One problem that constantly crops up among the legalistic is a tendency to do things that are technically meritorious — but to do them in the wrong way, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons or in the wrong sequence of priorities. This not only makes the acts lose their moral character, but can even cause them to become sinful.
For example, a father who neglects the immediate physical and emotional needs of his family in order to pursue a prayer life that would be more suited to a cloistered monk does not do good. A woman who decides to take a promise of holy celibacy seven years into marriage does grave harm to her husband.
Few of us go so far, but we do regularly fall into smaller sins of spiritual pride. We may try to undertake forms of asceticism that we aren’t really capable of, and then end up being grouchy and taking our “sacrifice” out on those around us. We might “pray for the souls” of those who irritate us, when what we really mean is “God, please make this person less odious.” Or we may “serve the poor” in a paternalistic and self-aggrandizing way that insults and discourages those whom we intend to help.
The cure for all of this is authenticity. We should try to better ourselves, but we should not pretend to be better than we really are. When we are faced with a decision between two goods, one lesser and one greater, it is sometimes better to choose the smaller good. If you are trying to figure out whether to go to the evening “drive-through” Mass or the two-hour Tridentine Mass, and the latter involves stressing out yourself and everyone in your family, opt for the former. If wearing a veil in Church turns your mind to vain contemplation of how holy and beautiful the sight of a veiled woman is, go with a bare head. Whenever an optional act of piety proves a temptation to vainglory or despair, it should probably be avoided as an occasion of sin.
I don’t mean this to be a recipe for laxity, and those readers who are constantly tempted to cut corners, justify lapses and make allowances for themselves should stop reading right now and go find a good hell-fire preacher to put the fear of God back into them. I am writing for people like me: people who tut-tut at the “Judas shuffle” of fellow parishioners leaving Mass before the final blessing and who think that going to the guitar Mass at the local parish only technically fulfills the Sunday obligation.
The question that we need to ask ourselves is: For whose glory are we really striving? Do we approach our prayer life in a spirit of pride just to prove that we are good and prayerful people? Do we multiply our words in order to puff up our own vanity? Do we admit it to God when we are angry or depressed or confused or doubting? Do we talk to him in our own natural idiom, or do we have a special prayer persona that speaks in archaic language and honeyed tones? Do we tire ourselves out worrying about external observances and miss the one thing necessary?
The same questions can be asked about our exterior life, our relationships with others — especially with those whom we consider to be our inferiors. Do we look down on large swathes of humanity as stupid, decadent or godless? Do we feel that helping others means remaking them in the image and likeness of ourselves?
Just as it is easy to fall into the habit of considering other people’s vices more opprobrious than our own, it is equally easy to imagine that our own virtues (or the virtues that we imagine ourselves to possess) ought to be practiced by all. Yet God told St. Catherine, “I distribute the virtues quite diversely; I do not give all of them to each person, but some to one, some to others. ... I shall give principally charity to one; justice to another; humility to this one, a living faith to that one. ... I have not given everything to one single person, so that you may be constrained to practice charity towards one another.”
There are three conditions affecting the moral status of an act: the object, the intention and the circumstances. Legalism tends to look only at the first: whether the act is objectively good when considered in itself, divorced from interior disposition or surrounding circumstances. This leads to spiritual pride and scrupulosity in oneself and to lack of charity towards others.
In trying to go through the legalistic motions of having all the virtues, we become saints in our own minds — and a source of scandal to everyone else.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer