The Discipline of the Will, by Father Basil William Maturin

The one supreme result of all the multitudinous activities that crowd and press upon human life is the formation of character. That which gives an intense interest to all that is going on around, whether in themselves most eventful or most trivial, is the knowledge that all these things take their part in the shaping of character for eternity. These things are temporal, many of them momentary, but their effect is eternal.

Machinery just meant to give thy soul its bent,
Try thee and turn thee out sufficiently impressed.

Just as in some factory we hear the clash and see the movement of the machinery, and to the untrained eye and ear all seems a bewildering and deafening combination of energy and noise, and then we are shown the work done, the result of all this activity – the woven texture of the tapestry. So it is with life.

All these forces within man or outside of him that seem incapable of any moral interpretation, and designed, if they have any design at all, to force him to work – the needs of body and of mind, the motives that set the machinery of his nature going and tend to develop this power or that, the ambitions or passions that drive men to live the most strenuous of lives, or the lack of motive and will which leaves others to drift aimlessly where the currents and tides of other lives may lead them, the struggle for food, the lust of power, or money, or influence, the vast multitude of people and things that claim men’s time or interest or affection–r.all these things, everything great and small, most ephemeral or most lasting, everything that compels men to work or dooms them to idleness, everything that calls out a moment’s interest or lays its grasp upon the heart, all these things, whether men believe it or not, or ever think of it, have one supreme, one eternal result – the making of character.

We visit the scenes of ancient civilisation, once the centres of intense activity, now silent and deserted; the records of human genius and ambition are all around us, yet the interest which they awaken is not merely the interest of the antiquarian, there is a deeper and more human interest – these were the scenes of moral conflicts, these streets and palaces, these mighty temples and amphitheatres witnessed the struggle of conscience with human passion and sin, which we know so well, the struggle of the eternal with the temporal. The earthly end of those ancient civilisations was soon fulfilled and they passed away, the thousand things that set its wheels spinning and kept them going, they have passed away, but the characters that were formed by them, whose shaping these silent streets and crumbling walls witnessed, remain for ever. The things that seemed so important, that stirred the city to its depths and filled the streets with eager crowds, have passed like a passing storm and left no trace but upon the souls who bear them for eternity. How little we realise this, the supreme purpose of life. As we think of men whose names are known in the social, political and literary world, and think of what they have done and how they have made their names memorable, we forget that the momentous question for them is not so much what they have done, as what has been the effect of all they have done upon their own moral character.

It is not necessary that a man should realise this to make it so. Some realise it keenly, others never give it a thought, but it is true for every one whether he believes it or denies it. The veriest trifler who plays all his life upon the mere surface of things, the materialist who denies that there is any future life, and who professes that moral distinctions are but the outcome of social instincts and hereditary training, are as deeply marked by life as the most serious and the most religious. No one can escape from it, whatever his creed, or, if he has no creed, whatever his philosophy of life, or if he has no such philosophy but lives only in the passing moment Whether he ever pauses to think of what he is doing or not, the principle is the same for all – the effect, the one lasting effect of life is character. As the noise and movement of the machinery of outward things sinks into silence, and the strain and pressure relaxes, each one passes out into the silent world beyond, a lonely figure bearing upon himself the moral results of all he has passed through for eternity. Man has his ends in it all and they may be only temporal, God has His end and it is eternal.

It is a strange thing when we consider it, that of most of the great enterprises which men undertake, what they would consider the mere accidents are often the most important results, and the enterprises themselves, their success or failure, are in truth but accidents. How many men realise that by far the most important result of the business they are engaged in, which taxes all their powers, mental and physical, is not whether it succeeds or fails, but whether it makes them honest or dishonest, thorough or slipshod, generous or mean towards the men they deal with – in a word, the moral effects upon themselves. Many a man has purchased success at the price of moral failure. Who would believe, if he were told, that the most important act in a day’s work, in which great issues were at stake and all a man’s resources were taxed to the utmost, was the self-control that was exercised, or the answer given to the supreme question that was being pressed home during all those hours of strain and tension, “Will you surrender principle for the sake of success?” The success or failure of life cannot be measured by material results, it must be weighed in the balance of the sanctuary Each of us is cast into the seething caldron of the world with latent possibilities of good and evil, and we come forth well-shaped, strong and purposeful, or crushed, misshapen, demoralised.

We are thus led to look beneath the surface of all that is going on around us, and to see all as the machinery designed by God for the moulding of character.

It is indeed a gigantic and massive machinery. But if we consider the vastness and complexity of the system He has formed for the well-being of the human body, needing countless ages of preparation and comprising not merely the earth but the solar system, and for all we know a great deal more, and if we realise how much more valuable the moral life is than the physical, it will not surprise us. And it will, moreover, encourage rather than discourage us. For in times of difficulty when we are depressed with the slowness of our progress and the smallness of the results achieved, it will help us to realise the greatness of the task in which we are engaged by considering the greatness of the machinery we must employ. The conquest of a temptation and the slow development of some virtue, the gradual building up of character, may be greater things than they seem to us. If it needs so extended and intricate a system, such a play of forces, such a combination of people and things, to produce results that seem so small, it may be that I am mistaken in my estimate of their real value. If the world and all that is in it exists for man, and if man’s work here is to overcome evil and to do good, then I am justified in estimating the value of goodness, which I can see but dimly, by comparing it with the magnitude and costliness of the machinery needed to produce it.

Think of the amount of energy of mind and body that is expended in one day in such a city as London, and then compare it with the net results as seen by the Eye of God, the results that remain and will remain for ever – a little deepening of the lines of character in each person concerned, the threads of habit woven a little firmer, the voice of conscience somewhat clearer or less distinct, the will sunk a trifle deeper into its ruts or lifted a little out of them, and here and there some great victory for good or evil. The comparison of such results, as the only permanent ones, with all that it has taken to produce them, must force us to realise how different God’s estimate of the true values of things is from ours.

Life, then, is but the machinery by which character is formed. But in judging of a man’s character we judge it as a whole, with all its paradoxes and contradictions – it is a Unit. We are led instinctively to lay stress upon some things, and to pass over others more lightly, to bring together the good and bad, the weakness and the strength, and to blend them somehow into one harmonious whole. One virtue does not make a good man or one vice an entirely bad man. The best men often have great faults and the worst have their virtues. Sometimes we are surprised to find what good deeds a bad man will do, though we know that somehow they do not change his character. Peter denied our Lord though he was a Saint, and Judas, with that vice that ruined him, had the qualities that would have fitted him to be an Apostle.

Indeed, there are not a few good men who have graver faults than others whom we know to be bad, and there are men whom we justly judge to be bad who have never, taking deed for deed, done a thing in itself so bad as has been done by a man who is justly judged to be good. David’s sin was in itself worse than perhaps any one sin recorded in the life of Saul.

When we say, therefore, that the end of life is the formation of character, and character is such a complex thing, how shall we judge it?

How can we compare men of utterly different dispositions? Here is a man of a hot, passionate nature, vivid imagination and strong impulses, his blood flows like fire through his veins, day by day he has to wrestle with temptations that another whose temperament is cold and phlegmatic knows nothing about. These two men look upon different worlds. What is a temptation to one does not awaken a desire in the other. What is sin to one, the other can do with impunity. Their temptations lie in different directions, there seems to be no common standard by which we can judge two such men.

How, again, is it possible to give due weight and consideration to all the circumstances of temperament, education, religious training? Yet how can we judge of character without such consideration? We must judge men by what they do, and we can only judge of acts as in themselves right or wrong. A dishonest act is always wrong and must be judged accordingly. A murder is a murder whether committed by a Christian in the streets of London or by a savage in the South Sea Islands. Yet when we pass from the act to judge the person who committed it, at once a multitude of considerations have to be taken into account which modify and influence our judgment at every step. An act in itself is easily judged as good or bad, but an act considered in relation to the person who did it is a very different thing. For then due weight has to be given to every circumstance of character, disposition, education, religion, and a hundred others. The man with inherited evil tendencies and brought up under every degrading influence can scarcely be compared with a Christian maiden brought up in a Catholic home and sheltered from childhood from every breath of evil.

Yet when we say that the one supreme outcome of life is the formation of character, such a statement implies that there is some common bar to which all can be brought for judgment, some common standard by which all may be tested, whatever their temperament or training, whether they be savage or civilised, Heathen or Christian, Protestant or Catholic. We must get down beneath all the accidents of life, to some common all-embracing principle which applies equally to all, whatever their circumstances or nationality or religion.

Is there any such standard by which all can be judged? There surely is. For the moral result which the multitude of influences and forces that act upon any human life produces can be seen in their effect upon the action of the will in one special direction. Does the will strive after what the man believes to be right, or does it deliberately and consciously choose what he believes to be wrong? The answer that his life gives to these questions will enable us to form a very good estimate of his character. And this test is universal, it can be applied to all. Many of the standards by which we would judge men are inadequate, not a few are artificial. Here is one as wide reaching as the human race and which goes to the very roots of character. By this test all are brought to the same bar of judgment. It goes deeper than many of those questions by which men are apt to blind themselves to the main issue. No man will ever be judged by a standard which he could not know. “He that knew the Law shall be judged by the Law, he that knew not the Law shall be judged without Law,” nor will any ever be judged because he did not reach another’s standard.

There is a great deal of emotional sentiment wasted by a certain class of people in describing the sordid and degraded lives of those who have lived from childhood in circumstances that shut them out from the possibility of better things, and they ask with bitterness why should such people be judged and punished for doing wrong that they did not know was wrong and for not living up to a standard that was impossible. The answer, of course, is simple, they will be judged only by a standard that they had to know. Many of those upon whom such sentiment is wasted may be in fact better men and women than those who are pitying them. For they may be trying harder, while more severely handicapped, to live true to their own humble standard of rectitude.

We feel at once that in judging character everything else becomes of secondary importance compared with this. It is of the utmost importance to know the Truth – there can be no more potent factor in life – but it is of little use to a man to know the Truth if he has set his will deliberately in opposition to it. We can scarcely exaggerate the value of knowing the purpose and Will of God. Yet the man who does not yet know the Will of God concerning him, but longs and strives to know it, is better off than he who knows it and refuses to obey it “He that knew the Will of his Lord and did not according to His Will shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.”

By this test, therefore, the whole human race can be judged; it goes deeper and reaches further and is more fundamental than the differences resulting from education, environment, heredity, or even the difference of religious belief. Under this test there is brought to light a cleavage in the human race that discloses a profound moral distinction between those on the one side and those on the other. On the one side are those who strive to do what they believe to be right, on the other those who deliberately choose what they know to be wrong. Some may have very crude and imperfect ideas of right and wrong, through no fault of their own, and their standards consequently will be very different, but the Catholic in the full light of God’s Truth and with a sensitive conscience, and some savage fetish worshipper in the heart of Africa with the dim glimmer of an undeveloped and ill-educated conscience, each striving to live true to what he believes, come undoubtedly within the same moral category – both of these men are good according to their lights.

This then is what we mean, in the broadest sense of the word, when we speak of life as the training place of character, and apply it to the whole human race. It does not lower our estimate of the value of religion or of the supernatural gifts of God, far from it, but it goes down to the root and foundation of character upon which such gifts must act.

It is a solemn thing to look out upon the world of men in their manifold spheres of life, and to know that whatever they may be engaged in, in business or pleasure, in labour or in rest, sometimes silently and almost unconsciously, sometimes with effort and with tears, the will is gradually but surely turning in one or other of these two directions, and with an ever-increasing ease of choice and rapidity of motion, and that the whole character revolves with it.

But to constitute a moral act the will must be free. No one can be held responsible for doing what he could not help doing. There is no character in a piece of machinery. An act is a moral act in so far as the will is free to choose one of two courses which lie open before it And yet it is undeniable that while there lies deeply rooted in every one of us the ineradicable sense of freedom, there are at the same time many occasions in which this sense of liberty seems to fail us in the moment of some great temptation. We have it before and we have it after, but in the crisis of decision we often seem to lose it.

I think most people have felt this. Looking forward to the temptation they anticipate, they know that they can resist, at any rate that they can avoid it, and looking back after the sin has been committed they are filled with shame and remorse and self-condemnation, but at the moment it seemed as if all the succours of their nature fell back and they were swept away in the strong currents of blinding passion.

And this is undoubtedly true. Who would be so rash as to assert that at any moment every man is free without impediment to choose as he wills? That the action of the will is unhampered by the past? That however often a man has yielded to a sin, at any moment the will is absolutely free from the power of that sin? Which of us who has even the most superficial knowledge of himself would make such an assertion? No, such a doctrine could only lead to recklessness or despair. Every choice that is made develops a tendency to choose in the same direction. The oftener we choose anything the easier it is to choose it again. The law of habit reigns in the moral order as truly as the law of gravitation in the physical. The most difficult things become easy in time. It would be as difficult for a saint after long habits of virtue suddenly to fall into mortal sin, as it would for a man living for years in habits of vice suddenly to become a saint. The law of habit presses upon the will, driving it into the channel which it has cut for itself, and making it more and more difficult to divert its course. The sense of power that we have when, in some hour of calmness, we feel that we need not yield, is the assertion of the inherent liberty of the will; the remorse and self-condemnation if we yield, is the revolt of the will against its slavery; the rising tide of passion or inclination that hurries it on in the moment of temptation, is the pressure of the Law of habit.

It would indeed be worse than misleading to tell a man who has long yielded to habits of sin that at any given moment he could without constant prayer, vigilance and strenuous effort, assert his liberty and never yield again. We can give him a better, a more inspiring hope. We can tell him that he must fight for his liberty, that as by his own act he handed over this royal captive to the slavery of degrading and unworthy masters, he can fight and conquer its captors and set it free. That habit can only be conquered by habit. That he must form good habits to conquer bad, habits of resistance to overcome cowardly habits of surrender. That he is born free, not a slave, that this sense of his inherent liberty he never can lose; he can claim it and use it, or leave it to haunt him in his captivity to his eternal shame and despair. We can tell him that it is not by violent and spasmodic efforts at self-assertion that he will overcome, but by steady and unremitting efforts at perseverance. The Law of habit can only be conquered by the Law of perseverance. The will is under one law, it can only be freed by being brought under another law acting as steadily and persistently. “The Law of the Spirit of Life, alone, can deliver me from the Law of sin and death,” The bonds that bind the soul cannot be undone by any amount of random efforts to tear them off, however violent, or by any expenditure of muscular energy. They must be loosened knot by knot; the mad attempts to burst them only draw them tighter and leave the poor captive exhausted and despairing. The work of years cannot be undone in hours.

The prodigal who wakens to find himself a swineherd in a distant land cannot get back to his father’s home, however much he longs for it, save by treading step by step the road which he journeyed in leaving it If he would hear his father’s welcome and sit down once more at his father’s board, the distance that separates them must be traversed every sore-foot mile. The hatred of his present degradation, the sense of the madness of his folly in leavings the fierce revolt against his misery and against the citizen of that far-off country to whom he sold himself, are of no use unless they brace him up to the great resolve: “I will arise and go to my father”.

It is the failure to realise this that leads so many to despair. The deep-rooted consciousness of freedom in theory and its apparent failure in practice. The idea that one can at any moment easily assert one’s liberty in the face of long-rooted habits; that the sense of freedom needs only to be asserted to realise it in fact It is not indeed a delusion that sense of freedom, it is the great reality, but he who has sold himself into slavery must purchase his freedom at the full price he received for his degradation. There are few, if any, of those who have fallen victims to some degrading habit of sin who have not made efforts at some time to free themselves. They knew, like Samson of old, their own inherent power, but they did not know the strength of habit and the power of sin. From time to time they would shake themselves free of their bonds and prove to themselves that, as they thought, they could at any moment assert their liberty, but they did not realise that their strength was gradually going from them and that the bonds with which they were being bound were stronger, and they awake at last at the voice of the enchantress to find their strength exhausted and their freedom well-nigh forfeited.

The sensualist has his moments of reaction; he longs for purity, he knows he can be pure. In times of surfeit, when the strength of the passion is for the moment exhausted or satisfied, his better self comes forth and asserts itself. He is filled with a hatred of his sin, and makes violent efforts to free himself, and the old habits fall back and wait – they know that they can afford to wait, the efforts are too violent to last; and when he is exhausted and the nervous reaction sets in these old habits quietly come back and bind their chains more firmly, and the dark despair of slavery settles down on him once more.

The Law does not fear the violent outbreak of an angry mob. It is stronger, however numerous the mob and violent its attack. What it does fear, and rightly fears, is organised revolt Law against law, organisation against organisation. And similarly no momentary struggle, however determined, can overcome the firm grip of habit It is only the steady, persevering discipline of the will in its captivity that can ever win for it its native liberty. No barrier however strong will stop the river flowing, you must divert its course into another channel. An idle man will not overcome his sloth by an occasional day of fussy activity, nor a miser his meanness by random acts of generosity, no more than a belated summer’s day in November will stop the approach of winter. And this persistency of habit which resists the random assaults to overcome it and leads so many to despair, is indeed the greatest source of consolation. It is the great source of the stability of character If it is difficult to overcome bad habits, it is difficult to overcome good. The fact that the attraction to some sin persists in spite of all efforts to conquer it must encourage us to feel that it would be at least as difficult for temptation to assault or undermine in a moment a habit of virtue. If evil habits could be overcome by a few vehement assaults, so could good There would be little hope of advance or stability. There would be no sense of security; the work of years might be destroyed in a moment But we know, alas I too well how the habits of the past cling to us, what a power of resistance they display. Well, this very difficulty to overcome the evil must give us a sense of security; a habit which will do such good service and become the very basis of character is worth striving to form.

And no doubt good men have their moments of failure, moments, it may be, when under the force of violent temptation they sin. And though they must grieve over such failures, and grieve as only good men can grieve, yet surely they need not lose heart; the habits of a lifetime will not be destroyed by one failure. If they repent, those long-formed habits will reassert themselves. When a summer storm has passed and left behind it ruin and disorder, at once every constructive power of Nature sets to work to mend and heal and remedy the work of destruction. And one storm of sin will not necessarily destroy all those positive habits of the soul which have been so carefully formed and developed in the past. Sin is indeed always bad, but we must not underestimate the power of good because we realise the power of evil.

Thus, as habits are formed, the character becomes established for good or evil upon lines which are not easily shaken. And the habit of choosing or trying to choose what is right builds the character upon the firm and stable line of moral rectitude, and one who so acts certainly is a good man.

Everything therefore in which the will is called into action affects it in some way for good or for evil, and forms the material for self-discipline, fitting or unfitting it for its great work in the choice of right and wrong. The hundred things in which day by day we are obliged to come to a decision and make a choice, things in themselves of little importance, these are the training-ground of the will. In work, in study, in recreation, in the use of all those things which are necessary for our daily life such as food and sleep, in the intercourse with others, in the daily calls of duty, in the exercise of the powers of mind and body, in everything we have to do, in our relations with every person with whom we have dealings, by the Providence of God the will has to be exercised and trained, and it becomes weak or strong, free or enslaved, firm or vacillating, as the result. Each of these occasions may be small in themselves and the decisions perhaps of little importance, but their frequency enhances their value and determines the result in graver matters.

