Once we have identified our predominant fault, we need to identify the virtue opposed to it. For this, we need clear doctrine. An unclear or false understanding of the virtues and vices can make quite a bit of trouble for the soul trying to do the spiritual spring cleaning we call Lent.
Sacred, orthodox doctrine is most necessary, since Christian contemplative prayer goes through the Cross. There is no other pathway for union with God. The death of Christ opened this up. His wounds radiate the presence of God. But you cannot have those wounds unless in Christ. No one else has them.
Sacred teaching or doctrine unlocks deep prayer. This is one great reason we should not separate the content of our prayer from the prayers of the Mass. The Roman Missal is a glorious safeguard of truth for our prayer. No matter what your predominant fault is, you will find in the Mass of the day some idea which can be directly applicable to the overcoming of the fault. And catechism is far more than just preparation for First Communion. Christ has two natures, but He is one person. And He is one with God. We need this bedrock of belief to form our pursuit of virtue.
Now, some think that the Holy Trinity is a mystery, and since it is a mystery, this means we can’t figure it out. So we throw up our hands and walk away from it. But it isn’t a giant puzzle to be figured out. It is not that kind of mystery. It is a mystery like something which is intensely beautiful is a mystery; something that no matter how long you look at it, you will always see something more, something new. It is inexhaustible in this sense.
St John of the Cross wrote a poem while he was in prison called the Spiritual Canticle. After he got out, he wrote a commentary on every strophe. It is about the progress of the interior life. Strophe 12 describes a woman looking into a pool. As she looks into the pool, the water reflects her face back at her. As she looks deeper and deeper into the pool, past her reflection, she notices that standing behind her is an image of the one whom she loves. She recognises the eyes of her lover in the pool. That pool, he says, are the truths of our faith; the propositions we believe. We believe them not just because they are true and because the Church proclaims them as true; we believe them because they actually carry God with them. So like the deeper reflection, you can see the eyes of God looking at you with love as you grasp the doctrines or propositions of the Faith.
So as you allow the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to become calm and smooth in your soul, you will see a reflection even of yourself, because you have been created in the image and likeness of God. And you will also see the eyes of Him who loved you from all eternity looking at you. And He is waiting for you deep in your soul.
Therefore, when we share good doctrine and the truths of the Faith with each other, the sharing is a moment of actual grace. This is why when we are sitting in class, listening to a sermon or reading a book we are moved sometimes profoundly in our souls. It’s a moment that can lead us into deep prayer and conversion.
St Elizabeth of the Trinity knew this better than most. When she was 17 she attended a parish mission – plenty of fire and brimstone – and was confused by it all. So she went to a Dominican priest, Fr Irénée Vallée, who knew that good doctrine helps you see God but bad doctrine blinds you to Him. The bad doctrine she was getting at the mission was what is sometimes now casually call Jansenism. In this doctrine you approach God only through fear.
But there is a difference between the fear of the Lord and being afraid of God. Being afraid of Him is thinking that, because you made a mistake, He is going to do something to you – something bad. And so your spiritual life is one of anxiety and worry. He is not waiting in joy to receive you; He is waiting to pounce on you and punish terribly.
This robs the soul of the peace and rest that should normally come from prayer. We are supposed to rest in the heart of God. “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest,” our Lord says (Matthew 11:28). You are not on pins and needles with someone who loves you and cares for you.
In the meantime, God grant that we all work hard on the virtues opposed to our predominant faults, and not lose heart.
The person who only sees his weaknesses and faults will lose courage.
The person who, though fully aware of his weaknesses, recalls at the same time God’s omnipotence and His infinite mercy will have the courage and strength to accomplish anything.
Many know this truth and nevertheless think and live as if God’s grace counted for little, as if they were by themselves and all alone the artisans of the great work to be achieved.
Let’s pray with Blessed Edward Poppe (1890-1924): “O Jesus, lift the veil that covers my eyes, the shackles that blind my heart, so that I may say with St Paul, ‘Lord, without your grace I am nothing.’
I rejoice to know my weakness so well: in fact this knowledge keeps me humble, and humility guarantees the presence of your divine omnipotence in my soul.”
Fr James Jackson, FSSP, is the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Littleton, Colorado, and the author of Nothing Superfluous (Redbrush)