Growth in Holiness or, The Progress in the Spiritual Life
by Fr. Frederick William Faber
Chapter X - Human Respect
To give ourselves up to the spiritual life is to put ourselves out of harmony with the world around us. We make a discord even with much that is amiable and affectionate, and with which, as natural virtue, we cannot be altogether without sympathy. We live in a different world, have different interests and speak a different language, and the two worlds will not mingle. Grace holds us in one world ; nature draws us down again into the other. This is the secret of the immense power which human respect has over us ; and of the three dispositions which compose the normal state of the spiritual life, fatigue is the one which lays us most open to its attacks. We are weary of interior things and weakened by long combat, and a vigorous charge from an enemy who gets close to us under friendly colours is more than for the most part we can with stand. The good spirit, then, which should be the faithful satellite of our fatigue, is the presence of God, or singleness of purpose, or simplicity, but which I prefer to designate merely the absence of human respect, because no word seems so exactly to describe this spirit as the negative appellation in question.
There is much to be said of human respect. It is a fault most keenly felt by spiritual persons, and comparatively little felt by others. It is more like an atmosphere than anything else, and can hardly be caught and punished in distinct acts. But it is a thing of which there can be no doubt. We have an infallible consciousness of it. It gives undeniable evidences of its own existence. It destroys all liberty, and becomes the positive tyrant of a man's life. Yet if we look well into it, nothing can be more stupid than our submission to it. For we set little or no value on the separate opinions of individuals; and when the judgment is in our favour, it can do us no good, neither, unless true, can it afford us any rational pleasure. Indeed its power is altogether in the prospect, and not in the present possession. Yet it is almost universal, and must be dealt with as one of the most inconvenient facts of the spiritual life. Look at a person who is completely under its domination. Watch him in society and public life, or in the bosom of his family, or in the intimacies of friendship, or at confession and in conference with his director, or even with God in prayer, or in utter solitude. It is as if the omnipresence of God was sponged out all round him, and that some other powerful eye was fixed upon him, ruling him with a power like that of the solar light, and causing in him at all times an almost preternatural uneasiness.
It is not difficult to see the evils of this miserable world-presence, this spirit which gathers all mankind up into an eye and throws its portentous fascination upon our souls. It causes men to be false and insincere in their mutual relations, and to act inconsiderately with others. It destroys all generous enthusiasm either for charity or penance. It puts a man under the despotism of ridicule, which becomes a kind of false god to him. It is the contradictory of perfection, and while it is in force, renders it impossible; for it is always drawing us off from God to creatures. A brood of sins of omission follow it wherever it goes, sprung from shame and the fear of ridicule, and another brood of sins of commission, from the desire to please. In process of time, and the process is not slow, it establishes itself as an habitual distraction in prayer and meditation; and as to examination of conscience, that most real of spiritual exercises almost seems to supply food for the voracity of human respect.
It is as miserable as it is evil. The bondage of Carthusian austerity would be easier to bear. No slavery is more degraded and unhappy. What a misery to be ashamed of our duties and our principles! What a misery that every action should have a flaw in it, and a blight upon it! What a misery to lose at last, as we must inevitably do, the very thing for which all our sacrifices have been made, the respect of others! Misery of miseries thus to lose even respect for self! Religion, which ought to be our peace, becomes our torment. The very sacraments have a feeling of incompleteness about them, as if we did not, as we do not, use them rightly; and our communication with our director, which should be medicinal, is poisoned by this spirit. Surely we must try to get to the bottom of the matter, and to study the various phases of this disease of pious souls. A general wish to please, a laying ourselves out in particular subject matters in order to please, building castles in the air and imagining heroic acts, reflecting on the praise bestowed upon us, and giving way to low spirits when dispraised,— these are all manifestations of this horrible human respect.
