Stairway to Heaven

Do you say your night prayers regularly? And, if so, of what do they consist? I raise the question not because I am good at saying night prayers but because I believe we should all pause from time to time and consider what we do about this. One issue came to my mind: the examination of conscience. This is most naturally related to going to Confession – although there it may add up to little more than reading a list of possibilities listed in a prayer book – and picking the most obvious. But, given that Confession is less frequent nowadays, it has increased in its importance.

Since I am a wizard at self-justification I need to start with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. I find this not only clears my mind, but it makes it hard to fool myself. And I don’t try to cover the waterfront. Were I to look at my detailed rights and wrong throughout the day, it would not only take half the night but, in thinking about everything, I am likely to do nothing about anything. Of course on any day there may be an incident requiring immediate attention, but usually it’s still the old, old struggle with my perennial faults. Forgive me if I don’t list them – I find them hard enough to accept before God, let alone before you lot. Public confession may be good, but the internet is taking it a little too far.

In fact I don’t even check on all my faults because I think it better to work on one or two at a time. That allows me to think in a very practical way so that I can see whether the barometer of grace with respect to that fault or tendency is going up or down – and what I can in practice do about it. It will be checked the following night.

An important point (important because it appears often to be neglected) is to notice my positive progress. That may sound like self indulgent praise, but just as our sinfulness tends towards our increasing sinfulness so our improvements lead to greater improvements. My celebration of even a little progress is accompanied by my awareness of the rôle of grace.

Tonight (I am drafting this last Sunday) I will be considering the sermon I heard this morning. It took less than three minutes, but it hit home. In briefing the 72 disciples whom Jesus sent out to carry his word, his instruction was “Whatever house you go into, let your first words be ‘Peace to this house.’” So tonight I will be thinking what peace have I offered today. What peace have I offered to my wife?, what peace have I offered to casual friends who call or telephone?, what peace have I offered to a parishioner who parks his car across my drive when going to Mass?, what peace have I offered to readers of this blog if I make a contribution? It’s all rather pedestrian, I fear, but then love is for the most part pedestrian. And actions are more powerful than the holiest of intentions.

I see the Christian life not as a judgment of whether we are in a state of grace or not, but as a staircase. The top rung is infinitely high for there I would be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. No, I am much further down on my own step. The issue for me is not a supernatural leap to the top, but whether or not I am taking my next step downwards or upwards. Night prayers and prudent examination of conscience seem to me the strategy most like to succeed. What do you think?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Stairway to Heaven

  1. Barrie Machin says:

    Quentin has raised a very important question which actually can be answered in a far simpler way than worrying about it quite as much as my good friend does!
    First of all God knows all about us (he made us) and every single fault we have.
    Hence ‘Forgive me Lord a sinner’ amen
    I feel prayer time is best aimed at the needs of others known to us who are perhaps wrestling with a family problem they have shared with us or some illness or other problems.
    My church has a monthly prayer list that helps us to call to mind those members we might not know very well but fir whom we can remembet in our prayers wherever or whenever we can devite to prayer.

    • Vincent says:

      Barrie, I don’t think it need be one or the other. The emphasis your church gives to the needy may be a good way to start. But surely to declare ourselves as sinners suggests that we need to look at our faults regularly, and how we might correct them. It surely has an important place in our spiritual lives.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Barrie Machin.
      Two local Parish’s who look after 7 churches in my area their weekly newsletter also have a list of all the sick and housebound
      who we pray for every week. It is a comforting thought.

  2. Alasdair says:

    This so reminds me of the 70s Rock Classic line – “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven”. Of course there is no stairway to heaven, no need to try to climb one, and certainly no need to buy one – although there are plenty of religious second-hand-car-salesmen out there trying to sell you one. One cannot reach heaven by one’s own efforts.It’s sufficient to remember that “Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” Romans 10:13. The Holy Spirit will ensure that everything flows from that – an escalator if you will.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Quentin.
      For a moment I thought you were going to post about ‘St Joseph’s Stairway from Heaven’ the spiral stairway that defies all gravity!

    • Vincent says:

      ” One cannot reach heaven by one’s own efforts.” Really? What happened to free will?

      • Alasdair says:

        Vincent says:
        July 8, 2016 at 8:35 am
        ” One cannot reach heaven by one’s own efforts.” Really? What happened to free will?
        Well, in terms of one’s salvation, free will means to love God or rebel against Him. When one accepts Christ with gladness, the Holy Spirit is in charge and free will no longer affects salvation. Continual agonising about it reveals a lack of faith in Jesus and his promises to us eg
        “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them out of My hand. John 10:28”
        No need for night terrors – just get on with your Christian life – praying, participating in the sacrements, serving the poor and sick etc etc – as the Spirit leads you.

      • Vincent says:

        Alasdair, your answer is of course completely orthodox if, as I suspect, you are an Anglican. It comes straight out of the 39 Articles, and is often called sola fides. Good works, the Articles say, are in themselves of no value for salvation. Catholic teaching however, makes it clear that good works are truly necessary for salvation — and are rightly attributed to the individual. Quentin notes, I see, that the progress he makes takes into account the work of grace in this. That is, they are wholly done through the individual and wholly done through grace. Even “accepting Christ with gladness” in the first place requires grace.

  3. Iona says:

    Night prayers: I usually say the night prayers included in the “Magnificat” booklets. Although this makes provision for an examination of conscience, it’s not something I usually do, except sketchily. This is partly because by bedtime I am fairly brain-dead and can’t remember much detail about the day.
    Could Do Better.

    The spiral stairway that defies all gravity… I think I’ve read about this; built for some nuns by a mysterious carpenter called Joe?

    • St.Joseph says:

      Iona.
      You can look it up. It is interesting, The Santa Fe Chapel The Order of the Sisters of Loreto. a film is made of it can be seen on You Tube.
      With regards to prayer, I just think ‘now’ in my state of health, ‘I live in Christ and He lives in me’!
      No words are needed. My soul magnifies The Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour! Let it be done unto me according to His Word.! I rest my soul in Him..

  4. tim says:

    My wife, who is a cradle catholic (as I am not) invented (or perhaps collected) a new sin, or at least one not generally found in the standard authorities: “Envy of another’s spiritual pride”. I do not accuse anyone of this (or indeed of provoking it) except myself. I confess to shameful (and almost terrified) sympathy with the Pharisee, who took credit to himself for sticking to the rules. No doubt his greatest failure was to despise the publican rather than loving him – and also to ignore the need to go far beyond the rules (“unprofitable servant”).

    We are to be perfect (or at least to aim at it). Regular prayer is essential. Weekly mass attendance fulfils the rules. But do I pray there, or daydream (or sceptically dissect the sermon)? For those of us at least partially retired, regular daily prayer must be both practicable and a good idea. For those (like most readers of this blog) happy with computers, ‘Universalis’ is a splendid resource – for a modest one-off payment you can download the daily prayer of the Church for the rest of your life. My wife has been saying morning and evening prayer for some time, and more recently has encouraged me to join in, and we say morning prayer together (a Catholic wife is another invaluable resource!). Compline includes an examination of conscience – can this be why I normally duck it and read Vespers instead?

    Examination of conscience for me is normally confined to the journey to the church and half an hour or so in the confession queue. I’m reluctant to make part of it reviewing successes (if any). I admit a ‘job review’ should include fair praise and encouragement for successes. But how do I guard against ‘confirmation bias’? Nor do I want a confessor who tells me ‘not to beat myself up!’

  5. John de Waal says:

    I used to tell my pupils about imagining their spiritual journey like an escalator, rather than a staircase. I would explain that I always have had a notion to walk up a “down” escalator and imagining that I could be walking at such a steady pace that I seemed to make no progress – I seemed to be standing still. If, however, I really did stop walking the escalator would carry me swiftly down to the bottom. For some who think, for example, that going to Confession doesn’t appear to improve them may take comfort from this image. If we stop making the effort to improve we could be much worse. There is great virtue in trying.

  6. Galerimo says:

    Yes, thank you Quentin I am drawn by your reflecting on a gospel value (Peace bearing), as a method of finding ways forward with God’s grace.

    Martin Luther’s “Sin Boldly” is a good guide for me. Sinning is not something that needs a lot of reflection on my part. The personal examination of conscience usually yields more imaginary stuff and dilly dallying. I never feel good about my sins and it doesn’t take much “searching” to find them. They sit very boldly on the landscape.

    Night time I too am like Iona and pretty well brain dead. Not a good time for for much spiritual exercise. Mister Eckhart’s “If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was thank you, that would suffice”. Does very nicely at that hour.

    There are some powerful purely secular processes in awareness groups that work very powerfully in terms of “Accountability” and “Being in Integrity with Self”. And doing this as part of a group can be even more enriching. Honesty and Courage can be very contagious in circle work.

