Most of the heresies that have opposed the Church in her progress through the world have arisen from the undue pressing of one side or one part of the truth. For the truth of the Christian Faith can generally be stated in the form of a paradox. And any failure to keep perfect balance and proportion in these statements results in error. The history of the struggles of the early ages is the history of the wonderful instinct with which the Church ever preserved the mean between the extremes toward one or another of which the human mind tended in the definition of the doctrines of the Faith.
In the definition of the doctrine of the Trinity, on the one side, were the Sabellians, who, in their effort to preserve the idea of the unity of the Godhead, sacrificed the threefold Personality; on the other, the Tritheists, who pressed the doctrine of the Three Persons into that of three separate and distinct Gods. Between these two stood the Church, preserving the truth and rejecting the extremes of both. The Godhead is one in three Persons. “The Father is God, the Son God, and the Holy Spirit God, and yet not three Gods but one God.”
So, again, in the doctrine of the Incarnation. The mind faltered before this great doctrine and bent now toward one side, now toward the other. Some, according to their natural temperament or their sense of the needs of man, pressed the Godhead of Christ to the injury of His perfect manhood. Others sacrificed the perfection of His Godhead to what they believed essential to His manhood; or yet again, so defined the union of the Godhead and manhood as to destroy the unity of His Person.
But amid all these controversies that spread over several hundred years, ranging from gross heresy to the nicest and most delicate overstatement or understatement of a truth, the Church ever kept the balance between the extremes of the contending parties, and taught that “Christ is perfect God and perfect man,” and that the union was effected “not by confusion of substance, but by unity of Person.”
So, again, with the doctrines of human life. Some, looking upon the nature of man, have felt most keenly its inherent badness; others, its inherent goodness. But the Church, recognizing fully all the evil and all the good that is in man, taught that his nature is neither wholly bad nor wholly good; that he is a being created in the image of God, but fallen, and that without God’s grace he cannot attain to his perfection.
Again, in regard to man’s spiritual life. There have been those who have taught that man’s greatest act is to be still and to leave God to work within him — that man can do nothing; God must do all. On the other hand, there have been others who, feeling the intensity of their own struggle and little sense of supernatural help, have taught that man must fight as best he can his own battles. And the Church, recognizing what was true, and rejecting what was erroneous and exaggerated, in each, taught the truth in the great paradox of St. Paul: “Work out your salvation. For it is God who worketh in you.”
Do not develop only part of your soul
There is the same danger of this pressing of part of a truth in the practical life. Man has many sides to his nature, and his conscience must take them all under its care. If he neglects part, he will find that he has injured the whole, for all are a part of the one person. It is true in more senses than one that “the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee.”63 Every member of the body must be used for the welfare of the whole organism. And every side of life must be used if a man is to be at his best.
Indeed, if anyone sets himself to develop merely one side, he will find that he fails to perfect even that side, for it needs many things that come to it from other quarters. One man determines to develop the social side and altogether neglects the religious, but he finds in time that the social side fails in its perfection through the lack of just those things that religion alone could give him. Another neglects the social side for religion, and he soon finds that his religion becomes fanciful, fantastic, and deceptive, unless it is brought in contact with the hard facts of human life and experience. Another determines that he will give his life to the training and development of his reason alone, but he learns, perhaps too late, that he is not merely a reasoning but a moral being, and that the reason isolated and separated from the rest of his nature suffers vengeance at the hands of those powers which, as its fellow workers, would have helped and perfected it.
There is the same danger in the struggle with sin and the effort to form virtues. Many people who set themselves to conquer one fault and give their whole minds to this will find, if they are not careful, that they have only fallen into another.
For virtue cannot thrive in the narrow soil of one department of the soul’s life, unnourished by the streams that should flow into it from all sides and unpruned by the hand that watches over and labors for the enrichment of the whole. Every Christian virtue has more sides than one and is a more complicated and delicately balanced thing than we imagine. It has to look, as it were, toward God and toward man; toward the person in whom it dwells and toward others; toward itself and its place in the soul and its relations with other virtues. It has to be tended in its growth by the intellect as well as by the will and affections, and has to endure much severe pruning at the hand of reason. It must be able to live in the open and bear the hard dealings of the rough world, and it must grow in the silence of prayer and the presence of God.
There may be such a thing as the overgrowth of the one virtue to the crowding out of others that are equally or perhaps more necessary. Or, on the other hand, we may develop a virtue in one department of life to the neglect of all others. It is not uncommon to find a man very different in his domestic relations from what he is in public life. There are not a few who are thoroughly truthful and honest in all the concerns of life except in the conduct of their business. But a virtue is not a Christian virtue if it is exercised with exceptions. It must have its roots in the person and spread through every department of the soul’s life.
In the effort to conquer our faults, therefore, we have to be on our guard against the danger of being one-sided. For the very virtues we may be striving for are not so simple as they seem, and the materials of which they are formed, if not mixed in exact proportion, may produce not a virtue but a fault.
Humility is the perfect blending of the very highest and the lowliest thoughts of oneself. The humble man is conscious at once of his own nothingness and of his exaltation as God’s creature, whom He would unite to Himself. And he somehow contrives with the deepest sense of his own unworthiness to maintain a dignity that wins respect. If he leaves out this self-respect, his humility is not true humility and ends in self-degradation.
Meekness is the blending of gentleness and strength — a strength that has been won by victory over self and passion, and a gentleness that shows that this victory is the outcome of no harshness and bitterness toward self or the world, but of love. Test true meekness by the severest trials to which it can be put, and you will find in it no flaw of weakness or harshness, but a dauntless courage of the loftiest kind and an inexhaustible gentleness.
So with charity. Christian charity is not a blind disregard of facts, a refusal to see things as they are, a condoning of the sins of others. It is the love of the sinner springing from the love of God, which necessitates the hatred of sin. There is a great deal of spurious charity in the world, making excuse for sin or explaining it away, devoid of strength and virility, and often mixed with insincerity and unreality. True Christian charity blends in perfect proportion justice and love.
Thus, we might go on and see how every virtue involves the balancing and blending of characteristics that seem at first sight almost opposite, and thus embrace the whole many-sided nature of man and keep him exact and well-proportioned. There is more truth than we realize in the saying “Every vice is a virtue carried to extremes.”
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Fr. Maturin’s Christian Self-Mastery, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.