God's Secret Language
Twenty-Seven Minutes with Fr. de Chivré
God's Hidden Way of Expressing Himself
The mystical life is the only complete life. This is true as much on the part of God (Who is free to act in the soul) as on the part of the soul, which is entirely at God's disposition. But this is done through the medium of "secrets" which are personal to the soul and which God uses to draw near to the soul's essential existence. What exactly are these "secrets"?
We here call "secrets" those psychological realities that dwell in us without an initial reference to an external source. External things can sometimes awaken them, like the way a beautiful mountain scene awakens the virtue of adoration of God by the intermediary of Creation. But the exterior does not create them. They appear in us, in spite of us, even from our birth, without any possible explanation, without a natural origin. They command our attention, wanting to take the initiative of conversations between us and ourselves, and between us and God.
These conversations go beyond earthly questions; they present us with demands: the choice of God, of virtue, of value, of an existence without self-interest. Or else other, more intimate demands: that of a permanence of attention upon God, of relations made as constant as possible by exchanges that engage the Redemption in itself, or the redemption of souls, or the rectification of an interior direction towards a more consciously consented sanctification.
They are secrets because they have no relation with the banality of every-day life. They are secrets because they define us so personally that we are afraid of others' catching a glimpse, because it really is our true face, the face that only God has a right to see.
God speaks to these secrets and expresses Himself by them. He speaks in ways inseparable from His divine nature, and specific to each one of the souls to which He addresses Himself.
The first of all those ways: God is outside of time, and He addresses Himself to a particular moment in a spiritual existence localized in time. How does that work? Since it is outside of time, the divine word expresses itself without necessarily using the intermediary of temporal means. I mean without obligatory reference to the rational thought that dwells in us. His word springs forth so complete that it requires the total attention of reason and heart to foster its nourishing development and so allow it to blossom into conclusions that will lead us beyond the relative, the logical, and the rationally argued. With His word, there is no link between the natural thought which preceded it and which it suddenly replaces, breaking into our thought and commanding our attention. We find it again in us with the same expression we found ten years earlier, or centuries before in Holy Scripture, in a form adapted to our destiny, but analogous to the "official" revelations (which it never contradicts). "Ego sum: it is I who am speaking to you with the same words, inviting you to turn away from the human words that you are accustomed to hearing and that build up your earthly happiness, your immediate success, your personal fortune; I am situating you where I come from: outside of time; I am waiting for you as of right now, in your mind and in your soul."
The result is a kind of interior attention to the decisions that these words inspire, words spoken outside of time: words which do not change but which have the firm intention of changing our way of thinking; which solicit an audience within the intimacy of a reflection inaccessible to those around us, incommunicable to our friends. Words in tune with God: always, definitive, absolute, completely, seeking to set in motion our consent, so uncertain, so hesitant, so fearful. They situate us in a perfect attitude, encouraging us toward the insatiable repetition of a "yes" never quite like the one before, always more complete, constantly recommenced without the slightest weariness, and offering an echo to God's infinity by the absolute open-endedness of that blessed obsession to draw near to His mind and His heart.
"You think of 'fortune', and My word says to you: 'And then what?' With Me, it is not about fortune but about the use you will make of it in order to place it outside of time by how it is used. Do this with scrupulous honesty and unconditional charity giving birth to the secret fortune of an absolute fusion with My love."
"You think 'pleasure for tomorrow', and I tell you: self-possession, privation, crucifixion of pleasure in its excess, to situate you in a state of soul outside of time: Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God."
By His sudden illuminations from on high, without reference to some logically constructed argument, God penetrates through the realities of here below: earthbound realities, stunted, mediocre. He renders them translucent so that we might see beyond what they are, through to the eternity that they can help prepare by our way of using them and of raising them up at the expense of the earthly advantages that they hold out to us.
I always remember the example of the word "Eucharist," spoken from the pulpit, which fell upon a soul who was listening, penetrating through him with an implacable light, showing him all the repulsion of his past life and bringing him back to God in one fell swoop. God had made use of a natural word, charging it with an "outside of time" potential to strike down the naturalism of that soul.
