By Brian Cleeve 2001
Anyone writing about spiritual life runs the risk of seeming to claim an inner knowledge or a degree of understanding that the reader does not possess.
Please believe me when I say that I am making no such claim. Twenty five years ago I might have thought so, although even then I hope I wouldn’t have been so stupid as to say it. But a quarter of a century and a third of my “thinking life” on, I could not dream of it.
If I know and understand anything now, it is that I know next to nothing and understand still less.
What, you may then ask is the point of someone so ignorant offering a book to you that dares to talk about spiritual life? My excuse is that the book contains more questions than answers, and such answers as it does contain are ones that I accept for myself as being true, without any certainty that anyone else will agree.
Perhaps it is best to declare what the book is not. It has nothing to do with New Age beliefs, or Eastern cults. It is not an invitation to join anything or anyone. Perhaps I could compare it to a signpost containing a question mark. The notice pinned to it – this book – says “I think this is the way to go. But please take care.”
Brian Cleeve – 16 January 2001
A Spiritual Director
If you were to decide one day to follow a spiritual path to God, to develop your spiritual life, you would almost certainly decide also to seek a spiritual director, a wise adviser. (Teresa of Avila wrote that no adviser at all was preferable to an unwise one). Perhaps you have already made these decisions, in which case you will have no need of anything in these pages.
But if such ideas have occurred to you, but you have not yet acted on them, then what follows may have at least some value here and there, being like the curate’s egg, “good in parts.” The good parts are the questions that the novice surely needs to ask. As for the answers offered here, you must make up your mind, and if you find them unsatisfactory then at the worst they may prompt you to find better ones.
What does a spiritual path mean? Spiritual progress, accepting spiritual direction? Surely it must mean a form of education, being led on to deeper understanding of what we need to be in order to serve and please God? And just as in any worldly education there are subjects of study, there are subjects of study in spiritual education, beginning with the equivalent of the three R’s, the simplest beginning to all further advances in learning. Before you can become an astrophysicist or a good bus driver you need to be able to read and write and count.
For a spiritual education the equivalent of that essential foundation surely must be the love of God. If you have not love, St. Paul wrote, no other virtue will be of any value. But what is love? And above all other kinds of love, the love of God? Is it like the love of a man for a woman, a child for its mother? Is it a quiet love, like the friend’s love for a friend? The love of a good servant for her mistress? A loyal subject for his king? Or the passionate love of a lover for the Beloved?
It might, according to the novice’s character, be any of these, but if it is to carry you through the inevitable trials and temptations of spiritual life, then passionate love will be your salvation, your bread and wine and staff for the journey. All other kinds of love may fail if the hardships are great enough. Only passion will survive all things, all enemies, all the assaults of evil.
But to feel a passionate love for God you must possess some idea of who or what God is. The Holy Trinity? The Father? The Son? The Holy Ghost? Allah? Buddha? The Great White Spirit? The Tao? A “Force;” the Prime Cause? “The God within you”? The Mother Goddess? A “Presence”?
Your choice will almost certainly depend on your religious background or even a non-religious one that has failed to satisfy you. But it is difficult to imagine feeling passionate love for “The Force” (as in the film-born fashion of the early 80’s, when young people greeted one another by the salute “May the Force be with you!”). The Prime Cause, or the Tao or even Buddha also seem incapable of inspiring passionate love.
As for the New Age concept of the God within you, the danger is that the passionate love will not be of God at all, but of one’s self, and the true aim of spiritual life, if it is to have real value, is to become selfless, to annihilate the self. If you disagree with that statement, nothing that follows will have any meaning for you, unless it succeeds in persuading you that it is true.
A passionate love for Allah, Jesus, the Mother Goddess, the Father, the Holy Spirit? A Presence? The novice might feel passionate love for any of those Divine Beings, but unless you also feel that Being as a Presence the passion will be for an idea, a concept, rather than a vivid, intense reality in your life, that surrounds you, is with you, day and night as a Person, a Mind, that answers your love with Love. And also with guidance, and where necessary, correction.
You may choose to think of the Presence, the Divine Person as masculine or feminine, or with much greater difficulty as both or neither. But the experience of every mystic, at least of the kind we are concerned with here, tells us that the experience of God must be intensely personal, whether it is Teresa of Avila thinking of God as “His Majesty” or John of the Cross dreaming of “the Beloved” or the Song of Songs and the Gospels imagining God as the Bridegroom.
