The Seven Pitfalls of Beginners
Fr. Joseph K. Horn
10 November 1996
St Barbara’s Parish
Santa Ana, CA
They say that everybody is a mix of both good and bad. This is true now, but it won’t always be true. At the Final Judgement, we will all be divided into just two groups: the good people, and the bad people. The good people will go to heaven. The bad people will go to hell. There won’t be any other options. Jesus makes this shockingly black-and-white division very clear, time and time again. For example, there were five bridesmaids who were wise and five who were foolish. There were none in between. Nor did Jesus mince words; he called them “wise” and “foolish”. He didn’t try to be politically correct by calling the foolish ones “judgementally challenged” or “consequence dysfunctional”. He didn’t try to point out that although they lacked prudence, they had high self-esteem because they had talents in other areas. No, they brought no oil for their lamps and so they were fools, plain and simple.
So every one of us will eventually go to heaven for an eternal life of bliss, or be eternally damned in hell. It’s a sobering thought. It’s sufficiently scary to get most people at least started living a good spiritual life. I’d estimate that 99.9% of these spiritual beginners remain beginners their whole lives, which is okay, since a beginner can make it to heaven, and you can’t make it to heaven if you aren’t at least a beginner.
BUT (and this is a Big But!) the spiritual path of a beginner contains seven common pitfalls. These pitfalls are run across by every beginner, so unless you’re a spiritually advanced soul, look out for these.
Pitfall #1: Beginners too often think of themselves not as beginners but as spiritually advanced. “I’m no beginner!” they say to themselves, “I’ve been a Catholic my whole life, I pray every day, I say the rosary, I do this, I do that... I’m practically a saint!” They would therefore ignore a sermon about the pitfalls of beginners, thereby falling directly into those pitfalls. A real saint has no delusions caused by pride, but instead knows that he or she is a mere creature of God, prone to error, wary of pitfalls, and happy to learn more about them.
Pitfall #2: Beginners always develop a vain desire to speak of spiritual things in the presence of others. Since they fancy themselves to be experts, they sometimes even desire to teach such things rather than to learn them. This leads them to condemn others who in their own opinion do not have their kind of devotion. Sometimes they even say this out loud, like the Pharisee who boasted of himself, praising God for his own good works and despising the tax collector.
Pitfall #3: Beginners are so eager to appear as good that they subconsciously rejoice when others appear as bad, as if that makes them appear better in contrast. That’s why beginners, whenever the opportunity arises, condemn and slander others, beholding the speck in their brother’s eye and not considering the plank that is in their own. They fancy themselves to be spiritually advanced, but instead are growing less and less charitable.
Pitfall #4: Beginners are pained too deeply by correction, because they want everything they do to be esteemed and praised. When their pastor, confessor, or spiritual director does not approve of their behavior, they tell themselves that it’s because they don’t understand, or even that it’s because their confessor is himself not spiritual enough. And so they go hunting for a new confessor who will fit their tastes. Many good priests have been maligned and vilified by such beginners.
Pitfall #5: Beginners are anxious that others realize how spiritual and devout they are, and so they are always and everywhere making it obvious. They make the sign of the cross in public so as to be seen, and they are pleased when they are noticed. Such pride removes all benefit from their actions, and turns virtues into vices.
Pitfall #6: Beginners desire to be the favorites of their confessors and to become their close personal friends. As a result, they are much too embarrassed to confess their sins candidly, lest their confessors should think less of them. They instead justify their sins and make them appear less evil. So the real reason they go to confession is to excuse themselves rather than to accuse themselves. And sometimes they even seek another confessor to tell the wrongs that they have done, so that their own confessor will think that they have done nothing wrong at all, but only good. A beginner’s pride thus turns even sacraments into vices.
Pitfall #7: Beginners become overly saddened when they realize that they’ve sinned, thinking themselves to have been saints already. They become angry and impatient with themselves, which is another imperfection. They beseech God, with great yearnings, that He will take from them their imperfections and faults. But they do this for the wrong reasons. They want to find themselves at peace, and not be troubled by their own imperfections, rather than desiring sanctity for God’s sake. They do not realize that, if God did indeed take their imperfections from them, they would become prouder and more presumptuous still. They dislike praising others and love to be praised themselves; sometimes they seek out such praise. They are therefore like the five foolish bridesmaids who, when their lamps ran out of oil, sought oil from others.
On your spiritual journey to heaven, beware these seven common pitfalls. You may have noticed that in all of them, it is pride that makes the beginner fall. It was pride that made the five foolish bridesmaids not bring extra oil with their lamps; they foolishly believed that what was in their lamps would be sufficient. The good in our souls in never sufficient. We all need God’s grace to carry us beyond the level of rank beginner. May God grant you His grace in abundance so that we may do His will in this life and be happy with Him in the next. Amen.
Note: This sermon is based on Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross. If you already knew that... you are probably not a “beginner”.