IF you read Custody of the Heart, then you know by now how often we fail to keep it! How easily we are distracted by the smallest thing, pulled away from peace, and derailed from our holy desires. Again, with St. Paul we cry out:
I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…! (Rom 7:14)
But we need to hear again the words of St. James:
Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
Grace is not cheap, handed over like fast-food or at the click of a mouse. We have to fight for it! Recollection, which is taking custody again of the heart, is often a struggle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. And so, we have to learn to follow the ways of the Spirit…
Again, custody of the heart means to avoid those things that would draw you away from the presence of God; to be vigilant, alert to the snares that would lead you into sin.
I was blessed to read the following passage yesterday after I published Custody of the Heart. It is a striking confirmation of what I wrote earlier in the day:
Would you like me to teach you how to grow from virtue to virtue and how, if you are already recollected at prayer, you can be even more attentive next time, and so give God more pleasing worship? Listen, and I will tell you. If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God. Do not spend your time in useless chatter. —St. Charles Borromeo, Liturgy of the Hours, p. 1544, Memorial of St. Charles Borromeo, November 4th.
But, because we are weak and prone to the lusts of the flesh, the enticements of the world, and pride—distractions come to us even when we are trying to avoid them. But remember this; write it down, repeat it to yourself until you never forget it:
All the temptations in the world do not equal one sin.
Satan or the world may cast the most lurid thoughts into your mind, the most tantalizing desires, the most subtle snares of sin such that your whole mind and body are seized in a great struggle. But unless you entertain them or give in altogether, the sum of those temptations do not equal one sin. Satan has destroyed many a soul because he convinced them that temptation is the same thing as sin; that because you’ve been tempted or even given in a little, that you might as well "go for it." But this is a lie. For even if you gave in a little, but then regained custody of the heart, you have earned for yourself more graces and blessings than had you given your will over completely.
The Crown of Reward is not reserved for those who sail through life without a care (do such souls exist?), but for those who wrestle with the tiger and persevere to the end, despite falling and struggling in between.
Here we must be careful; for the battle is not ours, but the Lord’s. Without Him, we can do nothing. If you think you can tussle with principalities and powers, outsmarting fallen angels is if they were mere clouds of dust blown away at the first resistance, then you will be mowed down like a blade of grass. Listen to the wisdom of Mother Church:
To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2729
The principal difficulties in the practice of prayer are distraction and dryness. The remedy lies in faith, conversion, and vigilance of heart. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2754
Here too, in the midst of distractions, we must become like little children. To have faith. It is enough to say simply, "Lord, there I go again, drawn away from love of you by attention to this distraction. Forgive me God, I am yours, totally yours." And with that, return to what you are doing with love, as if you were doing it for Him. But the ‘accuser of the brethren’ will not be far behind for the soul who has not yet learned to trust in God’s mercy. This is the crossroad of faith; this is the moment of decision: either I will believe the lie that I am just a disappointment to God who merely tolerates me—or that He has just forgiven me, and truly loves me, not for what I do, but because He created me.
Let the weak, sinful soul have no fear to approach Me, for even if it had more sins than there are grains of sand in the world, all would be drowned in the unmeasurable depths of My mercy. —Jesus to St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary of St. Faustina, n. 1059
Your sins, even if they are serious, are like grains of sand before the Ocean of God’s mercy. How foolish, how utterly foolish to think that the grain of sand can move the Ocean! What an unfounded fear! Instead, your little act of faith, so small it is like a mustard seed, can move mountains. It can push you up the Mountain of Love toward the very Summit…
Be watchful that you lose no opportunity that My providence offers you for sanctification. If you do not succeed in taking advantage of an opportunity, do not lose your peace, but humble yourself profoundly before Me and, with great trust, immerse yourself completely in My mercy. In this way, you gain more than you have lost, because more favor is granted to a humble soul than the soul itself asks for… —Ibid. n. 1361
But if a distraction persists, it is not always from the devil. Remember, Jesus was driven into the desert by the Spirit where He was tempted. Sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us into the Desert of Temptation so that our hearts can be purified. A "distraction" may reveal that I am attached to something that is keeping me from flying to God—not a "spritual attack" per se. It is the Holy Spirit revealing this because He loves me and wants me to be free—totally free.
A bird can be held by a chain or by a thread, still it cannot fly. —St. John of the Cross, op. cit ., cap. xi. (cf. Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book I, n. 4)
And so, it is the moment of choice. Here, I can respond like the young rich man, and walk away sad because I want to keep my attachment… or like the little rich man, Zacchaeus, I can welcome the Lord’s invitation and repent of the love I have given to my attachment, and with His help, be set free.
It is good to frequently meditate upon the end of your life. Keep that thought before you always. Your attachments in this life will evaporate like a mist at the end of your life (which could be this very night). They will be meaningless and forgotten in the life to come, even though we have thought of them so often while on earth. But the act of renunciation that separates you from them, will last for eternity.
For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Phil 3:8-9)
Vigilance of Heart
As earth thrown over it extinguishes a fire burning in a stove, so worldly cares and every kind of attachment to something, however small and insignificant, destroy the warmth of the heart which was there at first. —St. Simeon the New Theologian,Quotable Saints, Ronda De Sola Chervin, p. 147
The Sacrament of Confession is the gift of a new spark. Like a stove fire, we must often add another log and blow upon the coals to set the wood ablaze.
Vigilance or custody of the heart requires all of this. First, we must have the divine spark, and because we are prone to falling often, we must go to Confession often. Once a week is the ideal, said John Paul II. Yes, if you want to be holy, if you want to become who you truly are, then you must constantly exchange the smothering ashes of sin and self-centeredness for the divine spark of Love.
It would be an illusion to seek after holiness, according to the vocation one has received from God, without partaking frequently of this sacrament of conversion and reconciliation. —Pope John Paul the Great; Vatican, Mar. 29, CWNews.com
But it is easy for this divine spark to be smothered by the dirt of worldliness if we are not vigilant. Confession is not the end, but the beginning. We must take up the billows of grace with both hands: the hand of prayer and the hand of charity. With the one hand, I pull in the graces I need through prayer: listening to God’s Word, opening my heart to the Holy Spirit. With the other hand, I reach out in good works, in doing the duty of the moment out of love and service to God and neighbour. In this way, the flame of love in my heart is set ablaze by the breath of the Spirit working through my "fiat" to God’s will. In contemplation, I open the billows drawing God’s love within; in action, I blow upon the coals of my neighbour’s heart with that same Love, setting the world around me aflame.
Recollection, then, is not only avoiding distractions, but assuring that my heart has all it needs to grow in virtue. For when I am growing in virtue, I am growing in happiness, and that is why Jesus came.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
This Life, which is union with God, is our goal. It is our ultimate goal, and the sufferings of this present life are nothing compared to the glory that awaits us.
The attainment of our goal demands that we never stop on this road, which means we must continually get rid of our wants rather than indulging them. For if we do not get rid of them all completely, we will not wholly reach our goal. A log of wood cannot be transformed into the fire if even a single degree of heat is lacking to its preparation for this. The soul, similarly, will not be transformed in God even if it has only one imperfection… a person has only one will and if that is encumbered or occupied by anything, the person will not possess the freedom, solitude, and purity requisite for divine transformation. —St. John of the Cross, The Asecent of Mount Carmel, Book I, Ch. 11, n. 6