Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Love of the Good is also Bad

I came up with a  great idea for a post at mass the other day. Nothing unusual about that. But I forgot what it was! Now, finally, Tuesday night, I remembered...

No, despite appearances, this isn't the ultimate Jansenistic or Manichaen testimony. Good is good, but you can also sin in relation to it. Theologians like Augustine insist that there must be a sort of hierarchy among things. The world is good, spiritual things are good, but God alone is good per se.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes something about someone's religious life doesn't seem quite right? And yet, it is a holy thing, so you fell that you must be criticizing it because of your insecurity. Not necessarily.

Sometimes a good is loved more than it ought to be. Sometimes a transitory good is loved as an ultimate or final good. Sometimes a spiritual good can, in our hands, develop a negative aspect.

There are so many examples we can point to. The most common is love. We justify so many things because of love.

But even our spiritual practices can have negative, often egotistical, sides to them. These things can creep in even when these originally resided on a fairly solid foundation. A ready example might be Medjugorje. But I don't want to stop there. I want to look at what it is that leads to an originally good thing turning bad.

An interest in man's spiritual working may itself become a means of tearing people down to size, by means of the genealogical argument: you only say that because you are this kind of person. You have no doubt been on the receiving end of such pigeon-holing. That's denigrating. But we do it, believing it's wisdom and therefore beneficial. How self-deceived we are! No, we do it to take someone down a peg.

I love adoration. I love that I can go to a special spiritual place and spend some time alone. Yes, I like being alone. I am an introvert. I like to read spiritual books. I like to learn. I like to think. These are pleasures for me. Does that mean it's good or bad, indulgence or sacrifice?

Of course, according to virtue-based ethics, which we espouse as Catholics, we are supposed to be in a position where we enjoy doing good things. Ogling women is supposed to be unpleasant. It's not, though, because you are not yet virtuous. Fidelity in marriage is supposed to be pleasant, not because it's too much bother to be unfaithful and you don't like a bother, but because there is something in your heart that makes it impossible to sexually desire another woman.

Sometimes we trick ourselves into believing that we enjoy good things because we know we are supposed to. We love wearing long skirts - eh ladies?- praying the rosary, etc. I think we need to be honest with ourselves. And, pray the rosary even if you hate it. Fasting is not supposed to be enjoyable. The great saints came to enjoy such a state of spiritual perfection that they just no longer had any desire for food. But it's okay to find a Lenten fast just miserable. It's not a state of perfection if you find it miserable, but it's hard to become perfect without having spent a lot of time doing things you hate, purely for love of God.

And, again, disguising things you like as if they were a spiritual chore for you. We can spot others doing this far more easily than we can see ourselves doing it. Going to mass to get away from your annoying kids is not pure unalloyed piety. Going to prayer groups, this and that because it is funner than not going. Let's face it, you are not all you might think you are.

But there's no exact science to this, is there? Just because you like it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it; just because you hate it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. We are a psychological mess aren't we? Paul says that he has his conscience to guide him, but he knows it's not infallible. (1 Cor 4:4)

Chances are, of course, if you are too comfortable in your prayer routine, if it is a routine, then it is not doing what it is supposed to be doing. Shake it up and do something that is not second nature to you. If you got the chastity thing down, go on to tackle pride by doing something embarrassing for Jesus. If you love doing embarrassing things, shut up for a while and allow others to speak.

What am I trying to say with these pictures? Come on, you know me well enough by now, right?