Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Self-Examination and Childhood Quirks

With Celtic Cross at Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta.
Photo by Wade Jones

This weekend I am looking forward to seeing those of you coming to Kirkridge for its Celebration of LGBTQ Lives over the past 40 years. One or two places are available, but call rather than register on the site:

My recent post critiquing white supremacy prompted a reader to provide a link to his Facebook post about his own white privilege. It was a remarkable self-examination, profoundly confessional, that would inspire all white people to consider our unearned advantages in this world. I believe his thoroughgoing analysis can lead to positive action.

But I have known others stymied by over-analyzing themselves, and I have tried to avoid this myself.

I had a friend in a congregation I served who had trouble committing himself to any church event, program, or mission. He would always say, “I’m re-examining my priorities.” He would miss or leave early or show up late for a meeting or day-long workshop or weekend retreat because he could never fully commit himself. Even when he enjoyed a long-term relationship, he and his partner had date nights for outside encounters.

When I was a child I had what my family kindly referred to as a benign “quirk,” occasionally looking up for no apparent reason. It was only toward the end of my mother’s life that I explained why. Every time I had a sinful or uncharitable thought, I would look up to God, asking forgiveness.

It is said that Martin Luther was so fastidious accounting for his sins that his confessor grew frustrated and impatient. It was this very obsessive practice that may have led him to his breakthrough about being saved by faith in God’s grace alone.

I had to give up my childhood quirk for similar reasons. Not only was it burdensome, but one I had to practice surreptitiously in public, even though I attended a Christian school, lest I be written off as just too weird! I had to trust God’s grace.

According to Thomas Merton, though examinations of conscience were practiced by Stoics and Pythagoreans, and played a role in Rabbinical and Muslim spirituality, it did not appear to play a role in early Christianity.  After the twelfth century it began to play a much larger role.

In between, after the Roman Emperor Constantine’s embrace of the faith in the fourth century, self-examination seemed needful as church and world colluded and collided.

Merton writes in Mystics and Zen Masters: 
St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory recommend a daily examination of conscience. Yet St. Gregory attributes more importance to habitual self-custody, living in the presence of God, and a general spirit of prayer, than to psychological self-analysis at fixed times (p 160-1; italics Merton’s). 
He claims that the monastic tradition emphasized “discernment of spirits” to reign in “passionate thoughts from which faults may arise,” rather than “examination of dubious psychological motives” after a fault has been committed.

What I substituted for my quirk of “looking up” was beginning my day in prayer and not concluding my prayer with “Amen,” so I was in God’s presence all day. I had no idea that I was practicing St. Gregory’s “habitual self-custody, living in the presence of God, and a general spirit of prayer.”

I can guess what you, the reader, are making of all this: “What a spiritually precocious child!” Or, “What an obsessively religious child.”

But, rather than precocious or obsessive, spiritual or religious, I think I—as a fearful, introverted, sensitive, and queer child—was simply looking for the safety of God’s presence.

The truth is, I always know God is present, even when or especially when that challenges my thinking or behavior, actions or attitudes. In my better times, I also “feel” God’s presence.

Thus I find Celtic spirituality to my liking in its emphasis on “thin places” on earth where heaven and the sacred can be revealed and witnessed, and I am grateful for body- and earth-centered spiritualities that resist separating spirituality from bodily and earthly experience, and I appreciate the mythological import of the stories of Creation and Incarnation and Resurrection which all recognize the holiness of our bodies and our earth, and I am thankful for liberation theologies which challenge me to seek justice for every body and all creation.

I confess my sins have all come from my failures to recognize God in all, including myself.

With colleague Debra Weir, I will be co-leading a contemplative retreat open to all April 30-May 4, 2018, at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama, entitled “Beside Still Waters.” Sacred Heart is a welcoming community and a beautiful place. Please come!

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  


  1. Wonderful reflection, Chris. Tentatively, I'm thinking about trying to make it for your May 2018 retreat in Cullman. I'll be praying about it.

    1. Thanks, Trudie! I hope you will come. It's a good site and community, and our texts will be Merton's Contemplative Prayer and Laura Swan's The Forgotten Desert Mothers. Good to hear from you!

  2. I do indentify with you on all of that. Thanks for maintaining this blog and FB site for sharing what for me is vital truth and i sort of suspect it is for all.

    1. Thanks for your encouraging words, Chuck!