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  • Ann Yeong

When Growth Feels Like Backsliding

Updated: Jan 6



In 2016, after about seven years of what had felt like steady spiritual growth, I reached a point where I suddenly felt like I was going backwards. In the prior seven years, my spiritual life had felt like it was growing from strength to strength. My connection with God had never been stronger. I had been going for regular spiritual direction every month and going for annual silent personal retreats. I had been availing myself to intellectual formation about the faith and I had also begun some inner child work when the recognition came during spiritual direction that I had a wounded inner child.


There were very many challenging aspects of my life during those years, but the one area that felt like it was going on a consistent upward trend was my relationship with God. Then all that came to a head during a week-long silent retreat that I had in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It all suddenly changed.

...we're going to have to first undo everything that has been done up to this point. We will need to tear down all the walls brick by brick. Then we're going to have to go underground, excavate the foundations and start again.

During one of my prayer times during the retreat, I received an image in prayer of a cathedral under construction. There was scaffolding all around it. Many of the walls had already come up, so there was a lot of work above ground that was visible. It looked like the construction was coming along nicely even though there was as yet no roof. As I looked at this half-finished cathedral, I heard a message in my heart, "Ann, we're not going to be able to complete building this cathedral because there is something wrong in its foundation. If you want to finish building it, we're going to have to first undo everything that has been done up to this point. We will need to tear down all the walls brick by brick. Then we're going to have to go underground, excavate the foundations and start again. But this time we will do it right."


I knew that I was the cathedral in question. I knew that the cathedral was a symbol for my entire person, that I was this work that was in progress...

I knew that I was the cathedral in question. I knew that that cathedral was a symbol for my entire person, that I was this work that was in progress. And I understood what the message was about because I had felt for a while that I had plateaued in my spiritual growth. And now I was being given to understand that I will not be able to keep up that growth because something in my "foundations" is awry. Something deep within my heart, in my memories is broken and will not be able to support further growth.


I had been driven by my own will and strength, by my desire to be seen as good and holy by God and by other people... I have this compulsion to strive for an "A+" in everything - including the spiritual life! It was still all about me.

It was revealed to me that the previous seven years of growth had been indeed graced, but that I had been motivated in large part by my ego and insecurity. I had been driven by my own will and strength, by my desire to be seen as good and holy by God and by other people. I was driven by my fear of failing, and by my need to do the right and responsible thing as a Catholic. As I once candidly told my confessor - I have this compulsion to strive for an "A+" in everything - including the spiritual life! It was still all about me. To my humiliation, I realized during the retreat that probably 95% or more of my drive and energy to deepen my spiritual life was not out of love for God at all, but all of these other factors. It was still about proving myself worthy of God's love, and worthy of the respect and good regard of my fellow human beings. THIS was what needed to be righted in the "foundation" of my soul.


It had taken me this much growth in my relationship with God to finally become secure enough to hear and accept this difficult message without feeling despair or shame at having to go back all the way back to the beginning and start again.

But why had God waited until I had grown this much before springing this on me? Why had he allowed the many years of building - especially the previous 7 years of rapid growth - to happen before telling me that everything had to be torn down and started up again? I realized that there was a reason for that too. It had taken me this much growth in my relationship with God to finally become secure enough to hear and accept this difficult message without feeling despair or shame at having to go back all the way back to the beginning and start again. In fact, I felt a sense of joy that God loved me so much to help me begin again with Him.

...my actual behaviour was a lot less holy or spiritually mature than I would like to appear to be. But I was now ready to accept that I was much more a beginner than I wanted to be.

In the months that followed, I truly felt like I regressed in so many ways in terms of behavior. My prayer life, which had become very robust and very structured, became a lot less structured. And sometimes I missed my prayer time altogether. I realized that if I were to attend to where I was actually acting out of free will, out of love and not out of pride or insecurity, my actual behaviour was a lot less holy or spiritually mature than I would like to appear to be. But I was now ready to accept that I was much more a beginner than I wanted to be. While I realized that I wasn't as holy as I thought I was, at the same time, I found that I was growing in humility because now I was ready to accept that I was really a beginner. And that new humility made me joyful because I didn't have to pretend to be more than I really was. I didn't have to put on a performance anymore!


That love grounded me. I knew I was loved where I was, and that I didn't have to try and impress anyone or impress God. That freedom allowed me to grow, not just in appearance, but in truth.

I stepped off the pedestal of being some kind of role model. Instead, I became more aware of who I simply was before God's loving gaze. I was just ME and I could just be myself. And for the first time in my life, I could really just see myself as I was and accept myself. That love grounded me. I knew I was loved where I was, and that I didn't have to try and impress anyone or impress God. That freedom allowed me to grow, not just in appearance, but in truth. And truth continued to set me free to grow in wisdom, to see reality as it is, and to meet it with compassion - reality both in myself and in the world around me. I was able to see more clearly where people were really at, and to accept that reality with more compassion than before.

God really made good his promise to "excavate my foundations" and bring the light of His love into what was buried and broken from my past.

That season of regression revealed to me new areas of my life which needed healing. Old wounds were surfaced and revealed to me and I went through a very raw and painful time, both emotionally and physically. God really made good his promise to "excavate my foundations" and bring the light of His love into what was buried and broken from my past.


During that season, I fell ill easily whenever I felt emotionally stressed. At some point I became aware I needed all the help I could get to continue my journey of healing and integration. That's when I decided to seek counselling to help me process and learn how to support myself better in the area of mental and emotional health.


The journey continues to this day. I never cease to be amazed at what the Holy Spirit unearths in my "foundations" for healing and transformation. I am no longer too concerned about what "progress" I'm making in the interior journey because I have realised that being open to unlearning and being undone by God is far more important in this journey than anything I can do to help myself.


Listen to Episode 12 "Am I Regressing?" on the Becoming Me Podcast from Wednesday 6 January, 2021. Spotify: https://buff.ly/34vZRf1

Apple Podcasts: https://buff.ly/34rFkIu

Google Podcasts: https://buff.ly/3n9MHgh

Website: https://buff.ly/3kzUylB


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