Friday Book Pick: Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR
Sometimes, rereading an excellent book can be even better than the first reading. I just had this experience with Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones by †Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR. Fr. Benedict once was the Director of Spirituality for the Archdiocese of New York, and one of the ways he sought to develop the spirituality of the Catholic population of New York City was to offer monthly conferences at Holy Innocents on 37th Street, or at another Manhattan church. Every month he would deliver a well thought-out, inspiring teaching on some relevant spiritual topic, putting his keen intelligence, obvious love of people, and his wry humor at the service of the Gospel. Every year he would choose a theme and develop it month after month before his devoted and diverse audience. The church was usually packed, the talks were recorded, and thus many a manuscript was born, including today’s Book Pick. Fr. Benedict often described himself as “a moderate pessimist,” but the premise of this book makes him seem more like an optimist in pessimist’s clothing. Fr. Benedict aims to teach us to look at reality squarely—sins and failings, neurotic tendencies and idiosyncrasies, petty vanities and capital sins—denying nothing, admitting everything. And in so doing, to begin to learn to use these very “stumbling blocks” as “stepping stones” along the road to heaven.
Rather than stop at mere acceptance of the truth that I am a sinner, Fr. Benedict takes his proposal a step further. What if my sinful tendencies became the very means of my sanctification? What if the very poison became the antidote? As he states in the introduction, “I will discuss human weakness and how it may be changed into stepping stones on the road to God.” As a psychologist and a priest he acknowledges that “the means of transforming these obstacles into stepping stones on the journey of life are not limited to our own ideas or attitudes, although these are important. Grace, combined with insight and choice, is the means of change.”
At a time when it is popular to offer solutions to spiritual difficulties drawing from psychological and clinical techniques, Fr. Benedict does the opposite. A Columbia University trained clinical psychologist, but a Catholic priest and disciple of Jesus Christ first; Fr. Benedict offers answers to deep spiritual and psychological questions from the wellspring of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the example of the saints. “While modern psychology can teach some things to Christians, its insights never take the place of the integrating power of God’s grace.”
Father Benedict tackles everything from sin and temptation to unbelief and doubt; from envy, animosity and forgiveness to pride, vanity and the love of God, as well as sadness, sorrow and joy—just to give a sampling. He shares his own struggles here and there in a remarkably humble and transparent way. In the section on envy he writes of the difficulty of feeling envy toward another or of perceiving envy directed toward you. “It is embarrassing to admit that one has given in to such a childish vice, and oddly enough it is also embarrassing to admit that someone is envious of us. I am not sure why, but when I perceive envy directed toward me, I pretend that it is not there. Even though this denial may appear to be an act of charity or forgiveness on my part, it is ultimately a denial of reality. A little white lie told to oneself never solves problems. Truth is the acceptance of reality, and it is the truth about envy as well as other things that makes us free.”
Clearly charity is the opposite of envy and animosity, and yet Fr. Benedict goes on to prescribe forgiveness as a necessary step in overcoming these vices. “If one has already been infected by envy and resentment, it is too late to simply come along and paint a coat of charity over the whole thing. That could be simply a veneer.” He explains further, “Christian charity is a goal we reach after a journey. The first step of the journey is forgiveness that goes deep within oneself. We must forgive before the other person requests it or does something to deserve our forgiveness.”
Fr. Benedict brings his readers back to the love of God again and again. And in doing so he makes no secret of his own struggle to accept the love of God personally. He relates, “I did not have a deeply felt, emotionally strong belief that God loved me. I am ashamed to admit this, because God has given me so many graces.” And he goes on, “yet gradually I became more aware of Christ’s love not only for me but for others too.” This habit of honest self-revelation makes Fr. Benedict believable and trustworthy. In life, one could easily experience him as a fellow pilgrim on the same journey, (though ahead of you on the road), rather than an expert witness to sanctity already achieved. He has no pretense to offer. He seems to want nothing more than to be just another struggling disciple among disciples, making a path of stepping stones for himself and for others. But what he was, in fact, was a genius of a teacher, a self-sacrificing leader and maybe even a saint.
Mother Clare, CFR