Tempted by Good

[re-post from 2015]

A few scattered thoughts today taken from old notes I have from a series on discernment I taught back in the 1990s.

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A Missionary of Charity Sister at the Gift of Peace home for the homeless and dying in Washington, D.C. once shared with me something she said Mother Teresa taught the M.C. Sisters. I’ve always found it helpful:

The devil very often tempts the good with good things, so that good people, distracted by things they should not be doing, compromise the few good things they should be doing. So instead of doing what they’ve been called to do well, they do many good things God never asked them to do, and poorly.

I am convinced from personal experience that the greater part of good discernment is not discerning what to do but what not to do. Frequently in my experience that’s the origin of burnout, bitterness and disillusionment among good-willed people who are not careful to observe limits and remain in them. Many lurking motives drive people’s departure into diversionary good-deeds that exceed healthy limits, including: (1) fleeing from emotional pain in other parts of life, (2) being driven by guilt, (3) fear of confronting others with a “no” or (4) the compulsive need for approval and praise from others.

That’s why the “discerning life” is crucial, which daily examines not only what good should be done, but why it should be done and what good fruits one should look to see. According to Fr. Jordan Aumann, good fruits especially important to see include the enhancement of one’s primary vocational commitments, peace and joy, while bad fruits include distraction from one’s primary vocational commitments, inner restlessness, confusion, obsessiveness and doubt. While the virtue of zeal (passion in doing good for God) keeps us in hot pursuit of excellence, the virtue of meekness (recognizing and embracing one’s limited role in the Body of Christ) resists the temptation to always be restless, unsettled, unsatisfied with the limits of one’s present life-mission; always itching for “something else.” Surface-skimming dilettantes, who balk or flee at the first sign of adversity, opposition or boredom, fail to recognize and seize the opportunities to sink deep roots of virtue into the present moment.

Opportunities for greatness, like the commandments of God, are never far out of reach for the meek:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. — Exodus 30:11-14

Years ago my spiritual director said to me:

Over the years I have moved from doing more than I should, to being content with doing all that is possible, to simply embracing what I’ve been called by God to do. And I discovered that, beneath my evasion of God’s will was not just pride but sloth.

As I was unfamiliar with what sloth meant in that regard, he shared with me St. John of the Cross’ words on sloth. This vantage, he said, helped him immensely in his growth embracing the “reality God,” as he put it, and not the “fantasy God.”

Since [the slothful] are so used to finding delight in spiritual practices, they become bored when they do not find it. If they do not receive in prayer the satisfaction they crave for after all it is fit that God withdraw this so as to try them — they do not want to return to it, or at times they either give up prayer or go to it begrudgingly. Because of their sloth, they subordinate the way of perfection (which requires denying one’s own will and satisfaction for God) to the pleasure and delight of their own will. As a result they strive to satisfy their own will rather than God’s. Many of these beginners want God to desire what they want, and they become sad if they have to desire God’s will. They feel an aversion toward adapting their will to God’s. Hence they frequently believe that what is not their will, or brings them no satisfaction, is not God’s will, and, on the other hand, that if they are satisfied, God is too. They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God, which is in opposition to his teaching in the Gospel that those who lose their life for his sake will gain it and those who desire to gain it will lose it.

Beginners also become bored when told to do something unpleasant. Because they look for spiritual gratifications and delights, they are extremely lax in the fortitude and labor perfection demands. Like those who are reared in luxury, they run sadly from everything rough, and they are scandalized by the cross, in which spiritual delights are found. And in the more spiritual exercises their boredom is greater. Since they expect to go about in spiritual matters according to the whims and satisfactions of their own will, entering by the narrow way of life, about which Christ speaks, is saddening and repugnant to them.

Holy Spirit, lead me in the way of your will…

5 comments on “Tempted by Good

  1. Jennifer says:

    This is such a temptation for me! Thank you so much for this clear teaching on discernment in this regard. Really helpful!

  2. Nos says:

    Been there,done that ,still doing it. ! ! ! heal me LORD . . .

  3. Mary Valli says:

    Beautiful. Thank you. This is very helpful, as always. I so appreciate your thoughts, wisdom. Thanks for making them available to us, the laity.

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