Put off the old man who is corrupted according to
the desire of error, and be renewed in the spirit of your
mind: and put on the new man, who according to God
is created injustice and holiness of truth. (Eph. 4:22-24)
THESE words of St. Paul are inscribed above the gate through which all must pass who want to reach the goal set us by God. They implicitly contain the quintessence of the process which baptized man must undergo before he attains the unfolding of the new supernatural life received in Baptism.
All true Christian life, therefore, must begin with a deep yearning to become a new man in Christ, and an inner readiness to “put off the old man”—a readiness to become something fundamentally different.
All good men desire to change
Even though he should lack religion, the will to change is not unknown to man. He longs to develop and to perfect himself. He believes he can overcome all vices and deficiencies of his nature by human force alone. All morally aspiring men are conscious of the necessity of a purposeful self-education which should cause them to change and to develop. They, too,—as contrasted to the morally indifferent man who lets himself go and abandons himself passively to his natural dispositions—reveal a certain readiness to change. But for this, no spiritual and moral growth would exist at all.
Yet, when man is touched by the light of Revelation, something entirely new has come to pass. The revelation of the Old Testament alone suffices to make the believer aware of man’s metaphysical situation and the terrible wound inflicted upon his nature by original sin. He knows that no human force can heal that wound; that he is in need of redemption. He grasps the truth that repentance is powerless to remove the guilt of sin which separates him from God, that good will and natural moral endeavor will fail to restore him to the beauty of the paradisiac state. Within him lives a deep yearning for the Redeemer, who by divine force will take the guilt of sin and bridge the gulf that separates the human race from God.
Throughout the Old Testament that yearning resounds: “Convert us, O God: and show us Thy face, and we shall be saved” (Ps. 79:4). We perceive the desire for purification which enables us to appear before God, and to endure the presence of the unspeakably Holy One: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow” (Ps. 50:9).
God calls us to change
The New Testament, however, reveals to us a call which far transcends that yearning. Thus Christ speaks to Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Christ, the Messiah, is not merely the Redeemer who breaks apart the bond and cleanses us from sin. He is also the Dispenser of a new divine life which shall wholly transform us and turn us into new men: “Put off the old man who is corrupted according to the desire of error, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.” Though we receive this new life in Baptism as a free gift of God, it may not flourish unless we cooperate. “Purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste,” says St. Paul.
A strong desire must fill us to become different beings, to mortify our old selves and rearise as new men in Christ. This desire, this readiness to decrease so that “He may grow in us,” is the first elementary precondition for the transformation in Christ, It is the primal gesture by which man reacts to the light of Christ that has reached his eyes: the original gesture directed to God. It is, in other words, the adequate consequence of our consciousness of being in need of redemption on the one hand, and our comprehension of being called by Christ on the other. Our surrender to Christ implies a readiness to let Him fully transform us, without setting any limit to the modification of our nature under His influence.
Readiness to change vs. natural optimism
In regard to their respective readiness to change, the difference between the Christian and the natural idealist is obvious. The idealist is suffused with optimism concerning human nature as such. He underestimates the depth of our defects; he is unaware of the wound, incurable by human means, with which our nature is afflicted. He overlooks our impotence to erase a moral guilt or to bring about autonomously a moral regeneration of ourselves. Moreover, his infatuation with activity prevents him from understanding even the necessity of a basic renewal. He fails to sense the essential inadequacy of all natural morality, as well as the incomparable superiority of virtue supernaturally founded, let alone the full presence of such virtue—holiness.
His readiness to change will differ, therefore, from that of the Christian, above all in the following respects. First, he has in mind a relative change only: an evolution immanent to nature. His endeavor is not, as is the Christian’s, to let his nature as a whole be transformed from above, nor to let his character be stamped with a new coinage, a new face, as it were, whose features far transcend human nature and all its possibilities. His object is not to be reborn: to become radically—from the root, that is—another man; he merely wants to perfect himself within the framework of his natural dispositions. He is intent on ensuring an unhampered evolution of these dispositions and potentialities. Sometimes even an express approval of his own nature is implicit therein, and a self-evident confidence in the given tendencies of his nature as they are before being worked upon by conscious self-criticism. Such was, for instance, Goethe’s case. Invariably in the idealist, the readiness to change is limited to a concept of nature’s immanent evolution or self-perfection: its scope remains exclusively human. Whereas, with the Christian, it refers to a basic transformation and redemption of things human by things divine: to a supernatural goal.
A second point of difference is closely connected with this. The idealist’s readiness to change is aimed at certain details or aspects only, never at his character as a whole. The aspiring man of natural morality is intent on eradicating this defect, on acquiring thatvirtue; the Christian, however, is intent on becoming another man in all things, in regard to both what is bad and what is naturally good in him. He knows that what is naturally good, too, is insufficient before God: that it, too, must submit to supernatural transformation—to a re-creation, we might say, by the new principle of supernatural life conveyed to him by Baptism.
Thirdly, the man of natural moral endeavor, willing as he may be to change in one way or another, will always stick to the firm ground of Nature. How could he be asked to relinquish that foothold, tumbling off into the void? Yet it is precisely this firm ground which the Christian does leave. His readiness to change impels him to break with his unredeemed nature as a whole: he wills to lose the firm ground of unredeemed nature under his feet and to tumble, so to speak, into the arms of Christ. Only he who may say with St. Paul, “I know in whom I have believed” can risk the enormous adventure of dying unto himself and of relinquishing the natural foundation.
Not all possess the radical readiness to change
Now this radical readiness to change, the necessary condition for a transformation in Christ, is not actually possessed by all Catholic believers. It is, rather, a distinctive trait of those who have grasped the full import of the Call, and without reserve have decided upon an imitation of Christ.
There are many religious Catholics whose readiness to change is merely a conditional one. They exert themselves to keep the commandments and to get rid of such qualities as they have recognized to be sinful. But they lack the will and the readiness to become new men all in all, to break with all purely natural standards, to view all things in a supernatural light. They prefer to evade the act of metanoia: a true conversion of the heart. Hence with undisturbed consciences they cling to all that appears to them legitimate by natural standards.1
Their conscience permits them to remain entrenched in their self-assertion. For example, they do not feel the obligation of loving their enemies; they let their pride have its way within certain limits; they insist on the right of giving play to their natural reactions in answer to any humiliation. They maintain as self-evident their claim to the world’s respect, they dread being looked upon as fools of Christ; they accord a certain role to human respect, and are anxious to stand justified in the eyes of the world also.
They are not ready for a total breach with the world and its standards; they are swayed by certain conventional considerations; nor do they refrain from letting themselves go within reasonable limits. There are various types and degrees of this reserved form of the readiness to change; but common to them all is the characteristic of a merely conditional obedience to the Call and an ultimate abiding by one’s natural self. However great the differences of degree may be, the decisive cleavage is that which separates the unreserved, radical readiness to change from the somehow limited and partial one.
Transformation in Christ requires unqualified readiness to change
The full readiness to change—which might even better be termed readiness to become another man—is present in him only who, having heard the call “Follow me” from the mouth of the Lord, follows Him as did the Apostles, “leaving everything behind.” To do so, he is not required literally to relinquish everything in the sense of the evangelical counsels: this would be in answer to another, more particular call. He is merely required to relinquish his old self, the natural foundation, and all purely natural standards, and open himself entirely to Christ’s action—comprehending and answering the call addressed to all Christians: “Put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.”
Readiness to change, taken in this sense, is the first prerequisite for the transformation in Christ. But, in addition thereto, more is needed: a glowing desire to become a new man in Christ; a passionate will to give oneself over to Christ, And this, again, presupposes a state of fluidity, as it were: that we should be like soft wax, ready to receive the imprint of the features of Christ. We must be determined not to entrench ourselves in our nature, not to maintain or assert ourselves, and above all, not to set up beforehand—however unconsciously—a framework of limiting or qualifying factors for the pervasive and re-creative light of Christ. Rather we must be filled with an unquenchable thirst for regeneration in all things. We must fully experience the bliss of flying into Christ’s arms, who will transform us by His light beyond any measure we might ourselves intend. We must say as did St. Paul on the road to Damascus; “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
Moral progress requires unqualified readiness to change
But the unreserved readiness to change, as here outlined, is not merely the condition for embarking on our journey towards our supernatural goal. It also constitutes the permanent basis for continual progress on our road. It is an attitude we must always preserve so long as we are in statu viae—until we have reached the safe harbor of the status finales, where there is no longer any task proposed to our will, and where our souls will rest unchangeably in the boundless bliss of communion with God. Should that readiness to change and that passionate will to surrender ever cease, we would no longer have the proper religious disposition. That unlimited readiness to change is not only necessary for the transformation in Christ: even as such, it represents the basic and relevant response to God. It reflects our unreserved devotion to God, our consciousness of our infinite weakness before Him, our habitude of living by the Faith, our love and yearning for God. It finds its highest expression in these words of the Blessed Virgin: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
In his Discourses for Mixed Congregations, Cardinal Newman points out the danger inherent in believing oneself to have attained a satisfactory degree of spiritual progress—no matter how high a degree it actually is—and to be entitled now to discontinue the struggle against one’s own nature. The example of the saints teaches us that spiritual progress implies no hardening of that fluidity of which we have spoken, no weakening of the steady will for transformation by Christ. The more one is transformed in Christ, the deeper and more unlimited his readiness to change beyond the point reached, the more he understands the dimension of depth in which that transformation must extend, and the necessity for him to place himself anew in God’s hands, again and again, so as to lie shaped anew by Christ.
