The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 42, No 2, March-April 1989

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

Many years ago I saw a film of a safari in the jungles of Africa that showed an interesting and unique way of capturing monkeys. The trap used to catch them was a coconut. A hole was cut in the coconut and the liquid drained out, the hole being just large enough for the monkey to insert its small hand. The coconut was anchored with a chain and inside the cavity of the coconut was placed grain attractive to the monkey.

On discovering the grain within the coconut, the monkeys would reach in to take a handful, but with clenched fist full of grain they could not withdraw the hand from the coconut. The monkeys were thus held fast and easily captured.

Monkeys are considered to have a certain degree of animal intelligence, but it seems that in this case it was not displayed. If only they would have let go of the grain, they would have remained free.

I mention this episode, because we are much like those monkeys in certain respects; for we too are held captive, because we are unwilling to "let go" of certain things to which we cling, things which enslave the heart and hold us captive, robbing us of our inner freedom.

Note: As we explained in a previous issue (Vol. 41, n.3), when we speak of the heart loving, we speak symbolically, for it is the will that chooses, that loves. Consequently we will be using these two terms interchangeably, for while the second is more technically correct, the first is the more common mode of speaking, as did Our Lord Himself.


Freedom as the world usually understands it (social freedom), is a freedom from without. It is a freedom from external sources interfering with oneís doing what he has a right to do, living his life in keeping with his natural rights.

In contrast with this, the freedom that Christ spoke of, and which He promised to those who accept and live His message is a freedom from within, a liberation of the heart of man, a freedom from being dominated by the world, the flesh, or the ego. The true follower of Christ strives not to be subservient to any of these masters, in order the more freely to love and serve God, the Divine Master, "with his whole heart, his whole soul, his whole mind, and with all his strength." (Mk.12:29) One is free in this Christian sense, in the measure that his heart is liberated from domination by anything that makes him choose other that what God wishes.

This notion of freedom is intimately bound up with the notion of manís fallen nature, his inclination to pride, to avarice, to lust, to gluttony, etc. It is from the domination by these that one must be liberated to be truly free. --How much we are like the foolish monkeys, unwilling to "let go" of what is robbing us of our freedom.


God has so created the heart of man that it must love. It will of necessity cling to something. For this reason attachments are unavoidable. Man will choose and cling to the right thing, or the wrong thing - as regards his eternal salvation. Or again, he may choose and become attached to things that are good, but in the wrong way, i.e. becoming too attached to them. He must choose between created (temporal) good, which he knows by his natural faculties, and uncreated (eternal) Good, which is God, whom he knows by the light of faith, and is enabled to seek by the infused gift of charity or love of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas was speaking of these two categories of good (created and uncreated) when he said that man is placed between the THINGS OF THIS WORLD and the THINGS OF GOD, so that the more he cleaves to the one, the more he withdraws from the other. Consequently, to love God with oneís 'whole heart', oneís heart must be totally free from domination by any created goods. He must be able to use and enjoy them in such a way that they in no way become an obstacle to loving and serving God.

Our Lord was speaking of these two goods when He said that no man can serve two masters - God and mammon. He can love both God and mammon; in fact, he must do so. But he cannot serve both, i.e. become subservient to both. . .become a slave of both, for "either he will hate one and love the other, or he will stand by one, and despise the other." (Mt.6:24)


Since in the Christian life man is aided by natural acquired virtues (good habits), and by supernatural infused virtues (theological and moral virtues infused by God with sanctifying grace), both of these play an essential part in freeing the heart of man from domination by things of this world. Progress in the first (acquired virtues) requires mortification, and progress in the second (infused virtues) requires prayer and other means of growth in grace. We will consider them separately, but in practice they coincide, for the second must vivify and make fruitful the first.

A) The Need of Mortification:

While the Church in recent years has lessened considerably the former laws of fasting and abstinence, some type of mortification is necessary as a consequence of the fallen nature that we inherit, a nature in which the lower powers are in revolt against the higher so that "the flesh lusts against the spirit." (Gal. 5:17) If these lower powers (also referred to as concupiscence) are not to gain the upper hand making it impossible for us to love God with our 'whole heart', we must take some means of reestablishing the order lost by original sin. Restoring that order means subjecting the lower powers to the higher (intellect and will), and subjecting these higher powers to God.

What is more, these inherited weaknesses of our nature are further complicated by our own personal sins. The self- indulgence of these sins increases the rebellion of the lower powers that original sin initiated; for the more we indulge our natural desires, the stronger and more insistent they become in demanding satisfaction. In addition to this, repeated sins leave behind bad habits against which we must take action.

Because of all this, it is not enough to merely aim at avoiding what is forbidden; we must at times deny ourself of the satisfaction of certain LAWFUL pleasures, if we are to have the strength to say "no" to those that are UNLAWFUL. As we have pointed out in a previous issue (Vol. 41, n.2), the snares that most of us have to guard against are things that are lawful in themselves, but which are so attractive that it is difficult to seek them in moderation. This can be true regarding food, alcoholic beverages, TV and other types of recreation, etc.

It is not our purpose here to suggest ways of voluntary mortification or self-denial but merely to stress its importance. Each person should know the area of his or her own weaknesses, and should take action accordingly.

Because, however, we are so sluggish and hesitant to undertake voluntary mortification, and because we are so blind as to our underlying attachments, the Lord Himself takes the initiative and chooses penances for us. And this brings up a broader and very important aspect of mortification.

B) God Takes the Initiative

Spiritual writers seem to be in agreement that, important as are the penances and mortification that we choose for ourselves, the best and safest penances are those which God chooses; that is to say, those which God in his providence lets come our way from outside sources over which we have no control. Each day provides us with a variety of opportunities for mortification that we cannot escape. We can use them profitably, or we can squander them, depending on whether or not we accept them with patience and resignation to the will of God. They can be profitable both as regards reparation for the punishment due to our past sins, and as a means of undermining the attachments that enslave the heart.

God knows far better than we both our weaknesses and our strength. He knows where mortification is needed most; and for every trial He allows to come our way, He offers the grace to profit by it. He uses both people and situations to test our patience, our unselfishness, our humility, our love of Him, our trust in Him, etc. He knows our hidden attachments better than we, and often He lets others touch us on our sensitive spots, to make us aware of those underlying attachments that are obstacles to our complete surrender to Him. Thus He gives us an opportunity to discipline those attachments by accepting the upsetting incident in a spirit of resignation to His will.

The stronger our reaction against one of these daily crosses, the deeper the underlying attachment that caused it, and the more God will apply this kind of therapy if He sees the person in question will profit by it. The upsetting incident might be some frustration, or irritation, or inconvenience, or discomfort, etc. Since these are part of Godís providence, they are divinely chosen for each of us, perfectly suited to our needs. Not only does the Heavenly Father provide "what we shall eat, what we shall drink, or what we shall put on" (Mt. 6:31), but also the trials and crosses that are necessary for our purification and growth in grace.

The person, however, who rarely practices mortification on his initiative, will rarely profit by these unsought trials and crosses of daily life. Not seeing the hand of God behind them, he will often react with impatience, or discouragement, or murmuring against his lot, seeing them as simply as annoyances he must put up with.

On the other hand, those who do practice mortification on their own initiative must be careful not to become like the Pharisee in the Gospel: "I thank God that I am not like the rest of men. I fast twice a week, I pay tithes on all that I possess." (Lk.18:12) Penances that are occasioned by the daily trials and crosses of life tend to make us humble rather to make us proud.

Recall that Our Lady at Fatima pleaded for prayer and penance for sinners, revealing that many souls go to hell because there is no one to make sacrifices for them. We donít have to look around for means of penance and mortification; opportunities for them are built-in our daily life if we can but see and use them.

C) The Role of Divine Grace

In spite of all that we have said about the need of mortification, the detachment of the heart of man from created goods is primarily the work of divine grace. It is effected primarily by God rather than by man. As St. Thomas states: "manís will can only be subject to God when God draws manís will to Himself." (I II,109,7) Yet God demands a definite cooperation on our part - in the way of mortification and sacrifice - before He accomplishes this work of liberating the heart from the strong hold that worldly goods and pleasures exercise over it. Let us see briefly how growth in grace accomplishes this liberation.

With each increase of grace, there is a corresponding growth in charity, or love of God. This gift of charity is a share in the very love with which God loves Himself and all that He has made to His own likeness and image. With each increase of charity one is enable to love God with a greater intensity, i.e. with a greater willingness to sacrifice self in order to fulfill His will. With each increase of charity God more and more attracts the heart of man to Himself. "No man can come to me, except the Father who sent me, draw him." (Jn.12:32)

Thus grace transforms, so to speak, the heart of man, not doing violence to it, but perfecting it (grace perfects nature), drawing it fortiter et suaviter (strongly and gently) to Himself, giving it a greater desire and strength to do what its Creator wishes, As St. Therese of Lisieux expressed it, the more God wishes to give of Himself, the more does He cause Himself to be desired. (Autobiogr.)

This, then, is basically what happens in the detachment of manís heart from creatures: as grace grows, God gradually draws the heart of man to Himself, giving it a greater capacity and desire to do what God wishes, and to reject what is contrary to His wishes... a greater capacity of saying "no" to the attraction of creatures. As St. Augustine expressed it: "As charity increases greed decreases; when charity is perfect, greed ceases to exist."

D) God's Way of Dealing with Us

While detachment is principally the work of GODíS GRACE, that grace will not be forthcoming without OUR COOPERATION, i.e. without an active role on our part in disciplining our unruly tendencies .... without that important passive role of submitting to Godís purifying trials (mentioned above) .... without fervent and persevering prayer .... without a generous striving to make the sacrifice needed to keep His Commandments and to fulfill the duties of oneís state in life.

Since detachment flows from growth in grace, it might seem to follow that, with progress, the doing of Godís will becomes easier and easier. The fact is, that the very opposite is often the case; for as God increases His gifts, He asks more of those who receive them. This will be seen more clearly if we give a brief picture of Godís way of dealing with the soul along its struggle for spiritual progress.

In the spiritual life all persons at times run into periods when prayer becomes more difficult, when even the practice of the virtues becomes more difficult, when they not only experience dryness and interior obscurity, but things which were formerly pleasant and easy become burdensome and a drudgery. This can be traced to one of two causes, or a combination of both:

a) Lukewarmness of life which lessens the fervor of charity, causes oneís interior life to dry up, and paves the way for indifference, half-hearted efforts, neglect of prayer, etc.

b) Godís purifying trials: There is a normal period in the life of everyone making progress in the spiritual life, in which he or she will experience these difficulties, this helplessness and distaste for prayer, and even in the practice of virtue.

This need not be the result of lukewarmness, but can be Godís doing. If one earnestly desires to make progress, and is sincerely trying in the way of prayer and effort, futile though they may seem, such persons need not fear that their problems spring from lukewarmness or tepidity.

It seems that God allows every person intent on spiritual progress to pass through such periods, sometimes for a comparatively short time, sometimes for many years, depending on how quickly one is humbled thereby. Man tends to depend too much on himself until he is convinced of his weakness; and he usually has to be convinced of this the hard way. This is one of Godís ways of bringing one to that conviction.

Keep in mind, however, that in the battles that one must wage with his faults and weaknesses and in bearing patiently with the "crosses" of life, perfect success in these matters is not as important as the persevering and generous struggle they give rise to. It is possible to continue to grow in grace even though we never seem to conquer certain weaknesses, provided we earnestly desire to do so, and sincerely try to do so. God often leaves us with certain weaknesses, in spite of our prayers and efforts, in order to further humble us, and that we might continue the fervent prayers and the generous struggle they occasion.


To return to our thought in the beginning, the monkeys lost their freedom because they would not "let go." Every type of mortification (which is necessary for true freedom) requires a "letting go" of something to which we are strongly attached. In fact the whole of the Christian life requires a certain "letting go" of the things of this world, that we might possess more fully the things of God Loving God requires a "letting go" of our own will in order to fulfill His. Knowing God (through faith) requires a "letting go" of our own opinions, in order to possess His Truth made known through the Church.

These are all different ways of "letting go" of the creature, in order to more fully be made one with the Creator. In many ways we are afraid to let go, clinging to the creature, like the soul described by the poet Francis Thompson, fleeing God, the "Hound of Heaven," .... I was sore adread, lest having Him, I must have naught beside" .... not realizing that possessing Him, loving Him with oneís whole being would fill every yearning and desire of the human heart.

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