I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
– Jesus to his disciples in today’s Gospel [Jn 16:12]
This line of Jesus has always seemed to me one of the most merciful, yet ignored, things he ever said. Jesus clearly recognizes that, for most of us at the present stage of our growth in discipleship, some Gospel commands are just impossible: We can’t (yet) understand, or do, what He tells us – and He understands and is sympathetic to us in our present condition.
In forty-seven years of hearing confessions, I have too-often heard penitents put impossible burdens on themselves because they don’t understand Jesus’ words here. It is certainly admirable (and necessary) to work toward greater holiness; but some sinful habits are healed on God’s timetable, not our own. So long as we are willing to respond to God’s grace when it is offered, we can be at peace with imperfection.
Long ago I learned from the late priest-psychologist Fr. Benedict Groeschel a question that I’ve asked myself over and over through the years when I guide and counsel people: What is “the next good step” for this person right now? It’s relatively easy given the wisdom of our Catholic tradition to have the ultimate goal for a person’s growth in view; what is not so easy is to uncover what is possible for a person at the present moment that will move him or her in the right direction. I’m sure parents know this and face this question regularly in helping their children to mature: What is the next good step?
We know that children need to grow toward maturity, and we help them to move past their failures and to learn from them without undue guilt; but this is a wisdom that is too rarely applied to our own spiritual growth or to others’. (Perhaps the root fault is that we don’t have a robust vision of spiritual growth during adulthood. It’s as if there are “the saints” – and then “everybody else, like me”; but there’s no sense of a progression from where I am right now toward sainthood except following abstract rules and that often doesn’t work very well.)
Part of the difficulty is that our culture never had, until very recently, a sense that it was possible for adults to continue to grow intellectually and emotionally throughout adulthood. The sense once was that, once you were an adult that was that and all adults were “finished” in some sense. (It may have been the publication in 1976 of Gail Sheehy’s Passages that started to change that assumption; Sheehy’s book was based on about 40 years of psychological research on adults; she made that research available to the broader public.)
You don’t have to be an expert in what psychologists have discovered about change during adulthood to appreciate one key spiritual fact: God isn’t finished with you, yet – and you can’t understand, now, where God wants to take you. Last week I wrote about the mysterious attractiveness of what the Holy Spirit holds out for us; it’s exactly the pursuit of that mystery that leads us to grow.
(Sometimes I use the image of driving at night on a dark road with only the car’s headlights to illuminate the way. We know the destination, but not every turn in the road that leads us there. And the headlights don’t illuminate the entire path to our destination only that part of the road we need to navigate in the next few seconds. Knowing “the next good step” is a matter of responding accurately to what’s right now in the headlights. We learn to do it while driving; too rarely do we learn how to do it for our spiritual growth.)
So this is my next-to-last bit of what really matters: ask, regularly, What is the next good step for me? Don’t fret about not being at the goal yet; God doesn’t care about how far along the Path we’ve come or have yet to travel: God cares only that we’re moving in the right direction, taking the next good step.
Until next week, peace.