Beware of self-love, the rival of the love of God
NOTHING indicates better the nature of self-love, or should make it more hateful to us, than the idea that it is the rival of the love of God. Homines sunt voluntates, says St. Augustine: men are their wills. We can bestow our whole love on but one only of two objects: God or self. If we put God first and refer all things to Him, then His love will make us good and pleasing in His sight, imparting a supernatural value to all our actions, and perfecting us as we grow in purity and simplicity. If, on the other hand, we refer everything to ourselves, our self-love will upset God's order in us, rendering us most displeasing to Him, vitiating actions otherwise holy, and lowering us in proportion to the sway it exercises in our hearts.
These two loves are entirely opposed to one another. They are not only rivals but enemies, disputing the possession of our heart. No compact or truce is possible between them; they hate one another, attack and persecute each other to the death. The total extinction of self-love, either in this world or in the next, opens heaven to us and ensures our eternal happiness; whilst the extinction of the love of God in our heart, when we pass out of this life, is hell and constitutes our eternal misery.
When a Christian really gives himself to God and to His service, divine love takes possession of his heart, sets up its throne therein and at once proceeds to drive out self-love, the latter resisting with all its strength Attacked and driven from one place to another, it takes refuge wherever it can, retreating from hold to hold until it hides in the innermost recesses of the soul. This is its last refuge, from which it is extremely difficult to dislodge it. There is no device by which it does not endeavour to harm and weaken its assailant, and to lessen, if it cannot prevent, its ultimate victory. It is always dangerous, even after defeat; and often, when we think we have crushed it, it will arise more formidable than ever.
Such is the enemy we have to fight, with the help of grace: an enemy born with us, and in some way part of our very self. Age, passions, habits, thoughts -- all, even our good qualities and occasionally our virtues, contribute to strengthen its hold upon us, and drive it deeper. It is so involved with ourselves that it seems almost impossible to distinguish it, and to attempt to destroy it is to jeopardize our very existence.
How powerless we are in the presence of an enemy so much a part of ourselves, and that has such power over us. What is worse is that it blinds us, and deprives us of the very means of recognizing it. It is only in the light of grace that we can discern it, and become aware of its wiles. That light alone enables us to foresee its blows, teaches us how to ward them off, and strengthens us to do battle with it. If we pay no heed to this light, or lose it through our own fault, we are left wholly defenceless, unable not only to conquer but even to resist; unable to see our enemy or to regard him as such. Indeed, we are so deceived as to look upon him as our greatest friend.
This wretched blindness is common to all men, even to the devout. It is the more baneful since it is unperceived and unsuspected. This is so much the case, that we have the greatest difficulty in convincing ourselves of its existence and presence. We are all more or less in the condition of the Pharisees who, with regard to Our Lord, were blinded by arrogant self-love, and yet fancied themselves clear-sighted. Our Lord told them: You say that you see, and therefore your sin remaineth. [ ] By their wilfulness they filled up the measure of the iniquity which they should have abhored.
We may assume as a fact, without fear of contradiction, that we are blind on many points concerning our perfection, and perhaps our salvation. We should pray continuously for God to enlighten us, either directly by His Holy Spirit, or indirectly by the advice of our friends or by the reproaches of our enemies. In whatever way light may come, it is always a blessing sent by God, and we should welcome and receive it gratefully, encouraging others to offer it, and neglecting nothing that may lead us to profit by it. This is a disposition that we can never pray for enough, and one to which most of our natural tendencies are opposed. We must be on our guard, I will not say against flattery (I presume our director or spiritual friends would hardly be guilty of such a thing), but even against marks of consideration and respect, especially if our rank, age or temperament would seem to warrant them. We should take it for granted that our faults are glossed over or made light of, out of discretion or kindness; that if we are praised, it is not for the good we do, but in order to encourage us to do better. If we are blamed, we may well add to the faults others find in us; and if we are praised, we should at least discredit much of the praise. It is only in this way that we shall keep a check on ourselves, and on the deadly enemy within us.
But now let us examine a little more closely the various devices that self-love employs in order to corrupt or lessen true devotion. Its subtlest aim is to appropriate to itself the work of grace; to rob God of the glory of our good actions, or at least to claim some share in them, and deprive us of the merit which derives from humility. 'Beware of me as of a big thief' St. Philip Neri used to say to Our Lord. Self-love is jealous of God's claims, and will do anything to rob Him of them. These claims are concerned for the glory that belongs to Him alone, and which He can concede to no one. He allows us the use of His gifts, but the glory must revert to Him in its entirety. And it is just this glory that self-love covets. Self-love wants us to glory in ourselves, against the express command of the apostle: He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. [ ]
But thinking to enrich us at the expense of God, in actual fact self-love does the very opposite. For there is no merit, no reward, no blessing, save for those who, recognizing their spiritual poverty, attribute nothing and appropriate nothing to themselves, but give thanks to God for all the good that is in them, referring it all to Him Who gave it. God is jealous, and the chief effect of His jealousy is that, as every good gift proceeds from Him, so it is His will that man should render Him homage for it, and acknowledge that he holds all from the hand of God. And, indeed, it is only right that a pauper who owes everything to God should never forget that he is poor by nature, and possesses nothing that has not come to him through the liberality of his benefactor. If he becomes proud, and asserts that he has a right to everything, then he deserves to lose all.
Self-love is mercenary. In the service of God, it looks to its own interests without rising to higher considerations. A soul tainted with this poison, desires holiness as an embellishing ornament and a distinguishing perfection. It desires to be pure, but only in order to contemplate its own purity. It fears sin, less as an offence against God than as a disfigurement of the brilliancy of its own beauty. It is more astonished than abashed by its faults, scarcely conceiving how it was possible for it to fall. Its repentance savours more of vexation than of regret, and what it believes to be an act of contrition and love of God is merely an act of inordinate self-love.
Self-love is greedy for consolations. It seeks them from God and from men. It enjoys them with clinging eagerness, regrets them bitterly when deprived of them, and if the privation lasts too long for its fancy relaxes its fidelity, complains and murmurs and threatens to give up altogether, as if God merited to be served only for His gifts. And all the time, it is clever enough to persuade us that we are generous, disinterested and actuated by the purest love of God.
Self-love is vain and presumptuous in times of spiritual abundance and prosperity. At such times, it presumes on its strength and thinks itself capable of anything. It makes much of its promises and protestations to God, in spite of the fact that they all end in empty words, which it produces as solid proofs of its devotion! But let want and adversity come, and immediately it is cast down and in despair, and incapable of the slightest effort. Before the combat, it is valiant enough; it defies its enemies and overcomes them, but all in its own fancy. When actually engaged in battle, it is timid and trembles, and flees at the first appearance of danger.
It loves the sort of holiness that is quiet and comfortable, easy-going and involving suffering to neither mind nor body, and where there are few obstacles to overcome: the kind of holiness that can be acquired quickly and at little cost or for the mere wishing. (St. Francis of Sales used to liken it to a cloak which one slips on lightly). But this is all only a dream. Self-love would like to be holy, but will do nothing to become so. It is soft, indolent, lazy, full of indeterminate desires, impatient, put off by the least difficulty, weary and exhausted at the slightest effort. Do not talk to it about climbing steep ascents: the path it likes is an easy gradient. So long as there is no real effort to be made, all is well; but if the struggle calls for the least contradiction to a favourite tendency, the overcoming of a repugnance, the resisting of a temptation, it loses courage, stops short and turns back.
Self-love will have nothing to do with virtue which is humble, hidden and unnoticed by others; still less, when it is despised, calumniated and persecuted. Good deeds done in secret and with no sounding of trumpets are not to its liking. It loves to appear in full daylight. It seeks display, recognition, esteem and applause, which it obtains craftily, invites deprecatingly, receives hypocritically, and enjoys immensely, all the time pretending to reject these things, knowing very well that if the world refuses them, it will make up for it itself in secret.
It hates simplicity and ordinary everyday life. It affects singularity, and defines sanctity not as the faithful performance of one's normal duties but as something out of the ordinary. There is nothing regular, sustained or constant in its habits; all is fanciful, capricious and inconsequent. It is always wanting to make sure that it has done well, that its conduct is approved by God, and still more by the director. Hence arise ever repeated introspections, restless and scrupulous testings of motives and intentions, an unceasing exaction of approbation, from one's own conscience, from God in prayer, and from the director in the confessional and elsewhere. All this, so it asserts, in order to gain firmness, support and encouragement: a vain pretext! It is all done with the purpose of finding occasion for self-gratulation, food for vanity, or at least an assurance of progress made, and the comfort of some light on the weary darkness of a way which provides no visible support.
Self-love is ever occupied with making comparisons. It exults in superiority, is vexed and annoyed if forced to yield to others. It censures everybody's conduct except its own. Its own way of prayer must be the best. Or else it envies souls which it supposes to be more advanced and more favoured by God. It notes the faults in others, criticizes their actions, judges and condemns motives, and is always whispering to itself 'I would not have acted thus; I would not have spoken thus in the same circumstances!' Its most terrible characteristic is the spiritual jealousy which gnaws and tortures it. Persons thus affected think that their director never pays them sufficient attention. They regard themselves as neglected, while every notice is lavished on others. They watch to see how often the director speaks to them, how often he writes to them, visits them, how long he stays with them. There is no end to their complaints on this score, and if they receive, or think they receive, no satisfaction, their irritation knows no bounds. They even extend the effects of their miserable jealousy to God Himself, sometimes accusing Him of treating others better than He treats them. They proclaim their innocence, how commendable their conduct is and their austerities, and, like the prodigal son's elder brother in the Gospel, reproach the Father for having shown favour to those who have not served Him half so faithfully as they have done.
Self-love accustoms the soul to claim as its own those gifts and graces with which God endows it, telling the soul that it has a right to them. And so when God appears to withdraw them, it becomes most impatient and does all it can to hold on to them. But God does not really despoil the soul of these gifts; He always leaves in the soul the roots of virtue (but in such wise that the soul is no longer aware of them), in order that it may cease to look upon them as its own. To this end He allows temptations contrary to these virtues, feelings of distaste and strong repugnance in exercising them, upheavals of passion in one's lower nature. To these the soul does not really consent, although it may think it does. For God withdraws all power of self-appreciation, even the recognition of such acts as are really virtuous.
Lastly, self-love robs God of His right to be the soul's centre, a right which it would take to itself. This appropriation is a deep-seated and radical vice, which has become so much a part of man's nature that he has great difficulty in recognizing it, in appreciating its mischievous character, and in consenting that God should deliver him from it. However advanced a soul may be, it could never give up this secret reference to self, which leads it to consider both its perfection and its happiness from a selfish point of view and not subordinate (as it should be) to the will and glory of God: it would never make this renunciation, I say, if God, in order to force its consent, did not exercise that absolute control which the soul has given Him over its free-will. That is self-love's last stronghold, and its deepest hiding place. It is of this that St. Francis of Sales said that we are fortunate if this vice dies a quarter of an hour before we do.
Self-love is the one source of all the illusions of the spiritual life. By its means the devil exercises his deceits, leads souls astray, drags them sometimes to hell by the very road that seems to lead them to heaven. We long eagerly for spiritual delights; the devil provides false ones, which encourage vanity and sensuality. We desire ardently extraordinary favours; the devil transforms himself into a angel of light, and counterfeits the divine operations. We question God, curious to find out our own state and that of others, and about secret and future events; the devil causes us to hear an inward voice, which we take for an answer from heaven. We fancy ourselves recipients of special lights, and grow wilful, obstinate and deaf to good advice. We throw off the yoke of authority, and under the deceitful guise of sanctity conceal the pride of Lucifer.
I have only stated the abuses and disorders introduced by self-love into devotion. I shall not enter into the specious reasonings with which self-love skilfully conceals itself. It is much too wary to appear in its true colours, for then it would be manifestly too despicable and odious, and one would be ashamed to pay any attention to it. It assumes the fairest of hues, and the most seductive disguises. Its motive is always zeal for God's glory, its aim the perfection of one's own soul, or the spiritual welfare of others. Its real purpose lies hidden in the depths of the heart. It professes other objects which are good and holy, and by adroitly intermingling them is able to pass them off on us.
The remedy for so great an evil is to become, in our devotion, attached to nothing that appeals to the senses, but to rise above all things and cleave to God alone and His good pleasure. We are always safe, provided we look at things from God's point of view, not ours. That is why the way of pure faith wherein we walk, as it were, blindly and without anything to reassure us, shields us from all illusions. That also is why God hides His work from us so carefully, and forbids us to pry into it. Self-love would like to have a finger in it all, to see everything, so that it can find something to feed on. So God, for the very opposite reason, hides all He is doing from it.
Cease, then, from all disquieting reflections on yourself, and never examine yourself from motives of curiosity, complacency or self-interest. Forget yourself and rest wholly in God, and endeavour to put into practice what Our Lord said one day to St. Catherine of Siena: My daughter, think of Me, and I will think of you: a short phrase but a profound one, in which is comprised all perfection. In other words, God will concern Himself with our true interests, if we will occupy ourselves with His. Oh how pure and happy that soul would be if, taking no thought for itself and lost in God, it had no other object than His glory and the accomplishment of His will. All the faults that we commit in the interior life, all that retards our progress, the obstacles we meet, all the anxiety, the torments that try us, derive from the fact that we look at ourselves instead of looking at God, and trusting in all things in His goodness, His wisdom and His love.
I am aware that perfect forgetfulness of self is only to be attained by slow degrees. But it must be our continual aim and we must exercise ourselves in acts of that virtue at every opportunity. Such opportunities are not rare, since we have ourselves with us always. 'Wherever you find yourself, there leave yourself' says the Imitation. The practical application of this precept is almost limitless. It is very grievous to self-love, and therefore most profitable to the soul. It embraces everything, and excepts nothing. 'Wherever you find yourself' it says. Measure your progress, therefore, by your fidelity to this rule; or, better still, if you can, be faithful to it without consciously reverting to it.
'Love to be unknown and esteemed as nothing' is another excellent counsel from the same source. Self-love dreads nothing so much as being unnoticed. It loves to be seen, to be known and to be thought well of. Do not allege your duty to God and men: be content to remain hidden. God will know how to find you and use you, when it is necessary for His glory and for the salvation of souls. As far as you are free to choose, avoid such positions as are likely to induce publicity and bring you to the notice of others. Then any notice will not harm you, since you are exposed to it in spite of yourself. God will make use of you, even if it means your being noticed, when you no longer run any risk, and a reputation for sanctity will not be a danger for you.
Be glad that God should appear to treat you as unknown to Him, and as of no account. Rejoice when you see others receive His consolations and favours, and you yourself only knocks and loneliness. After all, what are you: what do you deserve? And what ought you to want other than that God should deal justly with you in this world by treating you as a sinner -- in fact as nothing at all!
Finally: know well that you will advance only in the measure in which you do violence to yourself. Allow no quarter, no arguing with self-love. He is a criminal, and you must hound him to death, imploring his destruction at the hands of God. 'Burn me, prune me here below' cried St. Augustine, 'if only Thou grant me mercy in eternity'. This seems terrible and frightening to nature, but in practice, it is not so bad as we think; and it is the only way to peace and happiness. The more self-love is brought under control, the greater will be our freedom, our independence and serenity.
Let us go boldly to battle, then, against this enemy of our peace and sanctity. Let us carry our attacks to the bitter end, asking of God as a great grace that He will Himself strike the final blow. We can do a great deal to hasten the end, but only God can achieve complete victory.
II Cor. x. 17
Work of God Apostolate