Holy Sobriety

Therefore, let us not sleep, as others do;

but let us watch, and be sober. (I Thess, 5:6

IF WE examine the lives of the saints we shall find that—notwithstanding their fervor, notwithstanding an intoxication with Jesus—they also possess a trait that may best be described as holy sobriety.

Their hunger and thirst after justice, their obsession with God, their overflowing charity towards God and their fellow creatures, their unlimited confidence in God—these traits are apt to make them appear fools in the eyes of the world. However, they are far removed from illusory exaltation and bloodless idealism.

     Holy sobriety is marked by genuineness and simplicity

They bear the stamp of genuineness, of truth, of a classic simplicity. Their boldness in overcoming the world is free from romanticism, from any attempt to deny man’s weakness or his bondage to earthly things, from any contempt for the dangers to which our fallen nature is exposed. It is entirely lacking in the artifices of embellishment or the rhetoric of fictitious importance in interpreting human things. Their lives are pervaded by a holy sobriety, which is as distinct from the vulgar sobriety of the so-called realists as it is from romantic illusionism.

     Vulgar sobriety is blind to values and to the supernatural

Vulgar sobriety or common sense represents rather something negative. The people we so describe are such as refuse, either explicitly or at least by their concrete behavior, to recognize the reality of value and of the spiritual universe.

The first species—that of the ideological deniers of the power of values—includes all those who profess a distrust of all higher and sublime things, and would allow for the reality of nothing except the palpable and the trivial. Although they might not deny the existence of a spiritual world, they would by no means rely upon that world. They consider all men who do as victims of illusions. They are prone to attribute all actions and feelings of their fellow men to low and prosaic motives.

Behaving, for their part, on more or less consistently utilitarian grounds, they pride themselves on being realists and flaunt their superiority above the idealists, who draw from them a smile of pitying condescension. Even more do they distrust the world of the supernatural. What they can touch and grasp with their hands appears to them the only solid reality.

Obviously, sobriety in this sense is a defect, since it springs from the failure to grasp what is ultimate reality: the supernatural, and all the hierarchy of the universe. Such people are wrong in believing themselves realists; for they take their departure from a distorted and impoverished vision of reality: certainly they are not illusionists who mistake phantoms for realities.

They are, however, as far from the truth as are the illusionists—inasmuch as they are blind to a large section of reality, and the most important section at that—clinging invariably to their earthbound speculation in considering everything à la baisse, in the direction downward. They are always disposed to believe that that which ranks lower in reality is more sound and certain.

     Exclusively “practical” men are sober in a negative sense

As has been hinted above, this negative type of sobriety also appears in an even more strictly implicit, an entirely unideological form. We observe it in these humdrum people devoid of all sublimity, all luster, all poetry. Their ethos is not informed by the breath of the realm of values; their mental complexion shows no trace of the luminous inspiration which emanates from that realm. Not that they deny the sphere of things spiritual and supernatural; they recognize it as a reality and their actions may be determined by motives pertaining to this realm.

But even in such cases, their ethos remains gray and dull. Even though deriving their motives from that superior sphere, they somehow treat it as if they were dealing with the sphere of utilitarian purposes. Their ethos will never transcend the range of a commendable righteousness and efficiency. They pragmatize everything they lay hands on: even their prayer assumes the character of a useful activity. The world of practical things—the sphere of everyday necessities—remains the causa exemplaris after which they fashion their vision of all things and their response to all objects.

This form of pseudo-sobriety, too, is something completely negative. It is, indeed, incompatible with sanctity. People who are sober in this sense, too, are impervious to the world of the supernatural. Even though formally aware of Christ and ready to serve Him, they are not inwardly penetrated by the light of His countenance and the breath of His spirit. This negative sobriety is as definitely antithetic to the Christian attitude of sancta sobrietas as is all illusionary exaltation.

