Is it Pointless? | On Interior Struggle and Determination
“Don’t be ashamed to discover in your heart the fomes peccati — the inclination to evil, which will be with you as long as you live, for nobody is free from this burden. Don’t be ashamed, because the all-powerful and merciful Lord has given us all the means we need for overcoming this inclination: the Sacraments, a life of piety and sanctified work. —Persevere in using these means, ever ready to begin again and again without getting discouraged.”
ST. JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA
The Forge, no. 119
We don’t need to be told that we struggle. Forget about the supernatural struggle to become saints: We struggle daily not only to become holy but just to be good people—naturally good, naturally virtuous. The daily test of basic virtues like patience, kindness, honesty, etc., are often more than enough to engage us, let alone the heroic virtues of the saints. This fact alone can make the struggle seem so remedial as to be useless. As though we are always recovering lost ground instead of moving forward.
Willingness to fight the good fight is threatened by the seeming pointlessness of it. And this is why we need to know not that we struggle, but the purpose of it. Having the “why” in view can make our struggle more fruitful, purposeful, and even easier.
First, only sick people struggle. Don’t feel bad: in God’s eyes, we are all sick: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk 5:31). Not all are sick to the same degree, but all need the healing grace of Christ to be made whole. Just as bodily illness engages the immune system to fight off sickness, so does Christ’s healing grace do battle against our moral maladies. Question: Does God’s grace, like some over-the-counter remedies, only relieve symptoms? Or is His a deeper healing, so deep that he might even leave “surface” disturbances hanging on?
If we spend years contending with our faults without apparently getting anywhere, it might be that God has left them there precisely to trouble us. Why? Because there’s nothing like a persistent fault to grab the attention of the soul striving for holiness. The slothful shrug off their failures and fall back to sleep. The zealous feel their inconsistency and burn to overcome. The disturbance should inspire soul-searching, a getting to the root of the problem. And this is what God’s unhurried healing aims at.
Our Lord is extremely eager to heal. Pope Benedict XVI once wrote: “Healing is an essential dimension of the apostolic mission of Christianity,” so much so as to sum up the goal of redemption itself.¹ Healing indeed heralds the kingdom of God and remains throughout the ages the personal signature of the Messiah on the redeemed soul.
Yet we need to be clear on this point: healing of the body is not the main thing in the Lord’s eyes. Some whom Jesus healed turned against Him; some whose hunger he sated with miraculous bread rejected Him. In all of our Lord’s bodily healings, there is something that goes beyond the body. Beyond making it healthy again, there is a bigger picture. And those surface disturbances (temptations, passions, impulses) should lead us inward to reflect on their underlying causes. Obviously, the effects of original sin are still with us, leaving behind what St Thomas Aquinas calls “fomes peccati,” normally translated as “tinder” or “kindling material” for sin. The Catechism expands on the idea:
Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, “the tinder for sin” (fomes peccati); since concupiscence “is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” (CCC 1264)
Once again, we have the acknowledgement of a moral ‘wrestling match’ but we still need to look deeper into this. Our habitual sins certainly flare up from this burnable stubble, but what makes them repeat, what creates the habit, is what the Lord calls us to examine. Going a step further than the sin, we should ask ourselves: For what purpose is this problem here, even if I am at fault for it? How does this issue open me to hear the Gospel? How does this open me to receive grace? How does this affliction touch me where I hurt most? How does this or that problem make me feel so inadequate that I feel the need for Jesus? And lastly: What is my root sickness?
These crucial questions bring us to the core of gospel healing: beyond a restored body, as Pope Benedict observes, the deeper healing needed is Jesus becoming Lord in us. Jesus becoming Lord in us. Every time we struggle, our battle is really a more or less scale model of this war for Lordship in our souls, described by St Paul as “our warfare” (2 Cor 10:4).
What does this conflict heal within us?
Within each of us is a child of Adam who does not fully trust God. There is someone who wants to control his own life down to the last detail, someone who struggles to believe that God can and will meet all of his needs, someone who questions God’s efficiency and foresight and His unbelievable patience—with all that’s wrong in the world and in my life—and someone who absolutely dreads the full implications of the stark order: “Follow me.”
The great Dominican theologian, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877-1964), identifies these tendencies as a manifestation of the biblical “pride of life,” which is
the love of absolute independence, the refusal to acknowledge an authority superior to ourselves. It is the gravest of all disorders, graver than concupiscence of the eyes and of the flesh, graver than avarice and excessive love of riches and luxury. We are dealing, in fact, with a disturbance and perversion of the superior parts of the soul and its most elevated faculties, reason and will, which command all the rest.²
The correction of this disorder explains why, as the Apostles follow Jesus, He constantly does things that set them off. He lets them be frightened at sea, confused on land, and sad and distressed in His company. He does things that seem to go against common sense. And when provoked they are very vocal about their frustration, anger, sadness, confusion. And then it gets real. Finally, the unfiltered emotion has broken through and the Physician takes it from there. Healing begins with an exposed wound.
And the healing medicine is our vulnerable reception to His loving touch. Because as Benedict XVI concludes: “Our ultimate healing can only be God’s love.” The man with the iron façade cannot receive this. The way Jesus brings healing to the disciple is to open him, day by day, to a deeper reception of that love—often through trials that make us feel confused, sad, and even angry. But this is very often the only way He can break through the rough extremes of our personalities. So that the perfection achieved by the struggling disciple bears no trace of self, no DIY holiness, but only the signature of the Son of God, which appears just below a single verse: By the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes!
1 Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 176-177. All references to Benedict XVI come from these pages.
2 The Last Writings of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Translated by Raymond Smith, O.P., and Rod Gorton. New York: New City Press, 1969. Available digitally through Internet Archive.