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Gentleness Toward Ourselves

ONE of the forms in which we should practice gentleness regards ourselves, in never growing irritable with ourselves on our imperfections; for, although, in reason we must be vexed and angry with ourselves when we commit faults, yet we ought to guard against a bitter, fretful displeasure, or spiteful anger with ourselves. Some make a great mistake in being angry because they have been angry, hurt because they have been hurt, and vexed because they have been vexed. Thus, whilst they fancy that they are ridding their breast of anger, and that their second passion remedies the first, in truth, they are preparing the way for fresh anger on the first occasion. Besides this, all this indignation and vexation and irritation with ourselves tends to foster pride and springs entirely from self-love, which is displeased at finding that we are not perfect. We should endeavor then to look upon our faults with a calm, collected, firm displeasure. A judge who passes sentence thoughtfully and calmly, punishes vice more effectually than if he is impetuous and hasty, for in the latter case, he does not punish so much according to the crime committed, as according to his own feeling; and so we correct ourselves more effectually by a quiet persevering repentance than by an irritated, hasty, passionate repentance; for such as these are not according to the magnitude of our faults, but according to our impulse. For instance, a man who especially aims at purity, will be overwhelmed with angry self-reproach for some slight offense against it, whilst he will only laugh at some grievous slander of which he has been guilty. On the contrary, one who specially abhors slander will torment himself in consequence of some slight murmuring, whilst he passed unnoticed a gross act of impurity; and so with other sins: and all this is the consequence of judging conscience by passion instead of by reason.

Believe me, that as the remonstrances of a father will have much greater effect upon his child if they are offered kindly and gently than if they are hot and angry; so when we have erred, if we reprove our heart gently and calmly, rather pitying than reproaching it, and encouraging it to amendment, its repentance will be much deeper and sounder than if we were angry, stormy, and irritable.

For instance, if I particularly desired not to yield to the sin of van­ity, and, nevertheless, I fell grievously into it, I would not begin to say to my heart, “Art thou not wretched and abominable, to be carried away by vanity after so many good resolutions? Well mayst thou die of shame, and not presume to lift up thine eyes, blind, insolent, faithless traitor, to thy God,” or so forth. I would rather seek to correct it by reasoning and compassion thus—“My poor heart, here we are fallen into the snare, from which we had so often resolved to escape! Come, let us rise up once more and forsake it forever, let us call for God’s mercy, and put our trust in it, for it will assist us in standing firmer for the future, so will we return to the path of humility. Let us not be discouraged, but be well on our guard from this time. God will help us and guide us.” And by such reproof I would establish a firmly rooted resolution not to fall again into the same fault, taking such steps as seem advisable, and as my director may point out to prevent it.

If anyone does not find that he can sufficiently touch his heart by this gentle correction, he can make use of a harsher, sharper reprehen­sion, in order to bring it to utter confusion. But after using severity and reproach he still should conclude his anger and indignation with a calm, holy confidence in God, imitating that great penitent, who, when his soul was prostrate in affliction, consoled it, saying, “Why art thou sad, O my soul: and why dost thou disquiet me? Hope in God: for I will still give praise to Him: the salvation of my countenance, and my God.” (Ps. 42).

            Therefore when your heart has fallen raise it gently, humbling yourself greatly before God, and acknowledging your fault, but without marveling at your fall; since it is no marvel that infirmity should be infirm, weakness weak, and frailty frail. But nevertheless heartily detest the offense of which you have been guilty in God’s sight, and with hearty courage and confidence in His mercy, begin once more to seek that virtue from which you have fallen away.

This article is taken from a chapter in An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, which is available from TAN Books.

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