Brian Cleeve 2001
The puzzle for those of us trying to obey God now on our own version of the Path of Obedience is how and why it differs from that followed by St. Teresa of Avila. But before attempting to examine the difference, there is the question of whether there are other Paths to God. It is often claimed that there are many, even as many as there are individuals seeking to find God.
Is this true? The answer has to be both yes and no. Obviously each of those seeking God differs in some way from everyone else. Each will endure different kinds of temptation; will bring different gifts to the search and different levels of commitment, but the similarity will be far greater than the most extreme difference. In a marathon race each runner differs from every other, but all are in the same race, following the same course to the same goal.
This is true of each of the Three Paths, of Suffering, of Love, of Obedience. But are there other Paths? Such as the Left Hand Path of sorcery and magic. Is that a Path to God, or an illusion? The answer is yes, it is both an illusion and a temptation by evil to snare the foolish. Are there still other Paths? That require less commitment, that have no need of passion and intensity? The general assumption is that there are; and anyone who decided to ask a priest about it would be assured that this is true, that to follow the Church’s rules is enough. In effect the advice would be that religion is like keeping healthy; a sensible diet and a daily walk will be enough for bodily health and Sunday Mass for the soul’s welfare.
But is it true? Every funeral sermon assures the congregation of relatives and friends that it is; that the man or woman about to be buried so far as the body is concerned is already a joyous soul in heaven. Praise will be lavished on the person’s virtues, but it is very unlikely that there will be any reference to an effort to achieve holiness. No such effort would have been expected, nor the thinking goes, would God expect it. “A brisk walk on Sunday” was enough. Indeed, anything more, any intrusion of Sunday’s religion into the real world of weekdays and daily life would make the person suspect as a bigot, an extremist, a fanatic, foolish. The best advice to give such a would-be saint would be to loosen up, have a drink, enjoy life while you have it. You’ll be a long time dead!
And of course we will be a very long time dead. Eternally. But how, in what way? Will Sunday Mass and a round of golf in the afternoon get us there? Were Therese and Padre Pio and Teresa of Avila wasting their time, or suffering from hysteria as clever psychologists claim nowadays? Are we wasting our time? It would be valuable to follow a group of spirits as they enter their moment of death, and discover what happens to each of them.
The many accounts of Near Death Experiences give us some information; the astral self drifting away from its physical body; being drawn into a dark tunnel filled with other spirits of the newly dead all rushing towards their destiny. Most of the experiences involve great happiness. A few involve horror. But all, of necessity, end with the person’s revival, sent back or choosing to go back to continue their earthly lives.
Except for the few horror stories the accounts seem to confirm the general optimism, that death is simply the doorway to Heaven. There is no Purgatory, no Judgement — and except for those few stories of black horror, no Hell. And it was only after a number of the “Heavenly stories” had been published that one doctor revealed the existence of the Hellish kind. He claimed that there were in fact a great many of them and that his colleagues who had published Heavenly accounts had for whatever reasons suppressed the other kind.
This must make one suspect the truth of the optimistic stories. Have they been invented? Or simply chosen from among quite different, “blacker” accounts as propaganda? To tell people that the Path to Heaven is not at all a narrow, difficult one, but a broad smooth highway and that it would take a serious effort to stray from it?
The answer is that they are chosen; in the first place by the tellers. Someone who has had a wonderful near death experience is far more likely to tell about it than someone who feels they have been in Hell. Of course there is a widespread reluctance to tell anyone about either kind of experience. The reaction at least until recently was to say “Nonsense. Illusion.” And to prescribe medication to bring the poor deluded patient back to sanity.
But many stories have now been told and published and while the emphasis is on the wonders, the White Presence, the joy, there are the Hellish stories of black Despair, of descents into even deeper horror. Are these “black” stories exceptional, the result of lives dedicated to evil? And are the radiantly joyous stories the typical experience every one may expect when they die?
The answers are no and no. There is nothing in the black stories that suggest that the person involved was a monster. And on the contrary, that the horror came as a severe shock, absolutely unexpected. Imagine him as one of the group of spirits mentioned earlier, on their way to their “moment of death.” What actually happens on the way? Do their astral bodies float free of their corpses, their physical clinical deaths? Yes. And then the dark tunnel, the crowd of other rushing spirits? Yes again.
