Sin excepted, says Saint Francis of Sales, that gay-hearted servant of God, there is nothing that does such harm as melancholy: and Saint Catharine of Siena goes even farther, for in one of these delightful letters of hers to her friends which are so alive with charm and banter, she writes to a young man who fancied that he had to be particularly gloomy because he wished to appear as a poet: "Is not sorrow the worst of all our sins?" It is true that this is merely a question, and therefore it may be said that she does not say that sorrow is so desperate a thing, but only asks whether it is or not; yet even so for such a saint, with all a saint's horror of sin and her exquisite appreciation of the majesty of God, to declare melancholy worse than all other offences or even to ask whether it is so or not, is a very large step to take; but it is one that it is perhaps of very great importance for us to take also. Saint Catharine is, indeed, famous for the exact theology of all her writings, so that we have no business to shrug our shoulders and put it all down to a woman's exaggeration. Nor need we go very far from our own hearts to find the precise meaning of this seemingly astonishing remark. We have only got to watch ourselves when we are really at our worst, to understand the deep meaning of it and also to take comfort for ourselves in its lesson. Every priest who has had to deal with souls, anyone whose privilege it has been to share the secrets of another's experience, will repeat the same story. There is nothing that does us more harm than the feeling of melancholy or discouragement or hopelessness that too often comes over us when we have tried really hard and then fallen.
It is clear that neither Saint Francis of Sales nor Saint Catharine could ever really have meant that sorrow was, in so far that it is sinful, greater in gravity than any other sin; obviously all that they are referring to in sorrow are its effects on the soul, and here there is certainly reason in abundance for their saying. After all, it is not the fact that we have fallen that does us so much harm, but that discouragement makes us lie fallen, that the worst comes. To have spurned God's love is, indeed, a terrible outrage on things human and divine, but to remain in the attitude of outrage, is not that worse still? To fall is bad enough, but why remain fallen? Now it is just this that discouragement produces in my soul. I try very hard to overcome some fault; perhaps by the kindness of God to a certain extent I succeed: then comes a catastrophe, and I find myself back again in all my old ways The natural result of this is for me to say that there is no use in my going on trying. I have tried and I have failed: had I not better renounce any further attempts? But "is not sorrow the worst of all our sins?" Is it not far worse in its effects, for it reduces me to such a state of hopelessness that I despair of ever doing any thing again? It is worse, therefore, just in this, that it has a far more disastrous effect upon me. It numbs and paralyzes all effort. Has not the disheartenment that followed sin done me more harm than ever the sin did; driven me from God, or at least kept me at arm's length from God? When I examine my life, I am in common honesty obliged to confess that nothing has done me so much harm, injured my faith and hope and love one half so much, as the state of depression into which I let myself fall.
Cheerfulness, then, and humour, are of very much need in the soul's life. It is the battle half won to enter into it with a smile. To jog on through all the growing weariness of it, to stand the long hours under fire with few opportunities for doing anything, to bear with the dull and comfortless work of the trenches, all this requires a considerable amount of nerve; but it is achieved only through the inspiration of hope. Faced with the wear and tear of it, we shall surely fail unless we can keep our courage alive. Notice how children smile bravely through their tears, pretending that they are not in pain, when they know that their pain will make others sad, will even make the pain itself harder to bear. Of course, this means and entails a good deal of self-effacement. When selflove is hurt it longs to air its grievances, it longs to tell everyone else of the troubles through which it has passed; nor can it listen in patience to the grumbles of others without wishing at once to answer them with its own tale of suffering. Oh yes, it is not easy to put out of our minds every selfish notice of how others treat us, remembering all that they have done against us, to be patient with the petty ways in which they snub us. Yet all the while we have to carry our trouble patiently and bravely, not letting everyone enter into the secrets of the King. Because I have a headache, is that any reason why everyone else in the house need know about it? Why should I have a consuming desire to tell every person I meet all about my aches and pains? Do I not find it boring when others so pester me? Why, then, should I inflict mine on them? Or, again, my spiritual failings or the progress of my soul, is not that my affair only, mine and God's? All the world's a stage, and I am but a simple actor that must enter smiling, and leave that smile upon the faces of the audience.
- text taken from by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.