July 25, 2011

Self-Pity and Comfort

For the feast of St. James today I was thinking about a certain kind of self-pity and resentment which is very debilitating in the spiritual life. It took me a long time to recognize it as the dangerous temptation that it is, and I confess that I still struggle with it.

Here are some examples of how the temptation arises.

I'm on the bus on my way to offer Mass at a parish I've never been to before. I'm struggling against the anxiety that arises because I anticipate the possibility of being made to feel uncomfortable by liturgical abuses I could be asked to consent to. Into the fight with this affliction arises the temptation: 'Why can't I just go somewhere and expect to be able to offer Mass the way the Church asks? I shouldn't have to worry about this! Why should I be made to feel like the bad guy when I'm the one who is faithful?'

If I consent to this thought, the next thing that comes is resentment against the pastor who allowed or promoted the abuses. Ultimately, though, the temptation is to resent God. More on that as we go along.

A similar temptation arises in community life. Why should I have to be scandalized by other brothers, or bored by them, or made anxious by their issues? (Notice how missing from this reflection is any admission that I might be scandalous, boring, or annoying to them.) Why can't we all just quietly live our religious life according to the Rule and Constitutions we have professed? Why can't we all just do what Canon Law says are the ordinary obligations of religious? (Notice again, how conveniently missing is any admission of the ways that I fail to observe these things.)

These temptations are very dangerous. If we consent to them they introduce into our spirits a self-pitying resentment which is itself an occasion of other sins and a great destroyer of devotion and spiritual attention. The temptation works on and gains its power from a false and dangerous belief. The belief is simple but rarely confessed. It is the belief that I deserve and am entitled to comfort.

The flesh of someone who desires a devout life is like the mother of James and John as she tries to intrigue with Jesus for the nice seats in the Kingdom of God. The flesh tells us that we too, who enjoy thinking that we have given up so much to follow Jesus, are entitled to the comfy seats in the Kingdom of God, and deserve to be made much of for how nice and good we are.

Sorry. That's not Christianity. That's the world. Want to be someone in the Kingdom of God, to sit in a high place? The thrones in the Kingdom of God are the Cross. That's what you get. It's the way to freedom and salvation, but it's a searing and terrible business. The vainglorious and comfort-seeking flesh will try to trick you off the path at every turn, telling you that you deserve a comfy seat and to be adored for the (imagined) greatness of your generosity, but when you give in to this temptation you will be left with nothing but anxiety and the rotten luxury of resenting God himself for failing to give you what you think you want.


James said...

Thank you. This is a particularly incisive commentary for me on my patronal feast.

Brother Michael said...

Excellent! Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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Michael Hallman said...

This is a great post, and really rings true for me. Thanks for the reflection.

Lee Gilbert said...

Looking at religious life from the outside, I have often wondered about the loss of "first fervor," for I understand that older religious are often amused by it in the postulants and novices of the order. Perhaps the dynamic you trace, or one similar to it, is responsible for the loss of this fervor, and God is amused at the professed for their naivete' but pleased with the fervent novice for his sagacity. I wonder.

However, out here in the lay world, there are certainly analogies to the dynamic you describe. The poor parent who has to lay down the law about whom it is appropriate to invite to family occasions in light of the disciplines of the faith, and who is concerned about scandal to the younger members of the family, does he or she deserve to be called judgmental, rigid and the like? Is it fair for God to put him or her in this very isolated and uncomfortable position?

For all the many sermons we get about forgivness, I have yet to hear one on forgiving God, but perhaps this is most necessary of all. I remember reading a lady once who said that she understands very well that God does not cause evil, but she had come to think of Him as the Great Permitter. Yes, this sort of thing is a very great temptation indeed, and a dynamic that is probably very common under many different guises.