Of late, my bedtime reading comes from a collection of letters of spiritual direction written by St. Francis de Sales. I first encountered this book in the monastery library of the Community of St. John, near Peoria, IL, and found it so helpful for me that I found a copy for myself. It’s the sort of reading that’s guilty pleasure for a bibliophile, since it’s over 100 years old and has the wonderful smell that only old books provide. But even more than that, the book is filled with profound wisdom.
A passage I read tonight from the good Doctor of the Church reminded me of my own thoughts where I compare my battle for chastity with a child beginning to learn to walk. I wrote recently that,
like a Father observing a child who stumbles over and over again when learning how to walk, I’m convinced God delights in the moments when we stand and walk, and realizes that stumbling and falling is a necessary part of the process. If there’s a barrier in our way that causes us to stumble, we need to trust that God knows all about it, and knows us better than we know ourselves, which is exactly why He allowed it, because He knows we need some obstacles in our way in order to lean on Him. He knows the places where we always tend to trip, and knows that eventually, with his guidance, we will learn to step over them.
In a letter to an Abbess, dated 14th May 1620, St. Francis urged her to not be too hard on one of the novices in the Abbey. St Francis writes:
But look you, my dear daughter, you are a little too severe with her, this poor daughter: you must not give her so many reproaches, since she is a daughter of good desires. Tell her that as unstable as she may be she must never be disheartened nor be vexed with herself; let her rather regard Our Lord, who from the heights of heaven regards her, as a father does his child when the child as yet quite feeble can hardly take its steps, saying; gently now, my child: and if it tumble he encourages it, saying: he is up again, he is very good, do not cry–then he goes up to it and gives it his hand. If this daughter be a child in humility, and know well that she is a child, she will not be astonished at a fall; besides she will not fall from a great height.
This summer, my neighborhood has seen several children have a go at riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. I’ve enjoyed seeing their progress, and cringe a little bit each time they fall. But their mom or dad are always right behind them, urging them along, and running like crazy, ready to grab them in the hopes of averting a terrible spill. But they know that in order to succeed, their children will have some tumbles and falls, and in their love, they allow them. One adorable girl took a little tumble right in front of my house. I bellowed some encouragement to her to get back up, and told her she was doing great. She picked herself up, rubbed off the grass that was on her pants, let out a big sigh, and said to me in the most adorable voice ever, “I guess I just need to keep practicing and practicing.” Her mom and I looked at each and smiled at her pluck and courage, and then spurred her on to another attempt. Before she got on her way, she told me that she couldn’t wait until her dad got home, because he’d be so proud of her. I told her, “He’ll be bursting with pride! Way to go–your’d doing awesome!”
I think we have to look at the battle for chastity like that. God isn’t so concerned with a fall or a stumble. It pains him, rather than angers him, and all He wants is for us to get back up because He knows that’s where we’ll be happiest. A kid has joy when he’s riding a bike, and Our Father created us to want the joy that only comes from chastity. The problem is that we don’t know how fun it is to ride a bike without training wheels. Chastity still for me doesn’t necessarily feel, or look like “the Thing” that I naturally would want to choose with regards to sexuality, but sometimes it’s the simple things in life that reveal the Truth to us about the big things. What dad would be content keeping training wheels on his daughter’s bike the rest of her life? That thought was terrifying for me when I was a kid, but my parents pushed me forward, with the wisdom that comes with being a parent. Plus I saw all the big kids, and how happy they were riding without training wheels. My parents and all of the big kids in the neighborhood knew that learning to ride a bike was worth the tumbles and falls, and that it was far more fun. The “big kids” who know that chastity is “where it’s at” are the Saints who all have embraced it throughout the centuries. I can’t fully understand how and why chastity is the best path to peace, but I have begun to see the joy and freedom that chastity provides. I’m not fully on board, I gotta be honest, but I have come to a place where I trust on faith, and in the experience of the Saints, and in the words of my Father that point to what St. Clement of Alexandria says is the “Blessed Life.” I have come to trust that joy lies in the least likely of places I would naturally be inclined to seek it. As for me, by the grace of God, one day I’ll be free from tumbles and falls, but in the meantime, I cling to the grace of God, and choose to view him as my Father, delighting in every attempt at virtue. The falls don’t anger Him. Rather, they spur on his compassion and He always rushes to my side to say, “Ok, here’s my hand. Let me pick you up, and help you to try again!” He takes a look at me, then patches me up again in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and says, “Now off you go, and don’t you ever forget that no matter how many falls and scrapes you have, you are my son, in whom I’m well pleased! Now go and live your life to the fullest.”
In the battle for chastity, this kid is my hero: