Archbishop Sheen's LIFT UP YOUR HEART, 1950
PUTTING THE EGO IN ITS PLACE
After one has discovered the basic defect of the character through self-knowledge, the next step is to put that knowledge into practice by self-discipline.
Self-knowledge is diagnosis of the disease; self-discipline is the operation by which the malady is cured. But self-discipline is not only an eradication of evil—it is also a guarding of all the roadways to the real self, lest the enemy again make a foray by another and unsuspected route. For sins, even when they are seen as such, still retain some of their false glamour. This is one of the psychological weaknesses of man which makes virtue difficult for us.
From the beginning of time, the remorseful have asked themselves these questions: "How can I love vice and hate it at the same time?" "Why do I love alcohol and hate being an alcoholic?" "Why do I love being in love and hate the lust that follows?" The answer is: every sin has a double element, material and formal. The material element in sin is its content, or the stuff of which it is made, and this is always good; there is nothing in the visible universe that is intrinsically wicked. "God looked at the world and saw that it was good." Alcohol, flesh, sex, gold, wine—all these things are good and therefore are desirable. All reality, having been created by God, is beautiful, and permeated with Divine reflections of His attributes.
The formal element in a sin is its evil and perverse abuse of a good thing. lt is this distortion and exaggerated love of something which makes us misuse it for an evil end; it turns love of flesh into lust, love of alcohol into drunkenness, and love of wealth into avarice. Because man, through an original abuse of his freedom, is now on a lower level than that for which he was created, he has a tendency to pervert all things, as he once perverted and disordered himself.
Sinners look only at the material element of a sin and find it good—as it is. Then, when they have abused its goodness, they turn against God because the effects of this misuse have brought them misery. They forget that God does not forbid the right use of things, but only their abuse. Sinners point to saintly people who enjoy the same good things without ill effects—failing to understand that the saintly use them according to right reason and the Will of God. What the sinner loves in sin is the matter of sin, which is good; what the sinner hates in sin is the unhappiness, remorse, melancholy, and sense of defeat which comes from the perversion or abuse of what is good. He loves sin in the concrete; he hates it in the abstract. This accounts for the psychological feeling of tension and conflict inside of every sinner. The ego wants one thing; the I, another. The ego wants reality to yield to him and to let him enjoy things to excess, without the ensuing remorse.
Because of this inner contradiction, two effects follow: the first is a constant anxiety in the soul of the sinner. He loves and hates—he desires and despises. Driven on to further sins by passion er bad habits, he is in a constant agony of self-disgust. As Ovid described it: "1 see and approve the better things of life; the worse things of life I follow." St. Paul also mentioned this tension: "The evil which I will not, that I do, the good which I will, that I do not." The soul craves for the Infinite and, seeking it in the wrong place, is disappointed when it gets the finite. It demanded gold, and it received tinsel. This inherent disproportion between one's anticipation of pleasure in a sin and its actual realization intensifies the anxiety; no sin ever realizes its promises. Man tries to escape inner dissatisfaction by more and more pleasures, more and more riches, more arid more power—but these things make him hungry and fail to satisfy. The result of increasing wants is an increasing dissatisfaction. Advertising tries to stimulate our sensuous desires, converting luxuries into necessities, but it only intensifies man's inner misery. The business world is bent on creating hungers which its wares never satisfy, and thus it adds to the frustrations and broken minds of our times.
The second effect of this contradiction of both loving and hating sin is a worldliness which expresses itself in a hatred of religion; by "the world" here we de not mean the physical world, hut the spirit of the world, which gives the primacy to matter, flesh, and time. Of this spirit, Our Lord said: "I am not praying for the world." (John 17:9.) In some cases, the spirit of the world so completely possesses the egotist that it determines his desires, his judgments, his point of view, and his philosophy. Afflictions cast him down; prosperity alone rejoices him. If a desire for holier things enters the heart, it is dethroned before it can begin its reign. The world is in his soul, but it does not fill it, for his soul was made for something else.
