Can We Be Saints? Part III - Hindrances and Pitfalls on the Way
by Frank Duff
continued from Part II - The Day in Detail
Sin in its various forms is, of course, the greater barrier. Such serious things as dishonesty, wronging one's employer or those who work for one, gambling, intemperance, cursing, might be gone into at length. But surely this is unnecessary. We are considering a person who is making a serious effort for sanctity; who is fully aware of the gravity of such failings, and who has probably already cut them out of his life.
Then, there is the host of commoner faults: self-love, lying, backbiting, vanity, envy, and so forth, in direct attacks on which a life-time could be spent with poor results. A surer success will quietly come of itself if prayerfulness and love develop. These will induce a frame of mind to which anything wrong will be distasteful. Such failings become no longer temptations, and simply drop out of one's life.
All the foregoing are plainly labelled "sin." When we are guilty of any of them, we know that it is an occasion for repentance and amendment. But there are other enemies to sanctity that are more hidden, and which constantly deceive even well-intentioned people by assuming an innocent and commendable appearance. Amongst these may be mentioned discontent, human respect, an uncontrolled tongue, ill-temper, discouragement, conceit. The seriousness of these is that they are harboured by good people, when sin has been driven out, in ignorance that they do sin's work.
This is the great fault of the good. "There is no harm in being dissatisfied," they will say. Or they will call it ambition, and make a virtue of the turmoil which it makes in their minds. There would be some advantage in discontent if it spurred us on to aim at better things. But unhappily, discontent tends only to make us despise what we have. So warped are we by it that we envy today in someone else what yesterday we scorned in ourselves.
Now, this spirit of discontent particularly concerns us when it sets up the delusion that our particular mode of life and surroundings are unsuited to sanctity. Very often we entertain the thought as a holy one. We feel sure we could be Saints if God made us Priests or Nuns, or indeed anything else but what we happen to be.
Than such a delusion, no greater obstacle to progress can exist. The conditions of each man's life, as it is, are the raw materials out of which he has to fashion his future. Disbelief in the possibilities of doing any good with what he has is unlikely to lead to effort. A man is just as likely to start digging in his back garden for diamonds, as to seek for the jewels of sanctity where he does not believe they exist.
It may be that our present manner of life really is unfavourable to higher things. If this be so, God will in good time open up another door to us, that is, provided we are doing our duty in making the best of what we now have.
Most probably, however, far from being unfavourable, our present life is just the only one which will bring us to sanctity. God, Who sees all things, did not choose it over all others for us without ample reason. By discontent we are setting ourselves up as judges over His actions. Now let us pay Him the compliment of thinking deeply over this, and then bind ourselves with a stern resolution to put away every such disturbing thought. Its place will be filled by a grace. A calm will steadily grow up within us. We will find ourselves less and less put out by the worries of everyday life. We are getting on.
When Discontent is Banished
Those who have always been in the close friendship of God cannot fully value the greatness of this treasure -peace of mind -- which they have always possessed. But to those who have known the opposite, this feeling of cahn, as it develops, carries a plain message of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul. One is on the way to that tranquillity which was a notable feature in the lives of the Saints. For instance, it is written of St. Vincent Ferrer:
"Whether in the streets, or the choir, or his own cell, or preaching, or on a journey, or whatever he did, he was always tranquil because he made an oratory in his heart, and there conversed uninterruptedly with God without any outward thing disturbing him."
Another Big Obstacle -- Human Respect
The danger of Human Respect is not sufficiently recognised. In almost every Catholic it is a weak spot. In the case of some, it is a defect so grave as to put real holiness out of the question. Human Respect may be defined as the putting of the opinion of others in the place of our conscience. It sets up ridicule and unpopularity as the thing most to be avoided even at the risk of offending against truth and principle. Beginning in small things, if constantly yielded to Human Respect brings about a general lowering of principle. A state of mind is reached which is as different from sanctity as chalk is from cheese.
You have always been in the habit of blessing yourself when at your meals. When not at home, through a form, of shame, you do not do this. This is Human Respect.
You always touch your hat as you pass a Church -except when with Protestants? You would not have a religious picture in your drawingroom. You are shy about making the Stations of the Cross. You would be mortified if your Rosary Beads fell from your pocket in Protestant company or in the bus. All these are signs of the disease we are discussing.
In a word, you are so taken up with making your conduct acceptable to others that you have no room for the thought that God might have been pleased by these little open professions of Faith. You have treated Him as the rich are supposed to treat their poor relations -acknowledging them in private, ignoring them in public.
In the life of St. Philip Neri, we read how that Saint was in the habit of imposing very humiliating penances upon his disciples in his anxiety to destroy in them any trace of this mean spirit. Such practices would nowadays be termed extreme. Here is a suggestion which is not extreme. It will help anyone resolved upon the destruction of this failing . . . Wear openly something Catholic; some little devotional badge or emblem that will mark you as a Catholic, who is not ashamed to be known as one. The feeling of unwillingness to do this which will come to many, is the best test of its value; it is the spirit you seek to kill that is protesting in you.
Such objection as: "I don't believe in badge-wearing," and "I don't believe in making a parade of my religion," are usually not sincere. Those who speak in this way seldom seem to have any objection to wearing political or trade badges. Be honest with yourself. The trouble is that you are not really proud of being a Catholic. It is human nature to publish the fact if you are.
The priest and the nun advertise themselves to the world for what they are. Let the laity also, in the little ways that are open to them, confess Christ before men that He may one day confess them before His Father in Heaven. But in this let there be wholesome moderation. Do nothing that will earn for yourself the name of mere eccentricity, for this would destroy much of your influence. To cover yourself with religious emblems or to make an unnecessary show of devotion in a Church is to err in this way.
Discouragement and Pride
This spiritual value of any work you do is not to be judged by the little or much result you see from it, but by the purity of intention and the effort which you have put into it. The powerful sermon or book that converts many might bring less merit to its author than the smallest act of self-sacrifice. Thus it is as foolish to be discouraged by lack of visible results as it is to be puffed up by apparent success. Many average people have seen wonderful things come of their labours, while Saints often have been faced with constant failure.
Whatever you take up -- act well your part. Let this be your only concern. Be not anxious for results, which may bring conceit -- one touch of which can destroy the beauty of any work in God's sight.
Should some success cause stings of self-conceit, summon common sense to your side to tell you how little self-denial there is in your life; how little you do; and how much more you could easily do if you liked. And then contrast yourself with those multitudes of good people over the world who have given up everything for the Master's sake, and yet count themselves as idlers in His sight.
Let your frequent prayer be: "Jesus, meek and humble of heart -- make my heart like unto Thy Heart." If you become perfectly humble, God will certainly use you for some great work.
O Jesus, I desire to become a saint -- not that I may be great, but that You may be greatly loved.
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Frank Duff is the founder of the Legion of Mary
. "Can we be Saints" is the first pamphlet he published aged 27 and is reproduced with permission of the Legion of Mary. All rights reserved.