The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter IX : Mary Teaches Us to Love and to Grow"
IN EVERY ASPECT and part of our spiritual life God's graces come to us through Mary. Clearly, the more we on our part cooperate with this all-pervading influence of Mary, the more we shall please God, and the greater the good to our souls. Those who have received the privilege of an intimately Marian form of spirituality will live in a closer, more familiar way with Mary. But each in his own way will benefit greatly from making full use of her help. To see how this can be accomplished, lee us examine, with Mary's help and example, some of the more basic faces about the spiritual life in general.
Many a well-intentioned person, seriously desiring to improve himself spiritually, to grow in grace, sees Out to do so with strangely confused ideas of how to go about it. If he turns to certain books on spirituality, the very richness of their detail may confuse him. There are many pitfalls to his spiritual progress. One may specialize in fasting or other forms of mortification. He has read glowing descriptions of the heroic mortifications of the seines, and quickly concludes that spiritual growth and penance are the same thing. At the same time he may overlook the fact that he has become irritable to family and friends, and indulges in uncharitable words and acts. Still another thinks that interior progress consists in multiplying prayers. If formerly he said one Rosary a day, he now says three. And, since he knows that he should advance constantly, never stopping for fear of falling back, he is prepared to double the number of his prayers each year or two, or at least to increase them indefinitely, until he has reached a staggering total. The very same person may think little or nothing of exchanging the latest gossip whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Others become attached to giving away their money to the poor or to the missions. This, they think, is charity, and charity is the greatest of the virtues. Yet, hidden in their hearts, and not too far beneath the surface, may lie bitter resentment for what they consider wrongs done them by their relatives or neighbors or friends. They will draw forth these lurking memories whenever the original offenders commit any new "crime," and recite the complete litany of abuses perpetrated against them. Or, indeed, they may boast of their almsgiving.
These are but some of the varied and subtle distortions that may creep into the idea of self-perfection. The disturbing thing is not merely that these false notions may hinder progress, but, what is worse, that they may easily lull one into a false sense of security so that he does not realize that he is falling into really grave faults.1
Far be it from us to give the impression thee there is anything wrong with mortification, with many prayers, with giving generously to the poor. These acts are not only not wrong; actually they are among the outstanding means to perfection, and many people use these means without falling into any of the vices that we have mentioned. The danger lies in confusing the means with the end. We must always keep in mind in what perfection and spiritual growth really consist, and if we do, we shall be in a better position to evaluate and utilize the means to that end.
On one occasion Our Lord was asked to explain what is the great commandment, the one that sums up all else. We all know the answer:
Mary understood and practiced this commandment more perfectly than all other human beings. Other hearts appear cold compared to the flame of her love. Everything depends on love: love of God, and of neighbor for the sake of God. One who really loves God will not fail to love neighbor for God's sake. Hence, in practice, there is only one commandment, to which all else may be reduced: Love. Everything else-penance, alms giving, prayers, sacraments, even devotion to Mary-all are means to that great end of love of God; and among them, some are more effective than others. Devotion to Mary, properly understood, is the means that permeates all other means, and causes us to obtain more benefit from them. Therefore, devotion to Mary does not compete with the other means to spiritual growth; it makes all others more fruitful.
The very essence of perfection is perfect love of God, to which is joined love of neighbor. Obviously, then, to grow in the spiritual life is to grow in the love of God-and in practice this is the same as to grow in sanctifying grace. But the very word love is often misunderstood. In our day it has been mangled almost beyond recognition in popular songs. We easily absorb the impression that love is largely an emotion-or, at least, that it must have an emotional accompaniment. Such is not the case: pure love consists in an attitude of will. The presence or absence of emotion is an accidental feature. This truth is easy to see when we reflect that if love really required emotion, it would be virtually impossible for us to love certain of our neighbors; it would even be impossible to love God most of the time, for most of us do not often feel emotion toward God. Yet God has commanded us to love Him always, above all things, and to love even our enemies. Were emotion requited, He would be commanding an impossibility.
Love consists fundamentally in an attitude of our will. St. Thomas says that to love is to will good to someone.3 It is obvious that this sort of love is much more solid, more noble, more lasting and permanent than a flickering emotion. Now there are chiefly two aspects or kinds of love of God: we may love God because He is good for us, that is, because He is our eternal reward: this is called love of desire; and we may love God because He is good in Himself: this is called love of benevolence. There is no conflict between the two: the same God who is infinitely good in Himself, who is love, is also infinitely good for and to us.4
It is easy enough to understand the nature of the love of desire; in it the soul longs for God, its eternal Good. As for the love of benevolence, we may note three stages of its full development. First of all, this love of benevolence begins when the soul sees how good God is, and when it takes pleasure (not necessarily emotional pleasure) in the face that God not merely possesses, but is, Infinite Good. From this beginning there naturally arises the wish to do good to God. If it were possible, the soul would wish to increase the goodness that God has and is in Himself; but since it knows well that this is impossible, it at least wishes to increase the manifestation of His goodness, so that all creatures may know, love, and serve Him. But a love that would go no further than merely wishing well would be ineffective indeed. Hence the third stage is one of doing. The soul not only loves and serves God Himself, but labors to make others do the same. Thus love is by its very nature apostolic. The stronger the love, the greater the lengths to which the soul will go to please God and to induce others to please Him. Little love will be satisfied with giving little; great love will give much; perfect love will give all. Strong love feeds on difficulties, even on suffering. As St. Augustine says, "In love there is either no difficulty, or the difficulty itself is loved."5
In stating that love goes forth into action, we are not implying that love muse always be busied in exterior works: no, the heart of love is found in the will.6 Love springs forth into action according as various circumstances call for it. To identify love with external activity would be a great error, sometimes referred to nontechnically as the "heresy of good works." Love does tend to action, but that activity must be fed by interior love, or it will bear no fruit7 We must remember that those who live in contemplative communities, although apparently not active, are really promoting the glory of God in a wonderful way by their prayer and penance.
Our love of God is really a friendship. Friendship involves two things: mutual love of benevolence known to both, and a mutual exchange of good things, tending toward union. It is obvious that between God and the man who has charity this friendship does exist. For there is a mutual love of benevolence, which God has shown to us, and which we show to Him. There is also an interchange of favors, tending coward the perfect union of the beatific vision. As for the interchange of good things, God's favors to us are enormous. On our side, although, strictly speaking, He cannot gain anything from us, yet we can strive to promote the manifestation of His goodness in ourselves and in others, so that His great desire to give His goodness and love to us may not go unrealized. This zeal pertains to doing for God, the third stage in love of benevolence.
There is no conflict between these two kinds of love of God- the love of benevolence that considers Him as good in Himself, and the love of desire that considers Him as good to us, as our eternal blessedness. Rather, they go together. It is the same God who is good in Himself and good to us, and our eternal beatitude is a means to the glory of God as well as good to us. It is merely necessary that we preserve the proper proportion between the two, and that in every desire for our own eternal good we avoid making ourselves the ultimate end; ie., we refer even our happiness to God, desiring to be with Him to glorify Him forever. Therefore we ought to desire God as our eternal good chiefly and primarily for His sake, for the manifestation and spread of His goodness and glory. But we do not thereby exclude the desire of God for our own happiness as a secondary end. Even in perfect souls both loves are found. But the love of desire undergoes a shift of emphasis: even in seeking its own happiness, a soul advanced in love thinks of the possession of God in Heaven not so much as a reward, but as a union with the object of its love. Thus the reward aspect tends to recede into the background as one develops.8 In this way a soul forgets itself, as it were, in thinking of its Beloved. Yet, at least in an implicit way, the legitimate desire for our own good is always present, though one does not always advert to it. In fact, in Heaven, although the blessed love God principally and immeasurably more because He is good in Himself, they also love Him as their own happiness (referring this also ultimately to Him who is their friend). Thus St. Anselm says that a soul in Heaven,
As St. Thomas observes, if God were not our good, we could admire Him, but not love Him.10 To hold that pure love should positively sacrifice the desire for salvation would be the heresy of the Quietists.11 Hence we see that not all self-love is wrong. When spiritual writers speak of it as evil, they mean a disordered love of self, one that is out of proportion or that at least in practice subordinates God to self rather than self to God.12
We should love God more than ourselves. Deep within the human soul there is a tendency to love God more than self.13 Original and personal sin have weakened and obscured this tendency. But it is still there, even in the natural order. This does not seem strange when we recall that a parent may readily sacrifice his or her life to save that of the child. Grace gradually heals the wounds of sin, and elevates the natural tendency to the supernatural plane, making it possible for us to love God more than ourselves in the supernatural order. In fact, as we have said, in generous souls the love of desire changes its orientation, so that even in seeking their own happiness the fact that Heaven is a reward is overshadowed by the fact that it is a union with the Beloved. On this point St. Thérèse says:
There is a verse in the Divine Office which I recite each day with reluctance: "I have inclined my heart to do Thy justifications for ever, because of the reward." I hasten to add in my heart: "My Jesus, Thou knowest I do not serve Thee for sake of reward, but solely out of love and a desire to win Thee souls."14
She loves to think of God as love, who desires most earnestly to give Himself, though He gains nothing out of so doing.15 She tries to imitate that Divine generosity.16 (In the language of a saint on fire with love we must not look for the nice precision of language of a theologian who is concerned with avoiding Quietistic errors.)
