Q: Fr John, I have been struggling with some interior trials with forgiveness, resentment and jealousy. I call this "inner ugliness." I have been praying fervently, going to confession, and receiving excellent spiritual direction. I have been willing myself to be charitable even when I am not feeling it. So here is my question. What am I missing, why do I still feel "inner ugly"? How do I let go of all of this?
A: OK, brace yourself for this really blunt answer: You still feel "inner ugly" because you still are "inner ugly" - at least partially. Let's be blunt again: It's obvious from your question that you feel frustration at the stubborn persistence of some of your faults, in spite of your efforts to extricate them. Where does that frustration come from? Does it come from God? Is God frustrated with you because you aren't perfect yet? Is he up in heaven tapping his watch and raising his eyebrows? Not a chance. Let me tell you, as a Catholic priest, that he is OVERJOYED with the fact that you have followed his nudges and made your way through the wilderness of our secular society onto the one path of holiness. Yes, you are on the path of holiness; you are on the "steep road" and passing through the "narrow gate" (Matthew 7:13) that lead to salvation, wisdom, Christian joy, everlasting fruitfulness, and eternal beauty. He has been trying to convince you to get onto that path for a while, most likely. Now you are there, and you are traveling it, and you are following the road signs (prayer, confession, spiritual direction... Heck, you're in the fast lane!), and he is delighted!
So, if your frustration doesn't come from God, where does it come from? I am sure you have already guessed it: your pride. You want God to go at your pace, but God is not always going to go at your pace. He knows better; he is going to go at his pace, and we (all of us) need to learn to follow that pace. If not, we will never grow in humility, the bedrock of all holiness and true happiness.
Imagine: You are teaching your teenage daughter how to make an angel-food cake. First you make one together, and she really just watches and assists you a tiny bit. So then she gets really excited about it, and she wants to do one all by herself. She is so excited that she tells you, "Mom, you go running or something; I want to do this myself." So you go running. And you come back to find her huddled over a rather floppy, lopsided, misshapen, and gooey culinary mutant. She is either crying or fuming. She is an impatient girl and wants to do everything perfectly right away, but the reality is that some things can't be rushed. If she were a bit humbler and more patient, she either wouldn't have tried to do it all on her own so soon, or she would have had more of a sense of humor over her delicious dessert disaster.
Transitioning the Garden
Here's another analogy. Think of your soul as a large garden. You haven't always been attentive to taking care of the whole garden. In fact, there were parts you didn't even know you had, sections with amazing potential. So now the Lord has shown you the potential of your garden, and together with him you have rolled up your sleeves and gotten to work to make your garden into what it should be. There are various phases to this work. First, you have to repair the broken fences, cracked fountains, and disheveled walkways. Then you have to extract the weeds that have been growing freely for a while (maybe for a long while), so that the good plants (the ones already there and the ones you want to plant) have room to grow. Then you have to dig up the soil, aerate it, water it, fertilize it. Then you have to keep tending the good plants (protecting them from rabbits, deer, birds, etc.), repair things that get broken during storms, keep weeding, etc.
That's the process. It's long and hard, but it's what matters most, because the flowers and fruits that come from our spiritual gardening are the ones that matter most: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22). That's the opposite of the "inner ugly" that you are striving for.
Right now, you are working hard, sweating, and doing all the right things. But you are discovering that the weeds had deeper roots than you thought. You are discovering that the broken fences are taking much longer to mend that you anticipated. You are finding out that the soil is extremely dry and alkaline in certain areas and needs a lot of deep digging. You like the look of the new plants, but they are still so little, while some of the older, ugly weeds are still big. So you see the fresh inner beauty, but you also see the stubborn inner ugly, maybe even more clearly (more realistically) than before.
Letting God Be God
God can speed up the process whenever he wants (and in some aspects, he probably already has, whether or not you realize it). But when he doesn't, he has his reasons. We can only make a decent effort to do our part (what more could he expect from us?). God's part is up to him. If he is going at a pace that makes us uncomfortable, we need to trust his wisdom. The worst thing to do would be to let your frustration get the better of you and give up. The best thing to do, being the little and beloved daughter of God that you are, is to wipe the sweat from your brow, smile, and keeping following his lead: "But as for the seed that fell on rich soil, they are the ones who, when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart, and bear fruit through perseverance" (Luke 8:15). He has guided you faithfully so far, and he won't lead you astray now. And remember, the frustration doesn't come from him - he is DELIGHTED with you!
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC