Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Spiritual Life

(Photo: Michael Kittell)
Archbishop Alban Goodier, S.J.

It is a truism to say that we all live two lives; but it may not be useless to examine what they are, and to see something of their relation to each other. There is the life which appears outside, which is seen and judged by others, and which occupies the chief, active part of our being; but there is also the other life, quite distinct from this, which seems to be forever sitting back within ourselves and never appearing, judging every thought, and word, and action of the other, and mercilessly and infallibly telling us whether it is really good or bad, right or wrong, commendable or the reverse, whatever others may say, or whatever we ourselves may try to think. We may affect to ignore it, but though it accepts the rebuff, it will not easily be ignored. We may call it all manner of names, but its very silence compels us to recognize our abuse to be no more than calumny. We may turn our whole attention to the outside, active life, to that which occupies our time, which brings us in contact with others, and which, we tell ourselves, is all that matters; still the silent gnawing at our hearts, speechless but eloquent, beaten down but ever persevering, lets us know beyond possibility of doubt that we are playing false, that we are not so convinced as we pretend, not so happy with ourselves as our words would signify, that we are turning to what we like, not to what we know to be the best, that we cannot deceive our real selves, though for a time we may deceive others, and even that outer self which we try to think is all that we are. Really, at heart, we are not deceived, and we know it; for to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are deceived is no deception.

Let us look at this fact a little more close at hand. Scarcely anything comes across my path, scarcely anything is seen with my eyes, or in any other way is borne in upon my mind, but I am conscious that at once, and almost at the same instant, I look on it from two points of view. I see it, perhaps, to be a thing beautiful in itself, or sweet and attractive to me, or something that will serve my purpose; or, on the other hand, it appears to me as something ugly, repulsive, injurious. But almost at the same moment, behind this first and clear apprehension, there is another onlooker within me, less impetuous but more discriminating, who begins to ask: "Is that thing wholly beautiful, or does it only appear so to me ? Is it really attractive, or does it only suit my palate here and now? Is it truly of use, or does it only serve my purpose for the moment?" Or, again: "Is it absolutely ugly, repulsive, injurious, or is this appearance only due to something discordant in myself? Is it more than an external coating, covering a wealth of real beauty, and loveliness, and blessing?"

Nor is it only at the first appearance of an object that this double self speaks. At every step we take, an echo of the footfall is heard within. We tell ourselves that a thing is good or bad; at once the voice's question is whether our judgment is sincere, whether it is not made to serve our purpose, declared good because we wish it so. We choose between one thing and another; the voice, heard only by ourselves, asks whether our choice is just, and is not rather the concrete expression of a desire long since entertained. We decide on a certain course of action; sometimes the voice dins in our ears that we are wrong and we know it, sometimes it merely reminds us that we have decided too quickly in a matter too momentous; sometimes, when we have made up our minds to have our way, there is heard no more than a distant wailing that haunts us like the lamentation of a ghost.

It is in vain for us to try to silence this inner voice. It is beyond our reach; we cannot gag it, we cannot shut it out for any length of time. We may argue with it and with ourselves, we may prove to verbal conviction that to listen to it is mawkish, scrupulous, paralyzing to all effort, undermining every action; in our hearts we know very well that the voice is right when it merely answers, without consenting to argue, that it is not true. We may affect not to hear it, we may effect to pity those who do, or to be interested in the psychological phenomenon they represent; we know that our affectation is that and no more, that our pity has been learnt at home, in practice upon ourselves, before it has shown itself abroad. We may proclaim against the tyranny, we may call it superstition, we may stigmatize it as the fruit of generations of priest-craft, we may call it every ugly name we like, and treat it with every kind of contempt or condescension; all the time it tells us, and we know it to be true, that in saying all this we are disloyal to ourselves and to mankind, that it is the safeguard of the noblest that is in us, that it is our one guarantee - to ourselves if not to others - that we are men, and living in a manner worthy of our manhood, that to stifle this voice, to use violence against it and throttle it, to be heartless and silently to defy it, is to inflict upon ourselves the murder of the best being that is in us.

No matter how we try, no matter how well we may play our part, we shall never succeed in deceiving ourselves altogether; if we did, we should have killed our very human nature. For a time, it is true, it is possible to forget and to ignore without adverting. We may, for a season, fill our lives with noise, with a whirl of tumult and excitement, with a temporary fascination, but after noise must come silence, excitement must rest to recuperate, every fascination has its awakening; then we return to ourselves, and deception is impossible, except, as we have said, that we may deceive ourselves into thinking that we are deceived. We appeal to our former convictions, we say we have these same convictions still; but with all our convictions we remain unconvinced. The voice that is unceasing within us is more true to us than we are to ourselves. It bides its time; it renews its wailing; it persists though we bid it to stop, though we close up our ears, though we abuse it, though we pervert its words, though before others, by word and action, we give it the lie; it persists, and in spite of all, if we will allow it, it will save us. Not only that, but will make of us the perfect creature that God and nature have both destined us to be.

And this, in our sober moments, when at last we acknowledge ourselves beaten, or when we are at peace and untroubled by any particular fascination, we see without any doubt. We may have revelled in the whirl of what we call life, whether it be the whirl of its joys or of its business, or of its interests, but in our hearts, when we are either free or compelled to judge, we know that there is a reality greater than all these. We know that the man whose life is wholly filled with these things misses the chief part of his manhood; he lives their life, he does not live his own. He may claim to be free, and to be living according to his own choice; but his freedom is subjected to them, and his choice is made at their dictation. The real man within him is dwarfed in his growth, and it is the knowledge of this, conscious and emphasized with time, however resented and denied, that gradually banishes the laughter from his face, and fills his latter days with a void, with a certain sense of self-contempt, with bitterness and failure. He fills the void with indulgence, but the indulgence rings of despair.

To anticipate and prevent this collapse, to guard against this self-deception and its consequences, is the aim and meaning of the spiritual life. The spiritual life is not a mere matter of devotion; not, at all events, of devotion as the word is commonly understood. Devotions in themselves are good, as all else in itself is good; but devotions are as liable to lead to self-deception as every other thing that attracts. The spiritual life goes deeper down; it aims at the making of the man, not on the surface only, but working outward from within. It would have a man first and foremost live according to the voice which in his heart he knows to be most true. It would have him learn to recognize the voice and listen to its teaching. It would have him weigh his judgments by what that voice suggests, and choose as that voice dictates, not as his meaner self demands. It would have him be free, and would make him free, not with that counterfeit freedom which must obey the dictate of indulgence, but with the freedom which can say "Yes" or "No" at will. It would have him be a man, not of mere flesh and blood, which are entirely slavish and dependent, but of spirit and soul, which are masters of themselves and all the world.

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