The topic of the second conference in this day of recollection is the second step of preparation for Holy Slavery, the knowledge of self. St. Louis Marie de Montfort says in his book on this devotion that one of the things Our Lady does when we give ourselves to her completely is that she gives us a knowledge of ourselves. She also helps us to die to self, to overcome ourselves.
All this may sound very strange to some people. What does it mean to “overcome yourself”? What does it mean to “die to yourself”?
As Father Lasance explains, we have within us three different lives. The first life is our physical life: we breathe, our hearts beat, we have various organs that maintain our physical lives. This life began when we were conceived and will last up until the moment we die.
The next is the spiritual life, the life of grace. This life began not at birth, but at baptism, when we received the grace of God. But this spiritual life dies whenever the soul falls into mortal sin, and is resurrected when the sin is absolved in a good confession. We must strive above all things to avoid mortal sin, which is the death of our spiritual life. True, as long as we have physical life, we can regain the spiritual life that has been lost by mortal sin, by means of a good confession. But we must strive not to lose it, and if we lose it we must regain it as quickly as possible. The most important thing in our lives is that we strive to persevere in living a life of sanctifying grace, day after day. That is all that really matters. When we die and stand before God, He is going to ask us one question: whether or not we have the life of grace in our soul. Some meditation books discuss the judgment, relating in great detail about how our guardian angel will be there, and devils will be there to accuse us, and so on. Perhaps this is true, but it all really boils down to one thing: whether or not we have the grace of God in our soul at the moment of death. Our eternity depends on this. And that, my dear friends, is why we must strive more than anything else to preserve in our souls the precious gift of sanctifying grace.
So what is the third life within us? The third life is sometimes called the life of Adam because it is the result of the sin of Adam and Eve. Our first parents disobeyed almighty God in the Garden of Paradise by eating of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree was given this name because before Adam and Eve ate of its fruit, they knew only good. Once they ate of the fruit, they knew evil; they spoiled God’s work. Sometimes theologians refer to original sin as a wound of our nature, and that wound, that deep gash in the beautiful picture of God’s creation, has tarnished His beautiful work. All of us came into this world with original sin on our soul. Although the cleansing waters of baptism washed original sin from our souls, never to return, the effects of that sin remain. This is why we are subject to illness and eventual death, why we must labor at knowledge (whereas Adam and Eve had infused knowledge), why we have to work to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow, and why we are in a fallen state. The most devastating effect of original sin, however, is concupiscence, the tendency to evil. We feel within ourselves an inclination to do what we know is wrong. St. Paul explained it very well when he said, “I find in my members another law fighting against the law in my mind.” On another occasion he says that we are engaged in a battle, the battle of the spirit and the flesh.
St. John the Evangelist points out that our three-fold enemy is the world, the flesh, and the devil. Of these, our most powerful adversary is our own fallen human nature. Our tendencies towards evil — whether in the form of pride, jealousy, anger, lust, sloth, covetousness, or whatever it may be — cause us more problems than the devil. We like to blame the devil, but we give him more credit than he deserves, for most of the trouble does not come from him so much as from our fallen human nature.
If, as St. Paul says, we are involved in the battle of the spirit against the flesh, how is the spirit going to win, which it must if we are to save our souls? Number one: vigilance. We must never let down our guard, we must never think that we’ve made it. Our fallen human nature may seem to be dead, but it is just lying low. In a moment of weakness, in a moment when we least expect it, it raises its ugly head, and, because of our lack of vigilance, we fall — and we fall miserably — into sin.
That seed of wickedness is always there. It will be there until the day we die. We might as well get used to it, and resolve to fight it, day in and day out. That is how the saints became saints. They never gave up. They fought against their fallen human nature and its inclinations, and they persevered in that battle. It is comforting to read about saints who had struggles. Many books on the saints written during the 1800’s were very flowery and left out any mention of struggle. Such books made it appear as though those saints were born saints, that they had nothing to overcome, they had no struggles. In our own century, authors began to realize they did a disservice to their readers by portraying a saint, not as a human being, but as nearly a divine being who had wonderful gifts, performed miracles, was always lost in prayer, and hardly ever had to eat. In some ways, such books can be discouraging. We can read them and think that it is impossible that we should ever become saints. Better the type of books that emphasize the struggles that the saints underwent! I guarantee you, my dear friends, that every saint had to struggle. The only exceptions were the infants who were baptized and died before reaching the age of reason. All the other saints in heaven had to battle against the world, the flesh and the devil, and often very heroically.
Many of the hardships of the saints make ours look like nothing. If you are tempted to feel sorry for yourself, read a good book on the life of St. Louis Marie de Montfort that explains his trials and humiliations. Remember, too, our Blessed Mother, and the swords that pierced her heart. When we think of these things, our sufferings become as nothing. Reading the lives of the saints helps motivate us to carry our crosses, as insignificant as they are compared to theirs.
Remember, too, that there is a saint for every type of person. Are you a widow? Have you lost a husband, or a son or daughter? Many women saints also lost their loved ones, and some of them at a very young age. Are you a man who has lost your job? Many saints experienced financial hardships. For every imaginable type of situation, there is a saint in heaven who has experienced it and suffered it.
Even the great Apostle St. Paul had to fight this spiritual battle. In one of his Epistles, he speaks of “a sting of the flesh” that buffeted him. Most authors believe that it was a temptation against purity. I find this consoling. Does this sound strange? I find it comforting that even St. Paul had severe temptations and struggles, because this realization helps us understand that we are not evil because we are tempted. It simply means that we are human beings and that God is testing us. If there is no temptation, no struggle, why should there be a reward? Why should you be allowed to enter heaven if you do not earn it? Temptations, crosses, and difficulties, my dear friends, are opportunities to prove your love for Almighty God. Our lot is to struggle, to fight the good fight, to win the battle and eventually the war, and thus deserve the crown of eternal glory. When St. Paul was tempted by that sting of the flesh, that angel of satan which came to buffet him, he prayed three times that God would take it away. And how did God answer St. Paul? He said, “No. My grace is sufficient for thee.” He wanted him to bear that temptation in order to prove his fidelity. God could have granted the prayer of St. Paul, but He didn’t. Why? Because God knows more than we do what is good for us.
You parents can relate to this very well. Suppose, for example, that a little child comes up to his mother while she’s cutting vegetables in the kitchen. He reaches for the knife, but before he can pull it down, his mother takes it away. The poor little child starts wailing because he wants that pretty, shiny object. The mother won’t give it to him, even though she loves him very much. Why? Because she knows better than the child what is good for him. Don’t you think that God knows much more than we do what is good for us? We only see a part of the picture; God sees the whole picture. He arranges things in our lives to achieve an ultimate end, and that end is eternal salvation. While we are suffering, we find it hard to see how it can contribute to that ultimate end. But God sees it. He knows how this cross, this trial, fits into His plan, and so He allows it to stay.
God even refused the petition of St. Paul. There is another lesson here: sometimes our prayers are not answered in the way that we want. Notice I say “the way that we want” — because God always hears our prayers, and He always gives us what is for the good of our soul. If you pray for something that is not for the good of your soul, then, like the mother who says no to her child, God will not grant your request. He will give you something better. That is why one of the conditions of prayer to be heard is that it be for our spiritual welfare, and it is why when we pray for something, we should always ask for it through Jesus and Mary as it is in accord with God’s Holy Will. We should place ourselves in the hands of our loving Father and say to Him, “I know You love me, and that You know what is best for me, and so I surrender myself into Your hands. Do with me what Thou wilt.” We ought to pray as Our Lord prayed in His Agony: “Father, not My Will, but Thine be done.” Conformity to God’s Will should always have a place in our prayer life, as in our entire life.
Each morning when we get out of bed, we are entering upon a battle. We all have within us the seven sources of all the other sins — the capital sins of pride, envy, anger, lust, covetousness, gluttony, sloth. And each of us has one particular area that is a greater weakness than the others. One person may have his greatest struggle with gluttony, and may find it very hard to control his palate, to be temperate. Someone else may have a problem with sloth, and may tend to be very lazy in the spiritual life, always putting off prayer, confession, and so forth. That’s spiritual sloth. Another person may have a problem with envy, with always looking at what everyone else has and feeling angry because he doesn’t have what they have. Then there is that person who has a problem with lust, with temptations against chastity that sometimes seem almost impossible to overcome. Or, again, it may be an inclination to anger, with the person finding himself becoming impatient and upset at the smallest thing. He finds himself saying words that he shouldn’t say, biting back at people, losing his temper.
We all have a particular Achilles’ heel, and in order to get anywhere in the spiritual life, we must first of all find out what it is. What is your particular weakness? The term used in the spiritual life for this is the predominant fault. You discover your predominant fault by doing two things: 1) praying for the grace to see it 2) examining your conscience every night before retiring. This is done by going over the day and thinking about where you have been and what you have done, what you have thought about, what you have said and done, in order to discover in what ways you may have offended almighty God. Over time you will see a pattern, of things that you do over and over, even though you have resolved to change. There it is, your predominant fault. It’s the one that you must especially attack. As with a row of dominoes, once the first one falls, all the others follow. It’s the same way in your spiritual life. If you discover your predominant fault and you work at trying to overcome it, if you completely eradicate it, everything else will be easy.
There is no sin, no fault, no failing that cannot be overcome. Some people think that they will never overcome their predominant fault, so they don’t even try. But something that actually is impossible to overcome cannot be a sin. A sin is something that is forbidden by the law of God that we do intentionally. We are free to either do it or not do it. Our freedom may be, so to speak, greatly reduced by the fact that we formed a bad habit. Nevertheless, we are still free.
