Stumbling First Steps

Father Faber states: “When we read the lives of the saints, or ponder on the teaching of mystical books, we shall surely have no difficulty in admitting that we ourselves are but beginners.” And beginners on the road to spiritual perfection are especially prone to make two mistakes.

The first mistake is this: “Beginners like to turn their eye away from outward conduct to the more hidden processes of their own spiritual experiences. If we allow a beginner to choose his own subject for particular examen of conscience, he will generally choose some very delicate and imperceptible fault, the theatre of which is almost wholly within, or some refined form of self-love whose metamorphoses are exceedingly difficult either to detect or to control. He will not choose his temper, or his tongue, or his love of nice dishes, or some unworthy habit which is disagreeable to those around him. . . . This leads to hardness of heart, to spiritual pride, and to self-righteousness. It has a peculiar power to neutralize the operations of grace, and to reduce our spirituality to a matter of words and feelings.”

“The second mistake is very like the first, though there is a difference in it. It consists in giving way to an attraction which is too high for us. It is not that we divide things into outward and inward, and exaggerate the latter. But we divide them into high and commonplace, and are inclined almost to despise the latter. We fasten with a sort of diseased eagerness upon the exceptional practices of the saints. Peculiarities have a kind of charm for us. We try to force ourselves to thirst for suffering, when we have hardly grace enough for the quiet endurance of a headache. We ask leave to pray for calumny, when a jocose retort puts us in a passion. . . . We traffic with exceptions rather than with rules. Hence the common moral virtues, the ordinary motives of religion, the duties of our state of life, our responsibilities toward others, the usual teaching of sermons and spiritual books, are kept in the background. We are too well instructed to speak evil of them, or to show them contempt, but we treat them with a respectful neglect. Thus our spiritual life becomes a sort of elegant selfish solitude, a temple reared to dainty delusions, a mere fastidious and exclusive worship of self whose refinement is only an aggravation of its dishonesty. No saint ever went along this road. . . . The grace to be indistinguishable from the good people round us is a greater grace than that which visibly marks us off from their practices or their attainments.”

Quotations from Frederick William Faber, Kindness (London: R. & T. Washbourne, 1901).

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