Lying ahead a white light, a bright radiance, a wide brilliantly lit space like an Italian Piazza in high summer. That too. And what follows for each spirit? An encounter with the radiant White Presence? Yes. Who is it, what? God? Yes. Telling the spirit nothing — beyond the command to look, as if the radiance was also a mirror for the spirit to stare into, see its reality.
Did this happen to people who have reported their Near Death Experiences? If it did, the result was evidently satisfactory, the reality of their lives pleasing. The only sadness was the necessity of returning to this world, to complete their unfinished duties. Those who suffered the horror experiences seem to have entered them at once, with no mirror to look into, no reality to be revealed to them.
Is that true? Is there another kind of Death Experience, not “Near” but actual, where the spirit goes straight to Hell? Not a spirit, but a self, someone in whom everything belonging to spiritual life has died, consumed, absorbed by self, selfishness, self-indulgence, self love, until the individual has nothing left of the spirit that God created, and all that remains is the self that the man, the woman created from his, her desires, lusts, weakness, stupidity, sins.
When such people die there is nothing left to judge, to assess, no reality to be examined in the mirror. They are like stomachs on legs, or expensive suits or gowns with no living being inside them. They have abandoned all thought of God. Why and how would they approach Her?
What happens to them? The swollen stomach eventually bursts. The empty suits and gowns become thread bare, fall to pieces. There is nothing left. Do you think this is too cruel, that it cannot happen, that God’s Mercy would never allow it to happen? That everyone is God’s precious child, and not one of us can ever be truly lost forever?
For 1900 years the Church taught that we can be, and many of us will be. God loves every spirit, not every self created swollen self. Suppose you were a philanthropist who provided clothes and food for all who asked for them. You would love the people, not the clothes and food; still less so if they gorged on the food until they burst and covered their clothes in vomit. All the fouled clothes would be thrown into a furnace. Would that be cruel, unmerciful?
But you may say that mere selfishness, self-indulgence, however gross, is not really sinful. It cannot be compared to child abuse, murder, blackmail, drug smuggling! What is mere selfishness? If it is a sin, then we are surely all guilty! Who can ever get to Heaven? The answer to that is sad, but simple. Not many. As the Church also taught until recently. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” And “Be ye perfect, as Your Father in Heaven is perfect.” And again “Take up your Cross and follow me.”
These are hard sayings, but it would be unwise to dismiss them. You yourself find selfish acquaintances unpleasant. They are not people you want as friends or could ever trust. Always they would put their own interests first — and last and in-between. Your interests would come nowhere with them. And if you see them like that, how do you imagine God sees them? You may have done no more than lend such a person money, or done them favours they have never returned.
God has given them their lives, their existence, the spiritual substance they have abused and thrown away. They have insulted God and that is the sin against the Holy Spirit that the Gospels tell us cannot be forgiven. In a way the less they have done with their selfishness, in their self-absorbed lives, the worse it is. To do nothing with God’s gifts! To commit the worst of sins seems preferable to nothing at all.
But this seems like saying a football hooligan is preferable to a couch-potato, a harmless slob who spends the days and nights gawking mindlessly at a TV screen? Yes. Exactly. Because the football hooligan, dreadful as he is, harmful as he is, at least has passion. Insanely ill-directed passion, but real. And ill-directed passion can, however unlikely it is, become well-directed. The passionate sinner can become a passionate saint. The couch potato will simply disintegrate on the couch. To find in his, her moment of death only the blackness and horror of despair. “What have I done, to deserve this?” And the answer is “Nothing.”
But to return to the group of spirits who have reached the white radiance, God’s Presence, the mirror of Truth. Some of them, perhaps all of them, will have been selfish in their lives. But not entirely so. Different degrees of un-selfishness, generous thoughts and actions, kindness that looked for no reward, will lighten the picture they see, the self-portrait looking back at them from the mirror.
But there will also be dark shadows, ugly scars formed by sins, stupidities, selfishness however lessened by the good, un-selfish moments in their lives. For most of them what they see staring back at them will be shocking, even unrecognizable “Me? Impossible! That can’t be me!” And in the background there will be seductive voices whispering “Of course it isn’t. It’s just a trick! You may not have been a saint but you were a good person. You always thought you were a good person. You always thought you were and you were right! A decent fellow, the life and soul of the party. Of course there were a few things that — but listen, it’s all over now. Come over and join us. All your old friends are waiting for you! Heaven is having a good time — for ever!”
