If you are one of my non-Christian readers, I recommend that you skip to the More link and go right to the good stuff. I promise that the good stuff is really good, and it is completely neutral, as far as religion–or lack thereof–is concerned.
As in the past, I seem to have picked up a spiritual direction relationship with someone. As in the past, it is completely informal, just happening naturally as the relationship develops. As in the past, my friend is going through a rough patch and needs to know that they are loved and precious and worthy of all that is good.
Recently this… directee? asked if I have any little devotional books on prayer. So over the weekend, I scanned through my library of devotional and spiritual and theological books — and how did I get so many?! — and picked a few titles for them. One is a particular favorite, Letters of Direction, by Abbé Henri de Tourville. French spirituality at his time was very practical, concerned with living our lives in this world, in our time, to the glory of God.
As I flipped open the book, it landed in the section called Humility, on a page with two short reflections on perfection. I think I needed to read them. And I doubt I’m the only one.
If you attempt to do all that is possible, all that is desirable, all that might be edifying, you will never succeed. Such an aim would indeed lack simplicity, humility, and frankness; and those three qualities are worth more than everything else to which you might aspire, however good your motives.
I say that this is religiously neutral because simplicity, humility, and honesty are valued among a number of faiths and are valued by some who profess no faith at all. The most atheistic scientist–and I mean no slight to scientists whatsoever, considering myself to be an amateur scientist–would agree that a research scientist must value these qualities. I can indeed see that to strive for all the highest goodnessess would indeed be grandiose, egotistic, and dishonest, spiritually and intellectually. And it is such a lovely paradox that in order to attain the virtues the good Abbé describes, we must accept that we can never fully attain them.
Perfection consists not in taking the safest course (sometimes quite the opposite), but in doing the least possible evil, having regard to our state of mind at the time and to the difficulties of our nature. It consists also in modestly holding fast to a very great simplicity, renouncing any course of action which, it either is or appears to be more perfect in itself, would strain our powers.
I wish so much that you could get hold of the idea of what perfection in this world consists of. It is not like going up a great hill from which we see an ever-widening landscape, a greater horizon, a plain receding further and further in the distance. It is more like an overgrown path which we cannot find; we grope about; we are caught by brambles; we lose all sense of the distance covered; we do not know whether we are going round and round or whether we are advancing. We are certain only of one thing–that we desire to go on even though we are worn and tired. That is your life, and you should rejoice greatly of it, for it is a true life, serious and real.
The metaphors de Tourville uses in this description are so vivid and so apt. Goodness is not always easy. It is almost always simple, but so often it feels brambly and overgrown and way too freaking hard. I often find myself annoyed, thinking Holy crap, God, could you maybe have made it easier to do the right thing here? Would it be any skin off your nose to occasionally let life be easy for The Good Guys? Why should I even bother to put on The White Hat if it’s always going to be such a pain in the ass?!
I guess it isn’t necessary for The Right Path to be the same as The Easy Path. I can rejoice greatly in my struggle and slog, even when I’m trudging through the brambles, because I am living a real life. I am living a serious life. I am living a true one.
And, as the Abbé concludes, it is a life
on which God opens [God’s] eyes and [God’s] heart.