Excerpts from Ven. Archbishop Sheen's LIFT UP YOUR HEART, 1950
EMERGENCE OF CHARACTER
Everyone in the world is defeated in one area of life or another. Some fall away, from their high ideals; others bemoan their failure to marry or, having married, lament because the state failed to realize all its hopes and promises; others experience a decline of virtue, a gradual slipping-away into mediocrity, or a slavery to vice; others are subjected to weariness, a failure of health, or economic ruin. All these disappointments are voiced in the mournful regret: "If I only had my life to live over again!" But it is of the utmost importance that, in facing our defeats and failures, we shall never yield to discouragement; for discouragement, from a spiritual point of view, is the result of wounded self-love and is therefore a form of pride.
We all have to accept failure; we do not all have to lament it. It is interesting to contrast the Christian's proper attitude toward defeat with the pagan's; the unbeliever's setbacks end in pessimism, for, deluded by false optimism and its doctrine of inevitable progress, he had never visualized the disappointment he has met. H. G. Wells, who for years glorified the prospects of human progress through science with its test tubes and its evolution, ended his life saying: "In spite of all my dispositions to a brave looking optimism, I perceive that now the universe is bored with man, is turning a hard face to him, and him being carried less and less intelligently and more more rapidly ... along the stream of fate to degradation, suffering, and death." (The Fate of Homo Sapiens) But the Christian has never expected this earth to be his paradise; he has ever before him the words of the Saviour: "In the world, ye shall have tribulation." For this reason, Christianity alone can answer defeat, wherever it comes—for Christianity was born in defeat: in the world-shattering defeat of Good Friday. One lesson of the Cross is that although we cannot prevent some kinds of defeat, we can always prevent a wrong reaction to defeat. "Meanwhile, we are well assured that everything helps to secure the good of those who love God, those whom He has called in fulfillment of His design."
We can actually defeat defeat—use our failures as assets and our sins as steppingstones to sanctity. This Christian attitude stands in sharp contrast to the methods of education. Education takes hold of what is best in a person, e.g., a talent for music, a gift for invention, or a taste for literature and develops that, to the exclusion of the arts and sciences for which we have no bent. And this is proper—we do not want our sculptors forced to specialize in law. A man's vocation is decided to a great extent by his capabilities.
But character training, on the contrary, takes as deep an interest in a person's greatest lacks as in his greatest gifts. It singles out his predominant failing and, by fighting against it, finally perfects the personality in the virtue contrary to the previous vice.
The first step in character training, then, is to discover what is worst in us. This is done by an examination of the sin to which we are most frequently tempted. It is very wrong to think that, because we are tempted, we are wicked. Sacred Scripture tells us: "Consider yourselves happy indeed, my brethren, when you encounter trials of every sort, as men who know well enough that the testing of your faith breeds endurance." (James 1:2) The blessedness of temptation is twofold. It reveals the weak spot in our character, showing us where to be on guard; and the same temptation gives us an occasion for gaining merit by refusing to submit to it. Self-examination reveals the basic defect in each man's character, what is known as his predominant fault. The predominant fault is the one which prevails over all other faults and to some extent inspires our attitude, judgments, and sympathies; every individual temperament, despite its variegated expression, generally follows one consistent line. Natura determinatur ad unum. Some persons are inclined principally to sensuality, others to laziness, others to anger; others have tendency to allow gentleness to degenerate into effeminacy or force into cruelty. It makes little difference that the hidden evil may be in the most remote corner of the heart; it may have been covered from others' sight, but the mind cannot help being aware that it is there. No spiritual progress can be made until the master fault is dug up from its hiding place, brought into the light, an laid before God. For until the position of the enemy is known, he cannot be attacked.
The secret of character training is to strengthen the weak spot in our character in cooperation with God's grace. The evil must be called by its right and ugly name when it is discovered; otherwise we shall excuse our lack of fortitude as an "inferiority complex" and our inordinate love of the flesh as a "release of the libido." Judas missed salvation because he never called his avarice by its right name—he disguised it as love of the poor.
Considerable probing is necessary to drag out the predominant fault; it always fights against being recognized Sometimes the master sin can be detected by discovering what defect makes us most angry when we are accused of it: the traitor flies into a rage when he is first accused of being disloyal to his country. The sin we most loudly and vehemently condemn in others may be the sin to which our own heart is most addicted: Judas, again, accused Our Lord Himself of not loving the poor enough. As Aristotle wisely remarked: "Every man judges of what is good according to the goodness or badness of his interior disposition." If we confront the world with the idea that every man is dishonest, it is amazing how often that initial bias will be confirmed. It is a well-known fact that investigators of sex habits are sought out by those who are conspicuous for such sins and are avoided by the pure. This is because, just as water seeks its own level, so does the mind seek the level of its prejudice. Thieves consort with thieves; drunkards with drunkards, the prejudiced with the prejudiced.
The predominant fault is discoverable not only in the environment it keeps, or in the atmosphere it breathes, but also in the way that others act toward us. Nature acts as it is acted upon; be suspicious of a neighbor, and the neighbor acts suspiciously. Show love to others, and everyone seems lovable. The law of physics that every action has a contrary and equal reaction has its psychological counterpart. If we sow the seed of distrust in society, society always returns the harvest of distrust. The emotional reprises of others can be used as the mirror of our own interior dispositions.
Once one has discovered the master sin through any of these methods, the next step is to combat the interior defect. This requires a daily, even hourly struggle; sanctification is not a place at which one arrives but a way one travels. There are generally four ways of overcoming the predominant fault: (1) By asking God in prayer to illumine the dark places of the soul and to give us strength to conquer the sin. As the Council of Trent says: "God never commands the impossible; but in giving us His precepts, He commands us to do what we can, and to ask for the Grace to accomplish what we cannot do." (2) By daily examination of conscience. Almost everyone counts the money in his pockets daily to determine whether the current expense of the day can be met; but how few of us ever balance the conscience to see if we are going into debt morally and spiritually? (3) By imposing on oneself
penance, every time we succumb to the predominant fault, e.g., by saying a prayer for the absent person against whom we bore false judgment, or by giving five times the amount of a cocktail to the poor every time we are tempted to intoxication by the first drink. (4) By making the predominant fault the occasion of a great virtue.
This fourth method is one which is too often ignored although strength of character cannot be had without knowledge of our weakness and the ultimate mastery of it. "My strength finds its full scope in thy weakness (2 Cor. 12:9) The storm reveals the weakness in the roof: but the part of it that was damaged and repaired is apt later, to be the strongest. Scar tissue is the strong skin of all. Kites and airplanes rise against the wind, not with it. Earth does not reveal its harvest without plowing nor the minds their treasure without study, nor nature's secrets without investigation. The defect, overcome, may become the greatest strength.
Goodness is too often confused with passivity. There are a number of people who are considered to be good, when really they have not enough courage to do either a very good or a very evil act of any kind. But character does not depend on a want of energy to do wrong; it requires the use of great energy in doing right when wrong solicits us. The greatest sinners sometimes make the great saints: a Saul who hated became a Saul who loved —a sensuous Magdalene became a spiritual Magdalene. The convents and monasteries are full of potential devils— saintly souls who could have been very wicked men and women, in their vitality, if they had not corresponded to God's Grace. Little St. Thérèse said that if she had not been responsive to God's mercies she would have been one of the most evil women who ever lived. On the other hand, the prisons of our country house a population of potential saints; the energy the criminals used in sinning was not wrong—it was the use to which they put the energy that was wrong. Lenin was probably a saint in reverse; if he had used his energy in violence toward self and the cultivation of love, instead of in violence toward others and the cultivation of hate, he could have become the St. Francis of the nineteenth century.
Some years ago, a young boy was badly burned in an explosion at his country school and was told he would never walk again. Instead of becoming discouraged, he concentrated on his infirmity, rubbed his legs, exercised them, then walked, and finally became one of the greatest mile runners in the history of America. This boy's power was made perfect in infirmity. Demosthenes not only stuttered in his youth, but he had a weak voice; he would never have become one of the world's greatest orators had he not worked to correct this weakness, transforming it into his greatest strength. Abraham Lincoln was defeated in almost every office for which he ran—until he was elected President of the United States. When Ludwig von Beethoven became deaf, he said, "What a sorrowful life I must lead"; then, rising above the first defeat, he said, "I will seize facts by the throat," and wrote great music he could never hear. When Milton went blind, he used his blindness itself as the inspiration for one of his finest poems.
Apply this valiant spirit to the spiritual life; here, too, the handicaps can be a spur. It is a basic fact that no saint ever found it easy to be good; to believe differently is the great mistake most people make in judging them. The law running through Heaven and earth is that "the athlete will win no crown, if he does not observe the rules of the contest." (2 Tim 2:5) The Church never canonizes anyone unless he has shown a degree of holiness which is called heroic—and the virtues of the saints were the opposites of the natural weaknesses they had to overcome. The special quality of soul which might have made someone else a devil gave the saints their greatest opportunities for growth. The moral quality always associated with Moses is meekness—but Moses was not born meek; he was probably hot-headed, quick-tempered, and irascible. For Moses killed an Egyptian—and that is not the mark of a meek man. He was also the first one to "break" the Ten Commandments; coming down from the Mount where he had conversed with God, he found his people adoring the Golden Calf and, in a fit of anger, smashed the Tablets of the Law. Anger is not meek; the weak spot in Moses was his hot-headedness. But this man turned the worst in him into the best, so that later on—in his conduct toward the fickleness of Pharaoh, in his attitude toward the ingratitude and waywardness of those whom he delivered, in his bearing toward his family, in his final disappointment at not entering the Promised Land—he maintained such an even temper that Sacred Scripture describes him as "a man exceedingly meek." (Num. 12:3) Moses acquired meekness by fighting against an evil temper. He rooted out the worst in him; and then, with God's help, he became one of the best of men.
In the New Testament, the character most often praised for charity is John; toward the end of his life, he preached incessantly on the theme, "Love one another." John describes himself as the "beloved disciple," and to him was given the privilege of leaning on the breast of Our Divine Saviour on the night of the Last Supper. But John was not always so loving. He once tried to play politics through his mother, getting her to ask Our Lord to give him and his brother the seats closest to Our Lord when He came into His Kingdom. Charity does not try to dominate or rule. On another occasion, when the city of the Samaritans rejected Our Lord, John and his brother, James, asked Out Lord to rain down fire from Heaven to destroy the city. Charity is not vengeance. There must, in truth have been a tendency toward hatred in John, for his Master called him a Son of Thunder. But at sometime or other in John's life, he seized upon the weak spot in his character—upon his want of kindness to his fellow man—and through cooperation with Grace he became the greatest Apostle of Charity, the virtue he had lacked before.
Matthew, who wrote the first Gospel, is another example of the way that character can be made strongest at it weakest point. If there is any one quality that stands out predominantly in this Gospel, it is Matthew's love o Israel; he was one of the greatest patriots who ever lived But do not think that he came by patriotism easily; the weak spot in his nature was his want of this very love of country. Matthew was the first Quisling of Christian history: he sold out his own people to the Romans, collected exorbitant taxes from his fellow citizens for their overlords, becoming rich as a collaborator of an invader. One day when he was collecting the hated taxes, Our Lord said to him, "Come, follow Me"—and Matthew left his customs house, and followed the Lord, and became one of the greatest of all patriots. In his Gospel, Matthew goes back ninety-nine times to recall the glories of his people, quoting from David, Isaias, Jeremias, Ezechiel, and at the end he exults---"Israel! This is your glory! This is your crown! From our own Law and our people has come the Lord and Saviour of the World." Matthew became a patriot when he found his God. By overcoming his weak spot with the aid of God's strength, he became strong; power is made perfect in infirmity.
The temptations of the Saints were seen as opportunities for self-discovery. They allowed temptations to show them the breaches in the fortress of their souls which needed to be fortified until they would become the strongest points. This explains the curious fact about many saintly people—that they often become the opposite of what they once seemed to be. When we hear of the holiness of some souls, our first reaction is: "I knew him when. . . ." Between the "then" and the "now" has intervened a battle in which selfishness lost and faith won out. They followed the advice of Paul: "Let us rid ourselves of all that weighs us down, of the sinful habit that clings closely." (Heb. 12:1.) They became what they were not.
Because the development of character requires constant vigilance, out occasional failures must not be mistaken for the desertion of God. Two attitudes are possible in sin—two attitudes can be taken toward our lapses into sin: we can fall down, and get up; or we can fall down, and stay there. The fact of having fallen once should not discourage us; because a child falls, it does not give up trying to walk. As sometimes the mother gives the most attention to the child who falls the most, so our failures can be used as a prayer that God be most attentive to us, because of our greater weaknesses. I always liked the incident of the life of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi. One day while dusting a small statue of Our Lord in the chapel, she dropped it on the floor. Picking it up unbroken, she kissed it, saying: "If you had not fallen, you would not have gotten that." Sometimes, in the case of a continued weakness, it is well to count not only the falls, but to count also the number of times a temptation to do wrong was overcome. The reverses we suffer in the heat of battle can lead us to strengthen our purposes.
The trials and temptations of life prove that in each individual there is an actual I-potential. The "actual ego" is what I am now, as a result of letting myself go. The "possible I" is what I can become through sacrifice and resistance to sin. Persons are like those ancient palimpsests or parchments, on which a second writing covered over the first; the original gloss of sin and selfishness has to be scraped off before we can be illuminated with the message of Divinity.
No character or temperament is fixed. To say "I am what I am, and that I must always be," is to ignore freedom, Divine Action in the soul, and the reversibility of our lives to make them the opposite of what they are. In baptizing the Duke of the Franks, the Bishop reminded him of how he could reverse his past: "Bend your proud head, Sicambre; adore that which thou hast burned and burn that which thou hast adored." No character, regardless of the depths of its vice or its intemperance, is incapable of being transformed through the cooperation of Divine and human action into its opposite, of being lifted to the I-level and then to the Divine level. Drunkards, alcoholics, dope fiends, materialists, skeptics, sensualists, gluttons, thieves—all can make that area of life in which they are defeated the area of their greatest victory. The time element is not as important as it seems, for it does not require much time to make us Saints; it requires only much Love. Jacopine da Todi was an unfaithful husband with a saintly wife. One day while they were watching a tournament, the grandstand collapsed. He was unhurt, but opening his wife's dress to give her air, he noticed that she wore a hairshirt—and at that moment she died. Realizing that her self-imposed penances were to expiate his sins, the famous lawyer sold his possessions and from then on he was seen in the Churches in rags, always at prayer, to the great amazement of those who "knew him when. ..."
Character building, however, should not be based solely on the eradication of evil, for it should stress, even more, the cultivation of virtue. Mere asceticism without love of God is pride; it is possible to concentrate so hard on humiliating ourselves that we become proud of our humility, and to concentrate so intently on eradicating evil as to make our purity nothing but a condemnation of others. The difference in the two techniques—pulling up the weed or planting good seed—is illustrated in the ancient story of the Greeks: Ulysses, returning from the siege of Troy, wished to hear the Sirens who sang in the sea, tempting many a sailor to his doom. Ulysses put wax in the ears of his sailors and strapped himself to the mast of the ship—so that even if he wished to answer the appeal of the Sirens he would be saved from doing so. Some years later, Orpheus, the divine musician, passed through the same sea; but he refused to plug up his sailors' ears or bind himself to a mast. Instead, he played his harp so beautifully that the song of the Sirens was drowned out.
A positive and not a negative goodness is the Christian Ideal. A character is great, not by the ferocity of its hatred of evil, but by the intensity of its love of God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an aperture in our ego into which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God enters. As we empty ourselves, God fills us And it is God's arrival that is the important thing. [Emphasis added.]
When a Christian character is motivated by love alone, it finds much more goodness in the world than before. As the impure find the world impure, so those who love God find everyone lovable, as being either actual or potential children of God. This transformation of outlook takes place not only because love moves in an environment of love, but principally because, in the face of the love diffused by the Saint, love is created in others. As jealousy in A begets jealousy in B, so generosity in A begets generosity in B. Love begets love; if we are kind, we get kindness back. The lover gets much more out of the world than the man who is cool or indifferent: he has not, only the happiness of receiving but the happiness of giving, as well. Even when his love is not reciprocated by the wicked, the barbed word or the insult never hurts him. A priest once told St. John Vianney that a priest as ignorant of theology as he was should never go into a confessional box. The Cure answered: "Oh, how I ought to love you for you are one of the few who know me thoroughly. Help me to obtain the favor I have been seeking so long ... to withdraw myself into a corner and to weep for my sins."
Love makes us loathe the faults that hold us back from love. But we are not disheartened over them—for our failings are never insurmountable, once they are discovered and recognized as such. It is excusing them or labeling them falsely—calling egotism an "inferiority complex" or self-indulgence "gracious living"—which prevents spiritual progress. Most important of the rules for attacking evil in ourselves is to avoid direct in favor of indirect assaults. Evil is not driven out—it is crowded out. Drunkenness and alcoholism are not mastered by saying, "I will not drink," but through the expulsive power of some contrary good. When the soul begins to love God, it no longer has such morbid fears that they must be drowned in drink. The joys of the spirit also crowd out the pleasures of the flesh; we must have happiness, but the man who has found it on the high road of the spirit will no longer need to pursue it on the low road of carnality. If I raise my fist against a man, he will throw up his arms in self-defense; and so it is with evil under a direct attack. "But I tell you that you should not offer resistance to injury." (Matt. 5:39.) The little, illicit loves of the egotist are driven out by the larger loves of things beyond the self. Basically, there is no cure for selfishness until one learns to love others more than the ego; there is no cure for sex until the soul is loved more than the body; no relief from avarice until the treasures which rust does not consume are loved more than those which thieves can break through and steal. Sustaining all these efforts to develop character, there is a memory of the Divine plea: 'Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened; I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28.) Not until a nobler, finer love is found can a man master his vices or overcome his mediocrity. In a complete conversion, souls which were formerly addicted to vice, like Augustine, no longer feel any desire for their old sins, but rather a disgust. As the eye blinks at dust, so the soul now blinks at evil. Sin is not fought; it is rather no longer wanted. Love casts out sin as well as fear; the great tragedy of life is that so many persons have no one to love. As a man in love with a noble woman will give up all that displeases her, so a soul in love with God gives up all that might wound that Love. There is today far too much public discussion, analysis, and probing of evil, drunkenness, infidelity, sex. It is as if the investigators reveled in uncovering sordid details. But the Church, in her understanding, demands that the details of our sins be excluded even from Confession. Nothing so induces morbidity as concentration on the disease, while offering no cure except the patient's own homemade remedies, or those of an analyst, who silences suggestions when the fee stops. Relief from fundamental evil is never found on the human level, but on the Divine. When Charles Foucauld, a hero of France but still an evil man entered a church one day, he knocked at the confessional of Father Huvelin and said: "Come out, I want to talk to you about a problem." Father Huvelin answered: "No, come in; I want to talk to you about your sins." Foucauld, struck by Divine Grace, obeyed; later on he became a solitary in the desert and one of the saintly men of our times.
A distinguished man once called on Father Vianney better known as the Cure of Ars, and said: "I have not come to go to Confession, but to talk things over." The Cure said: "I am no good at discussion, but I am good consolation." Once inside the confessional box, the penitent contacted Divine Grace, found a new energy and love to displace the old ego, and his personality was born.
He who is charged with character formation will do well if he lays hold of what is best in people, searching for the gold and not the dross. There is something good in everybody. After the death of a street cleaner who had reputation for dissolute living and infidelity and cruelty o his wife and children, most of his fellow street cleaners recalled all the evil about him—except one companion who said: "Well, whatever you say about him, there's one thing he always did well. He swept clean around the corners." In dealing with ourselves, we should look for what is worst and make it, with God's Grace, the occasion of spiritual growth. But in dealing with others, we should look for what is best, in order that, as we show mercy to others, God may show the Grace of His Mercy to us.
