The Secular Scripture

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from The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark

This became certain as Selina began to repeat, slowly and solemnly, the Two Sentences.

The Two Sentences were a simple morning and evening exercise prescribed by the Chief Instructress of the Poise Course which Selina had recently taken by correspondence, in twelve lessons for five guineas. The Poise Course believed strongly in auto-suggestion and had advised, for the maintenance of poise in the working woman, a repetition of the following two sentences twice a day:

Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind, complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence.

Even Dorothy Markham stopped her chatter for a few seconds every morning at eight-thirty and evening at six-thirty, in respect for Selina's Sentences. All the top floor was respectful. It had cost five guineas.

Where faith and prayer are absent, something will rush in to fill the gap. Here, it is the seemingly innocent chant of self-confidence/self-esteem, that replaces, say, morning and evening prayer. But it isn't innocent because it is a prayer said to oneself, a chant designed to praise and adore the person within.

This is the form that all worship not outwardly directed takes. In fact, it seems to be the form that much outwardly directed worship takes as well. When one allows oneself to be carried away by distractions of one's own making: constant monitoring of the flow of Mass to be certain that no technical errors are made in the performance of the rubric, analysis of the lyrics of hymns to determine whether or not they are worthy of singing or truly give God praise, concern about the gestures or lack thereof made by one's neighbor, analysis of the homily to be certain that nothing heterodox has crept in, critiquing the voices of the readers as they perform their functions, and so forth, one is concerned primarily with oneself. This concern is expressed in the way of outward things, but the real message from all of this is, "I don't like the way things are going--they are not being done to my taste."

Self-worship creeps in in so many ways--the likes and dislikes that drive one this way or that, the little, seemingly meaningless "preferences" that fill up the worship service, flipping through the prayer book to find a new or different invitatory because one has prayed the old one to death, looking for a new song, a new psalm, a new translation, a new commentary. . . all things that relate to sensation and appetite transform the proper outward focus into a deliberate inner focus. One may as well be praying or chanting the Two Sentences.

Self-worship enters every time the attention is deflected from God to anything not God. And as with temptation, the mere deflection of thought is insufficient, it is the embrace of the distraction that marks self-worship.

I heard tell once of a priest in a parish who upon hearing an infant cry in the back of the Church stopped his homily and said, "Will you take that squalling infant out of here!" The person who told me the story had not been back to Church in twenty years. Nursing that offense is one form of self-worship. The offense itself was a form of self-worship. The error made being always to allow anything to come between oneself and God, and more particularly to allow anything not of charity to do so.

The possibilities of self-worship are endless and endlessly misleading. The reality of true worship, a single fine thread. Truly, "strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, wide is that path that leads to destruction." And each person chooses the way he or she will go.

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Thank you for this teaching this morning! I have much to learn, and apparently you are the facilitator this day of the information He wishes to give me.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 12, 2006 9:14 AM.

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