This manner of expression is completed by God's second way of speaking to us, proper to His divine nature: density.
The hallmark of false mysticism is the caricature of density: pious verbiage, a mass of emotionally-charged imaginings, woven together by the intensity of a trembling imagination and by the individualism of a mind busy building the profusion of his ravings on a basis of total unreality. On the contrary, true mysticism participates in the divine density by that certain reservation which is its necessary effect in a soul, charged with speaking the inexpressible and the untranslatable. This spiritual density leads our attention back to a unity of interior attitude with respect to God:
A unity of insistence on a particular struggle to be accepted; a unity of the importance of recollection, to be desired even in the agitation of a busy life; a unity of the permanent responsibility to accept a given sacrifice, meritorious for the body, or for our dignity, or for the esteem we would hope to have, a veritable tidal wave rising up from the divine density to the benefit of a disposition pronounced at the expense of self-love and in favor of pure love; a tidal wave building up from very far away, from the depths of a thanksgiving, from the depths of a prayer, from the depths of a sudden realization forbidding us to doubt under pain of bad faith; a supplication both strong and tender to accept the language of the Uncreated by imposing silence on the pleas of the created.
God acts like the teacher toward his students who are looking out the window at the little birds or at the weather outside: with a word of authority, with a more insistent tone, he centers the attention of the children back on the primary reason of their presence in class: to learn. The divine density draws our giddy malleability back to the unchanging and attentive love: learning to know Existence and realizing a little more about our own existence, present and future. In this way, tirelessly nourishing our eager appetite with the density of grace, the interior word teaches the consequences of these divine conversations: a perfect continuity of attitude throughout the infinite variability of the events of a day. The unification of our manner of conducting ourselves even throughout the contrasts brought on by tears, then joys, weariness, triumph, the always unexpected...stretched over a single day. In a word, a mentality of eternity, outside time, inflicting on time the defeat that always arises from a lack of continuity in love. This mentality of continuity freely lived puts us in a position to conduct ourselves as Jesus did in the midst of the crowds: healing, improving, resurrectingâ€“the mark of God, the restoration of life. The mystical life obtains for us this participation in the prestige of our Lord over human miseries: it heals events of their disrupting emotions, of their crushing, discouraging influence, of their pessimism, so damaging to love.
Jesus said: "Stand up and walk," and, by his courageous continuity, the mystic lifts up his stretcher of misery and continues his progress with secret patience.
Jesus said: "Silence!" to the agitated winds and to the angry waves, and the mystic imposes his spiritual authority on the interior struggle by the pacifying effect of continuity, holding fast and not changing direction. He imposes on existence the authority of a continual regard of faith–lived out, loved and chosen. He stares down doubt, with the authority of the "I believe in God."
Constantly nourished on this spiritual continuity, arising from the density of interior conversation with God, St. Francis and St. Dominic lived with scandalous optimism the adventures of voluntary poverty, of beloved detachment, to such a point that their earthly trials provoked their interior smile and their secret song of thanksgiving.
In fact, mysticism brings to life in society an intelligent optimism of attitude, which is a living sermon for those all around and an irresistible distribution of example and influence, infinitely superior to our falsely-intellectual talking heads when they start to try to explain God, without the speaker's really living of God. Mysticism imposes a balance and equilibrium in our daily living which confounds all of the bitter and unhealthy criticisms expressed against it by human pride, in the name of science and observation–as if He who acts outside of time within time were going to make Himself accessible to the microscope and to the methods of research of doctors submerged in the changing of time. The response of the true mystic is irrefutable: when everyone else jumps ship, he stays; when nearly everyone else holds their tongue, he affirms and holds his ground; when almost all of the others step away, like the disciples at the announcement of the Eucharist, he steps closer and holds firm. He is the contrary of a deserter. A Church filled again with mystics could only be a Church filled with saints.