Yet, we know that all too often such is not the case. We can resist, although it might be very hard to do so. By the grace of God and our efforts, we can overcome every temptation. God will do His part if we ask for His grace and do our part. This is what makes saints: God’s grace, and the soul’s cooperation. Still, not all the grace of God could make these souls saints without their cooperation. They had to open their minds and hearts to God’s grace, and with many acts of the will, they had to obey the law of God and cooperate over and over with His grace. “If you love Me,” said Our Lord, “keep My commandments.”
The Council of Trent taught something very interesting. God gives us grace, and where the grace is not enough, He always gives us the grace to ask for more grace. In other words, God gives the initial grace and He will not be wanting on His part as long as we do our part.
Does becoming a saint sound like too lofty a goal? Does it sound impossible? Our Lord said to all of us, “Be ye perfect even as My Heavenly Father is perfect.” If He wants us all to strive for perfection, then we can become saints. We may never be canonized or work any miracles, but we can sanctify ourselves. That is what we mean by becoming a saint. Not only ought we to reach heaven, but we ought to earn a high place there — and that is perfectly possible.
The sister of St. Thomas Aquinas one day asked her brother what she needed to do to become a saint. This brilliant and saintly man answered in two words: “Will it.” He did not give a long theological discourse on the secret ways of becoming a saint, because there is no secret to it. If you really want something, you will do what is necessary to attain it. St. Augustine prayed: “Lord let me know myself in order that I may know Thee.” This is why St. Louis puts this step, knowledge of self before the knowledge of Mary and of Jesus. If we really want to know and love Jesus and Mary, we must realize what we are, the fallen human nature we have, and the struggles that we must overcome.
Being a priest has many joys, but also many sorrows. Fr. Clement Kubesh, an old priest who passed away about ten years ago, once told me that “The saddest thing of all for a priest is when his people don’t become or strive to become what he wants them to be.” Over the years I have experienced the truth of this more and more. A priest wants nothing more than to see his parishioners live good Catholic lives. It is especially sad to see someone who otherwise is very fervent and lives a good Catholic life, but has a particular bad habit or sin that he doesn’t even see. Perhaps the greatest sin of all among traditional Catholics is gossip, rash judgment, and criticism of others, sometimes even of their priests and religious.
Priests and religious are human beings with imperfections, weaknesses, and they, too, get discouraged. That is why they need your prayers. Only in eternity will you know all the good that is brought about by even one nun simply sweeping the convent floors. She may not be a teacher in the school, or in a visible position in the parish, and yet she has given her life to God. That priest in the pulpit, too, with all his failings and his defects, has given his life to God. Sometimes lay people, instead of thinking about the wonderful things they have, instead of striving to sanctify their own souls, indulge in fault-finding, criticism and gossip of their priests, religious, and fellow parishioners. A new lady comes to the parish, and all that certain people see right away is that she is wearing slacks and doesn’t have a veil on her head. But she’s brand new! We can’t teach newcomers absolutely everything there is to know about the Catholic Faith right away. Allow the grace of God some time to work. As traditional Catholics, because of our situation with the Vatican II Church, we can tend to be judgmental. Our Lord said, “Judge not lest you be judged, for with what measure you judge, you shall be judged. Forgive those who have offended you. Because if you forgive men their offenses, your Heavenly Father will forgive you your offenses.”
It should be clear, then, why we must be aware of our fallen human nature. We should be so humble when we see how weak we are that we don’t even think of the faults of others. I like to mention the story of St. Francis of Assisi who said to his brothers one day, “I am the greatest sinner in the world.” They were all stunned by this, and finally one of them said, “Father Francis, you know that’s not true. You’re not the greatest sinner in the world. There are people who commit murder; you’ve never done that. Others steal, cheat, commit every other sin that there is, and you don’t do those things. How can you say that you are the greatest sinner in the world?” And he said, “Oh my brother, if you only knew me, you would know that I would commit every single one of those sins and much more if the grace of God did not hold me back.” St. Paul had another way of putting it: “But for the grace of God, there go I.” If God’s grace did not prevent me, I would do all sorts of evil things. Even though St. Francis of Assisi was so obviously holy, he was humble because he knew his weakness. He knew that any good he did was by the grace of God, not by his own efforts or worth.
So this is what we mean by knowledge of self. What are we, really? We have that physical life, the life of grace, but we also have a life of sin, of tendency to sin. And you may be a Catholic striving to live his or her faith, but if it were not for the grace of God, you could not do any of that. So let us be humble. Let us pray for the grace to know ourselves better day after day, and once we know ourselves and we know our faults, let us strive to overcome them, because my dear friends, that is a life-long task. We will never get to the point where the work is done, and we can sit down and relax. We must die, as St. Paul says it, we must die to ourselves daily. And who better to help us do that but our Blessed Mother.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.