Not long ago, I played my clarinet in a concert. It was the first performance I’ve been in for over 30 years. I used to play a long time ago, and although I never got very good, I stuck with it as long as there was a group to keep me going. It always made me a little sad to come across my old, broken-down instrument and wish I could be in a band again. So this past Christmas, my husband bought me a new clarinet, and my daughter spotted an ad for a community band, and away I went.
And guess what? I’ve gotten better. Not a lot, but unmistakably, I’m a better player than I was 30 years ago. This is somewhat counterintuitive, because, at age 48, my fingers ache in a way they did not when I was a teenager, and my lung capacity is certainly worse. I now need reading glasses to see the notes, and sometimes I still can’t see the measure numbers without sticking my face right in the page.
But my sight reading is much faster than it was, and my posture is better, too. My musical sense in general has matured. And there are more subtle things: I don’t get my feelings hurt when I’m stuck playing the harmony, rather than the melody; I’m patient with my own mistakes, and just try again, rather than getting frustrated and embarrassed and giving up.
I find it easier to listen to the director and accept that she knows what she’s talking about, rather than rolling my eyes because she’s bossy. I’m better at listening to the band as a whole, and trying to play my part as it’s written, rather than impress anyone. I also try my best to play all the music well, even if it’s not my favorite, because I’m just not as bratty as I used to be. These are things that I’ve learned to do in the last few decades, even while never so much as touching a clarinet. So now I’m a better musician.
The clarinet is not the only old hobby I’ve revisited recently, and it’s not the only thing I’ve discovered I’ve gotten better at, simply by taking several decades off and growing up a bit.
A few examples: I used to be the world’s worst baker. My biscuits were dense, my cakes were crooked and flat, my cookies were rubbery and always burnt. I could make cornbread, because it was almost impossible to do it wrong, but pretty much everything else was garbage. I resorted to mixes and store bought baked goods for decades. But then slowly, gradually, I recently started to experiment with baking some simple things from scratch— french bread, basic cakes—and guess what? I can bake fine. I’m no expert, but I’m completely competent, and the things I bake usually look like the picture on the recipe page.
How did this happen? For one thing, I’ve gotten better at assessing which recipes are going to be suitable for my skill level, and only attempting trickier ones when I know I will have the time and energy to focus on them. In the past, I would have approached an outrageously difficult recipe with the attitude of “but I WANT to” and then predictably ruined it, and then gotten angry and disgusted, and then had my confidence shattered for next time, making it harder to do well with a recipe that really was within my grasp. I’ve also just gotten my competent in the kitchen in general. I’ve spent countless hours cooking, and many of those skills translate to baking—and the confidence and sense of self-worth absolutely translate. I don’t get flustered and distracted as easily, and if I make a mistake, I don’t automatically panic and make things worse. Some of my terrible baking was, I’ve discovered, due to me straight up refusing to follow recipes because I thought I knew better, based on zero evidence, for no reason at all. Now I know better. So now I’m a better baker!
The same thing happened with drawing. I used to desperately, achingly long to be an artist, but I hit a plateau in my rendering skills, and it became a miserable exercise because what I drew never looked anything like what I imagined in my head. Now, I can choose a subject, get an idea of what I would like it to look like, and render it pretty faithfully in a reasonable amount of time. Not every time, but fairly reliably. I haven’t had any lessons in the intervening years.
What has changed is that I’ve calmed the heck down. I have reasonable expectations, and I no longer feel like my whole identity is riding on what turns up on the page. I also don’t draw to impress anyone, but simply because I enjoy the process, and therefore focus better on the process. And that often makes for better work.
There are other examples, but you get the point.
Guess what? You can do this with spiritual exercises, as well: You can revisit long-since abandoned spiritual practices that you gave up because they weren’t working for you, or you didn’t like them, or they didn’t fit into your life, and see if they might work better for you now. Sometimes you just need to grow up a bit, and that makes a big difference.
Is there some saint that everyone loves, and they never really clicked with you? Maybe they’re not the saint for you—or maybe they were simply not the saint for younger you. Might be worthwhile taking another look and seeing if there’s more there than you realized. If not, that’s okay, too. But if it’s been a decade or more, chances are you’ll have changed so much, it will hit different this time around.
Maybe the rosary always felt like a terrible, pointless slog when you were younger, and you very reasonably set it aside, because it just wasn’t meaningful, and some other form of prayer was. But if you’re once again casting around for something to help anchor you to Christ, don’t be afraid to go back and try old things again. Relationships change, and prayer is about your relationship with God, so maybe it will strike a chord now.
The same goes for any spiritual practice that is licit, but just wasn’t working for you a long time ago. Things can change! People are supposed to change. If you let something go because it was hurting you, or because it’s associated with some trauma, that’s a different matter; but if you simply didn’t get much out of it, or it felt like you weren’t getting the hang of it, maybe give it another shot. Maybe you’re ready now.
One of the great things about the Catholic faith is that it’s so varied. There are countless ways to make and keep and renew contact with God. What works for one person may not work for another person, and that’s perfectly fine, because there are very many options out there.
But it’s also good to remember that what didn’t work for you once may work for you now. It’s thrilling and illuminating to find something new, but it’s even more gladdening to discover that something that once felt stiff and unnatural is now fruitful and profound, because you now have more capacity to appreciate and understand and receive it. This is part of what it means to grow spiritually: Discovering not only more about who God is, but who you are.
A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly in May of 2023.
Image by Reuven Hayoon from Pixabay