Dear Father John, I am helping a woman in her spiritual growth (mainly through helping her come up with a program of life), and something came up that I wanted to ask you about. She has shared with me some of what she regrets, and some of what she is having a hard time forgiving herself for. Intellectually she knows that God forgives, but she hasn’t accepted His mercy into her heart. I am guessing that this resistance is a manifestation of spiritual pride. Is that correct? And what virtues would help her overcome this? Abandonment? Humility? Mercy?
God bless you for helping a fellow-pilgrim along the way of holiness!
I can’t really give a specific answer to this question. So many factors are at play. It would really depend on how central a force her resistance to mercy plays in her life, and on the roots of why she resists mercy. There could be some family-of-origin issues that may be exacerbated by either pride or vanity.
Root Sins in Perspective
That said, I think it is important to remember that when we identify our root sin (sensuality, vanity, or pride), we are not saying that we have ONLY that sin – all of us actually have all three tendencies: tendencies to base our life’s meaning on comfort, or other people’s opinions, or our own achievements. It’s just that, because of personality characteristics and formation experiences, one of the three is almost always more influential in our day-to-day lives.
Also, it’s always good to remember that a program of life is useful above all for finding ways to direct our intentional exercise of and growth in virtue. It helps us answer the question: “What is God asking me to work on in my spiritual life right now?” Especially in the early stages of spiritual growth, this approach will require us to identify specific and common manifestations of selfishness in our daily lives. In overcoming or changing those, we will have to intentionally develop counteracting virtues. But those specific manifestations of selfishness can be symptoms of more than one sinful tendency. So by overemphasizing our root sin, we can sometimes confuse ourselves. The real value of knowing one’s root sin comes in being able to recognize where the devil will more likely try to trip us up; if he knows where there is a structural weakness in the wall around our interior castle, he will try to exploit it.
Overcoming Resistance to Mercy
The particular virtue needed by anyone struggling with resistance to mercy is confidence in God, trust in God. That is the intersection of faith, hope, and love, and it flows especially out of meditating on God’s goodness (this would be a good theme of her daily mental prayer and her spiritual reading). Making conscious acts of obedience to God’s will (i.e., consciously doing even the most mundane activities because we recognize God’s will in them – as expressed in the Commandments and the responsibilities of our state in life, for example) is always an effective way to exercise that trust. When it’s time to wash the dishes, I can do it just because I have to, which is fine, or I can do it with an interior act of trustful surrender to God’s will as expressed in my normal duties, which is better, and which exercises our confidence in God.
The real growth will also happen as she comes to understand her particular reasons for having difficulty in trusting God – usually the reasons go much deeper than we realize. God will reveal them little by little when he sees fit. We just have to keep asking for light, and following where he leads.
God bless you!
Art for this post on God’s mercy: Santi Antonio Abate E Paolo (St Antony The Abbott And [St] Paul), Girolamo Savoldo, circa 1515, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.