Human respect, however, is not so much a particular fault, as a whole world of faults. It is the death of all religion. We shall never have an adequate horror of it until we admit that these hard words are no exaggeration. Let us therefore look at the place which it occupies in the grand struggle between' good and evil. First of all let us trace its rise; for this is a difficult problem, considering how in detail we all disbelieve in each other. The especial task of Christians is the realization of the invisible world. They have different standards of right and wrong from the votaries of earth. They live inextricably mixed up with the children of the world, as men using the same language with different meanings, and the confusion and apparent deceit grow worse every day, and the world, the owner of the territory or its lessee, more and more angry, and inclined, in spite of its theory of haughty toleration, to persecute those who thus wilfully put themselves at variance with the public peace. Men feel that religious people are right, and on that very account they will not look the fact in the face and submit to it. They feel it, because they feel that they are not irresponsible. Yet they chafe at the judgments of God, and His incessant interference. They chafe at the quiet way in which He gives His judgments and takes His own time to execute His verdicts. So, not being able to do without the judicial power, they consolidate God from Three Divine Persons into a function, a cause, a pantheistic fluid, or a mechanical force, and transfer the judicial power to mankind in a body. This seems to be the account of human respect in the mind. Men in all generations fret under God's judicial power. It seems as if, because of this fretfulness, it were one of the most unutterable of His compassions that He should have confided His ultimate judicial rights to our Lord as Man, and that in virtue of the Sacred Humanity He should be our judge. Looked at in a human point of view men's transfer of the judicial power to themselves may be said to have worked admirably. Social comfort, a standard of endurable morals, and generally what may be called for the moment liveableness have come of it. It causes a certain amount of individual unhappiness, because its police is harsh and rough, and the procedures of its court unkindly and of the Draconian school. But men have a compensation for this in its giving over to them utterly unquestioned the whole region of thought. Under the administration of God thoughts were acts, and were tried and found guilty as such. They furnished the most abundant materials for its tribunals, and were just what caused His jurisdiction to press so heavily upon the soul. Now all this is free. Calumny, detraction, rash judgments, spiteful criticism,—they make us wince as they visit our outward acts; but we may be as base as we please in thought, and yet walk through human courts with proud eye and head erect.
No wonder that when once human respect had taken its place among the powers of the world, it should cause especial desolation in the religious mind, and become a worse evil and a greater misery there than elsewhere. Indeed it is itself a sort of spurious counterfeit religion. For what is religiousness but the sensible presence of God, and religion the worship of Him? In religion the presence of God is our atmosphere. Sacraments, and prayer, and mortification, and all the exercises of the spiritual life are so many appointments, not only for realizing that presence, but for substantially introducing it both into body and soul. The respiration of our soul depends upon it. It produces a certain kind of character, a type of its own sort and easily recognized, a supernatural character which inspires other men with awe, love, hatred, or contempt, according to the different points of view from which they look at it. To the pure-minded it is the greatest possible amount of happiness on earth; for it infuses into us a certain marvellous unreasoning instinct for another world, as being faith's sight of Him who is invisible. Yet it is hardly conscious what it is it sees. Now is not human respect in its own way a simple copy and caricature of all this? A something which undertakes to perform for the world every function which the presence of God performs for the enlightened soul? It is in fact a mental paganism.
It is this similarity to a false religion which makes human respect so peculiarly dangerous. It does not alarm us by any grossness. On the contrary it forces sin into concealment. Not that this is any real boon to the best interests of men, for certain of the deadliest sins thrive best under cover. It confuses the boundaries between public opinion and itself, and pretends an alliance with prudence and discretion. This is a stratagem to be guarded against. For public opinion is within limits a legitimate power; and the man, who, because he was devout, should lay it down as a principle that he would never respect public opinion or be swayed by it, would be paving the way for the triumphs of delusion. Nothing can be more alien to the moderation of the Church. There is a vast difference between what my fellow-citizens expect of me, and show beforehand that they expect and give reasons for expecting, and the criticism they may pass upon my actions and my doing them rather with reference to that criticism than to the wish of God. I may be very indifferent to the criticism, while I am bound to respect the expectation. Moreover, human respect unsupernaturalizes actions, which are good in substance. It kills the nerve of the intention; but it gives us no such smart warning as the nerve of a tooth does in dying. It is like a worm in a nut; it eats away the kernel of our motive, and lets the fruit hang as fairly from the tree as ever. Eeligion is so much a matter of motives that this amounts to destroying it altogether; and as human respect introduces a directly wrong motive in lieu of the right one, it destroys spirituality in the most fatal way. Thus it is one of the completest instruments, which corrupt nature puts into the devil's hands and at his disposal for the destruction of souls. "What can be more hateful than this, and what more odious in the sight of God? A caricature is always odious, and it is odious in proportion to the beauty and dignity of what it caricatures; and as we have seen, human respect is a caricature of the presence and judicial power of God.
Few are aware until they honestly turn to God, how completely they are the slaves of this vice. Then they wake up to a sense of it, and see how it is in their blood, as if it were their life and their identity, an inexplicable unconquerable vital thing. Its rise is a mystery, for which we can only invent a theory. No one can tell for sure how it rose, or when, or why; it has been like an exhalation from corrupt humanity, the spreading of a silent pestilence that has no external symptoms. There is not a class of society which it has not mastered, no corner of private life that it has not invaded, no conventual cell but its air is freighted with the poisonous influence. It rivals what theologians call the pluri-presence of Satan. Its strength is so great that it can get the better of God's commandments and of the precepts of His Church, nay, of a man's own will, which last conquest even grace and penance find it difficult to achieve. It appears to increase with civilization, and with the extension of all means of locomotion and publicity. In modern society men systematize it, acknowledge it as a power, uphold its claims, and punish those who refuse submission. God is an ex-king amongst us, legitimate perhaps but deposed. It is much if we build Him in His own kingdom a house made with hands that He may dwell therein, and keep Himself within doors. Surely if the evil one has not preternaturally helped human respect, he has at least concentrated his energies on its spread and success. He is never more a prince than when he stoops to be the missionary of human respect.
Look into your own soul, and see how far this power has brought you into subjection. Is there a nook in your whole being, wherein you can sit down unmolested and breathe fresh air? Is there any exercise however spiritual, any occupation however sacred, any duty however solemn, over which the attractive influence of human respect is not being exercised? Have you any sanctuary the inside of which it has never seen? When you have thought it conquered, how often has it risen up again, as if defeat refreshed it like sleep? Does it not follow you as your shadow, as a perpetual black spot in the sweet sunshine? Yet how long is it since you turned to God, and became spiritual? How many Lents and Months of Mary have you passed, how many sacraments have you received, how many indulgences have you gained? Yet this human respect is, in spite of them all, so active, so robust, so unwearied, so ubiquitous? Can there be any question nearer your heart than what concerns the remedies for this evil?
The Church provides remedies for us in two ways, in her general system, and in her dealing with individual souls. She begins by boldly pronouncing a sentence of excommunication against the world. She ignores its judgments in her own subject-matter of religion, and proclaims its friendship nothing less than a declaration of war against God. She gives her children different standards of right and wrong from the world, and an opposite rule of conduct. All her positive precepts and her obligations of outward profession of faith are so many protests against human respect, and she canonizes just those men who have been heroes in their contempt for it. The world feels and understands the significance of these things, and shows it by anger, exhibiting all the quick jealousy of a conscious usurper.
But of far greater efficacy are the remedies which she administers to single souls in the confessional and in spiritual direction. The world dreads the secret power of that benign, cogent, and unreported tribunal. First of all, the Practice of the Presence of God is pitted against this universal human respect. We are taught how to act slowly, and to unite all our actions to God by a pure intention. We are bidden to take this fault as the subject of our particular examination of conscience, to pray earnestly against it, and to be full and open about our falls when we accuse ourselves in confession. Even in indifferent things we are recommended to adopt that line of conduct which tells most against human respect, were it only for the sake of mortification. This is often the rationale of the seemingly absurd and childish mortifications imposed in religious houses. For human respect is but a veiled worship of self, which we seem to transfer to the world, because self is even to us so small an object; and whatever kills this worship of self, as such mortifications do, is a blow to human respect. In casting out devils the saints have often delighted to use puerile means; so also may we cast this devil out of ourselves. Once let our souls be possessed by, a timid, childlike devotion to the Eye of God, eternal and unsleeping, and human respect will die away and disappear, as the autumnal leaves waste in the rain and enrich the soil for the coming spring.
But the great thing is to understand our real position in the world, and our relation to it. This knowledge is a perfect fortress against human respect, which is one of the chief causes of failure in aiming at perfection. Let us then try to ascertain how pious people stand to the world, and the world to them.
