There is a danger in the Spiritual Life that plagues many Catholics and especially those who diligently try to practice the Faith. I consider myself to be such a Catholic and have fallen to it many times. This danger is an illusion that impedes and sometimes completely stifles us in the spiritual Life. Like all good corrections, I usually don’t even realize I’m being affected until I’m gently told so during prayer or by a trusted brother or sister in the Faith. Actually, there are many people and instances that have a way of revealing when I’m entrapped by this particular ensnarement. We can call this pitfall, “no-sin neutrality.”
”No-sin neutrality” is a false perspective of spiritual growth based solely on a relative cessation of sin. It heavily lends itself to a horrific understanding of the Faith in which we come to think we can “not-sin” our way to Holiness. Sometimes we’ll think, correctly, “I have to be Good to be Holy,” but our idea of what “Good” means can become horribly skewed. In looking at ourselves, we sometimes view Goodness as a lack of evil, but this is completely backwards, evil is simply the absence of Good. I think one of the reasons one might fall into such a perspective, other than bad formation and catechesis, is self-reliance accompanied by a simple lack of faith.
When we know we struggle with a habitual sin, we sometimes unintentionally rely on our own power and will to correct it. This can take the form of ridiculous fasts and mortifications- usually without a spiritual director- excessive devotions, and significant life changes that we put in place to make ourselves more Holy. Now, many of these things can be good- very Good- but if they are not done in proper faith and humility, they can quickly become acts of pride. This pride is due to our effort to Sanctify ourselves, to conduct a work that solely belongs to God. If this is the case, I think it is a blessing that God permits us to fall because self-discipline, on its own, is not the way to Holiness. It is the Holy Spirit that is our Sanctifier and only by relying on God can we hope to become godly ourselves. It is essential to remember that Our Salvation is the reception of the Divine Life Himself. It is not something that we can manifest within ourselves. To trust in God is to trust that He loves and makes perfect those whom rely on His Mercy.
In my own experience I also notice that my prayers become extremely self-centered during these times. We should always ask for Mercy (the power of God), but when our prayer life seems to be entirely about ourselves, there may be cause to worry about our state of faith. During this no-sin neutrality, my prayers for others would slowly start to lessen as I would say them with less conviction and frequency. Along with my increasingly selfish supplications, I would often forget- or even worse, refuse- to adore and thank Our Lord. This excessive self-condemnation via shame after we have already been to confession or did an act of contrition is nothing but pride. It is a lack of Faith. Self-despair is only profitable so long as it immediately transforms into a reliance on God who is the source for our Hope, Joy, and Holiness.
In paradoxical way, we can also miss the opportunity to allow our failures to serve as a guide for our prayer and mission. They can help us define and refine the purpose of our personal apostolate as Christians. It’s like spiritual jiu-jitsu, a slight redirect that takes an oppressive power and transforms into a movement of Love.
A priest whom I used to regularly see for Penance once gave me some excellent advice after I had confessed a habitual sin that I had fallen into yet again. He said when a temptation arises or immediately after a fall, I should quickly pray for everyone else who suffers from the same vice. I found this to be exceptionally profound at the time. I was so consumed with overcoming my personal sin that I was beginning to neglect to love and care for others, all while thinking I was actually taking the right steps to grow into deeper union with Christ. I thought I had to overcome this defect before I could love others. What crap! Actually I’m not even certain if loving my neighbors was a primary concern of mine at the time, at least not in the necessary, urgent, and all consuming sense that should mark the life of a Christian. I was only concerned with my own sins and the false solace I provided myself came from comparing my life to what I thought an “average” person was like in the world at large, or what I had been some months before. Such useless crap!
*Yes, sin absolutely impedes our ability to Love, but it is not a requirement to be perfectly sinless before we can participate in greater Charity, especially if we have implored God’s Mercy. That’s a crafty lie from the enemy. In fact, by trying to love our neighbor more, God will give us the power to grow into deeper relationship with Him by way of the love we share with others. Have faith in this! God desires us to love Him along with each other and will give us the power to do so. What happens when we receive His Power (Mercy) to love more? We’re Sanctified. That’s what the Power of God does. The sinful habits that we thought we had to “take care of first” are naturally (or supernaturally) alleviated as we live the life for which we were created. It is important to remember that every true blessing of sanctification, whether it be a Good Work, an increase in virtue, a prayer offered or answered, whatever it may be; It is always a gift that we have received and we should give thanks and praise promptly and often for it.
The only barometer that we should use to measure our Spiritual Life is Charity. Any prayer, devotion, mortification, pilgrimage, or spiritual exercise that does not result in an increase in Charity is highly suspect, and most likely useless or demonic. The end of every spiritual pursuit should be Charity. Keeping that question, “How can I love Jesus and others more?” at the forefront of our hearts and minds can serve as a most suitable guide in discerning and walking the path that God has laid for each of us.
There’s no neutral state in the spiritual life because the Love of Christ- the Life of God- is eternally dynamic. Saintly perfection is not a high-point at which we can finally relax once it is achieved. It’s when we are finally free to love- to move in God- as we should. Even though Love is dynamic and never ending, we call this perfection “rest” because it is the apex and culmination of our existence. To rest in God is to fully partake in this Divine Life that was won for us at Calvary and fully revealed in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here is the origin and end of our spiritual life.
*UPDATE: The first posting of this article read “…it is not necessary to cease sinning before we can participate in greater Charity…” The wording has been changed so as not to minimize the effect of sin in the pursuit of Charity.