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Interior Life

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The founder of shamelesspopery.com defends the Catholic understanding of the interior life and shares tips for developing yours.


Cy Kellett: Do you have an inner life and can you develop it? Joe Heschmeyer is next.

Cy Kellett: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett your host. In a practical sense, the interior life is under attack because life is so full of distractions and entertainment, but in an intellectual sense, the interior life has been under attack for a long time with many skeptics now saying the interior life is nothing but an illusion and many Christians even ignoring the interior life because it seems unrelated to their view of salvation.

Cy Kellett: In this episode, we dive into questions about the interior life and its relevance. Our guest is shameless papist Joe Heschmeyer.

Joe Heschmeyer: How are you doing?

Cy Kellett: Hi Joe. Is that a correct description of you, shameless papist?

Joe Heschmeyer: I think that’s a pretty accurate one.

Cy Kellett: As I was going to say, you’ve been involved in the world of Catholic apologetics for a long time since, well, at least 10 years. He’s the founder of the blog Shameless Popery. He has been a seminarian, is now a married man and does all kinds of work for the School of Faith, which provides formation for Catholics and mentoring for those … Well, you maybe you describe the School of Faith a little bit, Joe.

Joe Heschmeyer: Sure. So it’s really simple, it’s built on a threefold conviction that we need a daily friendship with Jesus, which is very much what we’re talking about today; that we need intentional friendships with others; and that we need to teach them kind of that principle of spiritual multiplication. So we do all sorts of stuff to that end. We do Bible studies, we do large group talks, we do small group stuff. We do one on one mentorship. We do pilgrimages. Anything you can think of that will help people grow in their relationship with God and their relationship with others and taking this mission of evangelization and spiritual multiplication seriously.

Cy Kellett: Nice, Joe. All right, well I assume then that at some point you will get around to talking about the interior life with people. Is it really necessary that we have an interior life?

Joe Heschmeyer: It was entirely necessary. If you don’t have it, you’re just not alive, in any meaningful sense of the term.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so what is it? What are we talking about when we’re talking about … in a Catholic sense, in the way a Catholic would understand that, when we talk about interior life?

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah, so on the very most simple level, interior life means literally “not the exterior life.” The exterior life is everything you do, everything that’s just immediately observable from the outside. The interior life is what’s going on within your soul. You can imagine, for example, two people who perform the same actions, but one doing it out of a love of God and one who’s doing it out of pride, or to look good to others, or fill in the blanks. Their exterior life looks identical, at least in that instance, but their interior life, there’s a world of difference there. So the interior life is the life of the fullest, it’s the life in which we have a relationship most intimately with God.

Cy Kellett: All right, well what do you make of the kind of modern skeptic who says, “Look, it’s really an evolutionary adaptation. It’s an illusion, this idea that you have an inner life, that you have a soul, it’s just your brain projecting that idea,” or I don’t know, there are all kinds of things like that. But I’m sure you’ve heard the arguments, what do you make of them?

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah, there’s this kind of a view that “what you see is what you get” with reality. So “If I can’t see it directly, then it doesn’t really exist.” So this whole talk of the soul and of the interior life and everything else is just a bunch of hokum. I think the first thing is that a person who says that can’t just reject God, can’t just reject the faith, they’ve also got to reject, really, all of science. What I mean by that is this: when you start teaching mathematics to a little kid, you probably use some physical examples. “If I’ve got two gummy bears here and then I have three more, look at how I now have five.” But pretty quickly you move from the realm of the visible to the realm of the invisible, to the conceptual and intellectual realm; where, when you start doing calc and trig, you may never see a real world example of any of the things you’re working on.

Joe Heschmeyer: Or when you start programming algorithms, or fill in the blank, the higher level stuff doesn’t look like just the visible realm. This is true of anything. When you see, like, one dog and then you see another dog and eventually you abstract the idea of “dog,” so you see another creature and you know right away it’s a dog–everyone does this, but it’s all about going beyond the visible to this conceptual realm. If that’s true, then the idea of an interior life that is purely on the intellectual and conceptual realm and the innermost parts of the soul follows almost by by definition.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so what about a more Christian objection to this Catholic kind of devotion to the interior life? An objection that, “Look, it’s not necessary for salvation. What we need as Christians is to say the sinner’s prayer, accept Jesus into our life and then we’re off.”