As the Novice advances in learning the three R’s of spiritual life and becomes more and more aware of the Presence of God in his, her life, there is an insistent question that needs to be answered. The Novice loves God, yes, and learned from babyhood that God loves her, loves him. But why? What reason can the Novice offer that says “of course God loves me!” You would need to be very self-satisfied to say anything of the kind, and the last thing the Novice needs is to be self-satisfied.
What the Novice must do at this point is not to seek reasons as to why God should love her, or him, but the opposite. The reason why in human terms God should not. It will be a very painful exercise in self-examination. There are unlikely to be any grand crimes and fearsome sins. It is more likely to become a catalogue of petty vileness, selfishness, stupidity, cowardice, broken promises, minor dishonesty, insignificant betrayals, vanity, long-held resentments, enmities, bitter feelings about long ago injuries.
We need to look at ourselves as God sees us, and unless you are unique, it is likely to be a horrible experience if we are really brutally honest about our lives. (And nothing less than brutal honesty can serve our purpose). There will be an immediate temptation to say “Oh no! Maybe I haven’t been perfect, but who is? The things I’ve done, well doesn’t everyone do them? And anyway, they are all in the past, I’m a new man now, a new woman! My decision to enter on a spiritual path proves it!”
To think like this would be fatal. All this ugliness has to be laid out before God and in the middle of the maggot-ridden mess there will be one sin that can stand as a symbol of all the others. The novice will learn to think of it as the Judas Kiss, that insignificant action that betrayed Jesus to His death. You think this is absurd, a ludicrous comparison? What could the worst of men and women ever have done to equal that betrayal? And if you were to describe your own, if I were to describe mine, to anyone else, we would be told we were being absurd. “Everyone does things like that!”
Indeed they do and that is our tragedy. But it is not what everyone else does that is significant here. It is what you did, what I did, that matters and the more we examine it the less absurd it seems to call it our Judas Kiss. It may have been no more seemingly important than a kiss. It may have been no more than a word said in anger or contempt, a refusal to help someone when we knew we could and should have helped them, a mean betrayal of a friend’s trust. It could be anything, but as we look at it, it seems more and more terrible, unforgivable.
God may forgive it, will forgive, in the moment of asking forgiveness, but how dare we ask, how dare we accept it? We want to crawl away into the darkness, hide from God’s Mercy that we know we can never deserve. This is the first and hardest step on our spiritual journey, to accept God’s love for us as we are, and not as we would wish to be, shining with innocence.
This reluctance is itself a temptation of vanity. “If I cannot stand before God in a pure white tunic, I would rather not do so at all!” Together with this temptation there is a more sensible feeling that while God may indeed forgive us, it will be a forgiveness shadowed by horror at what God sees us to be. “How can I dare to offer you my stained love, and hope you will accept?”
There is a strange quatrain, an epitaph on a gravestone somewhere, that offers a consoling answer to this question.
“My name is Martin Elginbrod.
Have mercy on my soul Lord God,
As I would have if I were God,
And God were Martin Elginbrod.”
If you truly love God, see and know God as the Beloved, and by some extraordinary reversal the Beloved asked you for forgiveness, can you imagine refusing it, and more than that, allowing your forgiveness to be shadowed by contempt, a continuing condemnation? Forgiveness is absolute or it is nothing. Between God and us there is no “conditional” or partial forgiveness. We remain what we always have been, wretched failures. But forgiven for our wretchedness.
Yet woe to the wretch who fails to see how wretched he is, she is, and to accept God’s love as a right, like the dole or an old age pension. If ever a feeling of self-satisfaction creeps into the novice’s mind in the future, let him, let her remember that Judas Kiss with fresh horror and near despair.
If you can accept the idea that your love of God can be passionate, and should be, and that it is the love of God as a Person, a living, loving Presence that is with you always, it will become the centre of your life, the entirety of your real life. Of course you will have other interests, other loves, but they will be on a different level.
Think of someone who is an athlete. Not simply athletic, with an interest in keeping fit, but someone in training for the Olympics. Their lives revolve around their training sessions. Their mental vision is fixed on that future moment when, if their training is successful they will be chosen for their national team. Beyond that lies the event itself in which they intend to compete. And shimmering on the horizon of their ambition is a gold medal, impossibly beyond all rational hope, and yet…
St Paul wrote in terms of the classical Olympic games. “I have run the race… and won the crown.”
It is a perfect image, except that the spiritual race is not run against other athletes but against yourself, your weaknesses and temptations, and the race is a marathon that lasts your entire life.
Your love of God brings you to the starting place, but you need more than that love, passionate as it is, to allow you to compete with any hope of success. You need certain qualities, call them virtues if you wish, and the first of them is obedience to God’s Will. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Thy Will be done.” But what exactly does that mean? That whatever God does, we must accept? In particular what God does to us? To accept our apparently undeserved misfortunes (as opposed to those we bring on ourselves by our follies) with a graceful submission? Yes.
If we are wise we can learn much more from our misfortunes then we can ever learn from what we might call our good fortune. We tend to take good health, for example, as natural, and scarcely notice it until we lose it. A reasonable job, a pleasant home, good friends, a loving family. How many people thank God for them? No doubt you do, and always have, but that man you know who is twice as well off as you will ever be, does he ever think of God, let alone give thanks? And most people are like him.
Until misfortune strikes, illness, unemployment, the death of a child, someone dear and always depended on, a wife, a husband, a parent. Then there are lessons to be learned, of endurance, acceptance, patience, submission to God’s Will. And temptations to conquer; anger at the injustice, even anger against God; and self-pity. “Why should this happen to me? What did I ever do to deserve this? How could God allow it? Treat me so cruelly?”
Then is the time to remember the story of Job, and his great declaration. “Though He slay me, yet will I love Him!”
But all of that involves only the passive acceptance of God’s Will. There is also an active effort required of us to strive for the achievement of God’s Will. Not simply to endure, but to act. It is as if a house were to fall down and God asks us to help rebuild it, not simply accept its fall. “It was My Holy Will that it should fall. Now it is equally My Will that it be rebuilt. Set to mixing concrete, laying bricks!”
But God’s Will requires more than simple unthinking obedience: what has been called “blind obedience”. It also requires intelligence, common sense, and the exercise of conscience.
Without these, obedience becomes that of a robot. The Jesuits, so it is said, require a “corpse-like obedience” to the will of the Superior. “The will of the Superior is the Will of God” even if the Superior happens to be wrong. But that corpse-like obedience is also subject to conscience. And you are not a Jesuit. If you were, you would be very unlikely to be reading these words.
But, the novice may ask, if God requires us to act, surely all we need do is obey? What need would there be for reasoning or common sense or conscience? God would never ask anything of us that is unreasonable, not sensible, and against our consciences! Surely it is virtuous to abandon our human sense of caution and no matter what God asks of us, or seems to, we should fling ourselves into the required action?
The words “seems to” — seems to require of us, provide the warning we need. We have been given our powers of reason and sense of conscience in order to use them, not ignore them. And the way God makes sure we do use them is to offer us temptations not to use them, and problems that demand that we use them in order to find out the right solution.
We can find examples every day, of the simplest kind. It seems absolutely obvious to Mrs. Smith that God must wish her, will her to look after her drunken husband, patiently nurse his hangovers, put up with his ill-temper when he is sober and allow him to leave her short of housekeeping money in order to continue getting drunk. Her neighbours and friends shake their heads, but agree that this must be God’s Will and that Mrs. Smith is a living saint for accepting her manifest destiny.
The marriage ceremony told her that she was being married for better or for worse. The worse has happened, and she must make the best of it. It does not occur to her for a long time, indeed it may never occur to her to the day she dies, that she has been making a terrible mistake; that it cannot really have been God’s Will. What her “saintly patience” has actually done is to allow and encourage her husband to become an alcoholic, and continue to be one until his liver packs up, and he dies of it.
Maybe nothing she could have done would have prevented this, but what she actually did was to make sure it happened.
There are a thousand variations on this story, and all of them have this same element in common — that whoever is at the centre of the story is convinced they know what God’s Will must be. They never question it. It never occurs to them that they could be wrong. That God has placed them in a situation where they need to think, use their ability to reason, and that if they believe their conscience is telling them to do something their reason tells them is wrong, maybe their conscience needs more education.
Of course there are people who do use their reason, and who decide that what God appears to want of them is irrational. But almost always this leads them to decide that God is irrational, or evil, or non-existent. It is a very rare person who recognizes that God was prompting them to question His Will, in order to discover what He really wanted them to do.
Reason would have told Mrs. Smith again and again that to give her husband licence and money to get drunk had to be wrong, senseless and harmful. But her conscience told her she must continue to do it, and she never questioned her conscience, never wondered if she ought to question it to find out whether it was sufficiently well informed.
That is one immensely important aspect of obedience; to make as certain as is humanly possible that what you obey is really God’s Will, and not merely your mistaken idea of what that Will must be, or ought to be. But even then, how can one know? Even if you begin to feel an inner awareness, or “an Inner Voice” prompting you, there can never be any certainty.
Research in England a few years ago discovered that at least half the many people questioned believed that they had heard an Inner Voice that they believed to be their Guardian Angel or God or some great Being, usually warning them about a danger. But was it really some Voice other than their own subconscious, or a vivid imagination? There can never be certainty in such a matter and common sense suggests that God never would give us absolute certainty. If He did, if we could know beyond all possibility of doubt that God exists and is giving us commands, Faith would cease to be a virtue, would in fact cease to exist, being unnecessary.
The nearest anyone can come to certainty is one’s own conviction that what one believes is good. That even if God did not exist one would still behave in exactly the same way.
But since the Novice has chosen to enter on a spiritual path, the Novice’s inner conviction has to include the existence of God and a determination to discover Her true Will and obey it. “Her” Will? Why not Her rather than His? For most of human pre-history and much of our history we have worshipped a Goddess, and to think of God as a Mother seems just as sensible if not more so as to think of God as a Father.
It seems that in Christian Theology even the Holy Spirit is masculine, so that Father, Son and masculine Holy Spirit have no place for the Feminine Principle. The reason for this is obvious enough; that theologians until very recently were always priests and therefore men. Men moreover with a strong contempt for, and suspicion of, women as the source of all evil.
How then could a Novice in spiritual life find it possible to run counter to such a powerful tradition and seek to obey a Presence conceived of as Feminine? In exactly the same way that the Novice can and must question traditional assumptions about God’s Will and what constitutes “holiness” and saintliness. It is very likely that a great many of those assumptions are valuable and true. The question is, which of them may be untrue? And not only not valuable but actually harmful, as Mrs. Smith should have found out.
Suppose then that the Novice conceives of a Feminine Presence, God as Feminine, not because God is a woman any more than God is a man, but as a way of focussing passionate love and passionate obedience on the Beauty and Perfection of the Presence. It is simply a matter of personal choice, but it is worth while to recognize that there is a choice, and the Inner Voice and awareness comes, can come, from a feminine Beloved.
So far the discussion has centered on discovering the reality of God’s Will. Next comes the question of how to obey that reality. It needs to be as passionately as the Novice loves God. Passionate love without passionate obedience is worthless, a mere self-indulgence. The obedience must also be constant, not simply in “big matters,” but in everything, in every detail of the Novice’s life. To eat a slice of bread against what one feels certain is God’s true Will is not a small thing. It is an enormous thing, and the Novice who truly loves God would sooner die than disobey God in the least detail.
Is this extravagant language? It is not intended to be, but a simple statement of fact. There used to be a rule in Roman Catholic confessionals that in confessing a theft the value of the object or amount of money stolen was important. Less than a certain amount, the sin was venial. Above that amount, the sin was mortal. For the everyday penitent this was a merciful dispensation. But for the Novice setting out on the marathon journey to holiness it can have no meaning. Theft is theft. Disobedience is disobedience and there can be no shades of grey between black and white.
Obedience to God’s true Will, of this passionate and moment by moment kind, requires qualities of character to support it. The first of them is courage. Not the kind of courage needed to face lions in the arena, but a kind equally difficult to find in one’s self, the courage to withstand the criticism, amused contempt and covert hostility of your friends, your family, those you work beside.
Obviously the Novice would never make any display of obedience to God, of his, her love of God, but such a change in the Novice’s attitude to life inevitably makes itself apparent. There are things that “everybody” does that the Novice will no longer do. There are even things that “nobody” does or believes that the Novice will now do or believe, and people will notice and become offended.
The Novice’s new attitude to everyday life will seem like a criticism of their attitudes. “Who does he think he is?” St. Francis of b…. y Assisi?!” “Why won’t you? Are you trying to be the new St. Therese?”
After the criticism and hostility will come advice. “It’s all very well trying to do whatever it is you’re doing, but you mustn’t become a fanatic. You always did take everything to extremes. I’m telling you it’s just wrong, it’s a kind of madness. Just be like everyone else.”
That of course is exactly what the Novice is trying not to be. But the advice sounds so sensible, that it takes great courage to resist it. “Am I being a fanatic? Stupidly extreme? Isn’t the saying moderation in all things very wise?” Even a priest, if the Novice were to ask his advice, would be very likely to say this. And as for being aware of God’s Voice, and an inner awareness of God’s true Will, a priest would be almost the last person to accept this as possible.
If you were to tell him that an evil spirit speaks to you, he would accept that sooner. Which, when one thinks of it, is strange, but although he might not put it into words, a priest has a vested interest in people, lay people, not hearing God or receiving inner promptings from God. If too many people did, priests would become redundant. They know God’s Will, and when you want to know it, you need only ask them.
If you claim to hear God, to know what God really wants, the priest’s likely answer is that what you are hearing is the Voice of an evil spirit, if it is not simply your imagination.
