"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 120
Let's look at the infrastructure of devotion that St. Francis de Sales has so far. He began with the cornerstone, the love of God, and built everything else on it layer by layer: individual mental prayer, the traditional and communal prayers of the Church, and virtues to practice alone and in society. Having laid all that down, he can get started on the biggest challenge faced by those who are truly serious about being holy.
As soon as the men of the world perceive that you seek the devout life, they will launch forth all their raillery and slander against you; the most ill-natured will pronounce your altered ways to be hypocrisy, affectation, or bigotry; they will assert that the world having slighted you, rejected by it, you turn to God; and your friends will overwhelm you with a torrent of what they hold to be prudent and charitable remonstrances. They will tell you that you will grow morbid and melancholy, that you will lose your position in the world, will be considered insupportable, will become old before your time, that your domestic affairs will suffer, that in the world we must do as the world does, that we can surely be saved without such extravagances . . .
Whatever we do, the world will find fault; if we spend a long time in Confession, it will ask what we can have to say. If we take but a short time, it will say that we do not tell everything; it will spy out all we do, and from one little hasty word it will pronounce our temper unbearable; it will denounce our prudence as avarice, our gentleness as folly; but to the children of the world their passions will pass as the fruit of a generous spirit, their avarice as forethought, their lusts as honourable. Spiders invariably spoil the bees' labour.
This shouldn't be surprising. After all, Jesus Himself promised that those who follow Him would be hated as He was (and still is) hated. On the other hand, we all know religious people who seem to think that Christian virtue means giving Jesus good PR by showing off how good they themselves are (a view that St. Francis totally took apart in an earlier chapter, by the way)--and our reactions to their priggishness hardly amount to persecution of them. So when we start inspiring similar reactions in others, shouldn't we at least consider the possibility that we should take the holiness down a notch?
If my understanding of this book is correct, then the answer to that question is no. (Barring the advice of your spiritual guide or the wishes of those whom you have real obligations to, of course!) In fact, St. Francis would probably tell us to back up and correct one mistaken assumption in that scenario. Are those religious people actually hurting our prayer lives and commitment to virtue . . . or are they just really annoying? Sadly, it's not always other people who are the ones who need to change. =P
Speaking of things that hurt our prayer lives and commitment to virtue, the fifteen chapters that we're discussing in this meeting are all about distractions from devotion. And the foremost among them, taking up eight whole chapters, is temptation.
Here St. Francis repeats his great explanation of how people fall into sin:
. . . when Satan, the world, and the flesh behold a soul espoused to the Son of God, they ply her with suggestions and temptations by which, firstly, sin is set before her; secondly, she either takes pleasure in it or the reverse; and thirdly, she either consents or turns away: which in fact are the three degrees by which we fall into sin: temptation, delectation, and consent. And although these three steps may not be so obvious in every ordinary sin, they are palpably evident in great and heinous sins.
It's such a simple formula, but I've already found it immensely helpful. I used to think that the next step after temptation was already consent. Knowing that delectation is in between them--that we don't give consent unless we also let the temptation delight us first--lets me put the brakes on earlier. It's be easier not to snap at people if you don't take pleasure in fantasies of telling them off.
St. Francis's strategies here remind me of one of last year's "Two or Three" Book Club picks. At the end of The Secret of the Rosary, St. Louis de Montfort brings up the kind of opposition that devotees of the rosary attract. But instead of showing us how "to dialogue" with them, he recommends that we ignore them and focus on our devotion to Mary. For it's possible to be so distracted by defending a devotion that we cease to practice it. And then the detractors win anyway. This is especially striking advice for our age, when a good Christian is supposed to be able to have an answer to everything.
In Introduction to the Devout Life, we read a similar warning not to meet temptations head on, but instead to serve a distraction with another distraction. To make an "act of direct opposition"--and to make your lifestyle one of direct opposition. If those fantasies of telling people exactly what you think of them start to come at you more frequently, then challenge yourself to see the best things in the people who annoy you. If you need to, play a game of making up a double life for them, in which they do great good in secret but need to put up a front as jerks. (What? It works for me.)
But I think the real gold in St. Francis's teachings is the way that he discusses temptation in the context of charity.
