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Our Capacity for Sacrifice
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
For our present conference, I suggest that we reflect on what might be called the obverse of reflection on our past sins and moral weaknesses, and that we reflect on the self-knowledge of our past virtues and spiritual potential.
We might begin by asking and wondering whether it does not seem odd to 'want to know one's past virtuous actions. Nevertheless, they are as much, and we trust more, a part of our lives than our past sins. It is, furthermore, a form of self-knowledge that is absolutely necessary for growth in holiness. Needless to say, it is not a common practice to reflect on the good we have done. But it is important, first of all because otherwise there is a risk of discouragement and even of despondency in the spiritual life since we naturally tend to recall the sins we committed more easily than we remember our virtues; we call them to mind in a regular examination of conscience and in going to sacramental confession where we do not profess our virtues but confess our sins.
Also, if we are going to aspire to spiritual perfection, we have to count on what we have already done. A bleak or bad past is no motivation for a sublime future. Our memories tend to haunt us. And the more recent the memory, the more likely we are to say to ourselves, in spite of all the brave talk and all the wonderful idealism we read about, "It's all so beautiful as I look at Everest, but it is not for me".
Moreover, by such reflection on our virtues we are enabled to rise, through prayer, to the heights of the love of God in what Saint Ignatius sets down as the three states or steps for rising to a perfect love of God.
Stage one is the realization of God's goodness to me, as shown especially by the virtues that by His grace alone I have achieved. And the more I have sinned, the more convinced I am that this is true. First, then, is the realization of God's goodness, which is no aphorism to someone who knows his weakness and yet humbly acknowledges the virtue that God, by His powerful grace and in spite of myself, has succeeded in getting me to practice.
Second stage, gratitude. Realizing God's goodness, I am spontaneously grateful for His great mercy to me, a sinner. This we know is not ordinary goodness. It is His goodness overcoming my resistance. That's what mercy is and I've been giving God plenty of resistance. I am, therefore, grateful for His mercy. Note the corresponding awareness of my sinfulness. If I'm going to deeply appreciate what God's mercy has done in and through me, in spite of myself, I must also be constantly aware of my sinfulness, being sure that it is all due to me and whatever goodness I have is all due to God.
Third stage, the love of this good God. How good He must be, I seeing how forgiving, patient and merciful He has been in enabling me to please Him in the virtues that, except for Him, I could never have begun to practice.
This is the background for the conference; we want to acquire a balanced self-knowledge not only of our sins and sinfulness but of our virtues and our potential for spiritual good. Consequently, we are to at times and I would say daily in our examinations of conscience, reflect on the good that we have done. If we reflect only on the bad that we have done, we will be more and more discouraged so we must do both.
But the main focus of our present reflections is self-knowledge I in the sense of awareness of our individual, personal, spiritual potential. Each adjective there counts: individual, personal, and spiritual.
There are two facets of this self-knowledge, and they should be seen separately. We shall devote a separate conference to each. The one is not the other. Our spiritual potential covers, on the one hand our capacity for sacrifice; on the other hand, our capacity for generosity. We shall reflect in this conference on our capacity for sacrifice.
Before we begin the analysis of what this means according to the teachings of Saint Ignatius, and indeed of all the spiritual masters whom the Church has approved as directors of the way to sanctity, it I is absolutely indispensable that we have two kinds of knowledge if we're going to achieve any degree of holiness. The first kind of knowledge is the knowledge of God: who He is, what He has done for us, what He expects of us. And the second is the knowledge of ourselves. This means that regularly, in fact daily, but especially in time of retreat that we look to find out what we've done wrong, what are our tendencies toward sin; and that we also look at what we've done well and what are our capacities for good.
First then, our capacity for sacrifice. What is it? All the while that I am going through this conference and the next one I shall be making periodic asides to compare sacrifice with generosity because, though they are often used interchangeably, they are quite different. Sacrifice means the surrender of something precious for the Love of God. There are many definitions of sacrifice. I consider this the most workable, because it includes the essential elements: having something precious, surrendering it, and the reason why I do so, namely, for the love of God.
Sacrifice, therefore, presupposes that we have certain natural likes and dislikes that have to be reassessed in the light of God's will. We couldn't begin to talk about sacrifice unless there was something precious in our lives to which we were attached that, naturally speaking, we did not want to surrender. Surrender, therefore presupposes that we will have to give up certain natural preferences or distastes in order to free ourselves interiorly to be more faithful in God's service. Now as is obvious, in the light of what we've already seen, part of the natural likes and dislikes, these attachments that we have, is due to our having a fallen human nature with our unruly tendencies and the concupiscence which plagues us. But sacrifice involves not only the things to which we are sinfully attached because of our sinful propensities. We can be attached to things without being sinfully attached.
Was Christ attached to His Mother? Well, basically yes. Did He find leaving her easy? No. Did Christ have a natural liking for His physical life? Yes. Did He like to die, naturally speaking? No. I want to stress this, lest we think that all these attachments, to use a general term, are necessarily sinful or unruly, so that sacrifice would always imply giving up precious things we have to give up anyhow. No. Sacrifice can involve giving up things which by themselves are not unruly at all but being human beings we just like them.
Now the message. Sacrifice requires two sets of activities on our part, one by the mind, the other by the will. In order to practice the sacrifice required of us we must first know what are the precious things in our lives. And here we are all different. Some like silence, others like noise; some like closed windows, others like open windows; some like heat, others like cold; some like to read, others do not like to read; and so it goes over the whole gamut of both our physical and spiritual lives. The question that we must first ask ourselves is, "What are the things to which I am attached?" - whether because that's the way we are because that's the kind of personality we have, or because these attachments are unruly. We know from experience that some are, if not a hindrance to the following of Christ, at least something Christ wants us to surrender. In that sense every creature is a potential hindrance because, leave it to God, He is likely to ask us to give up the things we least expected.
Secondly, having discovered with our minds what are the precious things that God wants us to surrender, then we must set about resolving to become free internally from those attachments which, by presupposition, can hinder us either because they already have in the past or may in the future in our path of following Christ. And we must decide to give up the things to which we are so obviously attached.
The whole retreat as Saint Ignatius understood the Spiritual Exercises, is concerned with one thing: giving up. That's the heart. Giving up what? Giving up whatever reason and faith tell us that if we don't give them up, we will be less generous than God wants us to be in His service. The giving up is always some form of self-love.
Now it is in this context that the Spiritual Exercises tell us about the degrees of this willingness to surrender. Many degrees are conceivable - three are commonly recognized. They are three degrees of sacrifice which ascetical theology commonly identifies. They are degrees of sacrifice of some thing or things that are pleasant and therefore precious; but it is necessary to sacrifice them if we are to be truly free in will to serve God as we should.
As we review these degrees, which are well known to you, let us not be too sure that we belong only on the third level. All three pertain to all of us.
The first degree is not so much sacrifice as pseudo-sacrifice. It consists in having the mere desire to sacrifice. We talk about sacrifices we want to make - at least to ourselves. It is the purely subjective, which is not precisely a will but a wish: "I would like to give this up". This "sacrifice" is merely intentional, only inside of our minds. It is wish fulfillment, and it is remarkable how we can go through a lifetime living on wish fulfillments. We never use or take the required means to really give up. Longevity in the religious life has nothing to do with having graduated from this first degree. There can be parts to us or pieces and corners of us that we can reserve and hide, and never really give up.
The second degree is higher than the first, though the first has no height at all. In this second degree a person does indeed take some measures to be freed from what hinders his service to God. But he does not go the whole way: he compromises, and are we ever shrewd compromisers! Such a person gives up or is willing to give up some of the hindrances, for example, maybe in not doing it as often, or in the amount.
Now with material .possessions it is very obvious. Suppose a person has ten thousand dollars. As a religious we are to give up everything, and I am perfectly aware of the difference between giving up the independent use and giving up the ownership. How well I also know that people who hold on to the ownership do not really give up the independent use! With money it is obvious, because it is perfectly clear that ten thousand dollars would be the logical thing to give up, if that's the hindrance I see standing in the way of my perfect service of God. Yet remarkably, a person may be willing to give up all but one-tenth of that ten thousand. But what happens unless a person gives up every last penny? I believe it needs to be said. I believe that religious belonging to communities with simple vows, such as are most congregations, who are not required by their constitutions to give up everything, should give it up, following Christ's words, "Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and then follow Me." Now the Church allows religious with simple vows of poverty to retain ownership and merely requires that they give up the independent use of what they own. Well, there's such a thing as independent use; there is also such a thing as independent hope of use.
