I found myself lying face down in the mud, having suffered a rather difficult, but typical fall on my way up the holy mountain. I found the temptations, spiritual attacks, habitual sins, and failings I was facing to be too much. I took my eyes off of Christ for a moment and I started focusing on my lack of progress, failures, and the onslaught of temptations being thrown my way. This then led to the inevitable cycle of self-loathing—which shame drives, but does none of us any good—and me sobbing on the phone to my husband while emailing my priest about needing Confession after daily Mass. This is the not-so-picturesque reality of the holy life.
There is a tendency in people to paint a pious beautiful picture in our minds of this sunny, easy path to holiness. We can actually fall for a false piety of our own making that looks like halos set just so, prayerful Rosaries, silently meditating perfectly, and being thankful that we are not nearly as sinful as our neighbor. “How is it so-and-so could commit such a grievous sin?”, some will scoff in righteous indignation. More-often-than-not, if we are asking this question it is because we don’t fully grasp what we are capable of in our Fallen state and how much we must come to fully rely on Christ to keep out of serious trouble and preserve grace in our souls. This is why priests smile and tell their parishioners that they’ve heard it all in the confessional. They aren’t surprised, so why are so many of us?
Evil dwells in all of our hearts
As we progress spiritually the light of grace shows the dark, murky places within us and at times it can be surprising, astonishing, or horrifying to us. This is primarily because we have an inaccurate or erroneous understanding of ourselves and the immense wound the Fall inflicted on human nature. In truth, our fallen state should not surprise us, but it does, especially living in a culture that espouses the moral therapeutic deism of only having to be a “good” person, whatever that even means. In reality, we are meant to be saints and that means striving for ‘being perfect like our Heavenly Father’ while confronting our wounded Fallen state. We should not engage in self-loathing or self-pity, but we should have an honest understanding of ourselves. This understanding will actually make the path to holiness somewhat easier, because we will stop allowing our failures to lead us to despair and we will stop thinking so highly of ourselves in relation to our neighbor. We will start relying on God, rather than ourselves and extend mercy to our neighbor.
Each one of us is capable of great evil and our small sins really aren’t so small when they compound over time. It can also be easy to become frustrated by the level of spiritual attacks we take in our daily lives and there is a very real temptation to become overwhelmed by it all. Whenever I increase my prayer life or reception of the Sacraments the battle becomes more intense and the Enemy goes right for the spiritual jugular. He has found points of weakness within me that I wasn’t even aware of until recently. This is because the Enemy wants me to slip up. He wants me to stop praying regularly, to avoid daily Mass, not go to regular Confession, and to give into temptation. We must pray for the grace to persevere in spite of whatever is thrown our way from within and without. When we do fail—which will happen repeatedly—then we go back to Confession and try again.
Temptation is inevitable
As Catholics, we can struggle with the reality of temptation in our own lives. We may have mistakenly believed—or still do–that once we begin to follow Christ and strive earnestly for holiness, then our battle will lessen. We may have thought that we would not face rather difficult temptations in a wide variety of forms, including temptations or sins we didn’t expect to battle. In fact, as we progress, the Enemy can begin to strike us in new and varied ways. We have to keep in mind that his goal is to get us to slip up, to avoid prayer, not grow in virtue, or avoid the Sacraments. The Enemy uses shame in order to make us hide in the same manner as Adam and Eve. We can struggle to see God as merciful when we fail or when venial sins even become too heavy. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger provides an excellent example of our struggle in the spiritual life in his discussion with Peter Seewald in God and the World.
This question [mercy in the face of our repeated sins] greatly troubled Augustine, who was always a suffering and struggling man. To start with, he thought that once one had converted one was on the high road to heaven. Later on he noticed that even this high road can be terribly difficult and that there are some very dark valleys. He was of the opinion that even Saint Paul, to the end of his life, suffered temptation, which is certainly something he read into Paul’s story from his own experience. But precisely because Augustine was so oppressed, it was essential for him to be able to talk to God as the merciful One, to seek refuge in him, to see his loving face and not to have to dispute with him. In that sense I believe that in fact the figure of Christ takes something of the bitterness out of our conflict.
The battle can be a mighty one and it is fought with small victories that are totally dependent on God’s grace and His working in our lives. If we try to go it alone then we will inevitably stumble and fall. The path is an arduous one that takes our entire lives to complete and even afterwards we may need purification in Purgatory. Even when we pray regularly and receive the Sacraments frequently, we will still face immense struggles. We are meant to persevere, but that doesn’t mean there will not be repeated failures. Every priest will tell you the same thing in the confessional when you complain about repeating the same sins over and over and over again. “Keep coming back. Keep trying.” We are in serious trouble when we stop trying and we give up.
We must become dependent on God
My frustration in this recent fall of mine was because I thought that I had conquered a particular vice that I have battled for over a decade. The world would see this vice as nothing at all. It is my coffee addiction. The problem is that God has called me in particular to give it up. It is a full-blown addiction that impacts me physically and mentally. I am very sensitive to medications, and caffeine—being a drug—has a negative impact on my body and my moods. I know quite clearly that the Holy Spirit is telling me to give it up for good. I also have chronic gastritis thanks to a faulty—now removed—gall bladder and caffeine aggravates this condition. I thought I had done it, but then I slipped up and once I did, a whole host of other vices and temptations came roaring at me. It’s interesting how closely our pet sins are related to one another or how the temptations the Enemy throws at us are often connected to other sins we battle. It is crucial for all of us to understand that temptations aren’t going to cease, and in fact, they can grow in strength and require even more dependence on God and will on our part until we have progressed past each one. That is the point: We must become fully dependent on God.
Men on earth are stained with many sins, deceived by many desires, enslaved by many fears, endangered by many snares, distracted by many curiosities, entangled with vanities, surrounded by errors, tired with labors, troubled by temptations, exhausted with pleasure, tormented with many wants. Afflictions and sorrows are seldom absent. You are surrounded by so many traps and enemies. Scarcely does one trouble or temptation go, when another arrives. Often enough, the first trouble is still with you when others come.
Confraternity of the Precious Blood, My Daily Bread, page 84
In all of these temptations and the times we sin and give into temptation, we must constantly focus on God and seek His aid. If we run from Him or try to do it on our own then we will fail. Christ does not want us to hide in shame from Him. He knows when we truly desire to be holy. He knows when we are trying in earnest. He’s not going to leave us or abandon us. He’s going to pick us back up, dust us off, and tell us to begin again. We may actually have to keep scaling the same section of the mountain. We may fall repeatedly, but every single time He will tell us to do it again. He knows we will fail, but He also knows that by His grace we will succeed in the end if we truly desire Him as the Ultimate End for our lives.