Here too the Novice requires courage to maintain her conviction against such condemnation. “Can it really be true? Am I the only one who is right while everyone I know and who condemns me is wrong? Is this not insanity, a mad arrogance?”
It is like throwing one’s self over a cliff, without knowing what lies below, only an inner assurance that it is what she should do. There is an ironical story about a priest who fell over a cliff, not on purpose but by accident. Half way down he managed to catch hold of a frail bush growing out of the rock. He hung there in terror calling out for help, “Is anyone up there?”
A Voice came from Heaven, “I am! Let go of the bush and I your Creator will see to it that you float gently down to safety!”
The priest thought for a moment or two and then called out again; “Is there anyone else up there?”
Even before the Novice throws himself over the cliff’s edge there is an almost overwhelming temptation to seek a second opinion. Why should anyone do this, commit their souls to so uncertain a spiritual adventure? Why not remain in safety on the cliff top? Go to church on a Sunday (when it is not raining). Keep the commandments (or at least most of them) and trust in God’s Mercy to get you into heaven? Isn’t that enough for you? It seems to be for everyone else.
But there is a quiet question here. Is it enough? That people believe it is doesn’t make it true. It may be. But also it may not. If you have any trust in the Gospels they suggest that Sunday morning religion (with golf in the afternoon) is not enough. “Be you perfect.” Jesus said. “Perfect”. And when the young man asked Jesus what he must do to be saved, Jesus gave him a very demanding answer. “Sell all you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Then take up your cross and follow Me.”
The young man went away troubled because he had great possessions. But oh! You and I don’t have great possessions so we can’t be asked to give them to the poor! But we may still be asked to take up our cross and… suppose we don’t? If one believes the speakers at most funerals, priests and laity, it won’t matter much what we may have done, or failed to do. Entry into heaven is more or less guaranteed. But suppose it’s not? That there is an entry fee?
This is not a fashionable thought and most people refuse to think it. They have better ways to spend their time. Except that the Gospel story of Dives and Lazarus suggests that there cannot be a better way to spend one’s time. Dives the millionaire, after his death, would have given all his wealth for one drop of water to moisten his parched lips. And Lazarus, the one-time beggar who had lain at the millionaire’s gate hoping for a stale crust, was unable to reach across the gulf between them.
Is there such a gulf? Are these merely fairy tales? Or could they possibly be true? Or even half-true? Or even a little bit true? True enough to make the risk of “jumping over the cliff” worth taking? So that that act of reckless madness may be less mad, less reckless than it seems to the onlookers?
The next quality that the Novice needs is not one that can be gained by an act of will, like courage or obedience, but that grows of itself if the Novice by now possesses and practices those virtues as they should be practised. It is Moral Authority.
It grows from that inner conviction that the Novice has, that what she, he is doing, what he or she believes is right, and good and is of great value. Not that the Novice feels herself to be good or of personal value. It has nothing to do with the self-esteem and self-love that is a fashionable “virtue” in America and New Age circles.
It will of necessity be accompanied by the most sincere humility, and a very real sense of personal worthlessness. “Not I but Christ in me” St. Paul wrote. “Not I, but my obedience in me”, the Novice might say. And in that passionate obedience lies the Novice’s aura of authority.
It is not the policeman’s authority to tell anyone what to do. That would be the opposite of the Novice’s intention in any contact with other people. The Novice would not wish to exercise any kind of authority, nor be aware of possessing any. It is the other people who might, would be, aware of it. They might resent it, or be moved to admiration by it, but they will see it in the Novice’s manner and bearing.
It is like a good teacher entering a classroom. She does not need to call for silence, command good behaviour. She expects nothing else and the pupils in the class would not dream of behaving badly. She commands respect by her presence, that inner conviction that she knows exactly what she is doing and knows how to do it well.
There is a parallel in the confidence that mastery in the martial arts gives to the master. The true master does not swagger, challenging someone to attack him so that he can teach him a harsh lesson. The master goes about his life and business very quietly, making no parade of his skill. But that skill reveals itself in his bearing, the gentle confidence of his carriage. And in consequence no one in their right mind will attack him.
The Novice’s obedience is the equivalent of the martial arts. Their spiritual equivalent. But what is its value? Why is it necessary? Would the Novice do even better to be absolutely unnoticed? In one sense she, he will be. She will not preach, try to persuade anyone to imitate her, very certainly she will not proclaim her obedience to God. She may never mention God. She will strive to be unnoticed, just as the Zen Master of the martial arts will go through life very softly and quietly, never speaking of his skills. Only in the dojo if a pupil comes to him for lessons will he reveal what he knows. Even then he will do so with great humility.
