By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
The recent devastation of trees, homes, and stores by a tornado proves once more the utter powerlessness of man before the might of nature. No matter our planning, our insurance policies, and our efforts to avoid the prospect of death and disaster, the immense and unpredictable forces of earth, water and wind are never tamed by mere mortals. A meditation on the terrifying majesty of God intimidating Job “out of the whirlwind” (Job 38:1) would be an appropriate column topic in this light. But our lack of control in external affairs is equally manifest in matters of the soul. Our noblest attempts to discipline our minds, root out sinful tendencies, and corral our zealous passions for the service of good all too easily yield prideful and unhealthy consequences.
Two virulent variants of pride, scrupulosity and presumption, are linked at their roots in spite of their obvious differences. Those suffering from scrupulosity do not believe that any thought or action of theirs could possibly be pleasing to God; they place themselves on a mental torture rack in anxiously doubting that they will ever be worthy of God’s love.
Presumptuous people, on the other hand, fail to acknowledge the sin within themselves, either because they suppose it does not exist at all or because their splendid selves could not possibly commit any. Both cases, each of them found across a spectrum of extremes, highlight the human tendency to be “control freaks” regarding even the spiritual life.
One common response given by both types of people when they recognize that something is amiss within comes in the form of a question: “What must I do to avoid this presumption, or overcome this scrupulosity?” Echoes of the Gospel questions posed to Jesus are evident here; the emphasis is on action, on our ability to bulldoze our way to spiritual perfection by sheer willpower.
The counsel that such people should receive consists not in a formula for action, but rather an invitation to accept one’s own frailty. The ideal authority on this subject is the beautiful master of the spiritual life, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The great Little Flower offers some sage advice to the scrupulous and presumptuous alike regarding the liberation they can experience if they would only rejoice in their weakness and littleness, rather than strain excessively to correct them and attain an illusory self-perfection.
Thérèse was audacious in her desire to love Christ as no one had ever done; she defined her vocational role as “love in the heart of the Church.” But she also recognized that her frail will could not support such a ponderous burden, and therefore her solution was to love Christ with Christ’s own love. With this love as the animating force of her hidden life, she performed little acts of love as perfectly as she could, always aware that she would inevitably fall. That knowledge of her own weakness, though, did not distress her, because she knew that the love of mercy of God would always elevate her once more.
I will let Thérèse speak in her own voice; the following passages are drawn from a classic biography of her by Ida Görres entitled The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. A Carmelite novice spoke to Thérèse of her desire for more strength and energy with which to excel in virtue. Thérèse responded, “And suppose God wishes to have you as feeble and powerless as a child. Do you think that would be less worthy in His eyes? Consent to stumble, or even to fall, at every step, to bear your cross feebly; love your weakness. Your soul will draw more profit from that than if, sustained by grace, you vigorously performed heroic deeds which would fill your soul with self-satisfaction and pride.”
With this counsel, Thérèse does not advocate a preference for mediocrity in the life of virtue. Her intention is rather to provide some much-needed perspective on the novice’s pursuit of self-made holiness. Thérèse identifies the serene acceptance of our limitations precisely as the vehicle that leads us to the mercy of God: “Let us take our place humbly among the imperfect ones; let us consider ourselves little souls whom God must support from moment to moment. As soon as He sees us thoroughly convinced of our littleness, He extends His hand to us; but as long as we wish to perform great deeds on our own account, even though our pretext is zeal, He lets us alone.”
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.