When we see our loved ones struggling or living lives of disorder, it can break our hearts. Having counselled many family members over the last number of years I have seen the anguish that family members experience when they see a loved one going astray. They are desperate to find help for them. Oftentimes, this help will be offered in the form of modern psychological and psychiatric services, who promise to take ‘good care’ of their family member for them. Having been behind closed doors and heard how many of these services speak about family members and how disconnected from reality these services and professionals are, I would be very reluctant to advise family members to encourage their loved ones to comply with these services and their interventions. More often than not, these services cause the loved one more psychological and physiological problems through the imparting of toxic falsehoods and corruptive ideologies. Alternatively, they force the family member to be docile and compliant by giving them toxic drugs or more ‘intensive treatments’ are given, such as electroshock. (This certainly makes the family member very docile and ‘compliant’!). Some family members are conned into believing the falsehoods of psychiatry and modern psychology. Other family members see through these lies and fight for their family members while these barbaric and destructive treatments are forced on them (These family members are the ones that are usually ridiculed by psychiatrists as ignorant of the progressive ‘science’ that is psychiatry or modern psychology). Some family members are happy to see that their family members are less of a nuisance and more docile than they were before and they are glad to follow the psychiatric authorities, rather than help their family member get to the root of their troubles. All in all, modern services can be a minefield for family members looking for help for their loved ones.
The suffering of those we love is a cross we all have to bear at some stage in our lives. There are lots of promises of care, help and support from various services and professionals today. At times, we can feel overburdened by the demands that caring for a family member places on us. We can see this in the various calls for more public services as parents and carers feel under more and more pressure and strain. However, due to the attempts to remove God from these services and the move away from Catholic services to the ‘progressive’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘enlightened’ services outlined above, true charity also gets kicked out of the window. Health care becomes professionalised and coldly clinical rather than a vocation while services develop better marketing campaigns to cover up the cracks. As public workers are not drinking from the replenishing well that is the Heart of Jesus they burn out and/or begin to care less about the people they are meant to serve. ‘Because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold.’ (Matthew 24:12). If calls for more public services involved asking services to be truly Catholic once again, then this would give evidence that people have realised that services cannot be effective unless they are built on truth and charity, i.e. the love of God and one’s neighbour. Sadly, this is not happening, and things will only continue to get worse as charity grows colder.
Now, people sometimes contact my service asking me if I could help a family member that is struggling with psychological issues. Sometimes I cannot meet the family member they are concerned about, but the family member is often eager for at least some advice or guidance. The answer I give to family members, which I know can only do good if followed, remains the same answer that I give to the people I counsel directly – sanctify yourself. There is nothing extraordinary about this advice. It has been the advice given to many for thousands of years. This advice is based on abundant evidence, which shows that living the Catholic Faith is the best means for increasing one’s happiness and peace of soul in this life and the only means of attaining eternal happiness in the next.
‘The multiple relations which bind a man to his family, to his city, to his country and to his God, make incessant calls on his activities. He must endeavour to respond to all in a spirit of fortitude, kindness, forbearance, devotedness, prudence and justice. He must in all things strive to be ‘good’. But he must aim at this goodness not for the sake of being good but because God would have him so.’(Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’)
When I cannot work directly with a family member, the approach I take is to encourage other family members to do the most charitable thing they can do for their family member, i.e. live a life of virtue. In this busy world where we are eager to fix those around us, many of us forget that the first responsibility we have is the sanctification of our own soul. If we want to help those around us, we must help ourselves first. Charity does truly start at home. We must develop a spirit of fortitude, kindness, devotedness, etc. We must fill our own hearts with faith, hope and charity and then allow this to overflow into the lives of those around us. As St Gregory the Great says, “To offer sacrifice spiritually to God is to offer Him something that gives Him glory. Now of all goods, the most pleasing that man can offer to God is, undeniably, the salvation of a soul. But every one must first offer his own soul, according to what is said in Scripture: ‘If you wish to please God, have pity on your own soul.’” Dom Chautard explains this quote: ‘When this first sacrifice [of one’s soul] has been consummated, then will it be permitted us to procure the same joy for others.’ (‘The Soul of the Apostolate’) (See footnote)
So, given the state of public services today, particularly those offering psychological help, what can we do for our loved one when we see them descend into madness or disorder? Well, the same thing that we should be doing anyway – sanctifying ourselves and trying to know, honour and love God more each day. Follow the example of St Monica who trusted in God’s mercy and never gave up on her son, St. Augustine. Her saintly life helped her son mend his ways. We can offer up our tears, sacrifices and prayers for our family members. If we love our family members, i.e. if we will them good, and we want our sons/daughters, wives/husbands, brothers/sisters, mothers/fathers, etc., to have peace of soul and be truly happy, then we can do no better thing to show this love for them than by being a shining example of true charity. And how do we do this? Through hard work, personal effort and discipline. Through finding a prudent, wise and charitable priest as a spiritual director who will guide us in the ways of perfection; through good spiritual reading that will enlighten our minds; through sacrifices and penance that will discipline our unruly bodies; through mental prayer that will ground us in the present while reminding us of the link between the present and eternity; through mortification of our pride that will help us in the ways of humility. Ultimately, through making ourselves pleasing to God and responding to the grace He bestows on us. We are all called to be saints, but we must focus efforts towards sanctity on ourselves first. If we do not conquer ourselves then we have no hope of helping others with their demons. As Fr Eugene Boylan points out in his excellent book, ‘This Tremendous Lover’, ‘The greatest service we can render our neighbour is to sanctify ourselves.’
So, whether it is a family member or a friend you are concerned about, may Our Lady guide you in the ways of sanctity so you can then truly help them,
As society descends into further chaos and madness prevails, many people are looking for cures to for the confusion, anxiety and depression they are experiencing. There are many services and therapies offered to us that promise to restore peace and happiness. One insurance company, which specialises in alternative therapies, even offers insurance for over 200 different types of therapies! This includes such things as rhythmical massage therapy, block clearance therapy, and assemblage point shifting, to name but a few of the strange array of therapies offered to people today. As people and professionals drift further and further away from an accurate understanding of what man is and what he needs for happiness and peace of soul, the range of therapies and the psychotherapeutic market only continue to grow and expand. Now, if used wisely by both the professional and the client, some of these alternative therapies may help people gain some healthy balance in their lives, e.g. vitamin & mineral therapy, nutrition therapy, allergy testing, art therapy, music therapy, animal therapy. Some are dangerous due to their origins, e.g. yoga, tarot/card reading, while with many others, e.g. life coaching, psychosexual counselling, one must be on guard against error and misdirection. There also therapies that offer clever imitations of the real solutions. These are the ones to be really skeptical of.
The Real Cure – The Truth:
Now, it has been pointed out elsewhere how the Catholic Faith is the ultimate solution to the various difficulties we face in this life. The embracing and practicing of the Catholic Faith in all its glory gives our very nature the satisfaction it inherently craves. It means living life in accordance with the truth. This is epitomised by saints who truly lived the Catholic faith. Now, there are many who reject this truth and look for happiness through various other means. This rejection may take place because people have found what they imagine are alternative, more progressive or more enlightened solutions to their problems. The promise of a solution is often packaged as a new therapy or innovative approach. Therefore, let us examine whether these offers are really new or whether they are innovative. Let us analyse three of the latest therapeutic approaches/treatments (mindfulness, cognitive therapy, and relapse prevention) by acknowledging what truth they contain and then ultimately showing where they miss the mark.
Mindfulness is one of the most popular therapeutic fads that people are engaged in. And yes, let us give credit where credit is due – it is true that slowing down and staying present is important. This is especially true today as panic and worrying about the future has taken over many people’s minds. But, let us also recognise that this advice to stay present is not a new idea or concept. It was emphasised by Our Lord almost 2’000 years ago when He said, “Be not therefore solicitous for tomorrow; for the morrow will be solicitous for itself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34). We have to tackle each day at a time and if we are caught up worrying about the future or lingering in the past, we won’t be able to focus on the here and now. Mindfulness is a clever imitation of an idea that the Catholic Faith has always emphasised. At the same time, it also tries to kick God out of the picture and offer a non-Catholic solution to life’s issues. It promotes hedonistic indulgence in the present rather than a true understanding of why we should try to remain present as emphasised by Jean-Pierre de Caussade in his classic book from the 18th century, ‘Self Abandonment to Divine Providence’:
‘The present moment is always full of infinite treasure, it contains far more than you have the capacity to hold. Faith is the measure; what you find in the present moment will be according to the measure of your faith. Love is also the measure: the more your heart loves, the more it desires, and the more it desires the more it finds. The will of God presents itself at each instant like an immense ocean which the desire of your heart cannot empty, although it will receive of that ocean the measure to which it can expand itself by faith, confidence and love.’
Trying to stay present without this understanding or with a false understanding of why you are trying to do so may lead to temporary relief at the natural level but this will not last long as mindfulness is only a forgery of the real solution. (Note: one way of becoming more present is the practice of mental prayer. A guide for this practice can be found here).
Cognitive therapy is a type of therapy developed by Jewish psychiatrist, Aaron T. Beck. Moving past all its pseudoscientific claims and convoluted language, cognitive therapy is essentially a way of trying to see how thoughts impact on behaviour and one’s sense of happiness. Now, credit should be given where credit is due and here one must acknowledge that examining one’s thoughts and how they impact on one’s behaviour and emotions can be useful. However, truth must be the reference point for analysing one’s thoughts. Cognitive therapy is not so much focused on the truth or the reality of the thoughts that one is having. Rather it is a way of overcoming ‘negative thinking’. What counts as ‘negative thinking’ is interpreted by or, at least, influenced by the professional. This is why cognitive therapy is often used to explain away healthy and natural episodes of anxiety and guilt. God is often also kicked out of the picture or seen as a nuisance in many incidents. (The problems with this subjective approach that is not grounded in reality are outlined further here) Examining our thoughts to see where our mind has wandered to and how it is affecting our behaviour and happiness is not something new or innovative. The Catholic Church has always encouraged us to do so. However, it has done so for a far more noble reason than the reasons cognitive therapists encourage us to do so. The Church asks us to ground ourselves in reality and to check our relationship with Truth Himself. Instead of cognitive therapy the Church encourages a daily examination of conscience. This helps us to acknowledge the faults we have committed during the day. It helps us to see ourselves and our imperfections more clearly. As St. Francis de Sales says in ‘The Devout Life’, ‘An illness is already half cured when the cause is known.’ While the Church sees that guilt and anxiety can help inform us of our wrongdoings she also tells not to be overwhelmed by the failings we see in ourselves and to approach this practice in a peaceful way. This is emphasised by Venerable Liebermann, speaking about how to conduct an examination of conscience:
‘The best course, I believe, to follow, is to put yourself calmly in the presence of God – looking to Him in this work as in all things else. When you feel your heart in tranquillity and calmly united to God, begin to open gently the eyes of your soul on yourself, to see in what you have offended against God. I say – open the eyes of your soul gently, for I believe that there should not be too much anxiety or too much keenness exercised in seeking out your faults. Do not scrutinise too closely your conduct (do not ‘peel your soul’) with an excessive care – in fear that something should escape you, should remain overlooked or forgotten. Above all, do not allow your soul to leave God in the hunt after its fault, but let it remain peacefully in His presence in order to discover them. For that reason it can and ought always to remain like St. John attached to the Lord, casting simply a look on itself and its conduct without leaving God on Whom it rests.
I prefer that one should follow this method even though in this way several faults should escape your examination, rather than that we should search diligently on our own account, and by our own industry discover them all. It ought to suffice for us to have a sincere desire to know all the faults we have committed and to confess them, and our contrition shall be incomparably more perfect by an examen carried out as directed. Nay more, I believe that by this method we shall discover our faults much better and that we shall penetrate more deeply into our interior to know the source of them, for we shall know them by the suggestion of God.’ (Quote taken from ‘My Last Retreat’ by Fr Edward Leen)
Cognitive therapy or examination of conscience? One approach mainly tries to rationalise and justify our vices; the other approach encourages us to humbly face Reality, acknowledge our sins and commit to trying to do better. Cognitive therapy is a pseudoscientific imitation of the real solution. It tries to morph reality to one’s own way of thinking rather than acknowledge that one cannot escape the truth and that it is only by knowing the truth, that you will be free (John 8:32). (For more information on examination of conscience, see ‘Science of the Saints’ by Fr. R. J. Meyer, especially lesson xiii and xiv)
Having worked in the addiction for close to ten years this is a term that is frequently employed and emphasised. It is a type of therapeutic approach to addiction that helps people identify the people, places and things that could trigger old habits and behaviours. Once a person has experienced addiction there needs to be an acknowledgement that they still carry a weakness in this area and they will have to be on guard against the return of old behaviours. This is all reasonable and compatible with physiological and psychological truths. However, again, there is nothing new or spectacular or enlightening about this approach. Our own life experiences and a brief reflection on our own behaviours teach us that we are prone to certain vices. This could be in relation to food, drink, drugs or sex, etc. We know that we need to avoid certain people, places and things to avoid overwhelming temptations. This is also what the Church teaches and emphasises. It knows that we are prone to fall and that the more we engage in certain vices the harder it is for us to kick these destructive habits. As Fr Scupoli in the 16th century said in his classic book, ‘The Spiritual Combat’, ‘[We] are more susceptible to occasions of sin than snow is to fire.’ The Church does not call the approach to destructive habitual behaviours ‘relapse prevention’ but simply calls it ‘avoiding the occasions of sin’. She also emphasises all the seven deadly sins, especially sins of the intellect such as pride, rather than just those sins that are related to the flesh, e.g. gluttony. St Thomas Aquinas teaches us that while sins of the flesh are the most shameful sins we can commit as it makes us like beasts, the sin of pride is the worst type of sin as we boost of goodness that is not ours. This is why somebody who lives what looks like a clean-cut life free from addiction can still be hooked on vice, i.e. pride, as he glorifies himself rather than God. He can still be, and often is, more a slave than the heroin addict living on the street, who at least may maintain some sense of humility due to the circumstances he finds himself in. Relapse prevention mainly emphasises purity in one’s behaviour. The Catholic Faith guides our behaviour as it knows the traps we can fall into but it emphasises purity of one’s heart.
Relapse prevention is a clever imitation of the wise advice to ‘avoid occasions of sin’. It emphasises the need to avoid destructive behaviour but, as it fails to take full account of the nature of man and all that man is called to be, it only provides partial answers and, often, misleading advice. (For advice on how to kick bad habits one of the greatest guides is St Ignatius of Loyola and his spiritual exercises or for advice on how not to develop bad habits in the first place one should check out part IV, ‘Needful Counsels Concerning Some Ordinary Temptations’, of ‘The Devout Life’ by St Francis de Sales).
When God and the wisdom of the Church are kicked out of services they are replaced with approaches that seem reasonable but are flawed, unreliable and doomed to fail as they lack understanding of the reality of man and the impact sin has on his mind. These approaches offer incomplete and distorted cures with the vast majority of its practitioners unaware of man’s end goal. When professionals do not know our true end destination it proves impossible for them to guide people. This is happening across services today. This appears obvious in some cases but not so much in others.
In our world today, there are clever imitations or false cures that appeal somewhat to our reason but also to our desire to justify our own imperfections. Ultimately, due to neglecting or scorning the spiritual help people actually need to regain psychological balance, more focus is put on biological fixes helping Big Pharma make huge profits or leaving the door open for the introduction of draconian regulations and communist government initiatives. Counterfeit approaches that borrow from the real solutions can only cover up the cracks for so long. Ultimately the whole society suffers as a result and chaos ensues. The solutions to this chaos are not to be found in the modern psychotherapeutic fads of our times. When one tries to kick the infinite, i.e. God/Love Himself, out of services, the wounds soon reappear even when efforts are made to bandage them up. The internal wounds are too deep as services lose more and more touch with reality. Today, it does not look like they are changing their disordered course any time soon but only accelerating on their destructive path. At the societal level, these internal wounds will continue to get worse until the majority of people, especially those in authority (see footnote), come back to their senses. Yet, for individuals there is still hope and there are ways and means of gaining peace of soul and happiness. It involves not falling for cheap imitations and the flattery that comes with these offers, but continuously looking for and filling oneself with the real cures. This takes work and effort. The cure may initially taste bitter but with an intellect thirsting for truth, a truly humble and charitable heart, and a good will, you will soon come to taste the sweetness that the world does not know.
Footnote: This refers to government authorities but more importantly Church authorities, many of whom would not agree with what I share above. Key to Church authorities returning to sanity is the Traditional Latin Mass. I have outlined some of what the empirical data says on this matter here.
The idea that we should avoid evil is firmly rooted in our soul. We have an innate sense that evil we expose ourselves to or evil we are exposed to can have a detrimental effect on our minds. Exposure to particularly traumatic or evil happenings can leave its scars. This innate sense that evil can really damage us is backed up by empirical evidence. In recent times, research in psychology has highlighted how early childhood trauma impacts on our mental health. Research into psychiatric disorders is also highlighting how early childhood trauma, e.g. sexual abuse, has a strong relationship with hearing voices and seeing visions. With this research becoming more evident there has been a shift away from medical models that overemphasised the biological roots for psychological issues to one that recognises that the type of environment we grow up in and the evil that we are exposed to often leaves its scars. This has resulted in more talk of ‘trauma informed care’, which is better than the dominant ‘diagnose and drug ‘em’ models. Yet, with credit given where credit is due, there really is nothing extraordinary in this shift of emphasis. A brief reflection on one’s own experiences and a short consideration of the lives of others will help us to see that traumatic experiences do often leave their scars in various ways. This understanding that exposure to evil has detrimental effects on one’s minds is also nothing new. It has been written about and more clearly explained long before psychiatry and psychology became professional disciplines. Let us look at some of this wisdom from the past.
‘It is better for us not to know low and vile things, because by them we are impeded in our knowledge of what is better and higher; for we cannot understand many things simultaneously; because the thought of evil sometimes perverts the will towards evil.’ St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, First Part, Treatise on the One God, Q. 22 (The Providence of God), Article 3, h (Reply to Objection 3)
Our minds tend to be corrupted by evil. St Thomas, the Angelic Doctor of the Catholic Church, clearly understood this. Rather than focusing on ‘better and higher’ things which purify and lift our minds, our minds can be poisoned when we focus on or know ‘low and vile things’. St. Thomas wrote in a time (the 13th century) where evil and immoral practices, e.g. homosexuality, murder, were far less prevalent and where most minds were kept free from knowledge of this vileness. The time in which St. Thomas wrote is often referred to by modern secular historians as ‘The Dark Ages’ yet this period, especially the 13th century, was one of the most truly progressive and enlightening periods of history. Minds were kept safe from the dark knowledge of low and vile things so they would not be impeded in knowledge of what is better and higher. These ‘dark ages’ helped minds such as those of St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure rise to higher levels of sanctity and philosophical insights than men have reached since. Our modern pagan times (or our ‘enlightened times’ as many believe) make it harder for one to keep focused on what is better and higher. This is because sin is so prevalent and is seen as ‘progressive’ by many, e.g. abortion as ‘health care’, LGBT ‘pride’. As we are often swamped in the filth of ‘low and vile things’, the mind struggles to reach to better and higher things. Yet, if we want to maintain good mental health and, more importantly, avoid our will being perverted towards evil we must take St. Thomas’ advice and try not to know, or, at the very least, not focus on ‘low and vile things’. We must do what we can to keep our minds pure and our wills incorrupt in our current times and avoid exposing ourselves deliberately to evil. Focused efforts on purity and sanctity will only help in establishing one’s sanity while ‘holiness consists in hating and waging war against all that is evil and cleaving to that which is good.’ (Fr Auguste Saudreau, ‘The Ideal of the Fervent Soul’) This is what we must do for the health of our mind and soul. What we expose ourselves to will have an impact on our thoughts and actions. As St. Francis de Sales says, ‘let us have good thoughts: then we shall never have evil movements. Let us shun immodest company: then we shall not be provoked to lust. To cure ourselves of our vices, it may be well to mortify the flesh, but above all we must purify our heart.’ (‘The Devout Life’)
But what happens when we are exposed to evil or have evil inflicted on us without our consent? Sometimes due to these experiences, e.g. sexual abuse as a child, people will find that they are more inclined towards evil and immoral practices, e.g. homosexuality, and will sadly give themselves over to it, doing so often with the encouragement of psychological professionals. Others will resist some evil inclinations but find themselves distracting themselves from the reality of their trauma in other ways, e.g. alcohol, drugs, gambling, binge eating, etc. Others will find themselves able, by the grace of God, to face reality, understand themselves and their behaviour and find peace of soul amidst the crosses they have been given. Still, others will find themselves in psychiatric services, diagnosed with a psychiatric condition such as personality disorder or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, drugged up, and told that they have a biological condition which will be needed to be treated with psychiatric drugs for life. (This is a common experience for people and I have seen this for myself while working in psychiatric services where many people’s traumatic stories were missed due to an overfocus on supposed chemical imbalances). There are many different paths people take when they are exposed to evil at a young and innocent age. Some decide to indulge more in the evil they have encountered while others try to understand and combat their perverse inclinations towards evil. Many struggle to make sense of the hatred they have for the evil inflicted on them along with the hatred or guilt they feel towards themselves. All seek answers to help them to understand the disorder, angst and restlessness they identify in themselves. As our society becomes more and more disconnected from the truth and more and more people are exposed to evil, this sense of disorder is only increasing. So what is the solution?
‘Far from seeking out that which is evil, Love dreads meeting with it’ – St Francis de Sales (‘The Devout Life’)
The first step is to identify what is evil and to avoid meeting it. There is a terrible amount of confusion about evil in our world today. This confusion is not helped by leaders, e.g. the hierarchy in the Church, who have responsibility for helping souls to avoid evil, but who in some, if not many, cases, have helped to corrupt souls by exposing them to evil or confusing them about what constitutes evil. Due to how evil can be cloaked in the guise of virtue, we must be ‘wise as serpents’ in our endeavours to avoid meeting evil. If we want to have peace of soul and liberty of spirit, we must focus on what is better and higher, not what is low and vile. We must love with is good and pure and dread meeting evil. This website and service endeavours to point out some of the most obvious examples of low and vile things, e.g. abortion, fornication, homosexuality. It tries to point people towards better and higher things, e.g. the teachings and true representation of the Catholic Faith, virtue, sanctity. While countless modern psychological theories compete for people’s attention and money, the fundamental principle for finding peace of soul, no matter how traumatic your life has been, remains the same, ‘Turn away from evil and do good: seek after peace and pursue it.’ (Psalm 33:15). We have a responsibility to figure out what exactly this means and what it entails (1).
Ultimately, the best approach for identifying and avoiding evil is a life of prayer. So, to end, let me share this prayer of Fr Martin Von Cochem, written in his classic book, ‘The Four Last Things’ that may give help to you in your endeavours:
‘O my God, grant me grace that on earth I may love the light and eschew the works of darkness, in order that I may attain to the contemplation of the eternal and perpetual light!’
(1) If you want a more detailed philosophical outline of what evil fundamentally is you can check out St Thomas treatise on the distinction between good and evil here.
In Western societies today we find many self-styled spiritual gurus and life coaches who claim to offer solutions to the difficulties of life. These people have many ‘brilliant and clever sayings.’ Despite not understanding what man is, many of them genuinely believe that their guidance and advice is wise and helpful. They are not afraid to take on the roles of life coach and role models for others. Market conditions are favourable to their business plans. The kingdom of God is being forgotten about by human beings so society is becoming more and more disordered. People are desperate for answers. In addition, the advice life coaches offer is often much better and grounded more in common sense than the publicly funded, regulated and ‘professional’ psychological advice and guidance offered by trained psychological professionals. Add a bit of personal charisma, an ability to make rousing motivational speeches, and a solid marketing campaign and you can see why many people make a lucrative career from coaching people and why many people are flocking to them.
But what did people in the West do before these life coaches and gurus became so popular and prevalent? How did people get the answers they needed to the difficult questions in life? How did people know what to aim for and, once identified, how did they know how to go about achieving their goal? Many of the blogs I have written on this website have provided some answers to these questions. This blog highlights one particular spiritual guide whose wisdom and common sense approach far surpassed anything offered by the countless gurus we come across today. This guide is the holy bishop of Geneva and Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales, whose writings still continue to ‘coach’ those who strive for self improvement.
‘Few would deny, however unsatisfactory their own lives, that to be a saint is the supreme expression of human life on earth.’ – Introduction, ‘Francois de Sales’ – Michael de le Bedoyere
Seeing someone live the advice they give helps us to take their advice seriously. If the fruits of the advice are good, we can have even more confidence in it. This is most certainly the case with St. Francis de Sales who lived a holy and devout life while encouraging others, through his example and words, to live this type of life as well. He was known for being a gentle, patient and humble soul who radiated charity. In his life, he converted thousands of people to the Catholic Faith and he was renowned as a great shepherd for the flock under his care. In addition to this, he also left us some remarkable writings including his masterpieces, ‘Treatise on the Love of God’ and ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’. ‘Treatise on the Love of God’ is a theological study/outline of the love of God and about why charity/love of God is essential if one wants to attain perfection. ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ is a practical guide for those navigating through the various difficulties that life brings. The latter was a bestseller of 1608 and it continues to guide souls who desire perfection.
Inspired by another classic spiritual guide, ‘The Spiritual Combat’ by Fr Lorenzo Scupoli, St. Francis, in the ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’, provides practical guidance to those who aspire to live a virtuous and holy life. St. Francis’ writings are inspired by love of God and his own deep love of virtue. He had a deep understanding of charity both intellectually and practically. He knew that man was designed to live a virtuous life and that living this type of life brought its own beautiful fruits: ‘It is virtue which makes the inner and outer man into something beautiful. It makes him wonderfully pleasing to God. It suits man extremely well, because it is man’s proper state. How much consolation, delight, true pleasure it always brings him. Christian virtue sanctifies him, turns him into an angel, makes him a little god, takes him into heaven, even on earth.’ (Quote from St. Francis from ‘Francois de Sales’ – Michael de le Bedoyere). St. Francis desired that man be all that he should and can be and ‘The Introduction to the Devout Life‘ is written with this intention in mind.
‘The Introduction to the Devout Life’ stands as a giant over any of the modern self-help gurus and popular psychology books that are taking up more and more of the media, libraries and bookstores. Unlike, modern psychological theories that are based on false and distorted theories about man, St Francis offers common sense advice and practical guidance based on true understandings of what man is and what the purpose of man’s existence is. While thousands of people flock to the latest motivational talk by the likes of Tony Robbins and waste their money buying the latest ‘actualise yourself’ book by Deepak Chopra, St. Francis de Sales, through his humble endeavours, has left us his writings to truly help people transform their lives if they put the wisdom he imparts into practice.
St Francis is gentle, clear and firm in his advice and ‘The Introduction to the Devout Life’ is full of beautiful vivid metaphors to describe the realities of life. It recognises man’s true calling and it is written to help man be ‘wonderfully pleasing to God’. The bar is high as this is the reality of life. Yet, St. Francis’ writings are grounded in common sense and pertinent advice on how to avoid the various snares that can divert us on the way to perfection. Here are such some example of the pearls of wisdom St. Francis has to offer:
On reputation: ‘Whoever desires to be esteemed by everyone has the esteem of no one, and whoever seeks to obtain it from unworthy people deserves to lose it.’
On how to converse: ‘To speak little’ – so highly recommended by wise men – does not consist in uttering few words, but in not speaking useless words. It is not their quantity but their quality that counts.’
On the ridicule one receives from the world for aspiring to Christian perfection: ‘The world considers us fools, let us consider it mad.’
On anxiety: ‘Birds that are captured in nets and snares become inextricably entangled therein, because they flutter and struggle so much. Therefore, whensoever you urgently desire to be delivered from any evil, or to attain some good thing, strive above all else to keep a calm, restful spirit,—steady your judgment and will, and then go quietly and easily after your object, taking all fitting means to attain thereto. By easily I do not mean carelessly, but without eagerness, disquietude or anxiety; otherwise, so far from bringing about what you wish, you will hinder it, and add more and more to your perplexities.’
Not accepting sadness as the normal state of your soul: ‘The Evil One delights in sadness and melancholy, because they are his own characteristics. He will be in sadness and sorrow through all Eternity, and he would fain have all others the same.’
Advice on overcoming depression:
Keep occupied: ‘It is well also to occupy yourself in external works, and that with as much variety as may lead us to divert the mind from the subject which oppresses it, and to cheer and kindle it, for depression generally makes us dry and cold’
Talk to a wise counsellor: ‘Lay bare all the feelings, thoughts and longings which are the result of your depression to your confessor or director, in all humility and faithfulness.’
Visit good friends: ‘Seek the society of spiritually minded people, and frequent such as far as possible while you are suffering.’
On the causes of spiritual dryness: ‘Those rich with worldly pleasures are unable to enjoy spiritual ones.’
On the need to examine one’s conscience if going through these dry periods: ‘An illness is already half cured when the cause is known.’
On honouring God/doing your duty through hard times: ‘There is no great merit in serving one’s prince in peace and in the midst of courtly delights; true merit, and proof of a true fidelity, lie in serving him during war, trouble and persecutions.’
These are just some of the gems of advice that this great saint has to offer. In our modern times, people are desperate for solutions to the psychological issues they are experiencing. There are all sorts of psychological professionals and professional bodies trying to direct and guide people. Added to this, there are all sorts of people posing as wise men trying to give people answers to their various anxieties and sorrows. Yet, it is a humble and gentle Catholic bishop who lived in the 17th century and his 400-year-old book that offers us one of the best practical guides to true happiness and freedom.
So, let us stop looking for answers to our psychological issues where they will not be found. Let us return to the guidance left with us by those men who have come before us were truly wise. If we are struggling with life issues, rather than turn to those who will only confuse our minds even more, we can easily turn to St Francis de Sales and allow him to gently guide us over the various hurdles we encounter. We can let him be our ‘life coach’ and allow him to help us on our journey to Him who is Life Itself.
Following on from the previous blog on perfection, this blog points to a guide for those aspiring to perfection:
If we have accepted that the desire for perfection is a natural and healthy desire that can be fulfilled, we must search for a guide to help us towards perfection. In this life we encounter many false notions of perfection. Many routes to perfection that are purposed to us only lead to our own demise. We have to be careful that we find the right path and then stay firmly on this path. This path is found through the narrow gate and ‘strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!’ (Matthew 7:13). There have been many people who have tried to guide people towards this path. One of the best recent guides in the ways of perfection is Fr Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, a Dominican priest and, probably, the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. This blog provides a very brief summary of the wisdom he has to share about the route to perfection:
I have outlined in previous blogs how the road to sanctity is the normal path that we are called to take. This is also the path to perfection. Our modern times have brought with them many false notions of the normal life and what order and disorder look like. These errors have become so prevalent that many of these false notions of perfection and normality have attempted to replace the fundamental truths of the Catholic Faith. These modern falsehoods have distorted people’s understandings of what perfection and normality looks like. Yet, the Catholic Faith remains true and will always remain so. Therefore, our understanding of the path we must take in this life must be built on these truths as Garrigou-Lagrange points out:
‘If the Blessed Trinity truly dwells in us, if the Word actually was made flesh, died for us, is really present in the Holy Eucharist, offers Himself sacramentally for us every day in the Mass, gives Himself to us as food, if all this is true, then only the saints are fully in order, for they live by this divine presence through frequent, quasi-experimental knowledge and through an ever-growing love in the midst of the obscurities and difficulties of life. And the life of close union with God, far from appearing in its essential quality as something intrinsically extraordinary, appears alone as fully normal. Before reaching such a union, we are like people still half-asleep, who do not truly live sufficiently by the immense treasure given to us and by the continually new graces granted to those who wish to follow Our Lord generously.’
Given the infallible truths that are contained in the dogmas of the Catholic Faith, such as the Resurrection, the Real Presence and Sanctifying Grace, Garrigou-Lagrange highlights the logical consequences of these truths, i.e. ‘only the saints are fully in order’. He points out how the saints provide examples of what full human development looks like just as a fully developed oak tree gives us an idea of what a fully developed acorn looks like. Today as we drift further and further away from the truth, we lose track of what normal human development should and could look like. People are becoming more and more disordered in their thoughts, words and deeds leading to mass societal disorder. Modern theories that try to explain the normal development of man and the current psychological and social disorder we see around us without recourse to the traditional and infallible teachings of the Catholic Faith are only providing false, dangerous and destructive notions of what order should look like. Garrigou-Lagrange further explains why false notions about normality are so prevalent today:
‘Frequently the term ‘normal’ is applied to the state at which Christians as a rule actually arrive, and not sufficient attention is given to inquiring to what state they ought truly to reach if they were entirely faithful. Because the generality of Christian souls do not here on earth actually reach the stage of living in an almost continual union with God, we should not declare that this union is beyond the summit of the normal development of charity. We should not confound what ought to be or should be with what actually is: otherwise we would be led to declare that true virtue is not possible on earth, for, as a matter of fact, the majority of men pursue a useful or delectable good, such as money and earthly satisfactions, rather than virtuous good, the object of virtue.
In a society which is declining and returning to paganism, a number take as their rule of conduct, not duty, the ordinary good, which would demand too great effort in an environment where everything leads to descend, but the lesser evil. They follow the current according to the law of the least effort. Not only do they tolerate this lesser evil, but they do it, and frequently they support it with their recommendations in order to keep their positions. They claim that they thus avoid a greater evil which others would do in their place if, ceasing to please, they should lose their situation or their command. And so saying, instead of helping others to reascend they assist them in descending, trying only to moderate the fall. How many statesmen and politicians have come to this pass! A somewhat similar condition exists in the spiritual life.’
Garrigou-Lagrange explains how our notions of normal are informed by what we observe of the spiritual development of the ‘average man’, rather than being based on a clear understanding of what man is called to be. The prevailing and toxic influence of paganism within our cultures has distorted man’s understanding of what he can and should be. If an acorn did not develop into a fully developed oak tree, we would say that it is defective acorn as it did develop as it should have. If a man does not develop eventually into a saint by knowing, honouring and loving God in this life we can call him defective or disordered, i.e. he has not become what he was supposed to become. The defective tree that the acorn has grown into can be simply chopped down and discarded while the disordered man, having a rational eternal soul, free will, and having been called to a much higher and nobler end goal, receives eternal punishment for refusing to choose the end he was designed for. ‘Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire.’ (Matthew 3:10). At moments, we all have a sense that we should be so much more than we are. However instead of aiming at perfection, we, often, as Garrigou-Lagrange points out above, reject normal human development and choose average human development while making compromises with the world that will cost us for eternity! What a disastrous and tragic choice and one that is sadly encouraged by many psychological ‘experts’ today (as was pointed out in the previous blog).
‘Perfection lies in union with God through charity’ – Garrigou-Lagrange
The central message of Garrigou-Lagrange’s masterpiece, ‘The Three Ages of the Interior Life – Prelude of Eternal Life’, quoted above, is that perfection is achieved through love. In this book, he provides guidance about how to achieve this. He also provides many more insights into the problems that trouble our own souls and minds and those we detect within our societies.He provides clear guidance on the path to perfection, basing this on the writings of saints and masters of the spiritual life who came before him, especially the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, St John of the Cross and St Francis de Sales. It is not in the scope of this blog to outline all the glorious light that this book provides but to give readers here a brief taste of the challenge that Garrigou-Lagrange holds out to readers. For those who wish to be average his writings will be dismissed. However, for those who wish to be a normal human being in the fullest, truest, most liberating, and most perfect sense of the word, then his work is most definitely worth studying and taking onboard.
‘Perfect charity demands serious effort, a veritable struggle, a spirit of abnegation or renunciation, in order that our affection, ceasing to descend toward the things of earth or fall back egotistically on ourselves, may always rise more purely and strongly toward God.’ – Garrigou-Lagrange
Now, the battle against the enemies we face in this life is not easily won as the quote above indicates. Initially the battle we are asked to fight and the path we are asked to tread may seem like an almost impossible mission and an incredibly narrow path. However, in reality, Garrigou-Lagrange highlights how the road to perdition at first seems broad but then becomes narrower and narrower, ‘whereas the narrow road, which leads upward, becomes ever wider, immense as God Himself to whom it leads.’ In truth, the path to sanctity is the only one that guarantees liberty of spirit. There are many steps that are outlined along this road such as spiritual reading, purification, mortification and spiritual direction, but one of the key steps is also one of the simplest. This is prayer, which helps us to empty ourselves thus allowing us to taste God and see how sweet He is as Garrigou-Lagrange points out: ‘Whereas the egoist always thinks of himself and refers everything back to himself, we shall begin to think always of God dwelling in us, and to refer everything to Him. Then, even when the most unforeseen and painful events occur, we shall think of the glory of God and of the manifestations of His goodness, and we shall glimpse from afar the supreme Good toward which everything, trials as well as joys, should converge. This is truly the life of prayer, which allows us to see all things in God; it is the normal prelude to eternal life.’
Eventually, through persistent effort and docility to the Holy Ghost and His inspirations, one can find peace of soul in this life as described in ‘The Imitation of Christ’ (a book frequently quoted by Garrigou-Lagrange): ‘If your thinking is straight and you see things as they really are, you will never allow trouble or adversity to depress you.’ Studying ‘The Three Ages of the Interior Life’ is a great way of getting your thinking straight and helping you to ‘see things as they really are’. It confirms what other spiritual writers say about the need for a virtuous interior life, such as Fr R. J. Meyer: ‘Vice denotes weakness and imperfection; virtue denotes strength and perfection. Vice is a habit by which one does amiss; virtue is a habit which one never uses amiss. Vice is a flaw, owing to which something is not in a condition becoming its nature; it is, therefore, a disposition against nature. Virtue is an excellence, owing to which something is in a condition favourable to its nature; it is therefore, a disposition according to nature’ (‘Science of the Saints’)
‘He who considers himself his own director, becomes the disciple of a fool.’ – St. Bernard
We must look to those wiser than ourselves to direct and guide us and not foolishly overestimate our ability to direct ourselves. Whilst it may be hard to find a prudent, wise and charitable counsellor in these current times there are guides to be found through reading and studying. For those who aspire to be perfect and who aspire to live a truly virtuous life the guidance of Garrigou-Lagrange is a great aid. His work can be accessed online for free here. Hopefully you will find the wisdom he provides refreshing and inspiring and, God willing, he will help to guide you towards perfection in this life and eternal happiness in the next.
Note: If this blog has sparked your interest in the works of Garrigou-Lagrange here is another article encouraging people to read more from and about him.
There is a distinct, though often faint, voice within us that tells us we could be so much more than we currently are. It provokes an inner restlessness that is not easy to shake off. There are moments in our lives where this voice seems to overwhelm us. We are flattened by the disappointment we feel when we look at who we are and what we have done with our lives. There springs into our consciousness the thought that our lives are not all that they could or should have been.
These moments can be short-lived. Most of us do not pay too much attention to them. We return to the daily grind and distractions where we forget our own mediocrity. Some people around us might notice that we have lost some of our youthful vitality that once drove us forward, now seeing us ‘frittering away the days and the hours in silly preoccupation about things that are futile, transient and unsubstantial’. Sometimes they may let us know what they see but most of the time nothing is said, and we feel relieved by friends and family members that tell us, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself’. Yet, for some, that lingering sense that we are not all that we should be does not dissipate and it is not easily blocked out. Fr Martin D’Arcy, former Master of Campion Hall, Oxford University, captures this angst: ‘We are haunted by perfection, and we all long to for some golden occasion when we can exhibit our strength, write down for all time what we are and could be and so wipe out the long array of petty deeds which go under our name.’ (‘Mirage and Truth’). This sense of being ‘haunted’ leads to some seeking answers for this desire for perfection from various mental health professionals who claim to be experts or, at least, to be knowledgeable about the solutions to this angst. But what do these ‘experts’ tell us about this desire for perfection? (Footnote 1)
A Rejection of Perfection:
At one of the most popular psychological websites, Psychology Today, one of these ‘experts’, Mel Schwartz, will tell us that ‘[The construct of perfection] remains rooted in an outmoded worldview and constrains our happiness. Shifting our beliefs about perfection can permit the burden that it imposes to lift.’ And he will also tell us that ‘If someone ever could achieve this impossible state of perfection, it’s likely that very few people would tolerate him or her. For the perfect individual would be a constant reminder to all others of their shortcomings. Not to mention that they probably wouldn’t be much fun to be with. Who would really tolerate, let alone enjoy being with, someone who was perfect?’ Mel here is telling the person who desires perfection that perfection is an ‘outmoded worldview’ or outdated concept, that we should really not tolerate anyone who is perfect, and that the concept of perfection needs to be got rid of so we can be truly happy. The pharisees would be proud!
‘There Is No Finish Line’:
Another modern ‘life and relationship expert’, Anne Cohen, tells us that ‘It’s important to love and embrace your life and enjoy the moment as you strive towards your goals, and not just patiently or impatiently long for the end result, and assume that you’ll feel happy at that point. You won’t be. The truth is, there is no end result or finish line in life. The only finish line in life is when we’re dead. It’s important to enjoy our journey, and not to be so hard on ourselves.’ Basically, it is ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die’ which St. Paul (Corinthians, chapter 15) responds to by saying ‘Be not seduced: Evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake, ye just, and sin not.’ The argument of Anne Cohen was already refuted by ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, before Christ, and it was torn apart by the historical reality of the Resurrection and the preaching of the Apostles. Yet, almost 2’000 years later these arguments that try to do away with perfection or twist it into one’s own formula persist.
These are just two examples of the senseless nonsense that it is to be found from modern gurus who claim to lead people to happiness. Elsewhere I have outlined how professional psychologists give the completely wrong answers to those who are ‘haunted by perfection’. So, if modern psychology cannot provide the answers, where is one to find the answer to this desire for perfection?
‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48)
These are the ground shattering words that rock the foundations of those who have settled in the comfortable home of mediocrity. For those who do not know the heavenly Father or who already think they are perfect these words will be ridiculed and scorned. For those who have come up with elaborate, sophisticated, and proud ways of justifying their imperfections they will mean little. This is how the pharisees and scribes responded and is exemplified today in the writings of Mel Schwarz above. For those who would rather enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of this life than aim at the higher path, Our Lord’s words fall on deaf ears.
But for those who do have some idea of the heavenly Father’s power, beauty and goodness and know something of their own inadequacy and mediocrity these words are like a thunderbolt. For these humble, generous souls who realise that they are sinners like the publican, these words send shockwaves through them. They may respond with some skepticism: ‘Me, how can I be ‘perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect?’ ‘This saying is hard, and who can hear it?’ (John 6: 61). These challenging words can rock us as much today as they did then. Like Mel Schwartz, we can reject this Man who claims to be perfect and tells us all to aspire to perfection – this Man who is a ‘constant reminder to all others of their shortcomings’. Or we can take Him and His words seriously despite how overwhelmed we may feel when hearing them. It may initially appear to us to be incredibly difficult to follow this path of perfection when we look at the example set before us. And to top it all, we now know, unlike those listening to the sermon on the mount almost two thousand years ago, that the Speaker’s life was one of suffering and hardship, resulting ultimately in His crucifixion. And he tells us to follow in His example! This is not the road to happiness that Mel Schwartz, Anne Cohen, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, psychiatrists, and countless others posing as enlightened guides advise! Yet we know that there is something within our soul that tells us that this is the route we must take:
‘It is dimly felt that though the cross came to Christ only because He permitted it, the cross must come to the Christian of a necessity and the Christian is not free to evade it if his life is to reflect, in some degree, the perfection of the life of the Son of God on earth. Christ had perfection of soul without the cross: there is a secret instinct which tells the Christian that he cannot have perfection of soul without the cross…It is this obscure but intimate realisation that the Passion is not a mere historical contingent fact, affecting one man, but a theory of life applicable to all men, that stirs uneasiness and a species of discomfort in the heart of the thoughtful and honest Christian in face of the Passion and death of Christ.’ (Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’, my emphasis)
‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’ (Luke 9:23)
The Catholic Faith teaches us that there is no way to perfection except through the picking up of our cross daily. There is no getting away from it. No matter how many elaborate psychological theories and professional associations try to twist this message the cross still remains there to be picked up. To reach perfection this is the offer that is put before us. It is not for the fainthearted and great saints do not sugar-coat the hard work and effort that we must put in on this path. For example, St Bernard speaks to his wayward nephew, Robert, ‘Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle, and do some hard work.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters’) St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, is even more direct while writing to a nun who aspired after perfection, says: ‘The spouse of Christ who longs to become perfect must begin with her own self. She must put aside, forget everything else, and enter into the secrecy of her own heart. When she has done this, let her sift narrowly all her weaknesses, habits, affections, actions and sins. She must weigh everything carefully, and make a thorough examination of past and present. Should she discover even the least imperfection, let her weep in the bitterness of her heart.’ (‘Holiness of Life’) And St Therese of Lisieux, who is often depicted in modern times as nothing but sweetness and roses, says that when we commit a fault, ‘we must not attribute it to a physical cause, such as illness or the weather, but we must attribute it our own lack of perfection…Occasions do not make man weak, but they do show him what he is.’ (‘Counsels and Souvenirs’) (See footnote 2).
The saints know man. They know our distance from God and the effort that needs to be made to try to shorten this distance. If we are to set out on the road to perfection, we must humble ourselves and acknowledge how far from perfection we really are. Yet, this is nothing more than acknowledging reality. It is establishing our starting point upon the map before we set out for our destination. Once the destination is determined, we can set out. On this journey, there will be slips, mishaps, falls, and, perhaps, moments of despair as we begin to truly understand ourselves and our distance from God. But we must be determined to keep on this path as St Teresa of Avila tells us, ‘Everything depends on people having a great and a most resolute determination never to halt until they reach their journey’s end, happen what may, whatever the consequences are, cost what it will, let who will blame them, whether they reach the goal or die on the road, or lose heart to bear the trials they encounter, or the earth falls to pieces beneath their feet.’ (‘The Way of Perfection’). This path towards perfection is the only path to take as the alternative route only leads to misery both in this life and the next. It is the reality that a true understanding of the one true Faith holds out to us.
But what about the objections that claim that it is too hard or unrealistic or unpractical and idealistic to speak in this way about perfection? Well, the Faith has the answers to these complaints through the example and words of Our Lord, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ and through the example of all the saints who followed in His footsteps whose spirits were more free and lives happier than the world will ever know (see here and here for two blogs on this).
‘It is a great thing to realise that each one of us is meant for sanctity and that God will not allow us to lead a mediocre life. Christ takes us seriously and when we have the hardihood to put ourselves in His path and show ourselves ready to obey Him, He expects us to rise to the ideal He has traced for us, every one according to her own form. That is a dread thought. But He is prepared to give us the means of achieving what He asks of us…We cannot fall back. We have to face reality.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘My Last Retreat’ (See footnote 3)
Let us not languish in the errors and fables about perfection offered by modern psychology and its various proud and foolish gurus. ‘Christ takes us seriously’. Let us take Him seriously and ‘face reality’. Perfection is possible and the path He has led out before us is the only path that will bring this about. We know that to reach our destination serious effort must be put in. However, lest we despair with the thoughts of what is laid before us, ‘fall back’, and start considering whether modern psychological answers may be right after all, let us finish with a quote from Fr Eugene Boylan describing the spiritual teachings of St Therese of Lisieux:
‘The perfect picture that St. Teresa of Lisieux has drawn of the spiritual life will help to give us courage. She sees it as a stairway to be climbed, at the top of which God is waiting, looking down in Fatherly love at His child’s efforts to surmount the first step. The child, who represents ourselves, fails to manage to climb even the first step; it can only keep on lifting up its tiny little foot. Sooner or later God takes pity on it, and comes down and sweeps the child right up to the top in His arms; but – and St. Teresa insists on this as much as she insists on God’s loving kindness – we must keep on lifting up our foot. The soul must never be discouraged by the fruitlessness of its repeated efforts. It seems to be a law of the spiritual life that, since all progress ultimately depends on God, He lets us first learn our complete helplessness by long and weary efforts that come to naught. But we have His word: ‘I Myself will come and save you!’ (‘Difficulties in Mental Prayer’)
So, keep making efforts towards perfection and may Our Lady guide you and God bless you in your endeavours
These two articles are the first and fourth results after a duckduckgo.com search with the terms ‘desire for perfection’. They are a general representation of the dangerous nonsense written about psychological matters that is to be found in our world.
Lest the wrong impression is given that the saints were all harshness and extremely demanding towards one’s neighbour we must keep in mind that these were saints who imitated Christ in their words and behaviour. This is how Fr Edward Leen describes Our Lord: ‘He is very tender towards the imperfect, but relentless towards imperfection.’ (‘Why the Cross?’). The above quotes show the relentless of St Bernard, St Bonaventure, St Therese of Lisieux and St Teresa of Avila towards imperfection while the following quotes show their tenderness towards the imperfect:
St Bernard wrote extensively on Divine love writing, ‘The measure of love is love without measure.’ He also pleaded with popes on behalf of those who showed the slightest sign of repentance, humility and good will as he did for Bishop of Salamanca, writing to Pope Innocent II:
‘When the man told me the whole story of his tragedy as it had happened, I had nothing but praise for the judge and approval for the judgement; but I must tell you, I was moved by pity for the judged. The whole theme of his story was those words of the Prophet: ‘I have been lifted up only to be cast down and left bewildered’, and ‘so low hast thou brought me who didst once lift me up on high’. When I thought of your justice and your strong character, which I used to know so well, I thought at the same time of your great mercy which I have experienced on so many occasions…I found grounds for hope, confidence for my petition, a reason for my pity, in that I saw the man did not, as is usual in such cases, turn away in fury, and return to his native land, there to stir up scandals and foment schisms; but that he gave place to wrath, adopted an attitude of meekness, and turned his steps towards your monks of Cluny there to throw himself at the knees of the humble monks and fortify himself with their intercession, as with powerful arms from God.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters’)
St Bonaventure on love of God and his neighbour: ‘Give me, O Lord, such great fervour and immense love that I shall see no difference between this or that life, this or that state, person, time, or place, but shall do what is most pleasing to You, whatever or wherever it may be, tending always to You by the affection of my soul. Grant that I may see all things in You, and nothing but You in them, ever eager and anxious to serve You in all things; and that, all on fire and burning with love, I may not take into consideration what is easiest and most agreeable for me, but only what is most pleasing to You.
Grant, O Lord, that I may imitate the angelic spirits who, although they are with us, never interrupt their divine contemplation. May I treat and serve my brethren by seeing and enjoying You in them, and may I always assist my neighbour, offering my heart to You.’ (cited in ‘Divine Intimacy’)
St Therese of Lisieux on patience and tenderness towards the imperfect: ‘Perfect love means putting up with other people’s shortcomings, feeling no surprise at their weaknesses, finding encouragement even in the slightest evidence of good qualities in them.’ (‘The Autobiography of a Soul’)
St Teresa of Avila on compassion towards one’s neighbour: “For at times it happens that some trifle will cause as much suffering to one as a great trial will to another; little things can bring much distress to persons who have sensitive natures. If you are not like them, do not fail to be compassionate.” (‘The Way of Perfection’)
The Irish priest and scholar, Fr Edward Leen, has been quoted a number of times in this blog. It is highly recommended to readers that they check out his inspirational books such as ‘Why the Cross?’, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’ or ‘My Last Retreat’. See here for a sample of his writing from another of his books, ‘Progress Through Mental Prayer’. These books are very helpful for inspiring and encouraging the desire for true perfection in ourselves.
William Shakespeare was undoubtedly a literary genius. His plays are full of beauty, profundity, and charm. He can also be described as a genius in psychology. He understood people and he had great insights into the workings of the human mind. His plays have lasted the test of time not just due to the eloquence and beauty of his writing, but mainly due to how they describe the realities of life, especially the sorrows, tragedies, and moral dilemmas inherent in it. They shine a spotlight on the inner workings of the human mind, with Shakespeare skilfully showing his central characters grappling with their conscience in many of his plays. Modern audiences today are still fascinated and entertained by the fantastic artistry and sheer depth of Shakespeare’s plays. However, it appears that the lessons that Shakespeare tries to teach us through his plays are often missed by modern men. This is particularly true when it comes to the intimate relationship between madness and sin.
Take, for example, one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, ‘MacBeth’, and particularly act five, scene three. Here, Shakespeare provides a vivid image of the relationship between madness and sin. Previous to this scene, MacBeth and Lady MacBeth have been installed as King and Queen of Scotland after they have plotted and committed the murder of the previous king, Duncan. They have also murdered a nobleman of Scotland who suspected their crime and the wife and child of another nobleman they suspect of disloyalty. Lady MacBeth has been observed by a doctor sleepwalking. While sleepwalking she has been trying to wash her hands of blood that she imagines is on them. The doctor is giving MacBeth his assessment of his wife:
Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.
Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.
MacBeth goes on to ask the doctor to try to cure his country of the disease that has come upon it, which has culminated in the English, led by Duncan’s son, Malcolm, invading Scotland:
Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it…
If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo,
That should applaud again…
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug,
Would scour these English hence? Hear’st thou of them?
Like MacBeth we are often desperately searching for a solution to the madness and disorder that besets our minds or that of family members or that of our country. The doctor makes MacBeth aware that there is no medical cure for Lady MacBeth’s madness as he suspects that it is caused by a guilty conscience. Like those today who want an easy fix and a ‘pill for every ill’ MacBeth is annoyed by the doctor’s response when he provides no medical solution (‘Throw physic, i.e. medicine, to the dogs’). In an earlier scene the doctor acknowledges that Lady MacBeth’s condition needs to be treated by a priest, i.e. ‘a divine’, not a doctor. ‘Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets. More needs she the divine than the physician.’ This is exactly what we do not want to hear today. Yet, there is a deep sense within us that the cleansing of one’s conscience through divine means is the only cure. For example, it does not shock the audience that Lady MacBeth is experiencing distress as we know she has encouraged and collaborated in murders. This reaction resonates with and makes sense to us. We also see it as madness and vicious folly on MacBeth’s part not to acknowledge and take responsibility for bringing the English invasion to Scotland. We know that actions have consequences. Shakespeare masterfully outlines the madness of trying to run from one’s conscience and justice. Amidst the entertainment of Shakespeare’s plays, these lessons are there for all to see.
In another of Shakespeare’s plays, ‘King Lear’, we find another example of this relationship between sin and madness. It is found in Edgar, who fleeing for his life, has disguised himself as a homeless mad man. This is his answer to King Lear’s question to Edgar, ‘what hast thou been?’:
‘A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair,
wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart
and did the act of darkness with her,
swore as many oaths as I spake words
and broke them in the sweet face of heaven
—one that slept in the contriving of lust
and waked to do it. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly,
and in woman outparamoured the Turk.
False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand
—hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness,
dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes
nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman.
Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets,
thy pen from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend.
Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind, says, “Suum, mun, nonny.”
Dauphin my boy, my boy, cessez. Let him trot by.’
Edgar says that he used to be an honourable man (‘a servingman, proud in heart and mind’) but he went mad after committing all sorts of sins. For example, he was slothful (‘hog in sloth’), sneaky (‘fox in stealth’), lecherous (‘in woman outparamoured the Turk’), and was hooked on wine and gambling (‘wine loved I deeply, dice dearly’). Eventually he says that he went mad and he now ends up pretending to talk to an imaginary horse! – ‘Suum, mun, nonny.’ King Lear and others believe Edgar’s story as it is logical. King Lear is aware that rash and foolish behaviour has bad effects, which he tragically learns more deeply as the play progresses. The audience, whether in Shakespeare’s time or our own, also know that actions must have consequences, e.g. if the passions are let loose madness ensues, one cannot run from a guilty conscience, etc. Shakespeare’s plays are masterpieces displaying one of the fundamental rules of life, i.e. actions have consequences. It is the skilful, rich and brilliant imagery and stories built around this simple and fundamental truth that makes Shakespeare so satisfying and ageless.
Shakespeare clearly understood the consequences of leading a life of sin or committing grievously sinful acts. This intimate relationship between madness and sin was also clear to his audience. This understanding still resonates with us today. Anyone with a half sensitive conscience understands why the doctor cannot treat Lady MacBeth and how letting one’s passions get the upper hand on you, like Edgar’s story, can lead to madness and lunacy. It only appears just to us that guilty blood cannot be washed so easily from one’s hands and that a life of lust and treachery leads to one’s demise. Yet, it appears that, for the vast majority of us, these vivid and powerful representations are mere light entertainment. We do not think on them deeply or apply them to our own lives. While the words may resonate with us for a few brief moments the lesson Shakespeare is trying to portray passes quickly from our mind. This is clear when one looks at the current treatments we reach out for when we experience distress.
‘Some sweet oblivious antidote…’
Take a look at the poor souls who go to medical doctors to ‘pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart’. Some of these people are trying to run from a restless conscience while others genuinely believe that their problems are caused by a supposed chemical imbalance. Unlike the wise doctor in Shakespeare’s play who clearly recognises the limitations of medicine and understands that problems of conscience are not within his field of expertise, many doctors today, particularly psychiatrists, believe that their drugs can treat almost all problems of the mind.
It is also clear that most psychological professionals today do not heed Edgar’s advice to ‘defy the foul fiend’, i.e. resist the devil, but rather encourage their clients to embrace the devil and his evil temptations, e.g. homosexuality, abortion, as I have written about elsewhere (see here and here). Many even mistake the cure, i.e. the Truth/Catholic Faith, as the disease and would try to purge it from Ireland’s shores so as to bring it back to what they imagine would be ‘clean and pristine health’. Like MacBeth who ignores his own guilty conscience in searching for a disease and the cure for it outside of himself, the vast majority of psychological professionals today ignore the root cause of all disease, i.e. Original Sin and their own actual sins, and precede to launch war on the cure itself. What mad and tragic folly these ‘professionals’ persist in!
‘The patient must minister to himself’
Thankfully, to cure ourselves of madness or to avoid madness in the first place, much of the work is down to ourselves. Many professionals claim to be able to fix your problems, but they are often the ones diseased themselves. They have failed to remove the beams from their own eyes before trying to fix the eyesight of others. As the doctor says in Lady MacBeth’s case, ‘the patient must minister to himself’. This involves looking in the mirror so that we see ourselves clearly. In addition to this, it involves finding the right physician. In the vast majority of cases of psychological disease these physicians are physicians of the soul, i.e. ‘divines’/priests, who can administer the necessary remedy, i.e. absolution after a contrite Confession (See footnote). Good and holy priests can also give the guidance needed and they can encourage us to maintain a strong sacramental and prayer life to help us ‘defy the foul fiend’. These remedies are also what our lands need if we are ‘to purge [them] to a sound and pristine health’.
So, let us learn from that genius who was William Shakespeare. Let us not look for medical solutions when it is obviously not a medical issue but a matter of one’s conscience. Let us not search for answers from those who are more blind than ourselves and would advise us to befriend the devil. Let us not look for solutions to our country’s ills that ignore or attack the truth. Instead, let us humbly pray to God to cure us and our lands of the madness of sin and direct us toward the wise experts and curative remedies we need.
Footnote: It is important to find a priest who knows the faith, loves virtue, detests sin, and understands the dangers of psychiatry and modern psychology. These are hard to find today as the vast majority of priests have gotten with the world or ‘with the times’ and many have lost the Faith or, at the very least, have lost confidence in the importance of their vocation and do not understand its significance. Reliable priests are generally found amongst those who only offer the Traditional Latin Mass. I have touched on this previously, see here.
There comes a time in everyone’s life where we catch glimpses of the true state of our life and our soul. It is reflected in the angst of modern popular music where singers describe not being able to recognise themselves in the mirror. For example, the popular Irish singer-songwriter Mick Flannery in his song, ‘Keepin’ Score’ sings, ‘I pass the mirror, and I look into my eyes, And I see a man there that I do not recognize’ and the popular English band ‘You Me at Six’ sing, ‘Just got the mirror on the way out, Don’t recognize myself anymore now’. (‘Fast Forward’). This experience is also reflected across mental health forums and groups where many people who are having psychological issues report this ‘not recognising oneself’ phenomenon. (A quick internet search using the term ‘I do not recognise myself’ reveals the extent of this angst in our current times). These moments can be full of agony and turmoil. Yet, these glimpses can give us insight into the path we are on. They are often wake up calls about the reality of our lives. They can be a manifestation of our conscience and often show us things that we would rather not see. Sometimes, they are not just glimpses, but clear illuminations of the state of our souls. They sometimes give us an insight into the state of our souls almost as clearly as the changing portrait of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s novel (See footnote 1).
So, what do we do when we catch these glimpses of truth in our reflections? The immediate option might be to run from the image we have seen of ourselves or we may wish to hide away from it or cover it up. But eventually as Dorian Gray realises, this running and hiding from his true reflection only leads to his own demise. So, what can one do when one catches a glimpse of an unrecognisable figure in the mirror?
Yet, before we answer this question, we must acknowledge a simple and clear reality:
The Reality of Conscience:
In our world, multiple erroneous, pseudointellectual, and irrational theories have arisen to explain consciousness and conscience. To these questions about consciousness and conscience, one either receives illogical and irrational answers or theorists ignore these questions altogether and build their false theories about human beings on a foundation of sand. G K Chesterton points out, in his biography on ‘St Thomas Aquinas’, how a science about man that does not answer fundamental questions about man cannot be considered a science: ‘It is necessary to know whether [man] is responsible or irresponsible, perfect or imperfect, perfectible or unperfectible, mortal or immortal, doomed or free: not in order to understand God, but in order to understand man. Nothing that leaves these things under a cloud of religious doubt can possibly pretend to be a Science of Man…Has a man free will; or is his sense of choice an illusion? Has he a conscience, or has his conscience any authority; or is it only the prejudice of the tribal past? Is there any real hope of settling these things by human reason; and has that any authority?…Now it is all nonsense to say that these are unknowable in any remote sense, like the distinction between the Cherubim and the Seraphim, or the Procession of the Holy Ghost. The Schoolmen [i.e. Scholastic Philosophers] may have shot too far beyond our limits in pursuing the Cherubim and Seraphim. But in asking whether a man can choose or whether a man will die, they were asking ordinary questions in natural history; like whether a cat can scratch or whether a dog can smell. Nothing calling itself a complete Science of Man can shirk them.’ (my emphasis). For hundreds of years, we have been immersed in sciences that have shirked these ordinary and vital questions about man or have explained conscience away as ‘prejudice of the tribal past’. Yet, a little investigation reveals that these questions have been decidedly answered already, especially by the ‘Schoolmen’, i.e. scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages, e.g. St Thomas Aquinas, thus establishing a complete ‘Science of Man’. (See footnote 2)
The Importance of Conscience
‘If conscience is certain, leaves no doubt, and shows clearly what should be done, it must be followed. What it commands must be done; what it forbids must be omitted; what it allows may be done or omitted.’ – Professor Charles A. Dubray, ‘Introductory Philosophy’
Our conscience is an essential guide in our path towards true happiness and peace of soul. While it is not infallible and it is not always clear it is often a warning light that alerts us to the dangerous path we are on. Mostly one’s conscience produces occasional sharp glimpses of this lethal path we are on. For example, we are given brief moments when we catch ourselves in the mirror but we do not recognise the person we have become. At other times, it may be more powerful than this. The extent of one’s misery can become as clear as day and, when its commands are followed, rapid change can occur, as happened to Blessed Villana de Botti, whose early life was full of vice and vanity: ‘One night Villana was preparing for an entertainment of unwonted splendour. She was dressed with all the sumptuous extravagance of the times; jewels sparkled in her hair, on her arms, on her very shoes. Before leaving her room, she went to cast one parting glance the mirror. But, instead of the dazzling image of her own beauty, a horrible spectacle met her eyes. God had permitted that the deformity of the soul within should become visible on the outward person. Her hair, bound with gold and jewelled chains, she beheld transformed into a mass of coiled and venomous serpents; her fair face was darkened into that of a hideous negro; her eyes were red and fiery, and, instead of her beautiful mouth and ivory teeth, there grinned the open jaws of a monster of hell. Then Villana’s heart opened to know where and whence she had fallen. She tore the jewels from her hair and left her palace, not for the gay entertainment that awaited her, but for the neighbouring church of the Dominicans, where, flinging herself at the feet of a holy Friar, she made, amidst tears of contrition, the confession of her life.’ (‘Short Lives of the Dominican Saints’, ed. Fr John Proctor). At other times, one’s conscience is pricked by those who hold up mirrors to ourselves. For example, in the life of St John Bosco, it is related how a person tried to rob him. St. John Bosco humbly asked the thief why he would resort to such a thing knowing it was against his conscience. The thief, seeing the reality of the words that this great saint spoke, ceased his efforts and, instead of trying to rob St John Bosco, he asked him for confession. (‘St John Bosco: Seeker of Souls’ by F. A. Forbes). Our conscience is a useful guide and simply acknowledging its counsels and following them can be the best advice that can be given to a person. This is reflected in the words of advice of St. Bernard to his wayward nephew, Robert, ‘Listen to your conscience, examine your intentions, consider the facts.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux: As Seen Through His Selected Letters’, translated by Rev. Bruno Scott James).But we must humbly ‘consider the facts’ so that there is no doubt in our conscience and it becomes clear what should be done. So, let us look at the facts explaining what a good conscience is so that we can safely listen to and follow it. First, we will look at the potential obstacles to the formation of a good conscience.
The Fallibility And Persistence of One’s Conscience:
Our conscience can err. What we occasionally catch glimpses of in the mirror may not be as hideous nor as beautiful as we believe it to be. We may see ourselves as more deplorable, helpless, and hopeless than we actually are or we may see ourselves as more beautiful, righteous, and noble than we actually are. Many of us who seek the truth also desire to know the truth about ourselves. We want answers to the glimpses we see of ourselves. There is a sense that we have caught a glimpse of something within ourselves that may be true, but it has frightened, perplexed, or frozen us. Even hedonistic distractions and keeping ourselves constantly busy cannot shake the memory of what we saw. Like Dorian Gray we may try to hide these images away, but we cannot do so without them coming back to haunt us.
‘Escapism never succeeds. In every sinner whose frustrations and neuroses are due to a burdened conscience, there is a latent contradiction. He is pulled in two directions. He is not so much at ease with sin as to be able to make it his definite vocation, nor, on the other hand, is he so much in love with God, as to disavow his faults.’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen, ‘Peace of Soul’
We can try out all sorts of medications to correct a supposed ‘chemical imbalance’ when it may very well be the voice of our conscience speaking to us. We can bounce from one type of therapy or treatment to another, yet that restlessness remains. We can try to justify our vices, but a part of us knows our justifications are mere excuses. Instead of pursuing the higher path and the virtuous life we often try to cover up our failings and pursue lower, more base pleasures. If one who is called to the religious life engages in this sort of behaviour it has all sorts of hideous consequences as Fr Eugene Boylan points out, ‘If [the religious] try to find peace in the pursuit of some lower pleasure, he soon finds that he must go to extremes to try to drown the prickings of his conscience and the pangs of that deep-seated hunger of his higher self that can find no food in such folly, and so his days are full of ever-growing misery.’ (‘Difficulties in Mental Prayer’) (This goes some way to explain why once priests fall into vice they can fall into such scandalous perversion). Now, all of us can engage in all sorts of depravity to sedate the conscience so much so that we can resemble the voice of lost souls who no longer even glimpse happiness, ‘Where is happiness?’ and his warped conscience answers, ‘There is no happiness.’ (Dom Anscar Vonier, ‘The Human Soul and its Relations with Other Spirits’). Yet, in this life, the voice of conscience remains, however dimly felt it might have become. There is still the sense that ‘I am not all that I should be’. The teachings of the Catholic Faith and the lives of the saints provide the external guides to what we should be. The voice of, a still sensitive, conscience provides some further internal guidance as to what we should and should not be. Yet, it is fallible so how do we know when to assent to the reality it hints at?
‘In order that conscience may be a safe rule and criterion, its judgements must be a reflex of the divine judgements. It must show us to ourselves such as we really are, and appear to the eyes of God Himself. It must be like a balance which corresponds to the recognised standard of weight; like a clock which marks faithfully the passing moments of time, like a thermometer which indicates accurately the degrees of heat and cold.’ – R. J. Meyer, S. J., ‘The Science of the Saints’
As I have related in otherarticles, if we need help in calibrating our conscience, we should seek counsel from wise authorities rather than just any authority. We must go to those who have expert knowledge on matters of conscience just as we would seek medical advice from those who have medical expertise. As Professor Dubray explains, ‘In the same way that, if I do not see, I may rely on, and be guided by, those who do, and that my eyes be treated by the oculist, and my errors corrected by others or by my own deeper study and reflection, so my moral judgement may be based on another man’s authority, changed, improved, and corrected.’ (‘Introductory Philosophy’). We must seek guidance from people who understand the truth about what man is and what man should be. We should avoid those who flatter or placate us with ‘sweet, little lies.’ We should make efforts to avoid deceiving our conscience by listening to vain babblings or sophisticated pseudo-intellectual arguments which justify our vices and sinful ways. Rather, with the help of God, we should look at ourselves in the mirror and tackle what we see there. We must ask God to give us the fortitude to see ourselves clearly. With Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, author of the classic book, ‘Divine Intimacy’, we can pray to God that He ‘take away from my conscience the mask of vain, pitiful excuses which prevents me from seeing myself as You see me and know me, as I really am in Your eyes.’ We, like Blessed Villana, must count it as a grace to see the truth about ourselves and, like her, we can respond to this grace in a humble and contrite manner (See footnote 3).
