THE MEANS FOR SURMOUNTING THE OBSTACLES THAT PREVENT US FROM DERIVING FRUIT FROM THE DEVOTION TO THE SACRED HEART
Tepidity, self-love, pride and the indulgence of our pre-dominant passion are, as we have seen, the principal sources of our imperfections, and the greatest obstacles which prevent us from deriving the fruit which we should from the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. While our love for God is still feeble and languid, we nourish dangerous enemies within us; and without, we have the devil tempting us, the world alluring us, and occasions of sin and bad example all around us. we must therefore be on our guard and close the doors of the senses against the enemies that lay siege to us, otherwise they will became masters of our hearts.
"It is strange," says a great servant of God, "how many enemies we have to fight as soon as we resolve to become holy." Everything seems to declare war against us; the devil by his artifices, human nature by the opposition it offers to our good desires, the praise of the good, the mockery of the wicked, the solicitations of the tepid, the example of those who pass for virtuous, and who are not so. If God visits us, vanity is to be feared, if He withdraws from us, we become timid; discouragement may succeed great fervor, and so forth.
What, then, are we to do? Sanctity does not consist in being faithful for a day or a year, but in persevering in virtue and increasing it until death. We must make use of the means which all the Saints employed, and which, Jesus Christ Himself assures us, are the most proper to weaken and destroy that self-love and secret pride which are the sources of these obstacles. These means are: mortification and humility. We must therefore be resolved to become truly humble and perfectly mortified, or renounce the idea of acquiring the perfect love of Jesus Christ.
Mortification is a necessary disposition for the true love of Jesus Christ; this was the first lesson that Christ gave those who wished to be His disciples; without mortification no one can expect to be a true follower of Him. Accordingly, all the Saints had this distinguishing mark of perfect mortification. When people praised the virtue of anyone in the presence of St. Ignatius, he would intimate that true mortification is inseparable from true piety, not only because virtue cannot exist long without general and constant mortification, but also because without mortification there can be no true virtue.
There are two kinds of mortification: exterior, which consists in bodily austerities; and interior, which consists in repressing all inordinate affections of the mind and heart. Both kinds are necessary to perfection and cannot exist apart from one another. Fasting, vigils and other mortifications of the body are powerful means to become truly spiritual and really perfect; when used with discretion, they help wonderfully to strengthen human nature, which is cowardly when there is question of doing good, but very eager to do evil; they are of great assistance also to repel the attacks and avoid the snares of the common enemy, and to obtain from the Father of Mercies the helps necessary for the just, especially for beginners.
Sanctity, it is true, does not consist in exterior penances, and they are not incompatible with hypocrisy; but it is not so with interior mortification. It is always a certain mark of true piety, and so is more necessary than exterior mortification, and no one can be reasonably dispensed from it. This is the violence which we must do to ourselves in order to possess the Kingdom of Heaven. Not everyone can fast or wear a hair shirt, but there is no one who cannot be silent when vanity prompts him to speak; there is no one who cannot mortify his human nature, his desires and passions. This is what is understood by interior mortification by which a person weakens and conquers his self-love, and by which he he gets rid of his imperfections. It is idle to flatter ourselves that we love Jesus Christ if we are not mortified; all the fine sentiments of piety and devotional practices are suspect without perfect mortification.
It is not enough to mortify ourselves in some things. for some time; we must, as far as possible, mortify ourselves in everything and at all times, with prudence and discretion. A single unlawful gratification allowed will do more to make us proud and rebellious than a hundred victories over it. A truce with the enemy is victory for him; the soul must be surrounded on all sides by a hedge of thorns. This is so, because if mortify ourselves in but one thing, permitting satisfaction in something else, we open the gates of the senses to all sorts of distractions.
