The philosophers of old pretended that nothing remained the same and that we never really could swim in the same river twice. On the same line of thought, psychologists will tell you that your personality has matured and reaches the ripe age when you can be “be yourself,” or simply “be free” and pursue your dreams. In the spiritual realm, it means that man has reached perfection, which translates the Latin perfactum—made through and through. At this juncture, the soul has grown into the stature marked by God, closing in the ideal set by Christ.
Yet, together with one growing upwards to reach God, is there no other activity at stake here? Or should we believe that God sits quietly on His throne and awaits patiently for His subjects to finish running the race and finally reach the Court where He will lavishly entertain them with food and shelter? No! As we grow upwards to reach the “stature of the perfect man” and ascend towards Him, a condescending God Himself stoops down towards us and meets us half way. This is the secret of our spiritual life. Shedding some light on this mutual dynamics, of man towards God and of God towards man, may help clarify the role the sacraments play in this process.
We may start with a general statement all agree on: Christian life consists in uniting our soul to God. A couple of examples will illustrate this truth.
In Eden, Adam and Eve were vested with the supernatural gifts of grace and other precious adornments whereby they had no fear of God. He would come in the evening breeze and converse familiarly with them. Men were the guests of the royal host and they hardly paid attention to the wonderful and elevated status they enjoyed. It was only when this paradisiac joy was lost that our first parents realized the emptiness of a life away from God.
Another image from the New Testament offers the same nuances of intimacy and plenitude. It is the beloved Apostle John familiarly resting his head in the bosom of the Rabbouni. Words are useless to express the peace and joy which permeated the heart of the disciple.
In both cases, the ideal of the spiritual life consists in that union and communion with the divine, either God the Creator or the Incarnate Word. But what of us? For us, this translates into becoming Christian through and through. Or, in the words of Sacred Scripture: “Through Him, with Him and in Him.” Christ is with us as long as we live in His grace. His company is that of a rich landlord reaching out to a beggar, allowing him to be “filled with all the plenitude of God” (Eph. 3:19).
St. Augustine warns us against the over optimistic view that all Christians are catapulted into sainthood by the magic wand of Christ’s wish:
“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He raises the objection thus: “Is there a being which would not be in Him of whom it is divinely written that ‘With Him, through Him, and in Him are all things’?...And yet, all are not in Him in the way in which it is said to the soul: I with you forever. He is not with all in the way in which we say: The Lord with you!”
How does this “I with you forever” occur? Our divine Savior has given us specific means best adapted to our imperfect nature. He is present radically by sanctifying grace infused in the soul of the just. Upon this trunk, not unlike the vine, God has grafted branches or infused virtues, those power houses made for knowing and loving and acting within God’s inner circle. God’s charity is ever active and diffuses the sap of grace all the way to the last ramifications. Thanks to that life of grace, the virtues can shoot out activities of the same supernatural order, like the vine branches bring forth vine leaves and clusters of grape. And, in as much as healthy shoots manifest a healthy branch and vine, so also the powerful supernatural activity reveals a healthy soul. The virtues are the lungs of the soul, and the purer the air they breathe, the deeper and firmer they imprint Christ’s image in the soul.
Where do the sacraments fit into this divine grafting? If we follow the comparison of the vine with the soul, we might suggest that the sacraments act as the outer bark of the vine. Sacraments are the ordinary channels which allow the sap to run freely through the last branch, protected from outer danger. Our baptism, our penitential and Eucharistic life, all these are exterior forms of worship of God rendered by a Christian soul who is also a member of the visible Church.
The sacramental system is a tool adapted to human life. Christ, who was no mere man since He was God incarnate, received no sacrament: He is the fullness and source of grace; He needs no visible channel of a scanty sacramental grace as we can receive. For us, when compared to the direct union through contemplation and vision, the sacramental life is a crutch. Yet it is a golden crutch so well suited to our needs. These visible signs are the choicest means of conveying an invisible grace suited to both the individual and the social dimension of man. The sacraments extend the impact of God’s activity in our soul, in depth as well as on the surface. A sacramental soul is a soul more attuned to Christ’s life.
For example, three sacraments bring about a character. Their function is to incorporate us and render us apt to fulfill God’s service. But this they do by impressing Christ’s image in the soul. The character acts on the soul like a seal on wax. It makes us Christ-like and apt to perform Christ’s sacred functions.
Also, in the Holy Eucharist, there occurs more than a mere connection. There is a physical union with Christ which lasts as long as the sacred species last. Yet, even after these have disappeared, the grace of the sacrament, which is the union with Christ, has a lasting effect within the soul. In ordinary life, all other things being equal, a daily communicant should grow exponentially in perfection as it is drinking directly at the fountain of divine Life.
Fr. Plus, in Christ Within Us, explains that we should be “another Christ.” Yet it does not mean becoming something distinct from Him, but rather converting into Him. This is what St. Paul experienced when he exclaimed in pithy language: “emoi, zôein, Christos—for me, to live, Christ!” At this juncture the soul has reached the ultimate Christification, the summit of perfection which God may ever expect from it.
Simultaneous with this elevation of the soul to the threshold of the divinity, God descends to man’s level and makes His presence felt in various ways. As we saw in Adam’s early life, man was created indeed to enjoy God’s intimacy.
There is a basic touch of God upon His creation: the presence of immensity. Thus we say that God is in all things by presence, essence, and power: by presence in that He sees everything; by essence in that He maintains all things in existence and motion; by power in that He intervenes at will upon His creation. St. Augustine’s Confessions set this concept in a poetic dress:
“Where do I call Thee to, when I am already in Thee? Or from whence wouldst Thou come into me? Where, beyond heaven and earth, could I go that there my God might come to me, He who hath said, ‘I fill heaven and earth’?”
However, in all things, there is nothing of the Friend and adoptive Father. The same St. Augustine knows the limits of such a generic presence, and points to another one reserved to fewer souls.
“Who will send Thee into my heart so to overwhelm it that my sins shall be blotted out and I may embrace Thee, my only good? Tell me, by Thy mercy, O Lord, my God, what Thou art to me. Say to my soul, I am your salvation. The house of my soul is too narrow for Thee to come in to me; let it be enlarged by Thee.”
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity earlier in her religious life felt possessed by someone, as if someone inhabited her soul. God is no longer the outside model of our soul, whose traits we copy on the canvas of our soul. God now is in the driver’s seat and holds the fort. Rather than us being guests at His table, He Himself graces us with His presence. He enters as the friend and sweet guest of our soul, the dulcis hospes animae. This doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Trinity is attributed more specifically of the Holy Ghost.
The soul attuned to the divine enters in communion with the higher world, and even enjoys His presence. There it establishes an intimacy, a familiarity and commerce not unlike the experimental knowledge and affection which a shepherd could feel for his sheep. God or Christ is no longer the abstract being beyond space: He is felt, known and loved as a Person who lives within the soul.
But intimacy or proximity is one thing. Yet, it does not really provide the possession of the Lord. A. Gardeil, in L’Expérience mystique, puts it this way:
“The love of friendship demands the presence of the lover and pursues it, but it is not friendship itself which produces this presence, no more than the love of money makes it present to the avaricious. He needs hands!”
So God has to stoop down to man’s lower level in order to establish the connection and possession. God opens Himself to the soul. And now, the soul is ready to take possession of its God, with its own hands, that is, with the intellect and will. We only need an eye and a heart apt to rise up to this contemplation of love.
This mission of the Holy Ghost—although all Three Persons inhabit the soul—is described by the mystics as a secret touch and impression in the soul. This personal seal and this energy carry the soul away and orient it towards the divine sun. It sends a shock wave, a rebound of the soul under the divine touch... It is an act of love when charity is acted upon; it is an act of intelligence when it is wisdom.
If you talk to a Carmelite nun, she will readily explain to you that the center of her life consists in living the mystery of God present to the soul, this famous indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the soul. The chosen place for this is not so much the church as the cell.
“Let each one remain in her cell…” There is no doubt that the Carmelite ideal is solitude and retreat in the cell. This is why the rule does not multiply expositions of the Blessed Sacrament, under pain of being no longer in the charism of the Carmel. If it were, Mother St. Teresa would have established that. In reality, the nun has Christ just the same without having the Host. The same roof covers both, Him and her.
Such spirituality was understood and lived to the hilt by St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, who wrote this sublime consecration to the Blessed Three. “O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.”
By way of conclusion, in order to show the vital link between the Indwelling and the Eucharistic life, nothing approaches perfection as the Fioretti given us by the Carmelite Reformers of the 16th century. St. Teresa of Avila, for one, seemed to have had these mystical touches of God’s intimacies especially in connection with Holy Communion.
From her Autobiography, she explains:
“Sometimes He comes with such great majesty that no one could doubt that in it the Lord Himself, especially after receiving Communion. For we know that He is present since our faith tells us this. He reveals Himself so much as the Lord of this dwelling that it seems that the soul is completely dissolved and consumed in Christ.”
Also, Sr. Maria del Nacimiento reveals the miraculous origin of The Interior Castle:
“When the said Mother Teresa de Jesus wrote the book called The Dwelling Places, she was in Toledo, and this witness saw that it was after Communion that she wrote this book, and when she wrote she did so very rapidly and with such great beauty in her countenance that this witness was in admiration, and she was so absorbed in what she was writing that, even if some noise was made there, it did not hinder her; wherefore this witness understood that, in all that which she wrote and during the time she was writing, she was in prayer.”