Some Helpful Thoughts on Spiritual Progress BY REV. EDWARD F. GARESCHE, SJ.
ON THE MAKING OF FACES
THERE is a rule of our human development which is quite awesome in its significance to our individual selves. We are continually suffering or profiting from its application. You as you are, and I as I am, and such a one as such a one is, stand, all of us, as living evidences of the application of this principle. Yet how little some of us attend to its importance! The momentous principle is this, that we make our characters as we make our faces, by the repetition of casual actions, and that every good thing we do and every bad thing we do writes its impress on our minds and hearts as it does upon our bodily countenances.
This is only another way of saying that actions make habits. A terse truth easily told; yet, if we understand and apply it, a most precious guide to the correction of whatever we perceive to be amiss within us. It is the short formula for molding our character, rooting out our vices and implanting virtues in us.
You may have observed how, after a certain time and to an experienced observer, a man's face is the index of his character, the record of his previous history of emotions and expressions. On the changeable and fleshy tablets of the countenance are written subtle but legible records of most human qualities and passions. Benignity and kindness a thousand times repeated write the unmistakable characters of a heart that is benign and kind, even on a man's expression of countenance, so that very little children can read them there, and will come to such a one and shrink from that other face which is written over with severity and unkindness. We have all our own skill, conscious or unconscious, of reading countenances, and, although we are often unjust and mistaken, we still trust in our deductions; which would seem to show that there is a human instinct to try to read the heart from the face.
How was this fleshy record written? By countless acts of gentleness or harshness. Each time the obsequious muscles gathered themselves into lines of rudeness or of kindness they learned the more to hold those outlines and contours to which they were becoming bit by bit accustomed. They were acquiring the habit of that expression, and the outward habit of the face forms but a visible index to the far more significant and mighty inward habit of the mind and heart. For if each new deliberate action was insensibly but surely changing the expression of the countenance, then, with a much more certain and radical action, each exercise of goodness or yielding to evil was having its inward effect in moulding the character and the heart. If it is true, and it is true in a real sense, that we are constantly making our own faces, then it is true in a much deeper sense that we are forever moulding and forming the countenances of our souls, which men term our character.
A man's habits have been called his second nature, and indeed they constitute a nature more sure in its operations and more calculable in its influence on his actions than the inborn disposition which he has from nature itself. Every human being comes to the consciousness of existence with a certain set of propensities and inclinations which of themselves tend to draw him into action. Thus some are timid and some bold; some are inclined to ease and others to energetic effort; some are gentle, others rude—and so through all the characteristics of humanity. One can see these traits quite clearly even in children, and might predict what they would be in after life did one not know how powerfully the individual can change his character by actions contrary to the inborn inclination.
For let a man who is by nature timid and retiring practice assurance and courage, or even let him be thrown into circumstances which force him to the exercise of these qualities, and he will soon become more bold. Get him to repeat again and again these acts of daring, and his courage will become a rooted characteristic counteracting by the force of habit what may be a native timidity. So, too, of most other inclinations. Let a man by nature inactive and inert resolutely repeat acts of industry and he will acquire an energetic habit which will cloak over and perhaps quite conquer his native sluggishness. If one is by disposition rude and unkind, who does not know how the repetition of acts of deliberate courtesy and kindness will breed the contrary habits, until the boor may become a gentleman and the inconsiderate person grow to be courteous?
Even the superficial training of good breeding is singularly efficacious to subdue and change the natural instincts of men and women into the polished habits of refined society. Everyone knows, either from experience or hearsay, the ease and polish which good breeding bring to the perfect gentleman or lady. This exterior refinement is a result of training. It is the imposing of habits of consideration and courtesy upon natural selfishness and rudeness. It gives a uniform and polished sureness of demeanor in return for many acts of self-disciplining one's personal inclinations out of deference and regard to the sensibilities of others.