Very few people realize why they do not always strive for the higher and the best, nor how they "happened", to fall into a serious moral lapse. "I cannot understand why I did it," they say. The answer is that since human nature lost its original, unspoiled friendship with God, it is deflected from its true center. The insubordination and rebellion of the will against Love led to an insubordination of the ego against the I, of the lower against the higher self—just as, in a machine, when the main wheel breaks down, all the little wheels, too, cease to function. The desires and the appetites of man became scattered, disparate, each seeking its own satisfaction regardless of the welfare of the whole man or of society. Our passions are constantly threatening rebellion against our reason and our will. But the will remains in control despite the passions; the reason of man still has validity despite the rebellion of the flesh. Man is not intrinsically corrupt.
There are four wounds in human nature which make goodness an effort for us. One wound is in the intellect and reason, which is somewhat darkened by the Fall and arrives at truth only with an effort; another wound is in the will, which can now pursue the highest good only by resisting the appeal of the lower. The two other wounds are of the passions: one inclines us to do the easy thing; the other inclines us to avoid doing what is hard. This means that we are bound to have temptations to do what is wrong; but the temptations themselves are not sinful, unless our will yields to them. A person cannot help having a temptation toward lust, any more than he can prevent the rumbling of his stomach when he is hungry; but he can refuse to commit adultery in the first instance, or gluttony in the second. The one point to be kept in mind is that no amount of libido, or passion, no external force, and no inner prompting to sin can make the human action of man anything but free. We are never tempted beyond our strength. Every moral failure is ours alone, because our choices are our own.
The damaged ego falsely identifies its fulfillment with the sensate, and seeks its perfection in what it has, rather than in what the person is or can become. To check the ego's errors, there must be a reversal of attitudes that will reestablish a balance between inner spiritual development and external activity. The ego must be tamed; the old self must be purged; the true I must be released. As St. Paul told the Ephesians: "If true knowledge is to be found in Jesus, you will have learned in His school that you must be quit, now, of the old self whose way of life you remember, the self that wasted its aim on false dreams. There must be a renewal in the inner life of your minds; you must be clothed in the new self, which is created in Cod's image, justified and sanctified through the truth." (Eph. 4:22-24.)
Self-discipline is necessary because the body and soul, the flesh and the spirit, the ego and the I, each make their demands. The higher self can never emerge unless the ego, or the lower self, is tamed. But self-discipline should not be misunderstood: self-discipline does not require the Puritan's detachment from the evils of the world for the sake of earthly prosperity. Such an attitude has, in history, produced two separate and untouching interests in a society: one was Church on Sunday, and the other was the factory, run six days a week for profit. This division eventually ended in secularism and the complete elimination of the spiritual.
Nor does self-discipline mean Stoicism, or the killing of our passions; for the passions are not wrong—it is only their abuse that is wrong. Passions of and by themselves are not moral, but a-moral, neither good nor bad; the morality depends on the way in which they are used by the intellect and will. Our Lord did not kill the passion of Magdalene, but He transformed it into apostleship, a passion for God; He did not kill the hateful energies of Paul, but directed them into new channels of love and the apostolate.
Self-discipline never means giving up anything—for giving up is a loss. Our Lord did not ask us to give up the things of earth, but to exchange them for better things. "For a man's soul, what price can be high enough?" (Mark 8:23.) All exchange involves a decision as to which things we can get along without and which we cannot get along without. We can get along without a dime, but we cannot get along without a loaf of bread, so we exchange the money for the loaf. Some souls find that they can get along without possessions, but they cannot get along without the joy of being free from material cares in order to possess God alone—so they exchange one for the other, and this is done through the Vow of Poverty. Others find they can get along without their own will, but they cannot get along without union with the Will of God —so they exchange one for the other, and this is accomplished by the Vow of Obedience. Others find they can get along without the thrill of the flesh, but not without the ecstasy of the spirit—so they exchange one for the other, and this passionless passion, this inner tranquility, results from the Vow of Chastity. If asceticism were a genuine giving up, it would be a loss, a reduction of our natures, a narrowing of our lives. But since it is an exchange, it is a realization—a liberation of the true essence of personality from the false attachments to which the ego is prone. Some men are not willing to make even the smallest exchange; they are like the rich young man in the Gospel who "went away sad because he bad many possessions." A cowardly patient can refuse to have the operation needed to cure himself of his illness, because he dreads the pain that is the price of health. Knowing of our timidity in undertaking a war against the ego, Our Lord affirmed that the peace He would give would be quite different from the false complacency we dread surrendering: 'Peace is my bequest to you, and the peace which I give you is Mine to give; I do not give peace as the world gives it. Do not let your heart be distressed, or play the coward." (John 14:27.)
