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The Spiritual Life

A Journey, Battle or
Relationship

 

Our seventh struggle is against the ‘demon’ of self-esteem, a multiform and subtle passion (vice) which is not readily perceived even by the person whom it tempts.  The provocations of the other passions (vices) are more apparent and it is therefore somewhat easier to do battle with them, for the soul recognizes its enemy and can repulse him at once by rebutting him and by prayer.  The vice of self-esteem, however, is difficult to fight against, because it has many forms and appears in all our activities—in our way of speaking, in what we say and in our silences, at work, in vigils and fasts, in prayer and reading, in stillness and long-suffering.  Through all these it seeks to strike down the soldier of Christ.  When it cannot seduce a man with extravagant clothes, it tries to tempt him by means of shabby ones.  When it cannot flatter him with honor, it inflates him by causing him to (“valiantly”) endure what seems to be dishonor.  When it cannot persuade him to feel proud of his display of eloquence, it entices him through silence into thinking he has achieved stillness.  When it cannot puff him up with the thought of his luxurious table, it lures him into fasting for the sake of praise.  In short, every task, every activity, gives this malicious ‘demon’ a chance for battle.
—St. John Cassian

 

 

Like a beautiful diamond, the spiritual life can be looked at from many different angles, viewed in many different ways.  Three of the most common ways to consider the Christian life are to view it as a journey, as a battle, or as a relationship.

As a journey, our spiritual life progresses along the road of beginners in the “purgative” way, to the highway of proficients in the “illuminative” way, to the freeway of the perfect in the “unitive” way.  Another way to see these three stages of the spiritual journey, these levels of spiritual development, is to compare them with human development.  Beginners in the spiritual life are spiritual children, proficients are spiritual adolescents, and those perfect in charity are spiritual adults.  Yet, even in spiritual maturity we can always grow in charity as long as we live in this life.

Growing up spiritually is a long and, at times, arduous journey requiring all of the virtues, gifts and graces that God gives to us.  The supernatural spiritual life develops in our soul by the action of the Holy Spirit with our cooperation.  There will be “high” times and “dry” times, sunshine and rain, smooth and rough terrain.  The wind will be at your back one day and in your face the next.  During the day you will feel the support of others, but in the “night” you may feel left all alone, though, you are not alone.  God is always there with you.  You would not desire Him if He were not already present in your heart and soul to some degree.  God knows the deepest desire in your heart and soul and responds to that, even when all else seems like misery and pain, sin and sadness.  After you have passed through the dry wilderness of the “dark night,” the struggles, temptations, and emptiness of leaving behind the old life, of dying to the “old man,” you will come out on the other side filled with the new Light of Love—a new freedom and peace—from Christ, the Son of God, the Alpha and Omega.

As a battle, our spiritual life is a fight against the enemies of our salvation—the world, the flesh, and the devil.  These three put up obstacles to our spiritual growth and freedom.  We overcome them and win the victory through humility, obedience to God’s will, and purity of heart.  The “world” is worldliness or sin in the world around us, including what is harmful to the spiritual life on the internet or from electronic communications.  The “flesh” is our own fallen human nature with its sinful tendencies and vices—the “old man.” (cf. St. John Cassian’s quote above)  The “devil” is Satan and other evil spirits, demons, who bring about temptation to sin and other obstacles to the fulfillment of God’s will, such as doubt and discouragement, lies and fears, anger, pride or self-esteem. (cf. Eph. 6:10-18)

In this spiritual battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil, we have weapons of spiritual warfare, particularly, the sacraments, prayer and penance, that help us overcome the sin within us and the obstacles without.  We also have comrades in the company of Jesus who are on our side of the fight and support us, namely, the angels and saints, fellow Christians who seek God, and all people of good will, because “whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40)  To be wounded in battle is no disgrace if we have fought bravely against the enemy, have advanced in wisdom, virtue and grace, have taken the high ground on Mount Olivet and Mount Calvary, and returned home in the flight of the Spirit to the Fatherland in victory.

