Friday, November 20, 2020

Fidelity in Little Things

All men should know that they are without question, obliged to love God. We must love God because he is our Creator and because we have nothing which did not come from his liberal hand, whatever gifts and abilities that we may possess have come to us from him and are actually for him. Without him, we would have nothing, and we would be nothing, we would not be.

François Fénelon

We should also love him because he first loved us, with a tender and enduring love, like a father who has a special compassion for the child he loves that is unusually frail and vulnerable; the child that depends all the more on him in his or her weakness. God knows that he made us of mud and clay, and at a change in the weather, we may return to dust, frail as we truly are.

And when we sinned and rebelled against him, he did not disown us, but rather he sought us out to guide us back to himself; that is love, to love unto death the one that walked away from you. For thousands of years, he has not stopped, day and night, working to return us to himself; we who have paid so little attention. He has run like a shepherd who exhausts himself to find his lost little lamb, and he is not content in finding us, but then carries us back on his shoulders. And to make it easier to find him, he took upon himself our weak human form and having done so he allowed his frail human body to be horribly mistreated and put to death to provide a way for the objects of his love to escape eternal death and return to him. (If you want to see the perfect example of love, then there it is.) The Scriptures say that he was obedient unto death, even death on the cross and that the measure of his obedience is also the measure of his love for us. In the garden, on the night of his betrayal, he showed us that he did not want to die on the cross, but because of his great love for us, he did what was necessary to save us.

After being convinced of our duty to love God, we must determine how we should love him. Should we do so like the cowardly souls who want to divide their heart, giving part of it to God, and keeping the rest for the world and its amusements? Or perhaps like those who want to mingle truth and lies; God and the world? Or like those who want to be God’s before the altar, and then to leave him there so that they can give the rest of their time to the world. Or perhaps that we should give God lip service only, and our real affections to the world? Beware, God rejects all that sort of love, which is not love at all. God wants us to love him in return with the same measure that he loves us. God is a jealous lover who wants us to love him with a saving love, else what’s the point. He tells us what sort of love he expects when he says this, “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” We cannot, after having heard that, believe that he is satisfied with a religion of ceremony only. If we do not lovingly give him everything, he wants nothing. It is all or nothing for him, and it should be all or nothing for us too.

Considering all that he has done for us, is it not despicable that we should only half-love him back if half-love is love at all? He has loved us even in the abyss of sin. The world, as sinful as it is, prides itself on being shocked by ingratitude. The world cannot endure the son, that does not show the gratitude he owes his parents that gave him life.

But for what sort of life are we indebted to our father? A life full of misery, of bitterness, and all sorts of real evils? A life which tends toward death, and which is thus a continual death? If you understood properly, then you would know that this is the sort of life from which God saves us, if we will but love him in return. It is an absolute precept to have every respect imaginable for our father and mother, and if this is the love we are to have for our parents, then what sort of love should we have for God? Our Creator has given us eternal life, which will last as long as he. He has created us to make us perfectly happy. He is more of a father than all the fathers put together. He has loved us with eternal love, and so I ask what has he loved in us? For when a person loves, it is for something good which he thinks or finds in the object beloved. And what then is there to be found in us worthy of his love if not a heart that will love him in return? Who among you does not desire this same thing for themselves, to see in the other the potential for reciprocated love? God unequivocally showed his love for us, should we not reciprocate? Do we not owe him such reciprocation?

0, what excess of goodness! Is it possible that we do not love him who has done us so much good, who sustains and keeps us so that if he were only for a moment to turn away from us, we would fall into the nothingness from which his all-powerful hand has drawn us? Are we that ungrateful? Consider this; on the one hand, we have God, who promises us an eternity of blessedness, and on the other hand, the world which always ends in death. The All-Powerful God whom nothing can resist has saved us from the way of the world, that is from death, and has offered us himself. The world dazzles us with empty promises which always end in death, and we would reject the loving God for such empty promises? Those that love the world will find themselves tethered to the world. To reject life with the eternal God is the ultimate insult to the Creator. If we live to serve the world, then he will send us back to this wretched master as our reward. And when the world sinks for the last time down into the abyss, those that whos tether their hearts to her will be pulled down with her and share in her eternal destruction. St. Augustine says that God’s command to love him was given to us to make us remember that it is a monstrous thing to have forgotten him.

Let us consider once more the goodness of God, who, knowing our ingratitude, and realizing our weakness, has wanted to use all sorts of means to lead us back to him, think about this! He promises us eternal rewards if we love him. He threatens us with punishments if we do not love him, and it is even in these terrible threats that we see best his excessive compassion and clemency. For why does he so often threaten us? It is because he has no desire to punish us with extreme measures. But let us take care not to abuse his blessings, his compassion, and his clemency. Let us make use of the present time to draw near to him. Let us fear to irritate him. Let us not do as those wavering souls do, who say every day, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow.” Let us make brave resolutions to be wholly his. Let us begin this day, from this very moment, to love him with the love that he deserves.