But the most remarkable examples of this change of the countenance of the soul by the cultivation of good habits is found in the careers of the saints. Under the influence of the grace of God, and inspired by a wish to imitate in their degree the perfections of the Word made flesh, these heroes of God repressed to such a point those natural inclinations which they perceived to be displeasing to Him, and practised so determinedly the virtues which they knew Him to desire in them, that they changed to an astonishing extent their own inward character, making a new man, so to speak, out of the old and reproducing wonderfully from their diversity of character and disposition the lineaments of Christ, whom they thirsted and hungered to resemble.
One might multiply examples. There was St. Francis de Sales, the sweetest of mortals, whose lips distilled gentleness and kindness, whose countenance drew even heretics by its engaging mildness and sweetness, and whose whole person, like his writings, was suffused with the genial sunshine of charity. Once on a time, speaking to an intimate friend who has preserved the saying for us, the saint confessed that he was by nature harsh and unkind, and that it was only the persevering effort of years that had subdued the unkind instincts in him. Repeated and deliberate acts of gentleness and goodness had so altered his countenance and his heart that from an unkind disposition he had acquired a nature sweet and kind like the nature of Christ. A very eloquent proof of the truth of this was the answer he gave once on a time when a very bad young man was brought to him for an admonition, in hopes that the saint could change his evil ways. The interview was fruitless, but through all his gentle reproaches St. Francis maintained an air of the most equal sweetness. After it was over some one remarked that if the saint had been more stern the young man might have listened to him. "It would have been no use," said the saint; "and besides, I was afraid that if I allowed myself to speak harshly I would have lost the little drop of honey, the little bit of human kindness, which I have stored in my heart by the efforts of these many years." He knew whence this characteristic of tender charity had come and with what infinite care and repeated effort he had gained it, knew, too, how easily lost by action is that which actions have acquired. Therefore he feared, even by one harsh saying, to distort the sweet and gentle countenance of his soul which he had made by so many efforts during so many years.
To ponder with realization upon this most practical principle of our human growth should give us no little consolation, it opens up such a practicable and immediate road to the perfecting of our disposition and our heart. We need not trouble about complex principles of spiritual progress nor vex ourselves with painful and confusing self-analysis. To correct a fault all we need is to set about perseveringly performing actions of the contrary virtue. To implant a good quality all we need attend to is the repetition of the corresponding good deed. This is the infallible way of developing our character, of making comely the countenance of our soul. It is, besides, the only way, barring a miracle. The laws of human nature ordain that by the repetition of good actions, and thus alone, good habits are formed and by the same simple means bad habits are rooted out.
It is curious how well we know the principle in merely earthly matters, yet how slow we are to apply to our soul's concerns the same obvious and practical principle. No matter what men are training for, if it be a race or a boxing match, a trade or an art, they always go about learning it or increasing their dexterity by practice. It is practice which rounds out the muscles of the athletes, makes the sinews of the boxer hard as brass, teaches the artisan's fingers to ply their task, gives the virtuoso brilliancy and technique, and rounds all human effort into that perfection of habit which we call skill, dexterity, achievement. Now what is practice but a repetition of the same action many times over until a habit is formed which becomes a second nature and operates without effort, with spontaneous ease? Our muscles and our mind are subject to the same law. By repeated effort, by continual action in the direction to which we aspire, we can wonderfully change our bodies and our souls.
Do not trouble any longer, therefore, about any deficiency which nature may have left in your character or your heart. The thing is remediable by the very simple means of persevering effort. Form for yourself a clear idea of what you wish to achieve, whether it be kindness or courage, industry or exactness, or any other virtue which the countenance of your soul most requires. Then, with determined perseverance, keep on performing actions of that virtue. However tough the fibre of your heart or unyielding the stuff of your disposition, it will change and be moulded into the lineaments of the virtue you desire. We cannot change our bodily countenances so very much, try as we will (and this to some of us may well seem a pity!) but we can change as we will the countenances of our souls. It will be our everlasting honour and delight in heaven to have made those souls as near as can be to the image of our Lord. The means is close at hand, the unremitting exercise of those virtues which He has recommended and which surely mould our hearts to the likeness of His own. Action upon action, stroke by stroke, the work must be done, the slow and tedious sculpturing completed. But is not the task worth while? For what we do in time we shall see in eternity, and all the ages to come will never mar nor change the heavenly countenance we give our soul.