The Novice in the spiritual disciplines will act in the same way. But she, he, will radiate authority of the same quiet kind and that authority will be noticed. The Novice’s passionate striving to obey and serve God will be like a candle flame in the dark. Enemies may attempt to quench its light, but they cannot succeed unless the Novice allows them to and her courage will never surrender to them.
People of goodwill will be drawn to her light, will want to follow it, be guided by it. There are not many lit candles of this kind and the world is spiritually a very dark place. You yourself will almost certainly have had experience of someone like the Novice; someone who made you feel better simply by their presence near you. Just as someone else may have seemed to you to be surrounded by an icy darkness.
In an earlier section the Novice was compared to an athlete training for the Olympic Marathon. Both Novice and athlete have need of the following three qualities, that in fact are complementary, like three parts of a whole or three sides of a triangle. They are patience, endurance and determination.
Patience is needed to train, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Great patience.
The endurance is needed to suffer the aching muscles, the agony of breaching that “wall” athletes speak of, the wall that commands the body to stop, to collapse, and that must be broken through with muscles that scream “impossible!”
Only determination can carry the athlete to the end of the course; immense determination, like tempered steel.
All this is true of the Novice. The Path to holiness is far longer than any marathon, or series of marathons. There are few excitements, maybe none at all. There will be periods, maybe long periods when God seems to have abandoned you. There are seemingly endless temptations to endure, as painful to the mind and heart of the Novice as any athlete’s burning, tortured muscles. And only determination can bring the Novice through each day, the determination that whispers between clenched teeth, “I will not surrender to the tempter. I will go on.”
“Does the road wind up hill all the way?
Yes! To the very end.
Does the journey last the live-long day?
From morn till night my friend.”
It is the hardest of journeys. And no one who cannot feel a passionate determination to follow it to its end should even begin it. Patience, like passion, contains two meanings. The first is obvious, to be patient, not to complain about long waiting. The second is suffering, the endurance of pain, equally uncomplainingly. Just as passion can mean passionate love, longing, desire, but also suffering, as one speaks of the Passion of Christ on the Cross.
Both these meanings apply to the Novice’s long journey. And the intending Novice needs to understand this and to realize that spiritual pain, emotional, mental pain can be as agonizing as any physical pain and can be longer-lasting. “How long oh Lord, how long?” And Jesus’ own cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou deserted me?” St. Therese of Lisieux spent the last l8 months of her brief life in the dark night of the soul, in which faith seems a fool’s delusion, there is no light of hope, only despair. Yet one must not despair, one must continue to hope.
Yet in spite of these threatened agonies there must be an underlying faith, a foundation of trust in God. “All things are in God’s Hands.” And “Although He slay me, yet will I love Him.” And this underpinning, this rock strong conviction of faith and trust, if need be against all temptations to abandon trust, will give the Novice an inner serenity that is deeper and more powerful than any such word as mere “happiness” can mean.
The Novice can say not only that all things are in God’s Hands but “I am in Her Hands.” And say with Julian of Norwich’s long ago certainty:
“All things will be well and all manner of things will be well.”
Among the temptations a Novice must overcome is that of intolerance. Devoted to God, obeying God’s Will, how is the Novice to regard people who not only seem to have no spiritual interests, but whose behaviour is scandalous? The Novice spends his, her life seeking to be “just,” to uphold what is just and good, to be “righteous.” It is very easy for righteousness to become self-righteousness, for someone living a pure life to become a puritan, puritanical.
How can the Novice avoid the twin pitfalls of condoning unrighteousness, evil, and becoming judgmental and self-righteous, saying with the Pharisee, “Thank God I am not as other men are!” Church teaching states that God hates the sin but loves the sinner. Is this how the Novice must think and behave? The thinking is easy. But the behaving? And the way the Novice behaves in the presence of “unrighteousness” reveals, surely how the Novice is thinking, condemning the sin, loving or at least feeling compassion for the sinner.
It would be difficult to guess which would infuriate the sinner most. To have her, his sin condemned, or to be the object of the Novice’s compassion. “Who the hell do you think you are, looking at me like that?”
There is no satisfactory answer to that question. “I don’t care what you’ve been doing”? But the Novice does care. “It’s not for me to judge you!” This makes it seem all the more obvious that the Novice is judging. “Well yes, I do think you are wrong, but I’ve done lots of wrong things myself.” This can sound so condescending as to make matters worse.
A further difficulty is to distinguish between levels of “unrighteousness” that the Novice encounters, and to decide how to act or react. Is there a level of seriousness which requires that the Novice should act? The girl at the next desk in the Novice’s office spends long periods of her working day on the ‘phone to her boyfriend. This means not only that she is wasting time for which she is being paid and making private calls on the office ‘phone bill, but that other people in the office are going to be landed with the work she neglects.
Should the Novice say anything? To the girl herself? To the office supervisor? Discuss it informally with anyone else in the office? Seek an inner awareness as to what she should do? Is it her business to do or say anything? And are there other things to consider beside the plain facts? Why is the girl doing it? Because she is idle and selfish and dishonest? Or in desperate anxiety about something, and only her boyfriend’s patient advice can console her? But why must it be in office hours and not in the evening after work? Or is she afraid of losing her boyfriend, who all too often seems unavailable in the evenings?
Instead of condemning the girl either silently or to someone else or to the girl’s face, should the Novice ask the girl why she is doing it? Ask her with obvious sympathy? And it is here that moral authority has its role and effect. The Novice’s sympathy will carry the weight of that authority, giving it obvious sincerity that neither condones or condemns.
Even so the girl may react badly, telling the Novice to mind her own business. To which the Novice can justly answer “You are making it other people’s business. You must stop this or there will be complaints made to the office manager.”
“By you, I suppose?”
“If necessary, yes. But I hope it won’t be.”
But the girl’s reaction might be the opposite, a sudden flood of tears, and begging for consolation and advice. “I’ve never dared ask you, you always seem so different. But please, please, what am I going to do? What can I do?”
This kind of situation is going to confront the Novice again and again as he, she follows the spiritual path towards God. Not because the Novice feels competent to offer anyone guidance and advice, but because people will ask and even beg for it. “What can I do? Tell me!” And the Novice will need to develop a mental approach to all the problems that people will bring to him, to her.
The first essential of that approach needs to be compassion, born of the feeling that no matter what the person may have done, no matter what their problem is, only God’s Mercy has saved the Novice from being in the same situation. We can all resist other people’s temptations, if we don’t share them. But if we did? Would we resist them any more successfully than this sad wretch in tears beside us?
The next essential, along with compassion, is to ask a great many questions before offering any answers. Very often if you ask the person who has come to you the right questions, they themselves will find the right answers, see for themselves what they need to do. Real spiritual direction consists not in giving people commands but in encouraging them to direct themselves.
All the questioning should lead the person who has come to you to begin a real self-examination. The kind you undertook yourself when you entered into spiritual life. Rarely or never to say “I think you ought… ” but instead “Do you think you ought to be doing that, believing this, saying such and such?”
And to ask these questions gently. Compassion requires gentleness, kindness, true sympathy. Without compassion, Justice becomes cruel, heartless. The Novice must be “righteous” and “just.” But lovingly righteous, mercifully just. And remember, in the face of every horror story of evil and vileness, that in God’s sight we are each and every one of us a horror story of tragic failures.
By now the Novice has come far enough on her journey to be able to offer some form of spiritual direction to anyone who may seek it from her, based on her own experience and growing confidence. Not “self-confidence” but confidence that what she is learning is good and from God.
With that confidence comes compassion to balance justice, gentleness with anyone else as against severity with herself, himself. But what kind of “severity”? There is a long and powerful tradition in Christian spirituality, as well as in other religions, that the follower of a spiritual path must practice austerities that can amount to self torture. That no spiritual progress is possible without physical suffering.
Of course some physical suffering is likely to play a part in anyone’s life, spiritual or worldly. All of us are likely to encounter illness, accidents and, if we are poor, hunger and cold on occasion. But to believe that God wishes, desires us to inflict additional hardships on ourselves, to wear hair shirts, bind our bodies with chains, flagellate ourselves, undergo long fasts that threaten our health, sleep in winter with no adequate covering; all of this requires an extraordinary view of God, if we really believe it to be God’s desire. Life for most people contains sufficient hardship with no need to bring more on ourselves in order to “be pleasing to God.”
Would such things be pleasing to you if you saw your own child inflicting them on himself and believing that you wished him to behave like this? Self discipline, yes. Self torment, surely no! Enough fasting, once or twice in your life, to cleanse your body and mind. But never the kind of fast that causes bodily injury.
You may complain that Jesus “fasted for 40 days and nights.” Maybe. Although in both the Old and the New Testaments the number 40 is used in a ritual rather than a literal sense. But Jesus was also rebuked for eating and drinking with Publicans and Sinners, and compared unfavourably by his critics with his cousin John the Baptist, who did take fasting to extremes.
