Dom Mark Kirby is the Prior of the excellent Silverstream Priory (Benedictines), north of Dublin in Ireland. He is also probably (so many of us think) the author of the book In Sinu Jesu…The Journal of a Priest at Prayer, which I recommend very highly for every priest and for everyone who loves and prays for priests. For many years, Fr. Kirby has also written a blog, Vultus Christi (The Face of Christ), full of spiritual insight.
One of the things that Fr. Kirby often posts on his blog is commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. Now the Rule is a classic of Western spirituality; its wisdom is for more than just Benedictine monks and nuns/sisters. If you haven’t ever read the Rule of St. Benedict, I encourage you to do so.
The most recent commentary Fr. Kirby posted led him to speak about the reality of morbid introspection. He speaks about novices and monks, but this wisdom is valid for all. Here is an excerpt, followed by some commentary of my own:
The novice or the monk who focuses on himself will become melancholic and troubled; he loses himself in self–analysis. What am I thinking? What am I feeling? How does this thing affect me? How do others see me? Such thoughts centre around I and me. Much energy is wasted in such self–absorbing ruminations. Their effect is to shrink the capacity of the soul. Self–knowledge that is lucid and honest has its place in the monastic life, but there is no place in the monastic life for morbid introspection. The monk who thinks more about himself, his feelings, his image, his needs, and all the hurts (real or imagined) that come with life in community, is like a man who closes the shutters, windows, and doors of his house, draws the blinds and curtains, and then ruminates his misery, in a room deprived of light and fresh air.
When tempted to morbid introspection, begin to praise God. Even if, at first, your praise of God seems forced, persevere in praising Him. The act of praise begins not in sentiment, but in the will. Praise mingled with tears is an acceptable sacrifice. The praise that rises from an afflicted heart or from a place of darkness is doubly precious because it is disinterested and gratuituous. God is worthy of praise at every moment and in all circumstances.
One of the temptations we may sometimes face in prayer is not so much to pray, properly-speaking, as to “think in the presence of God”. This is not automatically bad in itself, for God is concerned about our thoughts and he also does not need our words. A favorite Bible verse of mine comes from the last chapter of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Heaven is my throne, earth is my footstool: what kind of house would you build for me…?'” (66:1). In other words, everything we do — everything we can say — pales in comparison with the majesty of God.
In any case, God is interested us, as fumbling as our words and other efforts may be. And in this sense, merely thinking in his presence (instead of praying) could also go bad. Not only because he does want to hear from us — but also because when we approach him merely to think in his presence, our thoughts may quickly become self-absorbed. So often, the “thinking in the presence of God” that we might do is really “thinking about ourselves”.
Focusing on ourselves in the presence of God most often leads to sadness. Frankly, it leads to that even if we don’t place ourselves in the presence of God before going down that route. And the temptation behind this practice is tricky, indeed: it tells us that we should analyze ourselves more, even that we should stir up sentiments of sadness about how pitiful we might be. But it is all so turned inward. It is spiritual navel-gazing.
The solution is not to never think about ourselves or examine our consciences. Rather, it is to do so in a way that opens back out to the Lord. Think of it as exposing your wounds to him for healing — followed by thanksgiving to him for his greatness, praise for his goodness, hope expressed in his almighty power.
A classic paradigm for prayer is ACTS — adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication. Where does morbid introspection fit into this? It doesn’t. Adoration centers mostly around praise. Contrition involves introspection, but turned back to God for his mercy and healing. Thanksgiving perhaps also involves introspection, as we thank God for the ills from which he has already delivered us and for all the other blessings he has given. Indeed, thanksgiving often involves praise. And supplication may involve some introspection as we ask for what we need — but praying for ourselves should usually be secondary to praying for others and the world, lest we end up becoming too self-involved.
If you struggle with a tendency to grow sad by focusing on your problems/difficulties, the advice that Fr. Kirby gives is right on, and I’ll paraphrase: cut it out, and praise God instead. Praising God can be difficult for those who have not been given to doing so. Sometimes one does not know where to start. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of praise to be found in the scriptures. Take the last six psalms (145-150), for example: all of them have to do with praise. Many other psalms do so, as well. Take a look at Psalm 33.
There are also many other scripture verses that one can use as a sort of aspiration (in old books, these short exclamations were called “ejaculations”). Besides scripture verses in this regard — and everyone must find the verses that s/he likes — there are many similar prayers from our Catholic tradition. Old prayer books and internet searches are helpful.
Praise of God helps us to forget self and focus on the only One who can save us, who can truly help us amidst our misery. “For without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). “If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20). Lurking behind many temptations to morbid introspection is the idea that we can control our destinies: that if only we figure things out, then we can fix it. But God does not need our understanding at all. Our finite understanding can only go so far, but the Lord sees all. “What kind of house would you build for me?”; he desires, rather, to build us a house. “I go to prepare a place for you…” (John 14:2).