"Those Poisonous Little Reptiles"
Threats to Peace With Ourselves
[Chapter 6 of my book The Saints' Guide to Making Peace With God, Yourself and Others (Servant, 2001, © 2001 by Paul Thigpen]
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
A man must be lenient with his own soul in his weaknesses and imperfections, and put up with his own failings in the same way he puts up with those of others. But he must not become idle and must encourage himself to better things.
St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833)
"Those poisonous little reptiles," St. Teresa of Avila called them — tiny, creeping spiritual pests in the "interior castle" that feed on our unwillingness to appreciate forgiveness in all its fullness. We act impatiently with ourselves, failing to realize that we must forgive ourselves just as we must forgive others. We scrupulously fret over our own failings, trying to take God's place as the judge of our souls. And if such merciless habits push us too far into self-condemnation, we lose confidence even in God's mercy, and we sink into despair.
If we want to preserve interior peace, we have to send these pesky critters running. The remedy? In one form or another, the saints agree on recommending two spiritual pesticides — humility and faith.
Impatience With Ourselves
Surely one of the great threats to interior peace is our impatience with ourselves. When unchecked, this tendency can degenerate into a bitterness characterized by self-contempt — an ironic form of pride. What we need, then, is humility — that is, the maintenance of an accurate self-estimate. We must recognize our own limits. "It's unfair," observed St. Frances de Sales, "to require from ourselves what is not in ourselves to give."
Be gentle with yourself, this wise confessor urged those under his spiritual direction. You must be as patient and long-suffering with yourself as you would with anyone else.
One of the forms in which we should practice gentleness regards ourselves, in never growing irritable with ourselves over our imperfections. For although it's reasonable for us to be vexed and angry with ourselves when we commit faults, yet we ought to guard against a bitter, fretful displeasure or spiteful anger with ourselves. Some make a great mistake in being angry with themselves over the fact that they have been angry, hurt over the fact that they have been hurt, and vexed over the fact that they have been vexed.
In this way they imagine that they are ridding their hearts of anger, and that their second passion remedies the first. But they are actually preparing the way for a fresh anger at the first opportunity that presents itself. Besides this, all this indignation and vexation and irritation with ourselves tends to foster pride and springs entirely from self-love, which is displeased at finding that we are not perfect.
We should endeavor, then, to look upon our faults with a calm, collected, firm displeasure. A judge who passes sentence thoughtfully and calmly punishes vice more effectively than if he is impetuous and hasty, for if the latter is true, his punishment is determined more by his own feelings than by the nature of the crime committed. In the same way, we correct ourselves more effectively by a quiet, persevering repentance than by an irritated, hasty, passionate repentance. For the latter is carried out more according to our impulse than according to the seriousness of our faults. …
Believe me: The corrections of a father will have much greater effect upon his child if they are offered kindly and gently than if they are hot and angry. In the same way, when we have erred, if we reprove our heart gently and calmly, pitying it rather than reproaching it, and encouraging it to reform, its repentance will be much deeper and former than if we are angry, stormy, and irritable.
For instance, if I particularly desired not to yield to the sin of vanity, yet nevertheless I fell seriously into it, I would not begin to say to my heart, "Aren't you wretched and abominable to be carried away by vanity after so many good resolutions! You ought to die of shame, and not even presume to lift up your eyes to your God, you blind, insolent, faithless traitor!"
Instead, I would seek to correct it by reasoning and compassion in this way: "My poor heart, here we are fallen into the very trap we have so often resolved to escape! Come on — let's get up again and never fall in it again. Let's call for God's mercy and put our trust in it, because it will help us to stand firmer in the future so we can return to the path of humility. Let's not be discouraged, but instead be on our guard from this time on. God will help us and guide us."
By such reproof I would establish a firmly rooted resolve not to fall again into the same fault. And I would then take such steps as seem advisable, and as my spiritual director would suggest, in order to keep from falling again.
If anyone finds that he can't touch his heart sufficiently by this gentle correction, he can make use of a harsher, sharper rebuke in order to provoke himself. But after using severity and reproach, he still should end his anger and indignation with a calm, holy confidence in God. …
When your heart has fallen, then, raise it gently, humbling yourself greatly before God, and acknowledging your fault. But don't wonder that you should fall. After all, it's no wonder that infirmity should be infirm, weakness weak, and frailty frail. Nevertheless, heartily detest the offense of which you have been guilty in God's sight, and with hearty courage and confidence in his mercy, begin once more to seek that virtue from which you have fallen away.
Introduction to the Devout Life
One day a hunter making his way through the brush came upon the abbot St. Anthony of the Desert relaxing and having a good time with his brother monks. The hunter was scandalized that a man with such a reputation for holiness should engage in activities other than rigorous spiritual disciplines. So St. Anthony wanted to teach him that we must make allowances for our weaknesses and humbly recognize our limits.
"Place an arrow in your bow," said the abbot to the hunter, "and draw it." He did so. "Draw it farther," said St. Anthony; and the hunter drew it farther. "Draw it yet farther," he insisted.
The hunter obeyed him, but he protested: "If I draw the bow too far, it will snap."
"So it is with doing God's work," answered the wise old abbot. "If we press ourselves excessively, we become exhausted. Sometimes it's best not to be rigid."
When the hunter heard these words, he repented of his previous thoughts, and the change of heart profited him greatly. For their part, the monks went home strengthened by the abbot's insight.
The Sayings of the Fathers
Ours is a culture not often given to scrupulosity — that is, the tendency to experience unfounded fears that there is sin in our life where there is none, or that our venial sins are more serious than is truly the case. Most of our contemporaries seem to be much more likely to excuse or minimize their sins than to be scrupulous.
Nevertheless, among Christians who are serious about the vocation to holiness, this threat to interior peace is perhaps never far away. The word "scruple" comes from the Latin term meaning "small sharp stone"; and those who suffer from scrupulosity can easily appreciate the derivation. Scruples are like tiny, pointed rocks scattered in the bed of the soul, keeping us from ever enjoying spiritual rest.
Blessed Henry Suso (c. 1295-1365), a Swiss Dominican evangelist and mystic, described vividly the loss of peace in the scrupulous conscience.
Scrupulous souls, forever tormented by doubts and anxiety, have hearts that are ill prepared to receive Jesus Christ. In place of that peace which religion is meant to give, these souls make their lives miserable, full of trouble and temptation. Scrupulous people distress themselves in many ways; for, really, they believe no one, and no counsel brings calm to their troubled souls. They keep returning to their sins and doubts, and the more they think of them the more they aggravate the trouble.
In her piercing examination of spiritual and psychological maladies, St. Teresa of Avila addressed this problem as well. She diagnoses the disorder as a kind of false humility and prescribes a refocus of our thinking.
Now be also on your guard, daughters, against some types of humility given by the devil in which great disquiet is felt about the gravity of our sins. This disturbance can afflict in many ways, even to the point of making one give up receiving Communion and practicing private prayer. These things are given up because the devil makes one feel unworthy. And when such persons approach the Blessed Sacrament, the time they used to spend in receiving favors is now spent in wondering whether or not they are well prepared. The situation gets so bad that the soul thinks God has abandoned it because of what it is; it almost doubts his mercy. …
Sometimes it will be through humility and virtue that you hold yourselves to be so wretched, and at other times it will be a gross temptation. … [But] the pain of genuine humility doesn't agitate or afflict the soul; rather, this humility expands it and enables it to serve God more. The other type of pain disturbs everything, agitates everything, afflicts the entire soul, and is very painful. I think the devil's aim is to make us think we are humble and, in turn, if possible, make us lose confidence in God.
When you find yourselves in this condition, stop thinking about your misery, insofar as possible, and turn your thoughts to the mercy of God, to how he loves us and suffered for us.
The Way of Perfection
St. Thomas More (1478-1535), an English statesman who was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his loyalty to the Church, agonized over the course he'd taken in opposing the ecclesiastical schism engineered by his friend and monarch, King Henry VIII. In the silence of his cell, the prisoner scrutinized his own motivations carefully; yet even as he faced his martyrdom, he never grew scrupulous, maintaining his sense of humor and his confidence that in the end, God's grace would triumph.
The scrupulous person creates for himself many more fears than there is good cause to have, and many times a great fear where there is no cause for fear at all. What is no sin at all, he thinks to be a venial sin. And what is venial, he imagines to be mortal sin — and yet, despite his fears, he falls into these sins, since they are the kind that no man can be free of in this life for long.
Next he fears that he has never made a full confession or been fully contrite, and then that his sins are never fully forgiven him. So he goes to confession again and again, burdening his confessor as well as himself. Then with every prayer that he says, even though he may say it as well as the frail infirmity of man will allow, he fails to be satisfied unless he says the prayer again, and after that once more. And when he has prayed the same prayer three times, he is as little satisfied with the last time as he was with the first. So his heart always sinks in heaviness, agitation, and fear, full of doubt and dullness, without comfort or spiritual consolation.