But be careful! There can be no question of discrediting reason and denying its duty to participate in the mystical life by verification, reflection, judgment–not so as to diminish the interior word but so as to help maintain it worthy of God, to preserve it from the excessive wanderings which are always a risk for the imagination and passions; to oblige it to remain in harmony with the wisdom of the Faith by remaining courageously determined not to bend before the wisdom of the world.
"Always maintain reason" used to be the motto of the Kings of France, and St. Louis was an admirable example. Why? Because God will never contradict reason, but He may ask that it be raised up to functions which, though seemingly unreasonable for the normal conduct of its "job" by the results obtained, in a "super-reasonable" role, are the opposite of unreasonable. Jesus' forty-day fasting in the desert was seemingly unreasonable, but in reality it originated in a lifting up of reason by grace, preparing Him to affront the combats of His public life, beginning with the assaults of the Accursed. It terminated in the marvelous result of Satan's defeat by the strength of soul of Jesus' answers. Whereas the fasting of a hunger strike proves itself unreasonable by the disproportion of the decision, giving rise to no virtue and only provoking astonishment by its unreasonable character, not "super-reasonable" in the least.
Jesus assured us, "You will recognize a tree by its fruits"; the infused virtues, raising reason up to the level of a courage above the norm, prove their influence by the superlatively reasonable results of perfection developed, virtue acquired, sanctification obtained. That is to say these virtues, directly infused by the Holy Ghost into human judgment, prove their authenticity when they give a surplus of value to our reason beyond its natural capacities. I give the example of a religious mobilized as an Air Force officer: learning that one of his comrades, a father of eight children, had been chosen for a reconnaissance mission over enemy lines, in practically fatal conditions, he spontaneously took the initiative to leave in his place, considering that his state as a religious owed it to itself to give this testimony of heroic charity, which ended up costing him his life. Yet, this priest also had a right to his mother's affection, and his mother to the affection of her son; far from yielding to the unreasonableness of an impulse, he had decided in a lucid and super-reasonable manner to offer this witness of an absolute gift of self.
In a much more continual manner, St. Francis of Assisi was nearly constantly under the influence of the infused virtues which made him run the adventure of an apparently unreasonable material life, whereas in fact they gave him the mission to affirm the spiritual fecundity of poverty pushed to the point of a heroism inexplicable for reason. Taking this example, we can show the three degrees of perfection with which God can ask us to possess material wealth:
l The first degree: to possess it in order to manage it honestly, in all justice, in the light of the natural virtue of a reason rectified according to duty,
l The second degree is to manage it under the influence of an habitual supernatural virtue inspiring its management in view of detaching oneself from it morally by the benefit that the poor can draw from it, thanks to the many alms which already underline a human detachment from the goods of the earth.
l The third degree is "Go, sell all that you have and follow Me." This is the infused virtue inciting the rich child to give up the exploitation of his goods in order to affirm himself super-reasonable with regard to the command of Jesus, asking him to leave everything in order to save his own soul and the souls of others.
The harshness of worldly judgments toward certain decisions–which utterly confound its rationalistic manner of considering life, supposedly upright and excellent–comes from a kind of self-defense mechanism at the thought of grace's total intervention in existence, an existence whose use the worldly man intends to maintain for himself, according to his desire and according to his material or psychological avarice.
There is always some form of self-surpassing lying in ambush for us. There is a kind of self-surpassing in evil, upon which the Pharisees let fall their scornful anathemas. There is the hard-hearted, indifferent self-surpassing practiced by "oblivious Pharisees," with the kind of thoughtlessness that Jesus despised. There is the self-surpassing in sanctity which affirms the presence of God acting in us, engaging the conversation with the best of ourselves.
The first case is the self-surpassing of weakness, the second, that of pride, while the third is a self-surpassing by humility–a form of "psychosis" which no one need fear nor try to heal, so incompatible is it with original sin: nothing exalting for instinct nor for vanity, simply the strength to allow God to take our place and that of our judgment, because we have had the humility to listen to Him down to the very end. Only souls determined to take their commitment to the absolute limit have that authority of proving its absolute moral fruitfulness.
