Thought about writing an article on that beautiful virtue of humility, but while perusing the news Saturday morning, I was battered by several headlines which touched upon another virtue … or lack thereof, really: self-control … and its close relation: self-mastery
The headline was of a television exec accused of decades of abusing women … just the most recent of innumerable instances we read of sexual harassment and abuse. Child molester sent to prison for a decade. Missing children and Amber alerts. Celebrity marriage infidelities, sexual assaults, brawls in restaurants, drunken drivers causing accidents and deaths. Hmmm … maybe it’s better on page 2. Nope.
But something really hits home very painfully and close for me because of its very despicableness and myself being a priest: continued allegations of sexual impropriety, and even child molestation by clergy. Sigh; will that plague, that contagion—that horror—never end?
If you wonder whether Satan really exists, I think that his presence is most evident in such heinous criminality toward children, for few things destroy faith in God than such treachery by the often most trusted toward the most trusting, helpless and innocent … and thus against God Himself. Jesus, of course, had great care for children: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16) … and warned: “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea…” (Matthew 18:6)
While such stories of clergy abuse of children are painful in the extreme, it helps at least a little bit to see that perpetrators are now (albeit very overdue) being held to account. Perhaps the excision of such gangrenous cancer, while painful to witness, will now bring at least some healing and comfort to victims and to the people of God.
Mercy is good, but so is accountability. The Bible’s—and Jesus’ own—harshest criticisms and warnings are directed toward unfaithful and corrupt religious leaders, for those in whom so much is entrusted more easily lead God’s flock over a cliff. Thus St. Paul advises: “…for those [elders/priests/clergy] who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” (1 Timothy 5:20) Such crimes, as do all sins and crimes of passion, speak much of the lack of that great virtue of self-control, and the need for strengthening of the will.
We are all tempted by baser animal instincts … covered by a thin (and often societally-forced) veneer of civilization and morality. But that doesn’t in any way mean that we cannot resist and refuse such temptations. The sexual drive especially is the strongest other than that of survival itself, which leads otherwise reasonable persons to toss judgment to the wind and risk family, hatred, detestation, career and even years in prison for a momentary assuaging of desire.
But … the will; that force within us that, driven by reason, can be our great defense against such temptation and evil. By the will we daily behave morally in public, and thus by the will we can do so when there are no eyes to see; in fact, such adamant resolve is one of the greatest indicators of character and source of true self-esteem and good conscience.
When inevitable temptations arise, look to the greater good and seek to advance that good. Self-absorption and selfishness are the traits of the immature, the mean … the small. After all, what is among the first words of a toddler? “Mine!!”… even to the embarrassment of his parents. Yet, what is a first thing we try to teach children? To share … to seek the good for not only self, but even more so for others.
For us Christians, one of the great helps against temptations is to contemplate the temptations of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4). When Satan tempted Him, Jesus simply responded: “It is written…”; in other words, God has decreed such and such, and so that is what I will do! As St. Paul writes: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
What drives soldiers and police to move toward hostile fire despite danger to life and limb? What impels firefighters to advance into flames regardless of the peril? What drove Christian martyrs to forfeit their lives for their faith? It is the power of the will … willing that a perceived greater good be realized. We Christians have witnessed the reality of the adage: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians,” for many have come to the Christian faith by witnessing the dedication of those who have given their lives for it.
This same will for good resides in each of us; we need only activate it with determination. As we build the habit of following the good, doing good becomes less an activity requiring conscious thought and more of becoming reflexive response. The evil we might have at least considered in the past is automatically rejected by reason—which drives the will—as contrary to good.
Forewarned is forearmed, and expecting that temptation will come when least expected helps us be prepared. Having been raised in rattlesnake-abundant west Texas, to this day I am ever scanning the ground ahead wherever I walk … ever watching for the serpent. Likewise, let us be ever vigilant against those temptations which may confront us—the attractive and flirtatious married co-worker, the opportunity for undetected theft, etc., willing that the true good be done and facilitating its realization by self-mastery—one of the most kingly of virtues.
As St. Thomas Aquinas, the great priest-philosopher of the Middle Ages, wrote: “How does one become a saint? WILL it!”