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah. I think the first thing I would say to that is it totally misunderstands the purpose of life. The purpose of life is not just hell-avoidance. If God just wanted to make sure we could avoid hell, if that was all that life was about, He could easily do that. Just have a lot of people die right after baptism, or just don’t make baptism necessarily for salvation, or, you just make it very easy to avoid hell, if that was all reality was about. But we’re called to so much more, like Saint Paul says, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it dawned upon our human what things God has prepared for those who love Him.”

Joe Heschmeyer: So it’s this idea that God wants to make us like Him, this process of divinization, to share in these divine attributes and these divine qualities. That’s going to require a lifetime of really getting to know the one we love and the one we want to be more and more like. If you don’t love God enough to want an interior life with Him, then you don’t love Him enough to want to spend eternity with Him. So it’s a false vision of salvation that says “What’s the least I can do to avoid the fires of hell?” That is not a path to heaven.

Cy Kellett: Indeed, right. Okay, so let’s take Christ as the model then, because Christ is the model of all good things. So is there any of this in the life of Christ? We look at Christ and say, does he model an interior life for us and does he invite us into it?

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah, so he definitely models it and he invites us into it both. So let’s look at those two things kind of one by one. Take for example Matthew 14 verse 23, Jesus is ministering to the crowds and then in verse 23 it says that after dismissing the crowds, he went up into the hills by himself to pray and when evening came, he was there alone. So there’s a clear sense that he’s spending a big chunk of time in prayer. What’s the excuse we all make for why we don’t pray as much as we ought to? “Oh, I’m so busy.” Jesus could have easily made that excuse. He’s got thousands of people mobbing him, wanting stuff from him and seeking his teaching, seeking healing, wanting free bread, fill in the blanks. Yet he doesn’t make those excuses. When it comes down to it, he dismisses the crowd so that he can spend one on one time with his Father. And it’s that, that … We’re told this in scripture, I Corinthians 10, Saint Paul says, “You’re given these things for your edification.”

Joe Heschmeyer: In other words, details like this aren’t in the Bible just because they happened to be there. They’re there in the Bible because we’re supposed to learn something from them. So what are we supposed to learn from this? Well, it’s about the primacy of prayer, that prayer and the interior life has to come first and that therefore, everything else will flow from that.

Cy Kellett: Well, what about, we hear about meditation? There’s a whole lot of stuff on mindfulness and meditation and all that, so is that a part of this?

Joe Heschmeyer: The Catechism talks about three different ways with prayer. Vocal prayer is the easiest, the lowest in a certain sense, where you have a form prayer and you pray it and in saying those words, you conform your heart to the emotions and the sentiments and the ideas expressed in them. So it’s a way of offering something good to God, even if you can’t come up with any good words on your own.

Joe Heschmeyer: Meditation is the next, and that’s … Usually there’s spiritual reading, whether it’s scripture or the lives of the saints. In the classic Lectio Divina model, it works like this: you read, then you reflect and relate, and then you result. So you’re reading whatever it is, it’s not about getting to the end of the chapter. It’s about letting the text speak to you, letting God speak to you through His Word and through the lives and the writings of His saints. Then when you feel that movement or sense that movement, if something jumps out from the page, you just stop and say, “Okay, why is this detail important? Or what is it about this passage that is really speaking to me?”

Joe Heschmeyer: There’s different ways of doing that. The Jesuits will use a lot more imagination. The Dominicans, they’re not really big on the imagination part and they’ll just want to intellectually understand, “What does God’s word mean in my life here?” When you see it’s direct applicability, that again, these things are for our edification, this isn’t just a history book, it’s not just the chronicles of some ancient civilization, but no, this is God even today speaking to his people, each and every one of us. Well, what’s He saying to me? Through reading His Gospel, or through whatever I’m reading, and how can I integrate that into my life? Which means it ends with a resolution that should be concrete and specific, that in the light of the Holy Spirit, with His aid, we can let the Word transform us.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so is that three? I think I got two there.

Joe Heschmeyer: Well, the third one is more of the contemplative, illuminative prayer where you have this … You don’t even rely on text necessarily and you just have this direct encounter with God. Saint John Vianney spent a ton of time in prayer and when he was asked about it, “What do you do with this whole time?” He says, “I look at my Lord and my Lord looks at me.” That, that direct relationship, without even needing the mediation of a written prayer, or a text, or anything else, being able to just receive what God is saying to you and experience His presence and His divine life, is the highest, and in a lot of ways, the hardest form of prayer.

Cy Kellett: It strikes me that this is almost diametrically opposed, maybe even diametrically opposed, to the modern conception of meditation. Probably drawing on, I’m sure not perfect, interpretations of Hinduism and Buddhism, but the modern idea that it’s really about emptying the mind, emptying the self and kind of dissolving, I guess.

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah, absolutely. So it’s not about getting away from reality, but it’s really about getting to the heart of reality, who is God Himself. Saint John Damascene talks about prayer as the raising of one’s mind and heart to God and the requesting of good things from God. But that’s not you just shutting out yourself, shutting out reality, shutting out the world; that’s you, rather, entering in. In that way, you enter into real relationship with God, and you also come to know yourself better, and you should be bringing with you the things of the day, like that people have asked you to pray for them. So it’s not about turning off reality, but it is about bringing all of those daily things to the next level, the spiritual level, where you get to actually talk to the one person who can fix the world’s problems about whatever’s going on in your day.

Cy Kellett: Okay. So you connect this with Christ then, it’s clear that Christ is modeling an interior life for us in his own acts of prayer. But we have this Catholic idea, then … I mean, I assume praying the Our Father is part, I mean, Jesus instructed us to pray the Our Father and so when we pray the Our Father, he’s giving us a model of how to pray. Not necessarily just “Say these words,” you know, over and over again–like you said, that’s good to do that–but to enter into those words over the course of a lifetime of praying the Our Father, I would assume. Does that seem …

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah, that’s right on the money. I’m glad you said that. One of the things that’s really striking is that Jesus doesn’t give the exact same version of the Our Father in Matthew’s gospel and in Luke’s gospel. Twice he’s approached by the apostles under different circumstances. They want to know how to pray and he gives them slightly different versions, or else maybe Luke just gives a truncated version. Either way, if the important thing is “You have to say exactly and only these words,” then it’s very strange that we shouldn’t get the exact words, if it’s like a magical formula. So by all means, the Our Father is a beautiful prayer and is a form prayer. So we see that form prayer is vindicated. But very quickly, early Christians recognized “He doesn’t just mean ‘Literally say these words.’ He’s giving us a model of prayer.”

Joe Heschmeyer: So Saint Augustine for example, in his meditations on the Our Father, says, “All true prayer is going to be connected to at least one of these aspects.” All the petitions in the Our Father, if what you’re praying for doesn’t fall under one of these categories, you’re probably not praying for something good. If you’re not praying for daily bread, if you’re not praying that God’s name be holy, if you’re not praying for His will to be done on earth, if you’re not praying to be delivered from evil–what are you praying for, then? So it is a good way of of saying, yes, these are the things we should be desiring, because these are the things that God desires for us, and He knows us better than we do.

Cy Kellett: Okay. So tell me about the Daily Examen. This is something that a Catholic is encouraged to … What is that and how is it related to the interior life?

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah, the Examen is wonderful. So I think it’s … if you want to grow in the interior life and you’re not doing an Examen, I’ve got an easy solution for you: do the Examen! And you, I guarantee, will grow. But just do it every day. So “the Examen” is shorthand for an examination of conscience; and it’s sometimes called an examination of consciousness, for the simple reason that when we hear “examination of conscience” as Catholics, we think, “What are all of my sins from the day?” And that’s part of it, but it’s more than that. We should be reflecting on the movements of God throughout my life in this day, and then seeing, “How did I respond to the graces offered? Where did I accept it?–thanks be to God. Where did I fall short?–mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” This is a cause for thanksgiving, or it’s a cause for contrition. So the material of the day becomes the fodder for prayer.

Joe Heschmeyer: So you’re not just dryly trying to say, “I don’t know what to pray for.” You’re saying, “What happened today? Where was God today? And how did I respond to the presence of God in my day?”

Cy Kellett: So this is a close-of-day thing, one assumes, then?

Joe Heschmeyer: So typically this is done at the end of the day before you go to bed. Ignatius of Loyola, the co-founder of the Jesuits, said that when you’re struggling with a particular sin, you might do it twice a day; once midday and once at the end of the day. So for example, if you’re very impatient, say, and I’m not saying this of you of course, Cy, but if you’re very impatient-

Cy Kellett: Just get to the point, Joe, just get to the point.

Joe Heschmeyer: Exactly. Then you might choose a spot halfway through the day, at lunchtime, say, where you’ll pray and just say, “How did the morning go?” Then in the evening, “How did the rest of the day go?” Because that can sometimes be a good way of refocusing your efforts. If you find that you’re routinely not living out your resolutions from the day before, or you’re not doing the things you said yesterday you were going to do. Then having a check-in midway through the day can also really help.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so give me some practical help, though. With the examination of conscience, before you go to confession, people have written some out, you can find them on the internet, pretty much a lot of churches leave them outside the confessional. So you have these written examinations of conscience. Here’s things that people do, like adultery and murder and whatnot and you’re supposed to evaluate, “How many of those have I done?” Is there something like this for the Daily Examen at the end of the day?

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah, so I would say there’s a few things. There are a ton of resources for this. There’s one that I recommend. I tend to find all of that can feel overwhelming to people and that it’s just too much. Now those can be good, if you don’t know “Which things in my life are sinful,” those things can all be good. Even the very things you’re mentioning, you could take one of those home with you and make an examination of conscience using that and that can be really fruitful. But I think a good way to do it that simple and that you’re more likely to actually do is what’s called the “Three-Two-One Examen.” I am stealing this blatantly from a priest friend of mine, Father Andrew Mattingly, the diocese of Kansas City, St. Joseph.

Cy Kellett: Okay. First of all, if we’re going to steal from him, is he a good priest or are we still …

Joe Heschmeyer: He’s a fantastic priest but don’t let him know that we’re…

Cy Kellett: Okay, all right, good. So there’s some hope that this works. All right, fair enough. The Three-Two-One Examen.”

Joe Heschmeyer: Yes, and it’s so easy. You start by saying, “What are at least three things … ” You go to God the Father and you say, “What are at least three things in my day for which I am thankful?” You don’t even have to do like a full play-by-play, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute of the day. You just say, “What are at least three things from today for which I am thankful?” Then you offer gratitude to God for those. Then you turn to God the Son, “What are at least two things for which I’m contrite? What are two ways in which I didn’t do what I should have done, or I did what I shouldn’t have done?” Then you offer … I usually do an act of contrition there, and you offer some expression of your sorrow and your contrition to Christ. And now you’re ready to turn to the Holy Spirit and to make a resolution for tomorrow.

Joe Heschmeyer: So at this point just stop and with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, say, “Okay, what does tomorrow look like? What were some of the things that went really well today? What are some areas that I struggled?” Then usually it’s pretty clear what you need to be praying for for the next day. If you’ve got a big meeting coming up, or if you’ve got a stressful situation with a relative or if you just find, like “The last five days I’ve confessed the same thing. Maybe I should pray that I don’t fall into that tomorrow.” Then whatever it is, you make a concrete, specific, measurable resolution just for the next day.

Joe Heschmeyer: It’s a way of really asking for your daily bread spiritually, just to have enough sustenance, enough grace to make it through tomorrow, and then you’ll check back in and do the same thing.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so all right. I like it. I forgot the priest’s name now, you’re going to have to say it again.

Joe Heschmeyer: Father Mattingly.

Cy Kellett: Okay. So, okay. Good job, Father. So I guess what I’m looking for is, is this just another task to do? Do you see what I’m saying? Is this like, “Well, okay, put this on the list. Say this prayer, do this, do this … ” Or is there some way in which you can identify for me, Joe Heschmeyer, that this actually is contributing to my interior relationship with God?

Joe Heschmeyer: I think you’ll see it contributing to your interior life–and, even, it’ll flow over into your exterior life in a really observable way. This is one of the reasons I like this particular Examen, is that when you make a concrete, specific resolution, you go from the level of an aspiration to the level of a plan.

Joe Heschmeyer: Here’s what I mean by that. Everybody’s got aspirations and desires and dreams. “I wish I was holy, I wish I worked out more, I wish I got up earlier, I wish I did this, that, and the other.” But if it doesn’t result in any specific plan, very rarely do we make any actual progress. Even one step in the right direction. You can be sad that you overeat, but if you don’t say, “Tomorrow I’m going to pack a lunch, I’m going to eat one course, I’m not going to have dessert,” or whatever it is, then you’re just never going to make any movement on this.

Joe Heschmeyer: So the key of getting from the level of an aspiration to the level of a plan and ultimately to the level of action, is by having something that is concrete, that is specific, and that is measurable. Then you know tomorrow, if you feel like crud, you can say, “Oh wait, I made a plan and I didn’t live by it at all. Well, why didn’t I live by it?” Then you can start to get deeper into the roots of why you sin and you can have a conversation with God about all of that stuff.

