God wishes us to seek the happiness He can give if we will let Him. A mother who has a wayward daughter desires nothing more than to penetrate into her mind to inspire her will – her greatest sorrow is her inability to do this. The happiness of both is conditioned upon the daughter’s allowing the mother’s love to operate, for no parent can ever guide a child who wars against the parent’s will. Neither can God guide us if we allow the animal in us to direct our will, demanding the satisfaction of each of its rebellious claims. As the whole order of the universe rests on the surrender of the chemicals to the plants, of the plants to the animals, of the animals to man, so the peace of man comes only in the surrender of self to God. Psychologists teaching that our animal needs are more important than the ideals of the superego, that a discipline of sex ends in a tension and neurosis that can be released only by carnal abandonment are all individuals who have increased the world’s selfishness, egotism, and cruelty.
The principal cause of all unhappiness is unregulated desire – wanting more than is needed or wanting what is harmful to the spirit. The modern world is geared to increase our desires and our wants by its advertising, but it can never satisfy them. Our desires are infinite – the supply of any good on earth is finite. Hence our unhappiness and anxieties, our disappointments and our sadness. The only exit from this state is by control of the senses through mortification. This is what Our Lord meant when He said ‘And if your hand, or your foot scandalize you, cut it off, and cast it from you. And if your eye scandalizes you, pluck it out, and cast it from you’ (Matt 18:8). Because, in our modern civilization, the biological is divorced from the spiritual, because freedom is isolated from dependence on God like a pendulum cut off from a clock, because liberty is interpreted only as freedom from something and not as freedom for something, it is especially necessary to revive the Christian practice of self-discipline.
Christian self-discipline is really self-expression – expression of all that is highest and best in self – the farmer plows under the weeds for the complete expression of the corn’s desire to grow. Self-control, through mortification or asceticism, is not the rejection of our instincts, passions, and emotions, nor is it thrusting these God-given impulses into unconsciousness, as the materialists accuse the Christians of doing. Our passions, instincts, and emotions are good, not evil – self-control means only curbing their inordinate excesses. To take a little wine for the sake of one’s stomach, as St. Paul told Timothy, is to obey an instinct – but to take so much of it as to forget that one has either a head or a stomach is to abuse wine as a creature of God.
Once the instincts and passions are subject to the will, they can be controlled and guided. The Church does not repress passions when it restrains their unlawful expression. It does not deny emotions, any more than it denies hunger – the Church only asks that, when a person sits at table, he shall not eat like a pig. Our Lord did not repress the intense emotional zeal of Paul – He merely redirected it from hate to love. ‘Our Lord did not repress the biological vitalities of a Magdalene – He merely turned her passion from love of vice to love of virtue. Such a conversion of energies explains why the greatest sinners – like Augustine – sometimes make the greatest saints – it is not because they have been sinners that they love God with their special intensity, but because they have strong urges, violent passions, flowing emotions which, turned to holy purposes, now do as much good as they once did harm‘ (Fulton J. Sheen).
Strong passions are the precious raw material of sanctity. Individuals who have carried their sinning to extremes should not despair or say ‘I am too great a sinner to change’, or ‘God would not want me’. God will take anyone who is willing to love, not with an occasional gesture, but with a ‘passionless passion’, a ‘wild tranquility’. A sinner, unrepentant, cannot love God, any more than someone on dry land can swim – but as soon as a person takes his errant energies to God and asks for their redirection, he will become happy, as he was never happy before. It is not the wrong things one has already done that keep one from God – it is present persistence in that wrong.
Mortification is good, but only when it is done out of love of God. Mortifications of the right sort perfect our human nature – the gardener cuts the green shoots from the root of the bush, not to kill the rose, but to make it bloom more beautifully. As the perfection of the rose and not the destruction of the bush is the purpose of pruning, so union with God is the purpose of self-discipline. Good deeds that are done for human ends, such as to perpetuate one’s name, or enjoy praise and popularity, receive nothing but a human reward – only deeds of mortification, done out of Divine Love, perfect the soul. But they must be done from the right motive, and they must sacrifice the very things to which we wish to cling.