Without having the benefit of Divine Revelation, Socrates, and by extension, Plato, was able to discover many truths about humanity. Lacking an understanding of Original Sin and its effects however, he also made a serious mistake in the area of ethics. This error is on display in the dialogue with Gorgias when Socrates makes the claim that all wrongdoing is a result of ignorance. He thought that once we know the good, we would automatically do it. Socrates’ ignorance was the problem, but it was ignorance of the Christian explanation of Original Sin that leaves him in error. With the fall of man there was not only a darkening of the intellect that caused ignorance but also a weakening of the will that makes even the good we know difficult to do. No one is immune to this defect in our nature, even the great Apostle to the Gentiles St. Paul, who candidly shared with the Romans his own struggle: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19). So universal is the experience that it almost seems to be common sense, which makes it odd that the wisest man in Athens did not catch it. Odd, that is, until we, especially those who have earnestly set out on the Christian journey, realize that all too often we make the same mistake.
Why did I single out those who have “earnestly set out on the Christian journey”? Because they are the ones who presumably pray, reflect upon their short comings and sins and do spiritual reading. And, therefore they are the ones that, according to St. Francis de Sales, are the most likely to fall victim to a subtle form of self-deception. They are the ones who, for example, want to learn from Our Lord to be meek and humble of heart. They begin by reading about and meditating on humility and meekness. They expose themselves to the lives of the saints who were meek and humble. They learn all Scripture has to say about humility and meekness. They even speculate what it might look like in their own life.
As all learning does is apt to do, knowledge about humility and meekness brings them great pleasure. Hearing or reading of humility and meekness puts them in a humble and meek state of mind. It gives them, as Screwtape says, “humble feelings”. This pleasure serves as a counterfeit of the real pleasure attached to mature virtue. That is, they become meek and humble only in their imagination. This imaginary humility and meekness helps them to quiet their conscience causing them to leave aside any self-reflection in these areas. They are virtues that have been conquered and it is time to move to the next set. The problem is that meekness and humility, like all the moral virtues, reside in the will and not in the intellect. You must do humble and meek things repeatedly and with ever greater vehemence to actually become humble and meek. You must, as St. James cautions, “become not just hearers of the word, but doers” (James 1:22).
Becoming Doers of the Word
St Francis de Sales issues the above mentioned caution, but also offers us a simple solution, a re-solution, you might say.
“Above all things, my child, strive when your meditation is ended to retain the thoughts and resolutions you have made as your earnest practice throughout the day. This is the real fruit of meditation, without which it is apt to be unprofitable, if not actually harmful–inasmuch as to dwell upon virtues without practicing them lends to puff us up with unrealities, until we begin to fancy ourselves all that we have meditated upon and resolved to be; which is all very well if our resolutions are earnest and substantial, but on the contrary hollow and dangerous if they are not put in practice. You must then diligently endeavor to carry out your resolutions, and seek for all opportunities, great or small. For instance, if your resolution was to win over those who oppose you by gentleness, seek through the day any occasion of meeting such persons kindly, and if none offers, strive to speak well of them, and pray for them” (Introduction to the Devout Life II, 8).
In speaking with many Christians who are soberly trying to live out their Christian call, but find themselves stuck, I find a common thread. They may devote consistent time to prayer, but they do not devote themselves to making concrete resolutions based on that prayer. I find this because I saw it in my own life first. I would religiously (literally) devote 30 minutes to meditation every day and would find that, when I wasn’t deceiving myself, that I had made little progress. That is until I read St. Francis de Sales’ great treatise on living a lay Catholic life, the Introduction to the Devout Life. It was the quote above that made me realize I was not consistently making resolutions and when I did they were too general. And while that persisted I was simply a hearer of the word. But when I allowed that word to penetrate not just my mind, but my will, I began to move again.
The key was making not just a vague resolution like “I will act humble today” but instead “when my co-worker who is constantly challenging me about everything does it again today, I will defer to him.” We might fail, but it was not for a lack of trying. The more effort we make even in failing, the more God responds with grace. Before long virtues that were arduous begin to bring some pleasure with them pushing along further.
Over the last few weeks my inbox has been flooded with this or that devotional for Lent. They are all good, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I simply put into practice what I already knew. What if rather than purchasing another devotional, I practiced greater devotion? Perhaps, you were wondering the same thing.