“Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set out to remedying them. Every day begin the task anew.” -St. Francis de Sales
If you’re anything like me, you have a love-hate relationship with New Year’s resolutions. Oh, you like the idea of course. Who doesn’t fantasize about completely overhauling one’s life with one simple choice? But as most of us know from experience, it’s not that easy. No matter how strong our resolve, we inevitably fail.
Sure, you can go a few days without binge watching shows on Netflix or eating fatty foods or neglecting to exercise. Maybe even a few weeks or months. But you eventually fail. When it happens, you despise yourself and your own weakness. You renew your resolve and promise to do get back on track. And then you fail again—and then again. Discouragement sets in. It eats away at your resolve. You begin to rationalize your failure, to make excuses, and before you know it, your determination that was so strong only a short while ago evaporates. You give up, and go back to life as usual.
Spiritual Resolve, Spiritual Failure
Unless you have an iron will and have completely mastered yourself, this pattern probably sounds pretty familiar.
Yet, it doesn’t just apply to New Year’s resolutions. It far too often could describe our spiritual lives. Perhaps we read a good article online about the importance of prayer or the danger of some sin. We resolve to pray the rosary and read Scripture more in the days to come, and our intentions are nothing but good. But no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to stick with it. With each failure, our resolve weakens, and before we know it, we have given up.
The same applies in a negative sense with sin. Perhaps you have wrestled with a habitual sin for a long time, even years. You go to confession and resolve to do better with God’s help. But then you fail again and again. You begin to grow bitter and to lose hope of ever overcoming it.
You feel tremendous guilt, and you beat yourself up endlessly. “I’m so pathetic, so weak. God must hate me,” you begin to think. Your spiritual life becomes dominated by fear and shame. Maybe you even begin to resent God for not helping you more and for making the spiritual struggle so difficult. The feelings of failure and bitterness cause you to fall into a spiritual depression of sorts, in which none of it seems worth it. You give up on tending to your spiritual life altogether and the desire to please God you once had dissolves completely.
A righteous man falls seven times…
Does any of the above sound familiar? If so, you probably have a love-hate relationship with the spiritual life, just as I do with New Year’s resolutions. You want to please God and be a good Catholic, but no matter how hard you try, you seem to fail constantly. What do to?
The first thing we need to do is come to grow in self-knowledge. We are fallen beings, and while it might hurt our pride to say so, we are utterly helpless to do anything good on our own. So often we don’t realize this. We look at our failures and are surprised, as if perfection is our normal state of being and sin is an aberration. We think we can overcome our sinful nature with simple willpower.
The reality is exactly the opposite. Sin is our normal mode of existence. There is no sin, no act of depravity which we are not capable of committing. We should rather be surprised that we do anything good at all, and that when we fall, our falls our not more frequent or more grave.
Second, we must embrace the truth about ourselves in humility. As I said above, we think very highly of ourselves and our own abilities. God wants to cure us of this pride and self love, and allowing us to fall is one way of doing this. Without realizing our utter poverty, we will never advance in holiness.
With that in mind, imagine how it would inflate our egos if we were able to become masters of the spiritual life overnight, with a simple resolution and by mere will-power. We would very quickly become spiritual puffer fish, so to speak, in love with our own ability to do good. We would say haughtily like the Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are…”
Let us view each fall as an opportunity to grow in knowledge of our own weakness and in humble dependence upon God. Let us give thanks that we have not fallen more frequently or more gravely. Above all, let us remember that step one in the spiritual life is realizing our utter spiritual poverty. As Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Third, we must reject discouragement. The discouragement and hopelessness I described above is of the devil, and it is rooted in pride. It is deadly to our souls. When we fall into sin, we should immediately return to God in repentant love. Though we may feel as though our sin has driven God away from us, it is not true. It is never too soon to repent. God is always waiting, like the Father in the story of the prodigal son, to run to us and embrace us with open arms.
Fourth, We must remember that it is love that restores us to communion with God. As St. Maximilian Kolbe teaches us, “A single act of love makes the soul return to life.” When you fall, immediately tell Jesus that you love him, and then seek to please him with a concrete action. This act of love will breathe life into your soul and repair your relationship with our heavenly Father.
Finally, we must begin again day by day. I tend to think making resolutions for a whole year is rather foolish. We live one day at a time, not one year at a time. The masters of the spiritual life all encourage daily resolutions and daily examinations of conscience. This daily approach allows us to progress one step at a time and to pick ourselves up after each fall. It is also much easier to avoid discouragement when we are not looking to the past or the distant future. As King David wisely said, “I pay my vows day by day.”
Do Not Lose Courage
A monk was once asked, “What do you monks do in the monastery?” The monk replied, “We fall and get up again, fall and get up again.”
While we may have illusions that saints are those who never fall, and may long for a day when we will be invincible to failure, this simply isn’t reality. The only difference between the saints and the rest of humanity is that the saints kept getting up again, returning to God in repentance until the day of their death. Fall and get up again—this is the only prescription for holiness. Those who patiently endure will not be without their reward, for in the words of our Lord, “He who perseveres to the end will be saved.”