Fooling Ourselves by Monsignor Ferrarese

It is amazing how easily we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing the will of God when we are really just doing what we want and canonizing our needs and our opinions with the words: it’s the will of God. And connected to this painful but freeing insight is the suspicion that the reason why I do good things is not because I love God, but because it makes me feel better or by doing it I am fulfilling the expectations of those around me and, hence, getting their approval.

One of the key insights of my theatrical experience (brief though it was!) was when in college we staged a production of T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral” about the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket.

In one key scene, he is in exile in France and wondering if he should go back to his diocese in England and face the wrath of the King. He is visited by three tempters whom he expected, and one who was a surprise.

The expected tempters were the ones who loosely correspond to the usual list: the world, the flesh and the devil. He got past them with flying colors.

But the fourth tempter was the trickiest. While the first three urged him not to go to England, the fourth tempter tried to get him to go, but for a reason that was lurking in the back of Thomas’ consciousness: to go there and accept martyrdom, because then he would become a great saint and people would light candles to him, venerate him, etc. He realized that this would be the worst thing that he could do, not because of the martyrdom, but because of his reasons for going. He was fooling himself. He already wanted to go, but his motivation was really because of spiritual pride and the desire to advance in his standing with God. In T.S. Eliot’s immortal words, “This would be the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

Most of us are unconscious of our deeper motivations for the actions in our lives. We think that we are acting unselfishly, but we are just trying to do what we want and pinning God’s name on it.

More often than not, we do things with mixed motives. This is understandable given the complexity of our intentions and what the reality is that stands before us. It would be a mistake to refuse to act on something while waiting for a pure motivation for our action. If we do this, we may never act again! This kind of purity does not exist. We always do things from mixed motives. The question then becomes: what, on balance, are the proportions of the good motivations versus the not-so-good ones?

Take, for instance, if we want to say something affirming to someone who is an authority over us. To be more concrete, lets say the Bishop of a diocese does something that is very courageous, but very unpopular. One of his priests admires what the Bishop has done and would like to affirm him in his decision. That desire and motivation is very good. But there could be another thing going on that registers on a deeper, less apparent level of consciousness. Maybe the priest is really doing it to attract the Bishop’s notice and positive feelings so that there might be advancement in his future. Should he act and affirm his Bishop?

Sometimes the devil frightens us into inaction by overplaying the darker, but smaller, motives for things. In the example cited, I think the priest should step forward in courage and trust and affirm his Bishop since he really needs it. To refuse to do it because the motives were not so pure may be, in fact, an act of selfishness. The priest should be big enough to hazard the dangers and let God take care of the rest. Usually, one’s first instinct is right. There are times we over-think something. That priest should do the right thing. He can always refuse the honor if it comes his way later on. But the main reason for acting should be our desire to do good.

While we must always keep the negative in mind, it is a good to step forward in courage and doing the right thing!

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