  7. John Nolan says:

    The best night prayer of all is the official one of the Church, namely Compline, which of course includes the Confiteor. The monastic version, which has the same psalms (4, 90 and 133) sung without antiphons is the easiest. Monastic tradition is to sing it from memory in darkness.

    The 20th century liturgical movement wanted the faithful to participate in liturgical worship rather than the popular devotions which had replaced it in most places. It was perhaps over-ambitious but few could have anticipated the liturgical collapse of the 1960s. Most parish ‘liturgies’ in the second decade of the 21st century hardly rise above the level of primary school assemblies.

  8. Alasdair says:

    In answer to :Vincent says: July 8, 2016 at 4:15 pm
    Yes of course you are right Vincent. I’m not actually Anglican, but the tradition which I do follow probably shares most of their theology. That said, I have many RC friends by whose invitation I am currently enjoying the course “Called And Gifted” being run by my local catholic parish.

    • Quentin says:

      Your contributions are most helpful, Alasdair. Insights from those from other traditions are one of the strengths of this blog. If other Christians, and those who wish us well, cannot exchange their thoughts with us, what hope do we have for the world outside?

  9. ignatius says:

    I really like the story of Teresa of Avilla and her ‘one hour’ sandglass. How she, by her own confession, would sometimes sit there, impatiently tapping the glass in the hope the hour might pass more quickly. My own sand glass is a mere 10 minute one though.. The glass helps enormously, it is there, when my mind has mooched off completely, as a visual clue to why I sat down before an icon in the first place!

    In the evening the 10 minute span is sufficient for evening prayer and an examination of conscience. Alas mine is an ‘examen lite’ approach where I simply replay the days events while asking to know first when God and I were at our closest, in order to enjoy that moment again, and then to ask when it was that I had wandered away completely, just so that I might try to avoid the situation again. Me and examens, I should also say, have a somewhat on/off relationship.

    If I am awake enough, morning or evening, then I may try for a second run through of the sand timer in simple contemplation or with a psalm.

    The really big thing though is to try and keep praising God at intervals during the day,..a good hymn will do the job. I also really like the ‘cloud of unknowing’ approach…keep everything that bothers you under the cloud of forgetting, while pointing the desire of the heart, like a sharp arrow, towards the cloud of unknowing where,somewhere therein, is God

  10. Iona says:

    So do I, – especially the first paragraph.

  11. Nektarios says:

    Quentin

    It seems to me that the answers to your ‘staircase to heaven’ all depends by what standard one assesses these things, by our own standard or by God’s standard? Consider Luke 16: 14-15.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Nektarios.
      Luke 16.14,15 The Jerusalem Bible, speaks about money. If I read it right.
      My conscience at my time if life pricks me mostly now if I spend money on material unnecessary things such as clothes etc; I think of all the charities it could go to.
      Especially when I look in my wardrobe and see so many shoes handbags etc,
      One consolation is though that they will be given to charity shops, mostly unworn when I no longer need them,
      Is that what you mean?

      • Nektarios says:

        St Joseph,

        Obviously not.
        I was thinking of the way the Pharisees of old behaved, what their mind set was in justifying themselves before men. The standard they had was of men. They were outwardly seen as holy. But the whole set up was to appear that way before men.
        This was their standard. It was a standard of outward appearance, and they did it with a specific end in view, to justify themselves before men.

        Jesus our Lord was giving them who derided Him, what was going on in their hearts.
        We have our modern day pharisees in the world today who deride Christ, and with self -justifying zeal where their standard is to be seen of men as having authority deride Him
        because He does not quite fit in to their view or plans.
        Their view, their standard is of men. The scoff at Him and try to get rid of Him, He is seen as a threat to the comfortable man centred view of themselves as He exposes them and what goes on in their hearts hidden from view just as with those Pharisees of Old did, so does the modern day Pharisee.
        But, God looks on the heart, He is not only interested in our outward actions, but also our inward motivations. If we would please God in what we say and do, it is a matter of what goes on in our heart, what our motivations are before God.

        I will have to stop here, something wrong with my keyboard when typing.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Nektarios
        Thank you for explaining that .
        However I still think ‘I’ often spend money unnecessary on items which could be given to charity , not that I don’t ,but perhaps I could give more! That too comes from our hearts.
        I don’t believe in wasting food, something I do feel conscience of.
        I ask God to forgive my extravagance. Whether it is a sin to confess ,I don’t know, perhaps only if one feels guilty of it! So perhaps I ought!!

