I was cleaning out old e-mail files in anticipation of a summer laptop replacement and came across a document I wrote in 2003 describing a prayer experience I had that summer during one of my early 8-day directed retreats. I share it for the benefit of those who perhaps have had the same difficulty I did at the time believing I was “good enough” for Jesus to want to be in relationship with me. Perhaps praying the way I was encouraged to do that day may be a help.
Here is what I wrote:
During the first week of August, I made an eight-day retreat at St. Ignatius Retreat House. My retreats there are always grace-filled experiences and this one was no exception.
One of the issues I dealt with during this retreat was my sense of not being worthy, of not being good enough for Jesus. I tend to impose on myself an impossibly high standard and then beat myself up when I don’t meet it. I reason, God has been so good to me, I should be better than I am, a line which, if I follow it long enough, leads to How can God possibly love a miserable wretch like me.
During one of our morning meetings, my retreat director, an extraordinarily gifted young Jesuit scholastic, suggested that I use one scripture passage for my entire day of prayer. The passage was St. Paul’s Hymn of Love (1 Corinthians 13). His instruction to me sounded simple. The first two times I prayed with the passage, I was replace the word “love” with “Jesus,” and read the passage as though I were speaking it to Jesus. I was to hear myself saying to Jesus, “Jesus is always patient, Jesus is always kind. Jesus is never jealous…”, and so on. The next two times I prayed with the passage, I was to replace the word “love” with “Susan,” and hear Jesus saying to me, “Susan is always patient, Susan is always kind. Susan is never jealous…” and so on. I was to say and hear the words over and over again. The grace I was to pray for was the grace of Jesus letting me know my worth in His life.
The first two prayer periods were easy and beautiful. I started with “Jesus is always patient,” going through my life from my early childhood, seeing all the times Jesus stood patiently waiting for me. I saw all the various pebbles he dropped alongside me that I might have used as a means of seeing Him, particularly during the period when I had left the Church. I saw him watching me pass them by, never losing patience. I watched Him patiently at my side moment after moment as I slowly make my way to a deeper closeness with him.
I then moved on to “Jesus is always kind,” and saw all the kindnesses Jesus has shown me. I saw the experiences I have with Him in my prayer periods, reviewing some of the intense experiences of the Nineteenth Annotation (which I had completed not long before this eight-day retreat) – of Jesus laughing with me, hugging me, washing my feet, feeding me Eucharist. And I saw all the kindnesses He shows me through others, thinking of all the many people who help me in my life and in my spiritual practice.
I continued through the first two prayer periods, focusing on several of the other characteristics in the Hymn of Love – Jesus’ lack of jealousy, Jesus never coming to an end, Jesus not being conceited or boastful. At the end of the two prayer periods, I asked myself, what does this say about Jesus love? The strong moment of realization was this: Jesus loves me as a friend. Yes, he is my teacher. Yes, he is my guide. Yes, he is my Lord. But he chooses me to be his friend.
After lunch and a walk around the garden, I settled down for the second part of the exercise. I sat down with difficulty – it was only later that I realized I had been delaying this prayer session with any excuse I could come up with. (I even spent 15 minutes reading the newest St. Ignatius newsletter, which had must been put out that afternoon.) I opened the passage and started reading, inserting my name in place of “Love.” In the beginning, I was like a stage actor who had forgotten her lines, despite having the script in hand. I could barely choke the words out. As they came, they seemed to be laughing at me. “Susan is always patient,” and I thought – what a farce. I’m the furthest thing from patient; lack of patience is one of my great weaknesses.
But then I started reading the words again, slowly, hearing Jesus say them. And I started to hear the words differently and see myself differently – to see the person Jesus was showing me. I read, and heard Jesus say: “Susan is always patient.” What I saw this time, with Jesus, was all the times I am patient: my patience with my daughter when she insists on doing for herself something I could do much more quickly or when she needs to see something for herself rather than taking my word for it; my patience with my seventh grade religious education students, when they ask for the fifteenth time why they won’t receive Confirmation until the ninth grade; my patience when a law student walks in my office during the short period I had allocated to quickly bolting down lunch, asking if I have a few minutes the then opening a notebook full of questions (the first of which goes something like, “I’m not sure I should be here”); my patience in class with my students;’ my patience when spending time in conversation with an old women in our faith community. With Jesus I saw all the things I never see – the times I display enormous patience in all sorts of circumstances. As we looked at all these times, Jesus repeated over and over again, “Susan is always patient,” saying – this is what I see when I see you.
Then I realized how differently Jesus and I looked at me. When I look at myself in connection with “patience,” all I see is the times I fail to live up to the standard of perfection, all I see are the times I am impatient, the times I fail to behave as Jesus would have behaved. Jesus sees those too (and during part of my prayer period we looked at some of those times and talked about how I might be more patient), but what he focuses on is the times I am patient. What he sees in the person he loves is the good.
I moved on, in that prayer period and the next, to “Susan is always kind,” and “Susan is never jealous,” and several of the other phrases in the hymn. The experience was similar with all of them. Jesus would say the words over and over again, and I would see with him all the things I do that make the words he was saying true. He said the words over and over again until I saw that what Jesus sees when he sees me is someone worth loving – someone worth being loved by Jesus. He said the words over and over again until I could see that I am worth being loved by Jesus.
None of this is to say that Jesus ignores my weaknesses. We looked at the times I’ve fallen down. But we looked at them, not with the critical judgment with which I typically beat myself, but with patience and love. Jesus was completely non-judgmental about my weaknesses. He looked at them, he showed me how I can be better, but he did not judge me with the harshness with which I judge myself.