     Holy sobriety avoids illusions about human nature

The latter, again, occurs in several varieties. Its most obvious type is presented by those idealists who—wanting in that salutary mistrust of human nature which the Fall has made necessary—light-mindedly abandon themselves to the autonomous strain of their natural enthusiasms. Whether, in a sort of Rousseauian optimism, they make a principle of believing everything natural to be ipso facto good, or whether they merely follow the momentary inward aspect of their experiences with a blind and uncritical confidence—they inevitably fall a prey to illusions. Unmindful of the Psalmist’s warning, “Every man is a liar,” they glibly run into situations fraught with grave dangers.

Convinced of the purity of their own nature and the conquering power of their good intentions, they discount or underestimate the snares of the evil Enemy. They feel themselves pure, selfless, and charitable; and mistake this deceiving, subjective feeling for the objective reality of possessing these virtues. Briefly, such people refuse to take account of original sin. They turn a deaf ear to St. Peter’s admonition, which the Holy Church repeats daily in the Compline: “Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

This illusionism constitutes a fatal obstacle to our transformation in Christ. One tainted with this disease necessarily lacks true self-knowledge and is unlikely to escape any of the traps set for him by the Enemy. Being more or less unaware of man’s need of redemption, this type of idealist cannot conceivably possess the true readiness to change. Though aspiring to perfection within the limits of his nature, he knows little of the necessity of dying to oneself and being reborn in Christ.

For all his well-intentioned efforts, he abides in a world of illusions; even the incontestably good actions he may accomplish are not free from a certain taint of speciousness, a mark of things ungenuine and inadequate. What warps his virtue is the lack of holy sobriety.

     Holy sobriety rejects illusions caused by interpreting natural things as supernatural

Another form of illusionary exaltation consists in the tendency of many of us to misinterpret this or that purely natural and all too human attitude or state of mind as a manifestation of supernatural origin and dignity. This vice mostly betrays itself by a habit of idealising all things, and a mincing aversion to call them by their proper names.

One such person, for instance, will mistake an emotional dullness in him, which may in fact be the consequence of chronic fatigue, for a sign of religious serenity. Another will believe himself devoured with a holy zeal for the House of God, whereas in fact it is a purely natural urge for correcting and admonishing others, a pedantic or governess-like disposition, which prompts him continually to upbraid and to preach to his fellows. Another, again, will misconstrue what is simply his healthy temperament, his vitality, his sanguine vivacity, as an outflow of his imperturbable confidence in God. Even the rash blunder of mistaking one’s purely natural depression for the caligo, the dark night of the mystics, is by no means an unheard of occurrence.

     Holy sobriety calls us to blunt truthfulness about our nature

Yet, our transformation in Christ requires precisely that blunt truthfulness which is eager to call everything by its proper name. In order to become a true Christian, I must first say with the honest pagan: “I am a man, and know that nothing human is alien to me.”

We cannot be constituted in a true relationship with God nor dwell in conspectu Dei unless we consider man in his true reality and guard against all illusive interpretations. For whatever is specious and spurious in us cuts us off from objectivity and humility, falsifies our response to values, distracts us from God and thwarts the path of our transformation in Christ.

     Holy sobriety remains constantly mindful of our terrestrial status

An ordinary fellow who, aware of how subject he is to material things, preserves his sanity and common sense, is likelier to awake some day to a full supernatural life than is the muddle-headed illusionist of false sublimity who is busy decking human and natural things with pompous but false tags and deceiving himself along with others. Indeed, he who makes a habit of transposing natural things of everyday occurrence into an idiom of faked interiority or solemnity, and thus (deeming himself a saint while in reality his motives are entirely of this earth) leads an existence based on illusions, not only falls short of any progress towards true holiness but actually insults God.