Self-discipline does not mean self-contempt or destruction of personality, hut it rather aims at self-expression in the highest sense of the term. A train is not "self-expressive" when it refuses to follow the roadway laid out for it by an engineer and jumps the track to its own self-destruction. A train is "self-expressive" when it keeps its pressure within determined limits and follows the tracks. A man is not self-expressive when he satisfies his lusts like the beasts; he is "self-expressive" when he orders his passions according to reason and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
A stream which is divided into many channels has little depth. A mind that has no single purpose in living becomes tired and bored. It is this frittering away of life's energies by many little loves which destroys character. Self-disciphine integrates us by deepening the channel of our lives. As St. Thomas Aquinas says: "Man's heart adheres the more intensely to one thing, the more it is withdrawn from others." This gathering of the soul into one focus through self-discipline not only perfects the personality, but it gives a new importance and enjoyment to all other activities of life by arranging them into a pyramid or hierarchy of values, according to their true importance.
Self-discipline is not motivated by a hatred of the world, nor of society, nor of the common good of mankind. It is not indifferent to the world, as Stoic asceticism used to be, nor does it aim at extinction of the self, with Hindu asceticism. Rather its purpose is the salvation of the world through the salvation of souls—betterment of the world through the regeneration of hearts. These Stoic and Hindu asceticisms have this in common: they both end in indifference. One is indifferent to the welfare of society; the other is indifferent to the human personality. The first really glorifies the ego in isolation from its fellow men; the second kills the I for the sake of the great "universal unconsciousness." But true self-discipline makes such a divorce of personality from society impossible. Our Lord said: 'For their sakes do I sanctify Myself." Even the Trappists, who leave the world, do not enter upon a life of penance to save themselves, but to save the world. Disinterested, self-sacrificing love transmutes renunciation of the world and service of the world. A heart that surrenders pleasures for the love of God burns with a love for all the men whom God has made. In such detachment the I, working toward the heights, which is God, becomes more lovingly united to the world—as the tree that grows higher must strike deeper roots into the earth.
The purpose of self-discipline is, thus, not to destroy freedom but to perfect it. Freedom does not mean our right to do whatever we like, but to do whatever we ought; a man does not become free as he becomes licentious, but as he diminishes the traces of Original Sin. Self-denial is a denuding of the ego—it seeks to make the I free to follow God. The more the ego knocks off the chains which bind it to things outside itself, the freer it is to be its own, its I. As the drunkard is liquor-possessed, so the saint is self-possessed. There is a potential nobility or even divinity in all of us, as there is a potential statue in a crude block of marble. But before the marble can ever reveal the image, it must be subjected to the disciplinary actions of a chisel in the hands of a wise and loving Artist, Who knocks off huge chunks of formless egotism until the new and beautiful image of Christ Himself appears.
Self-discipiine, then, is not an end in itself but a means to an end. Those who make self-discipline the essence of religion reject some of God's creatures as evil; generally they become proud. But detachment, properly practiced, is only a means of attachment to God. When there is no love of Him, there is no true self-discipiine. St. Paul tells us that philanthropy, sacrifice, alms, even martyrdom, if embraced for any reason except love of God does not deserve an eternal reward. "I may give away all that I have, to feed the poor; I may give myself up to be burnt at the stake; if I lack charity, it goes for nothing." (1 Cor. 13:3.)
In the romantic order, a youth reveals his love for a girl by a surrender of other women's friendships and a concentration on the beloved. In the spiritual order, the soul reveals its love of God by a detachment horn creatures and an attachment to the Creator alone.
