Saturday, 16 May 2015

Abiding Sorrow For Sin, part 1, By Father Faber

It is a very troublesome thought that so many persons have lofty and sincere aspirations after high things, and so few reach them; that so many are called to perfection, and so few answer the call; that so many begin ardently and prudently and yet die leaving their tower unbuilt; that so many are conversant with mental prayer, yet never come to perfection. It is a troublesome thought, because it sets us calculating the doctrine of chances about ourselves, and in less selfish moods calculating the loss of glory to God and of power to the Church. For every perfect ascetic is a veritable fountain of power in the Church, however hidden, unknown, or mean-looking he may be. There is certainly an analogy between the waste of grace in the spiritual world and the waste of seeds and flowers and fruits in the natural world. Yet there is poor consolation in a barren analogy. It may serve for a book of evidences, but we shall get little light out of it, and less heat. It does not content us. We must pursue our troublesome thought further, until we get some wisdom or warning out of it.
Now the universality of this phenomenon, when reflected on, leads us to suppose that it has some common cause which is one and the same in everybody. In the spiritual life, a variety of causes will produce a similar effect. But here is a case which holds equally among men of the south and men of the north, among born Catholics and converts, in all countries and in all times,-frustrated vocations to perfection. The more we think of it, the more irresistible seems the conclusion that there is one common cause; and if so, how much it imports to discover it
For a long time I thought it was the want of perseverance in prayer; but then there were so many instances in which the theory broke down. I must have gone against the whole tradition of mystical theology if I maintained that mental prayer was at all necessarily connected with perfection. Nothing grows upon us so much as the wide distinction between the habit of prayer and the gift of prayer. We may find men who have not missed a meditation for years and yet who seem to have no growth about them at all; nor even any tenderness, which ought to be the infallible product of persevering prayer if the prayer is right in other respects. They are perhaps critical to excess in judging others, or they are wanton and ungoverned in their loquacity; and month follows month, and year year, and these unbroken prayers do not seem to tell upon either of these faults. And can any faults be named more fatal to piety than criticism and loquacity? It is as if these men prayed in some way outside their souls, as if their prayer were an adjunct of their spiritual life and not its heart’s blood. These inoperative meditations and unreforming prayers are very melancholy things. But, having tried to establish my theory, I found it was out of the question to attribute these failures to a mere want of perseverance in prayer.
Then I cast about for another guilty cause; and I took it into my head that these failures might be owing to a want of bodily mortification. Why did I not rather suspect the absence of interior mortification ? For this reason. Because bodily mortification seemed so rare that I was afraid interior mortification was put forward as a means of evading bodily mortification. There is something honest, satisfactory, and intelligible about bodily mortification; and I preferred dealing with it. Moreover, I could not but see that bodily mortification almost always either brings interior mortification along with it or makes a man easily convertible to it. I had more fear lest the outward should be wanting than the inward. The style of the times obviously warranted this fear.
In truth, I found that incalculable mischiefs might be put down to this want of corporal austerity, but that it could not be brought in guilty of these failures in perfection. First there was the awkward fact that those who made most of the austerities practised them least. For it is obvious to put innocently impertinent questions to men who preach strong doctrines.
I was astonished how little they did who talked so much. This was discouraging at the outset of the enquiry. However, further investigation seemed to show that although there could be no growth without austerity, the growth did not depend upon the austerity. Men mortified themselves and yet seemed to stand still. Much evil was hindered, and much killed. Souls were kept good who might have fallen away. But they did not seem to shoot ahead.
* Slightly abridged from the original in Father Faber’s Growth in Holiness.
Austerity purified and prepared, and went no further. In a word, it appeared that in the soul bodily austerity was medicinal rather than nutritious, and that it sometimes made men irritable, morose, and hard-natured as medicine will do. All honour to it!-but it does not secure by itself our growth in holiness.
What was to be the third object of my suspicions ? They were awakened by perpetual hints and innuendos dropped by St. Francis de Sales which observation seemed more and more to corroborate. I therefore charged with these failures in perfection that form of indiscretion which consists in taking too many things on ourselves, and so acting in an eager feverish, and precipitate manner, which St. Francis calls empressement. The circumstances of modern life appeared to beguile men into it more than ever. Its miserable consequences were patent on all sides. It vitiates all it touches, and weakens what is most divine in all our spiritual exercises. It confuses the operations of grace, and turns the fruit of sacraments on one side. Our duties are all disorderly, untidy, and ill-tempered, because they rush pell-mell from morning till night, treading on each other’s heels, and turning round to reproach each other.**
Now let some men be found who have no duties but those which their state of life renders indispensable, whose day is roomy and large, quiet and old-fashioned, everything in its place and all things clean. They must have but few spiritual exercises, and they must make much of those few, do them slowly and punctiliously, value recollection, and have no signs of tepidity. Many such were to be found, but on close inspection growth in holiness was anything but the invariable rule with them. Their slow way of doing things, their roominess (so to call it) was an immense blessing to them, and fraught with many graces. Nevertheless they were for the most part a phenomenon. Unless all the spiritual books in the world have conspired to be wrong, there is no such thing as a dead level in piety, on which people can pace up and down without either advancing or going back, like a comfortable terrace without a single inequality in it. All theory is positive that there is no such thing. Yet by some means these good men have contrived to make it or to find it. Explain it who will, there they are pacing up and down, thoroughly good, truly edifying, yet on a level, and a low level too. I am not going out of my way to account for it. It overthrew my theory; and with all the good will in the world (and out of love for St. Francis de Sales) to give precipitation a bad name, I was obliged to return a verdict of Not guilty, at least on the charge of causing all these unhappy failures in perfection. But the oftener a man baffled, the more obstinate he grows. Here were three failures, and a determination to try again.
This time I was longer at fault than I had been before. I did not so much cast about for a theory as watched and waited; and by slow degrees so many facts obtruded themselves upon me that a sort of induction from them was unavoidable. At first it took this technical shape,-that all men are anxious to get clear of the Purgative Way of the ascetic life and enter into the brightness of the Illuminative or the sweetness of the Unitive; and that all failures in perfection, or so nearly all as to satisfy the requirements of a general rule, are owing to this one thing. Nothing ever presented itself to make me doubt the substantial truth of this conclusion.***
But the Purgative Way is a wide thing, a very comprehensive term. Would experience allow us to narrow it, without making it too narrow to bear the superstructure that was to be built upon it? The thing was to wait for more facts, so as to have a larger and safer induction. The result was a persuasion, which I venture to record under correction, that the common cause of all failures in perfection is the want of abiding sorrow for sin.
Just as all worship breaks down if it is not based on the feelings due from a creature to his Creator, just as all conversions come to nothing which are not conversions from sin, just as all penances come to nought which do not rest on Christ, just as all good works crumble away which do not rest upon Our Saviour,-so in like manner all holiness has lost its principle of growth if it is separated from abiding sorrow for sin. For the principle of growth is not love only, but forgiven love.
** (Editor’s Note) Compare the advice once given by Father Faber to a novice: “Walk slowly, and speak without emphasis; if you can manage these two exterior things, I will answer for your interior peace.”
*** Father Faber is referring to the traditional “Three Ways” of spiritual progress. Beginners are in the Purgative Way and have principally to cleanse their souls from faults. The more proficient are in the Illuminative Way: following Him who is the Light, they are more concerned to do good than to merely avoid evil. The most advanced are in the Unitive Way: their union with God is intimate and absorbing and often consciously mystical.” These three Ways are in practice subject to many diversities and interminglings. (Editor’s Note.)
This persuasion was strengthened in me by the gradual observation that the absence of abiding sorrow for sin adequately explained all the separate phenomena that had induced me to accuse and prosecute, first the want of perseverance in prayer, then the lack of bodily austerities, and last of all, the precipitation of having too much to do. For this abiding sorrow would produce the same continual feelings of our own unworthiness and of our dependence upon God which would be the fruits of persevering prayer. It would engage us in perpetual warfare with and disesteem of self, and would keep us in the spirit of penance, and that without intermission, which bodily mortification would do excellently but intermittingly. It would give us all the quietness and gentleness with self, the sweetness and forbearance with others, the patience and slowness with God, which we should gain from the absence of precipitation. The salient features, therefore, which had drawn suspicion upon these things, were all reunited in this abiding sorrow for sin.
Meditation on the mysteries of Our Blessed Lord, and on Our Lady’s life, threw still further light on this supposition. First of all there was this remarkable fact. Jesus was sinless, by His own intrinsic sanctity, the unutterable holiness of His Divine Person. Mary was sinless, by the gift of Jesus and the pre-eminent prevention of His redeeming grace. Yet the characteristic of the lives of both was that they practised penance in an heroic degree, as if penance might be holy without innocence, but not innocence without penance.