What folly it is to count on things that you have no control over, to bet your life on them! There is an abyss that we cannot see, and God has warned us about, and even when we know that we can do nothing about it, we press on pretending to do God’s work without his grace? Let us turn from doing things our way and instead do things his way. It is upon having faith in God that our conversion depends. With time our passions can become so strong that it is nearly impossible to put them in subjection. Let us make our choice now, and let us listen to God, who himself said, by Elijah, “How long, my people, will you be divided between Baal and me? Decide which is the true God. If it is I, follow me and no longer keep your heart in suspense. If it is Baal, follow him, follow the world, give yourself up to him, and we shall see on the day of your death if he will deliver you from my hand.”

Perhaps you think it a difficult thing to love only God and to leave every worldly attachment. Eh! What difficulty do you find in loving the one who has made you what you are? Please understand that it is from the corruption of our nature that this reluctance comes, this resistance that you feel in giving to your Creator that which you owe him. Do you think it a pleasant thing to be divided between God and the world, to be carried away constantly by passions, and at the same time to be torn by reproaches of conscience? Pleasure without God will turn to bitterness, as the world and God pull you in two directions. Infidelity towards the one you love produces an agony of guilt. It is by this faithless division of fidelity that we suffer relentlessly because it always brings to mind what ungrateful children we are. We fancy ourselves as responsible adults, but our fears reveal to us our irresponsibility.

If you think it’s a difficult thing to be faithful to God, then you have been greatly deceived by the attitudes of the world and by the self-centeredness of your own heart. If anyone can be happy, even in this life, it is the one who loves God. Considering the goodness of the one we love, we should give up all else for him. When this great love is alone in our soul, it brings with it the serene peace of a pure, good, and clean conscience. Being filled with this love makes us content and happy in every situation and circumstance. In this happy and content state, we neither need nor desire either grandeur or riches, and neither are our hearts concerned with reputation or indeed concerned about any of the things of a worldly nature. Such concerns pass away without leaving any trace. Such love wishes only for the happiness of the one loved. For the heart filled with love, it is enough to know that that the loved one is content. The lover of God constantly watches for the coming Bridegroom. Prosperity cannot inflate this love, nor can adversity deflate it. It is this detachment from its own will in which all Christian perfection consists.

I am not talking about the subtlety of reasoning here. How many great reasoners; scientists, scholars, inventors, men of business, vain and full of themselves, are in error concerning the things of God! St. Paul confirms this by saying, “Knowledge puffs up.” It is only divine love which ennobles. There is no extra virtue in long and well-articulated prayers, since Jesus Christ himself said, “Not all those who say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ to me shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but rather only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven, and to those who do not do, I will say, away from me you evil-doers; I never knew you.”

Finally, devotion does not consist of works without divine love. We cannot love God without works because divine love is not idle, and grand works do not more prove our love, for grand works, by themselves, do not reveal the motivation behind them. When it is within us, his love urges us unfailingly to do something which pleases him. And if, for some reason, we are incapable of action, we grieve our inability, and this grieving is pleasing to God because we long to do his will. Our expressed love lifts us to the heights purely for the love of him, because we love without any idea of self-interest. O, is it not worth our trouble to love God? If anyone deserves to be so loved, is it not he who is infinitely kind?

St. Francis de Sales says that great virtues and small devotions are like salt or sugar. Sugar has a more exquisite taste but is by comparison rarely used, but less tasty salt enters almost invisibly into all food necessary for the maintenance of life. The great virtues are rare, and the occasion for them seldom comes. When a great virtue is needed, we are prepared for it by all that has gone before. The greatness of the sacrifice stirs us, the brilliance of our bold actions in the eyes of our fellow man sustain us, and we feel good about ourselves because of the great effort we expend in the name of God. But, on the other hand, the small things are unexpected and unnoticed by everyone around us. They popup every moment and but disappear in a flash. They place us constantly at odds with our pride, our idleness, our scorn, our comfort zone, and our chagrin. The small things come to break down our will and to leave us no peace. If we want to be faithful in all these small things, we will find that there is never time to breathe, and we must endlessly die to all our inclinations. We would rather, a hundred times, over make some great and heroic sacrifice to God, no matter how violent and painful, if we could free ourselves from our obligations to obey the multitude of little unnoticed acts of obedience that we must do so many times a day. However, it is only by faithfulness in the little things that the grace of true love brings us into oneness with God and heals us from the destructive habits of human nature.

We can think of our little acts of obedience in a similar way that we might think of our daily use of money. If you don’t watch your money in all the little everyday things, you might find that when your roof leaks, you haven’t the resources to have it repaired. Whoever knows how to be obedient in the little things has no trouble obeying God in the big things. If you discipline yourself in your everyday expenses, you will have what you need for unusual expenses. Our doing some great thing for God is only possible after a lifetime of accomplishing many little things that seem to be of little account. Great acts of obedience are only possible with the practice of many little acts of obedience. The putting of the small things to good use, spiritual as well as temporal, accumulate great wealth, spiritual as well as temporal. The great things we may do are only possible because of the accumulation of many little things that we practice with care. The person who loses nothing will soon grow rich.