In sharp contrast to this way of self-discipline for love of Cod is the concentration on the ego, or autoeroticism, the beginning of all unhappiness. The present tendency of our age to seek security without effort and to eat food it has not earned can be very destructive of personality: anything which keeps the ego safe from hourly efforts, anything which spares it the task of resistance to sloth, is dangerous to character. Asceticism or self-discipline is necessary to crush selfishness—and it is not as unnatural as some would believe. As one mounts up the hierarchy of creation we see an increasing disposition for change. The chemical element known as H20 is capable of only three forms: water, ice, and steam. The plant order has greater adaptability, a wider potentiality than the chemical. And animals, because of their powers of locomotion, manifest a greater capacity for adaptation than anything in the lower orders of creation. But man himself has the greatest potentiality for conversion of anything in the universe. Not only can he move about the world freely on the horizontal plane, but it is even possible for him to mount from the stage of slavish self-love to the level of a controlled personality and, finally, to the heights of the Christ-centered life.
But because there is in man a bias toward evil, a down-ward pull, a carnal law of gravitation, he has constantly to walk, ever to remain where he is. By merely letting himself go, man degenerates; neglect, carelessness, self-indulgence, and sin all result in the loss of self-control. The egotist's unconsciousness of his inner loss of unity, his ignorance of the fact that his higher faculties have been subjected to the lower—does not alter the truth. Many a person prides himself on his health while a hidden and unsuspected cancer undermines his life. Knowingly or unknowingly, each of us is threatened by this downward pull of the ego, and all the powers of the mind and body must cooperate in resistance if the I, or person, is to remain intact.
This reordering of our natures demands sacrifice in proportion to the former misuse of any sense of the body or power of the mind. There is in modern society a greater potentiality for sacrifice than there has been in many decades. A negative, but none the less certain, sign of it is the readiness with which the youth of Europe in this century flocked to Communism, Nazism, and Fascism, systems which demanded a heroic self-surrender for the sake of the collective. The totalitarian systems show us what great sacrifices modern man will make for even a false ideal. These authoritarian parties demanded much more than ego discipline—they even required the surrender of the person into the collectivity of a race, state, or class. That millions of young people could be found ready to surrender their characters and wills and reasons to a "cause" is an indication of how much men nowadays welcome any reaction against the old liberalism, which allowed every man to do as he pleased. The instinct of the young people of Europe was right; the way in which they satisfied it was wrong. Under the American appearances of materialism and pragmatism, there is also hidden a readiness for sacrifice of another and higher kind; it manifests itself in the disgust of the young with the excesses of ease and comfort their elders enjoy, and in the increased number of those who seek complete detachment from the world and of a life of contemplation in a monastery, such as the Trappists.
This latent readiness for sacrifice in man has profound roots in our natural knowledge of Cod. We see God as opposed to the clutter of "things." Human reason actually knows more about what God is not, than about what He is; natural theology describes God in terms of eternity, which is the negation of time; in terms of immensity, which is the negation of space; and also by eliminating all imperfections from such universal concepts as justice, truth, beauty, and love. Supernatural revelation gives a more positive insight into the Divine Nature, but even on the plane of reason alone, man sees that by the negation of certain things in this world, he comes closer to God. There is a parallel between the knowledge of God by negation and our movement or action toward God by self-discipline. Man senses the paradox that if he gets closer to the nothingness from which he came, he will grow closer to the supreme Principle of Life, and Truth, and Love, Who created him. God made man from nothing. Therefore, to the extent that man by an act of humility nothings himself, he begins to recover and to find himself in the God Who made him. As the ego, which is the affirmation of his false divinity, vanishes, the I, which was created by Divinity, begins to appear and to show its readiness to be divinized by a participation in the Divine Nature, which is called Grace.
