"There is but one sadness -- not to be of the saints." We are not equal to the task. It is when it is hardest that we are weakest -- is there any weakness worse than the weakness of the men of our time? A weak and unfortunate generation again bears the weight of the future. Must we then give up the struggle?
Consider, says Our Lord, serious-minded people who undertake affairs of state. Which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not first sit down and reckon the expenses and see whether he has the wherewithal to finish it, lest after he has laid the foundation and is not able to finish it, all that see it begin to mock him, saying: this man began to build and was not able to finish? And what king, about to make war on another king, does not first sit down and reckon whether with ten thousand men he will be able to resist an aggressor coming to meet him with twenty thousand?
Which is to say: before beginning to work for God and to fight against the devil, first determine your assets; and if you think yourself well enough equipped to begin, you are a fool, because the tower to be built costs an outrageous price, and the enemy coming to meet you is an angel before whom you hardly count. Understand that you are called to a task which entirely exceeds your forces. Get to know yoursell so well that you will be unable to look at yourself without flinching. Then there will be room for hope. In the sure knowledge that you are "obliged to do the impossible" and that you can do the impossible in Him Who strengthens you, you are then ready for a task which can be accomplished only through the Cross.
I am well aware that many people understand this parable differently. They fear God but they fear more the armies of Satan, and in the end, after everything has been well considered, they arrive at an agreement with the adversary, sending him from afar the deputation of their fears. The safest thing is to leave him the difficult positions, poetry as well as philosophy, and to abandon intelligence to him. They are true Davids, advancing after every risk has been removed.
Others say, and in my opinion more wisely: we know that it is a fearful thing to bear Christ's name before men, and what a paradox a Christian art must realize and what perils accompany the encounter of religion with the restless world of art and the lying world of literature -- and the very eagerness with which grace and despair contend for a whole generation of youth; we know that it is customary among men that the greatest number fail in whatever is difficult, and that thus the eventual spoiling of every enterprise of even a little elevation conforms to the customs of nature. Well! we shall rely upon grace. If our tower should come to a standstill when only half-finished, or if it should happen to fall on our heads, the beginnings perhaps will have been beautiful.
Grace does not exempt the artist from his own labor: it even makes his labor more arduous, for it compels it to carry a heavier substance. Now trees laden with fruit bow down to the ground, but all must not bend under its load.
Nor does grace exempt the believer from human preparations and human effort, aIthough it gives him, and because it gives him, both the will and the actual execution. By ourselves alone we can do nothing, i.e., increase being in any way; but by ourselves alone we can do nothingness, i.e., diminish being. When the First Cause makes use of us as instruments, it is as living and free instruments, acted upon, no doubt, bnt acting also. In the realm of our free acts the First Cause likewise does nothing without us. A moment of which man is master, at the most secret core of the heart, binds and looses eternity.
Mysticism is in fashion, asceticism less so. It is a grave mistake to think that one of these can be separated from the other. We cannot love Love by halves. Our epoch feels itself too forlorn not to cry towards Heaven -- but sometimes as a sick man calls for morphine, not for recovery. Its cowardice creates the fear that it intends to serve two masters -- resting its foolish hope in a radical division of the heart and the metaphysical annihilation of personality; as if the innumerable divisions and dissociations of the psychic structures, however profound our infirmity permits them to be in the whole order of the feelings and involuntary attractions, and of secondary choices, could affect the primitive choice of the will deciding on its ultimate good, and the metaphysical essence of personality. In the end one perceives an abominable counterfeit, the diabolical collusion of mysticism and sin, the Black Mass.
The world from which the Saints formerly fled into the desert was no worse than ours. To describe our time, we need to recall the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. We have returned to the great night of pagan agony, in which man has no longer to cope simply with his own wretched flesh, but with a flesh scourged by the angels of Satan, and in which, for his obsessed imagination, the whole of nature clothes itself in obscene symbols. To keep pity from turning into connivance, love from tuning into despair, in such a worid, it is inadvisable to forget death-to-oneself and all that ensues -- I mean as a condition of a strong life. And in this order of things it is often less tiring to run than to walk.
Nor would it be advisable to wait for infused knowledge instead of acquiring the knowledge which depends on us -- or, what is worse, to scorn knowledge. It must be admitted that in general the youth of today, victims of the inhuman acceleration imposed on life, seem discouraged at the long preparations that intelligence requires. Nevertheless, to neglect the intelligence costs dearly. A reign of the heart which would not presuppose in the heart an absolute will to truth, a Christian renewal which would think that it could do without wisdom and theology, would be suicide in the disguise of love. The age is swarming with fools who disparage reason. First one must deserve the right to speak ill of it. Love goes beyond reason; what remains this side of reason is folly. In ecstasy and near death, Saint Thomas could say of the Summa: "It seems to me as so much straw." He had written it.
Source: Maritain, "The Frontiers of Poetry" (1927)