Saturday, May 7, 2016



It is easy to fall into extremes when one is trying to grow in virtue.  

In an attempt to be humble, we often are tempted to despair when we think of how detestable we are...

In an attempt to be patient and tenderhearted, we sometimes do not properly discipline those under our care and authority...

In an attempt to be avoid sin, we sometimes try to avoid everything and everyone, since everything and everyone can become an occasion of sin...

In an attempt to be more dependent on God, we often presume upon His mercy...

I could go on listing examples; however, the point is that life is a continuous struggle between one extreme and another.

The greatest explanation I have ever read about this subject, on how to be balanced in the practice of virtue, is found in Father William Fredrick Faber's book, Growth in Holiness:


There is a well-known story that at a conference of monks in the old times, when different holy men had said which virtue they thought the highest, the great St. Antony decided in favor of discretion, because it moderated all the other virtues.  St. Joseph is the most perfect model of this virtue, and all spiritual writers agree that it would not be easy to exaggerate its excellence.  It may briefly be defined to be Persevering Love.

It is too often the case that a thing is best described by a description of its opposite; and in this instance I must partly illustrate discretion by examples of indiscretion, if not mainly so. First, therefore, I shall speak of doing too much, secondly of doing too little, and thirdly, of the manner of what we do.

First of doing too much. I do not mean too much for God, but too much for our grace to bear, or our courage to sustain. Nothing can be too much, for nothing can be enough, for God. But our grace is limited. God calls each one to a certain height and no higher; and although we can never know to what height we shall reach before we die, yet still at each step grace is dealt out to us by measure, and we must be careful not to run beyond our present grace.  Grace does not do away with either our weakness or our cowardice. We must not give way to them, but we must take them into our calculations, and not only allow for them but give them liberal allowance.  Mortification is a matter in which an honest person may be carried away by mere natural motives and may do too much; this applies equally both to interior and exterior mortification. Discretion bids us keep in mind that mortification is always a means and never an end.  

It tells us that discontinued mortifications are the very bane of spirituality.   No man undertakes to do a thing for God, and lays it aside because he finds perseverance in it too much for him, without his soul being seriously damaged by it. He has taken up a disadvantageous position. This is not a reason for not trying, but it is a reason for trying soberly, discreetly, and with deliberation. Discretion will have mortification free from the slightest blemish of singularity. It will have charity to others lord paramount of all self-denials and austerities.  It gives the relative duties of our states, that eighth sacrament as I have called them, precedence over them; and when mortification wears out our good temper, and makes us short and snappish, discretion would have us after a little trial lose our penance rather than our temper.

In our prayers and spiritual exercises discretion will have us moderate and tranquil, and all things in due keeping with our state of life. It allows of no eagerness or anxiety.  It condemns all inordinate pursuits, even though the acquisition of virtue be the object of them, and it equally prohibits all greediness of spiritual favors.

It takes out of our hands books which are too high for us, as scrupulous and disturbing. It watches over a vocation as if it were its enemy; for to commit ourselves to a way of life in which we cannot persevere, is like doing something which will make us bed-ridden all our days.  And when discretion has taught us all this, it adds that everything combines to show that we must either take council in the spiritual life, or give devotion up altogether, and sit down acquiescing in low ways and little things.

The second kind of indiscretion consists in doing too little, too little for God, and too little for the grace He has given us. Men sometimes make up their minds that they have gone as far as they intend to go in the spiritual life, that they have got up to a certain level, and do not intend to mount higher. They forget that God is the master, not themselves; and that their business is to follow the lead of grace, wheresoever it may take them.  Besides, there is no such thing as a level in the spiritual life. All is ascent or descent, advance or retreat.  Whatever is not the first, is assuredly the last. The question is not what we will do, but what God will do. 

