I am an extremely strong-willed person. I’m not nearly as strong willed as when I was younger, but it is still an ongoing battle. Our Lord, in His mercy, has had to break me repeatedly. Strong-willed people are incredibly independent and we often think we can go it alone or do it ourselves. This makes us prone to deep-seated sins in relation to pride. Pride is the heaviest of sins and is a major stumbling block on the path to holiness, which is why Christ does indeed have to break down certain souls, including me.
The path to holiness cannot be won through pride. We only attain it through the humility found in a willingness to place God at the center of our lives and to submit to His will above our own. For willful people this is a struggle, since so often we want to do it our own way or to know why God is asking us to do something before we do it. The Holy Spirit cannot work freely within us and through us, as long as we are seeking to remain in control and to place our will at the center of everything. At some point we all have to say, as Our Lord did in the Garden of Gethsemane, “not as I will, but as You will.”
All of us are weak. Every single person is capable of incredible darkness. Part of what leads to becoming judgmental of the sins of others is the false belief that we would never commit the grievous sins another person commits. We forget that in the right circumstances, we are all capable of terrible sins. The belief that we would never enter into such darkness comes from pride and the false belief that we are in control of everything.
Fr. Ignatius of the Side of Jesus in The School of Jesus Crucified states:
It almost always happens that interior sentiments of pride precede the commission of grievous sins. Peter was not aware of his own weakness. He preferred himself before others; he trusted in himself as though he were incapable of sinning, boasting that no temptation would separate him from Jesus. He would not even believe the assurance of his Divine Master, that he would deny him thrice. Deceived by this vain confidence in his own strength, he neglects to pray, and to have recourse to God; and God, in His justice, permits him to fall, in punishment of his pride. There is nothing more dangerous than to confide in our own strength, and trust to feelings of fervor. We are full of malice, and capable of committing the most enormous crimes, unless God supports us.
It is true that we may not be prone to the sins of others, but we are still prone to sin. Relying on our own strength and forgetting our own weaknesses always leads to the sin of pride, which then opens us up to a whole host of other sins. Pride leads to spiritual blindness and keeps us from remaining docile to the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
This is why it is in fact merciful and just when God allows us to fall due to our sins, especially pride. Finding ourselves face down in the dirt re-orients us back to the Way of the Cross and the path to holiness we are all called to walk. Even if we are sure of the path God is calling us to walk, we very easily can fall into pride when deciding how best to respond to God’s call. How we walk the path is as essential as the path itself. This is why strong willed people so often need to fall again and again. Each fall acts as the necessary refinement and detachment from our own will we need. Every fall leads to greater humility.
Lent is an opportunity to ask God to reveal to us where we are failing to submit to His will over our own. It’s a time to enter into the darkness that dwells within each one of us and allow Christ to shine His healing light into the places we hide away out of fear and shame. The Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving free us from the distractions or self-deceptions that we often use to flee from God.
In many ways, Lent should break us down. It should be difficult. This season is a time of confronting ourselves and the evil one so we can dedicate ourselves fully to following Christ. I have learned over the years that being broken down is not easy; in fact, it is brutal. We often avoid this process or seek counterfeits that keep us from the difficulties required of us to grow in holiness. There is no other way, however, if we truly desire sanctity and the promises of eternal life.
We have to die-to-self and that means—through the Holy Spirit’s guidance—coming to know ourselves, especially our weaknesses and personality flaws. In my case, being strong willed is a great gift only when it is ordered to God, otherwise strong-willed people tend to destroy the people closest to them. All of us are willful at times and we see the destructive wake it leaves behind. Even though the process of self-awareness is brutal, we know it is accomplished in the fires of God’s love. We can trust that if we submit to Him, joy will await us on the other side of the darkness we must go through in the interim.
One of the ways I have found to help in clarity of vision about myself and the spiritual battles raging around me is to ask Our Lady of Sorrows for guidance. Since we spend much of Lent focusing on Our Lord’s Passion, now is a time to go into the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary where we can find refuge and true knowledge about ourselves and all that God is asking of us. She walks into the darkness with us. As Our Sorrowful Mother, She is with us in the desert. She is our humble mother who will help lead us away from pride towards submitting to the will of God and His path for each one of our lives.
This Lent is an opportunity for us to be emptied of our own willfulness and pride, so that we can be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. It won’t be an easy process, but with Our Sorrowful Mother leading us deeper into union with God by way of our own darkness, we will find the path of joy and peace. We will come out of this Lent freer from the sins, weaknesses, and character flaws that weigh us down. May Our Lady of Sorrows lead us on the path to greater holiness in the desert places we find ourselves in in the coming weeks.