Spirituality for Today – March 2008 – Volume 12, Issue 8
Are You Engaged Yet?
Maybe it's just because I'm writing this column on Valentine's Day that married love as a symbol for the spiritual life occurs to me. More likely it is inspired by great spiritual masters such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Theresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Therese of Lisieux. They are unanimous in describing the highest degree of union of the soul with God in terms of marriage. They refer to people who have arrived at a state of true spiritual perfection as being "espoused" to God or "in a nuptial union" with God. In doing this, these authors are reflecting Scripture which tells us not only that God loves us but that God is love. So, as Pope Benedict XVI eloquently teaches us, it's not surprising that marriage symbolizes our ultimate union with God.
I hope you won't mind if I extend nuptial imagery a bit as I pose the central question of our lives and of the season of Lent: Where do we stand with God? Am I advancing in the spiritual life or regressing?
Let's see where nuptial imagery takes us in answering that question.
Well, to start on the lowest rung - it might be asked if we are separated from God. Have we severed our relationship with God by living as if God does not exist or at least as if He does not matter? Have we cut our ties with God by committing mortal sin?
Yes, it still exists. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that "[mortal sin] destroys charity in us, deprives us of sanctifying grace, and, if un-repented, leads us to the eternal death of hell." Fortunately, God does not will the death of a sinner (Ezekiel 18:23). He demonstrated the depth of His love for us in that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, as Saint Paul teaches (Romans 5:8). Lent is preeminently the time to return to the Lord with all our heart through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the sacrament of God's mercy.
Even if we are not separated from God, we may find we are not really on speaking terms. For example, we might attend Mass only on Christmas and Easter and rarely refer to God otherwise. We might look upon God as a friend of our parents whom we are obligated to visit now and then. It might be the case that we do not really have a relationship with God on the score that we're preoccupied.
Lots of spouses feel that way, too. For example, it wouldn't be too hard to find wives who feel their husbands are so preoccupied with work and other avocations that they don't have enough time for their marriage and family. When either spouse behaves that way, usually the couple becomes estranged. Lo and behold, it's entirely possible for any of us to follow the same path in our relationship with God. Not divorced, but estranged. And it's not that God doesn't want it to work. He is always faithful and communicative. We're the ones who are distant and who play hard to get.
Now let's go up a rung or two. Let's imagine that we are sincerely striving to avoid mortal sin and at least begin a stable spiritual life by attending Mass on Sunday, receiving the Sacrament of Penance from time to time, striving to fulfill the responsibilities of our respective vocations, and so forth. In the process, we are asking God to help us begin to quell our disordered passions, whether they pertain to food, sex, money and possessions, power, or other forms of self-centeredness. At this stage, we are starting to fall in love with God. And, like all new lovers, we might experience infatuation. As we begin to win small victories over sin and practice charity, we may find ourselves consoled and happy when we pray. We may feel the exhilaration of young lovers who know they've entered into a wonderful relationship but do not really know what the future will be.
The next stage may not feel like progress. In fact, here is where we're tempted to give up. The minute we start getting serious about our relationship with God, He will start purifying our hearts. And purification is painful. Small and temporary victories which may have produced initial infatuation with God aren't enough. God, who is the perfect lover, is out to help us love Him and others to the fullest possible extent. So it won't be long before He asks us to undergo a long and difficult purification, sometimes referred to as "the purgative way." This involves a protracted struggle with sin, especially sinful habits that we've accrued over time.
Through God's grace, we root out vices and replace them with corresponding virtues. Around this time, we may find it isn't so much fun to pray after all. We'll find it hard to keep our attention focused on our prayer. We might find that "nothing happens" or be tempted to say, "I don't get anything out of it." And make no mistake, there's another suitor waiting in the wings (the devil), just hoping our relationship with God will go on the rocks. Lots of people around us might also suggest that the struggle isn't worth it.
Scripture gives us the right advice. We must "resist them, steadfast in faith" (1 Peter 5:9). The passage from infatuation to the first stages of a solid relationship of love with God is fraught with danger. But here's where the foundations of the relationship must be firmly established. This doesn't mean that as progress is made we don't have to return to foundations from time to time. We do. But there is no real progress in prayer and holiness without a solid foundation.
We might think of the next stage as "going steady." Our relationship with God has become serious and, because of His love, we have removed serious obstacles to its growth. The Trinity has become a central and regular part of our daily lives. We notice steady growth in prayer, virtue, and love for others. This intermediate stage of the spiritual life is sometimes called "the illuminative way." Here the Lord's love sheds much light on our inmost soul. While we recognize that God's grace has already brought reasonable order and stability to our spiritual lives, we also begin to see more clearly the greatness of His love. Filled with wonder and awe, it dawns on us how much progress remains to be made in loving God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. We get a glimpse at how deep-seated are the vices we've been grappling with. We realize how hard it is to pull them out by their roots and how readily they grow back. We begin to understand the utter gratuitousness of God's love for us and how hard we must struggle to welcome that love into the depth of our hearts.
We may also notice a change in our prayer. Prayer remains a part of our daily lives, according to our vocation. We may find that our first attempts to pray involved memorized prayers and/or slow and prayerful reading of Scripture or the application of a Gospel story or Scripture verse to our lives. As time goes by, we may find ourselves simply conversing and listening to God, enjoying His Presence, and grieving when we think He is absent. Indeed, like lovers who are going steady, there is an interplay of presence and absence at this stage in the spiritual life.
Sometimes we pray, but God does not seem to be there. We may continue to pray only by what appears to be sheer willpower. But the Lord is leading us deeper into His love. He doesn't want us to pray just because it makes us feel good. He wants us to pray because it unites us to Himself.
After "going steady" for a time - and it varies from person to person - the time for the engagement arrives. Some spiritual writers refer to this as the betrothal. This is a very advanced stage in the spiritual life. Here the soul is opened out to the immense dimensions of God's love revealed and communicated to us by Christ, its "breadth, length, height, and depth" (see Ephesians 3:14-21). Here we begin to pray and love in an almost completely selfless way. Instead of looking for consolation, rewards, praise, and thanks, we are looking for love alone. In fact, we become indifferent to those things.
Here we are very near to that complete union of wills, that nuptial union, that spiritual marriage which is the ultimate goal of our lives. This was termed "the unitive way" by spiritual masters. In this stage we experience the true freedom to love as we have been loved and to share that love courageously and freely with others. Far from being closed in on themselves, those who attain to the heights of the spiritual life are the true missionaries. The integrity and boldness of their love and their witness to Christ produces much fruit, for example, vocations, conversions to the faith, and so forth.
The foregoing, of course, is only a sketch. But I hope it's enough of a sketch to help us answer the question, "Where do we stand with God?"
We know God loves us unconditionally. We're always the ones who put conditions on His love. Lent is a graced opportunity to remove at least some of those conditions and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to move toward loving Him unreservedly.
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