So we see that perfect love does not exclude the well-ordered self-love just described: it merely refines self-love and subordinates it, at an enormous distance, to the love of benevolence.17
In another sense, we may distinguish three kinds of perfect love of God. The first kind would love God as much as He deserves. No creature is capable of that. The second would love God with all its powers, constantly, at every moment, without any intermission or slackening. This is possible only in Heaven. The third kind is that which is possible on this earth. It is a love that puts our wills perfectly in harmony with His,18 and excludes all that hinders the soul from loving God with all its strength. It is a love whose activity excludes not only mortal and deliberate venial sin, but also every voluntary imperfection.19 In such a state, the soul will still commit some venial sins of frailty or surprise, as well as slight imperfections (also in frailty or surprise). Such occasional slips cannot be avoided in this life. For although a man has, strictly speaking, the strength (with the help of grace) to avoid any one sin taken by itself, he cannot have the perseverance to avoid all together, except by a most special favor of grace.20 These occasional failings do not alter the fact that a soul may habitually have perfect love.
The distinction of deliberate venial sins from sins of frailty and surprise is of capital importance. For fully deliberate venial sins are serious obstacles to perfection, and, if we commit them out of an affection for them, we set up a complete block to our spiritual growth: no actual increase in the love of God is possible until we resolve to give up these deliberate sins.21 There are some souls whose attitude, if clearly expressed, would be something like this: I do not intend to commit any mortal sins, nor do I plan to commit every venial sin that presents itself to me. But, on the other hand, I do not plan to avoid every venial sin: sometimes it would be inconvenient to avoid lying,22 and it is good fellowship to join at times in a bit of uncharitable conversation. Such a soul does not really intend to avoid certain venial sins all the time. Its attitude shows a considerable lack of generosity, a callousness toward God's love. A soul cannot advance in love in the presence of such a deficiency.23 But venial sins of frailty or surprise are not such an obstacle. For if we are sincerely trying to avoid all sin, and after each sin of frailty or surprise we humble ourselves, make a fervent, fully deliberate act of contrition and renew our good resolve, God will draw good out of evil and make these small faults into steppingstones for us.
We said that perfect love excludes deliberate imperfections. What is an imperfection? It is a morally good act, which can be used remotely as a means to love, but which lacks a certain perfection suitable to spiritual progress. Countless examples of imperfection could be listed, such as: remiss acts-that is, acts that fall below our habitual degree of love, as when an advanced soul makes an act of love or receives the sacraments with no more than the fervor proper to beginners;24 merely natural activities-things not forbidden, yet not perfectly subjected to grace, such as certain needless amusements, small attachments to books, places, persons, kinds of food; many restless and useless desires;25 and omissions of good things which are not commanded, but which we could easily perform.
As we have said, an imperfection is not morally evil: it is only something less good, but still basically good. Consequently, if an imperfection is performed for a good motive, it will not be sinful, it may even be slightly meritorious.26 The merit that may possibly be obtained will, however, give us at most only a title to a future increase in love: the actual increase in love is not given until sometime later, when the soul is properly disposed.27 For imperfection does not give us the disposition for immediate growth; rather, it inclines us, in a sense, toward venial sin. The motive for which we perform these less perfect acts needs careful watching. For if the motive is not good, then venial sin will accidentally be present. Such an unreasonable motive foe doing a lesser good would be, for example, mere sloth, or contempt for spiritual values, or a whim of pleasure.