The Second Vatican Council, for the first time in the Catholic Church, has declared (and the legislation following it since has implemented this declaration) that all religious are recommended to give up everything, not only those belonging to religious orders. The moment I took my last vows I was penniless, and I signed appropriate documents declaring that I could never earn or inherit a dime until death. This kind of absolute and unreserved giving up of possessions for the first time in the history of the Church is strongly recommended to all religious. We don't know what the revised code of Canon Law will declare; however, while it is not required of all, it is substantially recommended to all.
Now in the matter of money it is obvious. Either I give it up or I don't, and even a penny to myself is a penny too much. But there are many other ways, the more subtle periods of our spiritual lives, that we know need a total giving up, where we honestly before God must use the most effective means of removing whatever the hindrance may be.
Suppose I have an articulate tongue, the gift of speech. If I find myself time and again misusing this gift then I must resolutely resolve to avoid every form of speech that would hurt others. If my witticism causes me to become uncharitable, I must stop being witty. Rather than hurt people, I must regularly practice some mortification. I'm being facetious when I say this - it isn't mortifying myself in everything at meals that I overcome my uncharitable speech. Nonsense! I should eat a square meal, and in God's name get hold of my tongue!
Or suppose I am a firm character, that kind of a "Gibraltar" which, history tells us, is the most impregnable fortress in the world. My firmness of character can become stubbornness of character because I am self-opinionated. Having been stubborn in my dealings with others and failing in justice, not to mention charity, to them, it does not help for me afterwards to try to make up towards those people by being especially kind to them when my stubbornness has offended them. No! I must get over my self-opinionated personality!
What are my unruly trains of thought, either daydreams that keep me from doing the work that I should or other thoughts that, by now, I find get me into trouble emotionally? Remember: every thought tends to become a desire; every desire tends to become an action; every action tends to become a habit. If I want to control my actions, I must control my thought, and nobody, not even the sovereign God, is going to do it for me. It does not help to say extra prayers because our passions have betrayed us. As Saint John the Baptist so brutally said, you must lay the ax to the tree. That's the second degree, the type of person who compromises with the needs.
Now the third level. This is the authentic sacrifice. We call it Self-sacrifice. But it should be called sacrifice of the self: something of me, something with which I identify myself, that I like (how I like it!), and that I do not like to give up. It is the sacrifice of self and it is also the sacrifice by the self, that is, by my own will. No one can substitute for my free decision to make the sacrifice.
On this level of surrendering self to God, I voluntarily give up the thing to which I am attached. But watch this - I give it up in my will. Now whether, or to what extent, God will require that I give it up physically, that's up to Him. My responsibility is to let go in the will. I am ready, therefore, if God wants me to, to let go of the whole object which by now I know hinders me.
And let's not suppose that these hindrances are that obvious; otherwise, I would assume we were past this stage and that we were all making a total oblation of self. This can be very subtle; hence the importance of asking God for light, "Lord, that I may see what of myself stands between You and me." Books don't help; conferences don't help; spiritual direction as such does not help except as an outside guide. The only real help we can profit from is the light that God gives deep inside so that maybe after 30 years in the religious life we say, "Good God, that's it! And all these years I thought it was so many other things. So it's that which You are asking of me!"
Maybe God will not exact the actual deprivation or giving up of the object that stands between Him and us, but maybe He will. Whether He takes it away or lets us keep it, is up to Him. What is not up to Him but is up to us is whether we are freely ready and willing to give it up, lose it, or have it taken away, or to see it disappear? Are we ready to do all of this now, in our will? That's what God wants. That's what the Biblical passage means, "Give Me your heart". But human nature is extra-ordinarily cunning in hiding what God is asking us to surrender.
Where is more. Even if we are thus disposed to sacrifice and then make the decision to do so, we might find that this giving up is not a "once and for all" throwing something overboard. How often we wish it were! It may be a continuous throwing overboard, day after day; or it may be something which God is asking us to let go of when we feel there is nothing else left in life to live for - except God. Great!
Then, we trust Him that He will not be outdone in generosity. We give Him all. He gives us, all. And you know the number of people who take that sentence literally is small; they are the saints of God. Let us ask God to help us give up all for Him and to Him - it is not possible without the help of His grace. And then let us trust Him that in response to our surrender of whatever our attachment may be, He will make up for it as only God can.
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