Some Helpful Thoughts on Spiritual Progress BY REV. EDWARD F. GARESCHE, SJ.
LITTLE BY LITTLE
DISCOURAGEMENT, as we have often said, is one of the greatest obstacles and dangers in our struggle toward goodness, and it is a great source of discouragement to perceive that one has been trying a long time to become better and has gotten forward only a little. One looks back over the examinations of conscience, the good resolves, the prayers and exercises and devotions, and thinks, "What a vast deal of effort and struggle for such a very little apparent accomplishment! Surely it is an extremely disheartening thing to have tried for years and not to have completely corrected even a single defect!" Frankly, such a realization is discouraging. Unless we can fortify ourselves by some true and apt reflections of a cheerful hue we shall be hard hit by that dull sense of defeat which comes from realizing our little progress. To have gone on year after year honestly trying to be better, praying to be better and working to improve our life and character, and then to have gotten so little ahead after all, is in itself a highly disheartening affair. But is this common experience in the spiritual life really a reason for discouragement? To answer properly we must understand some often overlooked, but very actual, laws of the spiritual life.
To begin with, our spiritual life has got its laws and its ordinary course of progress just as has our physical existence. We must feed our soul as we must feed our body, in order that it may remain strong and vigorous. We must exercise our soul as we exercise our body to keep it fit and firm. Our soul has its times of distress just as our body has, when it needs particular care and solicitude, and sometimes the care of a physician; and there are spiritual remedies for the soul just as there are cures for the body's ailments. The comparison is, of course, not complete; few comparisons are. Our soul is a spirit, and the life of which we speak is a supernatural life. Therefore the nourishment of the soul is a supernatural nourishment, its exercises supernatural exercises, and the remedies that it needs are remedies not of this earth. But still there is a great deal of truth and light in the comparison, and we can infer many things concerning the life of our soul from the physical life of our body.
To begin with, the laws of growth of the soul, so far as concerns its faculties and powers, are a good deal like those of the body and its faculties. Our body grows strong or grows weak little by little in the ordinary course of events. If we wish to exercise our arm, let us say, and make it vigorous and strong as men do when they wish to play some game of strength and skill, we have to begin by very small increases and become more vigorous little by little.
Children who are growing rapidly show the swiftest change of all human development. How fast they gain weight and height! Yet who could possibly notice their growth from day to day. Even they develop little by little.
It is so in all human growth. The law of our nature is that we can grow better, stronger, swifter, surer, only little by little. The student who has a trained and keen capacity for acquiring knowledge, who has accuracy, retentiveness, insight, imagination, skill in expression—has gained all these things only little by little. Did anyone ever come to great knowledge in a short time. Learning gotten in a brief space is superficial. If it is quickly gained, it will not be profound, comprehensive, and mature. One may acquire a smattering of a subject in a short time, but to penetrate into its depths, possess its limits, and thoroughly assimilate its full contents one must grow wiser little by little. Studious nights and laborious days must all true scholars give as the bloody price of learning.
So it is in every plane of human effort. The scientist must rise to eminence little by little. The professional man acquires his practical skill not even during the slow years of his professional studies, but afterward in the long effort of active life, and so he, too, develops and gains knowledge little by little. The writer who seems to have fluency, aptness of phrase, swiftness of comprehension and expression, has got these things not soon nor easily, but by a weary and painstaking apprenticeship. His first efforts were crude, ridiculous perhaps, at least immature. They meant the spoiling of much good ink and white paper. But what skill and sureness he possesses he got little by little.
So one might go tediously on and find in every sphere of human activity this same inexorable law that progress is step by step and little by little.
Remember too that most human progress is only made at the expense of a great many partial failures. Even one's most large and definite steps forward are accompanied with a vast deal of slipping back. There was a curious and painful method of pilgrimage in old times which consisted in taking three steps forward and two backward until one reached the goal. It is a parable of human progress. In education our course is one of learning and partial forgetting; in science our advance lies by the way of discovering part truth and part falsehood, and then slowly and painstakingly separating the dross from the gold. In professional life how many failures precede that plenitude of skill which marks the expert practitioner. In any art how many canvases and how much clay are spoiled before one achieves the perfect masterpiece ?