  12. G.D. says:

    Seems obvious from the varied responses that there are many ‘ways’ of climbing up and down the ladder of prayer.

    The common factor in all is the ‘intention to converse’ with God. To form a relationship of knowing and being known as God knows us.
    Of ‘becoming closer’ ‘more united’.

    Words fail to describe, because it’s always more than we can tell. No matter what ‘way’ we pray.
    From silent contemplation – just sitting and being with God – to intercessory prayer of ‘people’s own’ making. From praise wonder & awe in psalms to thanksgiving in hymns. And all in-between.

    It’s the ‘attitude’ of openness to the spirit of God, and ‘going with it’ ‘obeying it’ ‘listening and responding’ that is the prayer itself. Other ‘content’ (way’s & means ‘of prayer’) is only necessary because of our physical state; but non the less important for that!

    It’s our response to the desire and want ‘for prayer’ – to be open to that relationship in humility, trust and acceptance – that is our side of The Prayer. That desire and want itself placed in us first and foremost by God.
    Which is, of course the mystery of God’s grace (Spirit?) in us, seeking us; from the first in-breathing of the Breath of God, to give life.

    • ignatius says:

      “Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls; All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me.” Psalm 42

      The interesting thing about it all is that we are called from within our temperaments.This means that there are as many ways of articulating prayer as there are praying hearts; some are Martha’s some are Mary’s. Some full of passion and action, some who sit in silence.Some analytic and precise, loving an ordered and productive allotment, some dwelling in seemingly chaotic untidiness in the unkempt borders of the meadow!

      • Martha says:

        Thank you G.D. and Ignatius for putting it so well, and to add that of course we can use all or most of these ways of praying at various stages of our days and lives. When I don’t feel like praying at all I like to tell myself that it is St. Francis’ Brother Ass who is the problem. I looked up the female equivalent recently, but Sister Jennet or even Sister Jenny doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  13. St.Joseph says:

    St Francis said ‘Pray often, if necessary use words-‘I read that he didn’t say that, however it does make sense.
    I found since being a widow, that the more Monastic life in a Monastery helped me more than parish activities as time is set aside for prayer, from early morning through the day to the evening.
    Although the Lord never leaves our inner mind whilst we work.
    It is also helpful to go on a Retreat or a Pilgrimage, most Catholic schools go to Lourdes which must be a good experience for the young.
    One of my grandsons of 23, he will look around Churches and Cathedrals , I believe being in the Lourdes Team at school got him interested in that, he sends me photos on line and brings me little things home from the places he visits, I suppose prayer comes in all forms of actions.
    My time is spent mostly watching EWTN and praying the devotions with them, it seems to suit my mind better than going blank from private prayer now.
    A friend of mine whose husband has gone into a home about a year ago, and when she found about EWTN it has changed her life.
    This will sound unusual to some-but I have a large Divine Mercy picture in my bedroom, and when I go to the bathroom often in the night (His hand is raised up as one will know) I just raise my hand back to Him and say ‘HI’ I believe He likes to be often on our mind if it only a small word.

  14. ignatius says:

    Hi St Joseph, I have one in my study and do pretty much the same thing.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Thanks Ignatius, I thought I was the only ‘crazy ‘one .
      Jesus was or still is human. My theology might be wrong there! But if he is Risen from the dead and ate fish perhaps!!

      • Quentin says:

        You’re right, St Joseph, Christ is not only a human but he is the model for the human beings we will also be at the final resurrection. (Where you and I, I hope, will dance by the light of the glory.)

  15. St.Joseph says:

    Quentin.
    I will look forward to that. A nice Waltz.(Or maybe a Jive!!)

  16. ignatius says:

    Yep, there’s definitely a man in heaven these days..unless we’re all bonkers…all nearly 2 billion of us that is!!….mind boggling really.

  17. Iona says:

    According to my PP (probably a bit tongue-in-cheek) we will all be aged 33 in heaven, – the perfect age, he reckons.

    • Martha says:

      Iona, I remember being told that when I was at school, quite young, maybe 9. I was quite disappointed, it sounded so old and boring in comparison with staying a child. Perhaps it will be so, Our Lord was 33 when He died.

  18. Iona says:

    That was one thing our PP said; the other being, that at 33 we still have our youth, energy, strength and health, but have developed some maturity and understanding which as teenagers/twentysomethings we usually lack.

    • St.Joseph says:

      When Our Blessed Mother appears I read somewhere ,I think it was Lourdes or one of Her appearances that She was as a young girl, something like a teenager.

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