As a teen in the 1980s, I was at a moral crossroads. I was a typical, poorly catechized Catholic, playing around with serious sin, and my conscience was slightly bothering me. I had a sense of right and wrong (because relativism was not yet all the rage), but I saw God as a permissive parent who was too “loving” to enforce His own boundaries. However, before I waded further into sin, I thought it best to seek out the holiest friend I knew, Marianne, to get some advice.
Marianne was a practicing Catholic who was caring, kind, sober, and chaste. Always cheerful and patient, she openly spoke of her love for Jesus, went to Mass every Sunday, and was one of the few people I knew through my K-12 public-school years who seemed to be very devoted to Catholicism—certainly much more than I was. It seemed reasonable, then, for me to go to Marianne with my question: Should I continue on this path of serious sin or turn around? Of course, I did not phrase it that way, but she and I both knew that our Faith held these actions to be sinful.
Marianne leaned over and touched my forearm. “Leila,” she said, looking directly into my eyes and smiling warmly, “I just want you to be happy.”
I am 55 years old now, but I still remember her face, the classroom, the surroundings, and the peace of that moment. Those words were all I needed to hear from my most moral friend. I didn’t look back, and for the next ten years, I continued in ever-deepening mortal sin.
I didn’t fully understand that by listening to my friend’s soothing words, I was placing myself into the hands of the devil. She was so nice! She loved me! But in truth, I was a living example of St. Ignatius’ First Rule of the Discernment of Spirits (emphasis mine):
In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is commonly used to propose to them apparent pleasures, making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason.
I fell into the trap that ensnares many souls today: believing that if a person has a pleasing personality, is affable, attentive, and “accepting” (whatever that means), then the person is good. Somewhere along the line, Catholics began making crucial judgments based on feelings rather than reason. We are lulled by a hearty laugh, a twinkling eye, a hug with a knowing smile. We get sucked in by a sense that someone loves us, even though we are being led down a garden path.
The friendly person who accepts us, the one who reaches out to “accompany” and affirm us—that person may not always have our best interests at heart. And sometimes a person who does want the best for us is harming us unknowingly despite his good intentions. We cannot know by outward appearances or our emotions whether or not the other is truly being Christ to us. The only standard we can use to measure another’s advice and guidance is whether or not that advice conforms to objective truth and goodness.
However, because we have been conditioned to use our feelings as a gauge for what is true, discernment has become difficult. The one who laughs at our jokes, is affectionate, and is interested in what we have to say appeals to our senses; we are drawn to him, we like how we feel when we are with him, we want him to like us. We even find it harder to resist or say no to such a person, even when we know we should.
Most of us know on some level that a person’s agreeable personality traits and a natural likeability do not equate to virtue and trustworthiness, but we tend to sideline reason when the “nice” makes us feel good. And even when we see the red flags and become uneasy, the high cost of questioning the “nice” (e.g., loss of friends, status, respect) makes us lose the courage to resist.
Even strong Christians can be snowed when personally confronted with a known adversary who is “nice” to them. I argue against LGBTQ activist Fr. James Martin on the regular, calling him a Pied Piper of souls. But would I be moved to soften toward his slick “ministry” if he were to greet me with a warm smile and tell me he admires my work? Bill Clinton fought against God’s moral law from the highest position of power, and yet he has a natural affability, is warm and likeable from most accounts, and appears sincere. Would I grab a beer with him and call him friend if he sought me out with kindness and a listening ear?
The most damage has come within the Church, where we give the “nice” priests and prelates a pass for the evil they promulgate because they smile, listen intently, and seem to care. We should prefer a gruff and even harsh St. Padre Pio to the glad-handing clergy who lead us astray, but we are fickle, weak, and spiritually soft—and the enemy knows it. We disorder our emotions, letting them rule over our intellect and will, and we barely perceive the seduction. I sure didn’t notice the devil’s whisper back in high school; or maybe I was just so comfortable that I didn’t care.
I cannot blame any other person for my own wicked choices. I am a free moral agent who chose the sins I committed in high school and beyond, and for those I must account. But we forget (or were never taught) that there are nine different ways to be an accessory to another’s sin:
- By counsel.
- By command.
- By consent.
- By provocation.
- By praise or flattery.
- By concealment.
- By partaking.
- By silence.
- By defense of the ill done.
Marianne’s “nice” covered the evil of a couple of those.
What ever happened to Marianne after that high school conversation? Well, we kept in touch after graduation and into college, but I eventually lost track of her. However, I do remember our last substantive discussion. It took place one summer when I still thought her the most holy of Catholics. Her congenial nature and pleasing smile were still warm and inviting as she told me a story of a dear Christian friend of hers who had become pregnant unexpectedly.
She spoke proudly of this friend, describing the young woman’s choice to abort her child nearly halfway through the pregnancy. “She was so prayerful, Leila. It was so beautiful. She waited patiently, doing nothing in haste, because it was such an important decision. She prayed for months to make extra sure that she would choose the best and loving option. She finally did discern God’s will—that terminating the pregnancy was the right thing to do. It was just not the right time for her to have a baby.”
While her eyes glowed with admiration, I remember that my blood ran cold. For all my sins of scarlet, I knew that abortion was the murder of an unborn child. Marianne had just told me that God affirmed the second-trimester killing of a child created in His own image. Her “nice” demeanor in describing a pre-meditated child murder was the same as it had been with me on that fateful high school day.
But this time I challenged her. I told her that we were Catholic, that she knew better, and that I thought she was pro-life! She assured me with no sense of irony that she was completely pro-life but that she could not interfere with others’ choices and where God led them. My eyes were opened to the evil, and I was horrified. Marianne fell off her pedestal that day, shattering into a thousand pieces. Though there was minimal contact going forward, I did learn that she began living with a man, smoking weed, and embracing leftist causes. We eventually never spoke again.
“Nice” tripped me up in high school and for a decade after. “Nice” took my friend down a dark path of deadly sin and apostasy. “Nice” still threatens every one of us, our children, and even our good priests and bishops. The devil comes as an angel of light, wolves come in sheep’s (and shepherds’) clothing, and the con man is short for “confidence” man. Not every deceiver has malicious intent, but he deceives, nonetheless. To counter the deceptions of “nice,” let us always look for true. The truth may often hurt—but, unlike “nice,” it can never harm.
[Image Credit: Pixabay]