Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy. But with sound self-confidence you can succeed. A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement. Because of the importance of this mental attitude, this book will help you believe in yourself and release you inner powers.
These are the words of Norman Vincent Peale, and the book of course is The Power of Positive Thinking (Ballantine Books, 1982, 10th ed., p. 13). Selling many millions in many languages since its publication in 1952, its impact (and the impact of many books much like it) directly or indirectly on countless minds throughout the world within the fold of Protestant Christianity would be hard to overestimate. What we can characterize as the gospel of success through positive thinking still to this day forms the content of much televangelism for example. Peale of course did not invent positive thinking either as philosophy, as theology, or as method. Having had Dr. Ernest Holmes, disciple of New Thought and founder of Religious Science, as mentor, he took up the basic teaching of Holmes – change your thinking and change your life – and, suffusing it with an aura of biblical authority, popularized it though the writing of many books. Faith power works wonders is one of the mantra for success that he suggests. “Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding,” he offers as an exercise. “Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture… Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.” Christianity for Peale is largely a practical matter of method. Tirelessly in his books he preaches the practice of a “simple faith . . . to open the sources of power according to the techniques [my emphasis] of Christianity.”
Positivity of course is a very desirable trait in a person, and a version of it in Rudolf Steiner’s An Outline of Occult Science constitutes one of the basic exercises in moral development presented there. Considered in the larger context of six exercises altogether, namely control of the direction of thought; control of the impulses of will; calmness in joy and sorrow; positiveness in judging the world, impartiality in our attitude toward life, and the practicing of these five exercise simultaneously and harmoniously as the sixth exercise, he gives the following description of the fourth exercise:
For the control of thought and feeling there is a further means of education in the acquirement of the faculty that we may call positiveness. There is a beautiful legend that tells of how the Christ Jesus, accompanied by some other persons, passed by a dead dog lying on the roadside. While the others turned aside from the hideous spectacle, the Christ Jesus spoke admiringly of the animal’s beautiful teeth. One can school oneself in order to attain the attitude of soul toward the world shown by this legend. The erroneous, the bad, the ugly should not prevent the soul from finding the true, the good, and the beautiful wherever it is present. This positiveness should not be confused with non-criticism, with the arbitrary closing of the eyes to the bad, the false, and the inferior. If you admire the “beautiful teeth” of a dead animal, you also see the decaying corpse. But this corpse does not prevent your seeing the beautiful teeth. One cannot consider the bad good and the false true, but it is possible to attain the ability not to be deterred by evil from seeing good, and by error from seeing truth
Steiner’s “positiveness” as presented in his book is obviously different from the “positivity” promoted by Norman Vincent Peale in The Power of Positive Thinking. In Steiner’s description of the basic exercise, we notice immediately the focus on someone or something else, rather than on oneself, as is rather the case with Peale’s exercise. We notice too that the “positiveness” of Steiner has much to do with Christ’s injunction that we ought not to judge by appearances, but ought to be “just in our judgment” (cf. John 7:24), which would mean seeing the good in a person or thing also, even primarily, along with whatever else we see beside (or think we see) that is negative. Peale’s exercise would clearly seem, on the other hand, to be directed toward worldly success, and it might very well remind us of what Saint Paul has to say on that subject, as we find for instance in 1 Timothy 6: 6-10:
There is a great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich shall fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.
But maybe this is being unfair. Maybe what Peale has in mind is not primarily material wealth or any other kind of worldly success. Maybe whatever worldly success his teaching might bring to its practitioner would be only a kind of possible side benefit to the primary success of achieving Christian happiness. Now what would Christian happiness be, after all, if not actual sainthood? As Charles Peguy has it, “Life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.” From this point of view, biblically-based as it purports to be, Peale’s gospel of success can only make sense if sainthood, achieved through the power of positive thinking, is the actual success that is in view, since any other kind of goal must necessarily fall tragically short, by this standard, of real happiness, i.e., of Christian happiness, of the kind of profound happiness that comes with living and dying in the sainthood we are called to achieve:
Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14: 25-27)
As prime examples of Christian happiness, the saints have had much to say on how to achieve this success. We could fairly state that they too proclaim, just as Norman Vincent Peale proclaims, a gospel of success. Might it not be an enlightening procedure to compare “the gospel of success according to Norman Vincent Peale” with its power of positive thinking on the one hand, and “the gospel of success according to the Saints of God” on the other? Would we find that these gospels agree with each other? Would we find that they compliment each other? Would we find that they shed light on each other? Or would we instead find that they contradict each other or that they simply disagree with each other? Let’s do some comparisons and see what we come to.
Here we have the “gospel of success according to Peale”:
Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy. But with sound self-confidence you can succeed.
. . . not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.
Peale does not spell out for us exactly what it is that we – or rather I — as a professing Christian should want to succeed at, whereas Saint Bernard spells it out exactly. I do however receive from Peale what would seem to be some useful inspiration on following the Way of the Cross (if I temper, that is, the obvious Pelagianism of his exordium with a call upon heaven for help) – assuming of course that the success I am looking for has indeed to do with taking up the Cross, and not with selling real estate or with becoming the CEO of Engulf and Devour Inc. or even with becoming, let us say, a best-selling author.
