First Part: First Sunday of Lent
“In the world, a man who possesses average intelligence, who works with perseverance, who makes the necessary sacrifices and concentrates his efforts on one object, is sure to become of value. Independently of some possible failures, whether or not he has accomplished the desired work, he is certain that he will bear himself out. If there are some failures, they may affect the work, but do not diminish the man himself. Such a man is master of his personal value. What a comfort he can find in this certitude!”
Dear Brethren, I would like to comment on these words of Father Jerome, because, as usual, they are full of wisdom and good sense. Father Jerome speaks here about a man who lives according to the spirit of the world. He is truly a value to society according to this spirit. This is not a bad thing. We need such men in our societies. But it is merely human and worldly. On a spiritual level, things are different, because there is now an additional datum: God.
Father Jerome continues: “ He who has a vocation to live with God depends totally on the good divine will, even for his own excellence. Whatever his efforts are, his single-mindedness and his savoir-faire, he will become a value only if God consents to look at his efforts and bless him. The successes ensure nothing. A religious man is not master of his personal value.”
It might be good to meditate on this at the beginning of our Lent. Most of you have probably made good resolutions and have decided to make a good Lent. Very good! I can only approve. Now, what is a good Lent? Is it a time when we have to do penances and mortify ourselves until Easter? Yes, it is, but this definition of Lent, while true, is still incomplete. It tells us what Lent is in a material and external manner. And I would like to bring to your attention a certain error which can be found frequently in the spiritual life. This error would be a certain quantification of our spiritual life. And this mistaken way of thinking pushes us to believe that the more I pray, the holier I become. It is not necessarily false, but neither it is necessarily true. In fact, it is not unusual to meet Catholics with certain Pelagianist practices. This old heresy reappears regularly throughout the centuries. Jansenism was one of its avatars. Today, we can still see traces of it among many Catholics, even though they don’t consciously profess it, they are marked by it on a practical level.
What is the Pelagianist error? It is a belief that minimizes the role of Divine Grace and intensifies the primacy and the efficiency of personal efforts. In other words, my personal actions, if they are good enough, can make me deserving of the Grace. So, I simply have to multiply my good actions, my prayers and my sacrifices and then the Grace will increase in me and I will become more holy. The Grace is considered as a reward for our good actions. In Pelagian thought, man simply has to want to be a saint in order to become one. You might think that it sounds good and true. Well, if it is the case, let me reply with the words of Saint Augustine: “This is the complete emancipation of man from God.” For Pelagius, man doesn’t depend totally on divine will, as Father Jerome reminded us previously, but God depends on man’s will. He would be forced to recognize man’s value and then to reward it.
Of course we are not Pelagianist and we believe in the primacy of the Divine Grace, which is not a reward but the principle of our good actions. We don’t have to act in order to obtain it, but we have to cooperate with it and to remain under its dominion and to follow its inspirations. This is what it means as Saint Paul says, to walk in the spirit. We are not Pelagianist, nevertheless, we can be tempted to act as such to a certain degree. We can be tempted to think that because of the goodness of our actions, we are right and we necessarily fulfill God’s will. It is the same old temptation that we all have and which causes us to conforms God’s will to ours. Well, if it is just a temptation, it is still O.K. but be sure not to fall into this temptation. “A religious man is not master of his personal value!” The material goodness of our actions is not necessarily the guarantee that they are God’s will. I mean the particular and precise will of God about one thing. Of course God wants everybody to do good and to refrain from evil. But then, who can say with certitude what is God’s will?
We need time, prayer, meditation and silence to know it. Here is the perfection of the Christian life according to Saint Francis de Sales. Contrary to many of the usual beliefs, Christian perfection does not consist of the absence of imperfections. “Let us not be troubled by our imperfections, because perfection consists of fighting them. We could not fight them without seeing them, neither overcome them without meeting them.” And with a great lucidity, he adds: “Consider as suspect all these desires of a certain perfection which can be imagined but not practiced, and of which many makes lessons but, but of which no one makes actions.”
Neither does Christian perfection consist of the absence of passions. They are a part of our nature and as such, are good. There are some falsely devout persons who affect to have no passions. Saint Francis de Sales says about them: “I don’t at all like certain souls who like nothing and who remain immobile at every event because of a lack of vigor. Those half-dead hearts, for what are they good?”
Christian perfection does not consist of the absence of temptations. The book of Ecclesiasticus warns us: “Son, when thou come to the service of God, stand in justice and in fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation.” So it is good for us to have temptation, so that we can be lion-hearted and brave for the service of God and the conquest of solid virtues.
Christian perfection does not consist of the science. This one is good in itself, especially “the science of oneself which is very useful to devotion.” But it can be dangerous without charity and humility. Nevertheless, don’t give as a pretext a certain false humility to justify your ignorance.
Christian perfection does not consist of the multitude of desires. Dear brethren, we all have many desires. Very good! How many of them do we realize? Probably not very many! But as Saint Francis de Sales says again with very practical good sense: “Go in the way of your vocation with simplicity committing yourselves to action rather than to desire: it is the shortest way.” And he adds that as a bishop, he would loose his time by desiring to be a Carthusian monk. So we are what we are and we have to act as such, not according to what we would like to be.
Christian perfection does not consist in a multitude of exercises, neither of austerity. These are very necessary, but are just a means and not a goal. It is not without humour that our Saint exclaims: “ How foolish are those who estimate to be holy only those who are thin, as if holiness would consist of thinness.” Then Saint Francis de Sales gives this piece of advice: “Save your corporeal strength for the service of God in spiritual practices.” Once again , don’t give as a pretext the needs of your body for not practicing the virtue of temperance and certain mortifications. They are necessary. In fact, to be sure that you are right in this matter, just ask your spiritual director what you can do. Obedience will be your guide.
Now, dear Brethren, we know what perfection is not. It might be good to know what perfection is. This will be for next Sunday. Let us confide our good resolutions of lent to Our Lady, so that she can help us to keep them with wisdom, under the guidance of the Church. May she help us to understand that our value is nothing but that we have to turn to God and to let Him come into our soul if we really want to be good.