With this dark fear the devil deeply troubles the mind of many a good man in order to bring him to some greater evil. For he can, if he wants to, drive such a man to such a fearful dread of God's rigorous justice that he will keep him from the comforting remembrance of God's great, mighty mercy. Thus he will make the scrupulous man do all his good works without consolation or liveliness. Worse yet, he makes him perceive as a sin something that isn't, and as a mortal sin one that's only venial. …
Yes, and furthermore the devil longs to make all that man's good works and spiritual exercises so painful and so tedious to him that, with some other subtle suggestion or false, wily doctrine of a false spiritual liberty, he'll easily slide from that evil fault into one much worse — for the sake of the false ease and pleasure that he would suddenly find there. In this way he would have stretched his conscience as wide and large as it had been narrow and straight before. …
Let those, then, who are in the troublesome fear of their own scrupulous conscience, submit the rule of their conscience to the counsel of some other good man. Such a counselor may shape his advice according to the nature and the variety of the man's scruples.
Yes, although a man may be very learned himself, yet if he is in this state, let him learn the custom among physicians. No matter how well trained one of them may be, when he himself is sick or diseased, he doesn't trust his care all to himself. Instead, he sends for those of his colleagues whom he knows to be competent and puts himself in their hands. He does this for many reasons, one of which is fear. For he may feel a great deal more fear than is necessary in response to certain symptoms, and at that point it would be better for his health if for the time being he didn't know about those symptoms. …
Therefore I say, whoever has such a troublesome scrupulous conscience, let him for awhile refrain from judging himself, and follow the counsel of some other man whom he knows to be learned and virtuous — especially in the confessional. For there God is specially present with his grace assisting his sacrament. And he must not doubt that he should quiet his mind and follow what he's instructed to do there. He should think for a while less on the fear of God's justice, and be more merry in remembering his mercy. He should persevere in prayer for grace, abiding and dwelling faithfully in the sure hope of his help.
Then he shall find, without any doubt, that the shield of God's truth … will surround him in such a way that he will not dread this dark fear of scrupulosity, but will afterward have his conscience established in good quiet and rest.
Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation
Despair is a sin against the virtue of hope — a giving up of our confidence that God desires and actively seeks our salvation. Though it sometimes seems to stem from excessive humility — "How could the Lord save a wretch like me?" — in truth, such humility is false, a deceiving mask worn by the kind of pride that makes the claim, if only implicitly: "I have the ability to commit sin so great that even God Almighty can't forgive it."
St. Augustine exhorts us to trust in God's mercy. To spur us on to hope, he paints a tragic portrait of the person who gives in to despair.
It is plain then, my brethren, it is plain to everyone — hold fast to it, be sure of it — that whenever anyone turns himself to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, from a useless or abandoned way of life, all that is past is forgiven him. All his debts are canceled; a new account has been set up for him. Everything is entirely forgiven. So no one should be worried by the thought that there might remains anything that hasn't been forgiven him. …
Consider how despair deceives us. Some people, when they begin to reflect on the evils they have done, conclude that they can't be forgiven. And once they conclude that, right away they give up their souls to ruin, perishing through despair.
They say to themselves: "Now there's no hope for people like me; sins as great as those we've committed can't be forgiven. So why not just satisfy our lusts? Let's at least grab all the pleasures of this life while we can, since we'll have no reward in the next life. Let's do whatever we want, even if it's not lawful — then, at least, we'll have a little fleeting pleasure, since we won't enjoy eternity."
In saying such things they lose their souls through despair, either before they ever come to believe at all, or when they're Christians already. They fall into evil living through many sins and acts of wickedness.
Nevertheless, the Lord of the vineyard goes out to them, and through the words of the prophet Ezekiel knocks on the door and calls to them in their despair. Even as they're turning their backs on him, he calls them: "On the day that a man shall turn from his wicked ways, I will forget all his iniquities" (see Ez 18:21). If they hear and believe this voice, they will recover from despair, and rise up again from that deep, bottomless gulf in which they had been sunk.
Homilies on New Testament Lessons
The Sayings of the Fathers is an ancient collection of wise observations and anecdotes compiled as an aide in living the Christian life, gathered from the saints of the desert monasteries in the early centuries of the Church. One story illustrates well St. Augustine's remarks about the potentially devastating consequences of despair.
A young monk, we're told, was plagued for nine years by disturbing thoughts. Finally, he despaired of his salvation. Passing judgment on himself, he said: "My soul is ruined. Since I'm already damned, I'll go back to the world to live a life of sin."
On his way to the city, however, a Voice came to him, saying: "Those temptations you endured for nine years have become your crowns. Go back home, and I will take away your disturbing thoughts."
At that, the monk realized that we must not despair of ourselves because of temptations that come. If we make good use of temptations, they will become for us crowns.
If we would walk humbly with God, then despair isn't even an option, says Venerable Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), a French priest, desert hermit, and African explorer who converted to the faith only after a youth of arrogant agnosticism and dissolution. Despite his struggles with sin, he recognized that holding on to hope is actually a matter of obedience to God. "However wicked I may be," he once prayed, "however great a sinner, I must hope that I will go to heaven. You forbid me to despair."
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