Hypertension, otherwise known as high blood pressure, is often called a “silent killer.” That’s because elevated blood pressure provides few, if any, warning signals before a massive, hypertension-induced stroke causes serious impairment or even death.
There also is a silent killer of the spiritual life. Its name is lukewarmness.
As high blood pressure enters the body without declaring its presence, so also lukewarmness worms its way quietly into people’s minds and hearts, whispering inducements not to work so hard at living a virtuous life.
“There’s no need for you to spend so much time on prayer,” it says. “No need for examination of conscience — after all, you don’t do anything seriously wrong. No need … ”
Cut back here, go easy there, and on and on. Until eventually not much is left of the interior life. The silent killer has claimed another victim.
We can’t say we haven’t been warned. Recall the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation, which contain warnings aimed by Christ at seven Christian communities of Asia Minor located in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
Little more than ruins now, in the late first century A.D. these were thriving towns in which Christianity was thriving. But not without problems. Consider what the Lord says to the church in Laodicea:
“I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,’ and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. … Those whom I love, I reprove and chastise. Be earnest, therefore, and repent” (Rv 3:15-17, 19).
Opus Dei founder St. Josemaría Escrivá, who did so much to promote the idea that laypeople living in the world could and should lead holy lives of virtue, devotes an entire chapter to lukewarmness in his spiritual classic “The Way.” He notes these symptoms:
“You are tepid if you carry out listlessly and reluctantly those things that have to do with our Lord; if deliberately or ‘shrewdly’ you look for some way of lessening your duties; if you think only of yourself and of your comfort; if your conversation is idle and vain; if you act from human motives.”
Indifference to duties
Outside the setting of spiritual direction and the confessional, lukewarmness is usually not a very noticeable failing, so it’s helpful to turn to literature for an example and analysis of the problem. Edwin O’Connor provides what we’re looking for with his portrait of a 50-something priest and pastor who is the narrator and central character of his 1961 novel “The Edge of Sadness.”
O’Connor is best remembered for “The Last Hurrah,” his boisterous tale of Irish-American politicians and politicking.. But “The Edge of Sadness” is no less insightful — and at times, deeply moving — in its picture of Catholic life in a subculture already experiencing nerve-racking change that was soon to turn traumatic.
The priest at the center of the story falls into depression after the death of his father and becomes a secret drinker. Increasingly, he is isolated from his fellow priests, his parishioners and the world around him and cut off from the sources of spiritual sustenance that had formerly been central elements of his life.
Attempting later to understand the roots of this painful episode, he recalls himself as a young priest — “zealous, devoted, with fresh and unimpeded hopes, whose parish was his life, whose days were active and busy and full of joy” — and contrasts this with what he became under the influence of alcohol — “indifferent to his people, irresponsible in his duties, a spiritually arid priest for whom the wellsprings had dried up.” What happened to account for the change? This is his answer:
“[A busy priest] may find fewer and fewer moments in which he can absent himself from activity, in which he can be alone, can be silent, can be still — in which he can reflect and pray. And since these are precisely the moments which are necessary for all of us, in which spiritually we grow … then the loss of such moments is grave and perilous. Particularly so … for a priest who suddenly finds that he can talk more easily to a parish committee than he can to God. Something within him will have atrophied from disuse; something precious, something vital.”
By no means do only the clergy suffer from lukewarmness. But it may indeed be that priests and people in consecrated life are more likely than the rest of us to become lukewarm.
After all, it’s the quest for holiness that led them into the priesthood and consecrated life, thereby opening them to the temptation to give it up. Whereas even today laypeople seldom are encouraged to pursue holiness seriously, so that their failings may not rise much above the level of mere sluggishness and neglect. Still, this laziness — sloth is its name — is a serious matter if it involves shirking serious obligations: to a spouse, say, or to children or one’s work.
Beyond this laziness lies lukewarmness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it as “hesitation or negligence in responding to divine love,” adding that it “can imply refusal to give oneself over to the prompting of charity” (No. 2094). Further along on the downward slope comes spiritual sloth (“acedia” is the name given it by spiritual writers in earlier times), which the Catechism says “goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God and to be repelled by divine goodness” (ibid.).
As in the case of the priest in “The Edge of Sadness,” lukewarmness frequently enters the picture under the cover of activities and preoccupations that are good in themselves but that, unless one is careful, can easily become distractions that override and eventually snuff out things essential to the spiritual life — meditation, prayer, and meaningful participation in the Mass and sacraments.
Uneasy about confronting what’s happening, a person then may abandon spiritual exercises or else trivialize practices like examinations of conscience, spiritual direction and the Sacrament of Penance that are needed to recognize and root out faults.
Let’s face it — the practices of the interior life and the life of virtue really are difficult at times. In one of his Anglican sermons, St. John Henry Newman makes the point that even those who “set about the work of religion in good earnest” sometimes find it wearisome:
“In spite of their knowledge of the truth, and their faith, in spite of the aids and consolations they receive from above, still how often do their corrupt hearts betray them! Even their privileges are often burdensome to them, even to pray for the grace which in Christ is pledged to them is an irksome task. … Not only the mass of mankind, but even the confirmed servants of Christ, witness to the opposition which exists between their own nature and the demands of religion” (“Religion a Weariness to the Natural Man,” Parochial and Plain Sermons).
Truly, those “corrupt hearts” of which Newman speaks are the portals through which lukewarmness so easily enters.
But the solution, according to St. Josemaría Escrivá, could hardly be more simple: “Fall in love, and you will not leave him” (“The Way,” No. 999).
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. This is the 10th part of a monthly Year of Faith series on virtues that originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.