The process of spiritual growth, I have found, depends largely on the interplay between three virtues: authenticity, courage, and humility. I’ve given each one a patron saint, too!
Authenticity is truth-telling. It is being plainly honest with ourselves (and with others) about what we think and what we feel. If we persist in telling ourselves lies, then we will always be stuck with lies. It’s obvious when we think about some external matter – what is the sense in maintaining an illusion that your car is working fine when there is smoke pouring out of the engine? It may be unpleasant, but that does not mean that it is not true. I believe this is what Freud had in mind when he spoke of our efforts to push unpleasant feelings aside. This is an inauthentic way of living. Carl Rogers, my patron saint of authenticity, said that only when we have first accepted who we are can we change. A curious paradox. I think the practice of authenticity taps into those desires which expand and open up the self.
This takes courage. Many truths are hard to face, and we prefer the comfort of lies. Courage allows us to walk the difficulty path of authenticity, knowing that it is a good path. The difficulty is not removed, though. The source of our anxiety and fear remains with us, and we will have many opportunities to fall into despair. Courage is not a magic bullet that destroys the anxiety; it does, however, enable us to transcend it. The patron saint of courage is Paul Tillich. “Courage,” he said “is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being.” In fact, Tillich sees courage as a vital part of faith.
Humility is a particular posture. The humble person is a servant of the truth, not the other way around. It is a posture of openness that comes from a recognition that we are limited, finite beings whose knowledge is always condition by our finitude. Humility is a peculiar virtue because the desire to attain it precludes true humility. This is a point that was made by Thomas Merton, the patron saint of humility, who had an uncanny knack of detecting the subtle ways that pride works its way into our lives. On the surface, we appear to be defined by selfish devotion, but in fact we are intent on hoarding spiritual riches (as if there was such a thing) for our selves. He uses a beautiful image of glass which becomes more invisible the more light it lets through. You’ll notice that this brings together humility and authenticity. The person who is both open to receiving understanding and committed to speaking authentically will become a conduit through which grace and mercy flow.