Midlife and Prayer

Critical Thresholds

General conferences at retreats of the secular clergy are rarely moments of shattering insight. We (here I am speaking mostly from viewpoint of the secular clergy) are well used to being put right about the many causes that should command our faltering dedication. In my limited experience as a retreat-giver, I have found that what causes the assembled and often seemingly cynical brethren to sit forward on the edge of their seats is something that takes them and their experience seriously, that addresses them as pilgrims. One sure attention-getter is a discussion about the link between the opportunities, perceived or missed, of the various critical thresholds of their life experience and the effect that those changes have on their prayer life.

What I have to say is very traditional and found in all the manuals. It seems so evident as to be too trite for comment. Perhaps it is the re-inventing of the spiritual wheel. I am convinced, however, that it is an area of major concern for those of us in the secular priesthood. The language of the older manuals is frequently off-putting. (The path to perfection! Ugh!). Yet the marriage of their wisdom with more modern ideas of developmental psychology is now part of spiritual theology.


The term 'critical thresholds' is part of developmental psychology. The reality is also to be found in ancient experience. The manuals spoke of development through the purgative, the affective to the illuminative way. A threshold has been described as a doorway which separates two adjacent rooms. A 'threshold moment' is a continuation of what has gone before, but its principal function is to direct a person into a new mode of being. Most developmentalists consider that there are several thresholds in the life journey, the most famous, and most pertinent for our discussion here, is the early mid-life crisis. The recognition of these moments is rarely easy. Indeed, they are often misinterpreted and here lies a concern of major importance. It seems that the early mid-life crisis is a stage when the Spirit is asking us to step into a new degree of faith and into a new way of praying, a sacrifice of much of what we considered as normative. In the manual language, we are asked to move from discursive to affective prayer, to enter into the initial stages of contemplation.


John of the Cross wrote in THE ASCENT OF MOUNT CARMEL, that a time will come to a person who has been walking steadily (even with some severe hiccups) along the path to perfection when he will experience disturbing symptoms. These are often interpreted as signs that something has gone seriously wrong and, given their nature, this is not unexpected. They may be just that. He maintains that in a virtuous person those signs can be indications of the arrival of a moment when a person has to change the way he prays. He speaks of these disturbing spirits as

  • the spirit of irascibility or blasphemy
  • the spirit of dizziness
  • the spirit of fornication.
    (This gets everybody very interested)

Our terminology speaks of anger and strong disillusionment, disorientation, and celibacy problems. Maybe the pilgrim who admits to these spirits might need to be congratulated for having come to a dangerous but decisive moment of his ascent. Yet what he often thinks himself is frequently also advice given by others. "You can't have been saying your prayers".

What John insists on is these spirits are not necessarily the signs of failure, tepidity, infidelity and mediocrity. Quite the contrary. He warns very strongly that to counsel a return to previously used forms of prayer is to do grave harm to the person being called to move on. We are familiar with Teresa of Avila's forthright comments about well-intentioned but ignorant spiritual directors. If we put John's language into our words, we would say that these spirits manifest themselves at the beginning of the mid-life crisis. Was he speaking of ordinary people or a spiritual elite exercising near heroic virtue?


Along with the three spirits go other indications that a person is on the right track. There is a subtle but irresistible need for more quiet in prayer. This is a marked contrast to our previous habits of praying. A person experiences "profound attitudinal changes". There is a transformation of our value system. The person becomes more realistic and more tolerant of all kinds of weaknesses: he recognizes these in himself in a profound degree. There is a great concern that he does not know where he is going, forward towards God or falling away into mediocrity and compromise. What is positive is the concern about what is happening.

There is an ancient debate among the authors as to whether the first stages of contemplation are the normal development of a Christian prayer life. How we understand our situation depends on how we view this debate. We were taught to follow the grave authors who thought such a development was out of reach for ordinary mortals, including the secular clergy. People may point to the renewal in Vatican II of the scriptural call to universal holiness, but it takes more than a document to reverse deeply-ingrained and usually unconsciously held dicta from our formation days. I suggest experience shows that the authors we followed were mistaken, often tragically.

Secular priests often seem unaware of the extraordinary list of saints and blesseds from among their ranks. And this before John Paul II got to work! How often did we hear that John Vianney, that admirable but literally inimitable parish priest, was the only one of us who had made it to the altars. In fact, if saints and blesseds are what they are usually taken to be, tributes to the spiritual validity of the path they followed, the secular priest's life offers outstanding opportunities.

In the past in this country the problem of transition was disguised in various ways. A priest usually became a PP after about twelve years and this gave him a new lease of life. Today this testing moment comes very early on in his pastorate. When the local churches rejoiced in a relevant, practical and structured pastoral plan that was a reading of the signs of the times, the momentum carried us along with it. Group spirit sustained our faltering stability. But today, when our spiritual leaders do not even refer to GAUDIUM ET SPES, let alone act on it in a sustained fashion, we are left increasingly to do it "my way".

The spiritual writers suggest that a person who does not respond to the challenge faces a lot of trouble. If there is no new challenge we can lapse into spiritual mediocrity. This condition has two features: 1. a failure to live ordinary life in a virtuous way: we become impatient, lonely, uncooperative, self-centred, and 2. small faults are allowed to multiply.

Given the real pain of the situation, some anaesthetic becomes necessary. There are various forms of escape and varying degrees of escapism. Not for nothing was accedie or sloth listed among the radical sins. It is "a species of dislike for things spiritual, which tends to make us negligent in the performance of our exercises of piety, to shorten them or to omit them entirely for vain excuses."


The Old Testament prophet noted that the human heart is infinitely devious and psychologists have detailed many escape mechanisms. Spiritual theologians point out that it quite easy for a person to see himself called into a new mode of being and praying when an accurate diagnosis would see laziness. Illusion is easy when we are complacent about what we have already achieved. Mid-life crisis often is a time when we look back at what we wanted to achieve and, when we have achieved it, say: "So what?" If we are ready to sacrifice the care of our own spiritual life to the exterior work of our ministry we need to look again. But we do not have to accept without question the view that the activities of our pastoral life such as marrying, burying, visiting the sick and so on are all simply draining the spiritual capital we obtain only from our formal prayers. If we undervalue the chief pastoral force, personal response in faith, and if we are disposed to carry on our work without due respect for authority, the theologians would say, "Think again, my friend."

If what I am saying is close to the mark, we have one major task. How do we priests recover the ground that we lost when the critical thresholds were not recognised and the wrong response was made? The dark night of the senses might be experienced by a lot people. It is painful and it is mysterious. This is a truly formidable task for those entrusted with the on-going formation of the clergy.

Fr Damien Heath, Diocese of Ballarat

  • Created: 24 August 2008
  • Modified: 25 April 2009