A danger of religious illusionism attaches, in particular, to some Christians’ proclivity towards disregarding—leaping over, as it were—the reality of man’s terrestrial situation. To be sure, our glance should be directed to eternity; we should consider everything sub specie æeternitatis and accord a primacy to everything that is relevant to eternity and extends to its sphere. Indeed, we must ask with St. Aloysius, “What does this mean to eternity?” Yet, we must not take on a pose of dwelling already in eternity, nor simply pass over the status viae. For we must always abide in truth, which we cannot do unless we realize our metaphysical situation as a whole, taking into account both our being ordained to eternity and the fact that as yet we are dwelling on this earth.

This disregard may produce its bad effects in two alternative directions. Either our mode of experience becomes ungenuine, and we dwell in a pseudo-sublimity; or else, we fall into debasing and banalizing the supernatural: we drag it down, unintentionally, into an atmosphere entirely of this world—a danger which has been discussed earlier, in the context of false simplicity.

     Holy sobriety respects the stages inherent in many earthly relationships

The error of skipping the terrestrial phase is typified by the attitude which some Christians take towards the cross. They imagine it to be particularly virtuous or pious behavior if, at the death of a beloved person, they remain entirely calm and evince little or no pain—since the deceased has won eternity, and chosen the best part. They do as though they were themselves already dwelling in eternity.

Again, the alternative holds: either they will develop a kind of false, morbid, foggy idealism; or else, they fall into a shallow, matter-of-fact resignation, a banal routine composure (a cheap substitute for true Christian serenity and peace of mind), becoming thus wholly insensible to the gravity and greatness of death.

The fact is that they have lost the sense of the true proportions of our metaphysical situation, the true correlation of earthly life to eternity. The false familiarity they affect with eternity will either seduce them into a thin and pale idealism, an attitude of invariably floating in the heights, or it will lead to an implicit desubstantialization of the meaning of eternity, a short-circuited assimilation of its aspects to the sphere of earthly affairs. In either case, the distinction is blurred between eternity and the earth, and a denatured idea of the supernatural replaces its true conception. Instead of our actual transformation into a supernatural mode of being, it is the supernatural that we bring down to the level of natural concerns.

The same law applies in this case as applies in all other great things in our life. Such things have their proper dimensions to traverse. This is a condition of their proper realization. Attempts to pass by these dimensions will lead us to a merely ostensible attainment of our end. A love-relationship, a work of art, a great undertaking like the foundation of a new religious Order—all these imply, of necessity, a period of maturing.

There are certain successive stages which must be traversed; certain stages which must be actually covered. If we ignore this rhythm which is a law of being; if we attempt to skip over the proper course of things and to secure the final result at one blow; if we even try to force the maturing of some great plan—we fatally deprive that great thing of its depth and its inward weight, and substitute for it a mere counterfeit, bearing the stigma of flat artificiality. It is only by the paths which God has marked out for us that we can reach the high peaks of spiritual being.

     Holy sobriety remains conscious of the gulf that separates us from God

In regard to the interrelation of earth and heaven, too, this truth holds. Only by developing along the proper lines in the framework of earthly life can we mature for eternity. We must consider the immeasurable distance that separates us from God: and hence, neither believe that we can part with our earthly condition at one bound and soar above everything as though we were angels, nor approach God with too much familiarity and haul down the supernatural into the banal atmosphere of our everyday life.

It is by directing our glance in unquenchable longing upwards to God, by maintaining a permanent attitude of sursum corda throughout the varying actions and situations that constitute our life, that we shall more and more outgrow the limits of earthliness and incorporate ourselves in the world of God. In this manner the supernatural will become, in actual truth, the determining and shaping principle, the forma of our life. “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth” (Col. 3:1-2).

     Holy sobriety avoids an exaggerated estimate of our own experiences

Religious illusionism may also take the form of our persuading ourselves that we are burdened with a heavy cross, which we bear with heroism—whereas in fact we have no opportunity at all to practice such a heroism, for the heavy cross exists only in our imagination.

Suppose someone outspokenly draws our attention to certain defects we possess. Instead of gratefully accepting his criticism, we feel sorely misjudged and consider our endurance of the injustice we have suffered as a heroic sacrifice. We appear to ourselves as an exemplary Christian, a silent martyr who for the sake of Christ’s love refrains from remonstrating against a wrong. Yet, all this is mere illusion: the truth is that we fail to perceive the real invitation of God offered by the criticism, and delight in a lofty pose which lacks any real foundation.

Or again, some slight privation, slighter than those other people suffer a hundred times a day, impresses us as a heavy cross and an occasion for exceptional heroism. Little do we surmise that, as a matter of fact, this semblance of heroism is but the product of a ridiculous self-pampering. No, we wallow in self-pity, and complacently enjoy our power of heroic endurance. We do not apply the same measure when estimating the situation of others.

Instead of reflecting that in fact we are not doing too badly and had better thank God for His bounty, instead of pondering the smallness and insignificance of the burden we feel so irksome when the burden is compared with what others have to bear, we indulge in a heroic posture which is justified by no objective condition and therefore lacks inner truth.

We should keep on our guard against all such illusionism, and always be eager to abide in the truth and to see things as they are. Let us never read into our experiences any artificial profundities; let us not put a supernatural construction on what is simply human nature, and often enough, human frailty. Especially, let us not fall into the habit of assuming, without sufficient factual foundation, that something extraordinary and sublime has happened to us.

We must keep in mind that sublime experiences are rare gifts of God, and if the question arises we should reverently and soberly examine whether He has really accorded us such a gift. Thus, for example, we must beware of rashly assuming that God has blessed us with the exquisite gift of a holy love in Jesus uniting us to another person. For this, in particular—the ultimate mutual awareness of love in Jesus—is a unique bliss as rare as it is sublime.

As has been pointed out on an earlier occasion, we must look upon such a love as an entirely special and extraordinary gift of grace, a thing one must never expressly seek nor expect to obtain (in contraposition, say, to a happy marriage as such); for it is possible in very specific conditions only and reveals a very specific call of God. If, therefore, we feel inclined to believe that such a gift has been awarded to us, we should in holy sobriety examine whether the conditions for it are really present in our case.

The true supernatural attitude implies that we recognize the gifts of God in their real character, and appreciate them according to what they objectively signify—independently, that is to say, of our desires. First, then, we must in holy sobriety establish the pure facts about the thing in question, considering it exactly as what it really is. Having thus gained a clear and sane view of its primary reality, we must next seek to penetrate its deeper meaning and to perceive the call of God it is meant to convey.

Certainly we must embrace the gifts of God in full receptivity; but on the other hand we should not, prompted by an illusive idealism, impose on them an interpretation derived from our desires and, like Don Quixote, mistake an inn for a castle. We should humbly leave to God what He might really deign to give us. The wealth of supernatural reality is such, the decrees and the blessings of God are so mysterious and so great, that all the illusions hatched by our fantasy can never measure up to them and would only flatten out the depth and beauty of the spiritual cosmos. “We should live soberly, and justly, and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12-13).

     Holy sobriety is cautious about private “illuminations”

A further domain of religious illusionism which requires mention is that of so-called personal illuminations. Some people believe certain ideas and fancies which are either mere products of their unconscious desires or at any rate purely natural impressions to be illuminations sent them by God—the voice of God, as it were. Likewise, they may mistake a phantasm for a vision, or again, mistake their thoughts during prayer for private revelations.

Keen caution and a salutary self-distrust are necessary here. Real illuminations and revelations by God are things so sublime and exceptional that reverence alone should prevent one from easily assuming their presence.

