(Today I continue with the second part of the four or five part introduction to the concept of family as the blueprint for authentic worship and a participation in the interior life of the Trinity)
To love yourself in a way that clears the way for continued spiritual growth you must both see yourself as you are and as you would like to be. To do so requires rigorous honesty and constant humility. St. Paul speaks marvelously in the seventh chapter of Romans of the frustration that, despite the most genuinely pious intentions, he often does not do the good he wants to do, but the very evil he does not want. This description of the human condition is profound in its brevity, clarity and humility. People often seek a remedy for this paradox. In modern times the remedy usually makes the condition worse.
Some abandon most standards altogether, preferring to do what comes “naturally” rather than be a hypocrite, elevating natural appetites to the status of a moral code. To an addict, it is natural to want to smoke a crack pipe. The continued indulgence of that appetite will lead to death and destruction. It is not hypocrisy to continue to proclaim the good that is yet beyond your grasp. It is hypocrisy to claim you have attained what you yet lack. To give up on the good altogether because of frailty is not natural enlightenment, but simple sour grapes. St. Paul was neither a hypocrite nor given to sour grapes because of his own frailty.
Others look at sin in themselves that they continue to do and decide it is not sin at all. This anesthetizes them against the pain of knowing how short they fall of what they should be. But an anesthetic is not a remedy. If you have been badly stabbed a powerful anesthetic may allow you to die comfortably, but only painful medicine can bring you back to health. This is particularly deadly, for it robs you of the capacity to recognize sin, just as surely as a powerful general anesthetic robs you of the capacity to recognize pain. The latter is merely a danger to the body; the former puts your soul in mortal danger. Even worse, it can put others in mortal peril. He who teaches that sin is virtue is in far greater danger than he who falls into certain sins without ever pretending they are anything but sin.
The worst of all treat virtue as integral to their identity rather than a goal ever to be sought. This leads them to bear false witness against others in order to continue to deceive themselves about their identity. Humility acknowledges our own appetites; sexual companionship, acquisitiveness and ambition – and even understands that, properly ordered, they are prods that lead us to form family, provide security for that family and find our vocation that we may accomplish what the Lord wants of us. Those who treat virtue as integral to their personality deny those appetites. Thus, when in competition with others, in order to maintain the illusion of their own superior virtue, they impute evil intent to their competitors rather than a simple clash of natural appetites. This leads them to bear false witness against those with whom they compete, which is a deadly sin. The witness is no less false just because their vanity seduces them into believing it.
All our most important virtues are a double-edged sword, tied inseparably to a disordered variant. Several decades ago I decided I wanted to devote myself to banishing sin in my life. I was seeing a very wise priest at the time. When I told him of my resolve to banish sin, he surprised me with the vehemence of his anger. “If you seek to banish sin, Charlie, that is where your focus will be. In time it will overwhelm you. The only way to safely banish sin is to drown it in a sea of love,” he said. What incredible wisdom there was in his heated rebuke! To live it means you must humbly accept that you are weak and will almost always lose a direct encounter with sin, which is from the devil. Rather, focus on love for your neighbor, which unites you with God – and sin constantly diminishes. This ‘effort by indirection’ has been powerfully fruitful for me and is my preferred way of battling evil. An amusing example…I appreciate beautiful women. I often found that, while in church, my eye would fall upon a lovely woman and my mind would wander, sometimes in unsavory ways. For a time, I tried to resist. But after the rebuke from the wise priest, a new idea occurred. I did not resist at all…but if my eye fell upon a beautiful woman I immediately acknowledged both hers and my guardian angel and began to pray for her good, her health and her faith. Funny, it pretty much squeezed out unsavory thoughts – and I began to look forward to a woman catching my eye at church as an opportunity for prayer for myself and another who might need it. I confess that it gave me a certain glee to know that I had turned the very temptation that was sent my way against the father of all temptation. It doesn’t happen much now. Maybe I’m older, maybe the devil has given it up as a bad business…but when it does, I just figure my guardian angel is pointing me towards someone who maybe needs a little extra prayer. It is a little thing, but one of satan’s tools has been turned against him.
Satan snares a multitude by their vanity, leading them to delude themselves that they are great, their vices actually virtues. But satan has more than one trick. He knows that the genuinely noble soul is quicker to acknowledge his flaw than his virtue. A noble man knows that while his virtues are fragile his sins are always before him. So satan, more subtly, tries to seduce the noble soul into counting even his virtues as a form of sin.
The 11th verse of my favorite Psalm, the 27th, pleads with God to “lead me in a plain path…” I love this, to see things as they are with neither disfiguring and unwarranted optimism or pessimism. When I walked across the country with the heavy pack on my back, I saw how earthy and powerful the plea would have been to its ancient listeners. Most know that walking uphill while laden is difficult, but a continuous downhill course is equally difficult and sometimes even more dangerous. Better to travel a plain path. All know (or should) that to count one’s vice as virtue is sin. But to count one’s virtue as vice is also sin, sin that bears false witness against God, Himself. Who do you think is the Author of the virtue within you? People often do not rightly assess the traits that God gave them. If you are 250 lbs. and as strong as a bull, that is part of your genetic code, a code of which you are not author. As much as I might aspire to be 6’4″ tall, 250 lbs. and as strong as a bull, it is not going to happen – because that is not how God made me. It is impotent fantasy to pine after those gifts with which God has not endowed you, but you are responsible for how you use the gifts He has given you. The magnificent physical specimen is called, first, to hone the gift, making the most of it. Then he is called to use it for good. So first you must see true – what is and is not given you. Then you must refine it, perfect it so far as you are able so you do not squander your talent. Then you must properly order it, using it to build up those around you rather than tear them down or abuse them. Finally, you must see it for what it is – wonderfully useful in this world to help build up your fellows, but feeble in itself. The weakest angel in heaven is stronger than the combined might of everyone who has ever lived. The most fleeting thought of the most dull-witted soul in heaven encompasses all the wisdom man has ever amassed and much more. The gifts you are given are a clue to your mission; how God calls you to help your fellows in your common pilgrimage towards heaven. That is their only use, for once heaven is opened to you, the greatest of your earthly gifts will mean less to you than the memory of well you were able to crawl when you were an infant.
This, then, is how a healthily balanced man loves himself. He sees his virtues and vices for what they are. He thankfully acknowledges the virtues God has given him and humbly asks help in amending his vices. He uses the knowledge of this to discern the mission God has given him and to live it. To cherish a vice is a deforming vanity. To deny a virtue is to defy God.
Take the knowledge of what healthy love of self is and then love your neighbor in that way. To see your neighbor with clarity, humility and obedience is to see them with true charity and love, to begin to love as God loves. If all people did that, it would immediately transform the world. Ah, but what a task for us in this contentious life! Yet God knows our feebleness, so He gave us a boost, a help. He gave us the blueprint of how to love our neighbor as ourselves and to accept our neighbor’s love with gratitude by ordering us into families. In healthy family life, we learn how we should treat our neighbor and participate in God’s interior life.