Against that seductive whispering there is another whisper. “Accept the Truth. Ask My forgiveness. Run from those tempters. That way, that steep narrow path leads to safety, Purgatory.”
Which way will the spirits turn? Those who take the steep path towards Purgatory will each of them have a different journey, according to the lives they have led, the good actions, the unselfish thoughts laid up to their credit. But all of them are on their way to their good reward. Again, the extent of the reward, its nature, depends on the capacity they have developed to receive it.
When Therese, as a child, asked her big sister Pauline whether there were differences in Heaven between the rewards of one spirit and another — and if there were differences, was this not unfair? Pauline took two wine glasses of different sizes, and filled each with water, one larger, one smaller.
“Which glass is fuller?” She asked Therese. Each glass contained all it could. It is the same for spirits in Heaven or in Eternal Rest. Each purified spirit receives all it can receive, all it desires to receive. In this life some people like to climb mountains. Others like to walk through meadows. Neither is jealous of the other, or feels deprived.
But the spirits in the group who rejected their portraits in the mirror, listened to the tempters? What is to happen to them? Each of them has created a false Paradise for himself, herself. The conviction, “I am a good person. Or at least, not like that!” is the commonest. “Maybe I don’t deserve the highest place in heaven, but -!”
You can imagine such spirits being beckoned across the white space by smiling beings. “The party is down there, your friends will be joining you in a minute. It’s a surprise party — just wait down there, down those stairs!”
The spirits seem to have separated — each looked into the mirror alone, each is alone now, eagerly going down to wait for the party, their happy friends, for Heaven to begin. But what actually begins is a long descent into hell, to ultimate despair. Take one example. There are far worse examples, but this very mild one will do for the moment.
The spirit waits in a basement room that seems like a restaurant prepared for a birthday celebration. Napkins and silver, balloons, candle light. But no waiters. No guests. No one. The spirit waits. And waits. Grows impatient. Decides to go upstairs again to find out what is happening, where the promised friends are, why they haven’t arrived. But the stairs seem to have disappeared. Have disappeared. There are no stairs, anywhere. Only a door on the far side of the room. Into a kitchen? Another stairway?
No. A corridor, sloping down. Twists, turns, side corridors leading off it left and right. A maze of corridors. The spirit turns back. Maybe its all a mistake, the party has already begun. But there seems to be a difference in the corridors. They are not the same. And still they lead down. There is no way back.
The spirit remembers the mirror. But it can’t have been true! I am — was — a good person. Well, good enough. This is madness, these corridors, endless, down and down. How can I find a way back?
But there is no way back. Only further down, until the spirit reaches absolute Despair, the Gate of Despair that hides nothingness, the absence of God. The Abyss.
Every spirit that has refused to accept the reality of its failures comes there at last. Some in an agony of hopeless, helpless weeping. Some in still brave defiance, hating God, determined never to acknowledge God’s supremacy, accept God’s Mercy. They come to the Gate alone, unconscious of any other spirit. Alone in the darkness. There is a Being there, the Angel of the Gate. And for each spirit the Angel offers a choice. For the weeping, despairing spirits another look into the mirror, to see and accept their reality. And with acceptance, God’s forgiveness, God’s Mercy. None have ever continued to refuse. But once they accept the way back is open to them. Long, harder even than the long descent. But open. And there is someone to guide them back, holding a lit candle in a lantern. The smallest of lights and yet offering them salvation.
The defiant spirits also receive a choice. The Angel of the Gate begins to open it. “You hate God, are still determined to defy Her? Then I will open the way for you to escape from Her. Here. Look at your freedom from Her, lying beyond this Gateway.”
What lies beyond it is such terror as no spirit has ever imagined. The terror a human astronaut might feel drifting in outer space, cut loose from his module, could not approach the terror of Nothingness. That drifting, lost astronaut has the promise of death. In the Abyss there is no death, only nothingness forever.
And no defiant spirit has ever dared to enter it. The spirits, each alone, fall to their knees, beg for God’s mercy and receive it, are lifted up in the Angel’s arms, to be set down again with God’s gift like a mark on their foreheads, to follow that same candle flame, leading them back to God.
What has just been described are among those many paths to God that people are determined to believe in. “Common sense paths” they are sometimes called. Nothing extreme, or fanatical. Moderation in all things. “No one expects you to be a saint”, friends tell someone they suspect of taking religion too seriously.
