When we know our own helplessness, we learn to appreciate the value and efficacy of grace
GOD'S first aim in our sanctification is His own glory. Although He commands us to do all that depends on us, He would have us acknowledge that we can do nothing of ourselves; that our efforts are vain and our best resolutions profitless, except His grace precedes and follows all our good works; that it is useless to attempt to build the temple of our sanctity unless He begins, continues and completes the work, with our cooperation. Moreover-and this is St. Paul's express teaching -- we cannot produce a single good thought or entertain a single good desire of ourselves. We do not even know what sanctity is, or how to attain it. These are the truths of faith so clearly set out in Scripture and confirmed by Holy Church, and so well defended by St Augustine against the Pelagians.
God is jealous of His glory, and He is resolved that all sincere Christians shall learn these truths from their own experience. By these means they acquire humility, the mother of all the other virtues, without which those very virtues, being infected with pride, would but add to their condemnation. I say these things are to be learned by experience, for what would it avail us from a practical point of view, to know that they are truths of faith, if we had not that intimate assurance which only experience can give? And what would humility be, were it not rooted in a deep conviction of the soul, arising from a continual consciousness of its own spiritual misery?
God's dealings in this respect assume a more specially defined form with regard to those who are in the passive state. Of these, He takes particular care, and is the more jealous for them, since they belong to Him by their unreserved donation and consecration. As He leads them by the direct inspiration of His Spirit, and Himself assumes the task of their sanctification, bestowing greater graces on them than on others, so He takes all the more care to convince them that they are nothing and can do nothing, and that it is He Who provides for everything, and is responsible for all the good in them, and that all He requires of them is their abandonment and obedience.
But how does He lead them to that sense of absolute and total powerlessness and that perfect dependence upon grace? In the first place, He takes possession of their faculties, and does not allow them their free use in spiritual matters. They feel, as it were, bound and unable to exercise their memory, understanding and will on any particular subject. He allows them to make no plans, and should they conceive any designs otherwise than through His inspiration, He may upset them in part or altogether. He takes from them every method and practice of their own choosing. He withdraws them from ordinary efforts and from the usual means of acquiring any particular virtue. Instead, He Himself takes over the task of directing and sanctifying them according to His plan, prescribing in due measure what they are to do and what they are to avoid, infusing into their souls the habit of the virtues, so that they cannot flatter themselves that they have in any way acquired them through their own efforts. They do not even know that they possess such virtues, though in fact they practise them in such circumstances and by such means as He pleases. This state is excessively painful and humiliating to nature, most mortifying to self-love, and demands on the part of those who pass through it such fidelity as can only be maintained by great love and unremitting courage.
Secondly, He humbles them by the faults into which He allows them to fall, particularly when He sees them relying on themselves or when they have made good resolutions on which they depend. These faults, indeed, are merely faults of frailty, but it is precisely their own weakness that He wants to make them conscious of. He acts like a mother who purposely leaves her child to himself and lets him fall without harming himself, so that he may understand his need of her, and learn to cling closely to her, since he cannot take a step alone without falling, nor rise again alone after a fall.
These faults of pure frailty become more frequent, and apparently more grave, in proportion to the progress made. Some particular fault, which appeared to have been cured, now seems more imperious than ever. Passions which one thought had been mastered and brought under control, become more rebellious. The good which I will I do not, but the evil which I will not, that I do... For I am delighted with the law of God according to the inward man; but I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin. [ ] After so many favours received from God, after so many protestations made to Him, this condition arouses deep shame in the soul that finds itself a prey to such misery, and it despairs of ever being able to conquer or correct itself.
In this sharp internal war between the old and the new man, in which the latter is apparently worsted, the soul is fain to cry: Unhappy man that I am: who shall deliver me from the body of this death? [ ] By 'this death' the soul understands this present life, which causes it a torture worse than death, and which it takes to be continually threatening the life of grace. All the violence I have used against myself, all my prayers, fastings, vigils and austerities, have proved of no avail against my enemy. I can do nothing more. Who, then, will deliver me? The grace of God by Jesus Christ, Our Lord, answers St. Paul. [ ] Grace alone can work so great a miracle.
To this confession of the power of grace and the helplessness of the human will, it is God's intention to reduce the soul. It is His will that our deliverance by Him shall be acknowledged as a free gift, with which the soul has nothing to do except await it patiently. Thus God glorifies Himself in such a soul, leaving it no support from its own strength, and, by the consciousness of its sufferings and its vain attempts to rid itself of them, obliges it to acknowledge that its cure is due solely to the heavenly Physician.
