Spiritual Growth vs. Spiritual Consolation
Think about it: We are absolutely obliged by God to grow into union with Him as far as possible—using the fullness of the means made available through the Church established by His Son. But at the same time, we have absolutely no claim to spiritual consolations. We have no right to “feel good” in our spiritual progress.
In fact, it is all too easy to get bogged down in both genuine consolations and their counterfeits. When we receive consolations, we find them delightful, and mistakenly believe God is absent when He withdraws them. Thus did St. Catherine of Siena, so used to feeling God’s presence, complain that He had left her during a period of grave temptation. But God replied that this was not so. For if He had left her, He pointed out, she would have fallen.
Worse still, we cling to the religious practices which we have found consoling, and soon begin to use them to produce emotions which only mimic genuine consolation. We forget the example of Christ, who emptied Himself. Instead, the things we find “consoling” become for us signs of rectitude and stimulants to pride.
In time we grow to love not so much God as the consolations He grants us, and then not so much genuine consolations as mere good feelings about our spirituality. Sensitive to those practices which produce such good feelings, we even begin to take pride in our particular form of piety, which we hold to be self-evidently superior to any form which fails to produce similar feelings within us. And if a particular brand of piety does not produce such feelings, we judge the forms or styles or practices to be dramatically inferior to our own, so inferior that only the spiritually blind can possibly be attached to them.
Thus do we all, at times, substitute consolations (or their counterfeit) for holiness, which consists in knowing as God knows, willing as God wills, and loving as God loves. We may find ourselves thinking or even saying (with a decidedly superior rhythm and rhyme): “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men” (Lk 18:11)—foolish, ill-formed, insensitive to your grace; I use good judgment; I cultivate good taste.
The obstacle of self
Our problem is that “self” always gets in the way. With this in mind, let me review the meaning of “consolations” in the spiritual life. Consolations are sensible manifestations of grace given by God to help us in distress and draw us to Himself. The feelings which consolations produce in us can be very important, especially when we are relatively immature spiritually, and have not yet the wisdom or strength to cling to God without a tangible stimulus. Consolations therefore play an important role in spiritual growth, but spiritual growth can go only so far before they must be withdrawn so that we can go much farther still. Again, we must learn to love not God’s gifts but God Himself.
When consolations are withdrawn, we experience “dryness”, which is another way of saying that we neither sense God’s presence nor seek closer union with Him without real effort. While most of us experience dryness only at times, the experience does teach us an important lesson. I mean the lesson that we are actually closer to God when we persevere through dryness than at any other time, for these are moments with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, moments when we must live in His Presence solely through faith, fueled only by pure hope and love, which are intangible. Such love is not a feeling, but a willed movement of the gifted love within us toward Love Itself.
Some Christians have experienced a prolonged and perhaps total dryness which we call the dark night of the soul. For example, St. John of the Cross wrote much on this subject in the sixteenth century and St. Teresa of Calcutta lived through a dark night in the twentieth century that persisted through much of her adult life. Even though holiness is purer under these circumstances, it is far harder for the simple reason that it is holiness only, that is, holiness in its purest form, with no consolation added. Consider Our Lord’s own words when he sweat blood: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42; Mk 14:36; Mt 26:39).
Ordinarily, of course, we are more like the disciples who asked, through Peter: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” (Mt 19:27). This is the question constantly raised by “self”, and while it is not irrelevant nor even necessarily bad, its answer must never provide a dominant motive. We must always measure our spiritual progress not through consolations, but through our progress in doing God’s will.
The moment we begin to assess our holiness based on the consolations we experience is the moment that we begin to manufacture consolation counterfeits, and the moment too when we begin to wear our supposed holiness as a badge, through pride. One great danger point here occurs in the liturgy, which can be celebrated well or badly and in a variety of forms. We may associate emotions with certain aspects of the liturgy that we like, perhaps most commonly its language or its musical setting, which can trigger the following sequence: (a) I feel uplifted (closer to God?) under these liturgical circumstances; (b) These liturgical circumstances are sources of genuine consolation whereas other liturgical circumstances are not; (c) Therefore this liturgy is superior to that; and (d) It follows that my liturgical tastes are not only superior, but are best for all.
Now every Catholic ought to seek to participate well and reverently in the sacred liturgy, and those qualified ought to assist the Church in implementing best practices, even if these practices must necessarily vary somewhat according to time and place and culture. But if the first rule of true participation in the liturgy is to discern the Presence of Christ, the second, surely, is to recognize that each of us can profit more from a (Church-sanctioned) liturgy we “dislike” than from one that we “like”, if we can only get past this enormous misunderstanding about consolations. The reasons are: That true consolations are temporary, and carry a certain amount of spiritual risk; that false consolations are positively dangerous; that Christ saved us not through human artifice but through obedience; and that what we are supposed to unite ourselves with in the liturgy is His total sacrifice of self.
There is no room in the Catholic soul for liturgical snobbery of any kind, but the main reason I have first discussed our central act of worship is that it is just here that consolations and their counterfeits can easily prove to be the most dangerous. Many are the human spirits that soar at either the presence or absence of some form of ceremony! Still, other religious practices and attitudes are fraught with similar danger. For example:
- Attachment to our own form of piety, quite apart from the sacred liturgy—a deceit easily exploited by the devil to lead us into sin, especially in denigrating others
- Identification of our own preferences with those of God, as if God prefers good taste to a pure heart
- Elevation of our own particular gifts (or the gifts which, sometimes for the oddest reasons, we think we have) over those of others, despite St. Paul’s warning that the hand is not more important than the foot, and that there must be many members in the one body
- Insistence that we know the precise meaning and application in every situation of everything in Scripture, or in Tradition, or in the Magisterium, and pronouncing judgment on others accordingly, especially in resistance to ecclesiastical authority, all the while ignoring St. Augustine’s dictum that “he that speaketh of his own speaketh a lie”
Many more symptoms of the problem could be mentioned. All of these attitudes—so closely associated with genuine piety and true religion and yet separated from them by a huge gulf—attract us for the simple reason that they make us feel good about…ourselves. We constantly confuse such feelings with Divine consolations. We constantly face a temptation to bask in the glory of our righteousness, just as a strong man might bask in the glory of his physical power, or a woman in her beauty, or a person of high position in his innate superiority—even though all gifts are Providential, and all are given so that, in recognizing a gift entirely undeserved, we might become humble enough to serve.
It is an axiom of the spiritual life that undisciplined souls are careless about consolations and use pseudo-consolations to fuel their pride, whereas those disciplined by the habit of humility will always take their cue from the Roman author Horace, who wrote during the time of Christ Himself. For Horace famously taught that it takes constant work with a pitchfork to keep nature at bay (and here is my own chance to claim superiority by quoting in Latin: Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. [Epistles, Book I, epistle xi, line 24]). We must learn to be grateful for consolations, but never cling to them. We must learn to recognize their counterfeits in the pride and sloth which they produce. We must take up our pitchforks constantly to uproot the weeds which thrive in the soil of our fallen nature.
I do not exaggerate when I say that this is one of the first and most important steps toward spiritual maturity, as well as a task that is never done.
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Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Sep. 27, 2019 5:38 PM ET USA
Edward I: Let us not jump to conclusions. There are a great many too attached to their own desires, and busy manufacturing false consolations, on all sides of the liturgical debate.
Posted by: Edward I. -
Sep. 27, 2019 3:48 PM ET USA
Amen, Dr. Mirus! The Latin Mass snobs--all 500 of them--really need to hear this.