‘I endeavour to have always a conscience without offence towards God, and towards men.’ – St. Paul (Acts 24: 16)
When we seek counsel, we must be wary of who we trust with this difficult but essential task. As St Bernard advised his wayward nephew, ‘If sinners shall entice you, consent not to them. Believe not every spirit. Be at peace with many, but let one in a thousand be your counsellor. Gird yourself, cast off your seducers, shut your eyes to flatterers.’ Yet, there are those who can help us on our way to ‘a conscience without offence towards God, and towards men.’ There are those who will direct us towards the real solutions when we are faced with a confused, perplexed, or rattled conscience, i.e. when we do not recognise ourselves in the mirror. This can often take the form of a wise and loving friend or a pious and knowledgeable family member or a prudent and holy priest or you may find some assistance in the service that I offer here. Whoever it may be, may they help you on the straight and narrow path.
Finally, may you receive the grace to see yourself clearly in the mirror. May you succeed in your efforts to inform, understand, and follow your conscience and may charity, peace of soul and liberty of spirit be the fruits of these efforts.
Footnote 1: This piece (see here: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/art/the-long-conversion-of-oscar-wilde.html) by Andrew McCracken provides more information on Oscar Wilde’s novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, which he describes as a ‘portrayal of a sensitive man numbing himself to all feeling for others, of an ego turning monstrous, of a soul choosing evil.’ He shows the close relations between this novel and Wilde’s own life, which appears to have ended in a much happier way than the main character in his novel.
Footnote 3: Like Blessed Villana, and despite of the difficult times we find ourselves in, may we follow this grace that reveals the truth about the state of our soul and seek out the Sacrament of Confession/Penance. ‘Penance, as a virtue and as a Sacrament, has for is object and effect the blotting out of our faults, the eradication of sin, and the purifying of the conscience, so that grace may reign and bring forth fruit in the soul from the pure motive of pleasing God.’ (Fr Genelli, ‘The Life of St Ignatius of Loyola’) (My emphasis)
There is a lot of panic about the coronavirus as it spreads its way across the world. Some of this fear is understandable and rational. One’s bodily health and one’s life are goods that one is naturally attached to. There is a natural desire to preserve one’s life and health. Adopting some precautions is reasonable.
Now, the coronavirus has made people more aware of the prospect of death. But has it made people aware of the reality of death? We all know that if we do not die of the coronavirus, eventually we will die of something else. We understand that death is inevitable. Yet, it appears that this crisis is leading few to a better understanding what death actually is, and what it means for us.
‘It is not death itself that is so feared. If it were, as it is meant to be for us, but a mere modification of the conditions of our actual existence, it would carry no terrors with it. But if a man knows perfectly well that his mode of living here and now, his thoughts, his ideals, aspirations, affections, pursuits, tastes, have nothing in common with what must be the tastes, ideals, aspirations – in a word – with the mental outlook characteristic of the blissful world beyond the tomb, then he is naturally filled with fear.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘Why the Cross?’
One’s existence does not end with death. We have an immortal soul which lives on into eternity. This is not just a Catholic belief. One can come to this realisation by purely using reason as philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato did. Most people have some vague sense of this reality. As Fr Leen points out, it is this fear of what happens after death that really terrifies us. The greatest result of the coronavirus would be to wake people up to the reality of eternal life so that they would really examine their current way of living.
In these modern times, we try our hardest to distract ourselves from the thought of death. We try to find numerous ways to fend it off. Yet, it is still there, and it won’t go away. We may leave a legacy and people may have memories of us but sooner or later, we must leave this life and enter the next. At some stage, in our lives, perhaps during some festivities it will make itself known to us. We are obliged to acknowledge it no matter how much it may shock or irritate us, and we should do what is reasonable to hang on to respond to its presence. But, as we were but pilgrims in this short existence, is it not more reasonable to prepare for the most important occasion in our lives, i.e. the time our soul leaves our body? This is the approach that any reasonable person should take. It is in direct contrast to the spirit of the world that tells us to focus on the here and now and forget about death. As Bishop Fulton Sheen points out, ‘The pagan tries to ignore death, but each tick of the clock brings him nearer to it through fear and anxiety. The Christian begins his life by contemplating his death; knowing that he will die, he plans his life accordingly, in order to enjoy eternal life…The Christian principle for conquering death is twofold: (1) Think about death. (2) Rehearse for it by mortification now.’ Many people in Ireland today act like the pagan throughout most of their lives. Death is ignored or brushed aside. Then, something like the coronavirus comes along and suddenly the potential of death springs into their awareness. Yet, this awareness is so superficial, and, for the majority, it does not lead to a contemplation of the reality of death or a preparation for eternal life. In our clamour to avoid death, we ignore what death actually is.
What Would The Saints Do?
‘Death and ill-health and accident and grief cannot be banished by any human formula, and the weaknesses attendant on human nature, sloth and self-indulgence, envy and hatred, can be eradicated only be each man taking up his cross and conquering himself.’ – Fr M C D’Arcy, ‘Mirage and Truth’
I have written in other places how the saints are great examples to us of how to live our lives. Now, many famous saints are depicted with skulls in their portraits. This includes St Jerome, St Aloysius, St Catherine of Siena and St Francis of Assisi. They kept these skulls as a vivid reminder of death. It was part of the Catholic practice of ‘memento mori’, a Latin term, meaning ‘remembrance of death’. The thought of death was ever before them so they could plan their earthly lives accordingly. It reminded them of the need to take up their cross and conquer themselves. The coronavirus is a stark reminder of death. It challenges us, especially Catholics, to respond.
But how should we respond? By following the example of the pagans around us and trying to avoid death while ignoring what it means? Or do we do what we reasonably can to mind our health while making sure most of our effort is focused on contemplating death and preparing for its inevitable arrival (whenever that might be)? How often do we think about our own death and all that will mean? How often do we pray for the grace of a holy death? How often do we think about the judgement that awaits us? If any good can come out of the coronavirus it will involve the sparking of these questions in people’s minds. The lockdowns that are happening all over the world give time for people to stop and think as they are not caught up in work or not able to get to the pub or social events. Hopefully, there is only so much 24/7 coronavirus news that people can stand before they switch it off and really think about the significance of all that is happening around them. Perhaps then, there may be a little light that gets in and instead of thinking about the various ways they will make sure they stay alive, they will start thinking about how prepared they are to meet their Creator.
‘To live to God we must die to sin, and this death to sin cannot be achieved without its own passion. It was through the Cross that the world was redeemed – it remains that by the Cross and the Cross only, personally borne and endured, each individual enters fully into the redemption and is sanctified. Self must die in order that God may reign in undisputed sway in us. In that lies the whole explanation of suffering in life. It is only over the hilltop of Calvary that we make our way into the brightness and splendour and glowing life of the Garden of the Resurrection.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’
The Real Virus:
The real virus is the one that zaps the truth about life and death from our mind. It is the virus that makes us forget about the universal realities and our last end. It is one that encourages us on the path to self-destruction and blinds us. It is a virus that causes untold misery and unhappiness. It has its toxic allurements, its hedonistic distractions and its tempting false gods. This virus hates the truth and those that speak and live it. It has become so prevalent that the vast majority of people are infected by it. It has caused amnesia and the forgetting of the purpose of life. It is a virus of error, falsehoods and lies. It is more corruptive and destructive than the coronavirus or any other virus as it is a virus that affects our soul, not just our body. If we are cleansed of this virus before our death, we will truly live. If we are not cleansed, we would be better off if we had never existed.
‘Sin is un-love, and it is therefore dead and death-dealing like a corpse. The least sin is a more devastating agent of dissolution and corruption to the soul of man than ever plague in history has been to his body. The Church does not use exaggeration when she says that no material disaster can be compared in magnitude of evil to the effect of one deliberate venial sin.’ – Fr R. H. J. Steurt, ‘The World Intangible’
While the coronavirus is getting 24/7 coverage across the world, this virus, sin, which is far more deadly and more contagious than any plague, is barely heard about as it goes about infecting more and more people. There are no warnings about it from those who should be speaking about it, e.g. the pope, and the government is not closing businesses that promote it to protect us from it, e.g. many abortion facilities have stayed open. Neither are they implementing new laws to protect people from it or sending out guidelines telling us how to operate around those who have it. Yet, it is the most dangerous and contagious disease known to man. Over the last number of years the Irish government have given this virus free rein and promoted it so it will infect as many people as possible. God, have mercy on those that have encouraged so many on the road to perdition! It is this virus that will truly define our lives and it is this one that we should be constantly trying our hardest to avoid.
Now, there is a cure to this virus. It is one that is freely and lovingly given to those who desire it. Part of it involves becoming familiar, like the saints, with the true understanding of death. It involves reflecting on this regularly. So, let us do this and try to put things in their proper order. As Fr Boylan, in his excellent book, ‘This Tremendous Lover’, says, ‘Once the supernatural is admitted to be the one thing necessary, the natural must cede to it. Natural standards, ideals or purposes must be laid aside, and things must be judged and arranged from the supernatural point of view.’ Let us make sure that we do not die contaminated with the virus of sin. Remember that the health of your soul is far more important than the health of your body. So, in all of this madness, do what you reasonably can to take care of your health but make sure you do all you can to prepare yourself for death.