Any imperfection for which we keep an affection is a great hindrance to our spiritual progress. We cannot actually reach perfection until this affection is renounced. Of this St. Francis de Sales says:
The commandment, "Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect,"29 is given to all. But despite its unequivocal wording, it is open to misinterpretation. One error would suppose that all were obliged to attain at once the maximum possible perfection. The other would restrict the command to those who enter the religious life, or would treat it as a mere counsel, not a command. But it is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, confirmed by many theologians, and, in our own times, by Pope Pius XI, that this text is a command, and does apply to all.30
This command of Our Lord sets before us the perfection of God Himself as matter for imitation. It is obvious that we can never decide that we have gone far enough. We must advance constancy throughout our entire lives. For the very limitless character of this goal indicates that He does not demand that we attain it at once. It can only mean that we ought to grow constantly up to the very end. The force with which this obligation applies to any person varies according to his state in life, the graces God gives him, and his present state of progress. It is obvious that it applies more forcefully to priests and religious than to the laity. But it does apply to all. There should not be two classes of Catholics: chose who wish to grow, and those who wish merely to "get by." All are called to perfection: hence perfection is possible in all states of life, as we can see from the calendar of saints: for there we find not only priests and monks and nuns, but married saints and other layfolk as well.
It is less easy to understand the latitude in its application according to one's present degree of progress. We might illustrate the problem by a comparison. A two-year-old child butchers its native language: hardly a word comes out without being badly mangled and distorted in the process. Strictly speaking, this is far from perfect. Yet those who hear it are not only not displeased; they may even enjoy it. Why? Because the child is acting as befits his age. On an absolute scale, he is far from perfect. But on the relative scale, relative to what can be expected of a child of that age, his performance is satisfactory. But suppose that ten years later, at the age of twelve, the same child is still speaking in the same way. He is no longer attractive; he is a tragedy, a freak; his parents will probably put him into an institution for professional treatment. The case is similar in the spiritual life. God has a certain standard and rate of progress to which each ought to conform, according to his ability, his graces, and his state in life.
Progress is ordinarily gradual.31 To attempt to take a large leap all at one time would probably result, not in progress, but in a fall, perhaps to a level even lower than that from which the leap began. But all must constantly advance: he who does not go forward inevitably goes backward: he becomes a distorted freak in the spiritual life.
Let us not forget to avoid the dangers mentioned at the start of this chapter. Other things being equal, a fervent man will say more Rosaries, practice more penance, spend more time before the Blessed Sacrament, than a less fervent man. There is no limit to growth in interior perfection; but there is a limit on mere multiplication of external practices. Prudence sets this limit. The essential part of progress consists in growth in the love of God which we habitually possess and which we put into all that we do. There is a limit to the multiplication of practices; there is no limit to love.
The rate of progress depends on the degree of grace we already possess, on what new graces God offers to us, and on the generosity and fervor of love with which we respond to God's new offers. Just as a stone dropped from an airplane increases steadily in speed as it approaches its goal, so also should a soul advance more rapidly the closer it comes to God. God is generous with the generous: "... to everyone that hath shall be given."32 Imagine the staggering rate at which Mary advanced in grace, being so close to God from the very start, being faultlessly faithful in corresponding to every new opportunity presented to her. She who lived so close to her Son, who grew so rapidly herself, is a safe and effective helper for us who wish to grow to be like her Son.
In loving God we need to learn to take the attitude of a small child to the best of fathers. In varying degrees, a dread of God's might and justice, or at least a deficiency in the proper childlike confidence, hinders our advance toward our good Father. Mary, who is pre-eminently the Mother of mercy, can teach us to know and trust Him, for she makes us learn His loving fatherliness by experience. She shows us that His Heart is like hers-or, rather, it is immeasurably more loving. The Apostle John, in whose home Mary lived so long, learned well, for he wrote, "God is love."33 Mary teaches us that although we will certainly want to do everything we can to please God if we really love Him, yet, we do not, as it were, have to "buy" His love. Imagine any child who would say to itself: "I must do this and that about the house and yard, and so I will get my father and mother to love and take care of me." A really loving child will do all it can to show its love, and the parents will appreciate and reward such efforts, but the real reason why its father and mother love it is not because the child is good, but because they are good.
Finally, Mary will not let us forget that we are not the only children in the family: we must love all the children of God because He loves them. If we think we love God and do not love our brothers and sisters, we deceive ourselves. As St. John says, "If any man say, 'I love God,' and hateth his brother, he is a liar."34 He who does not love Mary, the greatest of all the adopted children of God, who is at the same time God's Mother, does not love God Himself.35 Since she is the closest of all to God, we shall approach Him in the measure in which we are led by her to His love, to Him who is love.