How essential the spirit of holy confidence is in the spiritual life St Ignatius makes very plain in his book of Spiritual Exercises, where he is at pains to give us elaborate rules as to what our conduct should be in the time of what he calls “desolation”. This state of soul he describes as “the darkening and troubling of the mind, the prompting to things base and earthly, a certain uneasiness resulting from a state of agitation and temptation, and including diffidence, without hope and without love: as when the soul finds itself all weary, tepid, sad, and fancies itself separated from God”. And though the Saint does not hold a certain amount of desolation hurtful for the soul, yet, as in the matter of scruples, he deprecates a too deep-seated and long-continued state of despondency and discouragement as being one that detracts from the service of God, and robs it of all its spontaneity and generosity.
The thought of past sins which have darkened our existence
This spirit of diffidence and dejection arises in many cases from the thought of past sins which have darkened our existence. Closely connected with this source of temptation is the constant uneasiness and fear which many, even pious souls, entertain in regard to their confessions. It is true that they regret their misdeeds, that they have done penance for them, that they have had recourse times without number to the sacrament instituted for the remission of sins. Still they are restless, ill at ease: they rack and torture their souls as to the integrity of their former confessions. They would seem to be unaware that one honest effort made once for all, however imperfectly, is all that that is required of them; that forgotten sins, many perhaps of a serious nature, are as truly forgiven as those they have actually mentioned; that there is no obligation to confess sins of which they are not certain, that it is better even not to enter into the circumstances attending our transgressions unless they be such as to change their theological species.
Am I profoundly sorry for each and every sin I ever committed? Really?
Others worry over the dispositions with which they have received the sacraments in the past, especially over their contrition, which they imagine has never been sincere or really felt, as if feeling sorry was a necessary part of their dispositions, and not rather the will to be sorry. The first is not always in our power, however much we may desire it. The second, the act of the will, is always possible, presupposing of course the influx of divine grace; and even were that act slack and remiss, if it were there at all, it is enough with the sacraments to destroy all sin.
Man knoweth not whether he be worthy of love or hatred (Eccles. 9:1)
And yet some of these timorous souls seem to have reached the conclusion that they have never repented as they should, that they cannot shake off the burden that oppress them, and that their case is desperate beyond redemption. If only they could have the assurance that all the terrible past is cancelled, if only they could make a fresh start, with a clean slate before them, they imagine that the path of duty would be rendered smooth and the service of God become pleasant and comforting. In the present order of Providence, however, it has not seemed good that we should possess such an assurance. In our own interest and as an incentive to further effort, it is well that the great affair of our salvation should be shrouded in some obscurity; and accordingly the Holy Spirit tells us that “man knoweth not whether he be worthy of love or hatred” (Eccles. 9:1), not indeed that we can form or judge of our present state in the eyes of God, but that we cannot attain to any absolute, infallible certainty concerning it. Still we are far from being forbidden to entertain that inward moral certainty that usually guides us in the affairs of this life and which should be abundantly sufficient to make us walk in the way of the Lord in perfect peace and tranquillity of soul. “For the Holy Spirit giveth testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:16). Nay, to be troubled and uneasy, to doubt of our forgiveness after we have done our best and made an honest effort to be reconciled to God by the means He has appointed, is nothing short of injurious to His goodness: it is to disbelieve His plighted word: “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven.” It is in a way to reproduce the final crime of the traitor apostle, in whom were found all the elements of true repentance, acknowledgement of sin, sorrow, restitution, all save one, the most indispensable of all, namely confidence and hope. “Son,” said Our Lord to the man sick of the palsy, “be of good heart, thy sins are forgiven thee” (Matt. 9:2). We may take these words as addressed to ourselves. Short of a revelation, which we cannot expect, we have every reason to trust that we have to put away the past. We should be acting foolishly and falling into the toils of the tempter, were we to give ourselves over to anxiety, and doubt the assurance of Him who says: “I am he that blots out thy iniquities for my own sake, and I will not remember thy sins (Is. xIiii 25).
