External appearances can easily fool us, and often do. That’s true in every area of human life, and religion is no exception.
Some years ago, I lived in a seminary for nearly two years with a young seminarian who, by all outward appearances, appeared to be the ideal candidate for priesthood and ministry. Intelligent, conscientious, prayerful, strongly committed to his studies, and with a deep concern for the poor, he seemed above the more mundane and secular concerns of his peers. He wasn’t interested in drinking beer, arguing football, gossiping, making small talk, or wasting time with the other seminarians. While these other things were going on, he was normally found in either the chapel, the library, or at this desk, busy about more serious things. Moreover, he was always courteous and polite to a fault, no harsh words, bitter slang, or salacious jokes issued from his mouth. He did all the right things.
But none of us living with him confused him with a saint. He was a sincere young man but not a particularly happy one. Why not? Because, while externally he was doing everything right, what radiated from his person was not life but depression. His entry into a room had the effect of draining some energy from the room. He was doing everything right, but his energy wasn’t right. The other seminarians, for all their mundane interests, were perceptive and good-hearted enough to recognize that he needed help and would play the Good Samaritan, taking turns sitting beside him at table, hoping to cheer him up a little. The seminary rector too recognized a problem and sent him to a psychologist who told the young man that he was on the edges of a clinical depression and that he would be well-advised to leave the seminary, at least for a while. The young man did leave seminary, eventually regained his health, and is today a man who brings a robust energy into a room.
This is not an uncommon example. One of the struggles we perennially face with religious discernment is that it’s easy to mistake depression for sanctity, sentimentality for piety, rigidity for orthodoxy, narrow sectarianism for loyalty, repressed sexuality for wholeness, and denial of one’s complexity for stability. Depression can look like sanctity because the person within its grip will appear to be free from the normal urges that come from our more-earthy passions. Sentimentality invariably gravitates towards piety and dresses itself as devotion. Rigidity invariably cloaks itself as an overzealous concern for truth and orthodoxy, just as narrow sectarianism forever presents itself as fierce loyalty, and repressed sexuality and denial of one’s complexity, especially one’s sexual complexity, take on the guise of wholeness and stability. Depression, sentimentality, fearfulness, rigidity, sectarianism, repression, and denial like to hide behind nobler things.
I say this sympathetically. None of us are free from these struggles. But, with that being confessed, we shouldn’t be fooled by false sanctity. Depression, sentimentality, fearfulness, narrowness, rigidity, and repression drain the energy from a room. Real sanctity, piety, orthodoxy, loyalty, wholeness, and stability bring energy into a room and don’t make you swallow hard and feel guilty because your own blood is filled with a more robust energy. The presence of real sanctity sets you free and gives you permission to feel good about your humanity, no matter how red your blood. Real sanctity attracts and radiates life; it doesn’t unconsciously beg you to play the Good Samaritan to cheer it up.
We see this, for example, in Mother Teresa. As we now know from her diaries, she spent the last sixty years of her life in a deep, painful dark night of the soul. During the last sixty years of her life she was struggling interiorly for consolation, yet everything about her radiated the opposite. She filled a room with energy. She lit up a room like a powerful light bulb. She wasn’t just doing all the right things; she was radiating a life-giving energy.
And that is how, in the end, we need to discern genuine sanctity, genuine piety, genuine orthodoxy, genuine loyalty, and genuine wholeness from their false guises. Genuine sanctity brings energy into a room, depression drains it from a room; genuine piety, like a beautiful icon, attracts you, sentimentality makes you uncomfortable, wanting to shield your eyes; genuine orthodoxy makes you want to embrace the whole world, rigidity makes you fearful and petty; genuine loyalty has you standing up for your loved ones, narrow sectarianism makes you a bigot; genuine wholeness has already faced the dark chaos of your human and sexual complexity, repression and denial make you huddle in fear before those dark corners.
There’s a double challenge in this: First, as this pertains to our own lives, we must be more honest and courageous in facing our own chaos and recognize our perpetual propensity to disguise our weaknesses as virtues. Second, we need, as the poet, William Stafford, puts it, to make sure that we are not following the wrong star home.