Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The Manly Consideration of
Our Defects Is a Cornerstone
of the Spiritual Life
Saint of the Day, Wednesday, September 25, 1968
Humble is he who knows the truth. We should pay more attention to our defects when we want to know ourselves because we quickly know our qualities. The difficulty is not about knowing whether our qualities exist but having a rather grandiose idea of them.
Knowing our defects is something else entirely. People do not like to look at their defects to the end. They do not like to consider all the aggravating factors of their defects. They do not like to know how far their defects can take them.
For example, once at a smaller Group meeting, as I mentioned a principle, a Group member groaned, “Oh, how contrary that is to my Brazilian temperament!” He added, “How unpleasant it is to hear this!”
Yet that principle is so common and simple: Everything in and around us is continually rising or falling. Nothing is ever still. At no point can we say that our spiritual life has become immobile because it is not true. Immobility is not possible for us. Either we are progressing, or we are declining. We can do zigzags but are never stationary, and even those spiral-shaped oscillations are not as we think.
Imagine the chart of our spiritual life as a handsaw in which all teeth are the same. One thinks he is going up and down, but he is acquiring an ever deeper habit of not taking a firm line. In other words, he is getting weaker and weaker.
It is like a staggering individual saying, “look, on the whole, I’m doing well.” “No, you’re getting used to staggering.” You do not think you are decaying because you still did not fall. But you are getting used to staggering, and the more you stagger, the harder it is for you to walk straight. How many people keep staggering in their spiritual life, unconvinced that it only leads them to decay and acquire bad habits?
How disagreeable it is to hear this! How unpleasant it is to be invited to look one’s faults in the face and understand that each of us, without exception, has a germ inside with bad tendencies and may become a thug. Except, of course, for Our Lady —conceived without original sin— and Saint Joseph —confirmed in grace and purified from original sin from the beginning.
Each of us is potentially a thief and potentially a saint. Many people think a thug is someone who was born a thug or close to thievery. Not so. Most thugs were men like us, who yielded, yielded, and rolled down where they are. It is a pity we cannot watch people parading in a penitentiary together, behind a window or something.
I have been to a penitentiary more than once for lectures or visits. Before going there for the first time, you think you will meet uncouth bandits with gangster faces. Yet, when you see them, they are people like us, at times with kind faces.
I cannot forget when they introduced me to Pistone, a man who killed his wife, quartered her, and kept her in a barrel or suitcase. The chaplain said to me, “This is the famous Pistone.” He said “famous” in such a flattering way that I couldn’t help but extend my hand to him. He had a modest little gesture as if saying, “I don’t want to crush you with my glory; indeed, I am the great Pistone.” His face was that of an ordinary carpenter, baker, or butcher.
If he went into a grocery store and asked to buy something on credit (if the store allowed it), they would sell it because of his clean face. Someone will say, “But that’s because he fakes it.” No, he does not: he is like everyone else. Pistone’s come from that “everyone,” and so do disasters and catastrophes. It is just that we do not want to convince ourselves of this. We do not bear in mind that this is so, and the result is that we slack off and mess things up from time to time, risking reaching the flames of hell. That is the deal.
Here is an excerpt on this subject by Josefa Menendez, which someone gave me:
Our Lord says, “if a soul humbles itself, it will reap profit even after allowing itself to be carried away by the greatest sins. However, pride triggers my Father’s wrath because it is something He hates with an infinite hatred. He seeks souls who know how to humble themselves to repair their pride. Try to do many acts of humility without looking at what they cost you. If you only knew how much I like them!”
To understand how this works in God, we can imagine the following: suppose a close friend does something very painful to us by slandering us and, even worse, by abusing our privacy. He tells someone, “I am a close friend of his and can attest that he confided such and such thing to me.” So he took advantage of our closeness to stab me in the back.
Imagine that I get word of it, and the person depends on me. He has no choice but to come to me and say, “Please excuse me!” Now, imagine if he comes and says: “Well, Plínio, you know, it’s one of those things, I made a mistake and spoke ill of you, but you certainly won’t take it hard, ha ha ha.”
What should be my position toward him if I am serious? It would be saying, “I do not accept your excuse because this is no way of apologizing. You did an atrocious thing to me: you lied, slandered, and abused my privacy. I cannot accept apologies like that.” “No, but you understand, anyone can do that, pal,” he says. “I am not your pal! What business is this? Get out of here!” Obviously! Why? Because his apology shows such a lack of awareness of the wrong he did that it is no apology but an insult. I am a serious man; I cannot accept this apology.
Suppose someone else comes to me and says: “Plinio, I am sorry, I slandered you and should not have done it. In fact, I regret this: I have this defect of slandering others. I once also slandered someone else.” I say, “Who is that?” “Oh! Some fellow I met on the train and spoke ill of him shortly after. I am sorry. I now repeat the same thing about you.”
Should I listen to this person? No. I would answer, “You are not seriously asking forgiveness because you must not equate what you did to him, a stranger, with what you did to me, your friend. You took advantage of our closeness to slander me. It is a betrayal and not mere slander. You should be honest and fully acknowledge the sin you have committed; you showed no uprightness and did not look at your sin in the face, and because of that, I cannot forgive you.”
A third person arrives and says, “Plinio, I am ashamed to appear in your presence. I have no right to be in your presence. What I did to you should not be done to anyone: I slandered you. Slander is an infamous sin, but my misery is such that I abused our closeness and committed this crime, for which I must ask forgiveness. I stabbed you in the back, abusing our friendship to make a slander against you believable. I know that I do not even have the right to your forgiveness, but come to ask, in your generosity, that you pity me. You can do with me what you want, and if you ever feel sorry for me and want to restore our friendship, I will say it is your kindness because I do not deserve it.”
I feel inclined to forgive this time and will tell this person: “My friend, you are forgiven. I see that you gauged your entire fault and saw it head-on; that you were able to humble yourself for the fault committed, and so I forgive you.” That is the behavior of any serious man in the face of an offense. Now, if this is the behavior of a serious man, what can we say about God Our Lord, whose gaze sees and penetrates even our kidneys, as the Scripture says, probing even the innermost folds of our souls?
God sees with infinite ease and clarity. What can I do to obtain His mercy other than start by taking my sins and looking them in the face? And saying, “Lord, I have sinned against You because I have done such and have such aggravating factors. But I know my misery and am afraid of not having seen everything. Help me to see everything, give me someone to rebuke me, to censure me, and help me see the evil I have done because I have sinned against You. I come to ask Your forgiveness. I know I am a defendant unworthy to appear before You and dare not raise my eyes to You. But I have recourse to Your Mother, who is also mine. Because all mothers have every kind of condescension even to their worst children, I raise my eyes to You through her eyes.”
That is a way of asking forgiveness that attracts God’s mercy. That is humility, described in Our Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee, full of sins, arrives and says: “I am delighted because I am not like ordinary men: I do this, that, and the other” external practices of piety. But out of pride, he did not want to acknowledge his evil.
The publican was at the back of the temple and hardly dared to enter. He bowed his head and said something like this: “My God, have pity on me because I am a poor sinner. I know I am no good, but have pity on me by Your mercy!” Our Lord says: the publican left the temple justified because he recognized his sin. The Pharisee did not and left in bad shape.
It is hard to be ‘Saint-Simonian’ in such a serious matter.
I am convinced beyond any doubt that in our days—to be generous—99% of the people are not in the habit of looking at their defects like that. For starters, they never honestly probe their faults to the core.
For them, examining their conscience is taking a list of questions and seeing what acts they did. If none constitute sins, the person is content. He does not look at his lukewarmness, his sinful roots, and evil inclinations that hold him back in the progress of his spiritual life, distance him from God and make his state of grace fragile. Sometimes, that state of grace is like a castle of cards that falls at the first flip. Why? Because he does not have this form of inner honesty through which he truly wants to see his sins. People do not, nor were they ever taught.
I suspect that 99% of the people do not look at themselves that way. Nine hundred ninety-nine out of a thousand priests do not teach this, and I am very kind. To begin with, they do not teach parents to show this to their children. Parents do not want to see their children’s defects or denounce them to their children.
If someone arrives at 999 out of a thousand parents and says: “Be careful because your child has such a defect,” the father’s reaction is: “What do you have to do with that?” Now, what kind of education is that? How can a person unable to analyze himself with serenity have firmness of soul? Do you know what this stern self-analysis is called? It is called humility. A humble man analyzes himself relentlessly. And since no one who analyzes himself relentlessly can be sure that he has analyzed himself relentlessly (because whoever analyzes himself realizes his misery and understands how easy it is to be wrong), every serious man continually asks Our Lady for the grace to see his defects.
You may say, “I looked but did not find anything.” The worst defects are those we seek and do not find; the others know them. And when others want to show our flaws, we say, “I have none.” What is the result? It is a form of softness, incoherence, and self-indulgence that drives away God’s graces. By driving away God’s graces, what do you have? Lukewarmness, then semi concessions, then decadence.
There is no way out. Why? Because we did not want to see our defects head-on. People do not like it if you say, “My Mother, obtain for me from God the grace to make an implacable examination of myself.” They do not mind it if you say, “My Mother, obtain for me the grace of making a humble self-examination.” That is because the word humble has been tempered with and acquired connotations of softness and complicity. True humility is the implacable observation of reality, and the more implacable, the more humble. That is how we should ask to look at ourselves.
I know of no more precious grace in the spiritual life than the grace of analyzing our defects to the end. It is the grace of self-giving to Our Lady: if I acquire the grace to analyze myself relentlessly, I have indeed given myself to Our Lady.
Do you know what role an individual plays who claims to be a slave of Our Lady and fails to analyze himself relentlessly? He plays the role of Ananias and Sapphira. He comes to Our Lady and says: “I am your slave; I have given you everything, my interior and exterior goods, my body and soul, this little worm and miserable sinner, blah blah blah, but I do not want to analyze myself so as not to give everything.” That is the reality.
The result is that I keep the best part of my treasure, which is not money; it is something in me that I do not want to sacrifice to You. I keep it inside and lie to Our Lady that I gave her everything. Why? Because I did not want to look at myself. The bottom line is that the manly, head-on consideration of our defects is one of the cornerstones of spiritual life.
I employed the word ‘manly’ very intentionally. There is a difference between a male and a manly man. In the human race, a male is the reproduction of an animal, the simile of an animal.
A manly man has the strength of soul. And the fundamental element of the strength of soul is to be strong against self. A manly man is strong against himself; there is no other form of manliness. Strength against self is what forms a real man. The softer he is on himself, the more he fails to look himself in the face and examine his defects, the more he lacks true manhood. He becomes soft and effeminate no matter what his appearance may be. That is the manhood of the soul.
How many times, when you deal with someone, you see fluid, nothing. You look deeper and find that he does not examine himself in the face; he doesn’t go to the bottom of himself. As a result, he is soft and effeminate. What do people do to be genuinely manly and strong against themselves? If we are strong against ourselves, we have tamed the hardest beast to tame.
Being a lion tamer, winning battles, defeating peoples, dropping atomic bombs, that’s nothing. Authentic manhood is to overcome a defect but do it seriously because that is what it costs man. Killing others or risking one’s life like a fool does not. It costs to correct a defect. It costs to do an act of generosity.
So, my dear friends, I recommend that we wish with all our souls to receive from Our Lady the grace of seeing ourselves as we are -- because no one does it without grace.
Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini's Church, Rome