We come forth from the daily round of work and pleasure to take part in the great moral conflicts which at once test and form But we shall find that the will has already its own marked characteristics which were developed in spheres of choice that apparently had little or nothing moral about them. He who habitually struggles with everything however harmless in itself that tends to get too much hold upon him, checking and mortifying his appetite, denying himself in things he likes, foregoing the use of that which he might legitimately have, that he may not allow these things to encroach beyond their proper place, who trains his will to use the material things which he needs only as means to an end, never allowing them to become an end in themselves, he is not likely to fail under the temptation to unlawful pleasure. The victory or defeat in some sudden and violent assault of passion may depend upon whether one has practised self-discipline in such small matters as food or sleep or little acts of self-indulgence.

Life will thus become in all its multitudinous opportunities a great school of moral discipline, preparing and training the will to be strong and firm, and free to refuse evil and to choose good.

It is not, we must ever remember, upon the conduct of the soul in the moment of temptation that victory or defeat depends. It is upon its conduct in the lesser events of life. It is upon the constant struggle to keep the will from becoming enslaved to the mere tastes and inclinations.

The result of a great battle does not depend upon the moment’s struggle, but upon the discipline and training of the troops in the past Before a blow is struck or the first shot fired the issue of the conflict is practically decided.

The conflict, therefore, must be unceasing; the opportunities of training the will present themselves every hour. Man is to be the master of all his powers and all his inclinations, and of all those external things that God has placed in the world around him; he is to be the slave of none. He must wrestle with everything that tends to gain too much hold upon him till he has taught it its proper place, and then in the hour of temptation he will find that his will does not fail him. It is his attitude and bearing towards the small things that will decide the issue in those great moral conflicts upon which the welfare or ruin of his soul depends. “He who is faithful in that which is least is faithful in much, he who despiseth little things will fall by little and little.”

And it is good to remember that if the will has been weakened and enslaved by sin, in the effort to recover and regain its former freedom it does not stand alone. There is One with it to guide and to strengthen it. It is alone in its downward course. It has Another to help it to rise. One who will teach it the way, illuminating the mind with supernatural light, and endowing the will with Divine strength. It could not rise in its own strength; habits hold it in their iron grasp; it is in truth fast bound in misery and iron. Its own utter helplessness is its hope. Out of the depths of its despair it must look up to the Highest In its utter ruin it must look to Him who created it He who made it alone can lift it up and restore it.

And yet it is no easy task. Its salvation does not mean any change of circumstance – any outward change at all; the removal of any outward difficulty. It must be restored, healed, strengthened, illuminated within. This poor, broken and distorted thing must be mended and made fit to do the work of God, to overcome evil and to do good. We often expect our prayers to be answered by the removal of obstacles that stand in our way. But no, that would not strengthen or restore us; our prayers are answered by enabling us to overcome the difficulty; they are answered within. We do not expect merely that God will pity us and pardon us and admit us to heaven, but rather that here on earth God will mend and heal us and enable us to do His work. The sinner must not only be pardoned but restored before he can enjoy the vision of God. And in every step of this restoration there must be the act of the soul and the act of God, the will striving and God helping. “Apart from me,” said our Lord, ye can do nothing,” yet without our co-operation God can do nothing. The rusty wheels of our disused nature must be moved, and as they move the unction of God’s grace must flow over them. At first the motion is heavy grinding, clumsy and agonising, but as the sacred oil of Divine grace flows over them the movement becomes freer. It is in action alone that the restoration can take place, and the will weighed down by the burden of the past gradually and by slow degrees regains its strength and elasticity. At first the task seems hopeless, the rust of long disuse impedes its every movement and the law of habit holds it in its ruts; but as it struggles, crushed by its own weight, the dim light of faith grows stronger and gives birth to a joyful hope that stirs it to more persistent effort, and the sense of the Divine Helper becomes clearer, surer, more abiding. It finds that in every effort of the will there flows into it and over it a healing power that enables it to do what was once impossible, and through every channel of the soul the voice of the awakening waters is heard after the long night of winter, and everywhere the tokens of returning life are felt, and it knows within itself that he who was dead is alive again, he who was lost is found.