Fr. Faber in his book, Growth in Holiness, explains how too much self-examination can be harmful to one’s soul. If we focus too much on the good we have done, it can cause us become proud, vain and egotistical. On the other hand, too much self-analysis on our faults and imperfections can cause us to become disheartened and bring us to the depths of despair. However, Father Faber says that “A certain amount of knowledge of our state is possible, desirable, and even necessary, so long as it be desired moderately, and sought for rightly. We need consolation in so difficult and doubtful a battle.” Since this is such an important but delicate matter, I will quote below a section from his 1st chapter listing the 5 signs of our progress in the spiritual life. I share this in the hope that it will benefit those more melancholic souls who struggle between presumption and despair.
THE FIVE SIGNS
Are we getting on? There is not a well or a palm to measure by; there is only sand and an horizon. Courage: here are five signs. If we have one of them, it is well; if two better; if three, better still; if four, capital; if all the five, glorious.
1 – If we are discontented with our present state, whatever it may be, and want to be something better and higher, we have great reason to be thankful to God. For such discontent is one of His best gifts, and a great sign that we are really making progress in the spiritual life. But we must remember that our dissatisfaction with ourselves must be of such a nature at to increase our humility, and not such as to cause disquietude of mind or uneasiness in our devotional exercises. It must be made up of a rather impatient desire to advance in holiness, combined with gratitude for past graces, confidence for future ones and a keen, indignant feeling of how much more grace we have received than we have corresponded to.
2 – Again, strange as it may sound, it is a sign of our growth if we are always making new beginnings and fresh starts. The great St. Antony made perfection consist in it. Yet this is often ignorantly made a motive of discouragement, from persons confounding fresh starts in the devout life with the incessant risings and relapsings of habitual sinners. Neither must we confound these continual fresh beginnings with the fickleness which so often leads to dissipation, and keeps us back in our heavenward path. For these new starts seek something higher, and therefore for the most part something arduous; whereas fickleness is tired of the yoke, and seeks ease and change. Neither again do these beginnings consist in changing our spiritual books, or our penances, or our methods of prayer, much less our directors. But they consist in two things chiefly: first, a renewal of our intention for the glory of God; and secondly, a revival of our fervor.
3 – It is also a sign of progress in the spiritual life, when we have some definite thing in view: for instance, if we are trying to acquire the habit of some particular virtue, or to conquer some besetting infirmity, or to accustom ourselves to a certain penance. All this is a test of earnestness, and also a token of the vigour of divine grace within us. Whereas if we are attacking no particular part of the enemy’s line, it is hardly a battle; and if we are shooting without an aim, what can come of it but smoke and noise? It is not likely we are advancing, if, as people speak, we are going on in a general way, without distinctly selecting an end to reach, and actively forcing our way to the end we have thus consciously selected.
4 – But it is a still greater sign that we are making progress, if we have a strong feeling on our minds that God wants something particular from us. We are sometimes aware that the Holy Spirit is drawing us in one direction rather than in another, that He desires some fault to be removed, or some pious work to be undertaken. This is called by spiritual writers an attraction. Some have one persevering attraction all their lives long. With others it is constantly changing. With many it is so indistinct that they only realize it now and then; and not a few seem to be without any such special drawing at all. It implies of course an active self-knowledge, as well as a quiet inward eye of prayer; and it is a great gift, because of the immense facilities which it gives for the practice of perfection; for it almost resembles a special revelation. To feel then, with all sober reverence, this drawing of the Holy Ghost, is a sign that we are making progress. Yet it must be carefully remembered that no one should be disquieted because of the absence of such a feeling. It is neither universal nor indispensable.
5 – I will venture also to add that in increased general desire of being more perfect is not altogether without its value as a sign of progress: and that, in spite of what I have said of the importance of having a definite object in view. I do not think we esteem this general desire of perfection sufficiently. Of course, we must not stop at it nor be satisfied with it. It is only given us to go on with. Still, when we consider how worldly most good Christians are, and their amazing blindness to the interests of Jesus, and their almost incredible impenetrability by supernatural principles, we must see that this desire of holiness is from God, and a great gift, and that much which is of surpassing consequence is implied in it. God be praised for every soul in the world which is so fortunate as to possess it! It is almost inconsistent with lukewarmness; and this is no slight recommendation in itself: and although there is much beyond it and much above it, yet it is indispensable both to what is beyond and what is above. Nevertheless, we must not be blind to its dangers. All supernatural desires, which we simply enjoy without practically corresponding to them, leave us in a worse state than they found us. In order to be safe, we must proceed without delay to embody the desire in some act or other, prayer, penance, or zealous deed: yet not precipitately, or without counsel.
Here then are five fairly probably signs of progress, and none of them so far above our heads as to be unpractical to the lowest of us. I do not mean to say that the existence of these signs implies that all is as it ought to be in our spiritual life; but that is shows we are alive, advancing, and in the way of grace: and the possession of any one of these signs is something unspeakably more precious than the best and highest gift earth can give. I repeat, if we have one of these signs it is well; if two, better; if three, better still; if four, capital; if all five, glorious. Now see! We have made a little way. We are further into the wilderness; and if as footsore as ever, at least a trifle less fainthearted.