A final conviction in this sense should never be formed without the sanction of one’s spiritual director. He alone may decide whether the illuminations and revelations one claims to have received are really such, or mere illusions—if not trickery of the devil. Even the great St. Teresa of Avila distrusted the mystic graces she was receiving until the fact had been confirmed by her confessor. She tells in her Life that once, at her confessor’s behest, she went so far as to snap her fingers at Christ who had appeared to her in a vision; and that the Lord then told her nothing was more pleasing to Him than such a spirit of true obedience. Indeed, every Christian must recognize the objective proceeding of ecclesiastical authority and the instructions of the Church as the authentic standard by which all private revelations are to be measured.

     Holy sobriety relies more on factual evidence than on inner voices and feelings

But the necessity of a prudent distrust of ourselves is not confined to cases where the question is whether or not we have been distinguished by an exceptional gift of God. It also arises whenever we believe that we perceive a clear and unmistakable inner voice speaking in us: whether it suggests to us to do a certain thing; or that we should regard something as our duty; or that we have discovered our principal defect; or again, that we have gained some decisive insight into the character of others.

In the face of all inner voices, feelings and sensings unsupported by experimental and rational evidence, of all intuitions suddenly arising and upsetting the whole of our previous knowledge of a situation, the utmost reserve is advisable. It is often all too tempting and easy to feel that, for instance, somebody loves us or has something against us, or again, that he has changed his attitude towards us. It is somehow alluring to believe oneself deeply understood, grievously misunderstood, or persecuted.

A person thus inclined will accept for irrefutable witnesses these purely subjective impressions, unsupported by any clear indication in the facts, and on their basis he will form stubborn convictions. In the face of all rational objections, he will stick to his instinct as the more trustworthy criterion of truth.

This proud illusionism is a great evil. The truth is that factual indications definitely deserve greater trust than do all sorts of inspirations, which are only too apt to lure us into illusions and deceptive imaginations. It is a commendable practice to submit such impressions to the judgment of our spiritual director. We must then steadfastly believe in that judgment rather than in our subjective fancies and in our interpretations of other people’s acts as suggested by these emotional prejudices.

     Holy sobriety humbly admits human limitations

Holy sobriety is closely linked to humility and to the Christian principle of abiding by the plain truth. The root of all “mystical” illusionism lies in pride. The mystical man, who contemns ordinary reason and common sense, is reluctant to admit his bondage to terrestrial shackles, his frailty and fallibility. He prefers not to be subject to the universal laws of fallen nature. At least he feels his task is to grapple with problems of a unique character, and an exceptional brand of difficulties. Holy sobriety, on the contrary, implies a humble admission of the fact that we, too, must pay our tribute to universal human weakness.

The sober man is free from the obsession that he must needs be something unique and extraordinary, and is free from all narrowing crampedness. He takes account of reality as it is—of the whole of reality, to be sure, not (as does the self-styled realist) of its crude and base aspects only. He is aware that by himself he amounts to nothing but that he may say with St. Paul, “I can do ail things in Him who strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). He knows that God can and will regenerate him if he cooperates. He knows that Christ has redeemed him and communicated His holy life to him.

     The “natural idealist” is blind to human weakness

His spiritual impetus, therefore, is entirely different from that of the natural idealist. The idealist inclines to overrate the power of the human spirit as such; he believes himself able to rise above his human weakness by purely natural means: that is to say, by sheer moral effort. He is prone, also, to overlook man’s bondage to earthly conditions in general; to interpret the frailty inherent in man’s constitution as a merely accidental shortcoming.

Thus, his lofty mood involves a certain divorce from reality; his bold perspectives are never free from a trait of anemic thinness and of reckless illusionism. He would storm the skies by flight, like Icarus—instead of humbly ascending step by step the narrow, steep, and laborious path that leads to eternity. His attitude has something forced and high-strung about it. His enterprise is doomed to failure, for it rests on a gigantic illusion concerning human nature, whose dismal abysses he hardly even suspects. He fails, in a word, owing to his ignorance of man’s need of redemption.