But God expects you at least to make the attempt. “Be ye perfect…” Would it serve any good purpose to describe more of the ways in which people deceive themselves, the excuses they make for not trying to be perfect? All the different kinds of false paradises they construct according to their degrees of blindness to their faults, their hypocrisy, their complacent stupidity, their certainty that not only are they surrounded by God’s admiration, but that they deserve to be. That what awaits them after death is a place among the saints, with angels to wait on them.
There seems no limit to human folly.
Then why does God not tell us? Make it clear to people the dangers they are inviting? The Gospels do tell us. The Church used to tell us, although it was never a popular message. The story of Dives and Lazarus offers a vivid illustration of it. But for every voice offering the truth there are a thousand, a million voices to drown it out.
Could God not speak louder? A worldwide thunder clap to gain the world’s attention? A voice from Heaven crying out “Repent!” Instead, all we have, you and I, is a quiet, very quiet interior Voice answering our questions. And we have to find the right questions to ask, and find our way through a maze of temptations whether from God or the enemy. Even so we have a privilege that seems denied to everyone else. If we, you and I, have all the difficulties we have keeping on The Path to God, what hope has anyone else? Could they, if they chose to, join us on our Path, on Teresa’s Path of Obedience, or Therese’s of Love or Padre Pio’s of Suffering. Do they, most people, know that these Paths exist? Does anyone tell them of dangers, of the folly of false Paths? Should you tell them, try to tell them?
The House on the Rock tried. A million or more people saw the message on television, heard it on the radio, or saw it in newspapers. Twenty thousand or more read the book. Maybe a hundred were moved enough to attempt to live as it invited its readers to live. How many are left? You. And a dozen others? How many millions of copies of the Gospels are sold every year in how many languages? How many of them are actually read? With true understanding?
People have been told, have been warned. Again and again and again. How many have listened, believed? There remains the question of why we, you and I, have been granted the extraordinary gift and privilege of hearing that inner Voice, of asking Her questions, of receiving Her answers. We call it the Path of Obedience. But is it the same Path that Teresa of Avila followed? And would it, could it be open to anyone? Thinking only of our own day, our own country, was it open to the million people who heard of The House on the Rock and its message? Or at least to the twenty thousand people who read it?
Common experience shows that it is in fact open to everyone. We all carry on an internal monologue, wondering what we need to do next, remembering things we have recently done, or until then had forgotten to do. It can be idle chatter or urgent self examination, when into this silent, interior process another Voice enters, saying something, telling us something surprising, giving us a warning, a prompting, a reminder that seems to come from someone else.
And very great numbers of people accept and believe that it is God’s voice or that of an angel, their “guardian angel,” and they act on the warning or the reminder. What they very rarely do is attempt to continue the dialogue. But you know that if they chose to they could, as you have done. You also know from your own experience that it requires something from you that most people are not prepared to give, obedience. Not simply obedience to that one reminder or warning, but constant, moment by moment obedience, obedience to God as a new way of life, a monastic life, lived outside the spiritual safety of a monastery or a convent.
No wonder so few people follow it or attempt it. But it is possible, as your experience proves. Is it the same Path of Obedience to God’s Will that St. Teresa of Avila followed? There is one very noticeable difference. We are told things, prompted to ask questions and given answers that she could never have accepted and if she had been offered them would have dismissed with horror as having come from evil. They concern the Church and Jesus and for Teresa these were beyond questioning. She lived at the time of the Reformation, the beginnings of Protestantism, and the Reformers filled her with horror. She accepted the necessity and role of the Inquisition and never criticized what we consider to be their monstrous cruelty.
She was of her time, as we are of ours. That is the chief difference between her obedience and ours. (I am not speaking of her holiness; only of the details of the Path as she followed it then, and we stumble along it now. We are free to accept answers and truths she could not accept without finding herself condemned to torture and burning by the Inquisition. Therefore God never offered her these truths, but allowed Teresa to believe what she must believe if she was to survive and provide the world with the fruits of her sanctity and wisdom.)
As was just said, we, unlike Teresa, are free to believe whatever God chooses to tell us. Free to examine it, question it in the light of our own reason and intelligence, apply our consciences to it, argue with Her if we feel the need, to discover whether what She has just told us is really a truth She wishes us to accept, or a temptation, designed to make us think and question more deeply.
