If God is our God, and if God is our All, there should be no limit to our confidence and hope in Him. Yet, as a matter of experience, one sees that it is often through want of confidence that men turn away from the pursuit of perfection. They feel that “that sort of thing” is for the chosen few; they themselves are not “the stuff that saints are made of!” This is a complete misapprehension. Granting the limitations of ordinary human nature, those limitations have no restrictive power on the “super-nature” that is God’s grace.
Discussing the measure of charity, St. Thomas lays down the principle: “There is no measure to be set in the end to which we tend, but only in the means.” The Scripture sets a very high aim when it says: “Be ye perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Our Lord put no limit to the love He asked from everyone: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart and thy whole soul and with thy whole mind and with thy whole strength” (Mk 12:30). Since it is commanded, such a love must be possible. And, in any case, love that puts limits to itself is no love at all. As St. John of the Cross says: “He who loves cannot be satisfied if he does not feel that he loves as much as he is loved.” And St. John is not afraid to suggest the possibility of the fulfillment of this desire even in loving God; for he says: “Though in heaven the will of the soul is not destroyed [for we never lose our own personal identity], it is so intimately united with the power of the will of God, who loves it, that it loves Him as strongly and as perfectly as it is loved of Him; both wills being united in the one sole will and one sole love of God. Thus the soul loves God with the will and the strength of God himself, being made one with that very strength of love wherewith it itself is loved of God. This strength is of the Holy Ghost.” St. John even considers that some foretaste of this union is possible here on earth.
The point for us to notice is that in the culmination of our union with God, all our power and strength come from His Holy Spirit. And the same is true throughout the whole of the way towards that union. From the very first moment of our spiritual life, all our power and strength come to us from the Holy Spirit, who is the living flame of the love of God for God, and who abides in our souls for our sanctification and our assistance. Those who wish to study St. John of the Cross cannot do better than to commence with the small works of Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, from which we quote:
Hence the way of perfect love, is not a way reserved only for the few; none are denied entrance; it stands open to all souls of full goodwill. All may aspire to the fullness of the love of God; it is enough that they be willing to scale the path which leads them there: the way of giving, of total abnegation. As St. Teresa holds: God gives Himself wholly to the soul which gives itself wholly to Him.
Let us add the words of Pope Pius XI:
All men of every condition, in whatever honorable walk of life they may be, can and ought to imitate that most perfect example of holiness placed before men by God, namely Christ, our Lord, and by God’s grace arrive at the summit of perfection, as is proved by the example of many saints.
One reason why we have drawn attention to these heights of the spiritual life is because it will help to bring home to the reader the real agent in the work of our perfection. Such a sublime end is clearly beyond the powers of any human being. Therefore it must be God’s work, not our own! And in fact the whole spiritual life is a gradual replacement of one’s self by God, always, of course, leaving our own personal identity intact. Obviously, according as this replacement of the human by the divine proceeds, the strength at our disposal increases, and the possibilities of further advance grow greater with each step.
Therefore, all we have to do is to concentrate on the first step and never to consider the difficulty of the next one. This is a principle of capital importance. Each need brings the necessary grace from God; He will never give us a store of strength in which we can take complacency; and we cannot carry tomorrow’s cross with today’s grace. But once we realize that all our crosses are to be carried by grace, then there is an end to all discouraging calculation of one’s own strength. We go then with confidence to the throne of grace.
We must never forget that the spiritual life is a partnership—a partnership with Jesus, a partnership with God. We have at our disposal all the power and love of the Holy Ghost to sanctify us and to energize us, for He is the soul of that one body to which we belong. We have at our disposal all the power of God the Father—the omnipotent Father of the Son whose body we are. He rules the universe, He regulates every single thing that happens to us or in us, no matter how small, and coordinates everything to work together for one end, the good and benefit of the body of His Son. Our needs are the needs of Christ; whatever the Father does to us is done to His Son, and for that Son’s sake there is nothing that He will not do. So that everything inside us and outside us is controlled and arranged for one purpose—that of our complete union with Jesus. The Three Divine Persons are at work, in our soul and on our soul and in all that happens to us, and all that work is regulated by one single will—the will of God. There is only one thing left to our responsibility, and that is our own will. God will always respect our wills’ freedom of choice. We can choose to do His will or to do our own—to be with Christ or to be against Him.
The folly of choosing wrongly should be obvious. To quote Fr. Lallemant:
There is a void in our heart which all creatures united would be unable to fill. God alone can fill it; for He is our beginning and our end. The possession of God fills up this void and makes us happy. The privation of God leaves in us this void and is the cause of our wretchedness. Before God fills up this void, He puts us in the way of faith; with this condition, that if we never cease to regard Him as our last end, if we use creatures with moderation, and refer to His service the use we make of them, at the same time contributing faithfully to the glory which it is His will to draw from all created beings, He will give himself to us to fill up the void within us and make us happy. But if we are wanting in fidelity, He will leave in us that void, which, left unfilled, will cause our supreme misery.
But it takes us time to learn by experience what we should know by faith: that our hearts were made for God, and will not rest until they rest in Him. Like Francis Thompson, we are afraid “lest having Him we should have nought beside.” It is only after many mistakes and failures that we realize our folly and find the right road. Still even these mistakes—even our sins—can be used for our good. Whether we think of them as gaps and empty places in our past which God can fill up—for all evil is lack of due entity; or as marks which, by changing the pattern, God can fit into the design according to which He is weaving our whole life; or as splashes of misapplied color, which the divine artist can employ to form part of a new picture; or as a dye which can be mixed with God’s specially chosen coloring for our soul in order to give it the exact hue which He seeks; whatever view we take of the past, we must never, never, let any of our past sins, no matter how great or how grievous, interfere in the slightest with our unlimited hope and complete confidence in God, or with our aims and plans for the future. The heights of divine love are always accessible.
For that reason we must be resolute and optimistic in taking the first step and in looking to God’s fatherly providence for the rest of the journey. The perfection of detachment is the work of a lifetime and is only achieved gradually. We are not obliged to renounce all creatures absolutely, but we are asked to make God our ultimate end in our use and our love of them. Our Lord never ceased to love His Mother; St.John was His chosen friend until the end; and yet for all their excellence, they were only creatures.
In fact, it is a favorite device of the devil, whose machinations we must never leave out of our calculations, to drive the beginner to excess in the matter of detachment. The result is that human nature reasserts itself even more strongly than before and one’s last state is worse than one’s first. In all this work we must never advance beyond grace. As one bishop of our times puts it: “There is an offside rule in these things; get in front of God’s grace, and—suddenly the whistle blows and you pay the penalty!” Our business is to second God’s grace and to follow its lead by generous cooperation.
If we are generous in cooperating with God’s prompting from within our soul as well as with His providential indications from without, we shall find that He uses creatures to lead us to Him. As a matter of fact, every creature owes its origin to God, and anything of good that is to be found in each one is but a faint image of God’s own beauty. There is no charm that any creature has that cannot be found in a higher and more perfect way in God. All creation shows forth His loveliness; and what we find lovable in the creature is really the creature’s resemblance to God. Creatures thus can lead us to God; their danger is that their charm may prevent our love from going further, and even lead us to prefer them to God. That is why custody of the heart is so important in the spiritual life. The truly spiritual man can love all creation; but he loves God above all, and he loves all else because of God. This principle will help many sincere souls to solve the difficulties that arise from too narrow a concept of the detachment necessary for the pursuit of perfection.
God is continually using creatures and the course of events to lead us to himself; and He does this often without our knowing it. In fact, there are times He seems to disguise His action so that we often think He has forgotten or abandoned us, or that He is leading us astray. The just man must live and pray by faith, and it is especially in regard to God’s providence that his faith will have to be exercised. The path God traces out for us is often quite unexpected; He leads us backwards and forwards—this way and that way; He often seems to have changed His plan completely. He appoints—quite clearly we think—this particular work for us or that particular aim; and then He seems to arrange His whole providence to prevent us achieving it. He even seems to waste our whole life, to destroy our works, to take away all our means of serving Him. Yet we must never lose our confidence in Him, and the more contradictory His ways seem, the more complete our trust in His fatherly guidance must be. He knows what He is doing, and He alone knows it. There is not a single thing in our life or our circumstances which is left to chance, not a single event that He does not supervise.
We really never exactly know where God is leading us; and we must eventually give up all attempts to know. Very often our own ideas are quite wrong; we are thinking of great works for God, but God is thinking of great love from us. We do not realize the truth of the words of St. John of the Cross:
An instant of pure love is more precious in the sight of God, and of the soul, and more profitable to the Church than all other good works put together, though it may seem as if nothing were done.
The most valuable part of our life is often that which we esteem least, and the good works in which we think to have done great things for God and His Church may have little real value in His eyes.
There is a mysterious lesson to be learned from the Gospel story of our Lord’s life on earth. He became man to save the human race, to instruct men, to preach His Gospel, to found a Church, to establish a doctrine and an organization that should last forever. His own life was planned in all its details by the divine wisdom for that very purpose. Yet, how that plan contradicts our notions! We find that, born in obscurity, He—as we might foolishly think—“wastes” thirty years of His life in Egypt and Nazareth, first as the son of a workman and then as a workman himself when He grew old enough. After reaching thirty years of age, He spends three short years—He knew the duration of His life in advance—in the work of preaching His Gospel and instructing a handful of simple folk to form a nucleus of His Church. Then He allows the whole work to end in the apparent failure and shame of the Crucifixion, dying in degradation on the cross, deserted by all His followers, save only His Mother, a few women, St. John, and apparently a few friends in the crowd!
In fact, the most surprising thing about His life is not what He did, but all that He left undone. And His whole anxiety seems to have been to complete His public ministry quickly in order to press on to His death. His whole reliance for the result of His life work seems to have been placed on the power and fruit of His death, rather than on the power and fruit of His life. If anything stands out from the Gospel story, it is our Lord’s zeal, rather to die for His Father’s glory than to live for it!
Let us not forget that He is our model. Very few of us, however, are called to imitate His public life. But all are called to reproduce His hidden life, according to our condition. All, too, have to learn the lesson of His preference for death rather than life, and all must be prepared to follow His example. For, if the truth can be told in a few words without exaggeration, it is not so much the extent to which we live for God that is important as the extent and generosity with which we die for Him. Most of us are called, like the Holy Innocents, to confess to God’s glory moriendo non loquendo—by dying rather than by living—by the interior life rather than by the active ministry. There are some souls—and their number seems to be increasing today—who are called to die the violent death of martyrdom for God. But there are a great number more who are called to die for God the slow death of humility and abandonment to His will. The trial of the first is short and sharp; that of the latter may last long years, for they shed their blood drop by drop.
Our Lord warns us that it is by abiding in Him that we shall bear much fruit, and He adds that the Good Husbandman will purge us so that we may bring forth more fruit. We must be prepared for this purgation by God; a lively faith will be needed to cooperate with it. Sometimes the hand of the Divine Husbandman is quite evident, and whatever instrument He uses, every time any branch of our life or of our powers is cut off or pruned, it is clear that it is He who is at work, and no great effort is needed to see and kiss the loving hand of our Father who is in heaven when some person or event interferes with our plans or our possibilities. Such submission, however, becomes much more difficult, when, one by one, apparently all the branches are removed, and we seem to be left with no means of bringing forth fruit for God or of living for Him. This is the hour for the just man to live by faith. The branch of ourself which God intends to bear fruit is invisible to us. We must live then by faith in God; He is our hope, our life, and our love; we must live by Him, and not by ourselves. In fact, He is our God and our all.
This is of essential importance in that case where the divine action takes a form that is by no means uncommon—one in which the hand of God is by no means evident at first sight. God often prunes us by letting us wither. Instead of cutting off the branches, He cuts off the sap that seems necessary for their life. Sometimes things go so far that the whole man seems to wither away, even spiritually, and one feels like Lazarus after four days in the tomb. This is a moment which calls for a very definite correspondence with God’s grace; because it is a grace, a great grace. In these circumstances, we must by a deliberate effort exert our faith, to see His hand and His love in all that befalls us; we must exert our hope, to trust in Him for everything we need for His glory and our own sanctification; we must exert our love, to cleave to Him in that union of will and humble emptiness of self, which is the true abiding in Christ, and one union with God that matters here below. Note we say exert, because these circumstances call for a very definite and determined decision. We must decide to believe in God; we must decide to hope in Him; we must decide to love Him; we must decide to trust Him; we must decide that Christ is our life, and God is our all.
Human nature, however, will rather tend to imitate the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the final “failure” of the Crucifixion. “We hoped . . . and look what is left to us!” The answer our Lord gave them is no less for our ears than for theirs. “O foolish, and slow of heart to believe. . . . Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and so [mark the word]—so to enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:25, 26). And, are not we members of Christ? . . . Is the servant above His master? Did not our Lord say to Martha, when Lazarus was in the tomb: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live! Believest thou this? . . . Did I not tell thee that if thou believest thou shalt see the glory of God?” (Jn 11:25, 40).
In truth, the just man is obedient to death, but he lives by faith; for faith is the proximate principle of union with God here below. And our faith must be exercised despite everything—even despite our own insignificance.
When we study the lives of the saints, we seem to find that apparently they were all “great” souls. They either followed God from their youth and, like the Little Flower, never refused Him anything; or else, even in their sins, they showed a “greatness” and thoroughness which after their conversion seems, at first, to have been the cause of their heroic sanctity. Once converted, they never looked back. Such greatness of soul we know is not ours; we have not even the grit to be great in sin. Their determination, their thoroughness, their whole-heartedness have little in common with our faint-hearted futility. Even in our sins, we are merely mean and treacherous; we try to have it both ways; we have no generosity in doing good, or even in doing bad; we are inconstant and inconsequent; we are failures. The counselors of despair are quick to remind us what our Lord said of those who were neither hot nor cold—that He would begin to vomit them out of His mouth because they were lukewarm, and we get the impression that there is no conversion, no hope of advance, for the tepid.
That is just where we must stir up our faith and glory in our infirmities. Even if our sanctification is difficult—and there is no reason to admit that it is, for such a soul has a proximate disposition for a very high degree of humility—we must not forget that our sanctification is to be more the work of God than our own work, that God’s plan is to glorify himself by His mercy, and that mercy is most glorified when it is exercised towards great misery. The more difficult the work and the less claim we have on God’s help for it—the more will His mercy be glorified in making us saints. Therefore, our very hopelessness is a reason for hoping without limit!
That is a principle that must be carried very far. The Canaanite woman who came to our Lord asking for the cure of her daughter received no answer at first, and the disciples wanted Him to send her away. When she persisted, our Lord insisted that He “was not sent but to the lost sheep of Israel” and she was not of them. But she came and adored Him, and despite His apparent harshness, she humbled herself, making herself less than the dogs to which He seemed to compare her. Our Lord finally yielded, saying, “Woman, great is thy faith; be it done unto thee as thou wilt” (Mt 15: 24, 28). Here we have an example of our Lord himself excluding someone from the scope of His official appointment and yet, eventually, yielding to her faith.
The words of our Lord after the death of Lazarus have already been cited, where our Lord asked Martha to believe in Him, despite the death of her brother. No matter how spiritually dead we are—if we believe in Him—we shall live. But when discouragement takes possession of us, any condition that requires fulfillment on our part seems to destroy our hope. We find it hard even to believe. There is, however, still a remedy and room for hope.
Let us recall our Lord’s first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. The wine failed; and our Lady turned to our Lord and drew His attention to the awkward situation, saying, “They have no wine.” Our Lord gave her a mysterious answer, which, in its English form, may seem harsh: “Woman, what is that to me and to thee? My hour is not yet come.” The first part of the reply has to be understood according to the idiom of the Aramaic tongue; the second part is a clear affirmation that the appointed time for working miracles had not arrived. Yet, our Lady, quite unperturbed, calmly tells the attendants: “Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye.” They obeyed; and we know the result. The water they provided was changed into excellent wine.
The whole spiritual life is summed up and manifested in this incident. Our Lady’s extraordinary power is obvious. The effect of doing God’s will is clear, and it is noteworthy that this is the one precept our Lady ever gave any of her children. If we do “whatever He shall say to us,” the water of our miserable self, will be changed into the wine of His new creation. But for the moment we would stress the fact that His explicit declaration of the limitations of the divine plan did not prevent Him altering that plan at His Mother’s request. “So there are no absolute limitations to the working of divine grace.” And even if there were, they are not absolute for our Lady. She is blessed because she believed. And if our faith is weak, we have but to have recourse to our Mother, and tell her, “We have no wine.” She will provide.
So that if all authorities, all our friends, all our advisers, all books, and all examples, our very innermost self, seem to conspire to tell us that we are not such as are called to the marriage feast of the lamb, to the heights of holiness; even if our Lord himself seemed to say that we were neither of the time or the number to whom He was sent—we must still persevere in our faith, in our hope, in our love, in our humility, and in our abandonment to His will. There is nothing that God will not do for a loving, confidentfaith. And even if we feel that we have no faith, our Lady has more than enough for both of us. And, we have our Lord’s own word for it that she is ours. She will manage the matter of our lack of wine like a good housekeeper. But our Lady’s housekeeping needs a chapter to itself.
Let us consider this fear that we are not the stuff out of which saints are made in the light of the teaching of St. Thomas. Discussing the question whether charity is infused according to the capacity of our natural virtues, he states: “The measure of each thing depends upon the cause of that thing: for the more universal cause produces a greater effect. Charity, since it exceeds the proportion or capacity of human nature, does not depend upon any natural power but only upon the grace of the Holy Ghost who infuses it. And therefore, the measure of charity does not depend upon the condition of nature, or upon any capacity of natural virtue, but only upon the will of the Holy Ghost distributing His gifts according to His will. Thus St. Paul writes to the Ephesians. “To everyone of us is given grace, according to the measure of the giving of Christ” (Eph 4:7). And by way of removing any limitation that could be based upon the dispositions which usually precede the infusion of charity, he answers that such dispositions are also under the influence of the Holy Spirit “Who hath made us worthy to be partakers of the lot of the saints in light” (Col 1:12).
And we can draw encouragement from his discussion of the question whether there is any limit to the increase of charity (which is the bond of perfection). There are only three reasons for which it could be limited, either on account of charity itself, or of the agent producing charity, or of the soul receiving charity. He continues: “None of these three puts any limit to the increase of charity. Charity itself has no limit, for it is a certain participation of uncreated charity which is the Holy Ghost. The agent producing charity is of infinite power, being God himself. Likewise, there is no limit fixed for this growth by nature of the subject (receiving it); because always when charity grows, the ability for further advance is yet more increased. Whence it follows that no limit can be fixed to the growth of charity in this life.” So there is no limit set to our progress by our nature. The only two limiting factors are God’s will and our own; and if we abandon ourselves to God’s will, the only limit comes from God’s loving decision. To Him we can certainly leave that decision in full confidence.
We have dealt with this question at some length because it is of essential importance that no soul ever let any circumstance whatever interfere with his unlimited confidence and hope in God. There is a close connection and interaction between humility and confidence. A man who realizes God’s mercy can put his whole hope in God and be honest with himself about his own weakness. A man who only knows God as a strict judge and who feels that his only hope is to be placed in his own righteousness and strength of purpose dare not be honest with himself; and since humility is truth, he will not achieve true humility. Only the man who knows God can afford to know himself. And, in another sense, only a man who knows himself will know the full depth of God’s liberality and extraordinary love. Knowing this, he will then advance to the higher degree of humility which consists in not only knowing one’s own nothingness but in being glad of it.
Confidence, therefore, must always animate our spiritual life. It is especially necessary during that stage of progress in which God begins to purify the depths of our soul and prepare it for greater things. God’s providence always works towards the same end of detachment from self and from creatures, and of attachment to Him; but He does not always work in the same way. Sometimes, He detaches the soul step by step, so to speak, taking one “tentacle” from a creature and attaching it to Himself before going on to deal with the next attachment. He will even use a creature as an intermediary and raise up our standard by attaching us for the moment to some superior creature, but only as a means to ultimate attachment to Himself. For example, He will use the desire for knowledge to detach us from the desire of sense pleasure: He will use the desire of physical skill and achievement to detach us from lower satisfactions.
At other times, God works on a wider front and first loosens, so to speak, all the stones of the building, which later comes down with a crash on the occasion of some special trial. All our attachments are gone at once. Here again He may use an intermediary and replace a multiplicity of attachments by one outstanding one, which at a later stage He removes, and seizes our whole heart for himself. There is no limit to His ingenuity, and there are no obstacles He cannot overcome. No matter how low we have fallen, how mediocre we are, or how far we have wandered from the high road into the swamps of sin, He can always build a bridge that will give us a way of reaching the goal He sets for us, and He can always supply us with the strength to do so.
In leading us on to union with Him in prayer, His action can be quite disconcerting. Prayer, as we saw, is capable of development. Given goodwill, purity of life, and daily reading and reflection, prayer first of all becomes more affective; we talk to God with a certain facility, and then we begin to talk to God quite simply, with but few words, which, however, can mean quite a lot. Quite a large part of the time of prayer can be spent in silent adoration and love. Somewhere in this process of development—it is not necessary to specify where—God is wont to intervene; and the result of His intervention is that prayer as we knew it first becomes more difficult, then dries up, and ultimately becomes impossible. All sense of God’s presence is gone, all facility in making acts and persevering in silent prayer disappears. A general distaste for spiritual things may come over us. Spiritual reading seems, at best, useless and may even be very distasteful. Spiritual exercises become nothing but weary tasks, almost drudgery; the mind is incapable of good thoughts, and all fervor seems to have gone.
Now, as we have already said, such a development could be due to sin, to infidelity, or to tepidity. If so, an honest examination of one’s conscience will reveal either a definite fault, or, in the case of tepidity, a very definite laxity all around which, however, presents fairly definite points for improvement. But it frequently happens that nothing definite can be found. There is a general, vague, indefinite sense of things being wrong, but one cannot put one’s finger on any particular fault. This vague feeling of uneasiness need not worry us.
We have already discussed this state of affairs at prayer in the last chapter. We return to it here, to urge the capital importance of an unwavering confidence in God’s loving guidance and action to lead us to himself, and in His infinite mercy which will forgive all our infidelities; for in this condition one can see oneself so clearly that one may be quite overwhelmed at the sight, and, losing confidence in God, may give up the spiritual life and seek consolation in creatures. If one falls at this stage, one will probably fall very badly. One must go to extremes if one is to intoxicate oneself sufficiently with pleasure to drive out even temporarily the remembrance of one’s need for God and one’s horror of oneself. But even if one falls, one must return with confidence to God. “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Rom 5:20). God understands one’s position far better than any human being and always is ready to forgive.
The soul must persevere in this arid prayer and in the service of God despite distaste, with absolute confidence and reliance upon Him. Nothing gives Him so much glory and pleasure as these dry acts of devotion to His will. This is a time of great merit for the soul and great profit for the Church. There is nothing of self-seeking in such service.
If one persevere in prayer despite the gloom of winter, the spring will come eventually. And one will hear the voice of one’s lover: “Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one and come. For the winter is now past, the rain is over, the flowers have appeared in the land” (Sg 2:10–12). For one can then say in very truth with the Spouse in the Canticle: “Behold, my beloved speaketh to me. . . . My beloved to me, and I to him who feedeth among the lilies, till the day break and the shadows retire” (Sg 2:10, 16–17).
The grace of prayer, which formerly had caused such aridity in the soul, now extends its reign, and its effects become noticeable; it extends to the other powers of the soul, and distractions cease; it touches the very heart, and fills it with peace and joy and love. A new life opens before the astonished eyes of the soul, and one counts the past years of winter as nothing. Then one truly loves, one is truly loved, and one not only knows one’s love, but one knows one’s tremendous lover.