The right and the wrong methods of character formation are revealed in Our Lord's story of the unclean spirit:
"The unclean spirit, which has possessed a man a then goes out of him, walks about the desert looking for a resting-place, and finds none; and it says, I will go back to my own dwelling, from which I came out. And it came back, to find that dwelling empty, and swept out, and neatly set in order. Thereupon, it goes away, and brings in seven other spirits more wicked than itself to bear It company, and together they enter in and settle down there; so that the last state of the man is worse than the first. So it shall fare with this wicked generation." (Matt. 12:43-45)
Our Lord is telling us here that it is never enough to be free from the powers of evil; we must also be subject to the power of the good. The elimination of an ego does not necessarily imply the happiness of the I, unless the I, in its turn, lives by a higher spirit of love. The ego in the story has been rid of its evil occupant—it looks orderly and decent—it is swept and garnished. But it is empty, and an empty house decays more quickly than one that is occupied. So, when there is no ruling principle or master enthusiasm to take over the soul vacated of its ego, the emptiness can be preempted by some other force that is also evil. There is a parallel to this in the political order, from which, a few centuries ago, men exiled ethics and morality and religion—only to find that, in the twentieth century, irreligion, atheism, and antimoral forces entered the political order to take their place. Casting out the unclean spirit is not enough, unless there is a new possession by a cleaner spirit. Nature abhors a vacuum. There is no such thing as a nonreligious man; he is either religious or antireligious. Consciously or unconsciously, as time goes on, his mind takes on some new allegiance; if God is lacking, he becomes more and more captive to some temporal mood or fancy. Unless the new spirit of love comes in to take possession of the atheist, one of three other spirits will take charge of him—that of pride, or lust, or avarice.
No man is ever safe against the tyranny of the ego except through the power and love of God. The only way of keeping evil out is to let God in. Character building does not consist in the elimination of vice, but in the cultivation of virtue; not in the casting out of sin, but in the deepening of love. The man who wishes to expel evil without praying for the presence of God is doomed to failure. Nothing is secure until He is there and until Love is spread throughout our hearts.
Great patience is required to effect this transformation. If characters become impatient, it is because they fail to realize the great heights that have to be attained. When children watch a parent work, they generally complain about the slowness of the work. That is because they do not see the task as the parent does, nor understand how much detail has to be completed to attain the wished result. Even those who have some degree of sanctity find it hard, sometimes, to remain on the Cross until the end; the world is full of half-crucified souls, who have come down from the Cross at the challenge of the world after an hour, or two hours, or even after two hours and fifty-nine minutes. Few are like the Saviour, who stay until the end that they, like Him, might utter the cry of triumph: "It is finished." Because the perfection which we aim is lofty and difficult, human souls need and should gladly accept the calm, pure happiness the Infinite Designer sometimes sends them. We should not insist on constant strife against ourselves; there is a time for reaping in the spiritual life. Joylessness can hold us back from God.
A want of resoluteness, too, can spoil our, efforts, for as St. James says: "A man who is in two minds will fix no rest wherever he goes." (James 1:8) This half-hearted temper in character development sees prayer as something which may do good, and in any case can do no harm; it trusts in God, but it places a greater reliance on the economic solution for its ills. It first plans and prays and then tries to perform the plan without the prayer. Character cannot develop under conditions of such disorder, confusion, and dividedness. Conflict of such a kind makes the mind tired, as it tries to blend two things that will not mix, fatigues itself in crossing from one road to the other.
Character is built by singleness of purpose, and nothing so unifies our goals as a temptation that is overcome, a conflict resolved by the love which not only shows the answer, but gives us the strength to reach for it. The search for spiritual unity is identical with the effort to perfect the character. And since there is no unity except in the Truth which is God, the quality of our search will depend on where we place the emphasis in the sentence: "I seek the Truth." If the stress is put on the I, the character is ego-centered still, and truths are merely values to be assimilated, for our vainglorious growth. But if it is the Truth toward which we wish to grow, our souls are able, at last, to disregard the self and overflow its narrow boundaries. Then freedom is our climate, for "the Truth will make you free."