Psychology, Faith, & Spiritual Growth

Author: Fr. William Most

Fr. William Most

Psychology, Faith and Spiritual Growth

The ancient Greek oracle at Delphi had two great mottoes carved on it. One was: Gnothi sauton, meaning: "Get to know yourself". Clearly, to know self is needed before one can even try to improve - how can we correct what we do not even know is there?

Submarine motives: Submarines do their best work when they cannot be seen, when they are beneath the surface. Now we humans have quite a few submarine motives. If a person has never caught himself involved in one, it is fairly certain he really has them.

Here are two cases: Suppose I lived in a large institutional dormitory. It was announced that on Thursday evening a collector would knock on each door, to get contributions for a certain charity. So I think it over, and decide to give him $50, surely much more than most people will give. What is my motive? It could be 100% charity. I would like to think that. But equally well it could be a mixture. On the surface would be a certain percent of true charity. But beneath the surface, subconsciously, I could be looking forward to a big congratulation for so outstanding a donation. Or, instead, I might be just patting myself on the back. Any proportions could happen, e.g. , 60% vanity, 40% charity.

Now as long as the vanity/pride is completely beneath the surface, so I am not at all aware of it, I contract no guilt. But I do take a spiritual loss. Clearly, an act done out of 100% charity is worth much more than one done out of only 40% charity, with the other 60% being vanity/pride.

Another case: imagine a boy in college who is taking the opening biology course. In the early part of the semester he does no more work than the minimum to get by. But then they come to the chapter on sex and reproduction. He says to himself: "I really should be studying more". So he reads intently the whole chapter, and goes to the library to get other things on the same topic.

We ask: What was the motive driving him? Probably a mix of three motives. One is the motive of study - earlier performance that semester shows that is not very strong. But a second motive could be curiosity. Curiosity, if there is no considerable danger of consent to illicit pleasure would not be more than a venial sin. But there is probably a third motive: he is bootlegging sexual kicks for himself. He may be totally unaware of the fact that he is doing that - or the submarines may be almost surfacing, so that he wonders; Am I kidding myself to some extent?

Only God can assess the moral rating coming from this submarine motive. If it is completely below the surface, there is no guilt, but if it is almost surfacing - then there can be hard to evaluate degrees of guilt.

As we said, if a person has never caught himself working with submarine motives, it is a good bet he is really doing it.

Another area in which this sort of thing can happen is with pride in general. There is really no good, even heroic action that a person could not do out of pride. H could even act humble to get praise for his humility. This could be pride of which he is aware. But it could be, at least to some extent, submarine pride.

So we see the need of working for deep self-knowledge as a prerequisite for improving oneself spiritually.

Motives for believing the faith: Why did not Jesus arrange to rise from the grave with all Jerusalem including Scribes and Pharisees, assembled before it? They would all believe, no doubt about it. It would bowl them over. So why did He not do it that way? We need to explore.

There are two kinds of motives that may move one to believe anything whatsoever: compulsive, and noncompulsive motives or reasons.

For example, the mathematics tables do not leave our mind any freedom Two times two equals four. We cannot help seeing that.

But there are other reasons for believing things that are not compulsive. There is a broad spectrum of such motives. At the high end of the scale there are things which no one is apt to doubt, e.g., that Washington crossed the Delaware. But at the low end of the same scale there are things such that our feelings and desires can influence us. For example if someone speaks of the original Mayor Daley of Chicago - a really controversial figure -and says; Mayor Daley was good honest politician, a man who had gotten favors from that party would easily say: He surely was good and honest. But a man of the opposite party, who suffered from Daley's regime, would be apt to say: Why that dirty crook!

As we said, if Jesus had risen in front of all the people of Jerusalem, they would have believed. But that faith would hardly even be free. He wants faith to be free so it can deserve a reward. Therefore the reasons for believing the Catholic Church are objectively, in themselves, quite valid. But they are not such as to compel the mind. They are such that if one is well disposed morally, he will believe; if ill-disposed, he will tell himself there is not sufficient reason. Submarines are at work.

