by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Our spiritual life is the life of grace within us; through it we become children of God.
For our spiritual life to be preserved and to develop, a series of actions are required that constitute the life of piety. How must that life of piety be? What deviations must be avoided? These are the problems we must understand to progress in sanctity.
Concessions to the World
In a speech to university students of Rome in June 1952, the Holy Father Pius XII made an observation that shows well the importance of the subject, and above all, the need to address it in a practical manner. Analyzing the moral crisis that youth usually goes through, His Holiness stated: "Let us leave aside the question of how this crisis was provoked, to which intellectual difficulties and other circumstances have contributed, [reasons] that can be sought... in the wild jungle of unbridled passions and moral deviations, or perhaps in the murky field of concessions people think must be made to the demands of a coveted career.”
Indeed, how many concessions is a fervent Catholic solicited to make in our days! How to avoid compromising with the spirit of the world, except through solid piety? Therefore, what must the characteristics of true piety be?
Before we describe true piety, we will analyze some types of false piety very common in the modern world and will show the moral deviations to which they lead.
In all his acts of piety, a minimalist devotee is contented with what seems to him absolutely indispensable. His prayers are short, quick, almost mechanical. He believes a monthly or weekly Communion suffices and does not even think about receiving it more often. If someone encourages him to receive Communion more often, he will perhaps reply with a kind word but believing he already does enough. St. Ignatius appears a bit exaggerated to him when he recommends daily meditation. In the morning and before going to bed, he says some hasty Hail-Marys and thinks his duty is fully done. To him, weekly confession made out of devotion even without grave sin appears perfectly dispensable. He practices other acts of piety such as spiritual reading, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, prayers before and after meals, and frequent ejaculations without the least warmth.
This slackness in the practice of pious acts is reflected in the whole life of the minimalist. In his conversations he seldom deals with spiritual matters or topics related to the apostolate. His general attitude in society, before his friends and colleagues, or even family, is never as markedly Catholic as should be expected. His way of avoiding near occasions of sin and reacting to temptations is always lukewarm and dubious. The apostolate gives him no pleasure at all; he devotes to it the least, indispensable amount of time so he won’t look bad.
As a consequence, his apostolate produces only rare and weak fruits. If a zealous friend points out the reason for the inefficacy of his work, he defends himself blaming secondary factors. He thus seeks to deceive himself about the real cause. In short, his life is lukewarm, slothful and without enthusiasm.
In order to understand clearly this type of false piety, we must note that minimalism has several degrees. One can be a minimalist even though one receives Communion every day, makes a daily meditation and follows all the rules of the religious association to which one belongs, and even though our apostolate may produce some fruit. Indeed, all that is possible without the desire for perfection that characterizes non-minimalist piety. Even a fervent person can have traits of minimalism: a small defect he does not want to correct because he is “convinced” he has done enough and needs nothing else to be entirely happy with himself.
Since in spiritual life there is no stagnation, in fact the minimalist is always losing ground. That fall can be slow and go unperceived but it is inevitable. A typical example of a minimalist devotee is the rich man of the Gospel. Although he practiced the Commandments since his youth, he did not want to follow Our Lord. Some theologians believe he has even been condemned.
Piety Without Formation
Is the piety of a devotee with a deficient and superficial religious formation and who does not seek to deepen it. He has never studied the truths of our faith and does not even know the catechism. In the life of piety, he is a child.
He does not know why the Church recommends meditation, how to do it or what fruits to draw from it. He does not know why we must pray, frequent the sacraments, have a profound devotion to saints. Everything in him is directed by impressions, impulses and routine; he either becomes enthusiastic with devotions or dislikes them for no reason. In him there is no upright ordination of everything according to the good norms taught by the Church.
The devotee deprived of formation does not even know that the principles of supernatural life exist. He does not know the marvels that divine grace can operate in the human soul.
How can he have a life of profound and serious piety if he does not know the value of a well-made Communion? If his meditation is poor and without horizons? If he does not know how to pray? If he does not know the mysteries of our faith? If he does not know about the communion of saints, the final resurrection, the Immaculate Conception and so on?
Let us take only one example. Saint Paul wrote: “I can do everything in Him who strengthens me.” What source of energy and courage does this message convey! It preserves us from all discouragement. It incites us to the most daring and heroic spiritual enterprises. A devotee without formation does not know all that.
In defining inconstancy in piety toward Our Lady, St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort writes: "Inconstant devotees are those whose devotion to Our Lady is practiced in fits and starts. Sometimes they are fervent and sometimes they are lukewarm. Sometimes they appear ready to do anything to please Our Lady, and then shortly afterwards they have completely changed. They start by embracing every devotion to Our Lady. They join her confraternities, but they do not faithfully observe the rules. They are as changeable as the moon, and like the moon, Mary puts them under her feet. Because of their fickleness they are unworthy to be included among the servants of the Virgin most faithful, because faithfulness and constancy are the hallmarks of Mary's servants. It is better not to burden ourselves with a multitude of prayers and pious practices but rather adopt only a few and perform them with love and perseverance in spite of opposition from the devil the world and the flesh."
This inconstancy can be manifested in all practices of piety and in every life of apostolate.
How will an inconstant devotee behave, for example, when he is in charge of directing a Marian Congregation? As soon as they give him that post, his soul is filled with enthusiasm. He makes perfect plans and resolutions worthy of all praise. But when the time for concrete achievement comes, the phase of the moon changes. His hollow enthusiasm vanishes before the slightest difficulty and he abandons all plans without hesitation. At a certain point he hears about a new work of apostolate and warmly decides to put it into practice in his Congregation. He organizes meetings to deal with the matter; makes insistent invitations to those who appear reluctant; and only talks about that new work. In a little while, his enthusiasm disappears because a new idea has appeared or simply because he forgot.
Thus our inconstant devotee, from enthusiasm to enthusiasm, carries on with life.
His life of piety is made of unfulfilled resolutions and his life of apostolate is made of unachieved plans. What will he have to present to God at the Last Judgment?
“And it came to pass, as he was going to Jerusalem, he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered into a certain town, there ten men met him that were lepers who stood far away. They lifted up their voice, saying: Jesus, master, have mercy on us. Whom when he saw, he said: Go, show yourselves to the priests. And it came to pass, as they went, they were made clean. And one of them, when he saw that he was made clean, went back, with a loud voice glorifying God. And he fell on his face before his feet, giving thanks: and this was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, were not ten made clean? And where are the nine? There is no one found to return and give glory to God, but this stranger. And he said to him: Arise, go thy way; for thy faith hath made thee whole.”
The nine lepers who did not return to thank Our Lord did have some piety. Seeing that Our Lord was passing near their town, they went to meet him, which shows they had faith that He could cure them. They were not like those who remained indifferent as Our Lord passed by. They asked Jesus to have pity on them and even called Him master. However, what was the ultimate reason for their devotion? Self-interest. They wanted to be cured. Not one among them returned to give glory to God, for in fact they did not care about the glory of God.
Does self-interested piety exist nowadays? Certainly. Giving glory to God and doing good to souls may not be the primary intention of a Catholic who is zealous in his works of apostolate, but rather to obtain a personal advantage such as, for example, becoming a congressman. Apostolate for him is a way to make a career. Self-interested piety can exist out of convenience, economic, social or other advantages.
In most cases the self-interested side of piety appears in a disguised fashion. People avidly look for personal advantages they can gather along the way. If an interested devotee must give a public speech, he is much more concerned about showing off and displaying his natural qualities than in doing good to souls. Note that self-interested piety is often subconscious, but no less culpable on that account.
A self-interested devotee is opportunistic and dislikes sacrifices that procure him no personal gain; he does not understand the spirit of penance and has no gratitude at all for the graces he receives.
Sentimental piety consists of a hypertrophy of sentiments that makes the whole spiritual life of a person be based on emotions and sensations. In true piety the will must be governed by intelligence; in the final analysis, the whole spiritual life must be oriented by rational motives. That does not mean that feelings do not play a role in true piety; they must accompany reason by favoring and encouraging the practice of virtue. But they are not essential to the spiritual life and can be absent, particularly in moments of trial. In general, a prayer made without consolation is more meritorious than when accompanied with emotions and bouts of enthusiasm in the soul.
But a sentimental devotee does not think so. As far as he is concerned, spiritual vibrations are the thermometer of the spiritual life. If when praying before a statue he feels that all the fibers of his heart are vibrating, he goes away certain that his prayer was well done. If he feels no emotion whatsoever he thinks his prayer was useless and generally abbreviates it as much as he can.
On finishing a retreat, he spends a few days with great “fervor” and fulfilling all his duties. But when sensible emotions go away – something that is inevitable – all his fervor disappears and he goes back to being the same person as before.
He combats his defects only when he feels an impulse to do so. He only does apostolate with people who are pleasant to be with, or when he feels like doing it.
Like sentimental piety, romantic piety overvalues feelings. But what makes a romantic devotee vibrate is different than what makes a sentimental one tick. The latter vibrates with pious practices. The romantic vibrates with liturgical, social or aesthetic exteriorities of religious practices. He does not look for sensations in prayer but in the ceremonial that surrounds prayer.
A romantic devotee goes to Sunday Mass. If the organist was not brilliant; if inexperienced altar boys messed up the harmony of the liturgy; if the sermon, though excellent, contained a grammatical error; or if the audience was not very select, our romantic believes the Mass had no value.
As it were, he despises simple, though pious, prayer. His meditation – if he makes it – is populated with dreams, fantasies and interior declamations. If his works of apostolate do not allow him to imagine himself a knight of the Round Table, he soon becomes discouraged and apathetic. He almost only appreciates “great gestures,” original sayings and romantic attitudes in general.
In short, spiritual life for him is an ensemble of apparatuses without supernatural content.
We call “enlightened” the piety of a proud and naturalist devotee who thinks he is sufficiently cultured and educated to deny the value of simple pious practices.
An “enlightened” Catholic is always up-to-date about the latest scientific developments; he knows the cultural movements of our times; he holds his own intellectual capabilities in the highest esteem. He believes he has an open and superior mind. So he does not think much of simple devotions such as the recitation of the Rosary, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, novenas to Our Lady and the saints, frequent ejaculations. He believes it is childish to wear medals or scapulars, something useful perhaps for the common people but ridiculous for him. For – the “enlightened” devotee thinks – an intellectual is superior to those superstitions.
Catholic doctrine teaches that since man is made of soul and body, interior practices of piety are not sufficient so that exterior devotions are also indispensable. If interior piety is not exteriorized through concrete practices and sensible signs, it tends to wither.
In the sixth rule of Sentire cum Ecclesia “to have the mind of the Church”, St. Ignatius says: “Have a great esteem for relics, venerating them and praying to the saints they belong to; appreciate the solemnities of the “Stations,” pilgrimages, indulgences, jubilees, crusade bulls, the custom to light candles at church and other similar things that aid our piety and devotion.”
Let us imagine a naturalist devotee who has to organize the apostolate of a religious association. What will his orientation be like? In his accomplishments, he will leave to a second place, or even forget, pious practices and everything else related with supernatural life.
As for the rest, a naturalist devotee has a bulletproof dedication. He is capable, active, untiring, a real shaker and mover. As soon as he takes over his post he will make a magnificent plan to organize lectures about burning issues of the day. He will create a sports department, which he holds in the highest esteem, and greatly encourage it. He will prepare courses and invite professors who shine for their natural qualities though their doctrine is dubious. Our naturalist devotee will organize databases, plans for apostolate, advertising for the association and a thousand other activities.
The only thing he will not think about is what Jesus Christ in the Gospel called the only thing necessary: “Now it came to pass as they went, that he entered into a certain town: and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord's feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me. And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
A naturalist devotee has the same conception of virtue as Martha’s. He organizes lectures and mailing lists but almost does not think about incrementing the life of piety in the association. The consequences of that will be most disastrous. Without frequent Communion, a life of prayer and recourse to grace, all of his plans for apostolate will be fruitless, as Our Lord said: “Sine me, nihil potestis facere” – “Without Me you can do nothing.”