What indiscretion can be greater than to disobey God or to dictate to Him.  Yet worldly people do not like to be told this. They delight in the admonitions of discretion, when they go towards curbing those who do too much, and they willingly make themselves missioners of the Order of St. Antony to preach his favorite virtue. But they chafe when the same principles arc applied to doing too little.  Christian art represents St. Antony as followed by a pig: the figure is instructive though inelegant.  The indiscretion of being inconsiderately generous with God is patent enough to them.  The indiscretion of being disobediently mean and close with Him is neither so obvious to them, nor so readily acknowledged.  For, in their vocabulary, discretion means easiness and indevotion, a habit of surrendering God when the world finds His service inconvenient to itself. Such men habitually turn a deaf ear to inspirations, suspect higher calls, and yet purposely will not face them or examine them, lest haply they should be found to be from God.

The indiscretion of all this is manifold from the very statement of it. It angers God not only by its ungenerosity, but by its irreverence; and it may even endanger salvation by causing Him to withdraw from us succors which happen in our case to be necessary to our perseverance, but which He is in nowise bound to give.

Another form of this indiscretion is our modelling our conduct on safe principles, in which we persevere even when we have perceived that they are not the best principles, and when we have felt that God is distinctly pressing us to a higher line of conduct. In this case the principles, however safe in the abstract, cease to be safe for us. They become rash, heady, and self-willed, and often partake of the repugnant character of lukewarmness. Thus in our social intercourse we sometimes humor matters, not for charity's sake but for peace, and we allow God to be slightly a sufferer in some encounter with the world.

Our high principles have capitulated, leaving Him as a hostage in the hands of His enemies. This soon comes to lead us a step further. We slide imperceptibly, so imperceptibly that we should be shocked if we were accused of it, into making our own ease and the good opinion of men our rule, instead of the will of God and the maxims of the Gospel.

Downward descents are tempting, and this step leads us lower still. We judge, interfere, and are vexed with others who are more devout than ourselves. This is sinking through lukewarmness, and out of it, below it. Cold people are mostly indiscreet. They cannot see that hesitation is not discretion.  Only conceive hesitating with God!  As if He was taking us on the wrong road!  Oh what so imprudent as this prudence, what so indiscreet as this discretion!

All this is a want of caution, of moderation, and of considerate foreseeing calculating discretion. And this for three conclusive reasons. We gain nothing by it.  We inevitably lose much, and we run the risk of losing everything.  See how rash it is to be so unsafely safe!  And how fatal is that moderation which leaves us short of the spot where God is waiting for us!

Thirdly, I must say a few words of the share discretion claims in the method of our actions.  Generally speaking, discretion may be resolved into obedience, not worshiping our own lights nor following our own wills.  A very eminent spiritual writer simply speaks of the two virtues as if they were one, or of discretion as if it were but a function of obedience.  Speaking however in detail, discretion of manner consists in five things which I will state as briefly as possible, in order that they may be the more readily impressed upon the memory:

Discretion acts slowly and after prayer, doubts impulses, and takes counsel.

Discretion does little, one thing at a time, calculates its own strength, perseveres in its little, is on the look out to add, and prognosticates nothing.

Discretion does its work very carefully, attends to the circumstances of its actions, and never pulls them to pieces again when it has once made them up.

Discretion gently forces itself to its work, and insists on an interior spirit, pure motives, and the practice of God's presence.

Discretion does all its work for God supremely, as a man's chief work and indeed only great work, appreciates its importance, estimates its difficulty, and is not hopeful but sure of its results.

What is not discretion then, but the most temerarious indiscretion, is to be afraid of God and of holiness, to wish to stand well with the world, to be in a visible mean, that is a mean everyone can see and praise, between extremes, to fear committing ourselves with God, to be frightened of enthusiasm when we know that we are really not at all drawn to it, as a rule rather to give God a little less than His due than a little more, for safety's sake.  Now look at the beautiful contradiction of all this is St. Joseph's life, so tried and chequered with gravest doubts, and dreams, and changes, as if he were set to be the sport of all the unlikelihoods of grace and of all the perplexing unearthly ways of God: and how quiet, how docile, how all for God, how interior, how never looking before light and grace given, how childlike and prompt the moment it came!  And what was the end of it all?  Like St. John, but before him, he lies at last on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and discretion dies of love!

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