Recently as I was tidying up my Evernote database, I chanced upon the following excerpt from St Francis de Sales’ Roses Among Thorns – a very thought-provoking book that I completed numerous months ago:
Do not allow yourself to become angry or let yourself be surprised to see that your soul still has all the imperfections that you habitually confess. Even though you must reject and even detest them in order to amend your life, you must not oppose them with anger, but instead with courage and tranquility, so that you will be able to make a solid and secure resolution to correct them. (…) When we censure our neighbour or complain about him — something we should do rarely — we never bring it to an end, but are always beginning again and endlessly repeating our complaints and grievances, which is a sign of a nettlesome heart that has not yet regained its health. (16)
Embedded within the above excerpt are two striking issues worthy of exploration and further discussion. Firstly, Sales affirms a poignant reality of spiritual maturity i.e. that the further we traverse on this journey towards oneness and unity with Christ, the more aware we become of our soul’s “imperfections”. Indeed, I have been privy to the recurring emotions of anger and frustration whenever my imperfections, weaknesses and failings get surfaced. I often ask myself “Oh gosh, there you go again. Haven’t we been through this before? Why are you imbibing in these habitual, self-gratifying sins again, sins that serve no greater purpose and goodness than selfish pleasure? Don’t you know better? Didn’t you just go for confession and made a commitment to repent?”
And really, these accusatory albeit logical voices in my head often handicap me and sometimes lead me into a downward spiral of doubt, desolation and despair. Through such internal monologues, I begin to doubt my inherent goodness; I stumble into prolonged moments of desolation and I cannot help but feel a deep sense of despair.
Yet was it not written in Jeremiah 29:11 that God has a plan for me, “plans to prosper” me and “plans to give [me] hope and a future”? Surely I am not meant to drown in self-pity right? But why do I still fumble and fall into these habitual sins and then further accuse myself to the point of self-loathing? What possible purpose can these oscillations between self-awareness and self-denial serve?
Yes, I know that I am not perfect and cynics might go further to argue that perfection in itself is an unachievable ideal. However, a shift in perspective is appropriate at this juncture and a shift in perspective often brings about a shift in mindset. To me, the emphasis (and really, the rationale) for striving for perfection is seen in the word “striving”. The focus, therefore, should be on the process rather than the endpoint i.e. the formative, learning journey of trying, falling and trying again for Jesus is part and parcel of discipleship. Indeedn, my habitual sins and my stumblings in this journey of faith keeps me humble and purifies me from spiritual complacency and spiritual vanity. It is through my weaknesses — my meanderings, my haphazard stumbling, my fallings and failings —that God grants me compassion and empathy, compassion and empathy both for myself and for those around me.
And therefore, looking at the quote once again, it makes so much sense that Sales mentioned that the key to responding to such “imperfections” and weaknesses of the soul is one of “courage” and “tranquility”. Both these words speak profoundly to me simply because recent life-experiences have led me to believe that they form the fundamental pillars for self-acceptance and self-(re)discovery. To me, the value that undergirds both “courage” and “tranquility” is patience. Indeed, in St. Teresa of Avila’s famous prayer — “Let Nothing disturb you” — it is written that “patience obtains all things”. And patience is an essential value for courage; courage is not something that occurs at a spur of the moment. Sure, the courageous action of a person may be instigated by a moment but the cultivation of courage requires time. Similarly, tranquility and peace stems from patience. Patience is required for the bearing of fruits; “patience obtains all things” including tranquility. Patience, courage and tranquility, therefore, are dispositions that we require to look at our own imperfections with Truth and Love. Just as how we look lovingly at children who make mistakes, we too are called to look lovingly at ourselves and our imperfections. That being said, looking lovingly at ourselves does not mean excuse us from spiritual lethargy and lacklustre status-quo – not desiring to change one’s self for the better.
Next, let’s talk about the second portion of Sales’ beautiful quote:
When we censure our neighbour or complain about him — something we should do rarely — we never bring it to an end, but are always beginning again and endlessly repeating our complaints and grievances, which is a sign of a nettlesome heart that has not yet regained its health.
Indeed, what ruffles me externally really points to an unsettling within; we often express and externalise our inner unhappiness. Unless and until we conquer our internal demons, we often end up demonising others in our world. After all, a “nettlesome” heart really reflects a restless heart – one that is not at peace. We see the worst in others simply because we have not accepted, embraced (and even forgiven) the worst in ourselves. Really, then, when we find ourselves complaining about our neighbours and those around us — when we begin to critique others with a criticality that although disguised in logic and rationality, belie a harshness that is devoid of love — then we should really pause, reflect and introspect; we’ll need to search inwards to see (and calm) the inner anxiousness of our hearts.
Just the other day, a close friend mentioned to me that he often assumes the best in people – that everyone’s actions, in the context of church ministry stem from good intentions. When asked how he was able to adopt such a perspective (something that comes with great difficulty for me), he told me that this assumption allows him to adopt the most loving and most compassionate mindset and disposition towards others. Isn’t that beautiful? To me, his comment builds upon the essence of Sales’ quote. His comment suggests a heart that is at peace and at ease, a heart that is compassionate to itself and hence, compassionate to others. After all, how can we possibly be compassionate to others if we are not compassionate with ourselves first? How can we attempt to calm the turbulence of the world when we have yet to still the tempest within?
In the final analysis, Sales’ beautiful words reiterates the all-important and oft-repeated fundamental element of the Christian life: prayer, deep communicative prayer with the Divine. And prayer demands interior stillness and silence. After all, God was “not in the wind”, “not in the earthquake” and “not in the fire” but “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-12). Let us therefore, begin inwards to attune ourselves to this “whisper”. Let all of our outward actions stem from an inward discovery of solitude, prayer and reflection. Let us meet Jesus deep within ourselves. Let us experience the joy and strength of being fully loved and fully embraced by God in the quiet recesses of our hearts. Let us be consumed inwardly by the Holy Spirit and let the words of Samuel always be on the tips of our tongue as we respond to God’s calling in our daily lives — “speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok