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Knowledge of Our Moral Limitations
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Still reflecting on the human side of our nature, we might begin by observing that moral limitations are about the same as moral weaknesses. But this is not the same as sinful tendencies. In essence, sinful tendencies are common to all people and are, as we know, mainly the result of our fallen human nature and of our own past sinful conduct. Our moral limitations or weaknesses, however, are mainly concerned with our "personal character", though when I speak of it, I like to distinguish between what is personal and what is character; personal has to do with our personality, whereas character has to do withcharacter!
Our personality is that with which we are conceived. Each of us is a unique individual, specially and distinctively created by God when He infuses this human spirit into this human body, to be different from that moment for eternity. God makes no two of us the same. That's our personality, whereas our character, though indeed building on our personality, is not so much that with which we begin. It is made distinctive by our education, environment and most importantly by our experience--and within this experience, especially by our willed experience. Many of our experiences are quite unwilled; indeed, many quite unwanted. But many are willed. It is, then, that education and environment (implying all the people who over the years have entered our lives and we theirs) and especially the experiences we have not merely had, but wanted; these shape what we now call our character. If personalities are born, characters are made.
Before entering the subject of our moral limitations, we can distinguish a variety of classifications of temperaments or personalities, keeping always in mind that a personality is always also a character. This will make clearer and, therefore, more useful our understanding of ourselves so that we might serve God, to whom we have committed ourselves, more faithfully.
There are four classic character categories that have been studied, in Western thought for over 2500 years and in Eastern thought for almost 4000 years; they have had many synonyms. Different writers speak of different groupings, and modern psychology would be unintelligible except by building on these distinctions. Definitive categories of melancholic, sanguine, lethargic, and choleric can be used, but they have almost immediately negative connotations. Our emphasis in this conference is not so much on the negative implications as weaknesses, but rather on the limitations of each personal character type. Consequently, I prefer the classifications of meditative, optimistic, firm, and aggressive. We shall draw some spiritual implications in the moral order after we go over a brief reflection on each.
The meditative type, which can be called the melancholic, is the thoughtful person or, using a sophisticated word, the pensive character. They are reflective, philosophical, and as such have created most of the profound thinking in the world. It is of them that prophets are born. Isaiah was meditative. So were Saints Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Ignatius Loyola. There are weaknesses or defects to be considered in each type of personality. The reflective person tends to pessimism, is inclined to moodiness, is characteristically the worrisome type. When they become sad they can become even psychotic. Persons of this type tend to discouragement and their dominant sinful tendency is to give up. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that they think things through so deeply. They are the idealists whom we sometimes nickname "pessimists", because they are perfectionists who are saddened by their own inability to reach their own ideals.
The optimist, sometimes called the activist, or sanguine (for reasons best known to those who coined the word), are the eternally confident type, the trustful, the hopeful. Nothing seems to phase them, neither trials nor troubles; they seem to thrive on difficulties. But there are limitations here which, unless these persons watch themselves, can become sinful weaknesses. They have a tendency to oversimplify complicated tasks and as a consequence they may lack depth unlike the meditative who has it in excess. They generally fail to plan; they can become indifferent about the serious issues of life; and they can be quite casual even about things that are sacred. Their besetting sinful tendency is imprudence.
The firm, solid, sometimes called the lethargic type, are the stable characters, the unchangeable ones, who are doing today the same things they did twenty years ago and in just the same way. You can set your clocks by them; they tend to be slow moving, passive, differing radically from the optimist or sanguine temperament. The sanguine temperament is essentially an attitude of mind, whereas this lethargic kind of person has a character which describes a posture or inclination of the will; there is unchangeableness in the character of their wills. They are the ones who have built the empires of history. But they too have their limitations. This kind of person's weakness is not to get going and not to change even when everything demands that there be a change. They fear to undertake any new enterprise even though their mind, or better their conscience, tells them it is a duty or a great opportunity. We all know what the besetting sinful of this character is: it is sloth, with also a great tendency to mistake stubbornness for firmness. In practice it may be extremely difficult for the person to be able to distinguish between solidity of character and a legitimate firmness that one ought to have in performance of duty or in living one's state of life, and where stubbornness or unreasonable firmness begins. Some people couldn't possibly become stubborn--they don't have enough firmness of character; but those who have firmness better be wary of their stubbornness.
Finally, the aggressive type whom the ancients called choleric, are the quick thinking and quick acting and often quick reacting personalities. Impulsive, they will begin an enterprise which not only angels but all the hosts of heaven would fear to undertake. Blindly oblivious of danger, they are fearless pioneers. Columbus must have been such an aggressive personality. With all the great things they can do and have done over the centuries, both in secular history and in the Church by the saints, this type have a tendency to speak without much thinking, even without thinking at all, and to act without due reflection. If you want opposites they are the solid, stolid, firm personality and the aggressive, choleric personality. There is no doubt what the besetting sinful tendency of the aggressive person is: it is anger.
It is obvious that these are not really distinctive types in the sense that no one person is exclusively any one of the four. They are at best, though importantly, only conceptual distinctions. In other words, they are distinctions that we can and should make in the mind in order to help us deal with ourselves and with others. They are most certainly not different people; nevertheless, they are fair gages of the general dominant features of a person.
Speaking, then, of Moral limitations or weaknesses in these cases, we might say they are the correlatives of each temperament. They correspond with the negative, the human side, of the God-given characteristics implanted in each person's character; and they have been shaped by many years of living with ourselves and others. Moreover, when we talk about having one or another kind of temperament (which is dominant in each one of us), we should always distinguish between that which is unchangeable in this temperament, belonging to our personality and which is part of us as the individual that God made, and that which is changeable. God foresaw that He would be specially and distinctively glorified by a Saint Francis of Assisi as well as by an Ignatius Loyola and a Teresa of Avila. He made different persons in order to be distinctively glorified by each one. God glories in variety. That unchangeable part corresponds to our personality.
But there is also a changeable part. How do we know it is changeable? Because it is that part which was and is acquired. We didn't acquire our personality; we were conceived with it. But our character arose, as we said, from our education, training, and the environment of people among whom we have been living along with our deliberate, willed experiences. Since that was acquired, it is that part of us which can be changed. And consequently, when we talk about improving or developing ourselves in the spiritual life, we assume that we shall glorify God according to our respective personalities, minus those sinful tendencies to which various types are prone and also with such changes as God may want us to make in our character. Is this the first time you've heard a retreat conference on changing one's character?
The personality remains constant; the character is something that with God's grace, given the personality that we have, should change in the sense of improving. This is so necessary that we might almost synonomize growth in the spiritual life with the development of our character, and must aim at making ourselves more like the perfect character, who is Jesus Christ. We should not hide, or defend ourselves behind the fact that 'Veil, that's the way I am". So you are. But who says that's the way you're supposed to remain? Growth in virtues is nothing if not growth in Christian personality. Growth means change for the better.
Again, it is not a question of changing our type of temperament. It is rather that I remain what I am according to the way God made me and realize that I cannot unmake my past. But I can improve my character and where necessary, master it, changing it according to the pattern of the perfect Person who is God in human form.
God wants us to become holy. But what I think we seldom hear is that He wants us to become holy according to our different personalities. Therein lies the beauty and of course the difficulty in the spiritual life. We must cultivate, because God wants us to, variety among individuals; and speaking of religious communities, variety among the different Religious and Secular Institutes of Christian Perfection. It is true (and we should never apologize for the fact) that God does tend to call certain types to certain kinds of religious communities. But no matter how much homogeneity there may be, by now we all know that these temperaments, even in the same person, are remarkably inconsistent. We can be choleric in the morning, lethargic in the afternoon, and depending on what happens, phlegmatic towards the evening.
I think it is apropos that we quote from the great Chesterton, who on one occasion observed he could never understand polygamy. It just didn't make sense to him. His advice to husbands was to live long enough with their wives, and they would discover they had married more than one woman!
God is mysteriously glorified by this variety which is in such large measure His own creation, and our co-creation in the exercise of our liberty. However, having said all of this, let us note that as good as individuality is, it can become individualism (another name for selfishness and pride) unless we master the limitations and the weaknesses of our respective personalities and glorify God as He wants to be glorified by us: as individuals, which means by each one of us differently, and as Religious, as members of a distinctive community. The Carmelites are not the Franciscans and shouldn't be, Jesuits are not the Trappists, the Handmaids of the Precious Blood are not the Carmelites. God wants to be glorified by us distinctively as individuals, distinctively as communities. And how this bears to be said in our almost tyrannically homogenizing modern society.
Part of the sanctification, therefore, of a religious is not only controlling our individuality to keep it from becoming egocentric individualism. We are, of course, to know who we are to glorify God and what are the weaknesses and limitations of our personality, so that we might not allow our temperament to get out of hand. But subtly and mysteriously, it also means that we sacrifice for the love of God even some of our legitimate, personal, God-given individuality for the sake of giving greater glory to God as social beings, which means as members of a community.
Just because God made us individuals, which means different distinctive beings, He wants us to be careful that our individuality does not get out of hand and that we do not allow these limitations or weaknesses to master us instead of mastering them. He also wants us, and this is often harder, to sacrifice even the things that are legitimate in our personalities; not to exercise some things nor to use them; not to become known. I sacrifice also for the greater glory of God the satisfaction of using the gifts I have and others do not have, except according to the directives of obedience to which I have vowed myself. And that's harder because here there is no question of controlling advertent tendencies or mastering moral weaknesses that tend to sin. It is the offering up to God of something that is precious and good and mine, and telling the Lord, "Dear Lord, You want this too. You see, You want me and this is me."
One final observation. There are many ways in which we can speak of community life and its responsibilities. I cannot think of a more graphic way to describe what a good community is, than to say it is the harmonious coexistence and cooperation of different personalities. The very essence of community is the presence of variety. In order to have a community, we must have different kinds of temperaments and if we don't have them, we should get them. If we don't have enough of the choleric, find some; or the aggressive; or the others, because it is here that in God's mysterious providence we become instruments of grace to one another. We are often sharp instruments, but instruments no less. We are the means used by the infinitely wise God, who first makes sure that we are different and then inspires us by His love to want to love others by adjusting ourselves to them, and even more difficult than this, by adjusting them to ourselves.
Sanctification comes out of this coexistence; even living together can be sanctifying! I hope you agree. The only mistake we can make is to think there is some mistake. Oh no! This is God's wisdom and we stupidly complain. If we're going to be sharp instruments of grace for one another, of course it will hurt; but love conquers all, because then we know that this is what God wants. He is glorified by seeing us, for love of Him, loving others and they loving us. Except for His grace, we would not only not be in the same community, but there would not even be a community.
Let us ask our Savior to teach us two things. First that we might know ourselves and what contribution we can make to that marvelous variety that God wants for His greater glory, and to be sure that we master the weaknesses and limitations of our own personality. Let us secondly ask Him to help us see what contribution we can make by being ourselves for love of Him, which means often sacrificing ourselves by living with others whom He has put into our lives that we might glorify Him in a way that, had we not been religious, this God whom we love could never be honored or glorified.
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