Some Helpful Thoughts on Spiritual Progress BY REV. EDWARD F. GARESCHE, SJ.
ONE sometimes sees men and women of zealous and fervent dispositions who are profoundly discouraged with things and have pretty well given up all expectations of personal achievement for God. They started out with sanguine enthusiasm and promised themselves that somehow or other they would manage to do something worth while for their neighbor and the Church. They made plans with some prudence and forethought and started out to accomplish them. But something happened. A chill was cast upon their vigorous enthusiasm; a cold discouragement was put over their zeal.
If one could look into the causes of their disillusionment and despair, one would find that these were due to misinterpretations. While they were vigorously pushing forward the work they were engaged in, and feeling some security of success, a whisper arose from a thoughtless or malicious tongue. It was hinted and insinuated, or it was openly said and brought to their hearing, that they were working for personal ambition; that they were trying to make themselves prominent; that they were aiming at office, or endeavoring to be influential in the parish, or to stand well with the pastor, or were working for a place in some city-wide society, league, or association. The whisper declared that they were seeking their own interests, hoping to get some personal profit, or working from the desire of reputation. There are few things more trying to sensitive souls than this, that well-meant efforts should be misinterpreted. Such an insinuation falls upon them like a shower of stinging sleet and chills their fervor like a biting wind. It seems such cold malice and mean uncharitableness that any of those whom they know are cruel enough thus to impute their efforts entirely to selfishness or to suspect them of doing their good works merely from pride.
Again, these accusations are the more dangerous and discouraging for such sanguine and energetic folk because they beget in them a fear and self-doubt and an uneasy feeling that the accusations may in part be true. The competent official in a society, the active leader of the laity, must naturally depend for some part of his or her energy on natural gifts. To have an ambitious, energetic disposition is a necessary requisite for getting along in such work. Side by side with the supernatural intention and the honest good will to serve God there goes, in most cases, a natural ambition and activity which is not only not wrong nor sinful, but which, well-directed, gives force and motive power to good work. What is required is not to crush but to govern and make supernatural this natural energy and ambition. But when one of these active, pushing, capable persons is accused of working merely out of interest and selfishness, then a chilling doubt comes over them whether after all it is worth while to go on. If they are merely working for self, if their motives are questionable, what is the use of so much effort. So one finds energetic, capable men and women, after such bitter experience, fearful and distrustful of themselves and of their own motives, and all because of the whispering of an uncharitable tongue.
It is very wise, then, for those who are occupied with any sort of active work for the neighbor or the Church to fortify themselves betimes against the evils of misinterpretation and to see, besides, what real and lasting good they can get from this seeming evil. For, taken rightly and properly improved on, these misinterpretations, which seem so bitter to the taste of the soul and so utterly unkind and useless, are in fact excellent occasions for merit and help immensely to purify the heart and soul and direct the intention straight to God.
To begin with, then, one has no occasion at all to be either surprised or vexed when such misinterpretations come upon one. As long as human nature is what it is, jealousy, suspicions, rash judgment, will from time to time be visited upon the good and the well-meaning. The devout and those who are engaged in charitable endeavor are sometimes singularly tempted to entertain an unconscious but none the less sharp and bitter feeling of jealously. So if they say a cutting word or make an unkind insinuation, there is no need to trouble about it at all. The wise will take it as part of the ordinary course of events to be sometimes criticized and misunderstood. The truth is that when such things are said they are often an indication that honest, fruitful work is going on. For no one would trouble himself to cast suspicions or make misinterpretations if nothing were being done which might seem worthy of approval and praise.
The occurrence of such misinterpretations is not a reason for leaving even a particle of good work undone. It is a very shrewd device of the devil to discourage good people by making them think they are doing their good works entirely out of personal interest. Those who fall a victim to misinterpretations, whether from their friends or enemies, should reflect a little that words are only words, as The Imitation says, and fly through the air, but hurt not a stone. Humility and prudence and common sense require us to pay only so much attention to them as they deserve, and mean and unjust accusations can harm us only if we listen to them and allow one particle of work go undone for fear of our motive being misunderstood.
Courage, too, and fidelity to God's work require that we should go manfully through these little difficulties, and there should be no small consolation for those who are thus misunderstood in the reflection that idle and listless folk are never envied, and that those who do nothing are quite safe from misinterpretation because they are unworthy of any notice at all. But the most precious part of these misinterpretations is, of course, the aid they give to perfection. To become gradually perfect, gradually to make our intentions entirely pure and as free as can be from selfish motives, entirely right and directed straight toward God, is no matter of a moment. It requires long and patient effort and struggle. It is to be accomplished only by the grace of God, and we are urged on toward it sometimes by the roughest circumstances. If, day after day, we see everything we do taken in good part by everyone and receive a great deal of cooperation and approval, then we may come in time to think that all is perfectly well with us and that our motives are entirely right and pure. But let someone misinterpret our actions and call our motives in question, and see what a fine searching of our conscience results and how much we are helped to discover just how far our intention is supernatural and independent of human praise and approval. These little joltings of criticism and misinterpretation wake up our souls and shake us into considering and testing the purity of our intentions.
Such an occasion is, besides, a very excellent spur to greater effort in God's service. Those who have the proper spirit and possess that fine and strong fibre of perseverance which alone will achieve perfection find their metal tested and their endurance tried in a very precious way by misinterpretation. Not without extraordinary reason does the Holy Scripture so often compare the life of man on earth to a warfare. It is a continual fight, a hand-to-hand tussle with enemies within and without us, and valor and perseverance, soldierly courage, and persistence are required to win to success. It is entirely hopeless for us to get quite creditably and honorably through this struggle called life unless we have that spiritual stamina, that toughness of the muscles of the will, that dogged determination to keep on. St. Ignatius has beautifully expressed all the high resolve of Christ's soldiers in his simple prayer: ''Grant me, O Lord, to give and not count the cost; to fight and forget the wounds; to work and not seek for rest."
It is the heavy blows of Ibfe which best test and toughen the metal of our resolution. That is why God in His Providence allows that the world should be so hard a place to live in. We are not at the end of our journey, but in its weary middle of the way. We are not at the victory, but in the thick of the fight. We are not ready to rest until we have learned how to keep on in war and labor. We need severe exercise, hard blows, and difficult going to exercise our souls. Now, among the heaviest blows, the most trying thrusts which explore the joints of our spiritual armor and try our dogged perseverance are precisely these digs of misinterpretation. To be told that one is ambitious when one really wishes to do good work for the neighbor and the Church is an excruciating thrust which jogs us to the teeth. To be accused of selfish intentions when we are fighting a battle for God's interests digs into the tenderest nerves of our spirit. Thus, again and again until death, the onslaught of rash judgment will follow us, always bitter and hard, but, well endured, always salutary and purifying. Each wound is bitter even to the most valiant soldier, but if we have perseverance and strength to stand this trial, it is very likely that we shall have courage to go through all other difficulties and gain a victory at last.