When we give ourselves up to God, we deliberately commit ourselves to live a supernatural life. Now what does a supernatural life mean? It means giving up this life altogether, as seeing we cannot have both worlds. Altogether! I hear you say. Yes! altogether. For how would you have me qualify it? Not that we shall not be a thousand times happier and sunnier even in this life; but it is from out the other life that the sunshine and happiness will come. This life must go, and altogether. There is no smoothing the word down. A supernatural life means that we do not make sin the limit of our freedom, but that we draw the line much nearer home, by the evangelical counsels. It means mortification, and mortification is the inflicting of voluntary punishment on ourselves, as if passing sentence on ourselves and executing it before the day of wrath. We put other interests, other loves, other enjoyments, in the place of those of the world. A conviction of our own weakness is the ground-work of all our actions, and we lean our whole weight on supernatural aids and sacramental assistances, as depending solely upon them. To a certain extent we even become unsocial by silence, or solitude, or penance, or seeming eccentricity, or vocation. In a word, we deliberately become members of a minority, knowing we shall suffer for it.
Now, realizing this significancy of the spiritual life, what is the view the world will naturally take of us, and how will it feel towards us? The world, half unconsciously, believes in its own infallibility. Hence it is first of all surprised, and then irritated, with our venturing to act on different principles from itself. Such a line of action denies the world's supremacy, and contradicts its narrow code of prudence and discretion. Our conduct is therefore a reflection on the world, as if God had outlawed it, which He has. Its fashions, its sects, its pursuits, its struggles, its tyranny and its conceits are to us no better than a self-important, grandiloquent puerility. Meanwhile, though we ignore the world, the world cannot ignore us, for we are a fact, intruding on its domain and interfering with its hypothesis. We ignore the world, and ignoring is the policy of the extremes of weakness and of strength. In our case it is of both, of natural weakness, of supernatural strength.
What sort of treatment then must we expect at the world's hands? It will have its phases and varieties according to circumstances. But on the whole we must expect as follows. If we succeed in what we undertake for God, or have influence, or convert persons, or take any high line, or reproach others by our example, we must make our account to be hated. We shall be feared, and with an angry fear, when men see we have a view and go on a principle, which they do not; and they fear it because they prognosticate our success. Men will fear us also, when they think we are working for God in secret, and they cannot find out how, and this they call jesuitism, a holy and a good word to ears wise and true! They will moreover suspect us of all manner of strange misdemeanours. They can hardly help it; for the disproportion of means to ends in supernatural conduct is ever a teazing, baffling problem to the carnal mind. They will blame us; for blame is easy; and we swerve from men's usual standard of praise. Moreover, condemnation of us is safe; for even so-called moderate men on our own side throw us overboard. With them indiscretion means provoking the world, and not being friends with that whose friendship the Holy Ghost tells us is enmity with God. We shall be misunderstood, because even those who would naturally take a goodnatured view of us cannot see what we see. They have no grasp of our principles, and so they often think they have got logical proof of our inconsistency. Besides which, we cannot even give a good account of ourselves. We must expect also, hard as we must strive to hinder it, to be more or less at variance with flesh and blood. Vocations, devotions, and penances have a sad though inculpable liability to disturb family peace. Parents are slow to give in to God, even long after children are come to years of ripe discretion. For instance, if a son marries, he will have liberty, because the world bids it; if he enters orders or religion, he will not, because only the Church bids it then. Yet these parents are good people, and religious in their way; why should not we be like them? So they think, and others say. We cannot see things in their light, and they cannot see things in ours.
Now to something of this kind, more or less, we committed ourselves when we took up the spiritual life in earnest. We knew what we were about. From that hour we parted company with the world, never more to do aught but fly from it as a plague, or face it as a foe. Human respect, therefore, must henceforth be for us either an impossibility, or an inconsistency, or a sin. What have we to do with giving or taking the world's respect, which we have bound ourselves eternally to disrespect? Enough for us that we have taken ourselves out of the world's hands, and out of our own, and put ourselves into the Hands of God, and we have felt those hands, O happy we! gently but firmly close over us, and hold us fast.
The various forms of social media breed and nourish a soul to yearn for human respect. For many it is like an abused opiate -- destroying health and mind, but used in attempts to feed a hunger it continues to deepen.