Never, in statu viae, will he cease to say with Michelangelo, “Lord, take me away from myself, and make me pleasing to Thee.” In his earthly life the Christian must never let the process of dying unto himself and rising again in Christ come to a standstill; he should always preserve that inner fluidity which is an ultimate expression of the situation implied in the status viae, Thus spoke the thief on the cross: “We are punished justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done no evil. Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom.” In that moment, a bursting through toward things divine took place in his soul, which bore a connotation of unlimited love. And, because this unlimited surrender was the last act of his life before expiring, in spite of all his imperfections he received this answer from the Lord: “Amen, I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
That unlimited readiness to change is necessary not only for the sinner in the narrower sense of the word, but also for the guarded, the pure, the graced, whom God has drawn unto Himself from youth onwards: not only for a St. Augustine but also for a St. John. The saints are classed sometimes in two categories: on the one hand, the great converts like St. Paul or St. Mary Magdalene; on the other, men and women in whom a continuous slow maturing of grace is clearly observable: such souls as St. John the Evangelist or St. Catherine of Siena. Yet the necessity of what is here described as readiness to change applies by no means only to him who has gone through a conversion and who therefore evidently cannot but repent of his former life, but even to such as have never definitely and gravely trespassed against God’s commandments. They, too, must be willing to rise above their nature and hold themselves ready for coinage by the spirit of Christ.
Supernatural readiness to change vs. malleability
However, it would mean a grievous misunderstanding of this indispensable basic attitude to interpret it as a state of fluidity as such, a general disposition to change in no matter what direction. In fact, what we have in mind is exclusively the readiness to let ourselves be shaped by Christ, and by whatever speaks of Him and of the “Father of all lights.” The change we have in view is merely the change implied in the continual process of dying unto ourselves, and being reformed by Christ. Moreover, that state of fluidity which makes this process possible is linked, on the other hand, to an attitude of consolidation in Christ and in the goods we receive from Him. With the postulate of soft receptiveness susceptible to the formative influences from above corresponds, as a logical complement, the postulate of an increasing rigidity in relation to all tendencies towards being changed from below.
Here the difference between fluidity under the sign of the supernatural and the mere natural disposition of fluidity becomes clear. Some people, owing merely to their natural temperament are like soft wax, prone to any change whatever. These impressionable persons who yield to all kinds of influences lack solidity and continuity.
The fluidity which goes with aliveness to the supernatural, on the contrary, has nothing to do with spineless malleability as such. Rather it involves a firm standing in the face of all mundane influences, a character of impermeability in regard to them, and an unshakable solidity on the new base with which Christ supplies us. Even at this early stage we discern that strange coincidentia oppositorum which will again and again strike our eyes in the course of our inquiry: that union between attitudes seemingly irreconcilable with each other on the natural level, which is the sign of all supernatural mode of being.
Also, that fluidity in our relationship with Christ is anything but a state characterized by a continuous flow of change, in the sense that the change as such be credited with a value of its own. What the readiness to be transformed by Christ really implies is rather the utter negation both of the worship of being in a state of movement as exhibited by the Youth Movement and of the Goethean ideal of an abundance of life based on the concept of continual change. We are far, then, from preaching fluidity in general, be it in the sense of a glorification of movement as such, or in the sense of the celebrated verses of Goethe, beautiful though they may be: Derm solang du das nicht hast, dieses Stirb und Werde, bist du nur ein trüber Gast auf der dunkeln Erde (“Unless thou follow the call of dying and becoming, thou art but a sad guest on this dark earth”).
Man is called to the unchangeableness of God
It does not behoove us to cherish variability as such; for, as Christians we give our worship not to change but to the Unchangeable: God, Who in all eternity remains Himself: “They shall perish, but Thou remainest” (Ps. 101:26-28). Thus, as Christians we direct our lives towards that moment in which there will be change no longer, and rejoice in the hope of sharing in the unchangeableness of God. We deny our love to the heaving rhythm of life. And the ideal of vitality, seductive to those who see the ultimate reality in Nature, has no attraction for us. Nor can we be intoxicated by any communion with Nature in a pantheistic sense, For we do not believe ourselves to be a part of Nature: we conceive of man as a spiritual person endowed with an immortal soul. We feel that he does not belong as a whole to the natural realm, It is only in respect to our terrestrial situation that we are subject to the rhythm of ebb and flow, the fluctuation of dying and becoming, the law of perishableness. Non omnis moriar (I shall not wholly die), says Horace, having in mind earthly fame. But we say it in awareness of our ultimate, our innermost essence. It is part of the blissful message of the Gospel that we are called to participate in the eternal unchangeableness of God.