The exercise of interior mortification, so common in the lives of the Saints is known by all who have a real desire to be perfect. The ardent love of Jesus Christ makes people so ingenious, that the courage and energy which they display and the means of mortifying themselves with which the Holy Spirit inspires even the most uncultured people, surpass the genius of the learned and can be regarded as little miracles. There is nothing which they do not make an occasion to contradict their natural inclinations; there is no time or place which does not appear proper to mortify themselves without ever going beyond the rules of good sense. It is enough that they have a great desire to see or speak, to make them lower their eyes or keep silent; the desire to learn news, or to know what is going on, or what is being said, is for them a subject of continual mortification which is as meritorious as it is ordinary, and of which God alone is the Witness. The appropriate word, a witticism in conversation, can bring them honor, but they make it a nature of sacrifice. If they are interrupted a hundred times in a serious employment, they will reply a hundred times with the same sweetness and civility as if they had not been interrupted. Finally, the inconveniences of place and time and persons, suffered in a manner to make people believe that we do not feel them, are small occasions of mortification, but the merit is great. It may be said that great graces and even sublime sanctity usually depend on the generosity with which we mortify ourselves constantly on these little occasions. Exact fulfillment of the duties of one's state and conformity in all things to community life without regard to one's inclinations, employment, or age involve that continual mortification which is not subject to vanity but which conforms to the spirit of Jesus Christ: Modesty, recollection, reserve, honesty, sweetness and civility, without which it is difficult to have interior peace and to be content with what God wills.
"Jesus Christ," says St. Augustine, "does not say to us" 'Learn of Me to work miracles,' but 'Learn of Me because I am meek and humble of heart,' in order to show us that without humility there can be no true piety." People are sufficiently persuaded of this necessity, but the difficulty is to know what true humility consists of. Many think themselves humble if they have a low opinion of themselves, but they are not pleased when others have the same opinion of them. It is not enough to know we have no virtue or merit, we must believe it and be satisfied when others believe it. The first step in acquiring this virtue is to demand it constantly from God; the next, to convince ourselves of our imperfections by frequent and serious reflection on ourselves. The remembrance of what we have been and what we might have become without the grace of God, are powerful helps to keep us humble. Really good people think little of others, but pay attention to themselves in the sense that they are not scandalized because their weakness is known to themselves: they see themselves so near the abyss, and fear so much to fall in, that they are not surprised that others do fall in.
The less one speaks of oneself, the more one is in conformity to true humility. An affected claim to have a low opinion of ourselves is often for the purpose of making people praise us. The truest marks of humility are: to cherish those who despise us, not to avoid the humiliations which present themselves, to not take pleasure in vain thoughts and projects about the future which serve only to nourish secret pride, never to speak in praise of ourselves, never to complain of what God permits to happen to us, or wish to be pitied, not to be troubled by our falls; to excuse the faults of our neighbor, to defer in everything to others, to distrust ourselves in our undertakings, and to have a low esteem of what we accomplish; finally, to pray much and speak little.
When we know that we are miserable, we do not mind being despised, because we know it is just. A humble man always thinks he has been justly dealt with, however badly he may be treated; he says that those who mistreat him are right and that they are of the same opinion as God and His angels. A man who has deserved Hell should find that contempt that is due him. We do not mean to say that we should take pleasure in humiliation, only that we should not complain, to be silent when despised, to thank God for contempt and to pray for those whom God has permitted to humiliate us. We shall not have peace if we do not forget ourselves, forgetting even our own spiritual interests in order to seek only the pure glory of God.
We have reason to be astonished that people find difficulty in believing that happiness can be found in continual mortification, when they see every day so many people in the midst of all kinds of amusements unhappy and discontented. If there are invisible sufferings, is it not possible that there are secret consolations? Blessed Claude de la Colombiere, with the permission of his superiors, had made a vow to observe all the rules of his order and, in particular, he had bound himself to practice continual mortification in all things. Blessed Claude recorded in his JOURNAL OF SPIRITUAL RETREATS, that he found himself giving thanks for the grace to make the vow, for he discovered a liberty of heart which caused him incomparable joy. The experience of this great servant of God shows us that it is not only the Saints who have preceded us who have found such sweetness and consolation in the exercise of universal, constant mortification, but that people with whom we lie experience the same thing as soon as they are generous enough to mortify themselves continually.