Consider that God cares more about why we do a deed than the deed itself. He cares more about the little things we do for him, things we do because of our love for him, than the big thing we do supposedly for him. He cares more about your wellbeing than the great things you might do in his name. He always wants what is best for you to do. God is not impressed by what the world thinks is noble; rather, he is pleased by the little things we do in harmony with his Spirit, things that lead us closer to him. What God wants is pure intention done in sincere detachment from ourselves, selfless acts of love. The little things that we do in obedience crucify our pride and test us far more severely in there very ordinariness than big things that we may do during extraordinary occasions, which tend to feed our pride. Sometimes we hold tighter to the trifle than to the matter of great interest. We are more reluctant to give up some small pleasure, such as our morning cup of coffee than to donate a large sum of money. We deceive ourselves all the more readily over the little things which we think innocent, and to which we think we are less attached. However, when God takes them away, we can easily recognize by the pain caused by there loss, how much we were attached to them. If we neglect the little social interactions with those closest to us, like saying good morning to our spouse, or perhaps the little encouragements we should be giving to our children, and being kind to our coworkers or perhaps those that work for us at the lowest level; if we neglect our little social obligations then who will believe that we would unhesitantly make a great sacrifice for their benefit if the need arises. If we neglect our little duties and constantly upset those that are close to us, then will not those that know us think that our piety is not in good faith when our behavior seems so irregular and weak in detail. How can we make others believe that we would unhesitatingly make the greatest sacrifices, while we fail in the smallest ones? Why would you think your love for God is great when you will not even attend to him in the little things?

But the most dangerous thing in all of this is that the soul, by the neglect of little things, becomes accustomed to being unfaithful. Unfaithfulness is a huge problem in the eyes of God; it saddens his heart; the soul that neglects the little things yields to its impulses; it makes nothing of failing God. On the contrary, true love sees none of this neglect as being little. Not the love of your spouse, the love of your children, the love of your coworkers, or the love of God. (My friend, if those close to you do not love you, then why in the world would think that God does?)

Every action that we can do, which either pleases or displeases God, is of huge importance. True love requires our fidelity because you do not neglect those whom you truly love. (If you are neglecting those closest to you, then you are demonstrating that you love yourself more than them.) True love is pure in its actions and acts simply with God. Such love is untroubled by the things which God asks of it. So we find that it is not by obsessive attention to detail that we become faithful to God in the smallest things, but rather by feelings of love, which are free from the reflections and fears of the anxious and scrupulous. It’s like we are carried away by the love of God. We are only doing what we want to be doing, and we are pleased beyond measure to be doing it. The jealous God wants those that love him and demonstrate that love through attention to the little niceties any love relationship, just like the little attentions we show in our human relationships. God urges our souls to come closer to him, he presses them relentlessly in the least details and seems to withdraw all liberty from us, all the while he is building an intimate love bond between himself and us. O, how happy the person is that loves God faithfully.

The people who are naturally more careless in the little details are those who should make a stricter law for themselves to remember and do them. It is by doing the little love things that we come to realize the true depth of our love. We might be scornful of the little details thinking that we are above all such things, thinking that such things don’t matter in the big scheme of things, but in this, we are very much in error. We don’t realize enough the incalculable progress which these little passions make for us; we even forget the most disastrous experiences in our human relationships, which were caused by our little neglects. We often prefer to think of this great imaginary love that we have for God, all the while not giving God the time of day. We show that we are deceived, not realizing that we demonstrate our love by doing all the little and continual acts of love and attention. The prideful scorn the little acts of love thinking that they don’t matter, but in truth, they matter more than the big things, for they show us and the objects of our love, the great depth of our love. Consider that the little nothings that you keep back from God reveal to him (and to yourself if you are wise) the shallowness of your love. The neglect of these little nothings will be your undoing. It is not an elevation of the spirit to feel contempt for little things.

On the contrary, such neglect shows the littleness of your spirit. The more trouble we have in watching ourselves in these little things, the more we should fear to neglect them, and the more we should distrust ourselves: Qui spernit modica, paulatim decidet [“He that intensely scorns small things shall fall by little and little.”]

In short, judge for yourself. How would you get along with a friend who owed you everything, and who, feeling very much duty-bound to serve you on those rare occasions which we call great, but would not take the trouble to show you either kindness or respect in the give and take of ordinary life?

Do not fear this continual attention to little things. At first, we must have courage, but this is an atonement which you deserve, which you need, which will make for you a life of peace and security. Without it, you will have nothing but trouble and relapses. God will give you little by little, this sweet and easy state. True love is attentive, without disquiet and mental conflict.

*******

This article was a letter originally written by Francois Fenelon some 300 years ago as part of his collection of letters later published under the name of Christian Perfection and was edited by Mark Heaney. A copy of Christian Perfection that was translated from the French by Mildred Whitney Stillman can be read here and was the translation that I worked from. Christian Perfection was, to me, one of the most practical Christian writings I have ever read, and so I thought that I might edit the phrasing to make it easier for people to understand.

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