Yet our life will acquire immutability in the degree in which we are transformed in Christ. So long as we evade being thus transformed, and insist on maintaining ourselves, this remaining fixed in our own nature cannot but deliver us up to the world of flux and reflux, and the forces of change. Such a solidification would actually mean an imprisonment within the precincts of our own changeable selves: it would prevent us from transcending our limitations as vital beings and from being drawn into the sphere of divine unchangeableness. In the measure only in which we yield like soft wax to the formative action of Christ, shall we attain genuine firmness, and grow into a likeness of divine immutability. In that measure, too, shall we rise above the terror which—seeing our status as rational persons distinct from physical nature—the rhythm of death and life’s law of transiency portend for us.
Natural readiness to change diminishes with age
A glance at the normal course of human life, considered from a purely natural point of view, will show that a character of comparative fluidity, in intellectual as in other respects is proper to youth.
By that we mean not only a love of change for its own sake, but an aspiration towards higher values: an eagerness for education, for enriching and ennobling oneself. Such a disposition is the natural gift of youth.
Examine a person enlivened by the vital rhythm of youth, and you will find in him a certain forcefulness and daring which facilitate that aspiration towards higher things. But when men become older and, within the framework of natural tendencies their characters and peculiarities undergo a process of solidification, the natural mobility and urge for change will tend to disappear.
Such persons will then become much less accessible to elevating influences, less receptive to fresh stimuli (we are still speaking on purely natural presuppositions). We can no longer expect them to revise their mentality and to re-educate themselves, for they are already cast in a rigid mold.
This description does not refer merely to an inveterate habit, owing to the lengthy accumulation of similar experiences, of looking at things in a certain way. What is meant is a general condition different from that which youth implies. The natural readiness to change is gone; its place is taken by the attitude of a person conscious of his maturity, who considers himself to have achieved his period of formation and arrogates to himself the right, as it were, to endure and to settle down in his peculiarities such as they are.
These psychic peculiarities—which may not infrequently be eccentricities—are never so marked during youth. Only at a later period do certain natural tendencies assume such a character of rigidity. From the mere succession of the phases of life one seems to derive the right to be no longer a pupil or an apprentice but a master.
Supernatural readiness to change should grow with age
But if we envisage the vital phases of youth and old age from a supernatural point of view, the picture will be different. Here, in fact, an inverse law will appear. The readiness to change, the waxlike receptiveness towards Christ will tend not to vanish but to increase as man grows into a state of maturity. Accidental concerns and complications recede into the background; the pattern of life wins through to simplicity; the great decisive aspects of life become more clearly accentuated. The unrest incident to youth, the vacillating response to disparate appeals, the insatiable hunger for whatever appears attractive or beautiful will subside, and a steady orientation towards the essential and decisive become dominant.
This progress towards simplicity, which is part of the spiritual significance of advancing in age, is linked to a consolidation in Christ. A number of vital tendencies, longings of all kinds, and a certain ubiquitous unrest fostered by expectations of earthly happiness, recede before that supernatural unrest which attends the supreme yearning for Christ. A liberation from one’s own nature becomes apparent. The scriptural words, “Being made perfect in a short space, he fulfilled a long time” (Wisd. of Sol. 4:13-14), refer to this true meaning and value of maturity.
Yet this attainment of full maturity also implies eternal youth in a supernatural sense. It implies that the readiness to change, the determination to become a new man, and the unconditional willingness to crucify the old self should increase; that the impatience for Christ should not abate. As he draws nearer to the gates of eternity, such a person will direct his attention to “the one thing necessary” with ever increasing concentration. It is this supernatural youth which is referred to in the Gradual of the Mass, by the words qui laetificat juventutem meam (“who giveth joy to my youth”). Here is, paradoxically speaking, a spiritual intactness increasing with age, inasmuch as throughout the status viae we continually enhance our alert readiness to change towards greater proximity to God, so that His features may be engraved upon our souls. And this is equivalent to becoming more and more free from ourselves: ridding ourselves of everything which, though it be rooted in our own nature, stands between our souls and Christ. It may be said without exaggeration that the degree of our inner fluidity in relation to Christ, our readiness to put off our own nature in order to put on Christ, constitutes the standard criterion of our religious progress.
Whenever at some moments we have the specific feeling of being privileged by God and drawn nearer to Him, we must ask ourselves: do we possess this readiness to change?—and how far do we possess it? Unless we can answer that question favorably, we are not in the right religious condition. Yet if, in the moments of inward elevation, we really possess that readiness, our being touched by God will mean more than merely receiving a gift: we are then capable of the cooperation God requires. By the degree of a man’s inner readiness to change, his religious level may be decisively judged.
In the unconditional readiness to change, a salutary distrust of one’s own self-knowledge is also implied. If I am really intent on becoming another man I will not claim the right to determine the limits between what can, and what cannot, be justified in my nature if confronted with Christ. It is He who is to determine them through religious authority. The readiness must be present, on our part, to be changed and shaped to an indefinite degree at the hands of God, wherever He chooses to intervene by the agency of our spiritual director or of our religious superior. We are not ourselves able or entitled to determine the measure of our transformation. This is a true sign of the ultimate relevancy, and of the radical newness by which a life devoted to the true imitation of Christ is characterized. God will be merciful with those also who possess only a limited readiness to change; but he alone whose readiness to change and whose spiritual plasticity are unlimited can attain to sanctity.
Spiritual continuity is consistent with readiness to change
It must be emphasized that there is no contradiction between the Christian’s readiness to change and the principle of moral continuity. Our mental attitude reveals the trait of continuity insofar as we remain aware of the ultimate unity of all truth and all values in God. We must keep in view and continue to recognize whatever valid truth we have seized, whatever genuine value experienced; none of these must sink into oblivion once it is no longer actually present to our eyes. The man who is a prey to discontinuity accords an illegitimate priority to what happens to be present in his consciousness. He neglects more important and more valid impressions for the sake of present ones. He fails to preserve his contact with basic general truths and values beyond the range of mere present interest. He is, therefore, unable to confront the concrete situation of the moment with those truths and values, and to experience it in their light. Because he is submerged in the situation of the moment, he lacks the standard by which to measure and to judge all new impressions. Moreover, the impressions succeed one another in a disconnected flight; one replaces the other as though they were mutually equivalent, with no proportionate attention given to those of greater weight; and thus the valid content of former impressions is trampled under foot, as it were, by the dynamism of what is actually present.
Suppose, for instance, that we happen to have gained a deep insight into someone’s personality. Meeting him later on a more superficial occasion, our impression is different: we see him this time, from the outside, rather like a casual acquaintance. If we have the habitus of continuity we shall not let ourselves be confused by this new impression but keep aware of the former impression, which has been deeper and of greater validity. Whereas, if we lack continuity, the new impression will confuse our judgment and, because of its mere recentness, obscure and displace the older but more relevant one.
Continuity, then, consists in the twofold capacity to maintain our comprehension of basic truths, experiencing all things against a background of these truths, and to maintain particular aspects of great validity as against new ones which happen to be less substantial. Both these aptitudes are in close harmony with the quality of receptiveness towards new truths and values. Legitimate faithfulness to things established does not spring from mere inertia and formal conservatism; it represents rather an adequate response to the immutability of unalloyed truth and genuine value, which is past obsolescence. The selfsame motive which impels the person with continuity to cling imperturbably to truth will equally commit him to be ready to accept every new truth. He will be ready even to renounce what he has held to be a truth, should a new and deeper insight actually disprove it. The rectification of a former opinion, in the proper sense of the term, is not opposed to, but on the contrary definitely presupposes, continuity.
For what is operative here is by no means the merely psychological advantage of the more recent impression but the subordination of all particular convictions, whether they be formed at an earlier or a later period of time, to eternal truths and objective standards of judgment. Thus, continuity is a condition, not only for stable orientation but also for intellectual progress itself. It is on the basis of continuity that we are able to preserve established truths and at the same time to supplement them with new ones, both in the sense of an extension of the breadth of knowledge, and of a reinterpretation of old truths in the light of insights newly acquired.
It is by the attitude of continuity that we conform to the invariability and the mutual consistency—the intrinsic unity—of all values. It implies, therefore, that the higher value should take precedence of the lower one. In granting priority to a higher value, once it presents itself, we give proof of continuity. For, in following the higher value we implicitly continue to cherish what was the object of our response in the lower value to which we hitherto adhered unreservedly. Our supreme fidelity is not due to a partial value or good, taken by itself, but to value as such—and ultimately, to God, who is the summum bonum (highest good). Our fidelity to that highest good requires that the objectively higher value should rise above the lower one also in regard to our experience and our conduct.
Continuity actually presupposes readiness to change
It is important to avoid all equivocation on this point: that continuity is a prime condition of spiritual growth, and even more, of a transformation in Christ; and that it stands in no opposition to the will to become another man. Without continuity, on the contrary, there could be no genuine responsiveness to the formative claim of Christ. For, with each step achieved the coinage received from Christ must be preserved and be made into a durable and inherent stamp on our nature. Only we must always remain changeable in the sense of remaining, upon each level securely attained, susceptible of ascent towards yet higher levels along the path of transformation in Christ. But every such act of remodelling refers back to the previous level, and thus has its place in the solid framework of continuity. The previous phase will not be buried or obliterated: its essential content will reappear on the higher level, although deepened, amplified and transfigured in the context of that higher grade of perfection. Thus shall we keep fidelity to Christ, when we follow His call to penetrate into Him ever deeper, and without reserve. It is one and the same Christ who by successive degrees reveals to us His face more and more fully, and who owns us more and more completely as we become more deeply transformed in Him.
But this requires our capacity to discern whether the new impression is really a more valid and relevant one. On the basis of continuity alone shall we be able wisely and fruitfully to confront the new thing with the old so as to avoid falling back from a higher level to a lower one or yielding to a new impression when it belongs to a level inferior to the one we have already reached.
Is there not, however, also a duty of fidelity towards our own God-created individuality? Is it right for us to ignore—in our unlimited readiness for transformation—what we feel to be the particular talents which God has entrusted to us, that ineffable essence which we feel to be our ultimate core?
Readiness to change preserves true individuality
Certainly, the radical readiness to change in the sense used here does not entail renunciation of the particularity of our personality as willed by God. But this concept, the particular individuality of a person, has a dual meaning. On the one hand, it may designate the character of a person as an empirical whole, including also whatever vices, defects, imperfections, eccentricities, and accidental features his personality may contain. Or else, we mean by individuality the particular, unique, and inimitable thought in the mind of God which every human being embodies. It is only in a saint that individuality thus conceived can fully display itself. For it contains, on the one hand, the particular natural character of the person which, however, never implies defects and imperfections as such; and on the other hand, a supernatural transfiguration and elevation of that particular nature. Now the readiness to change, as discussed here, refers in the first place to all the negative and ultimately spurious tendencies in our nature which oppose a barrier to our control by Christ. But it also refers, further, to all that is naturally good in us; for the latter is not destined to remain natural but to become enhanced and transfigured by the re-creative action of the supernatural.
No renunciation of the specific value attaching to individuality, no denial of the person’s particular nature as willed by God is implied in this transformation. This is best illustrated by the example of the saints. Though it can be said of each of them alike that “he no longer lives but Christ lives in him,” they are individualities with marked contours. Let us only think of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena—to mention only two of the most obvious examples. It is as legitimate to preserve our individuality in the sense of the particular call of God which it enshrines as it is illegitimate to stick to what we commonly regard as our nature. The maintenance of our divinely sanctioned particular individuality can never conflict with our transformation by Christ. It cannot involve us in resisting the uplifting force and in shielding any part of our nature from Christ. For, so long as we keep immured in our nature, that divinely sanctioned individuality is not yet achieved; it is only when “we live no longer but Christ lives in us” that it can unfold integrally.
The great mystery of our metaphysical situation, that God is nearer to us than we are ourselves, is manifest in the fact that we cannot even be wholly ourselves—in the sense of individuality as a unique divine thought—until we are reborn in Christ. Undoubtedly, the preservation of divinely sanctioned individuality may mean that certain forms or modes of religious life are not appropriate to a given person. Every method is not suitable for everyone. There are several equally valid ways towards God, such as the Benedictine, the Franciscan, the Dominican, and so forth. The specific word of God that has been spoken in every soul; the name by which God has called us; the unique design of God underlying every personality—these must not be forcibly denied or suppressed.
True vs. false individuality
Yet, as we have already seen, the uniqueness of every person is something to be carefully distinguished from what is commonly subsumed under the term individuality and what most of us are apt to cherish as our particular nature. This so-called individuality originates from various factors, such as the experiences a man has undergone, the wounds that have been inflicted upon him, the false responses that have become ingrained in his mind, the environment in which he has lived, the education he has received, the conventions which surround him, and so forth. Only think how many rash generalizations, built upon a single and perhaps accidental experience, survive in our mind. All these things are incorporated in a person’s character; but they need not by any means be consonant with the very essence and ultimate meaning of his individuality. All these forces cannot have worked out so favorably as not to have distorted in a certain way and a certain measure the true individuality as willed by God. What we generally feel to be our individual nature is far remote from the inward word by which God has called us. By our own force alone we cannot even truly discern that word. “Every man lies,” says the Psalmist.
What should be relinquished without reserve, therefore, are such elements of personality as do not belong to its proper essence. And yet precisely in regard to these does the tendency to fixation persist. Most men are reluctant to sacrifice those manifold features of their personality which are no part of its inmost essence but derivatives of the various factors we have listed above. They attempt tenaciously to maintain themselves in these very features. This tendency to self-affirmation and petrification, as contrasted to the readiness for being transformed in all these points and for receiving the imprint of the face of Christ instead of the old features, is the antithesis to what we have meant here in speaking of fluidity.
To sum up—the postulate of a readiness to change does not refer to individuality in the ultimate sense, which is according to divine ordination. Individuality in this sense will be transfigured and sanctified, but by no means foregone or supplanted by another individuality. For the essence of every human person supposes a unique and incommensurable task; it is destined to unfold and to operate in a direction inalienably proper to it.
