Circular Letter: Lent 1995

Conquering the Ruling Passion

It is Lent, time to martial the troops and take up the spiritual battle with renewed vigor. Like a good general serving his king, we want to face the principal foe. The saying has it: strike Goliath and the Philistines will be scattered, that is, attack your principal fault and related vices will also yield to virtue.

In this undertaking, we have friends and foes. The devil is our principal extrinsic foe. Yet, the principal hindrance towards growth in holiness is within us. Had we the simplicity and purity of a child all the weapons of hell would be powerless against us. The temptations of the devil presuppose a proclivity in our soul towards some vice. A soul that yields to this propensity becomes a minion of the Prince of this world. Failure to fight will alienate us from the grace of God and from our Guardian Angel, whom God has given as our ally against the wiles of the devil.

The Secret Obstacles to Growth in Grace

The best defense is a good offense. This means we need to positively pursue holiness. Most impediments in the spiritual life lie within us and, sad to say, lie on the side of omission or ignorance. Lassitude in virtue and indifference to sin are largely due to estrangement from God which comes from the neglect of true devotions, the vitamins of the spiritual life.

First among these is the failure to cultivate a true friendship with Jesus Christ, beginning with His humanity. We claim to believe, and we say a few prayers by rote but we do not know how to converse with ‘this Stranger’. But friendship constitutes the very nature of charity and hence the bond Jesus wants to develop with each of us. Our ignorance of Christ and His love blocks the growth of this friendship, from which joy and fervor issue.

Many are held back by the error, thinking they must first be holy before aspiring to intimacy with Christ, whereas, in truth, the soul must first dare this intimacy and union with Christ so as to come to holiness. We must dare, like the publicans and sinners, like Magdalene and Zacchaeus to invite Christ into our home (heart), not because we are worthy and holy, but because we are not. Our hope must be entirely in His ennobling love and mercy, not in ourselves.

The second great lack is a true and filial devotion to Mary. She is our mother in the order of grace. A child’s love and access to its father are through its mother. God understood this, and gave us a Mother. It is not a question of routine prayers, but a question of cultivating an intimate filial relationship with the Blessed Mother. Prayer is a two-way street. If we are send our rosaries up a one-way street, there is something dreadfully wrong with our prayer life.

Through Mary to Christ; through Christ to the Father. “No one comes to the Father, but by Me…. He who sees Me, sees the Father” (Jn 14,6. 9). This longing for the Father is the third devotion lacking to many souls today. This explains why they lack momentum for the things of God, since the Father is our goal. This longing for the Father is impossible without the deep experiential conviction of the Father’s love. “The Father Himself loves you” (Jn 16, 27), and has poured His love into our hearts with the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 5,5).

The fourth hidden impediment to growth is a deep understanding and love for the Holy Spirit, in Whom Christ offered Himself to the Father (Cf. Heb 9,14). The Spirit is the band of love transcending consolation and the cross. In Him the Divine indwelling takes place; He bands us to God, yet He is scarcely known in His own Personhood. Today, appreciation for the Holy Spirit is growing, but how often this appreciation is limited to a desire for His consolation, such that souls end up loving the consolations of God rather than the God of consolations.

Before this error —- a diabetes of the spiritual life —- charity withers, since the sweet delight in the Beloved and in His gifts is only the first step in charity. The next, perfecting step is the gift of self to God. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice… to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12,1). Doing so, we will discover: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20,35). Note, it is not simply better, but it is more blessed to give than receive. Beatitude is the ultimate degree of happiness.

An Exterior Impediment to Spiritual Growth

Failure to esteem properly our exterior conduct is a fifth impediment to spiritual growth. By nature, we are body and soul, and so what we do on the outside necessarily affects our interior life, and vice versa. Beginners in the spiritual life tend to ignore this truth due to their discovery of the delights of meditation and interior prayer. While this ‘better part’ should not be taken from them, they should recognize that it is only a part and that the very mystery of Christ’s human life and activity has a great deal of ‘Martha’, properly ordered of course to God.

Growth in interior virtue demands that we heed and practice the little exterior virtues. Our nature is such that education begins on the outside. This is why five of St. Benedict’s twelve steps of humility deal with our external conduct. When we are faithful in little things, God will entrust greater things to us.

Identifying the Ruling Passion

The tyranny of the ruling passion would be more noticeable if we were not such willing slaves. The fact that the predominant fault is largely unknown is no argument for its non-existence, for it is naturally secretive. “The predominant fault is the defect in us that tends to prevail over the others, and thereby over our manner of feeling, judging, sympathizing, of willing and acting. It is a defect that has in each of us an intimate relation to our individual temperament.” It is hidden because it has become second nature to us, like a pair of ‘contact lenses’. We can never remember having seen or experienced reality in any other way. If not discovered and removed it not only leads to complete spiritual blindness, but also to final impenitence. Here is a real danger to salvation. Many are damned for their failure to resist their ruling passion. And purgatory is crowded due to the half-hearted efforts of the just. Our comfortable self-love emasculates fortitude.

More than a foreign cockle sown among the wheat, the ruling passion is linked to our predominant good quality. This should be developed for the glory of God and our own sanctification. If our predominant trait is reason, our predominant fault may well be narrowness, coldness and disdain. If our predominant trait is gentleness, our fault may be weakness or sensuality. If thrifty, then miserly. If generous, then irresponsible. If brave, then irascible. Unfortunately, in the measure that we esteem the virtue, we tend to oversee the defect or excess.

The predominant fault quickly becomes that quality with which we identify ourselves and our own excellence. While the worldly are proud of it, the ‘pious’ are oblivious of it. For example, the impatient are often proud of their hot temper. As long as thus, there is no hope for a cure.

Behold the most infelicitous of all marriages: self-love is espoused to our principal passion, and they become one flesh. The devil is our flattering ‘best man’. The first born is spiritual blindness.

Self-love is aggressive, persistent and cunning in the pursuit of its passion. Despite our piety and good intentions, we unwittingly submit to its dominion. We even argue its reasonableness, its appropriateness, its necessity and justice. Such love is truly blind, and these lovers scarcely ever see the ‘petty follies’ they commit. The devil uses these faults to destroy Catholic apostolates; the angels cannot penetrate the wall of complacent self-righteousness.

The ruling passion pulls the strings of other faults. How many souls spend their lives struggling against one fault, without realizing that there is a deeper, unseen fault that triggers it. For instance, few impatient and angry souls realize that avarice is root behind their passion. This root evil also brings forth much religious zeal. For many souls tormented by impurity, vanity is the deeper problem.

Under the guise of virtue, the ruling passion may also resist vices contrary to its own style and self interest. Ambition in pious souls may become a champion of prudence, of frugality and chastity, yet these are not holy before God, because they not sought for the sake of His Kingdom. The Jansenists were said to be “pure as angels, but proud as devils!” Self-righteousness nearly always sports a many colored mantle.

Recognizing our own Ruling Passion

Before we can take up the battle, we must first identify the foe. This is easier for beginners than for advanced souls, because their self-love is less subtle and refined. With time, self-love learns to put on make-up: pride presents itself as magnanimity, pusillanimity begs off as humility, etc.

First, we should ask God for the light of the Holy Spirit. Then, we need to make a universal self-examination; this may extend over a period of time. We fail to see the forest for the trees. Caught up in the daily struggle, we overlook the basic pattern. We need an aerial view.

Surveying our entire life, we shall likely find that there is one attitude, one state of mind or disposition of soul with which we are most comfortable, a passion which taken alone best describes us. Moreover, we may also verify that we lack any inclination to resist it. A sense of powerlessness, repugnance and pain afflicts us, when we have to do violence to ourself in this area of our interior life. It even goes so far, as Faber notes: “when accused of this fault by others, we shall probably answer that while we acknowledge we have many faults, yet certainly we cannot charge ourself with this one.” In no other area of the interior life are we so inclined to make excuses or to justify ourselves. In no other area are we so inclined to postpone amendment.