“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” St. Paul wrote and that, interpreted as a symbol of moderation in caring for one’s body and its sensible needs, is excellent advice. The severity to oneself recommended earlier is a spiritual, not a physical severity. There are a great many “normal” pleasures the Novice will deny herself, himself, from idle gossip to getting drunk at parties.
Constantly the Novice will be asking interior questions. “Should I say this, do that? Is it right? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Is it wise?” There used to be a very wise piece of advice, “count ten before you speak.” The Novice should keep that engraved on his heart. “It is not what enters into a man’s mouth, but what comes out of it…” that serves evil. Words spoken can never be unspoken, cancelled. A stupid joke that hurts someone’s feelings; a secret betrayed incautiously, unthinkingly, an equally unthinking promise that should never have been made; a piece of worthless gossip.
“Wait till I tell you! You’ll never believe it!”
“Do you know what she did? Can you credit it?”
For a great many people such gossip forms their chief pleasure. To have gossip to pass on, secrets to tell, maybe in “innocent” foolishness, but often with a degree of malice. And anyone who refuses to take part becomes suspect as a “Holy Joe” and to some degree ostracized.
This is one part of the price the Novice must pay for becoming a Novice. For every friend or acquaintance who comes to her for advice there are likely to be a dozen who regard her as “peculiar” and “not really one of us.”
And of course both accusations are true. She, he, has made a choice that sets the Novice apart from the generality of people and people dislike anyone who makes that choice. They see it as a criticism of themselves and resent it. And the Novice needs to understand this and not allow it to sadden or influence her. Hurt feelings are an indication of self-concern, and her ambition is to become selfless.
Indeed, if people speak ill of her she should welcome the injustice as a reminder that whatever might be said, in reality, in the sight of God, it is less than her worthlessness deserves. St. Therese said that the only worthwhile opinion one could have of one’s self is a bad one. If someone expresses a bad opinion of you, accept it gratefully as a spiritual gift.
To say of someone that they are selfless is to give them the highest praise we can imagine anyone deserving. But what exactly does it mean? Usually that we think of them as very unselfish, someone who “would give you the shirt off their back, share their last crust with you.” But while this might well be true of someone who is actually selfless, the word means much more than material generosity to a friend or a beggar. It means absolute and total generosity to God.
To give God one’s self, everything that in your mind makes you you, an individual, a separate being. To give God your individualness? How can you? It seems inconceivable! What would be left? Nothing! And that is exactly what selflessness really means, to become nothing, emptiness, all self, all that has been “you” erased, annihilated as a gift to God.
To become an empty space that God can fill with Her own Self, Her own Being. There is a beautiful crystal called agate that is formed over several million years in the empty bubbles left in molten lava as it cools and solidifies. Gases escape and the empty space begins to fill with water seeping down into it from the surface. This water carries mineral elements with it and these in turn form into crystals, each mineral contributing a different colour. Eventually the space is completely filled with a hidden, secret beauty, covered in a dull crust of grey lava.
The lava bed breaks up under the working of rain and weather, and the agates, still hidden within their grey outer coating, lie awaiting an expert eye to discover them, and cut them open to reveal their beauty. No two are the same. And they offer a perfect image of selfless holiness; God’s secret jewels. This is what God wishes the Novice to become. You to become. To achieve secret, hidden sanctity.
But if you have allowed God to annihilate your self, what can remain to become holy? The aim is to annihilate your self. Your Being remains, that perfect substance that God used to form your being, and that you, like all of us, transformed into a self by your desires, your wants, your cry from babyhood onwards, “I want, I want, I must have, I need!”
It is these worldly desires that must be annihilated: this selfish “self,” leaving a purity of Being, a desire only to belong to God, be filled by God. Is this possible for us, possessed by the world as we are? Yes, it is, and everyone has experienced something of this nature, even in everyday circumstances. Looking at a particularly beautiful sunset, listening to a greatly loved piece of music, even lying on a warm beach in the sun, one speaks of “being carried away out of one’s self.”
Looking at the sunset you do not say or think, “Here I am, appreciating this beauty.” You simply exist as you gaze at it, unconscious of everything but the beauty. And this is what the Church promises to its saints, gazing in selfless rapture at the Beatific Vision of God’s Glory.
The Gospels tell us that we cannot serve God and Mammon, the God of this world, its temptations and desires. The word “self” can be substituted for “Mammon.” One cannot serve both God and one’s self. One must choose, and that is what the imaginary Novice of these pages and reflections has done. “What must I do to be saved?” The answer is to choose God.
There is a chapter in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah that illustrates this choice and all it means. It is chapter 6, that describes Isaiah’s vision of God, his terror because of his unworthiness, his purification, his offer to serve as God’s messenger. “Here I am. Send me.”