False self-appraisals hinder readiness to change
At this stage, let us signal two dangers which are naturally apt to arise and which should be avoided.
Sometimes we encounter people of a certain type characterized by a proclivity towards spiritual depression and sloth. Such a man will yield to a mood of inward barrenness. Though possessing a certain modesty, he lacks vigor and eagerness for spiritual elevation. He is unresponsive to what is best in him, and demurs at believing in it. The example of the saints, far from inciting him to emulation, only confirms him in his resignation: “I am a wretched man.” In his pusillanimity, such a person leaves unused the talents of which he should make the most; he irresponsibly declines being committed by God’s call. People of this kind, when speaking of themselves, even are wont to deny the virtues they naturally possess; such is their lack of confidence. They are bent on lowering their stature as much as possible. Their lack of courage and activity, which causes them to desert their higher potentialities, is most deplorable. On the other hand, their care in avoiding false pretensions deserves a certain credit.
The inverse type of deviation is exemplified by the man who, while not lacking a certain elan, refuses to take account of his limitations and is thus driven to magnify his stature artificially. Suppose he is present at some discussion of spiritually relevant topics: he will take part in the debate as though he were fully equipped to do so; he will claim impressions as deep as the others; he will not yield to any other man as regards intellectual proficiency or even religious stature. Thus he works himself up, as it were, to a level which he has not reached in reality—and which he may not even be able to reach, so far as it is a matter of natural capacities.
He is not without zeal; but that zeal is nourished at heart by pride. He misjudges the limitations of the natural talents which God has lent him, and consequently lapses into pretense. He is fond of speaking of things which far transcend the limits of his understanding; he behaves as though a mere mental or verbal reference to such subjects (however poorly implemented with actual knowledge and penetration) would by itself amount to their intellectual possession. This cramped attitude of sham spirituality is mostly underlain by an inferiority complex, or by a kind of infantile unconsciousness. Stupidity in its really oppressive form is traceable to this pretension to appear something different from what one is in fact, and by no means to a mere deficiency of intellectual gifts. A person who knows his position and confines himself to themes he does understand will, for all his lack of acumen, never really produce the impression of stupidity, that is to say, his fellow men will not feel embarrassed and exasperated by his intellectual weakness.
Both these attitudes—that of undue depression, and that of forced zeal, to put it briefly—are reprehensible. The supernatural readiness to change steers clear of both these dangers. The man whom it governs is cognizant, at the same time, of his natural limits and of the specific call which God has implanted in his soul. He refuses to flag, and to rest content with the lowest potentialities in his individual nature; but neither does he strain to answer a false idealized concept of himself. While he is conscious of his wretchedness, he will not sink into resignation; for he possesses a supernatural zeal for perfection, expecting the supreme fructification of the talents which God has in reality entrusted to him from his transformation in Christ, rather than from his own effort alone, Man must be sufficiently spirited to be ready to don his festive garment. Whatever his nature be like, he will know that it is possible for him to become another man if he is rightly disposed for being created anew by Christ—mindful of the words which the king in the parable addresses to his guest: “Friend, how earnest thou in hither not having on a wedding garment?” (Matt. 22:12). The state of fluidity in relation to Christ, and the readiness to leave behind everything, particularly one’s own self—such is the tissue of which the festive garment is woven.
Fidelity to error is not a virtue
There are few things more obstructive to that state of fluidity than a certain misconstrued ideal of fidelity often to be met with. Some people attribute value to the attitude of stubborn adherence as such (adherence to an idea, or to an intellectual milieu, in particular). Yet in reality it is adherence to truth and to genuine values only which is good; adherence to errors is a bad thing. What claims our faithfulness is the presence of genuine values. Fidelity is but a manifestation of that continuity by virtue of which we pay consideration to the immutability and the eternal significance of truth and of the world of values.
To abide by a thing inflexibly, merely because we have once believed in it and have come to love it, is not in itself a praiseworthy attitude. It is only in reference to truth and to genuine value that unswerving loyalty is an obligation, and a virtue. In regard to all errors and negative values (that is, evils in the widest sense of the term, but particularly in a morally relevant sense) we have, on the contrary, the duty to break with what we formerly cherished and to withdraw our allegiance from them, once we know them to be false and negative in value. Indeed, the obligation of fidelity in a formal and automatic sense must not hamper our readiness to separate ourselves from such ideals or convictions, once we have serious reasons to doubt their validity. There is only one fidelity to which we are absolutely committed: that is, fidelity towards God, the epitome of all values, and towards everything that represents God and is instrumental to us in approaching Him.