Some people who set out on the Path with eager enthusiasm refused to accept this possibility. “God cannot lie” they claimed. “God is Truth.” These statements seemed so self evident to them that they refused to examine them, in spite of the words in Our Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation.” To pray that God will not lead us into temptation must mean that God could tempt us, and a temptation is a lie, telling us that something is good when it is not good, or permissible when it is not, or at least safe when it is dangerous.
St. Teresa wrote about these particular words in the Lord’s Prayer, that a time should come in our spiritual lives when we could instead pray to be led into temptation, so that we might test our strength against it. The Bible itself provides instances of God’s deception of those seeking to obey God’s Will. God called on Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, with no intention of allowing it to happen. God told Jonah that in 40 days from that moment Nineveh and all its inhabitants would be destroyed. Would be, not might be, or would be if they did not repent.
It was a plain statement of God’s unshakeable determination. But God did spare Nineveh, to Jonah’s angry disappointment, but not much to his surprise. He told God that he knew it would happen, that God “would change His mind.” In other words that the threat was a lie.
But for those then on the Path who refused to accept that God can and does “lie” (for excellent reasons) these arguments were insufficient. They declared that anyone who believed them, and still worse repeated and taught them to others, must be evil, in the power of an evil spirit. Accordingly they abandoned the Path in anger and disgust.
Or did they? To their minds it was those who believed that God can and sometimes does deceive us who had abandoned the true Path of Obedience, to follow a different, evil Path to Hell, while they, secure in God’s Love and Truth, remained on the Path to Heaven.
It seems to us they were and are wrong. But for them, of course, it is we who are deeply and horribly wrong. Each side in this disagreement can find reasons to support its own position. Is it possible that in God’s eyes both can be right? That what really matters is the attempt to obey God and such details as whether or not God can deceive us are unimportant?
The simplest use of common sense tells us that this cannot be so, unless one were to say that the intention is everything and the result nothing. That if one were to set off on a journey to America it would not matter if instead one arrived in Africa. “Oh well!” the traveller might say, “I intended to go to America. That’s all that matters. Good intentions are what count.”
But we all know what paves the way to Hell. In an argument where both sides possess good intentions, more is needed to decide which of them is right. In Teresa of Avila’s day the argument was over the Reformation, the accusations by the Reformers that the Church was corrupt, obsessed by money, selling indulgences to increase its wealth, exploiting the poverty stricken faithful, so that the Pope and his cardinals could live in luxury.
The accusations were true, but Teresa was unable to accept them, even though she herself had set out to reform her own Carmelite Order on much the same grounds. In regard to the Pope there were questions she could not ask and answers she could not accept. And for all her holiness, Teresa was wrong.
As was said above, God allowed her to remain wrong because the alternative would have led to her death in an Auto Da Fe, burned at the stake. But we are free to see and accept that she was wrong. (That later on the Reformers made their own very serious mistakes is not relevant here. When Luther criticized the Pope he was right. And when Teresa refused even to consider the possibility that he was right, she was in the wrong.)
In the dispute between the early Reformers and the Papacy it is easy to judge which side was right, because we know the facts and can examine them. In our own dispute with those who claim we are evil while they are good, it seems to us that the facts are equally clear. God does at times deceive us, in order to teach us, to force us to think, to use our powers of thought. Obedience without thought is far far worse than disobedience, as is revealed in every War crimes trial. “I was only obeying orders.”
But if God sees that someone is sincerely determined to obey Her, but is incapable of questioning Her commands, in fact is determined not to question them, then surely in Her Mercy God would never test them by deceptions and temptations, but would make allowance for their simplicity of intentions? As she did for Teresa?
The cases seem similar, but they are not, because the circumstances are not. We are free to use our intelligence in every direction, without fear of any human authority. Teresa was not. It is therefore an obligation for us to question everything and we are free to go wherever the questioning and the answers lead us. It is our duty to understand as well as to obey.
Those who follow the Paths of Love and of Suffering have no need to ask questions nor to seek deeper intellectual understanding. Their increasing depth of understanding is spiritual. Ours may become so as our Path joins theirs, but for the moment we need to use our minds rather than rely on our hearts.
Nevertheless our hearts must be open to both Love and Suffering, and to understand both; the meaning of Love and the value of Suffering. And to bring passion to both, as we must to our Obedience. Without passion we are nothing, valueless to God. “The lukewarm I will spit out of My Mouth.” People have a passion for football, some particular TV program, a pop singer, chess, hill walking, cats. How much greater our passion should be to follow the Path that God has opened for us, to obey and serve the Beloved.