Two contraries cannot co-exist inside the same subject.
Aristotle wrote that and it seems to say the obvious,
something can't be light and dark at the same time.
However, in terms of what's happening inside our souls it
seems that contraries can indeed co-exist inside the same
subject. At any given moment, inside us, we are a mixture of
light and darkness, sincerity and hypocrisy, selflessness
and selfishness, virtue and vice, grace and sin, saint and
sinner. As Henri Nouwen used to say: We want to be great
saints, but we also don't want to miss out on all the
sensations that sinners experience. And so our lives aren't
We live with both light and darkness
inside us and for long
periods of time, it seems, contraries do co-exist inside
us. Our souls are a battleground where selflessness and
selfishness, virtue and sin, vie for dominance. But
eventually one or the other will begin to dominate and work
at weeding out the other. That's why John of the Cross picks
up this philosophical axiom and uses it to teach a key
lesson about coming to purity of heart and purity of
intention in our lives. Because contraries cannot co-exist
inside us, there's something vital we need to do. What?
need to pray regularly. Contraries cannot co-exist in
us so if we sustain genuine prayer in our lives eventually
sincerity will weed out insincerity, selflessness will weed
out selfishness, and grace will weed out sin. If we sustain
genuine prayer we will never, long-term, fall into moral
rationalization. If we sustain genuine prayer in our lives
we will never grow so blind to our own sin that we will
begin to have morally exempt areas in our lives. Being
faithful to prayer will ensure that we will never,
long-range, live double lives because what prayer brings
into our lives, a genuine presence of God, will not
peacefully co-exist with selfishness, sin, rationalization,
self-delusion, and hypocrisy. Simply put, at some point in
our lives, we will either stop praying or stop our bad
behavior. We won't be able to live with both. Our biggest
danger then is to stop praying.
this advice is eminently practical: We cannot always
control how we feel about things. We cannot always control
how we will be tempted. And none of us has the strength to
never fall into sin. Our incapacity to fully actualize
ourselves morally leaves us always short of full sanctity.
There are things beyond us.
But there is something that we can control, something
beyond the wild horses of emotion and temptation. We are
beset by many things, but we can willfully, deliberately,
with discipline and resolve, show up regularly to pray. We
can make private prayer a regular discipline in our lives.
We can commit ourselves to the habit of private prayer. And,
if we do that, irrespective of the fact that we will have to
work through long periods of dryness and boredom, eventually
what that prayer brings into our lives will weed out our bad
habits, rationalization, and sins. Two contraries cannot
co-exist inside the same subject. Eventually we will either
stop praying or we will give up our sin and rationalization.
Nobody can be praying genuinely on a regular basis and be
blind to his or her own sinfulness.
Our task then is to sustain private prayer as a habit in
our lives, even if we have neither the insight nor the
courage to see and address all the double-standards and
moral blind-spots in our lives. What comes into our lives
through prayer, often more imperceptible than visible, will
eventually weed out ("cauterize", in John of the Cross'
words) both our sin and our rationalizations about it.
This is akin to what Ronald Knox once taught about the
Eucharist. For him, the Eucharist is the singular, vital,
sustaining ritual within Christian life. Why? Because Knox
believed that, as Christians, we have never really lived up
to what Christ asked of us. We have never really loved our
enemies, turned the other cheek, blessed those who cursed
us, lived fully just lives, or forgiven those who hurt us.
But we have been, he submits, faithful to Christ in one
major way: We have been faithful in celebrating the
Eucharist, to that one command.
Just before he left us, Jesus gave us the Eucharist and
asked us to continue celebrating it until he returned. For
two thousand years, awaiting that return, we've been
faithful in doing that, no matter how unfaithful we have
been in other ways. We have continued to celebrate the
Eucharist and, in the end, more than anything else, that has
been the one thing that has called us back, again and again,
habit of private prayer will do the same thing for
us. Since two contraries cannot co-exist inside the same
subject, eventually either we will stop praying or we will
stop sinning and rationalizing. The greatest moral danger in
our lives is that we stop praying!