Friday, April 26, 2013

Counsels of Perfection: Interior and Exterior Life

Our reading for this week for Counsels of Perfection for Christian Mothers is Chapters 8-10:
  • Chapter VIII The Interior Life
  • Chapter IX  Government of the Tongue
  • Chapter X  Spiritual Imperfections
I have been busy, homeschool-planning, spring-cleaning, and getting ready for a daughter's graduation and wedding this May! and this section of reading was a bit challenging for me.  How about for you?  

For one thing, the topics don't seem to hang together conveniently.    Each time I read this book, I wonder how governing the tongue fits in with the interior life and imperfections.    The only thing that occurs to me is Matthew 15:11.
What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them."
 By that standard, what you say reflects your interior life's fruit.    If you have a sort of tabernacle or monastery or garden or castle in your heart where Jesus dwells, in the long run, the words you say will be a stream from that source.  In the short run, though, at least with me, it seems that my words sometimes come from a muddied source.   I say things that are too sharp, or too worldly, or too much negative information about someone that is not there to defend themselves.

Then I know I still have some spiritual housecleaning left to do. 

The Interior Life

The interior life is essentially a continual practicing the Presence of God, being aware of Him during the day as much as possible.

Getting preoccupied and forgetting to even think of God during the course of the day is quite human and (I think) comparable to involuntary distractions during devotions.      It is not culpable; but when you become aware again, refocus, gently but perseveringly.  

  • Think of God around you, in Creation and the workings of Providence.
  • Think of God within you, in your heart.   
  • Think of God in the events of daily life.  

This is something that even the busiest mother of babies can do because it doesn't require free hands.  

There are a lot of Desert Father stories about asking God to show them a truly devout person and being given a vision of a hardworking, uneducated, poor mother of many who has cultivated a little inner oasis of devotion while engaged in all her daily toils in the midst of the world.    (I can't find one of the stories right now, but when I do, I will share the link).   So surely if God has given us whatever duties in our lives, He means that we can become holy right in the midst of them. 

I mentioned a tabernacle, a castle, an inner garden, an inner cloister because these are analogies spiritual writers through the ages have mentioned.    Basically, all the terms imply a space set aside, tended and cared for, sheltered from the outside world, where there is beauty and order, and you can find the One Needful Thing.    But it doesn't have to be a physical space.  It can blossom inside the heart, and indeed, this is why it is called the interior life. 

Government of the Tongue

I suppose this has its own chapter because it is one of the grievous sins that ordinary people can slip into easily where they would avoid things like murder, adultery and property theft.

  • James 3 is salutary reading here.    The damage the tongue can do is compared to a fire.  It spreads beyond the control of the speaker and ruins beyond mending.  
  • Fr Hardon also has an article on detraction and slander.     Detraction is saying what is true but harmful of another person, without proportionate reason.   It is considered a sin just as saying lies about another person is.   A lot of people don't realize that true yet damaging criticism is potentially gravely sinful, especially when the other person has no chance to respond.     

But another person's good reputation belongs to him, and we may not do it injury by revealing, without proportionately grave reason, what we know is true about him.
In this cyber-media days, I think detraction and slander are even more like a fire (written speech counts as speech, I believe).    But even things said in the privacy of home can be harmful.   Msgr Lejeune points out that it is hard to expect our children to grow up reverent, respectful of others, and charitable if  our lips are, to use St Francis de Sales' memorable turn of phrase, "steeped in the blood of our neighbors."   

For myself, I find it hard to discern between what is "proportionately grave reason" and what is not.   Figuring that anything I say can easily be a judgment against myself and there is rarely any true necessity to criticize someone else, I try to "speak no ill of the absent" (St Augustine), but like everyone else, I find myself rationalizing "oh, this is a teaching moment" or "I am just sympathizing with the other person's irritation".  It's one of those "falling seven times a day" type things.    I think verbal speech is more difficult than written in this way because in a conversation, I end up saying things without reflection that I regret later.

This brings us to:
Spiritual Imperfections

Imperfections are not the same as sins.  Sins are large or small violations of obligation; they are transgressions against the law.   Imperfections are failures to follow the promptings of grace.    Msgr Lejeune lists several ways to distinguish true promptings of grace from just ordinary human thoughts.

I admit I have had some trouble understanding this chapter, maybe because I am still working on overcoming actual sin.   Also, I had had the impression that imperfections are faults that aren't deliberate but rise from weakness or ignorance or temperamental bias.    For example, Father Morrow writes in My Catholic Faith:

Imperfections are faults that arise from ignorance or weakness, not from a bad will. For instance involuntary distractions in prayer, "white lies" told while telling a story or in exagerations or jokes, bad manners that hurt no one much, are imperfections. We should, however, try to avoid all imperfections, for they are not praiseworthy, are often a cause of irritation to others, and make us accustomed to doing what is not correct.
And St Francis de Sales both diagnoses and indicates a remedy:

we have certain natural inclinations, which are not strictly speaking either mortal or venial sins, but rather imperfections; and the acts in which they take shape, failings and deficiencies. Thus S. Jerome says that S. Paula had so strong a tendency to excessive sorrow, that when she lost her husband and children she nearly died of grief: that was not a sin, but an imperfection, since it did not depend upon her wish and will. Some people are naturally easy, some oppositions; some are indisposed to accept other men’s opinions, some naturally disposed to be cross, some to be affectionate—in short, there is hardly any one in whom some such imperfections do not exist. Now, although they be natural and instinctive in each person, they may be remedied and corrected, or even eradicated, by cultivating the reverse disposition.  And this, my child, must be done.
Thinking of this always makes me wonder if Charlotte Mason had not read Francis de Sales, because her remedy for natural personality traits that come out in excessive behavior is similar to his:  practice the opposite virtue.

Msgr Lejeune's take on imperfection is that we are called to align our will with God's perfectly and so when we feel a prompting to grace that goes beyond a minimal precept, and harden our hearts to it, we are imperfect.

So, say, if St Francis of Assisi had become a monk but hadn't fallen in love with Lady Poverty, perhaps and devoted himself to her service, he might have been a good Christian still but mightn't have had the huge impact on Christendom that he did.     

I have a hard time distinguishing between just "what I COULD do hypothetically" and "what the Holy Spirit truly wants me to do at this point in my life".  My main criterion right now is whether it makes me feel sick to the stomach.   It is sort of like the way I can tell if I am overdoing exercise vs just feeling the burn.     I am using this standard until I am able to find a better one.  

This ends up going back to developing the interior life, I think.   But when I say "developing" it sounds strenuous and like you have to DO something, as if humans sought out God, which does not happen of its own.    Developing the inner life is something like learning to attend, to listen, to "incline the ear of your heart"; or like sitting in a beautiful secluded place and trying to let go of the inner monologue and really become aware of the trees, the flowers, the clouds in the sky.    The thing itself is receptive, but the active part is letting go of everything in the way, and that can be difficult, but God blesses any tiny step.

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