Did you ever observe a large fire heaped up with cinders? If some ten or twelve hours afterwards you seek the fire, you will barely find a lingering fire in the centre of the hearth, and that with difficulty; but since you can discover it, there is undoubtedly some fire left, and it will suffice to rekindle the extinguished fuel. So is it with charity (which is our spiritual life) amidst great and pressing temptations.
We sometimes feel so discouraged when our spiritual lives aren't the large, blazing fires we think they should be, that we imagine we're worse Christians than we are. St. Francis reminds us that as long as we don't sin (which is the only way that we can hurt our relationship with God), all the awful feelings we may have amount to no more than a heap of ashes. The embers under them still live.
It's a comforting thought, but few people can be at peace with just embers. We all want the comfort and protection of a raging fire. But it is a mistake in the wrong direction to force the flames to grow just so we can feel better. When an ember is more than enough, insisting on more is just greedy . . . and inasmuch as greed is a vice, acting upon it will do more to kill that ember than all the opposition in the world. Or to paraphrase another metaphor from St. Francis, it would be as if you liked honey so much that you poured it on all your food. Don't be a spiritual adrenaline junkie, kids. There's no need to keep chasing highs to feel close to God.
But now this begs the question of how much feelings or affections should matter to a Christian. And you can bet our spiritual expert from Geneva has the answer!
. . . devotion does not consist in that sweetness, consolation, and visible tenderness, which provokes tears and sighs, and gives us a certain agreeable savour and satisfaction in our spiritual exercises. No, this is not the same thing as devotion; for there are many souls which experience these enjoyments and consolations, and nevertheless are vicious, and, consequently, have no true love of God, much less any true devotion . . .
A child will cry bitter tears if he sees the lancet prick his mother who is bled; but if at the same time, the mother for whom he weeps asks for an apple or a sugar-plum which he has in his hand, he will refuse to give it up. Such are too often our tender impulses of devotion. We behold the lance piercing the Heart of our crucified Lord, and we weep piteously . . . but why, then, do we not heartily give him the apple we have in our hands . . . Why do we not give up to Him the many low affections, attractions, and pleasures which He would take from us but cannot, because they are the sugar-plums which we prefer to His heavenly grace?
I love that analogy because it puts spiritual delights into real perspective. Sometimes what we think of as our necessary daily bread is no more than a sugar-plum. St. Francis gets quite a bit of mileage from this metaphor, such as when he admits that God sometimes hands out "sugary bribes" like those we give to children--not because we need to be manipulated, but because we often need to be encouraged by a foretaste of what we're working toward. The general rule is to judge feelings by their fruits. If we have all sorts of amazing spiritual feelings but treat others like crap, then we're hardly living with charity, are we?
Now please note that St. Francis is no buzzkill. He may warn us against chasing spiritual highs, but he knows that too much spiritual dryness isn't a good sign, either. And as someone who has clearly seen the latter too often, he knows that the most likely cause of it is evasion in Confession. If you've been rationalising that something you've been doing isn't really a sin or coming up with excuses not to go to the confessors who are available to you, then you're kind of slamming the door in the face of grace. And no, the Internet isn't your spiritual guide any more than your cats are your children: you can't "confess" just anywhere and get the same results that you would before a minister of God.
Finally, no Catholic discussion of temptation can end without mentioning the idea that God sometimes tests us. I'm personally okay with the concept, but I've run into so many people who are so put off by the idea that an all-knowing, all-merciful God would allow us to suffer as a trial that I cringe at it myself. The prosecution have a point when they ask where the sense is in God's taking away all a man's wealth, all his children, and his health, in order to win a bet with the devil. Why must we suffer in order to be stronger, when God could get exact the same results by waving a magic wand (so to speak)?
My answer is . . . far too long for this post. =P In all seriousness, I wrote all ten paragraphs of it down, delaying the publication of this post to rewrite them until they were perfect. And then I realised they were throwing the whole post off balance and deleted them. I would have got rid of the pesky previous paragraph as well, except that it's right: no Catholic discussion of temptation can end without mentioning the idea that God sometimes tests us. LOL! Suffice it to say that my lost answer could double as an explanation of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form, which I wish with all my heart were more widely available.
Totally Optional Discussion Questions:
1) Have well-meaning people ever discouraged you from being more devout or virtuous?
2) What strategies for opposing temptation can you recommend?
3) What is the best "sugary bribe" that you've received from the Holy Spirit?
4) What do you think of the idea that God tests us?
Image Source: Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales