Go straight on: never stop or look back. Grieve for sin, but never lose courage
IT is not enough to enter upon the ways of God: we must walk in them, and ever press forward. To refuse to go on is to consent to fall back, for in this matter it is impossible to stand still for long. In the interior way to which God introduces us, it is He also Who regulates our speed, causing some to advance more rapidly, others more slowly. Our part is never to resist the hand that is urging us on, and to do nothing to retard our progress.
Now this progress is retarded, or arrested altogether, in various ways and for various reasons, which it would be as well to explain. It is retarded by cowardice, faint-heartedness, infidelity, inconstancy, and by a great number of tiny faults into which we fall, either for want of vigilance over ourselves, or of attention to what God is telling us in the depths of our heart.
Our progress is arrested when, like a careless traveller, we look to right and left, and stop to examine the things we see. Note, I do not say that we go out of our way to seek these objects: that would be far graver, especially if, in order to enjoy them, we gave up altogether. I am assuming we keep to the path and intend to do so; but, fascinated by the beauty and novelty of all that is around us, we slacken pace, or stop to enjoy it at our leisure. For to look at these things in a vague and superficial manner need not hold us up, provided the attraction does not become too strong.
We do much the same when we are perpetually looking to see where to put our feet, always trying to choose the best places, and making any number of detours to avoid awkward spots, instead of walking straight on and risking getting our feet wet! Nothing is more common in following the interior way than these precautions, hesitations and deliberations. We want to be quite sure before risking a false step. We want to see where we are going. We are afraid of over-tiring ourselves, and so turn aside from difficult and slippery places, or where there is the slightest appearance of danger. But grace tells us not to be afraid, to go straight ahead. Otherwise the way will only be all the longer, and we may never reach the end. Any kind of over-sensitiveness, faint-heartedness, an exaggerated fear of falling or of soiling, ever so little, our conscience (which can be a form of pride): all this is a hindrance to grace, and prevents us from pressing on unhesitatingly with full confidence in God, without watching our every step and making long detours.
In a path so rough and uneven, with difficult places everywhere and precipices on either side, why should we be so afraid of falls and of the danger of sullying ourselves, when we ought to walk blindly under the safe conduct of faith; when such falls can only be slight and involuntary and only have the effect of keeping us humble; when God's hand is always ready to raise us up again? The fear of death or of wounds never made a good soldier. We have a Physician Who can and will heal us and give us new life. Why, then, need we so greatly fear to expose ourselves by His orders, and under His all-powerful protection?
Again, we stop when, having accidentally fallen, instead of getting up again immediately and continuing with renewed energy, we lie on the ground distressed, miserable and despondent, and make no effort to get up. Or, if we do get up, we stop to investigate the cause of our fall, under the pretext of guarding against a similar accident in future. All this kind of conduct implies much self-love, false discretion, and self-confidence.
He who walks rapidly -- or, better still, he who runs -- is not so careful to see where he sets his feet. He overcomes all obstacles, and presses on steadily whether his path be impeded with ruts or mire, or is overflowing with water. What does it matter to him, if he is splashed, muddy and wet, provided he is making progress? He is willing to expose himself to a few falls, in spite of which he leaves others far behind. These accidents, which he neither seeks nor fears, and are only caused by the eagerness of his efforts, have no bad consequences. On the contrary, they increase his ardour. He gets up again promptly and thinks no more about it. God, towards Whom he is making his way, and union with Whom he is so eagerly seeking, is too merciful and just to lay to his account those faults, which are occasioned by an excess of confidence in Him, of abandonment and of love.
All this, however, is to be understood only of those souls that are truly interior, of whom God has taken full possession, who are acted upon and led by His Spirit, according to the expression of St. Paul. [ ] Who have a horror of the tiniest deliberate fault, and of the least resistance to grace; who, moreover, have great courage and are determined to spare no sacrifice. But it would be wrong to apply this doctrine to ordinary souls who, aided by grace, advance more by their own efforts in the path of virtue. These must always use prudent, though not anxious, circumspection; watch carefully their steps, and be on their guard against all falls, the more so because their falls are generally wilful, either in fact or in principle.
But, it will be said, how can we be sure that we are advancing? The answer is that we must look for no such assurance. It is enough to know that we are not halting on the way, and this we know by the witness of a quiet conscience, or from an habitual though not necessarily conscious peace. In times of perplexity and darkness, this assurance is conveyed to us by our spiritual director, who tells us that all is well; who soothes us and bids us plod on steadily, relying solely on faith and obedience.
I allow that faith is dark, and obedience blind: that the assurance derived from them does not do away with the contrary impressions produced by the imagination and feeling. I grant that this assurance is to a certain extent obscure, and that it brings with it no comforting conviction on which the soul can rest. But it is the kind of assurance that suits the trial, and so long as the trial lasts no other must be expected, unless occasionally and momentarily.
What difficulty would there be in this way if the soul were always certain that it was pleasing in God's sight? Where would be the sacrifice? What proof would the soul give of its trust and self-abandonment? Had Abraham known beforehand that God's command to immolate Isaac was only a test, and that an angel would stay his arm at the very moment it was about to strike, where would have been the merit, and what glory would he have given to God? And the same with Isaac: if, as he lay bound for the sacrifice, he had known that he was not going to die? Such an immolation would only have been a feigned one.
So, then, continual progress means that we must go straight ahead, urged on by grace and directed by obedience, knowing neither the road we tread nor the end to which it is leading us; unconscious whether our actions are pleasing to God and will meet with reward or no. We must wilfully think of none of these things, but simply be absorbed by the consideration of God's good pleasure and will, which we are sure of fulfilling provided we do not fulfil our own.
But what is to be done when, instead of advancing we seem to be falling back? In this matter, we must not be guided by our own judgment, because there comes a time in the spiritual life when the soul does not know its own state, and must not know it. This is the time when we imagine we are yielding to temptation. We think we are cast off by God by reason of our sins; we imagine we see sin in all we do. Are we therefore falling back? Far from it: we were never advancing more surely. It is then we act with greater purity of intention, seeing that we are seeking self in nothing, nor our interests, either in creatures or from God. It is then that self-love, reduced to its last resources, receives its fatal blows, and it is then that we give God the sacrifice that glorifies Him most.
That does not mean, however, that we are aware of our progress. Every step seems to warn us that we are heading for the loss of everything. And in a sense we do lose ourselves, but only to find ourselves eternally in God. Oh infinitely happy loss, which could never take place if we knew beforehand how it would all end. And so the experienced director is careful not to give the soul any assurance of its safety merely to console it. He emboldens it to continue sacrificing itself, but he does not unveil the mystery of what that sacrifice is leading to, nor reveal the exceeding happiness which will ensue for the faithful soul. Were he to act otherwise, he would hinder the work of God, and the consummation of the holocaust.
That is also why, when this point is reached, God takes every precaution so that nothing shall spoil His work. Maybe He will withdraw the director and send another, who understands nothing of the state of that soul. Or, if He keeps him, He will seal his lips completely, and prevent him from giving any ill-timed consolation. He may even permit him to turn against the soul, be prejudiced against it, and condemn it, and thus himself immolate the victim. These ineffable secrets of grace are known only to those who have experienced them, or are enlightened by God for the direction of others.
But let us return to our maxim. It forbids us to look back. We look back, when we regret what we have left behind for God's sake, even as the Israelites in the desert regretted the flesh-pots of Egypt, and loathed the manna which fell from heaven. It was in this sense that Our Lord declared that no man putting his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God. [ ] Even among men, regret for or the resumption of a gift once given is looked upon as contemptible, and at the most is forgiven only in a child, that does not know what it is doing.
We look back when we retrace our steps in thought and recall the past, in order out of curiosity to discern the course of our religious life and the workings of grace. This is what St. Paul condemned when, speaking of himself, he said: One thing I do: forgetting the things that are behind and stretching forth myself to those that are before, I press towards the mark, to the prize of the supernal vocation of God in Christ Jesus. [ ]
We look back, when we are so attached to the various means of perfection that we cling to them obstinately, or regret them inordinately when it pleases God to deprive us of them; when we cast longing eyes on some past state, preferring it to our present condition, in which nature has more to endure.
