John Paul ll cites several reasons why turning to holiness of life and depth in prayer is important. Besides the fact that it is quite simply part and parcel of the Gospel message, he points out that the supportive culture of “Christendom” has virtually disappeared and that Christian life today has to be lived deeply, or else it may not be possible to live it at all. He also points out that in the midst of this world-wide secularization process there is still a hunger for meaning, for spirituality. It is especially important now for Christian believers to be able to respond to this hunger and “show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead” (NMI 33, 40).
John Paul makes clear that this depth of union isn’t just for a few unusual people (“mystics”) but is a call that every Christian receives for Christ Himself. “This is the lived experience of Christ’s promise: ‘He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and and manifest myself in him’ (Jn. 14:21).”
It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands on intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various way, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union.” How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila? (NMI 32)
These four principles that John Paul identifies are basic to a proper understanding of the spiritual journey.
- Union with God of this depth is totally unattainable by our own efforts; it is a gift that only God can give; we are totally dependent on His grace for progress in the spiritual life. Yet we know also that God is eager to give this grace and bring us to deep union. Without Him, we can do nothing, but with Him all things are possible (Jn. 14:4-5, Lk. 18:27, Phil. 4:13). Without God, successful completing the journey is impossible, but with Him, in a sense, we are already there. He is truly both the Way and the destination; and our lives are right now, hidden with Christ, in God (Col. 3:3).
- At the same time our effort is indispensable. Our effort is not sufficient to bring about such union, but it is necessary. The saints speak of disposing ourselves for union. The efforts we make help dispose us to receive the gifts of God. If we really value something we must be willing to focus on doing those things that will help us reach the goal. And yet without God’s grace we cannot even know what’s possible, or desire it, or have the strength to make any efforts towards it. It’s God’s grace that enables us to live the necessary “intense spiritual commitment.” “You will seek the LORD you God and you will find Him, if you search after Him will ALL your heart and will ALL your soul” (Deut. 4:29).
- As the Gospel tells us, it’s important to assess what’s required before undertaking a task (before starting to build a tower, or entering into a battle in war) if we want to successfully complete it. Much has to change in us in order to make us capable of deep union with God. The wounds of both original sin and our personal sins are deep and need to be healed and transformed in a process that has its necessarily painful moments. The pain of purification is called by St. John of the Cross the “dark night.” It is important not to be surprised by the painful moments of our transformation but to know that they’re a necessary and blessed part of the whole process. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
- And finally, we need to know that all the effort and pain is worth it! Infinitely worth it. The pain of the journey will appear in retrospect to have been light, compared to the weight of glory that we were being prepared for (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
One of St. Francis De Sales’ most helpful insights is his teaching on the affection for sin. He points out that oftentimes we might turn away from serious sins in our life and try hard not to commit them, but still nurture affection for such sin, which greatly slows down our spiritual progress and disposes us to future falls.
He points out that although the Israelites left Egypt in effect, many did not leave it in affection; and the same is true for many of us. We leave sin in effect, but reluctantly, and look back at it fondly, as did Lot’s wife when she looked back on the doomed city of Sodom.
Francis gave an amusing but telling example of how a doctor, for the purpose of health, might forbid a patient to eat melons lest he die. The patient therefore abstains from eating them, but “they begrudge giving them up, talk about them, would eat them if they could, want to smell them at least, and envy those who can eat them. In such a way weak, lazy penitents abstain regretfully for a while from sin. They would like very much to commit sins if they could do so without being damned. They speak about sin with a certain petulance and with liking for it and think those who commit sins are at peace with themselves.”
Francis says this is like the person who would like to take revenge on someone “if only he could” or a woman who doesn’t intend to commit adultery but still wishes to flirt. Such souls are in danger. Besides the real danger of falling into serious sin again, having such a “divided heart” makes the spiritual life wearisome and the “devout” life of prompt, diligent, and frequent response to God’s will and inspirations virtually impossible.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of how miserable it is to turn back to the slavery of our disordered passions once having tasted the grace of God. Such a person is doomed to continual frustration, as the things of the world simply can’t satisfy our hunger and “ravenous curiosity” since the forms of this world are passing away. He bemoans the fate of the soul “who once fed so delicately now lies groveling on the dunghill (Lam. 4:5).”
The vigorous effort that the saints urge us to make in the struggle against sin is firmly grounded in the Scriptures.
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind… Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you.” (Jas. 4:7-10)
We need to determine, with the help of God’s grace , never to freely choose to offend Him. St. Francis De Sales makes clear that such purification to the affection for sin must extend to venial sins also. Francis knows that as long as we’re alive in this body the wounds of original sin and our past actual sins will cause affection for sin to spring up again and again. But it’s our response to this bent of our nature towards sin that is determinative of the progress we make on the spiritual journey. We need to grow in our hatred for sin so we can resist it when it makes its appeals. More about that tomorrow.
Jesus summed up His teaching in a startling and unambiguous call to His follower: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Perfect in purity of heart, perfect in compassion and love, perfect in obedience, perfect in conformity to the will of the Father, perfect in holiness – when we hear these words we can be understandable tempted to discouragement, thinking that perfection for us is impossible. And indeed, left to our own resources, it certainly is – just as impossible as it is for rich people to enter heaven, or for a man and woman to remain faithful their whole lives in marriage. But with God, all things are possible, even our transformation.
John Paul II in his prophetic interpretation of the events of the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, Nove Millennio Ineunte, points out that the Holy Spirit is again bringing to the forefront of the Church’s consciousness the conviction that these words of Jesus are indeed meant for every single one of us. He emphasizes that this call to the fullness of holiness is an essential part of being a Christian.
To ask catechumens: “Do you wish to receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48)… The time has come to repropose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction. (NMI 30, 31) – John Paul II
John Paul II goes on further to call the parishes of the third millennium to become schools of prayer and places where “training in holiness” is given.
Our Christian communities must become genuine “schools” of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until heart truly “falls in love.” … It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. (NMI 33) – John Paul II