I was no longer praying, or hardly at all. The time which I did still devote to prayer, at rare intervals or in circumstances which made it an obligation for me, seemed long, interminable. I was bored stiff, head and heart were empty; I looked for the moment to be ‘delivered’, longed for the moment of my ‘deliverance’.
I always had something else to do, something more urgent, more important, more useful.
There was scarcely any time left for prayer and I was a past master at finding or creating things to do or reasons for doing nothing. Year after year the rot sets in and immobilises you. You are bound hand and foot, or rather, I would say, faced with a mountain to be shifted. How can you do that when you have lost all your flexibility and, to tell the truth, all true hope, perhaps even all really serious desire. A few listless efforts (for you’re not much bothered about succeeding then), some abortive attempts which make you say: ‘You see, there is nothing one can do.’ A retreat from time to time (thanks be to God, some links still remain) and occasionally a spurt, quickly exhausted, for retreat resolutions do not last long once life is resumed, with the habits that are only too firmly rooted.
At times I was conscious of a certain regret. Formerly I had prayed, had had a taste for prayer. I had even increased the time I devoted to it. I had lived through experiences of consolation and peace. I had even, for a moment, considered the contemplative life. And then it had all melted away like a summer haze. I was left with some nostalgia, as it were, the memory of a (small) Paradise Lost.
But there were no angels with flaming swords (Gen. 3: 24) barring the entry to it for me. It had simply become choked up with undergrowth, like those old paths overgrown with brambles. And if I had not lost the memory of it, access to it appeared to be closed to me. I had let the brambles hide the path. A certain nostalgia, then, but ineffective and, in any case, insufficient to ‘shift the mountain’.
I was well aware that more fresh starts would be needed. But did I really want it?
If it had been brought to me on a dish, like the head of St John the Baptist to Salome (she had at least paid for it with her dancing!), I would have accepted it without any doubt. But probably it would not have lasted. The desire in my heart was not as yet sufficiently awake, the countless disappointments and setbacks which followed almost every endeavour were too painful. And then you tell yourself that in the end one can live very well without prayer. True, it is nothing to be proud of, but if appearances are preserved, one is able to put up with one’s brief shame quite well. Inevitably, my spiritual life continued to deteriorate. Already whole sectors of it had caved in. Thanks be to God, that secret nostalgia which dogged me, goaded me to action at times, and at other times caused a moment of panic: ‘All the same I must… This sort of thing can’t go on indefinitely!’ Blessed nostalgia, which prevented me from resigning myself wholly to the situation, to this practical absence of prayer.
‘This sort of thing can’t go on.’
That is what the Jesuit Father whom I continued to see once or twice a year said to me one day. Those words rang like an alarm for me. I was dimly aware of the fact, but I was reluctant to face up to it, for that would have obliged me, at least, to take the necessary steps. In the last resort, it is clear to me today, I was afraid of having to be truly converted. I had gradually settled down into a modus vivendi, a sort of compromise with mediocrity, nothing very dreadful, but nothing, either, to be proud of.
Then the good father went on: ‘Would you be prepared to make a ten-day retreat?’ Ten days! I, who never lasted out a four-day retreat and who was already seeking to escape on the evening of the third day, alleging a mass of urgent business – ten days – an eternity! Happily the person who was to lead these spiritual exercises was the right man for the job. I knew him to be excellent and had already appreciated him on other occasions. Doubtless I would have declined those ten days if it had been anyone else.
The fact remains that, God alone knows by what grace, something in me had moved. Another desire had made itself felt. ‘Very well, I’ll do it!’ I replied. Prudently, faced with so quick a compliance, the good father booked me in for the retreat at once. It was still a few months off and I felt much foreboding. Meanwhile, nothing in my life changed. It would be quite soon enough to worry about that if the retreat shook something in me. But the desire for it remained alive and I think that it was true.
When the day came, I felt that I was ready for anything. My forebodings had melted away. Even the prospect of having to be converted was pleasant. I was cheerful, full of hope. Something was going to happen. Life was going to be new. Ten days: I should have time to make a bit of a beginning then and there. And, for that matter, quite a bit had been done already. It had happened of its own accord, without any effort on my part. Yes, I mean that: without any effort on my part. I had still done nothing, but I was no longer the same. The gloom which had haunted me for years, and a certain weariness with everything, was giving way to a bit of a smile, though still tentative and hesitant.
But it was a smile: God’s first smile.
At the time I didn’t notice anything. I am quite optimistic by nature and new experiences have always brought me satisfaction. It is only now that I have realised that it was God’s smile. More and more the smile which I received seemed to me quite out of proportion with what I had agreed to do. I had simply offered a small ‘yes’, the ‘yes’ of the man who says to himself, and is told by others, ‘this sort of thing can’t go on.’ It was a tiny, insignificant ‘yes’, a ‘yes’ which had not yet entailed any change in my life; a ‘yes’ which had not been endorsed by any effort.
But this ‘yes’ that was so slight a matter, this tiny and insignificant ‘yes’, was enough for something in my heart to rock, like when one finds oneself suddenly relieved of a weight without having moved a finger. That much I had received, and I was not even aware of it. With a small ‘yes’, a ‘yes’ that you say to God, you release, unknown to you, and set in motion that whole power of God’s love, the whole of his generosity, which is never satisfied with what it has done for you and is already giving back to you, hundredfold, what you have scarcely begun to give.