In studying painting, we view the work of masters rather than of dabblers—and so in studying self-discipline, the great artists of the spiritual life will have more to tell us than the psychologists. St. Augustine is one such master; he was afraid to surrender his ego, which had disintegrated by love of the flesh. As he put it:
"I do not press on to enjoy Him; and so—though Thy beauty caught me to Thee—I was anon torn away from Thee by my own weight and fell back with sorrow to the lower sphere. That weight was carnal custom. Yet Thou didst live on still in my memory, and I never doubted that there was One to Whom I might speed, though I was not yet such as could speed to Him ... I could not keep my gaze on Thee. My weakness threw me back and I was cast back upon my accustomed ways of life, bearing with me naught but a loving memory."
After having had an intellectual conversion from Manichaeanism, a moral conversion from a life of egotism, and a spiritual conversion to Christ, the convert sees life as a battle between the two loves of men: the love of ego and the love of God. Or he may, with St. Augustine, see the world as divided into two cities:
"Two loves therefore have given origin to these two cities—self-love in contempt of God unto the earthly; love of God and contempt of oneself to the heavenly. The first seeketh the glory of men, and the latter desires God only, as the testimony of the conscience, the greatest glory. The former glories in itself, and the latter in God. The one exalteth itself in its own glory; the other sayeth to God, 'my glory and the lifter up of my head.' The one boasteth of the ambitious conquerors led by the lust of sovereignty; the other, everyone serveth his neighbor in charity. ... The one city is seated in worldly possessions; the other in heavenly hopes; both coming out of the common gate of mortality, which was opened in Adam, out of whose condemned progeny, as out of a putrefied lump, God made some vessels of mercy, and some of wrath; giving due pains unto the one, and undue grace unto the other, that the citizens of God upon earth may take this lesson from those vessels of wrath never to rely on their own election, but hope to call upon the name of the Lord."
Hugh of St. Victor gives another metaphor for the resistance of the ego to the Grace of God:
"Damp wood kindles slowly under fire, but a strong breeze will fan it into flames with black clouds of smoke. Little by little the smoke is dissipated, as the moisture dries up, and the blaze spreads freely over the whole crackling pile ... till the wood is wholly changed into the likeness of fire ... then the crackling ceases ...nothing is to be seen save the victorious fire, glowing in the profound peace of great silence. ... First fire and flame and smoke; then the fire and the flames, but smoke no more; last of all, pure fire, with neither, flame nor smoke. As is the damp wood, so are our carnal hearts touch them with the spark of the fear of God, or Divine Love, and the great clouds of evil passions and rebellious desires roll upwards. Then the soul grows stronger; the flame of love burns more hotly and brightly; the smoke of passion dies down; and the purified spirit, rises to the contemplation of Truth. Last of all, triumphant contemplation fills the heart with Truth; we have reached the very source of the sovereign Truth and been enfolded thereby, and neither trouble nor anxiety cut the heart more. It has found peace and rest."
St. Thomas in his cold and profoundly philosophical approach teaches the same lesson by inquiring into the true nature of man. After having eliminated as our proper goals the love of wealth and honor, sexual license, and other forms of selfishness, he affirms that the true end of the I, or personality, is the contemplation of truth. But this is impossible to see without giving up our ego-centric habits and turning away from the worldly distractions which veil its discovery.
"Hence the last end for men is the contemplation of truth. This alone is distinctive of his nature, and no other corporeal being shares it with him. Nor is there any end beyond it, for the contemplation of truth is an end in itself. Hereby man is united in likeness with the superior spirits, because this alone of all activity is common to God and the Angels as well. ... And to this end, all other human activities seem directed. For perfect contemplation, we require bodily health, which is secured by all such artificial contrivances as are necessary for life. We require freedom from the perturbation of the passions—a goal attained by the moral virtues and by prudence. We require freedom from external perturbation—a freedom at which the entire organization of civil government aims. So, if you look at the matter rightly, all human occupations appear to be directed to the needs of those who contemplate truth."
It cannot be stressed too much that in this passage the great thinker, speaking of self-discipiine, does not regard either the body or the passions themselves as evil; it is only the abuse of these passions which he condemns. Bodily passions and temporal goods, though they de not constitute the whole of human perfection, are genuinely a part of it. Even in its glorified state after the resurrection, the body will be necessary for the well-being of the soul, and the glory of the soul will overflow the glory of the body, so that it, too, may have its heavenly inheritance.