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Our Inordinate Affections

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

At this point in the retreat, we should take stock of ourselves and ask ourselves, “What do I need to improve in my life as the fruit of this retreat? What, perhaps, should I change in my life?”

The purpose of a retreat is clearly spelled out by Saint Ignatius, in his Introduction to the “Spiritual Exercises.”

The name “Spiritual Exercises” is a method of preparing and disposing the soul to free itself from all inordinate affection, and after it has freed itself from them, to seek and find the Will of God concerning the ordering of life for the salvation of one’s soul.

It is, therefore, assumed that all of us in some measure have something in our lives that calls for improvement or change. Before the retreat is over, we should have made some definite decision regarding this “something” that we believe God wants us to do.

But notice, this process of decision making comes in three stages. Stage I: discovering what are my inordinate affections and then deciding to be freed from them. And under God, no one else is going to do the freeing except myself. Stage II: discovering what are the virtues that I should practice in fulfilling the Will of God in my life. It might be well to remind ourselves that we are making the retreat for ourselves, not for someone else! And Stage III: deciding on how I should order my life from now on according to the divine Will and why I should do it.

My intention is to devote all of today’s three conferences to this fundamental purpose of the retreat. And I could not think of a better time to do so. First of all, it is the Feast of the Holy Family. Normally it comes, as you know, on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. But this being one of those years when Christmas falls on Sunday, the Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on Friday; while the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas is the Solemnity of Our Lady’s divine motherhood and New Year’s Day. So today, we will look at the Holy Family, whose virtues we should look at and strive to imitate. Second, it is the last Friday of the year, when we should reflect (as on all Fridays) on the Passion of Christ. Because of the lessening of the Friday abstinence, we may have forgotten what Fridays are all about; they are to be weekly meditations on Christ’s Passion, and this is our last chance this year to meditate on Christ’s Passion to motivate our resolutions. Finally, it is the second last day before the New Year, that traditional day for making a new beginning. In any case, our present conference, therefore, is on “our” inordinate affections.

We begin by asking, “What are inordinate affections in everybody?” First of all, there should be no secret about having these unruly affections. We all have them. Faith tells us that the only persons who had none of these unruly drives were Jesus and Mary, because, unlike ourselves, they did not have a fallen human nature. We have. And even being in God’s grace does not change our fallen nature—it’s still fallen. Second, we have by now sinned on our own and as a result developed our own wrong tendencies that have become more or less habitual. Our past shapes our present. We are, in large measure, what we have made of ourselves.

Thus we all have what we call the “seven capital tendencies”; they are drives of our nature in which all of us participate. Every one of us (more or less) is prone to pride, lust, anger, avarice, envy, sloth, and gluttony. These tendencies are part of our humanity. They are not of themselves sins; yet they are, as the Church has solemnly told us, sinful: first, because they come from sin, the inherited sin from our first parents; and they lead to sin. They are sinful in their cause and they are sinful in their potential effect.

Moreover, for us who are striving after holiness, they are in large measure the means of our sanctification. Provided that we admit we have them and strive to overcome them, we become holier in the process. We are all meant to be converted sinners. Therefore, we become saints, as we all aspire to become, by our victory over these sinful drives. I knew this theologically before my ordination. I have learned it, both experientially in myself and from now years of experience in dealing with souls—believe me, all of us, every single one of us, has these sinful drives.

To recognize that we have them is the greatest single wisdom after and, in a way, underlying our knowledge of God, because in the last analysis, even God means only as much to us as we are convinced we need to be saved. Saved from what? Saved from ourselves, saved from these maddening drives. Let not quiet, disarming smiles deceive you; let not apparent, external self-control beguile you. Don’t be deceived. We have powerful demonic drives, each one of us, clamoring for expression and striving to destroy us. These are not somebody else’s drives; they are mine, mine and yours.

I used to say another thing I have learned better, that women perhaps didn’t have all of these drives or in the same measure that men have them. Have I ever learned! There is no pride like a woman’s pride if she allows that demon to master her. And for cruelty, as I have told my students—in the non-Christian world with its many gods (because it is polytheistic), the most cruel deities, the most vicious, that need to be placated even with human sacrifice, are all goddesses. So much for part one of this, shall I say “unexpected” conference on the Feast of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!

We now ask ourselves, “What are my inordinate affections?” Notice that the Church calls them “inordinate affections.” Strange. Why “affections?” Because they are so many forms of love of creatures. The only thing that makes us saints is our love. The only thing that makes us sinners is our love. It is not in the loving that we are good or bad; it is in whom we love and what we love and why. So they are affections all right, because they are forms of love.

But why “inordinate?” Because they are forms of love that unless controlled and mastered lead us from the love of God. Saint Augustine’s classic distinction of the whole human race being divisible into two class’s stands for all time as true: “There are those who love God even to the contempt of self, and there are those who love self even to the contempt of God.” And our life is one lifelong struggle to belong to the City of God and to break down the gates and break out of the City of Man.

Notice that in no two people are these inordinate affections quite the same. In one person it is pride, in another lust, in another anger, in another envy, and so on, that predominates. Sometimes the most apparently self-effacing people, totally docile, can be eaten up with envy. Moreover, each inordinate affection manifests itself differently in different people. In one person pride is external, as in showing off. In another person, pride is deeply hidden and scarcely apparent even to the one who has it—it will be “just the leisure of thinking about myself, the warmth of basking in my own sunlight.” In one person anger may be explosive; in another, seething. In one person, it is seen by everyone, in fact, you can hear it. In another person it hides behind a mask of quiet reserve. In one person envy may be so concealed that it has no manifestation at all except a flow of sadness that comes over the soul at seeing someone else succeed or possess something that I have no achieved or do not have.

Finally, these inordinate affections tend to shift and change in us depending on the circumstances in our lives. In one situation, one of these capital drives tends to become more alive; in another situation, another tendency. Depending on with whom we live or work, one thing may be provoked in us that we never dreamt existed! Tell yourselves that anything, anything is possible; hidden depths of evil may rise to the surface after forty years. All it takes sometimes is the right person (or the wrong person) to provoke it. “Is that really me?” And we have to admit, “Yes, that’s me.”

It takes, therefore, humility. It takes a lot of light from the Light that is Christ. And it takes courage to face up to these weaknesses, to identify them, and then with God’s grace to resolve to cope with them. Saint Francis de Sales said on one occasion, “Self-love is cunning. It pushes and insinuates itself into everything while making us believe it is not there at all.”

As we close this conference, we ask the Holy Family to help us discover this inordinate self-love in order that, being freed from self, we might give ourselves totally to God. We shall be as generous with God as we have learned what holds us back from God. And the only thing that keeps us back from God is our inordinate love of self.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, help me to see myself, so that seeing myself as I really am, I might serve God with all my heart.

Transcription of the Homily
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the:
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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