I am coming to realize more and more that there is no room for timidity in the spiritual life. One cannot expect to advance in the spiritual life if one is unwilling to boldly take the first step, even if that first step is in the wrong direction. You cannot draw closer to God if you are not willing to move from where you currently stand. You can read and study and listen to spiritual talks all you want, but if you are too timid to put into action the truths that you study, then you will not progress.
This particularly struck home to me yesterday while I was reading St. Theophan the Recluse's book The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation. I know I have been quoting from St. Theophan for some time now, but I cannot recommend his writings highly enough. He has a way of cutting to the chase and presenting his themes with a clarity and honesty that make his writings easily accessible - and as a busy husband, father and employee I need writings that are easily accessible; I'm sure you all can relate.
St. Theophan tells us that in the spiritual life "Experience is the best teacher - one only needs to have the zealous desire to conquer himself" (The Path to Salvation, pg. 297). This means that, whether or not we have a spiritual father or mother available to us, we can still only progress by jumping headlong into the spiritual life, all the while trusting in our loving Father to send us the people we need to guide and correct us as we go along. The "desire to conquer" oneself is nothing less than the willingness to humbly accept correction when correction is needed, as well as encouragement when encouragement is offered. Sometimes we get so caught up in giving and receiving correction that we forget the necessity of giving and receiving encouragement.
I think that over time and because of our past experiences we develop an almost paralyzing timidity towards life in general, and towards the spiritual life in particular. I know that I personally have encountered so many difficulties, setbacks and failures in my life that I feel more comfortable thoroughly researching any new project or undertaking before I take my first steps - if I take my first steps. I must admit that I've applied this principle, this timidity, in my spiritual life as well. I will sit and read book after book and listen to talk after talk on the spiritual life, but it takes me a great deal of time before I start applying what I've learned in my own life. Not that reading and listening to spiritual lectures is a bad thing, but what use are they if we are not going to act? St. Francis of Assisi was famous for acting before he thought. He would be inspired to some course of action and jump headlong into it. Oftentimes he would realize later that it was a wrong course of action, and then he would correct his course - in essence he would repent. This is characteristic of all the saints. It's not that they had a roadmap completely laid out for them in detail and then they just walked straight into heaven without taking a wrong turn from time to time. No. They made mistakes and then accepted correction and changed course.
"The first ascetics did not study from books, but nevertheless they represent the very image of conquerors" (The Path of Salvation, pg. 297). The ascetics of the early Church, the great desert fathers and mothers, were bold enough to take action on what they heard. We see this in the life of St. Antony the Great. Upon hearing Christ command us in the Gospel to go out and sell our belongings, he willingly gave up everything so that he could follow Christ without attachment. The Scriptures, as they are proclaimed and prayed liturgically, were the primary guide of the desert fathers and mothers. They made mistakes and often times went to excess in their ascetic labors. But they were always open to correction. The main point is that the put the Gospel, the Good News, into action. They took that first step, even if it was in the wrong direction.
Fr. Robert Taft, S.J., in a lecture he gave on the role of the laity in the Church, relates the story of a seminarian's mother at home in India. They lived in a town where they were the only Christian family. This seminarian's mother could not read. But she was attentive to the Gospel message that she heard proclaimed in the Church, and she put that message to action in her life. Her life itself was such an example of holiness that it led her son into the priesthood. Her life itself was such an example of holiness that, upon hearing her story (and even upon retelling it), it reduced such a great scholar as Fr. Taft to tears! A little old woman who could not read reducing the learned to tears simply by her life! That is a woman who heard the message and boldly took those first steps.
In his opening address to the congregation gathered in Rome, anxiously awaiting a word from the newly elected Pontiff, Pope St. John Paul II said, "Do not be afraid." Don't be afraid to throw yourself headlong into the loving arms of our Abba. Sure there will be difficulties and disappointments. Of course you will fall and need to get back up. But fortitude isn't just courage in the face of danger. Fortitude is persistence in times of difficulty. It is resilience during moments of disappointment. It is the ability to stand up after falling and to continue doing what is right. Fortitude is the ability to accept correction and change course when needed.
My son has been very much about watching an old show that I used to watch when I was little; "The Magic Schoolbus." In the show the teacher, Ms. Frizzle, has a line to encourage her students to jump headlong into their scientific inquiries: "It's time to get messy and make mistakes." This could easily be applied to our spiritual life. We have to be bold. We have to be willing to get messy. No soldier in combat comes out of combat clean. He comes out filthy, smeared with dirt, smelling of sweat and gunpowder, sometimes covered in blood. The only clean soldier is one who has never seen combat. A clean soldier does not win victories. It's true in the spiritual life as well. We can study the tactics of spiritual warfare until the day we die, but if we do not utilize those tactics to engage the enemy within, then we will never know the glory of victory. So get messy! Make mistakes! Struggle so as to win the victory. It is time. May heaven consume us.