Keeping this in mind, it is no wonder that our spiritual life should proceed in the same human and usual fashion, little by little, and with many slippings backward. Being human, we partake both of the benefits and the disadvantages of our human nature. Just as it is our nature to walk step by step and not to fly, to creep where we cannot run, and to go forward little by little where we cannot advance more swiftly, so in the spiritual life it is the lot of most people to go forward slowly, step by step, gaining ground with difficulty, always tending to slip backward and achieving a height of goodness only after long, breathless effort and weary times of discouragement. We are to be mountain climbers; we are not to go dully forward on the even level of mediocrity. We are to seek perfection, to try to imitate the Son of God Himself, always climbing upward toward His height, out of the common air of our human nature into the sweet freedom of the sunshine and the open places. What wonder that we grow weary, that we sometimes doubt if we are making progress; what marvel that the climbing is slow and the progress difficult, for we are aiming at lofty heights.
Apply these reflections to your personal experience, and you should get a great deal of consolation. It is much, after all, not to have gone backward. It is much, indeed, to have gone a little forward. If we find ourselves still struggling, still clinging to the hard rocks and urging ourselves forward from point to point and ever struggling upward, then all is well. God, who made our human nature, intends us not to fly from the low level to the topmost peaks, for this is a glory which He gives only to a few and the more favored of His servants. He intends most of us to gain our merit and our glory by trying and not always succeeding, but by still urging manfully on, with our eyes toward the heights. So long as we still are heaving upward, breathless and weary maybe, but still setting one brave footstep after another up the rocky sides of the peaks. He smiles on us with approval and is satisfied. For the merit of our state does not consist entirely in achieving, but greatly in continuing to climb.
It should be encouragement and consolation to know that we may get merit and please God very much by going forward little by little. He considers not the gift of the lover but the love of the giver. It is the intention, the inward devotion with which we perform our actions that pleases our Father's heart. If He wished to have us leap up the height, He could give us the strength to do so; if He wished us to fly, He could provide us with wings.
Indeed, in the case of defects which are not sins—and there are very many in our human nature—it may be better for us, in God's providence, not to get forward too fast, but rather to have to keep on struggling. We read in the lives of the saints that God left to many of them certain defects in their character and disposition to be a spur and an occasion to exercise humility and trust in God. That fiery warrior of Christ, St. Paul, the great Apostle, tells us that he cried out to God to be delivered from a grievous infirmity that was as a thorn in his flesh. But God, instead of hearing his prayer to be rid of this defect said to him, "My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity." This answer of God will apply to a whole host of our own deficiencies.
Again, there is a deal of salutary mortification in patiently bearing these defects. It is easy to sail on over tranquil seas, wafted by a favoring wind, where we find our way pleasant and our passage swift. We are inclined to believe that it is our own good strength and happy fervor which is sending us forward swiftly, and we forget to thank God for the favorable wind and the quiet sea. But let us find ourselves utterly impotent, struggling with prevailing winds and caught on the crests and in the hollows of a wicked sea. Then we shall appreciate our utter dependence on the divine Majesty, when we find ourselves entirely obliged to trust to God for help and aid and to acknowledge our own complete dependence on Him.
The great danger of human nature is pride. It was pride which in the beginning ruined our first parents, who, desiring to be as gods, disobeyed the command of the Most High and ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree. Ridiculous as it may seem, it is pride which is our own great peril. We who are fallen, stripped of the glory of our original innocence and reduced to such a pitiful pass— that we can still be proud is one of the mysteries of human nature. Yet so it is, and this pride is a danger even to those who are going forward in the spiritual life and who are making an earnest effort to get on in God's favor. The advances made, the consolations received, the knowledge that we are overcoming our defects, leave us sadly open to temptations to self-complacency. So that God our Father, knowing our weakness, puts us beyond the danger of pride by letting us experience at times our own nothingness and impotence. We know that we are nothing and the shadow of nothing, and that our whole being is as dust before God, but we feel this best and realize it most completely when after long efforts we find how little we have got forward and are compelled to acknowledge how weak we are even with the strong aid of the arm of God.
These reflections may cheer us a bit when we grow sad at making such scant progress in the way of goodness. Our going forward little by little should not be a discouragement, but a consolation. We may well put our entire trust in the mercy of God, and we should know that by going forward little by little we are in a human way getting toward heaven. Step by step must the journey be made. With straining limbs and streaming eyes we must go on climbing a little higher and higher. While we seem to be going forward so slowly, God is counting each effort and each struggle, and awards the prize, not to him who leaps up most swiftly, but to him who struggles onward with the most determined love.
In spite of our imperfections and weakness, in spite of the dark shadows that close our path and the perilous moments of anguish when we are clinging to a rude rock and cannot get forward, let us persevere until of a sudden our Father's hand takes us from the struggle and turmoil and lifts us up mightily through the mist of death to the heights toward which we are struggling. There for all ages to come we shall be glad of the struggling and the sighing, and shall be consoled by the knowledge that we have got on, somehow and with God's aid, even though we could only go forward little by little.