Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Graces Withheld; Or, Sebastian's Fate

I am interrupting my current series to deal with an issue that has been much on my mind in the last several months. I've expressed the thought lately, both here on the blog and in one or two personal conversations, that not everyone receives the graces they need to make them, so to speak, successful at virtue. In response, people have tended to be perturbed and resistant. And it is a strange thing to say. Don't I believe that God wants us to be virtuous, that He is generous, that He sanctifies us because He loves us? Doesn't Scripture itself teach that "God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability"?

I do believe those things, certainly. But let's parse them a bit, shall we?

First of all, virtue is not the same thing as holiness. Virtue means doing the right thing; holiness means loving God. Be holy, and virtue will come, all else being equal; but in every age there is some group of people who stand as a ghastly testament to the fact that being virtuous does not make you holy. The Jansenists, the Inquisition, the Donatist and Montanist heresies -- all had the common theme, not simply that right conduct is obligatory (which is true), but the implication and even the open claim that God loves less those who conduct themselves wrongly (which is blasphemy). There was a saying about the Jansenist nuns of Port Royale in seventeenth-century France that they were "as pure as angels and as proud as devils"; there is every reason to suppose that the Pharisees themselves were, as they claimed to be, thrifty, patriotic, respectable, unswerving observers of the Torah. And their virtues, unleavened by love, made them literally the enemies of God. We are fools if we suppose ourselves immune to that deadliest sickness of the spirit. T. S. Eliot was right: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

Secondly, I have said that virtue follows on holiness, all else being equal. But that is the catch. In a fallen world, one afflicted with ignorance and moral weakness as well as with sin, all else is frequently not equal. Some people struggle, at times alone, under heavy and bitter crosses the weight of which the rest of us could not conceive. Indeed, I rather think that everyone has some hidden heartache that is known only to themselves and God. The bitter realities of trauma and addiction are their own witness to the fact that not everyone is dealt an equal hand in this life, and that we cannot expect the same unimpeachable correctness of conduct from a heroin addict or battered daughter, that we tend to demand of the happily married mother of two or the well-fed seminarian with his clean-cut hair and clean-kept collar. It is easy to be principled when you are comfortable.

There is a more fundamental error at work here, one that I feel I detect much in the Young Papists. It is the error that holiness will inevitably make you happy.

Of course, from a strictly Aristotelian definition of the term happiness, I tend to agree. But well-being according to the objective good of a rational creature, is really not what people mostly mean by happiness. The Young Papists are a great deal more likely to mean it; but I fancy I detect a certain confusion between the popular and the philosophical meaning of the term. In addition to the (largely true) assumption that virtue will make a man flourish, the ordinary English associations of happiness creep in, to the point that sadness and pain beyond the point of inconvenience begin to seem incredible. To take an example from my own life, that chastity should make someone feel lonely and depressed seems almost like a contradiction in terms -- chastity is a virtue, you shouldn't be unhappy because you're virtuous! There must be something wrong in the way you're doing it, some --

And there it is. The voice of Job's comforters: Somehow, it must be your fault. The supposition, difficult to eradicate from any mind and next-impossible to eradicate from the devout mind,* that if we do not feel happy, it is because we have in some fashion displeased God.

This is a vicious and cruel doctrine. It shifts responsibility for suffering onto the sufferer, rather than doing the one thing Job's friends did rightly: wailing aloud for his griefs, and sitting silently with him in the ashes for seven days before any one of them opened their mouths in disgraceful theodicies. Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? No; at the heart of Christianity is the reality of undeserved suffering. Undeserved, not purposeless -- any suffering can be united to the Cross, filling up what is lacking in the pangs of Christ, as St. Paul said.

But that's the point, you may pipe up. Suffering is a chance to grow in grace. Yes; but growth in grace and growth in virtue are not the same thing. The assumption that everybody is given the graces they need to be morally perfect seems obvious -- it even seems generous -- but it isn't. Could God so dispense grace? Certainly. Equally, He could have orchestrated the universe so that every person, not just the Virgin, was immaculately conceived. We don't know why He didn't, though we can conjecture; but we do know that He didn't. Is it so hard to believe that He has withheld far lesser graces than that from this or that soul, and with equally loving purpose?**

Conversely, the text from St. Paul I quoted earlier, which says that He always provides a way out of temptation, is perfectly true; but it can easily be twisted into a rigorist view that savages every sinner because, technically, they could have done better. Only God does or can know how many souls have forsaken Him because despair ravaged their souls, as a direct consequence of such spiritual cruelty. I at any rate didn't convert for that. If anything, I converted to escape that -- converted from the sola fide that compelled me to prove to myself that my faith was real through an upright life, to the Church of the secret confessional and the doctrine of venial sin. Converted, too, to the Church of mystery; the same apostle who penned that text wrote also of a whole people "imprisoned in disobedience, that God might have mercy upon all."

Evelyn Waugh, the deeply Catholic English novelist, understood this clearly. He puts these words into the mouth of the wisest character in Brideshead Revisited, about her alcoholic brother, a hopeless postulant at a monastic house in northern Africa:

"'[Sebastian will] never be able to go into the bush, of course, or join the order, but the Father Superior is going to take charge of him. They had an idea of making him a sort of under-porter; there are usually a few odd hangers-on in a religious house, you know; people who can't quite fit in either the world or the monastic rule. ... I've seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He'll live on, half in, half out of, the community, a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys. He'll be a great favorite with the old fathers, and something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he'll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they'll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, "Old Sebastian's on the spree again," and then he'll come back disheveled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He'll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly. ... He'll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he'll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he's expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he'll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It's not such a bad way of getting through one's life.'

"I thought of the youth with the teddy bear under the flowering chestnuts. 'It's not what one would have foretold,' I said. 'I suppose he doesn't suffer?'

"'Oh, yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is -- no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering.'"

I've written before of my wondering whether I will ever be chaste, and to what extent I ought to treaty with my powerlessness here. In one sense, of course, anyone is chaste, considered spiritually, provided only that they go to Confession when they do fall; and I have not the slightest intention of abandoning that. But when a person is really powerless -- when no moral effort, short of effectively ending their ordinary life by becoming a literal recluse, will enable them to leave off from a given sin -- what is to be done? How is the damage done to the soul, and to the people with whom they interact, to be ameliorated? I for one utterly discountenance the "scorched earth" approach that many Catholics, particularly traditionalists, tend to advocate: if I were to cut off every relationship that was an occasion of lust -- let alone anything more -- to me, I would have no male friends. (Sorry if that makes any of my male friends uncomfortable.) And I am speaking in cold prose when I say that I have done everything I've been told to be chaste, and persistently lost ground; intimate friendships, physical touch, therapy, spiritual direction, daily Mass, the Rosary, all these things together were not enough; I have suffered many things of physicians, and spent all that I had, and was nothing bettered. How shall I then live?

Of course, I am not unique: there are plenty of people out there in this kind of situation, and it isn't necessarily about sexual love. The point is that the Church has to be a place that welcomes sinners who are still sinners -- not just ex-sinners. And not just people who "fall sometimes," either. Sincere love of God, a virtuous life, and happiness in the popular sense, are all discrete things that may or may not coincide in any given life. That is a painful paradox, but it is one we must learn to live with, if we are to escape spiritual arrogance. It is not ours to say among whom or to what extent grace is at work, save the objective graces of the sacraments. Let Sebastian potter about with his broom and his keys; he may not be a monk, but turn him away, and it may be at your hand that his blood is required.

*There have been religious minds who have really transcended it -- Boethius' for example. But the tug to pass from "God has a reason for this" to "I know God's reason for this" is an exceedingly strong one; and, especially when we enjoy good fortune, it flatters our moral as well as our intellectual self-regard to suppose that other people's bad fortune is in some fashion their own fault. Atheism is not necessarily a safeguard against this sort of superstition, but the self-righteousness that characterizes atheists (when it appears) tends, in my experience, to be of a different cast.

**Speaking of conjectures, I have heard -- though I wasn't able to verify the reference -- that God leaves unchastity as a struggle for some, in order that they may not be swollen by pride.


  1. The very fact that Catholicism has the confessional points to the fact that the Church expects that we will sin: gravely and with regularity. I'm encouraged by that because it is certainly the case for me.

    I too have found that no amount devotions seems to increase my ability to resist temptations of the flesh, in fact, it is the very opposite at times.

    I seem to have done the best when I have given up on those sins and focused on loving God despite them. I fell still, but sometimes not as often, and I made more progress in other areas than before. Sometimes I wonder if my obsessive focus on overcoming certain sins was too much a desire that I appear virtuous in my own eyes, too much a focus on the sin and not enough on God.

    Does that make sense? This is my experience, apply to your own as seems most wise to you, if at all.

  2. I long ago came to the conclusion that my Catholicism and my homosexuality were incompatible. I chose the latter, since I could not honestly acquiesce to saying that my drive to love another man was a disorder. To this day, I cannot. It would be a lie.

    I understand the origins and the concerns which require Catholicism to limit sex to marriage, but no system of ethics can adequately grasp and illumine all of human experience. I really knows nothing of mine.

    I lost a lot when I left the Church. But I didn't lose my soul. As much as I respect and even understand the attachment to such an ancient and deep tradition, reading about men who turn themselves inside out to please it and who believe that their capacity to love another man is corrupt, that saddens me.

  3. I can relate to this.

    I too have tried just about everything - from praying the rosary, to daily Mass, to sacramentals like the scapular and the miraculous medal, to joining confraternities etc. and nothing seems to have worked when it came to acquiring the virtue of chastity. It was just one failure after another.

    But something in my experience I've recently found to somewhat work (and please take this for what it is, just me telling my experience and not actually giving out advice): is practicing mortification and fasting. I've found that it greatly helped me in maintaining chastity. And though I still fall, I've found that the periods from where I enter the confessional to where I fall into sin have become longer over time.

    So, I don't know if you've tried fasting and mortification (like giving up something legit - no coffee in the morning, no butter on toast, little things like that), but its helped me greatly and that's just my experience.

    Prayers for you and hope you eventually succeed.


  4. Hi, Gabriel.

    This post makes me think of Frodo who in the end was not able to renounce the Ring even with the support of Sam... Frodo is apparently one of many (according to Tolkien) who is placed "in circumstances which demand of him suffering and endurance... [demanding] a strength of body and mind which he does not possess: he is in a sense doomed to failure, doomed to fall to temptation or be broken by pressure against his 'will': that is, against any choice he could make or would make unfettered, not under the duress". (Letters of JRR Tolkien, number 181). In the end it is only gratuitous mercy that completes the quest: Bilbo's mercy, and Frodo's, and the hidden divine mercy.