Go Steady, Christian Soul!
Many readers have meditated on the passage from the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 14: “My Father will give you the Paraclete, so that he may be in you eternally. You will know Him, because He will dwell within you. We shall come to him, and make Our abode in him.” This revelation of Christ’s who, along with the other divine Persons, takes possession of the soul, resonates within us. Indeed, the spiritual life consists in the union of the soul with God as close and perfect as can be. But we may feel intimidated by an ideal which seems so far out of reach. Are we are so often prey to sudden changes of mind and mood? Is there not also something amiss to speak of a state of rest when Christian authors speak of struggle and progress? So, what are we to make of this “dwelling,” of this presence of the Paraclete who may “be in you eternally?”
Meandering Through Life
Christian life, according to these words of Our Lord, is not found in a constant movement from good to evil and from evil to good. It is something stable and permanent. He who has nothing firm, whose life is a perpetual return from sin to penance and from penance to sin, has good reason to fear that virtue has never taken root. This hesitant Christian, who serves two masters, whose God is all too often his belly, who falls, regrets, and falls again, is best described in the prayer of St. Augustine:
“Under Thy lash our inconstancy is visited, but our sinfulness is not changed. Our suffering soul is tormented, but our neck is not bent. Our life groans under sorrow, yet mends not in deed.
If Thou spare us, we correct not our ways; if Thou punish we cannot endure it.
In time of correction we confess our wrong-doing; after Thy visitation we forget we have wept.
If Thou stretchest forth Thy hand we promise amendment; if Thou withholdest the sword we keep not our promise.
If Thou strikest we cry out for mercy: if Thou sparest we again provoke Thee to strike.
Here we are before Thee, O Lord, shameless criminals: we know that unless Thou pardon we shall deservedly perish.
Grant then, almighty Father, without our deserving it, the pardon we ask for; Thou who madest out of nothing those who ask Thee.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
St. Augustine, whose early years illustrate the inner struggle between grace and sin, reveals in this poignant prayer the ups and downs of the soul not yet won over to God. Has not this been the lot of many a Christian soul striving to shed the old skin? Once God’s grace has taken hold of a soul, the struggle is far from over. If one could never lose God’s grace anymore, then, Christ would have instituted the special sacrament of penance in vain!
There can still be some falls after sin, but there have also their ready-made remedy. Indeed, Jesus Christ placed no limit to His power of the keys: “All that you shall bind will be bound; all that you shall loose will be loosed.” He could bind and loose even the abuse of penance itself! We do not mean that the transition from grace to sin and from sin to grace is not frequent at times. Do we not have scriptural examples of this? St. Peter was just when Jesus told him along with the others, “You are pure.” And, yet soon afterwards, he denied his Master. He was certainly converted back when he shed bitter tears after the gaze of the Lord fell upon him. And even St. Thomas the Apostle fell into incredulity after Christ’s Resurrection before he was won over by His appearance to the Apostolic College.
It seems as if God allows frequent falls when He wishes to show a soul its own weakness. Despite its frequent recurrence in real life, it should be clear that this troubled stage, however critical to one’s future life, is not the normal state of the soul. There is no lasting virtue in these meanderings. Yet, what is the purpose of these terrible lessons if not to confirm the soul in humility, diffidence toward itself, and trust in God? The virtuous state is the end of these trials and one must strive to reach that state of firmness and consistency. Christian soul, you have learned your flaws by your faults. Never mind your faults; move forward and learn from your mistakes. Peter was feeble for a short while only to be led through it to a long and lasting perseverance. After the tempest came, the calm and peace of a life won over to Christ.
Contemplation and Action
Now, to speak of perfection as a calm and peaceful possession of God raises another objection. Doesn’t something seem amiss here when real life demands so much struggle and constant progress? In which does Christian perfection consist, in rest or in work? This dilemma is best presented under the pen of Fr. Faber (Growth in Holiness). While chasing after the main culprit which paralyzes souls on the way to perfection, Faber is pointing the finger at feverish activism. This activism, he says, “vitiates all it touches, and weakens what is most divine in all our spiritual exercises. Our duties are all disorderly, untidy and ill-tempered, because they rush pell-mell from morning till night, trading on each other’s heels, and turning round to reproach each other.”
So, are we not to envision spirituality as the diametrical opposite of modern life? Is not perfection to be found in the archetype of those “whose day is roomy and large, quiet and old-fashioned, everything in its place, and all things clean, who have few spiritual exercises and do them slowly and punctiliously?” It may appear so at first sight. Yet, this pacing up and down on a comfortable terrace as monks are wont to do seems to rest on a dead level in piety rather than an authentic Christian life. And, if we recall the great spiritual writers, they never portray the spiritual life as something fairly static, resting happily on a spiritual plateau, but rather as a steady and painful ascent to God’s heights.
On this topic, it is interesting that St. Thomas Aquinas, when comparing the active and contemplative states of life, argues according to tradition that, unlike Martha, who represents the active life, “Mary has chosen the best part, which will not be taken away from her.” Yet, and this might come as a surprise, the same St. Thomas adds that the perfect state of life is that which best imitates Our Lord, who led a mixed life of contemplation and action. Besides His apostolic duties during the day, Christ was seen by his friends praying often by night.
We all know that some of the greatest contemplatives were also the most apostolic in their endeavors. St. John of the Cross preached throughout the Iberian Peninsula, spreading God’s Word and the new Carmelite rule. And so was St. Teresa of Avila, arguably the greatest mystic of all times, who founded the Discalced Carmelite Order, restoring it to a primitive contemplative rule. She admitted that while going through the whole country to make her foundations, she was not as free from imperfections as when in the convents. But, no matter! She understood that Our Lord was more pleased by her travels and her foundations than if she had remained a recluse in St. Joseph’s Monastery at Avila. Closer to our own time, Dom Chautard was a very active Trappist monk and, soon, felt the lightheartedness of superficiality creeping up in his busy schedule as monastery procurator. That is when he met a staunch spiritual director who ordered him to pray twice as much precisely because he was twice as busy with mundane activities. His valuable experience won for us the now classic book The Soul of the Apostolate, in which he teaches us that priority is to be given to prayer over success, to contemplation over action.
The Ideal State of the Soul
It is certain that St. John, when it comes to the spiritual life, is at the extreme opposite of a St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, whose ardent nature coupled with a powerful grace of conversion, could not stay put long in one place. By contrast, St. John is the man of peace, of seclusion, and of rich prayer life. Did he not have the care of the Mother of God whose conversation must have certainly fed his contemplation? This Marian intimacy and the insights of the beloved Apostle who rested in Christ’s bosom, won for us his lofty gospel prologue as well as some grandiose apocalyptic visions.
It is commonplace to say that the mood of the soul is reflected also in the style and the vocabulary of the sacred writers. St. Paul, for one, speaks much about wrestling, races, and conquering the prize, and that Christ’s charity urges us on. His style, nervous and impassioned, evokes perfectly the hiccups of his tortuous and troubled apostolic life. By contrast, St. John’s vocabulary reflects his sedate mood and peaceful surrounding. The verb manete—remain, dwell—comes frequently under his pen. We hear the echoes of the permanent—one would say almost eternal—state of soul, of God’s dwelling and making His abode within us, all terms which denote the static, rather than the dynamic, element of the spiritual world.
Manete seems also the adequate term to describe the state of soul proper to the post-Pentecostal churchmen. There is little doubt that, when Our Bessed Lord pronounced these words addressed to his chosen apostles, he clearly meant that they would be established in God’s presence and under His protection. That is the idea of the Psalmist too when he says that “The Lord is my fortress and my rock… my firmament and my refuge.” Pentecost for them was a real baptism of fire. It granted them a fullness of the Holy Ghost and insights into their mission of teachers and leaders of the flock. They were literally established in God , in the twelve pillars of His Church. They were grounded in God’s essence, knowledge and power. His strength was theirs to hold and to use. His infinite knowledge and doctrine was their steady shield against future heresies. His ardent Trinitarian love was shared by them so as to render them oblivious to the worldly assaults. This, I think, is what is meant when we say that the apostles were confirmed in grace after Pentecost.
“He is not far away from us; for in Him and through Him we live, we move and we are.” God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. And this presence, this intimacy and communion, is the foundation for our stability. We hope with firm hope that He will not desert us unless we first desert him. We know that, anchored in Christ, we are unassailable.