Sunday, June 02, 2024

The Importance of Spiritual Equilibrium

I am becoming increasingly convinced that finding an internal spiritual equilibrium is the supreme difficulty most Catholics face in their spiritual life. By spiritual equilibrium, I mean the ability to balance opposing tendencies while keeping one's peace—balancing knowledge and uncertainty, law and grace, mercy and justice, faith and seeking, suffering and redemption, sin and forgiveness, and so on. A balanced spiritual life requires these apparently contrary ideas to be maintained in a harmonious equilibrium, where nothing is overemphasized and nothing neglected. Virtue consists in finding a mean between extremes, and so does spiritual equilibrium. It requires us to have the faith fully integrated across the various facets of our lives.

This requires us to be comfortable with a certain tension; in effect, keeping multiple balls juggling simultaneously without dropping any. Recall the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up, etc." (Ecc. 3:1-3) Failure to recognize that "for everything there is a season" will make our spiritual lives unbalanced and lead us into spiritual abnormalities that are not wholesome. Proverbs says "a false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight" (Prov. 11:1). A "false balance" is a scale that has been artificially weighted so as to make the scale tip to one side. Just as a false scale corrupts financial transactions by disrupting the parity between the parties, so a spiritual life too "weighted" towards one side of the "scale" will disrupt our inner life and rob of us of the peace that Christ wills us to have (cf. John 14:27).

There are various ways we can fail to integrate the faith in a balanced manner. For example—

We can consider the faith as a hobby, something we turn to for recreation or entertainment as a respite from the demands of ordinary life; it is something we "enjoy doing" because it piques our interest or engages our talents.

Similarly, we can treat faith as a distraction, something we use as a means of escape from an unhappy family life or career drudgery. In this case, Catholicism is something that gives us an excuse to be elsewhere. 

Very common today is faith as a socio-political movement, where we interact with our religion in ways analogous to how we interact with our own moribund political system. 

There are people who stress the faith as a moral code, a series of precepts telling them what they can and cannot do, breeding scrupulosity until Catholicism becomes so thoroughly legalistic that it might as well be Judaism. Prudence is entirely replaced by rules. 

Prevalent among a certain segment of mainstream Catholic Boomers is the faith as a country club, primarily an occasion for socializing and enjoying a sense of community.

Conversely, among Trads you often see the faith as a based counter culture, the signs of which are cigars, liquor, homesteading, anti-vaxxing, and a host of other cultural aesthetics that are more about a particular lifestyle than anything to do with Catholicism proper.

For many, I have seen faith as a compulsive obsession, something that is not integrated into their bigger life, but which, in a sense, replaces the rest of their life by becoming the one thing they obsess over to the exclusion of everything else—relationships, work, hobbies are all subsumed. (These are the people who send me unsolicited rambling emails WITH LOTS OF CAPS).

There is also faith as simping for western civilization, where Catholicism is treated merely as a vehicle for the restoration of western civilization. Here the religion is valued primarily as a cultural force, as a sort of capsule for preserving the western heritage, which is treated as the higher good.

I often see faith as masochism, where suffering is heavily stressed to the point of completely eclipsing any sense of joy, happiness, or light-heartedness about the religion. I'm reminded of a woman who told me once we should never feel festive at Mass, not even on Easter morning. This sort of thing is prevalent among overly-stressed, anxiety-ridden homeschool moms in unhappy marriages with emotionally checked-out husbands who can only make sense of their misery by projecting it onto the entire human race.

Finally, among the hierarchy we can have faith as the institution, where the purpose of the faith is to support and perpetuate the institutional structures of the Church, with excessive focus on demographics, finances, and resources. The institution itself becomes its own reason for existing.

The thing is, no one of these approaches is entirely wrong; you can find aspects of truth in any one of these conceptions. The issue is that they can be all-encompassing, to where they actually become the faith, growing into a vast superstructure that hedges in our spiritual life and becomes the lens through which we see the Church. And when we completely identify Catholicism with western civilization, or suffering, or the institution, or whatever, then we are bound to go off course.

St. Paul warns against being "unequally yoked" in our human relationships (2 Cor. 6:14). The image here is of two oxen sharing a yoke where one is vastly larger or stronger than the other. In this situation, the stronger oxen exercises a disproportionate control, and the pair of oxen will continually veer to one side. This analogy applies to how we distribute our attention and energy as well. If we focus excessive energy on the faith as suffering, then in time this idea will come to characterize our entire religion until we are unable to experience happiness. If we devote too much attention to being based, Catholicism will eventually become more about "owning the libs" than growing in holiness. And so on.

Integrating our faith within our life is not an easy thing, and I do not claim to have completely succeeded at it. And even in the best situations we are all going to have different aspects of Catholicism that resonate more deeply with us or that we particularly enjoy, and that's perfectly fine. I think the ultimate take-away is that we need to be comfortable maintaining a certain tension in our experience of the faith. Musical notes can only be struck from a string that is under the proper tension, and the fruits of a holy life require us to maintain a certain tension, sliding neither too far to one side nor the other. We need, for example, to be able to abide by rules and a moral framework without feeling like we need a moral theologian to direct us in every single little scenario. We need to have a healthy Catholic resignation towards suffering without also becoming dour and depressive. We need to persevere in the certainty of our faith while being content with knowing we will never have answers to some things this side of heaven. We need to respect our western heritage without making it an idol. 

In short, we need equilibrium. May God, in His grace, give us the constancy we need that it might be so.

"Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed." (Ps. 85:11)


Steven Cass said...

Your comment about faith as an obsessive compulsion hit home. Recently, in some comments to a Catholic talking about different collecting hobbies, some Catholic was going on and on in every reply how any hobbies were a sinful distraction from our Catholic duties to God and the Church. It was… weird. People tried to argue with him, but I tried to ignore as much as I could.

Aaron said...

This is fun trying to see where I fit in! Please update this list as you think of more and more so no one feels left out.

Hosea said...

We contemplate the Holy Trinity as “a paradox, not a contradiction.” For 2000 years we have discussed Christ as both God and man. These things, and more, are merely part of the fog of Original Sin. We rejoice in our wondering, guided by faith, because one day, when faith gives way to sight, it will make wondrous and perfect sense.