Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Mushrooms and other fungi—and our sins

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 28, 2024

My wife and I have been battling mushrooms amid the fairly lush grass in one section of our front yard. We’ve had a few pop up here and there in recent years, but this Spring there have been scores of them (sometimes hundreds) popping up every few days, especially after significant rain, for they love moisture. According to the most knowledgeable authorities (e.g., Felder Rushing) there isn’t a great deal you can do about this apart from radically drying out your lawn (which in many cases will mean making your lawn look worse than it did with the ‘shrooms).

Even using fungicides to kill the mushrooms is only a temporary measure. Since the mushrooms are not a cause but a symptom, what you really want to do is eliminate the fungi that are growing in crisscrossing mats under the soil, feeding on such things as “fallen leaves, twigs, old grass clippings, animal waste, buried wood, old stumps, and dead or dying tree roots.” Indeed, about three years ago, we removed a very large tree from that section of the yard.

Nevertheless, this sounds suspiciously like a spiritual problem to me!

Faulty regimen

What I’ve been doing is browsing over the lawn’s surface in the mornings and pulling up the new mushrooms that have sprung up overnight. My wife has done a lot of this as well. The idea is to try to pluck them up before they drop their spores, but it turns out that plucking them up after they appear, while certainly not a worthless cosmetic technique, is not a very good long-term solution.

It is just here that we find an analogy to the spiritual life, and particularly the effort to conquer habitual sins. It is good for us, and certainly better for others as well, to yank them out as soon as they appear. But that alone does not change the conditions in the sub-layer of rich nutrients for the temptations and hidden weaknesses which give rise to the visible sins. What we find in the spiritual life is that we need to dig beneath the surface, to change the very soil of our souls through a strict control of the “nutrients” we allow there. In fact, what we find in the spiritual life is that we must actively substitute both graces for temptations and good habits for bad. Otherwise, the very best that we will ever do is run around nipping our sins after they become visible.

This is why the spiritual life is not simply a matter of learning to recognize our sins so that we can obtain absolution through the sacrament of Penance. Of course, the sacrament gives grace—it increases the life of Christ in us—but if confession is the only form taken by our own active participation in the process, we are likely never to get over the discouragement of falling into the same sins again and again. It is true, of course, that Our Lord can grant us the particular grace of never being tempted again to a particular sin. But normally, He expects us to overcome temptation both by doing our best to remove the conditions under which it arises and by strengthening our resistance to it through appropriate disciplines of prayer and sacrifice.

We need to learn to take the steps by which we grow closer to God—the steps through which we grow in that grace which is a share in His own life. This means we must engage in prayers and sacrifices which test our love, prayers and sacrifices through which we both ask God’s help and deliberately fight against our selfish inclinations. In other words, we need to work at the process of changing the interior soil, so to speak, in which our various inclinations grow and thrive.

Imagination

This is not only a matter of particular external spiritual exercises. The primary purpose of such exercises is actually to develop and strengthen good interior habits. For example, others may join me in remembering times when we have enjoyed imagining temptations to sins which we were theoretically determined not to commit. But this is pure folly! Some of us may have learned to substitute mental prayer for such imaginings whenever they arise. Persistence in this sort of determination is a particularly quick and salutary way of changing our mental habits—or really, I should say, the interior habits of our very souls—in order to gradually weaken the hold of temptation so that, over time and assuming continued good will, they are no longer nearly as troubling as once they were.

As with controlling mushrooms (which are really, in this sense, the explosions of a noxious mix of “nutrients”), it takes constant work beneath the surface to change the spiritual conditions so that it becomes ever more difficult for evil to grow, and ever more effortless to practice the presence of God. You might call this “custody of the imagination”. But for some kinds of sins, this must also involve what is called “custody of the eyes”. When we consider lust or cupidity, for example, we ought to know that we need to develop the habit of deliberately refusing to allow the dangerous nutrients for our sins to enter our souls at all.

For example, when a pretty girl passes by, the man who is spiritually serous averts his eyes as soon as he becomes aware, looking elsewhere whenever it is possible to do so without giving offense (which is about 99.99% of the time). Contrary to the old adage, there is very great harm in “looking”. It goes without saying that this applies also to the material we read and the pictures we view. But the same thing would apply to someone who is constantly tempted to purchase the latest fancy car or to go on the next expensive cruise. Simply stop looking at advertisements for cars or cruises. The same can apply to many other forms of temptation. This is a simple issue of altering the soil that we constantly shovel into our souls.

Custody of the tongue—that is, of our conversation and our use of words—is another way to improve our interior ground for growth in virtue, rather than growth in vice. Can we imagine anything crude or lascivious, false or unkind passing between the lips of Christ or Mary or even our favorite saints (at least once they were saints)? We should not kid ourselves (as so many do today) that how we speak has nothing to do with how we live, or the state of our souls. Instead, keeping watch over our speech is a way of keeping watch over our souls.

It’s a start

I have touched on only a few aspects of the problem of taking charge—or rather of allowing Jesus Christ to take charge—of our inner soil, the inner ground from which grow either our virtues or our vices. For life in Christ really means Christ’s life in ourselves. I have frequently quoted St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he says: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God” (2:20-21). We must generally endure a time of struggle—a time of welcoming Christ in our souls step by painful step—before we can make such a claim. But the most important goal in life is to be able to make it.

Of course, some will argue in response that mushrooms are delightful things once you know how to deal with them and can distinguish and discard those poisonous toadstools. To be sure, my lawn here is merely a spiritual analogy, and if a different analogy serves some good purpose in your own spiritual life, so much the better. But I would caution that there are many good things in this world which do not belong in the soil of your particular soul, or mine. That which encourages the growth of sin has no place, whether the sin is the misuse of one’s body or the misuse of one’s position or wealth. And I warn also that not every good natural thing is good for any one of us at any given moment.

The problem is really simple: Without spiritual discipline, we will remain slaves to our passions, and it will be impossible for us to grow into full stature in Christ (Eph 4:13). This is true whether we are speaking of a younger person who may be plagued by sexual temptation or an older person who may be plagued by the retirement temptation of endless travel. The literal distinction between toadstools and mushrooms is, in the spiritual life, completely irrelevant. I am speaking of the difference between clinging to God and clinging to self, which is the whole difference between virtue and vice.

More particularly, I am speaking of the “soil” in which vice will—or will not—grow.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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