6. Never be afraid that you are not following the way of perfection because you still have defects and commit many faults. This was true of the greatest saints, for Saint Augustine declares that all of them could exclaim with the Apostle Saint John: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” “He who came into the world with sin,” says Saint Gregory the Great, “cannot live there without sin.”
* “Act like the little child who, when it feels that its mother is holding it by the sleeve, runs about quite boldly and without being surprised at all the little falls it gets.Thus, as long as you find that God is holding you by the good will and the resolution He has given you to serve Him, go on bravely and do not be astonished that you stumble and fall occasionally.
There is no need to be troubled about it, provided that at certain intervals you cast yourself into your Father’s arms and embrace Him with the kiss of charity. Go on your way, then, cheerfully and heartily, doing the best you can; and if it cannot always be cheerfully, let it at least be always courageously and faithfully.” —Saint Francis de Sales.*
7. But we must bear in mind the vast difference that exists between the love of sin and sin committed inadvertently or from weakness. Affection for sin is the sole obstacle to perfection. Thus the most learned Fathers of the Church make a distinction between two kinds of tepidity: that which can be avoided and that which cannot be avoided. The former condition is that of a soul that retains an attachment for certain sins; the other, that of one falling into sin through frailty and from being taken unawares, which has been the case even with the greatest saints.
8. Therefore in place of troubling yourself about these accidental falls, inseparable from human nature, make them turn to your spiritual advantage by causing them to increase your humility. It often happens, says Saint Gregory the Great, that God allows great defects to remain in some souls at the beginning of their spiritual life that by means of them they may grow in self-knowledge and learn to place their entire confidence in Him.
Saint Augustine tells us that God in his infinite wisdom has been better pleased to bring forth good out of evil than to hinder the evil itself. Thus when you learn to draw fruits of humility from your faults, you correspond to the sublime designs of God’s unspeakable providence.
9. Should you happen to fear that you are not walking in the true way of perfection, consult your director and place implicit reliance upon the answer he gives you. Who is the saint that has not had to suffer because of a like doubt? But they were all reassured by the consideration of God’s infinite goodness and by obedience to their spiritual father.
*Some persons, although conscious of a sincere desire to serve God, nevertheless are disposed to feel alarmed about their spiritual condition, at the remembrance of all they have heard and read in regard to false consciences, self-illusion and the deceptive security of those who are following a wrong path.
There are two ways of forming a false conscience: first, by choosing among our duties those for which we feel most attraction and natural tendency, and then, in order to give ourselves up to them more than is necessary, to persuade ourselves we can neglect the others.
Thus a person with a preference for exterior acts of religion will spend all day praying or attending sermons and offices of the Church and considers herself very devout, although she may have been neglecting her temporal duties.
Another, being differently disposed, will apply herself exclusively to the duties of her state of life, sacrificing to them without regret those of religion, quite convinced that one who is faithful in all the domestic relations, and gives to every one his due, cannot possibly be otherwise than pleasing to God.
The second way of making a false conscience consists in giving the preference in our esteem and practice to those among the Christian virtues which find their analogies in our natural dispositions, for there is not one of the virtues that has not its correlative amongst the various qualities of the human character.
Persons of a gentle and placid disposition will affect meekness, the practice of which will be very easy for them and require no effort; and imagining they exercise a christian virtue when in reality they only follow a natural bent, they are liable to fall into a culpable weakness.
Those who, on the contrary, have an exact and rigid mind will esteem justice and order above all else, making small account of meekness and charity; and thus justifying themselves falsely by their natural temperament, they follow the tendency of the flesh whilst believing they obey the spirit, and may easily become addicted to excessive severity.
It is evident, therefore, that the first rule to be observed in order to avoid these dangerous illusions and to walk securely in the way of perfection, is to apply ourselves in a special manner to the practice of those duties for which we feel least innate attraction, and always to mistrust our natural virtues however good they may appear.
Then there is one consideration that should serve to reassure all Christians who are in earnest about their salvation; whilst they act in good faith and deal frankly and sincerely with their confessor, it is impossible for them to become the victim of a false conscience.
In the following passage Saint Francis de Sales recommends us to watch carefully over our natural tendencies and to substitute for them as much as possible the inspirations of grace, which he calls living according to the spirit:
“To live according to the spirit, my beloved daughter, is to think, speak and act according to the virtues that are of the spirit, and not according to the senses and feelings which are of the flesh. These latter we should make serve us, but we must hold them in subjection and not allow them to control us; whereas with the spiritual virtues it is just the reverse; we should serve them and bring everything else under subjection to them….
See, my daughter, human nature wishes to have a share in everything that goes on, and loves itself so dearly that it considers nothing of any account unless it be mixed up in it.
The spirit, on the contrary, attaches itself to God and often says that whatever is not God’s is nothing to it; and as through a motive of charity it takes part in things committed to it, so through humility and self-denial it willingly gives up all share in those which are denied it….
I am diffident and have no self-confidence, and therefore I wish to be allowed to live in a way congenial to this disposition; any one can see that this is not according to the spirit…. But, although I am naturally timorous and retiring, I desire to try and overcome these traits of character and to fulfill all the requirements of the charge imposed upon me by obedience; who does not see that this is to live according to the spirit?
Hence, as I have said before, my dear daughter, to live according to the spirit is to have our actions, our words and our thoughts such as the spirit of God would require of us. When I say thoughts, I of course mean voluntary thoughts.
I am sad, says some one, consequently I shall not speak; magpies and parrots do the same: I am sad, but as charity requires me to speak, I shall do so; spiritual persons act thus: I am slighted and I get angry: so do peacocks and monkeys. I am slighted and I rejoice thereat: that is what the Apostles did.”
In fine, to live according to the spirit is to do in all circumstances and on all occasions whatever faith, hope and charity demand of us, without even waiting to consider if we are or are not influenced by our natural disposition. (The Imitation of Christ, B. III., Ch. LIV.)*
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