Joe Heschmeyer: On the other hand, if you’re going to the Holy Spirit and saying, “I’ve got this thing tomorrow and I need your help doing this,” you can experience these miniature triumphs and you learn to rely more and more and more on God because you’ve seen up to this point how your life goes when you’re in control, and then when you see what happens when you leave it up to God, you’ll see the difference, and you’ll see it very quickly.

Cy Kellett: Well, if I was a little bit harsh on some Christians who will say, “Well, faith alone, that’s the whole deal. As long as you’ve got that faith, as long as you made that affirmation of faith, you’re on your way, everything’s fine.” If there’s a similar critique of us Catholics, sometimes we’re that way with the sacraments. “Well, I celebrate the sacraments, sacraments alone,” that kind of thing. Well, just as faith alone is not completely wrong, it’s quite right in many ways; sacraments alone is also not completely wrong, it’s quite right that the sacraments in themselves are very powerful.

Cy Kellett: So I guess what I’d like you to do, Joe, is relate this idea of personally working with a Daily Examen to develop my interior relationship with God to the fact that He’s doing it all for me anyways in the sacraments.

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah. So I’ve got an analogy that is … I’ll censor it slightly, because we’re on the podcast, but it goes like this. I got it from a coworker of mine at the School of Faith, Chad Pirotte; and he said, “Think about the Eucharistic sacrifice. Vatican II says it’s the source and the summit of the Christian life. Well, within marriage, what is the highest expression of communion between a husband and a wife?” I won’t mention it, but everyone knows…

Cy Kellett: …that it’s intercourse. Okay.

Joe Heschmeyer: Yes, okay. Yes. I don’t know if you’ve got kids listening. I don’t want to be the person who like was responsible for teaching a six-year-old theology of the body on accident.

Cy Kellett: All right, gotcha.

Joe Heschmeyer: But if you’re going to mass once a week, and then you’re doing nothing to cultivate your spiritual life, the rest of the time it would be like if you, as a husband said–

Cy Kellett: I see where this is going.

Joe Heschmeyer: “Well my wife, it’s time for our weekly marital duty,” and then you did nothing to cultivate the relationship the rest of the time. That would not go well, it would not be the kind of unity of experience that you want. You wouldn’t have the relationship. Even though you had the objectively highest part of the relationship, you’d be doing nothing to cultivate and support and facilitate that. And I bet your wife would be pretty dang resentful of you pretty dang quickly if you didn’t talk to her all day, if you didn’t check in and say, “How’s everything going?” Or just share about your day or any of those things. That’s not the way you treat someone you love, I hope.

Cy Kellett: No, right.

Joe Heschmeyer: So often that’s how we treat God. Even though we claim to love Him, we give Him an hour a day and say, “Well, we had the highest experience of union, so why do we need anything else?” It’s like, well, it’s a relationship. What relationship do you cultivate with one hour of distracted presence every week?

Cy Kellett: Joe Heschmeyer, you’re good at this. I really appreciate it. I hope you’ll come and do Focus with us again.

Joe Heschmeyer: I’d be happy to. I’d be very happy to.

Cy Kellett: All right. So here’s what I’m getting, is: the proper Christian understanding is not just that God wants to save us from hell, but that He wants an intimate, personal relationship with us that transforms us into something that is like Him.

Joe Heschmeyer: Exactly.

Cy Kellett: All right. And that in order to do that, I need to cultivate the interior life.

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah. And you have to make space for Him to work on you, even in ways you don’t know you need to be worked on yet.

Cy Kellett: Joe, I really appreciate it. Look, if people want to find you, I guess go to shamelesspopery.com, is that correct?

Joe Heschmeyer: Yeah, that’s I think the best way, that’s the blog. I also have a podcast, at C-A-T-H-P-O-D.com and you can find me for live events at schooloffaith.com

Cy Kellett: Joe Heschmeyer. I really, really appreciate it, thank you. I look forward to doing this again with you.

Joe Heschmeyer: My pleasure. Thank you very much for listening.

Cy Kellett: And thanks for everybody who listens to Catholic Answers Focus. Listen, if you enjoy the program, would you please share it with other people? You can do that by giving us a like, or a comment, or a share wherever you get your podcasts and maybe send people over to CatholicAnswersLive.com so they can sign up for Radio Club and they’ll get a weekly notice when Focus is ready again. I’m Cy Kellett your host, our guest has been Joe Heschmeyer. We’ll see you next time, God willing, on Catholic Answers Focus.

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