Excerpts from Ven. Archbishop Sheen's LIFT UP YOUR HEART, 1950
THE EFFECT OF CONDUCT ON BELIEF
The way we live has an influence on the way we think. This is not a denial of the intellectual factors in belief, but merely an attempt to emphasize a neglected element. Some people imagine that they can bring a person to Divine Love merely by answering a doubt he has expressed. They assume that men are irreligious only because they are ignorant; that if atheists read a few good books or listened to a few choice arguments in favor of Divinity, they would immediately embrace the Faith. Religion seems to them to be a thing to be known, rather than a Personality to be embraced and lived and loved. But our Divine Lord, Who is Truth itself, could not convince the Pharisees and certain sinners; they were intellectually confounded by His knowledge so that, after one encounter, no man dared question Him again—but still they did not believe. Christ told those who watched the resurrection of Lazarus that some of them would not believe, though one rose daily from the dead. Intellectual knowledge is not the "one thing necessary": not all the Ph.D.'s are Saints, and the ignorant are not demons. Indeed, a certain type of education may simply turn a man from a stupid egotist into a clever egotist, and of the two the former has the better chance of salvation. [Emphasis in bold added.]
Many men today are ignorant, full of prejudice and misinformation about the Faith, and it is regrettable that they have had no opportunity for instruction, for acquiring knowledge of the Truth. But though God can be discovered by study, instruction, and reading, these alone will not bring one to God. There must also be a willingness to accept the Truth personally, that is, in all its implications. It is easy to find Truth; it is hard to face it, and harder still to follow it. Modern education is geared to what it calls "extending the frontiers of truth," and sometimes this ideal is prized and used to excuse men from acting on old truths already discovered. The discovery of the size of a distant star creates no moral obligation; but the old truths about the nature and destiny of man can be a reproach to the way one lives. Some psychologists and sociologists like to rap their knuckles at the door of truth about mankind, but they would run away if the door ever opened, showing man's contingency on God. The only people who ever arrive at a knowledge of God are those who, when the door is opened, accept that Truth and shoulder the responsibilities it brings. It requires more courage than brains to learn to know God: God is the most obvious fact of human experience, but accepting Him is one of the most arduous. The moral conditions for knowing Divine Truth are, next to Grace, the most important requisites for conversion. There are, indeed, some who do not come to the Truth because they do not know it; but there are many more who do not come because of their present behavior. It is not the way they think, but the way they live which constitutes the obstacle to union with the Spirit. It is not the Creed that keeps most people away from Christ and His Mystical Body; it is the Commandments. The intellectual factors of belief are generally known, as is the important factor of Divine illumination; but here we wish to concentrate upon three neglected factors influencing a man's assent to Divine Truth:
1. Good will.
2. Living up to the Truth he already knows.
3. Habits of living.
Why is it, when a strong intellectual argument for the Faith is given to person A and person B, that A will accept and B will not? Since the cause is the same, the effect ought to be the same—but it is not. There must be some other factor present which makes one man embrace, the other reject, the Truth—something in the mind it touches. A light striking a wall appears different from a light striking a window. Similarly this x factor, which makes for the rejection of Divine Truth in one case and its embrace in the other, is the will. As St. Thomas put it in his finely chiseled way: "Divine things are known in different ways by men according to the diversity of their attitudes. Those who have good will perceive Divine things according to Truth; those who have not good will perceive them in a confused way which makes them doubt and feel that they are mistaken." What a man will intellectually accept depends to a great extent on what man is or what he wants to be. The will, instead of admitting a truth presented to the mind, can ward it off and bar it out. God's pursuit of a mind is bound to fail unless the mind is also in pursuit of goodness. The message of the Angels on Christmas night told us that only men with good will would become God's friends. This good-will factor is so important that it seems probable there is no such thing as intellectual atheism. Reason is on God's side, not the Devil's; and to deny His absolute is to affirm a competing absolute. But if there is no intellectual atheism, there is a frequent atheism of the will, a deliberate rejection of God. That is why the Psalmist places atheism not in the mind but in the heart: "The fool has said in his heart, there is no God." This primary requirement of good will holds not only for those who are looking for Divine Truth but also for those who found It and who still make little progress spiritually. God's Grace is never wanting to those who long to cooperate with it. The will to be wealthy makes men rich; the will to be Christ's makes men Christians.
The second important prerequisite for coming to God in the domain of the will is living up to the demands of Divine Truth as we presently see it. A sculptor could have an idea for a statue in his head for years, but the idea would gradually fade and disappear if he did not finally work it out in stone; so a man could have a particular Christian truth in his head for a lifetime, but unless he put it into practice, he might never be given another larger truth. Many of us know a great deal about God, but few of us realize that knowledge in our lives. Those who do, become all they ought to be. They know the Truth in their hearts—a different thing from knowing it as a blackboard demonstration. There is no longer a partition in them separating intellectual truth from action. Some professors and knowledgeable men know the proofs of the existence of God and the dogmas of the Church, yet never become men of God. The reason is that they have never acted on that knowledge. Since they never dynamized the degree of Truth they knew, they were given no more; the knowledge they refused to fertilize by action remained sterile. The corn that is kept in the cribs too long will rot. To such unproductive souls, the Saviour orders: "Take the talents away." (Matt. 25:28.) But the simple soul, living up to the moral implications of the knowledge he possesses, is given new knowledge, and finally his wisdom surpasses that of the intellectuals. Our Blessed Lord went so far as to thank His Heavenly Father that He hid His Truths from the intelligentsia of His day and revealed them to the little ones, who would live by them. A simple girl like Catherine of Alexandria confounded learned professors with the wisdom given her by God, because she had won to a practical understanding of Divine Truth. When we climb a hill, a new vista is opened, which was hidden from the valley below. If, then, we rest passively on that hill, no new perspective will ever be revealed; but if we act on the knowledge received, walk to the end of the vista, then we shall discover that still new horizons open to the eyes and mind.
Christianity is founded on the historical fact: "The Word became Flesh." Wisdom became incarnate; God became man. Thus, knowledge passes into act; oughtness becomes isness, and theory becomes practice. Our Lord not only gave the Truth. "For if you will forgive men "their offenses" (Matt. 6:14), but from the Cross. He acted on it: 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' (Luke 23:34.) He pleaded with His followers to become like little children, but only after He Himself had become a child and been wrapped in swaddling clothes. He not only taught the theory that the greatest of all His followers should be the least, but He washed the feet of His Own disciples in demonstration. His hearers, too, were asked to become doers, because He said: "I have given you an example." (John 13:15.) The order, runs: first the Word, and then the Incarnation. This was reversed by Goethe, who gave the modern an an escape from all moral obligation by saying, "In the beginning was the Deed"—first, you live; and then you rationalize your life. First you act; then you think a way to justify your action. First you seize property; then you write a law to sanction the theft. From this false primacy of the act over Truth comes all the moral disorder of the present day, as men no longer fit their lives to a creed, but choose a creed to suit the way they live.
The truths of the Church are not abstract truths like the truths of science, which are impersonal and a-ethical. Same escapist minds take refuge in the use of scientific truths as a basis for ordering their lives for precisely this reason. Psychological statements about man rarely demand moral amendment; they permit us to retain mere interested spectators of our own reality. Divine Truth, on the contrary, involves me uniquely, and with an urgency that is at first frightening; it even demands separation from the world. The full Truth permits no easy compromise on this point. There are a thousand other religious attitudes one can take without provoking the enmity of the spirit of the world, but that is because the spirit of the world recognizes that, following these sects, one is still identical with it. Our Lord gave the test whether we were His: were we hated by the world? "I have taken you out of the world, therefore, the world will hate you." (John 17:14.) It is, therefore, not enough for us to read and study about Christianity, for Divine Truth is not such abstract truth as a theorem in geometry. It will do us no good to know theology if all the while pride, sensuality, and selfishness are allowed the license and their anarchy in our lives. In that case, we may possess a knowledge of the love of God for us, we have no love of Him. Love is meant to be reciprocal.
The moral preparation for the Faith or for making Divine Truth dynamic in us is as important as the intellectual; both kinds of readying should go together, the Wisdom and the Love of God, the Son and the Holy Spirit are equal in the Trinity. If the reason is neglected, a different sort of error follows. Those whom the moral development outstrips the intellectual generally end in a religion that is negative, critical, and pharisaical, or else in. a vague, emotional piety without content—as those who have intellectual without no growth become skeptics, cynics, and doubters. We can never love until we know; but once we love, then it can increase knowledge: "If any one love Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and will make our abode with him." (John 14:23.)
Many people like to discuss religion, to argue about it, but as if it were impersonal, as if they were discussing Indonesian ritual dances. They miss the many-splendored thing because they never relate what they know to their own lives. A perfect example of this escape is to be found in the Gospel story of the woman at the well. The woman came to draw water, and Our Lord asked her for a drink. But when He tried to spiritualize the idea, thirst, to make her yearn to satisfy the thirst of her soul with the waters of everlasting life, she thought the waters He offered were something to be enjoyed and discussed, like poetry—that they carried no moral obligation. To jolt her out of such impersonality, the Saviour said: "Go, call thy husband, and come hither." (John 4:16.) As God, He knew the smallest detail of her life; and she knew, now, that her moral failings were in question. To avoid exposure, she answered: "I have no husband." (John 4:17.) Jesus told her: "Thou hast said well: I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands: and he whom thou hast now is not thy husband. This thou hast said truly." (John 4:17-18.) This, to the woman conscious of her adultery, seemed an intrusion into her private life; she did have many marriages and divorces, it is true, but why need He bring that up? Couldn't religion be discussed "in a civilized way," without allowing it to become personal? Like anyone caught in an embarrassing situation, she changed the subject. She shifted the conversation away from her guilty life back to the intellectual plane, changed it to the less embarrassing topic of whether she should worship on the Samaritan hill near by or in Jerusalem. That was her effort to escape the Saviour's plea that she lay bare her sin—and it has been repeated a thousand times since then. Bring the necessity of repentance to a sinner and, nine times out of ten, he will shift the subject to the impersonal, will pretend that it is his reason which keeps him back, will choose a safe topic with, "But what about the Decretals of Constantine?" or some such question.
The intellect does play its role—but it is not until one has begun to live right that one is able to reason well in this field. So long as self-will and egotism refuse to surrender, the mind is used only to justify the effort at escape. Until the resistance to reform is broken, nothing can get into the soul—neither truth nor goodness. That is why, when Our Lord was approached to settle an inheritance claim between two brothers, He refused to settle the dispute: "Man, who hath appointed Me Judge, or divider, over you?" (Luke 12:15.) He would not arbitrate between two selfish claims—but He would tell them how to avoid having any dispute at all: "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life doth not consist in the abundance of things which possesseth." (Luke 12:15.) Here it was covetousnes: in the case of the woman at the well, it was carnality—that kept the questioners of Our Lord back from Divine Truth. We do not know what happened to the brothers but we do know that the woman at the well met the moral demands and later saluted the Lord as "Saviour of the World." (John 4:42.)
The final factor affecting assent to the Truth is our habit patterns. These are the result of our failure to act upon the moral truths we already recognize (the second obstacle to belief described above). Customs have won through, now, to a hegemony of their own. They are so strong they can defy the weakened will. They stand as armed and angry guards at the gates to the intelligence and will let no truth past which threatens them. When the Christian truth comes to any mind, it is known according to the manner of the knower; and some knowers have a vast army of acts and habit patterns, prejudices and desires ready to war upon the Divine purpose of life. What the mind receives is received against a background which already forms a pattern of its own—and one will reluctantly disarrange or change. In the face of Divine Truth, the habit patterns with their inferior motives arise to contest the high motive driving the mind toward the True. Then one may say: "I fear to believe because I will be ridiculed," or "Because my family will not like it," or "Because I will have to break with my companions and will make enemies."
A struggle ensues between the intellectual comprehension of a Truth and the habit patterns of inferior motives inherited from the pre-Christian; way of life. When a man stands off from religion and admires the Truth from afar, he is full of praise of it and says: "If I became religious, I would certainly join the Church." But the real crisis begins when the Truth is seen as personal—when admiration gives way, to obligation, and when the Word becomes Flesh. The Divine Word, when He became Flesh, suffered crises such as suffering, hunger, thirst, contempt, the Cross—all as experienced facts: something of the same kind faces the mind that sees the Truth, and it shrinks back. Many souls fear to make Truth personal, intimate, or incarnate, because they know it may involve a Golgotha.
This is often the explanation of those escapists who want a religion without a Cross or who call themselves gnostics in order to avoid the moral consequences of Truth. Agnosticism, skepticism, and cultivated doubt do not represent an intellectual position—for wherever there is a shadow there must be light, and negation would not exist if there were nothing to deny. These attitudes are rather a moral position, in which a person attempts to make himself invulnerable to Divine Truth by denying its existence and turning his back on it, as Pilate did. It is not doubts that cause our loose behavior, as often as such behavior causes doubts. Our Lord was extremely emphatic on this point: "Anyone who acts shamefully hates the light, will not come into the light, for fear that his doings will be found out. Whereas the man whose life is true comes to the light, so that his deeds may be seen for what they are, deeds done in God." (John 3:20.) "You pore over the scriptures, thinking to find eternal life in them (and indeed, it is of these I speak as bearing witness to Me): but you will not come to Me to find life. I do not mean that I look for honour from men, but that I can see you have no love of God in your hearts." (John 5:39-42.) St. Paul reaffirms his Saviour: "They profess recognition of God, but their practice contradicts it; it is they who are abominable, who are disloyal, who am ill qualified for the practice of any true virtue." (Titus 1:16.)
What is important is not what people say against God, His Divine Son, Our Beloved Saviour, or His Mystical Body, but why they say it. The "what" is often a rationalization of their habits of life. A fallen-away Catholic who says, "I can no longer believe in the Sacrament of Penance," really means, "I am leading an evil life, and I refuse to break my habits of sin to make my peace with God." Reason is used to create sham doubts and to weave cloaks with which to cover our real motives. No wonder God must judge us—we are so slow to judge ourselves! St. Augustine at one time, before his conversion rejected Divine Truth solely because of his behavior. One day, Pontitianus told Augustine the story of how he had walked with a friend outside the gates of Trier, discussing the life of Anthony of the desert. To drive home the example, the holy man made Augustine consider his own life.
"But Thou, O Lord, while he was speaking, didst turn me round towards myself, taking me from behind my back where I had placed me, unwilling to observe myself; and setting me before my face, that I might see how foul I was, how crooked and defiled, bespotted and ulcerous. And I beheld and stood aghast; and whither flee from myself I found not. And if I sought to turn mine eye from off myself, he went on with his relation and Thou didst set me over against myself, and thrustedst me before my eyes, that I might find out mine iniquity, and hate it. I had known it, but made as though I saw it not, winked at it, and forgot it.
"Thus was I gnawed within, and exceedingly confounded with a horrible shame, while Pontitianus was speaking. And he having brought to a close his tale and the business he came for, went his way; and I into myself. What said I not against myself? with what scourges of condemnation lashed I not my soul, that it might it might follow me, striving to go after Thee? Yet it drew back; refused, but excused not itself. All arguments were spent and confuted; there remained a mute shrinking; and she feared, as she would death, to be restrained from the flux of that custom, whereby she was wasting to death.
"Then in this great contention of my inward dwelling, Which I had strongly raised against my soul, in the chamber of my heart, troubled in mind and countenance, I turned upon Alypius. 'What ails us?' I exclaim: 'what is it? what heardest thou? The unlearned start up and take Heaven by force, and we with our learning, and without heart, lo, where we wallow in flesh and blood! Are we ashamed to follow, because others are gone before, and not ashamed not even to follow?'
"The very toys of toys, and vanities of vanities, my ancient mistresses, still held me; they plucked my fleshy garment, and whispered softly, 'Dost thou cast us off? and from that moment shall we no more be with thee or ever? and from that moment shall not this or that be lawful lot thee for ever?' And what was it which they suggested in that I said, 'this or that,' what did they suggest, O my God? Let Thy mercy turn it away from the soul of Thy servant. What defilements did they suggest! What shame! And now I much less than half heard them, md not openly showing themselves and contradicting me, but muttering as it were behind my back, and privily plucking me, as I was departing, but to look back on them. Yet they did retard me, so that I hesitated to burst and shake myself free from them, and to spring over whither I was called; a violent habit saying to me, 'Thinkest thou, thou canst live without them?' "
A little later, Augustine's will embraced God's Grace As he opened the Scriptures:
"I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: 'Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence.' No further would I read; not heeded I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away."
What often holds an atheist back from being a believer in God, and a believer in God from accepting the Divinity of Christ, and a believer in the Divinity of Christ from embracing the Divinity of His Mystical Body, and a Catholic from shining forth the Truth a Charity of Christ in his life? It is not that these blessings challenge credulity, but that they challenge character. [Emphasis in bold added.] Chesterton so well answered when it was objected to Christianity had been tried and found wanting: "Christianity has been found hard, but not tried." Those who say that Christianity is impractical mean that they refuse put it into practice—because their habit patterns protest the change. [Ibid.] God's sunlight is shining outside our windows—but what good will it do to debate about its beauty if we are not willing to clean the windows of our behavior and see it for ourselves? Few are ignorant of sunlight many are afraid to let it enter their lives.