The theological ways of accounting for the penance of Jesus and Mary led to more light. It appeared that their life of penance consisted in some measure in an abiding sorrow from first to last. The first moment of conception was the full use and complete energy of reason. But reason dawned upon a wonderful, deep, and fixed sorrow. From that instant till the moment of death the sorrow abided with them. It put itself in harmony with every kind of feeling. It adapted itself to all circumstances. It never darkened into gloom. It never melted into light. It lived on the present, and the clear view of the future was part of its present, and it never let go its hold of the past. It was keen and distinct in the soul of Mary, while she magnified God in the exultation of her Divine Maternity. In the ever-blessed soul of Jesus it dwelt amid the fires of the Beatific Vision, and was not consumed. It was a beautiful mystery of perennial sorrow.
The characteristics of this sorrow were that it was life-long quiet, supernatural, and a fountain of love. These features of if are very much to be weighed and observed. For when we come to look at ourselves, whether it be the rare few who have preserved their baptismal innocence and whose souls are only charged with venial sins, or the great apostles, unrivalled amidst the Saints, confirmed in grace, and whose grace was superabundant, or the mass of men, whose best estate is that of repentant and returning sinners,-we shall see that no sorrow is possible to us which shall unite these four characteristics except the abiding sorrow for sin.
It is as much life-long with us as anything can be. It Is a prominent part of our first turning to God, and there Is no height of holiness in which it will leave us. It is the interior representation of our Guardian Angel in our souls, and the disposition and demeanour he would fain should be constant and persevering in us.
It is quiet. Indeed, it rather tranquillizes a troubled soul than perturbs a contented one. It hushes the noises of the world, and rebukes the loquacity of the human spirit. It softens asperities, subdues exaggerations, and constrains everything with a sweet and gracious spell which nothing else can equal.
It is supernatural. It is all from God, and all for God. It is forgiven sin for which we mourn, and not sin which perils self. And this very fact makes it also a fountain of love. We love because much has been forgiven, and we always remember how much it was. We love because the forgiveness has abated fear. We love because we wonder at the compassion that could so visit such unworthiness. We love because the softness of sorrow is akin to the filial confidence of love.
Thus abiding sorrow for sin is the only possible parallel in our souls to the mysterious life-long sorrow of Jesus and Mary; and the fact that sorrow clung to them characteristically in spite of their sinlessness seems to show how much of the secret life of Christian holiness is hidden in its gentle supernatural melancholy.
Moreover, it was impossible not to perceive that under a variety of names, -sorrow, repentance, fear, and the like,-Scripture speaks of an abiding penance, of fearing always, of fearing forgiven sin, of passing the time of our sojourning in fear, of the sorrow which is unto life. It never contemplates the possibility of the dispositions of repentance ceasing; for the single passage of St. John about love casting out fear, is hardly to be understood of this life. So that there seems to be a precept of always sorrowing for sin analogous to the precept of always praying, and subject to the same kind of difficulties in its interpretation.
Now what does this abiding sorrow of Scripture mean?
Certainly not austerities; for they are occasional and intermitting. Certainly not sadness, which is sorrow with self in it and where God should be. Certainly not human melancholy, which is either a consequence of sin or a fruit of idleness or a disease of a deranged bodily system. Thus Scripture,-forming the last link in that chain of proof which led me to charge failures in perfection on the want of abiding sorrow for sin as their single common cause, a cause uniting in all men with the other causes which affect this or that individual,- brings me also into the consideration of my subject. We must first ascertain the nature of this sorrow.
It consists in an abiding sense that we are sinners, without at all bringing up to remembrance definite and particular sins. On the contrary, it would not only avoid such a picturing of sins as a matter of prudence, but it would be quite foreign to its genius to think of it. It is too much occupied with God to do more than to fix its eyes on self with a touching, patient, reproachful look.
It consists also in an undoubting and yet an unceasing prayer for pardon. If it were argumentative it might say that a sin was either forgiven or was not forgiven,-that forgiveness was an instantaneous act, whether it were gratuitous or conditional,-and that to ask forgiveness for what is forgiven is to approach God with unmeaning words, But David gives it a voice, Amplius lava me, “Wash me more and more, O Lord “; and the whole Church throughout the world has adopted his Miserere, and is continually upon her knees, crying Amplius lava me. O how the soul yearns for that Amplius Theologians tell us that the fires of Purgatory do not amid their other severely benignant offices burn the stains of sin out of our souls; because in truth there are no stains there,-the Precious Blood obliterated them in the act of forgiving them. Still there are the fires. So there are the fires of that Amplius in the soul. It is a thing to be felt rather than accounted for, to be cherished rather than defined.