"To the absolute limit," whether in quantity, quality of application and consent, according to the passing of grace, whether in decisiveness under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, whether in perseverance under the influence of the Faith. The encounter with God is at this price; being outside of time, God does not offer Himself through parcels of time used to love Him, but with the totality of a love proven over the length of time.
Contrary to an unhealthy self-surpassing inspired by pride and the desire to show off our perfection, self-surpassing in humility presents characteristics typical of that fundamental virtue of the mystical life: the fear to be mistaken, the need to obey, the concern to have one's personal inspirations ratified, prudence and reserve in keeping to oneself about the graces heard and received. Infused virtue is accompanied by an entire escort of delicate timidities which reveal that God has the principal initiative in the lights received and understood. If the saints were so audacious in the defense of the Faith and in the gift of themselves for the salvation of souls, it is because they were so timid, delicate and strong in their relations with the interior word. Their fear of being unreasonable confirms the super-reasonable origin of graces that took command over their slightly panicking judgment; before yielding–contrary to the unbalanced–they feel that what is asked of them is beyond their strength, although they are ready to obey; they are fearful, though consenting, like Jesus in the Garden of His Agony.
On the contrary, the unbalanced have as a rule a kind of natural sympathy with the abnormal, the moment the opportunity arises for an inaccurate imitation of the super-reasonable. It is evident when you see their ease in putting this imbalance before duty of state, before obedience–something a saint would never do. The fruits of an imbalanced spirituality are directly opposed to the simple common sense natural to an everyday piety that is nonetheless strong and solid. When God directs a soul toward the conversation by which He means to penetrate into it, He never goes beyond a certain depth, marking the limit of that soul's reasonable balance. On the contrary, He reinforces its fidelity by the reinforcement of a pacified reason. The "leave everything" is proportioned to the degree of union or to the mission which God means to confide to that soul.
The fear of abandoning one's self-will is the first enemy upon which we have to declare war when God begins to express Himself by way of the conscience or by way of a directly supernatural light. We are so deeply rooted in ourselves that Jesus even said it to His beloved apostles: "You do not know of what spirit you are..." It is going to be the role of the priest, in the direction of souls, to distinguish of what spirit they are and of what spirit God means for them to be. Imprudence consists in wanting to decide all alone, in a misunderstanding in which we are always both judge and defendant. Spiritual direction is not an authoritarianism nor a taking command; it is a direction, an orientation, facing the soul toward the destination which God holds out to him, and which it is his own duty to reach, strengthened by obedience and by the wisdom of the grace of the priesthood. The first mission of this grace is to help the soul renounce the individualistic affirmation of his self-love or of his ever-so-slightly pharisaical virtue, enclosed within its little human recording-studio where all it can hear is its own monotonous conversation. The true mystic is more anxious to receive than to affirm, and what he receives in spiritual direction helps him allow God to affirm Himself in his place. "Who hears you hears Me"; knowing how to "hear" the sonority of a soul is the first duty and the heaviest responsibility of spiritual direction, in order that the soul might hear, in the priest, the echo of God Himself; providing an atmosphere of understanding which the soul needs in order to be able to reveal its secrets and the secrets of God for him; the most merciful and paternal of functions, for whomever knows how to appreciate the priestly vocation: "sacra dare"â€“to give the sacred of divine light, after having given the sacred of the sacraments.
This intelligent mysticism of personal existence has been all but discredited, not only by excessively materialistic doctors but by excessively human confessors, or by theologians excessively de-valorized by their personal points of view on a problem which must always remain the problem of God seeking to draw as close as possible to souls, in order to engage in conversation with them.
Mysticism recovers man before the Fall; it places him there where God planted the tree of life after He eliminated the garden of happiness: the Cross, where the soul finds himself in company of the life that cannot die: with the love of his God and with the God of his love.
Translated exclusively for Angelus Press from the private archives of the Association du R. P. de Chivré. Fr. Bernard-Marie de Chivré, O.P. (say: Sheave-ray´) was ordained in 1930. He was an ardent Thomist, student of Scripture, retreat master, and friend of Archbishop Lefebvre. He died in 1984.