Taken from the preface to The Interior Life:
The piety of today suffers from a general malady : it is wanting in substance and depth, and is deficient in solidity. In some souls everything is superficial — and it is the same with some books. Must we say that piety has followed the downward progress of the times, or that the decadence of our days is due to the weakening of piety ? — I cannot tell. Both are doubtless true. But would it not be equally true to say that the insipidity of the salt has let the world become corrupt ? “You are the salt of the earth” : these words, addressed to the Apostles and to all those who participate in their ministry, also apply to higher souls who, by the bitter strength concealed in piety, are called upon to purify the world and to keep it from corruption. And if the salt has become unsavory, wherewith shall it be seasoned ?
However this may be, the evil is the same in both directions. From the region of ideas and principles we have come down to the right earth of the senses and emotions. In public as in private life, in intellectual as in moral life, we are too often in search of emotions, we live too readily according to the senses. Life tends to become animal, and to be merely a succession of sensations. The deep ways of the mind and heart are more and more un- known ; romanticism penetrates everything, even piety.
How, indeed, has sentimentalism perverted piety! It has become attached to the mawkish externals which it adorns with the brightest flowers of pseudo-mysticism, feeding on the disturbing illusions of the senses and hiding from many souls, under deceptive appearances, the absolute emptiness that it conceals! so that they often hardly know that they have nothing left but a show of piety, and that they have lost its power. The fascination of trifles has made them lose sight of the deeper good, because they see nothing but seductive superficiality.
Living by the senses, our life becomes outward, on the surface ; we no longer penetrate into the inner depths of the soul. The soul has infinite deeps. “God,” it is said, “speaks in the depths of every soul. To listen in these deeps, where truth makes herself heard, and where ideas are gathered, to go by way of piety to the Master within.” How many are there who can do this, or who think of doing it? How many are there who understand the intellectual way whereby God comes to us, and who, in order to find Him, know how to explore the innermost chambers of their own house and the unspotted profundity of their own heart? Unfortunately we know so little of our inmost being and of how to enter therein! Sometimes we care so little about doing it ! And are we not too often afraid to try?
We are satisfied with a cursory and superficial glance, which is enough to maintain a fair amount of outward propriety ; but the profound purification of the soul, the progressive transformation of the human life into the divine, the putting off of the old man and the putting on of the new, all this work done deep down we are scarcely acquainted with. We allow these depths to be invaded by all sorts of wretchedness. Self-seeking, which is the abstract of all man’s vices and the source of all his sins, very easily comes to terms with this superficial sentimentalism. It is so agreeable to be pleased with oneself — and with God! — And when all goes so well with us on our Thabor, why should we not pitch
three tents there! Yes, only in them will dwell neither Jesus Christ, nor Moses, nor Elias; there, along with our piety of the senses, will abide second-rate virtue, if not sensualism and pride.
This is not the place that God has chosen for the uplifting of the heart: the heart takes its rise from deeper down, from the vale of tears. Down there in the depths is the place for the combat and the toil. We must tear out and uproot this self-seeking and self-love which have such a living hold upon the heart, and which have struck such deep root in all directions. It means hard labour and few joys, at any rate for the senses. Yet here, too, there are joys, joys which are more real and in greater fulness. God Himself takes part in the work, and communicates to the worker the gladness of His presence, and this is why he is happy, says the sacred text.
But the senses are unacquainted with these joys ; they perceive the tears and the toil, the pains and the uphill character of the struggle : this is why we instinctively dread the depths in which the work has to be done. It is easy to delude oneself, when, on the one hand, one has no difficulty in finding joys that seem quite pure, and, on the other, one
sees a strife which scarcely appears quite necessary! Moreover, pretexts abound for preferring immediate and easy surface pleasures to the toil and combat of the depths.
And thus occurs what is spoken of by St. John of the Cross. “Many,” says he, “from want of knowledge use spiritual goods for the sole satisfaction of the senses, and their spirit therefore remains void. The soul is in great measure corrupted by sensible sweetness, and draws off all the life-giving waters of grace before they reach the spirit, which is left dry and barren. Scarcely one can be found who is not subject to this tyranny of the senses.”
Living on the surface of the soul, we come to live on the surface in everything ; for he who knows not how to penetrate within the soul has forgotten how to penetrate into the depths of anything else. He is taken up with externals, and matters of detail become chiefly important to him. Thus in duties and obligations, he sees the letter rather than the spirit, the bark rather than the sap, the body rather than the soul. He knows that such and such details are prescribed, and certain others forbidden. He sees the external side of the law, the material fact of the prescription, and this is the only thing to which he attaches a certain amount of importance. He does not see the inward side, the reason and end of the prescription, the spirit of the law ; and thus he brings an external and mechanical fidelity to the material observance of the letter which he sees and which killeth, without drawing any inspiration from the spirit which quickeneth and which he does not see.
We so rarely ask ourselves to what deep needs correspond the observances imposed by the law or introduced by custom ! We are no longer acquainted with needs which are deep. Above all we want external agitation and surface sensations ; and as these are not to be found in the law, we go on to seek for them in factitious practices which are calculated to produce emotions. In the meantime, so far as what is of obligation is concerned, we are satisfied with keeping a watch upon externals ; for this, indeed, costs us less. “The mind dwells in the elementary, in the word, only, and does not really enter into the region of thought. For want of piety, the mind neither goes from the word to the idea, nor from the idea to the soul, and still less from the soul to God.” And in this way, a soul whose fidelity to external practices leaves nothing to be desired does not make any progress, because it does not enter within where it would draw the water of life ; it is like an automaton, the movement of which is regulated throughout, but remains ever the same. This is materialism in piety.
Being attached to external practices, the soul cannot soar. It is imprisoned, chained, stuck fast. Seeing things in their littleness, it becomes small and cramped. Petty practices make petty souls ; for the soul always takes its proportions from the things to which it becomes attached. I become little if I am attached to little things, or rather, to the petty side of things; for even little things have a great side, as great things have a petty side. There are souls who only know how to get attached to the smaller side of things, whether the things be great or small; and hence they become mean and narrow. Others, on the contrary, have ever in view the greater aspects to which they become attached, and which constantly help to make them expand.
In piety, as, indeed, in all other matters, the external is the smaller side. As soon as I give it importance, everything within me begins to get wasted and mean ; my spiritual horizon grows narrow, I become the slave of trifles, which check my expansion. I suppose that a few infidelities in things external kill piety, and this is unfortunately true of mine, which is altogether outward. Thus I am faithful to my petty practices and become imprisoned in them : if I neglect them, I have nothing left.