     The saint builds his hopes on confidence in God

Of a wholly different kind is the spiritual elan that characterizes the saint. Humbly aware of his own weakness, clearly conscious of his need of being redeemed, in an unrestrained avowal of man’s frailty and enchainment to earth, he looks up to God and prays: “God, come to my assistance.” He would not, then, start building the tower without knowing the foundations.

But again, full of insatiable longing he looks up to Christ, and unreservedly follows Him who spoke the words, “If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). With the Apostles, he responds to the Lord: “Thou hast words of eternal life.”

He builds his life not on ideals but on the supreme and ultimate reality, the Being most real, the ens realissimum: on God. He cooperates in being lifted above his nature by Christ, and unites his will to grace, hoping that grace may not work in him in vain.

His elan is a response to the Lord’s call, “Follow me”: a fruit of his faith in Christ, who has turned a Saul into a Paul, and whom St. John in the Apocalypse heard pronounce the words, “Behold, I make all things new.”

His elan is a fruit of his hope based on the transforming power of grace, which made a band of simple, ignorant fishermen into luminaries of the Church; a fruit of his love for Christ, whose most holy countenance has drawn him into its orbit of light. Therefore, it has nothing superficial and anemic, nothing romantic and unreal about it; it is genuine, strong, and victorious. The saint dwells in the truth fully; he alone takes account of the whole of reality.

     Holy sobriety permeates the Liturgy

This spirit of holy sobriety permeates the entire Liturgy, which exhibits no trace of a tendency to cover up painful things, but looks integral reality in the face. No prudishness whatsoever, no illusive denial of human nature is encountered there. But all things are seen in their highest light, and every good is grasped according to its meaning in the order of creation. Human frailty, the dangers which encompass us, all chasms and crevices of our fallen nature—we see them inexorably contrasted with the infinite glory of God and with all values envisioned in their reference to the order of creation. The tension between our fallen nature—the reality we start from—and the goal we are ordained to reach, our rebirth in Christ, is manifested without reserve or concealment.

     Holy sobriety is essential to our transformation in Christ

Not unless we rid ourselves of all illusory exaltation, not unless we keep dwelling in the truth, can we attain to a veritable union with God. For God is Truth. Therefore, we must relentlessly clear away whatever illusions still survive in us. Holy sobriety should form the basis of our life. We must gladly recognize our limitations and firmly free ourselves of any imaginary claim to qualities or accomplishments we do not really possess. Nor must we yield to despondency when we meet with failure or come to discover our defects; when, perhaps, all of a sudden our task appears to be too difficult and we see nothing but darkness around us.

Advancing along the steep path of our transformation in Christ, we shall inevitably come across obstacles and have to pass through phases of the “dark night.” Then must our implicit faith in the light we once saw—our fides in the strict sense of the term—reassert itself; then must the luster that once shone upon us from Mount Tabor brighten up our night.

We must treasure in our heart the great Call we have received and the promise of comfort we hold. We must in holy sobriety expect in advance the manifold limitations of our nature which are sure to appear, and be prepared for the “dark nights” that will come. True self-knowledge, freedom from all illusions, and a clear recognition of our metaphysical situation are indispensable conditions of our transformation in Christ.

It is, then, holy sobriety that seals with the stamp of truthfulness, of genuineness, and of full reality all the Christian virtues—such as confidence in God, the readiness to change, contrition, hunger for the kingdom of God, simplicity, patience, meekness, mercy, love of God and one’s fellow creatures.

Not only is holy sobriety compatible with a life inspired and sustained by Faith, with that supernatural ecstasy—that drunken love of Jesus—which makes the saints appear as fools in the eyes of the world: it is a necessary presupposition of these things. The rapturous love of Jesus, which a St. Paul or a St. Francis of Assisi had, necessarily springs from the soil of that holy sobriety which the Church, in the hymn Splendor paternae gloriae, praises thus: “Joyously let us drink the sober drunkenness of the Holy Spirit.”

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