We can also recognize this passion by its intensity, by its volatile sensitivity at the least stimulus and out of all due proportion. It is the principal cause of disordered sadness and joy in our lives. This passion also insinuates itself into nearly all our other affairs. Livelier are its impressions and distractions. They are more frequent, more captivating and more difficult to dispel. If we observe closely, the majority and the most damaging of our falls are similarly related to it. Not surprisingly, the devil nearly always returns to this ‘trump’ of temptation.

With the light of the Guardian Angel we might even discover in a deeper self-examination that several seemingly unrelated faults actually have a common root in this fault. To get at this root, we need to dig deeper until we discover the “why” beneath our sins. Unless we get the devil–grass out by the roots, it will surely come back.

On the positive side, the Holy Guardian Angel has oft exhorted us to little sacrifices and mortifications in this area. Failure to respond to these inspirations of grace explains not only many humiliating falls but also the silence of the Guardian Angel. What can he do when we treat him with deaf ears?

Combating our Principal Passion

Great is the advantage in knowing our principal fault. We are thus forewarned about the danger zones and and clearly perceive the key virtues for our interior life. Here lies our future crown of glory for Christ’s grace comes to perfection in weakness. And since this grace comes to us especially through our Guardian Angel, we may be assured that this is his area of specialization. Consequently, it is in this struggle that we can most rapidly develop our friendship with our Angel.

Battling our predominant is like a civil war, indeed, we are fighting against ourself: “We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills to bruise them dearer.” The ruling passion loathes to take up arms against itself. When we do muster enough resolve to fight this fault, we still often harbor an unreal desire that the campaign be short, decisive and painless. How easily the soul is deceived: self-love feigns capitulation, so that we too easily sign a false peace with our passions, which continue to spread like an unperceived cancer.

Reason tells us that a quick victory is impossible, for the passions are part of our very nature. The faculties of the soul are changed for the better only slowly and with much labor. It is more difficult to run uphill than down, it is more difficult to form virtue than vice. Vice is overcome only by the formation of virtue; the ruling passion is converted only by the transformation of our soul. This is achieved by accepting the yoke of Christ and bringing this passion into the service of God.

The joy of the harvest presuppose the labors of plowing, sowing and cultivate the crop of virtues in our soul. Here is a call for patience, not precipitation; this demands violence in slow motion, namely, perseverance. In long suffering the old man is transformed into the new man in Christ. Note well, that there is more a suffering than a doing. The ‘doing’ is largely the bearing of interior, spiritual pain that comes from the refusal to yield to the ‘doings’ of the old man. How important holy silence is in this furnace of love, where renunciation is the glaze of sanctity.

In this painful process we become true disciples of Christ and learn to glory in His Cross (cf. Gal. 6,14). which stands in opposition to the spirit of the world because it aspires to something beyond, and sacrifices self and the world to gain it. This is why the world hates all those who really follow Christ. St. Francis de Sales writes: “Christian doctrine has three principles on which it bases all its practices. [First], self-denial, which is far more than to abstain from pleasure. [Second], to carry Christ’s Cross, which is far more than to lift it up. [And third], to follow our Lord, not only in renouncing self and in carrying His cross, but also in whatever belongs to the practice of every kind of good work.”

Victory is the Lord’s

The final victory is the Lord’s, but one which He wishes to share and to accomplish in and through us with our collaboration: “He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with Me on My throne, as I Myself conquered and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Apoc 4,21). How important it is in the spiritual life and in its many battles to focus our sight ever anew on the light and the glory of Christ, confident that we ourselves “are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3,18). This goal is measured not by consolation, but by the depth of our faith and charity. Every effort should declare our love for God. Every act of love already unites us more intimately with Him. In the measure we are strong in believing in His love for us, we shall be strong in dying to ourselves, so as to rise with Him and share in the glory and joy of His resurrection (cf. Co.3, 3-4; Jn 12,25-26). In this victory,”It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2,20).

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

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