Let us enter, then, into God's plans for us, so that our faults, our temptations, and the sense of our wretchedness, may all turn to His glory, by the humiliation they bring us, by the recognition of our powerlessness, and by an entire confidence in His divine goodness. We will grieve but not despond. Sorrow comes from God, despondency from self-love. We will humble ourselves patiently, quietly and gently. We will despair of ourselves, but expect everything from God. He will come and help us, but not until, weary, exhausted and convinced of the futility of all else, we turn to Him.
The ordinary run of Christians appreciate the value of grace, but as they add to it their own endeavours and God blesses their efforts, they do not realize its full value. In like manner, when they commit any fault, they are humbled. At the same time, they are aware that it was in their power to resist; they remind themselves that they did put up a fight before giving in. Therefore their falls are really voluntary, and they see that it depends upon themselves to rise, and that grace urges them to do so. They see also that they do not heed, because they will not heed; consequently, they have not a perfect knowledge of their own weakness. How should they, when they are always conscious of their strength, even in their very falls which they know they could have avoided. Such are those who have the free use of their faculties.
It is not so, however, with interior souls when they have entered the passive way. These are just like children, and God allows them no feeling save that of their own weakness. They are strong, but only in His strength. It must be remembered however, that this stage is only reached after their own strength has been spent in all manner of exercises, interior and exterior; for it would be a great illusion to imagine that God shows the slightest favour to laziness, indolence or want of effort. In this state of childhood, if they do any good, grace so acts in them that they are not conscious of any effort on their part, for they are deprived of all natural activity. They do cooperate, but with a cooperation which is barely perceptible, and which lies in their having given up their free will to God, to dispose of as He wishes. They are borne onwards in the way of perfection as a child is carried in its mother's arms, but not till they have of their own will thrown themselves into the arms of God, and refuse to leave them. According to the simile used by St. Teresa, they do not use sails and oars as others do; they trust to the wind to fill their sails, and it is the wind which drives them on. Now when we row, we contribute appreciably to our progress and have the right to take some credit to ourselves; but when we are carried on by the wind, we have no doubt where the strength comes from. So, in the passive state, the full value and efficacy of grace is more truly appreciated.
Souls in this state have likewise a keener and deeper consciousness of their weakness through the faults to which they give way, since it is because of their weakness that they fall. They do not want to commit such faults. Indeed, they make the most earnest resolutions against them; they multiply their prayers and austerities, and yet they fall. But God only allows this to happen, in order to keep them humble and make them realize their own nothingness. Let me repeat: I am not speaking of big faults. A soul would have to have already withdrawn itself from the grace of the passive state to fall into such sins. So long as they strive faithfully to abandon themselves to God's guiding Providence; so long as they do not intentionally permit themselves the slightest imperfection and relax no exercise of piety, their falls will not be considerable in themselves. They are exterior and apparent only, for the will has no share in them. Like St. Paul, they will be able to say: It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. [ ] And that root of sin, which they endeavour unsuccessfully to destroy, fills them with shame and with a holy horror of self, especially as they imagine that they are consenting to what is going on within them, although in fact they are far from doing so. But God does not place them in a state so humiliating and crucifying to nature until they are far advanced, and their will is, so to speak, confirmed in well-doing by long practice.
Among interior persons, nothing is more real and more common than this state, which is a very mysterious one. And if their director does not understand it, he is liable to make great mistakes, which may cause many of his penitents to despond. These certainly do not wish to sin, and they do all they can not to sin. Yet things escape them which appear to be sinful. They accordingly reproach and accuse themselves of these things as of so many sins; and if their confessor imprudently agrees with them and declares that they have sinned, he would cause them much distress, and they might easily run great risks.
How, then, should the confessor act? He must enter into God's plans, for God wants to destroy self-love in these souls. The confessor must allow them to find no help in themselves, either in the matter of doing good or of avoiding evil. The penitents may insist that they consented, but the confessor must not be too quick to take them at their word. For some time, he will tell them that they have not given their consent; then he may tell them simply to say that they were tried by temptations, without saying they have sinned. He must train them to submit their judgment to his, and to go to Holy Communion in spite of all their repugnances and fears. Such souls are never so pure as when they believe themselves to be covered with sins. Never have they been so humble, so obedient, more dead to their own will and less confident in themselves, as when they are in this state. There are so many marks of God's guidance in their regard that the confessor would have to be very poorly enlightened to doubt them, or unduly timid and irresolute not to recognize them. In such a case, one would be well advised to change one's confessor.
Rom. vii. 24
Rom. vii. 25
Rom. vii. 17
Work of God Apostolate