There are three kinds of dirt that can accumulate as habits, on the window of the soul, to keep God's Grace from corning in. These are carnal dirt, or inordinate love of fleshly pleasures; money dirt, or the lust of possessions; and egocentric dirt, or selfishness and vanity. Cleaning the window of the soul even a little brings God much closer. "Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God."
Those, then, are the three main obstacles to belief which operate within the will: not wanting truth; activating the truth we already have, so that more come to us; resisting truth because it threatens the wrong habits we have come to love as portions of ourselves.
There are also three psychological changes essential to the removal of these barriers to Divine Truth: adoption of the thoroughgoing scientific attitude; acting on what we already know; and reformation of our conduct.
If we adopt the humility of the true scientist, w shall be prepared to welcome truth wherever we find whether it suits our accustomed ways or not. For the ego to start with itself as an absolute in religion is very scientific—it would be just as silly to attempt an egotistic mathematics or a self-centered astronomy. It is becoming very popular in our modern world to affirm the subject and to deny the existence of the object—to make the ego the standard of all that is right and true—to set tip our own biased minds as the determinate of everything outside of us. This denial of objective reality is one of the basic causes of the confusion of our day. [Ibid.] It is an intellectual error made oftenest in religion and philosophy: no biologist ever sits down before the squirming amoeba and says, "This is my idea of life." He allows life itself to determine his views. No sound geologist imposes his own theory of the strata of the earth upon the facts which he collects; he studies the rocks, and whatever the rocks tell him about their nature, he accepts. The scientific attitude toward religion is precisely the same. It begins with an inquiry into God's idea of religion and not any idea of religion. What is discovered is not what I want to find, but what He wants me to know—not what I believe to be true, but what He says is true—not what I think would be good, but what He says is good. [Ibid.] This requires a humble attitude, and it opens the way to a richer understanding of both reality and God.
Secondly, as we act on the truth that we know, more truth will be given to us. It is a law of nature that no one ever gets his second wind until he has used up his first wind. So it is with knowledge. Only when we practice the moral truths which we already know will a deeper understanding of those truths and a fuller revelation come to us. Each new height the mind reveals must be captured by the will before greater heights come into view. Religion, then, is not just a subject of discussion; it is a subject for decision. [Ibid.] There is a progress here, as in all research. Our knowledge of Truth will be cumulative, if we really wish it to grow. "Ask, and the gift will come; seek, and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened to you."
The final condition necessary is the reformation of our lives. Just as there are some people who dare not open a letter from a bank, because they are afraid their balance is overdrawn, so there are some people who do not investigate the truths of Divinity, lest the complacency of their false way of life be made manifest. Once the truth about the overdrawn bank balance is known, it will create an obligation; and while refusal to open the letter does not in any way increase the balance, it defers the judgment, puts off the unpleasant task. To face our faults is never easy—but to defer the moment of judgment, through cowardice, is to prolong our unhappiness and guilt. All souls receive actual graces—letters of reminder from God. Many are afraid to let the messages penetrate their conscious minds. [Ibid.]
Abandonment of self to Truth is a prelude to entering into the joy of the Lord. Before a lump of clay can formed into a shapely piece of pottery, it must first be abandoned to the potter and must lie passive in his hands. If a human soul is ever to be made a vessel of God's honor, it must itself detest those evil rebellions which resist the Divine Artist.
In the lives of many individuals, there is a great desire to bestow many blessings and affections on others—if the others would only permit it. They wish to be what is fine, and good, and beautiful as gifts, pour them out from lavish hands, if only those they love not resist. With His vastly greater generosity, God, wants only an opportunity to empty His treasures in our souls.
We may be fearful of the demands Divinity will make on us—but our fears are foolish, for what we dread is the only lasting happiness that men can know. A man down in a well by a rope may be filled with fear as what might happen to him if he finally let go; in the darkness of the well, he cannot see its depth, nor know that he would actually touch bottom a very few inches from the top, while imagining he was dropping to death. So it can seem that in giving oneself to God, you'll be losing everything—and yet the fall is only a few inches, and one soon hits solid rock. If one is in doubt as to what he ought to do, or where Truth lies, then this should be his daily prayer: "Lord, illumine my mind to face the Truth and strengthen my will to follow it." He Who lives up to that prayer will be surprised at how far he will travel, and at how happy he will be when he arrives.
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