Correcting Myself Gently

For its time, St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life (1602) is a surprisingly moderate spiritual guide.  Most Catholic devotionals have historically been written for monastics, but Introduction to the Devout Life was dedicated to a married noblewoman. Francis’ advice is therefore quite practical. True, some of it is dated, but it is surprising how much of it applies to my life. I have consulted this work off and on for the past few years.

While flipping through the book last weekend I came across a chapter called “On Gentleness Toward Ourselves”. It was what I needed to read at the time.

I suffer from extreme anxiety and experience bouts of self-loathing over past decisions. I have difficulty forgiving myself or feeling worthy of forgiveness. My sins frustrate me. Confession helps sometimes but not always because I never feel like I can talk about what’s on my mind (that’s for a future post). It’s too complicated. Medicine and therapy help, but I have an unhealthy habit of thinking that self-hatred is a virtue. St. Francis de Sales insists that it is not. It is actually a form of pride. It is also quite destructive.

“On Gentless Toward Ourselves” is a reminder that we are all frail. When we sin we should not react in rage. We should not beat ourselves up. Self-hatred does not prevent us from sinning again. It is actually a sign of pride. We have convinced ourselves that we are generally good, virtuous people who should be “better than those sinners over there”. There is not a whole lot of difference between the Pharisee who thanks God for being better than the Tax Collector and the Pharisee who experiences rage over a sin he has committed. St. Francis explains why:

[A]ll this anger and irritation against one’s self fosters pride, and springs entirely from self-love, which is disturbed and fretted by its own imperfection.

Instead of getting angry over our sins, we should confess them and then calmly promise to be more alert in the future. Like a good parent correcting a wayward child, we should focus more on what went wrong and what we can do to avoid near occasions of sin in the future than on punishment:

Believe me, my daughter, as a parent’s tender affectionate remonstrance has far more weight with his child than anger and sternness, so, when we judge our own heart guilty, if we treat it gently, rather in a spirit of pity than anger, encouraging it to amendment, its repentance will be much deeper and more lasting than if stirred up in vehemence and wrath.

If I fly off the handle when someone does something I don’t like, the other person focuses more on defending herself than on what I am trying to tell her. She may suffer emotionally from my abusive remarks, but am I not sinning when I do that? Does my anger really help my friend change her ways? The most useful criticism is always constructive.

St. Francis de Sales taught me last weekend to give myself gentle but constructive criticism.

So then, when you have fallen, lift up your heart in quietness, humbling yourself deeply before God by reason of your frailty, without marvelling that you fell;—there is no cause to marvel because weakness is weak, or infirmity infirm. Heartily lament that you should have offended God, and begin anew to cultivate the lacking grace, with a very deep trust in His Mercy, and with a bold, brave heart.

God is the potter and I am the clay. Without the potter, the clay is nothing but an unformed lump. I will try to be more gently with myself this Lent.

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