Let us look at another passage of the “gospel of success according to Norman Vincent Peale”:
Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture. . . . Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.
It is difficult to become a saint. Difficult, but not impossible. The road to perfection is long, as long as one’s lifetime. Along the way, consolation becomes rest; but as soon as your strength is restored, you must diligently get up and resume the journey.
Once again, assuming that it is the Cross I love, and that it is Calvary I want to get to, I receive what appears to be some very fine guidance from Peale. Following this advice I may even remember at the outset the words of Matthew 11: 28-30: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Let us look at another passage from “the gospel of success according to Peale”:
If you paint in your mind a picture of bright and happy expectations, you put yourself into a condition conducive to your goal.
Yet, according to the gospel of success of Saint Faustina Kowalska:
Suffering is a great grace; through suffering the soul becomes like a Saviour; in suffering love becomes crystallized; the greater the suffering, the purer the love.
Not to belabor the point, but assuming that the words quoted from Matthew actually mean something to me, and assuming it is Christianity above all that I want to be successful at, would not Peale’s directive of painting in my mind a picture of bright and happy expectations have everything to do with taking up the Cross and following the Master, so that my soul can “become like a Saviour”?
Here yet again is another passage from the gospel of success according to Peale:
Stand up to your obstacles and do something about them. You will find that they haven’t half the strength you think they have.
Every struggle in the soul’s training, whether physical or mental, that is not accompanied by suffering, that does not require the utmost effort, will bear no fruit.
Once again, if it is success in Christianity above all that my heart is set upon, Peale’s advice would seem to offer definite encouragement in light of what both Theophan, the great Russian saint of the nineteenth century, and what Faustina, the first saint of the new millennium, have to say in regard to the role of suffering in the soul’s faithful following of the straight and narrow way of the Cross. Besides, who says joy is incompatible with suffering? Without suffering how would we ever know what joy is?
For the fifth and last time let us look at a passage from the gospel of success according to Norman Vincent Peale:
Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.
We were meant to consider all our deeds within our heart before carrying them out. . . . A good work of the soul is like an exceedingly beautiful bulwark in the sight of God and the angels, while a bad action resembles a house made of dung and full of filth.
Assuming that Peale would agree with Saint Hildegard, that taking counsel within our heart before action is a good idea, indeed of utmost importance, how can I disagree with Peale’s observation? Ora et labora as the Benedictines say: Pray and work, these indeed are the two pillars of all true spiritual life.
So it would seem that Peale’s gospel of success through the power of positive thinking, whatever his followers may have made of his teaching through the decades, whatever Peale himself may have made of his own teaching, can be made quite compatible with the gospel of success according to the saints. All we need do is set our sights high enough and all is reconciled, all is made one in Christ, for as that great positive thinker Saint Paul said: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5: 17-8).
Today is the Feast of Saint John Bosco (1815 – 1888), who so successfully taught young Italian boys both religion and learning that his inspiration led to the foundation of the famous Society of St. Francis de Sales – a world-wide organization dedicated to his own educational ideals. A pioneer of modern education methods (also the first saint in history to give a press interview), he devoted himself to pastoral care among those seeking work in the newly industrialized city of Turin. “Don”, as he became known, gathered six abandoned boys into what he called an Oratory, where they attended chapel and classes. As the number gradually grew to over 800, he opened workshops for a range of trades, as well as a printing works and iron foundry. Girls were helped in a similar way when he established the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians.
St John Bosco is recognised as one of world’s great social saints. Inspired by educational methods based on total love and dedication, he divided human needs into four fundamental spheres; home, school, Church and society. The experience of belonging and meaning within all these four he held as necessary if people are to be happy and fulfilled. The saint acquired his reputation for working miracles during the Turin cholera epidemic of 1854. He formed his boys into teams to carry the sick to hospital and the dead to the mortuary, with the loss of not one life – an excellent example of the power of positive thinking. When asked about the secret of his immense success with the young, he simply replied: “Love.”
Saint John Bosco remains to this day unexcelled as a great example of the power of positive thinking, as any perusal of his biography will reveal. It is he who said: “The Lord turns everything to the advantage of those that love Him.”
Today also happens to be the Feast of Saint Marcella (d. 410), whose mentor, Saint Jerome, said of her that she “clung to Christ, believed in Him crucified, and rejoiced in Him as King.” One of the sayings of Saint Marcella comes from the period in her life when Goths had overrun Rome and Rome was in the throes of a famine, and when Marcella herself was languishing after having been turned out of her own home. Eighty-five at the time, she said: “By heaven’s grace, captivity has found me a poor woman, not made me one. Now, I shall go in want of daily bread, but I shall not feel hunger since I am full of Christ” – thus effectively demonstrating the power of positive thinking some 1540 years before the publication of Norman Vincent Peale’s book of the same title.
Pax et Bonum,