Fidelity to persons vs. fidelity to ideas
This truth is frequently obscured by considerations of this order: “I should, after all, remain faithful to a person whom I have loved, even though I cannot help discovering many negative values in him.” By analogy, it is inferred that an obligation of fidelity exists also in regard to ideas, intellectual milieus, and cultural atmospheres which have formerly meant a great deal to us and have become traditional with us. In reality, however, the situation is quite different in regard to ideological entities than it is in regard to persons. A person, in statu viae, is never something as definitively and univocally fixed (concerning his significance and value) as is an idea or an ideal. A person may grow and unfold, he may reform and perfect himself along lines essentially unlimited in their design. Every human being incarnates a divine thought, and it is to this that my love for him in its decisive spiritual aspect is directed. Hence, I may keep in communion with him even though there be revealed to me an entirely new and higher world: for the latter may make a more basic objective appeal to him also, and that appeal may yet be carried to him actually.
Moreover, all relationships between persons involve a kind of immanent promise which, however tacit, generates a binding mutual claim; whereas in our relationships with nonpersonal entities that specific note is naturally absent. All interpersonal relations are fraught with a kind of immanent obligation; the specific character of obligation differs according to the essential quality and the objective meaning of the relationship in question; but in any such relationship a claim to fidelity remains. It is not so with our relations to ideal entities and other nonpersonal things.
Nevertheless, true fidelity towards a person may on occasion impose on us the duty to withdraw altogether from contact with him. In the case where he would constitute a threat to our fidelity to God, and when we on the other hand feel powerless to help him, our breaking off relations with him is still consistent with our true fidelity towards him: it is destined to promote his spiritual good as well as our own, and is therefore involved in our very love for him so far as love in a higher and ultimate sense implies, above all, responsibility.
Frequently, however, the concept of fidelity towards persons is transferred uncritically to the world of ideas. The unfortunate figure of speech, the Faith of our fathers, is misleading as to the motive for our fidelity towards the Faith; for what can be decisive in this case is only the truth of the Faith, and not the accident that our fathers already happened to believe in it. If this were not so, paganism in its turn could or should never have been supplanted by Christianity. Fidelity to ideas as such is neutral in value only so long as we abstract from the question what ideas are at stake. In reality, there is only one fidelity which is a strict duty: fidelity to truth, fidelity towards Christ.
Dangers of fidelity to false ideals
Not only is fidelity towards errors and false ideals a mistaken attitude; we are also bound to dissolve the bonds that unite us with such cultural or human milieus as cannot withstand the test of confrontation with Christ. Often we cherish certain old and familiar things, ensconcing ourselves in them as in a kind of home, merely because we have lived so long with them, and particularly because they are connected with many memories of our childhood.
Thus, we suffer the world of Christ to penetrate us with its light only so far as it does not interfere with our safe residence in that putative “home.” There is also the danger of attempting so to redraw and to humanize the face of Christ that it may fit into the features of that home.
Many such humanizations and sentimental falsifications are to be found in so-called popular piety, and are expressed even in certain hymns. We must have the readiness to relinquish such all-too-human substitutes, however comfortable we may feel them. We must be filled with the desire to look into the unfalsified countenance of Christ as shown by the Church in her liturgy. We must long to be lifted by Christ into His world, not try to drag Him down into ours. Whatever is of genuine value and appropriate to His world we shall receive back from Him transfigured and resplendent with a new light.
Readiness to change is the core of our response to God
On the measure of our readiness to change depends the measure of our transformation in Christ. Unreserved readiness is an indispensable precondition of the conception of Christ in our souls and it must endure with undiminished vigor all along the path of our transformation. Beyond that, however, as we have seen, it constitutes a central response to Revelation, to God’s epiphany in Christ, and to the call He has issued to us; and therefore, a high virtue by itself.
The significance and the value of such an attitude also appear from the fact that the better a man’s inward condition and the more he feels touched by God the wider the doors of his heart will be opened and the readier he will show himself for being changed. Whenever, on the contrary, some baser impulse gets the upper hand in a man’s soul, he will shut himself up, and the doors will close again. He will harden and attempt to maintain himself.
There is a deep nexus between a kind, unrestrained attitude in general, and the state of fluidity, openness, and receptivity to formative action from above. Still more is the act of free inward surrender to God inseparable from that state of fluidity and receptivity; whereas, by bolting ourselves up and entrenching ourselves in our nature we stifle in our souls the growth of the germs implanted by God, and an opposition to higher appeals will consequently arise in all domains.
The readiness to change is an essential aspect of the Christian’s basic relation with God; it forms the core of our response to the merciful love of God which bends down upon us: “With eternal charity hath God loved us; so He hath drawn us, lifted from the earth, to His merciful heart” (Antiphon of Praise, Feast of the Sacred Heart). To us all has the inexorable yet beatifying call of Christ been addressed: Sequere me (“Follow Me”). Nor do we follow it unless, relinquishing everything, we say with St. Paul: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6).