We turn to the problem of the parables for a moment, for what we see there will help with our question. If we follow the chronology of St. Mark's Gospel - we know the Evangelists in general were not aiming at chronological order: they often grouped things, e. g. , the Sermon on the Mount is likely such grouping. But if we follow Mark, then we see Jesus at first taught rather clearly. But then came the time when His enemies said: You cast out devils by the devil. Then Mark reports He turned to parables, and told the Apostles (Mk 4:11: "To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: to those outside, all things are in parables, that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand." He was here quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 - all three Synoptics give this scene and quote Isaiah.

What did He mean? Some have thought He really meant to blind people. But that cannot be. Then why should He later weep over Jerusalem for not understanding?

The real reason is different: the parables were a divine device to separate people. Those well-disposed would begin to get more and more from His teaching - the ill-disposed would become more and more blind. In this we see, marvelously, that one and the same divine action involves both mercy and justice.

To see this, think of man who has never been drunk before, but tonight he gets very drunk. The next day he will have guilt feelings - recall this is the first time for him. There is a clash between his moral beliefs, and his actions. In due time something will give: he will line up his actions with his faith, or his faith will be pulled into line with his actions. So if we talk to a confirmed drunk of many years and tell him that is wrong, he will not at all grasp it. His ability to see moral truth has been diminishing. In fact, this blindness in time will affect not only the truth about drink, but other moral truths. And if he goes far enough, in time even his doctrinal beliefs will be twisted. Before Pope John Paul II went to Denver in the summer of 1993, Dignity, a group who contradict the Church and say homosexual acts are good, issued a public statement in which they said in effect: The Pope is only the titular head of the Church: we are the Church.

So we could say that a man may start out on a spiral in this way - we mean a pattern which gets larger as it goes out, and feeds on itself. As we said, there is both mercy and justice at work here in the very same action. He is getting more and more blind, which is justice; but inasmuch as the more one knows about the truths of faith, the greater his responsibility, mercifully, this man's responsibility is going down and down, from his very increasing blindness.

There is spiral too in the good direction: if one lives out with great effort what faith tells us, that the things of this world, compared to the things of eternity, and not worth much (St. Paul said they are, in comparison, "rubbish"- Phil 3:8), then his ability to understand the truths of faith grows more and more. That increasing light is, in a secondary sense, justice, for he has earned more light. Yet in the most basic sense it is mercy, for no one by his own power can establish a claim on God: all is really unmerited, all is mercy.

We gather that there can be subconscious blocks to seeing the truths of faith, to seeing that the Catholic Church is that established by Christ. The reasons for believing this are valid in themselves, but the submarines may be at work. A person may perceive only subconsciously, in a submarine manner, that if he joins, there will be unacceptable consequences. If he is a great university professor, like Mortimer Adler - who had an unusual grasp of Thomism - he will perceive subconsciously he would be ostracized from the Faculty if he converted. So he will not consciously reject the reasons for the faith: but submarines will keep him from registering them sufficiently to come across. Another one may subconsciously perceive he will be an outcast from his family or friends - this easily happens to those who come from Judaism or Islam. That may not lead him to reject the faith in a guilty way: but that submarine perception may keep him from following sufficiently the reasons for converting. Another may perceive that he would have to give up contraception, or divorce and remarriage. So he too may be rendered incapable of appreciating the rational motives.

The founder of a heresy may easily be guilty of mortal sin, and see that he is guilty. But later generations growing up in his belief would need quite a nudge to bring them to the point of seeing they should at least explore whether or not the faith in which they grew up is true of false.

If we did not understand this, we would be driven to saying that in a place like the U. S. where the Church is well known and easily accessible, those who do not enter all go to hell, for rejecting the faith. We cannot believe this. Vatican II in Lumen gentium §16 taught: "They who without their own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation". The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, in §37 cites Pius XII, Humani generis (DS 3875):

"Even though human reason, simply speaking, can by its natural powers and light really attain a certain knowledge of the one personal God, who cares for and governs the world, and of the natural law placed by the Creator in our souls, yet there are not a few obstacles to keep this same reason from using its natural power effectively and fruitfully. For since the things that pertain to God and men are truths. . . altogether transcending the order of sense things, they require [for understanding] a dedication of self and self-denial. The human intellect moreover in acquiring such truths labors under difficulty both from the imagination and senses, and as a result of evil desires coming from original sin. Hence it happens that men readily persuade themselves in things of this sort that the things they would like not to be true are either false or at least doubtful."