Is secret pride at the bottom of all this?
There are others, and many religious among them, who allow themselves to be disheartened, not so much perhaps at the thought of their past delinquencies, as because of the present failings and shortcomings which they detect in themselves. By the mercy of God, they may be habitually preserved from serious faults; but instead of realising that in this very fact they have a signal assistance of the special care which Providence is exercising over them, they dwell on the minor faults into which they are continually falling. They experience thereat a sense of humiliation: they are disappointed with themselves: they expected better results from their efforts; and accordingly they are ever finding fault with their corrupt nature, inclined to think that all their spiritual exercises are useless, their good resolutions of no avail; that they will never improve; that they are not pleasing in the sight of God, and that all their exterior observance is but hypocrisy and make-believe. Thus their whole life is one unbroken chain of restlessness, fear, and despondency, from which they derive no manner of profit or merit but rather cause God to keep aloof and withhold His help, since such feelings, far from honouring Him, are really offensive to Him. They are derogatory to His goodness and contrast with the wonderful patience He displays in bearing with our many defects. This spirit of dejection, moreover, often proceeds from a root of secret pride. It is not the offence to God contained in every sin, grievous or venal, which the proud man really heeds. What he considers is the loss of self-esteem, the fact that he has lowered himself, the shame of discovering so plainly his own weakness and impotence. He is astonished to find himself at fault after relying so much upon his own strength; and hence he is vexed, disappointed, disgusted with himself. A man of truly humble soul, on the other hand, hates his failings and sins for the sole reason that they are displeasing to God; but he is not surprised or taken aback because of a relapse. He knows only too well and he acknowledges freely the infirmity of his nature: he expected no better from his waywardness. In consequence he does not lose heart, he looks to God for more efficacious assistance on the next occasion, and thus actually rises from his defection stronger and more acceptable to His Maker.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 Jn 1:8)
We must learn to bear with ourselves, even as God bears with us: we must possess our souls in patience, for we cannot avoid all faults. “If we say that we have no sin,” says St John, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). We should no doubt labour to diminish their number and the deliberation with which they are committed, but it must be done gently. We may be sorrowful but not dismayed at their recurrence, and should nurture in ourselves the full confidence that little by little God will detach our hearts from the vain things of earth, and purify us more and more from such stain as we cannot altogether avoid in this world.
When we find our path beset with crosses, when misfortune seems to dog our steps, and one sorrow or affliction succeeds upon another…
The most usual cause of discouragement, however, from which we suffer takes its rise in the disappointments, hardships, and discomforts of life itself. It is when we find our path beset with crosses, when misfortune seems to dog our steps, and one sorrow or affliction succeeds upon another, when all our efforts end in failure and time brings with it no relief – it is then especially, perhaps, that we are tempted to abandon our trust in God, to doubt His providence, to think Him harsh, insensible, forgetful of our welfare. Now we are all liable to the law of suffering, sometimes acute and enduring, but whatever be our trial, it is undeniable that in all such cases a spirit of distrust only serves to intensify and to aggravate the evil.
The crosses of our own making are ordinarily more painful by far than those that are sent to us from above
The inner self-torture which springs from dissatisfaction and rebellion is a heavier burden than that which God would lay upon us, and crosses of our own making are ordinarily more painful by far than those that are sent to us from above. It is often because we brood upon them that our trials assume such proportions; it is because we are faint of heart that we feel them so keenly; it is because we fear “where there is no fear”, because we are slow to place our trust in the strong arm of the Lord that they crush and tear us to pieces.
…They are the clouds that gather round the base of the mountain but leave the summit radiant in everlasting sunshine
Samson once met a lion in his way, and though he was unarmed, he closed with the furious animal and overpowered it. A few days later on passing by the spot he found a honey-comb in the dead lion’s mouth. So it is that if we are brave, and face our difficulties with unflinching faith, we shall issue triumphant and find nothing but sweetness in the task. A truly confident soul, indeed, lives upon this earth in a kind of paradise. It may be sorely tried, assailed by the fierce blasts of temptation or tossed upon the waters of many tribulations; but these trials do but affect the outer man, the lower nature, the senses and the appetites; they cannot reach the higher spirit, the will and the understanding in which the true man consists. They are the clouds that gather round the base of the mountain but leave the summit radiant in everlasting sunshine: they are the waves that ruffle the surface of the ocean but disturb not the profound calm and tranquillity of the great deep below. It is that confidence that explains the serenity, the sweetness, the unutterable peace of many holy souls with whom we have sometimes been brought into contact. It is that confidence and love which in the case of certain saints has transformed the nature of things and rendered pleasant what was bitter and made them fall in love, as it were, with suffering itself, which caused St Teresa to cry out: “Either to suffer or to die,” and St Mary Magdalen of Pazzi, “Not to die but to suffer,” and St John of the Cross, when asked what reward he would have for his labours, “None other, Lord, than to suffer and to be condemned for thy sake.” It is that confidence that sustained the great Apostle of the Gentiles in the midst of the untold hardships of his mission – “in many labours, in prisons most frequently, in stripes above measure, in deaths often” (2 Cor. 11:23). He could say, “I speak the truth in Christ that I have great sadness and continual sorrow in my heart” (Rom. 9:2), and could yet utter the triumph, “I am filled with comfort, I overflow with joy in all our tribulation” (2 Cor. 7:4), “for I know whom I have believed and I am certain that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him, against that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). And we, too, have every reason for reposing our trust in Him whom we daily call our Father.
Putting our trust in Him whom we daily call our Father
The spirit of evil indeed is ever busy whispering in our ears that God is a stern and severe Lord and that we can live much more happily without Him. But in reality to look upon Him as a hard and unmerciful task-master is as untrue as it is blasphemous: it is as if we should say white is black or that light is darkness. The very essence of God is goodness. There is no creature so lowly, so insignificant that God does not care for it with the tenderness of a Father. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father” (Matt. 10:29). What is there that is held of less account than a sparrow? Men despise it, but God cares for it: He provides it with food, He clothes it against the winter, He protects it in face of its assailants. And yet it is but a sparrow, a thing of no value or import. And shall He not care for man, the masterpiece of His hands, for man who is His image, who is His child? “Fear not,” says our Saviour in words of everlasting comfort, “ye are better than many sparrows.”
The pledge and proof that God has been watching over us and directing our steps
We are His children and His compassion is greater than that of any earthly parent. Is it not He who has imparted to so many millions of parents, and of wicked parents too, so tender a love for their offspring? And does He not possess what He has given them in such abundance? Nay, is it not He who addresses to us the almost incredible words: “Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? And if she should forget, yet will I not forget thee” (Is xlix 15). We have only to look upon our past to see how gently and lovingly God has led us by the hand, in spite of much frailty, in spite of many infidelities, and perhaps most serious sins. Is not our baptism into His one true Church, the sacraments we have received, the life, the health we have enjoyed, the many other blessings given us, the many helps afforded us in difficult and trying moments, is not such a long chain of benefits of every kind, the pledge and proof that God has been watching over us and directing our steps with unfaltering solicitude? Is the source sealed or dried up from which so many blessings have flowed to this day? He who has been with us in the past will be with us in the future and “if God be with us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31). When the servant of Eliseus came to inform his master how a vast army with horses and chariots was in view, the Prophet replied: “Be not afraid, for there are more with us than against us.” We have with us the saints and the angels, the Queen of Heaven, God Almighty Himself, and against us, those who cannot move hand or foot without His sanction.
I know that I may count upon His love and His mercy
St Therese of Lisieux said, as we may read in her autobiography, “Even if I had on my conscience all the sins that could be committed, I should lose none of my trustfulness. With my heart broken in repentance, I should go and throw myself into my Saviour’s arms… I know that I may count upon His love and His mercy.” Let us pray to the Saint that we too may share in her confidence. “The voice of rejoicing and of salvation is in the tabernacles of the just” (Ps 142:15).
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949