As a relationship, our spiritual life consists in growing closer to God.  After our first conversion we are no longer at odds with God, His enemy, but a friend of God, at least to some degree.  We still want to do our own will at times, but the overall direction of our life is towards God rather than away from Him.  We are trying to die to our sin, to remove the obstacles in the way of our relationship with Him, and to practice the opposite virtues by becoming more like Christ our Lord, our new Friend.  But the way is slow and hard at first, we do not know the Lord very well, and our life is still so far from His life and perfection.  Our relationship with Christ is somewhat tenuous and distant.

Then comes the second conversion and the relationship goes to a whole new level.  We begin to experience the Flame of Love burning inside us, the Holy Spirit intimately purifying us and inspiring us to love God more than ever before.  “Did not our heart burn within us while he spoke on the way.” (Luke 24:32)  Like the disciples who walked and talked with Jesus Christ on the road to Emmaus and asked Him to stay, we begin to pray to the Lord in a whole new way, contemplatively, heart to Heart, spirit to Spirit.  Our mind becomes more focused on the presence of God within us and abandonment to His will.  We are drawn to solitude and silence.  “Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.” (John 14:21)  We are becoming good friends of God, and Jesus Christ is leading us as our constant Companion, our spiritual and holy Beloved.

Like metal to a magnet, our soul is drawn to God in the spiritual life.  The closer we are to Him the stronger will be our desire and longing to be united to Him completely.  Eventually, our love for God becomes so strong and our detachment from all else so great, that we are taken out of ourselves in spiritual rapture and ecstasy into Him who is Divine Wisdom and Love, high and mighty.  It is the spiritual betrothal or engagement.  Following the second conversion and the grace of infused contemplation, there are escalating degrees of spiritual ecstasy (intense union with God) over the years leading up to rapture.  Yet, even in the highest rapture and most complete ecstasy called “the flight of the spirit,” the soul, probably, does not actually leave the body, but is abstracted and detached from the senses, elevated to God in spirit by the power of Divine Love.  Still, this flight of the spirit into God is so powerful, strange and wonderful that it can be fearful.  Faith, courage and trust are necessary, especially at the beginning of these spiritual experiences.  Divine Love, the “Gentle Giant,” picks up the soul like a piece of straw and swiftly transports her, like a rocket, into a far away place and heavenly atmosphere where mysteries are revealed and souls are freed and healed.  The soul should simply abandon herself into the hands of God with trust and surrender.  There is no safer or better place to be than with The Almighty.  The soul gains profound humility in these spiritual experiences from the awareness of her littleness and God’s greatness.  Her respect and love for God grow immensely.  Her faith and hope in Him vastly increases.  Upon returning to herself and coming down, she discovers that her spirit has been greatly strengthened by God and set free, more empty of “self” and full of burning charity.  She may continue to be somewhat in ecstasy after the rapture, more or less unable to be occupied with anything other than the presence of God, but in not too long a time the intensity will subside.  Then, the soul must, once again, deny herself, pick up her cross, and follow Him.  “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38)  Eventually, God will strengthen her for a more lasting and stable union with Him. (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2-10)  This stage of the spiritual life is well described by the biographer of one nun, “Who then could adequately praise this great servant of God, who desiring so vehemently to see and to contemplate her Bridegroom’s Face, yet bore the pain of being deprived of Him with such a perfect submission to His holy will!”

If the soul continues faithful, she may receive from Jesus Christ, her Beloved, the greatest gift possible this side of heaven, the mystical marriage or transforming union with God.  In this third and final conversion, the soul is made spiritually one with the Son of God in a new bond of love.  “Whoever is united to the Lord, is one spirit with him.” (1 Cor. 6:17)  The Risen Lord Jesus joyfully and lovingly accepts her as His own, having brought her to this place by His grace and her willing cooperation.  The Living Flame of Love, the Holy Spirit, melts the soul down and lifts her up, placing her within the “Face of the Father,” the Son of God.  This mystical or spiritual marriage, this transforming union in Christ our Lord, is the highest and most complete union with God possible here on earth.  The result is spiritual purity and strength, “a clean heart” and “a right spirit,” holy love and wisdom, the full flowering of the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit, the salvation of souls and the glory of God. (Psalms 51:10)

 

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