Again we look back, when we are continually turning our head to see whether we are making any progress, and how much. For, as we cannot see the goal ahead of us, the only way in which we can judge of our progress is by looking back to our starting-point. It is self-love that inspires this curiosity, but it does not really tell us anything, and it is nearly always followed by vain complacency, or else by despondency. The only effect of these judgments and retrospections is to slacken our pace and sometimes to hold up our progress, if indeed they do not cause us to turn back altogether.
Many souls are subject to this fault. They want their director to tell them again and again that they are going on well, and that he is pleased with the progress they are making. It is to fortify them, they say, and to urge them on to yet greater efforts: but it is all an illusion. Let them leave it to their director to enlighten them when he sees fit; for there are times when he should do so, in order to keep up their courage. But, generally speaking, they would do better to remain at peace, and take it that all is well unless they are told to the contrary.
Another fault, no less common and equally connected with self-love, is to be anxious and distressed at the slightest fault that escapes us, or at the least sign of our wretchedness and frailty. It is a great secret in the spiritual life to know how to meet the everyday faults that one commits, and how to turn them to good account. Let us consider this for a moment.
First of all, I assume that one has taken a firm resolution never to commit a deliberate sin, however small. Anything short of this appears to me completely incompatible with sincere devotion. By deliberate sins, I mean those one commits habitually, with full knowledge and consent, with no intention of correcting them, no contrition for them, and stifling any remorse that grace excites in the soul. I am speaking now of venial sins or simple infidelities to grace. Now the first thing God puts into the hearts of those He calls to the interior life, is a firm determination to follow in all things the inspirations of grace, and never wilfully to act against one's conscience. Thus these souls very rarely commit such faults, for if they did so frequently, they would soon fall from the state in which God has placed them.
The faults, then, to which they are subject are passing things, savouring of faint-heartedness, human respect, vanity or curiosity. Or else they are faults due to a lively nature; faults of inadvertence, indiscretion, peevishness or impulse -- all imperfections of nature rather than definite faults.
The first counsel given on this subject by masters of the spiritual life is never to lose courage, whatever fault may have been committed, because discouragement arises solely from self-love. We are surprised at having fallen. We did not think we were capable of such a thing. As if a human being who is nothing but corruption, weakness and wickedness, ought to be surprised at his own lapses. Astonishment implies a hidden vexation, despondency, and a temptation to give up everything. Saints are humbled by their faults, but never discouraged; they are not surprised! They rather wonder that they commit no worse, knowing themselves to be what they are, and they are continually thanking God that His goodness has preserved them so far.
We partly cause this discouragement ourselves by allowing our imagination to brood over the fault committed. We magnify and exaggerate it, and make mountains out of molehills. The devil also intervenes in order to break down our courage and induce us to miss our communions, and generally cause us to worry.
To obviate the work of the imagination and its consequences, the second counsel is to be sorry immediately on becoming aware of a fault, and then to think no more about it, until (if necessary) the time of confession. There are some persons who imagine that they should be always thinking of their sins; they carry them about with them, and have them constantly before their eyes. Such continual remembrance of our faults is only calculated to weaken and sadden us, and prevent us from carrying out our duties. We grow scrupulous, and are always worrying our confessor.
The third counsel -- and it is that of St. Francis of Sales -- is to grieve for our faults for God's sake, for it is He Who is offended by them, and to rejoice over them for our own, because of the humiliation they cause us. To practise this counsel, which is one of great perfection, is to draw from our falls all the profit which God had in view in permitting them. In God's plan our daily faults are, so to speak, one of the elements which go to make up our sanctity. When He wishes, God knows how to employ for that end the greatest crimes and disorders, as He did in the case of David, Mary Magdalen, Mary the Egyptian, and many other well-known penitents. And why should not our daily faults, if only we will use them to increase our self-knowledge (the most necessary next to the knowledge of God), produce the same results? But we will discuss this somewhat more fully in our next chapter.
Luke ix. 62
Phil. iii. 13-14.
Work of God Apostolate