictional friend Tina has a problem. Her problem is the result of her personality: Tina is perfectionistic, quasi-OCD, organized, highly self-conscious, and slightly insecure. What do we get when this psychological recipe comes out of the metaphorical oven? The beginning of Tina’s problem: She’s an over-evaluator.
Tina absolutely loves tracking the status of things: managing projects, making timelines and to-do lists to record progress, attending end-of-year meetings, getting report cards, “checking in” with her boyfriend to see how their relationship is doing, filling in online personality and productivity surveys. In a word, Tina is overly obsessed with feedback.
This becomes problematic for her when she decides to enter the convent.
Four months ago, an eager Tina stepped into the cloister and became Sister Martha of the Generous Heart. Swimming in high ideals of “new-womanhood” and drowning in the holy folds of her new habit, Sister Martha had a long list of good resolutions and concrete plans for how she could efficiently track her progress in the spiritual life.
But now, poor Sister Martha of the Generous Heart has heartburn and a headache. For when her secular assignments, personal projects, and romantic relationships ended with the donning of the holy veil, she turned all her pent-up evaluative energy toward the one thing that lay before her: her prayer life. Now we are at the root of her problem: She doesn’t know how to evaluate how she’s “doing” in her prayers.
Frustrated and distraught, Sister Martha pours out her troubles to her confessor, Father Charlie Pumpratch from Altoona, Kansas. Since the story is fictional, let’s take a gander at the advice Father Pumpratch gives the distraught Sister Martha.
Now, Father, being from a generation of farmers, is well equipped with enough grace-filled, agricultural wisdom to convert the whole state of Idaho. He plants four life-giving seeds of wisdom in Sister Martha’s troubled soul.
First, he reminds her that Jesus is the farmer, and she is the earth. If she wants to evaluate her prayer life, she should ask herself if she acknowledges God’s primary work in her soul. Does she know that without the farmer, there’s no farm? Also, is she working to make her soul a fertile place to receive the Lord’s gift of prayer? Does she work to keep out the crop-eating crows of sin? Does she try to uproot the weeds of distraction? Does she let the Lord fill her soul with the good fertilizer of noble thoughts, life-giving virtues, worthy conversation? What kind of things does she let into her soil? What kinds of books, movies, music, conversation does she let into her heart?
Second, he reminds her that unearthed plants don’t grow. She needs to stop trying to pull up the seeds of prayer to see if they’re growing roots. She needs to patiently avoid unhelpful ways of evaluating: to tone down her judgment of the quality of her meditations, to avoid scrupulously ranking the fervor of each Hail Mary, to stop following every Creed with the question, “How much do I believe this?” Sister Martha needs to be patient and trust in the secret workings of grace as it breaks apart the hard seed of her soul to let the roots of life spread forth.
Thirdly, we can know the healthy plants from the bad by the quality of their fruits. One of the best ways to evaluate our prayer life is to evaluate the level of charity with which we regard others. If Sister is full of hate for her sisters, her prayer life is probably not doing too great; but the greater her love, the healthier her hidden life of prayer.
Finally, self-evaluation is not the goal of prayer; love is. Sister should remember her title: Generous Heart. When fruit is stored up and not used, it rots. Likewise, prayer should not be gathered into a trophy case as one of our accomplishments, but should be directed as an act of love toward God. Prayer should turn our thoughts not to ourselves, but to God.
Father Pumpratch’s advice soothes Sister Martha’s troubled heart. Temporarily consoled, and excited to put her confessor’s advice into practice, she hurries away to her room. After sitting at her desk for a few minutes, puzzling over Father’s words, she takes out a piece of paper and scribbles a prayerful to-do list: “(1) Remember Jesus is in control, (2) Be patient in prayer, (3)…”
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters