Brian Cleeve 2001
Every effort to follow a spiritual Path, to develop a spiritual life and make progress in it brings temptation. First of all and simplest, there is the temptation to give up the attempt. It seems so difficult and so dull! Giving up everything that makes life worth living. Drink, gossip, self-indulgence of every kind. Saying prayers. Going back to Church. Paying half-forgotten debts. Pretending to like people who really are not likeable. Pretending not to want sex when it’s so available.
People wondering what is wrong with you? The change of life? You used to be fun to be with! Now you’re like a wet blanket! And what’s the point of it all? This is the 21st century, for God’s sake! Not the Middle Ages. You’ll be wearing a hair shirt next, and joining the Trappists. Or going into a convent. Snap out of it! Life is for living!
Indeed it is. And “for God’s sake” could be a useful exclamation. But is there a God? And if there is, what kind of God allows the world to be the way it is and always has been? And what have the Churches and the “Churchy” people done about the horrors? Not a lot. In fact they have contributed to the horrors.
The Inquisition, the burning of heretics, the Crusades. Telling women not to use contraception when another child may kill them. Opposing every scientific advance from Galileo to Darwin, siding with the rich against the poor, the powerful against the powerless. Accumulating enormous wealth in the name of someone who told a rich young man to give all his great possessions to the poor, take up his cross and follow Jesus.
Hypocrisy, avarice, cruelty. All in the name of God. Is that what you want? Spiritual life? Don’t make me sick! If you want to be good there are plenty of things you can do. Give to charity. One less pint a week means a hundred a year for Oxfam or Concern. Join the Samaritans. Help out in a Youth Club or Meals on Wheels.
That would be real goodness, not all this rubbish about God and an inner life!
How can you answer such arguments? You can’t. Every word of them is true. But they also miss the point. You are not setting out to worship the God of the Inquisition, or obey the parish priest, who may very well have his own critical thoughts about the Inquisition, and be organizing a Pop Group to play at youth Masses. What you are trying to do has nothing to do with any of that. It is truly to find something rather than do something; to be, to become something. To become a seeker, an explorer, looking for God, not assuming that you already know God.
But why? How can you possibly find God or more to the point, claim that the God of the Churches is not the real God? But then, how did Galileo discover that the earth revolves around the sun and not the sun round the earth? How did Darwin discover that evolution took place over millions of years and not six days? He searched for the evidence. But before he could do that he needed an education – Galileo in mathematics and astronomy, Darwin in Zoology and Biology. And you, the new searcher for the real, the true God, need an education in spirituality.
Which brings the discussion back to the beginning, that change in one’s life from outer worldly interests to inner, spiritual ones. But why does there need to be a change? Surely if there is a God and you intend to look for Him – or Her – then the world, Creation, is the place to look?
If you wanted to find a gold mine, or a cure for arthritis you wouldn’t sit at home studying your navel? You’d be out in the field or in hospitals.
Yes of course you would. But before you went, you would spend time at home reading books. And also thinking. And that is what we are discussing here. That “time at home.” And a new way of thinking, that needs an inner quietness, and fewer distractions.
The purpose in giving up partying, for example, is not because parties are necessarily wrong, although they can lead to a great deal of folly, but because you need more time to think, more time to be private. And parties are time consuming. For a great many people that is their whole purpose. To consume time and prevent time alone when there might be a temptation to think. Just as the parties are a temptation not to think.
“Eat, drink and be merry for afterwards we die,” and “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”
If that is your choice, well and good. But, just possibly, ill and bad. Because indeed we have only one life, and perhaps whoever gave it to us intended us to spend it in more serious ways, than going to parties to see if we can get laid. Or at least drink ourselves into a happy forgetfulness that parties can’t go on forever.
It is a powerful temptation to think that they can, or if not that there will be time enough then to think about more serious things. “Dear God, make me good, but not yet!”
The problem with that is that “not yet” can stretch on and become “never”, and perhaps that impulse to become good, to think about God, comes from God, and may not come again. Does God need us so much that She, He, will invite us twice to come seeking Her, searching for Him in the untidy mess that life is for most of us?
There then is the first great temptation – to abandon the effort almost before it has begun, seeing it as a folly, a waste of time. And there too is the answer to the temptation – the realization that there may be no more time to waste.
If that answer persuades you – and it should, because who knows how much time we have left to prepare ourselves for the darkness to come – you will begin in earnest to learn the alphabet of spiritual life. It is a very brief alphabet, consisting of five letters.
O is for Obedience, to God’s Will.
P is for Patience, because the Way to God is long.
A is for Acceptance, of all the emotional hardships you may encounter.
L is for Love, God’s Love for you and yours for God.
S is for Selflessness, the annihilation of that “self” created by our follies, our wrong desires.
The alphabet is brief. The explanation of all it signifies, the understanding it requires, can take a lifetime. And the temptations that seek to prevent your practice and understanding of these virtues could fill an encyclopaedia of spiritual life.
In her analysis of the Lord’s Prayer, St. Teresa of Avila said of the plea that a time should come in our efforts to make progress when instead of begging God not to lead us into temptation, we should welcome it, to test our developing strength and resolution.
But when we begin, that time of confidence is still far off. It will be hard enough to resist what comes of its own accord, without inviting more. The most immediate temptation will be desires for whatever you have been prompted to give up in Obedience to what you believe to be God’s Will. Cigarettes? Alcohol? Sugar? Chocolate? Spicy foods?
What you believe to be God’s will? In a first flush of enthusiasm one may simply decide to give up everything that one enjoys, from sherry to curry to pizzas. And common sense lies behind it. Most people have a poorly balanced diet, and the poorest items in terms of nutrition are likely to be the ones we enjoy most.
More fruit and vegetables. Less chips and sweet drinks and alcohol. And chocolates. And cream buns. There need be no spiritual impulse behind such decisions, merely a desire for better health. But there is also a spiritual benefit from an improved, purified diet. And even from a wise period of fasting, wisely carried through.
When we eat badly and in excess we clog our bodies with impurities. And also our minds. To purify our bodies allows our minds to function in a new way, to become aware of a deeper level of our existence.
Taken to an extreme, this purification can lead to trance states and visions. And it is this level of awareness that yoga practitioners and New Age believers may seek and also find. But it is not necessarily good. It too can become a temptation; to discover that “inner self,” that “true self” that the devotee of selfhood mistakes for God, “the God within us.”
But of course, the seeker cries, of course God is within me! Where else? And this too is a temptation, to believe that the search is over before it is well begun.
The purpose of your search is to open your soul, your spirit, your being, and so to cleanse it, that God can enter you, that you can dare to invite God in. The fact that God created you, that your spirit in its original purity is drawn from God’s substance, does not mean that God dwells in your self, like a divine Prisoner in a locked and filthy cellar, waiting on your good pleasure to find Him.
But then where is God? Is there a “where”? A place? Heaven? The “astral plane”, serving as a kind of “no man’s land” between Heaven and our world? Roaming about in our world as Satan is supposed to do, hoping that you will acknowledge His, Her, Presence?
As is suggested elsewhere in these pages God is a Presence, and no one will get very far in a spiritual search for God unless they recognize and feel that Presence, close to them, surrounding them, watchful, deeply loving, yet capable of instant severity if that is ever needed.
God as a Presence? A mystical influence, stirring the edges of your awareness, in your subconscious, rising into your conscious, waking mind, invisible, intangible, but here. A voice? Softer, quieter than a whisper, nothing to do with “audibility” or your ordinary senses, a sixth sense, a seventh, of awareness?
“This is what I want of you, My child…..”
Madness? Illusion? Self-deception? Maybe. And maybe it is possible to search for God without that inner awareness of God’s Presence. But in Her Mercy God is more likely to reach down to Her new seeker, reach into you, tell you, show you, “This is the way.”
“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, give me a light, that I may find a way. And the man replied, put your hand into the hand of God. That will be better to you than any light, and safer than a known way.”
Impossible? Please explain why! If you were to tell a psychiatrist “I hear God’s Voice telling me what I must do to be saved” he would probably attempt to have you committed to a psychiatric hospital. If you were to say the same thing to your Parish Priest, he would probably advise you to see a psychiatrist.
But if you were to tell the priest that you hear evil speaking to you he would very possibly believe you. He might even suggest an exorcism. Which means “Evil is real, God is not?”
God has spoken to mystics since there were people willing to become mystics and in everyday language – polite language that is – in setting out to find God you have become a mystic. Very much a beginner, but a beginner mystic, not a beginner madman or madwoman. God will guide you, if you allow yourself to be guided.
Here the temptations become more subtle. “I know what God wants of me.” You don’t. That is a promise. “God wants me to practice austerities. All the saints did.” But you are not yet a saint. And the advice God is likely to give you is “when you pray, make yourself comfortable.” Make yourself uncomfortable and that is all you’ll be thinking about – the discomfort, not God.
Comfortable in your body, you can concentrate on your prayer. What prayer? Litanies? Rosaries? Petitions? Free Form?
Suppose God was visibly, tangibly, audibly present to you in your room. What would you do? Say? Half an hour of uninterrupted talking to God, telling God that He is God, She is the Creator? Or would common sense say “God knows all this. She also knows Aunt Agatha has arthritis and nephew Jimmy is doing his Leaving Certificate and needs a lot of points. Good sense would surely tell you to listen to God, instead of doing the talking yourself.
“What must I do to be saved?”
“How may I serve You Dearest God?”
“Here I am. Send me.”
You could also add, “I love you. Thank you for all your gifts.” Beyond that what do you need to say?
What God will say to you in reply may surprise and on occasion shock you. “Surely I must say the Rosary. The Church says so. Our Lady said so.”
But did Our Lady say it? Ever? If you were told “No, she never did” would you then abandon your efforts? Assume you had been misled by an evil spirit? God could never say such a thing! The Rosary! The prayer! The Mysteries!
Or would you consent to listen further? To God saying to you think! What is the Rosary? It consists of praise of Our Lady. Saying she is the Mother of God, Blessed among women, that She is Holy. All this may be true, but the last person to demand the endless repetition of these truths would be the subject, Our Lady.
If someone were to make up a poem of praise about you, your beauty, wisdom, grace, generosity, loving nature, you might secretly agree, saying “what insight! How true it all is!” But you would not then buy newspaper space and TV space to have this hymn of praise repeated day after day by all concerned readers and viewers.
But Our Lady is supposed to have done the equivalent, urging every Roman Catholic to sing Her praises every day. Surely you cannot think so ill of Her?
There will be many similar temptations; to the belief, the certainty that you know what God must want; can’t be saying.
Obedience to God, listening to God, means doing exactly that: not obeying someone else’s idea of God, whether that idea is the Parish Priest’s, or an Indian guru’s, or a Red Indian Medicine man’s – or mine.
It is not the purpose of this book to tell you what to think – only to suggest to you that there are different ways of thinking beside the conventional, orthodox way. And to point out some of the hidden traps along the Path. Indeed, many of the same traps exist along the orthodox path of Catholic Mysticism.
If you want “orthodox” guides you could not do better than follow St. Therese of Lisieux or Teresa of Avila. Both of them will point to the “self” as the chief, in fact the only source of all your temptations. Self-love. Self-concern. Self- indulgence. Self-esteem.
The only worthwhile opinion one can have of one’s self is a bad one, St. Therese wrote. The suggestion that one ought to love one’s self would have appalled her, as would the nonsensical suggestion that one must love one’s self before one can love anyone else.
Why on earth should that be true? It is like saying to your hungry guest that you can only give her a meal after you have stuffed yourself full.
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Let me become as one of your servants.”
And even that is surely too grand an ambition. How can we dare to hope to be worthy to serve God? All we can do is offer ourselves, in sad realization of our vileness, our worthlessness.
What is there about this self of yours, of mine, that we could want to preserve in to eternity. Or even into tomorrow? Our selfishness? Our greeds? Lusts? Stupidities, resentments, angers; our self-pity? Our insensitivity to the hurts we inflict on others? Our ultra sensitivity to the hurts they may inflict on us? Our laziness? Our unconfessed, horrible desires?
But you, unlike me and the rest of the world, have none of these? Bravo. Brava. But would you take a second look? A truly severe look, not as if you were taking a splinter out of your own delicate finger tip, but digging it out from someone else’s callused thumb. Perhaps a touch of folly there, of self-pity here?
In her Interior Castle St. Teresa of Avila writes of the monsters, serpents, dragons of “self” that follow us through the successive barriers and walls that surround the central keep of the Castle we are striving to enter, the Keep where God is.
The further in we succeed in penetrating, the more subtle the temptations that accompany us. Self-satisfaction at our progress? Complacency at our defeat of so many other temptations? Resentment at an unjust criticism? (what can anyone say of us, however unjust that is worse than what could be said of us if all our truths and sins were known?
And here we are entering only the first courtyard! How many walls, gateways, courtyards remain before we stand before the Keep?
Where do all these temptations come from? Evil spirits? We scarcely need them. We tempt ourselves. Every opportunity to escape from the demands of obedience to God tempts us.
But some of the temptations come from God. “Lead us not into temptation” – remember? We are not strong enough, wise enough, to resist. Yet still She, He tempts us. “Do this! Believe that! Obedience, Obedience!”
But what God truly desires of us is not blind obedience, “corpse like obedience,” but intelligent, conscientious obedience. To obey, understanding why and how God requires us to obey in this and that particular matter. As in the case of the rosary. Of recitations. “Don’t talk. Listen,”
But can God tempt us? Lie to us in plain speech, because every temptation is a lie, telling us that what is bad and wrong is really good and right. If we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, the answer is clearly yes. God lied to Abraham. “I want you to sacrifice your son, Isaac.” God didn’t. He simply wanted to know Abraham’s reaction, tempting him to disobey. When God saw that Abraham was ready to obey “the Angel of God” (God’s Voice) said “Now I know that you love Me.”
God lied to Jonah. “I will destroy Nineveh in 40 days.” Not I may; I will. But God didn’t, and Jonah gave way to the temptation to be angry at God’s change of mind.
God lied to Jesus, telling Jesus he would never abandon him. “My God, My God, why have you deserted me?” The ultimate temptation, to Despair. If you believe that Jesus was the Son of god, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, God deceived the first Christians by Jesus telling his disciples that he would return to them before they dies.
“This generation shall not pass away until I return….”
But it did. And sixty more generations since.
Why should God lie to us, deceive us, tempt us into making mistakes, believing untruths? Many people refuse to accept the possibility in spite of the evidence. Others complain. They accept the evidence, that comes not from the Bible but from their own day by day experience of being tempted by God, or of temptations from other sources being allowed by God, but they ask why? Why does God do this to us or allow it to be done?
Why can God not tell us the facts, give us straight forward commands? Whatever God wants of us, we will do, or believe. Why make it so complicated?
The answer is that God wishes us to think. To use our powers of reason, to develop our intelligence, and our consciences. To become educated in spirituality. When we go to school, whether to primary school or University, the central purpose is to develop our minds, or it should be. When we sit down to an examination, the answers are not provided in advance by our Professors and teachers. We have to find them. What the teachers have done for us is to teach us how to find them. That is what God does for us.
Jesus taught in parables, that needed understanding, interpretation. They still needed it, when we ourselves first read or heard them. Spiritual education is just as complex and difficult as every other kind. No one expects to become a doctor without years of study. A brick layer spends years as an apprentice. A London taxi driver has to spend a long time acquiring what is called “The Knowledge.” Do you think it should be made easier to learn how to serve God?
There are “examinations.” The first of them is self-examination. “What am I, what do I possess, that I dare to offer it to God?” The wise answer is “Nothing!”
“Here am I, a man of unclean lips, who dwells among a people of unclean lips, and I am looking upon the face of the Lord My God!” Isaiah shook with terror in his vision of God and the Seraphim, discussing the fate of Israel. His lips had to be purified with a burning coal before his fear could be quieted, before he could dare to say “Here I am. Send me.”
Each of us needs that purification, and it needs to be the same kind of spiritual agony that a burning coal would produce when applied to our lips. The greatest temptation is to disbelieve this, to say “I don’t deserve agony! I may not have been a saint but I never did anything really bad. I’m ready to start on the Path to God at once! Why not?”
The chief “why not” can be called The Judas Kiss. Everyone, without exception, has the equivalent of that Kiss in their past, however deeply buried, and until they find it, bring it into the light of day to show to God, to realize what it really was and is, they cannot begin their real repentance, let alone complete it..
The Kiss may seem to be insignificant, something “everyone” does. And if you were to describe yours to someone else that might be what they would say “Oh, what are you worrying about? Everyone….”
Which is true, but not in the way your friend means. It will be an act of betrayal, that may consist in no more than a few words said, a kindness refused, a duty neglected. But when you bring it back into your mind, look at it with clear eyes, it will be like receiving a dagger thrust to the heart. “How could I have done that?” You will see it as beyond forgiveness, feel such shame, such horror at your self that the next temptation is to turn away from God, to hide yourself in the dark, in Despair.
Then comes the temptation of excuses. “Yes, I did do it. But only because she….he..” Then the temptation to rebury it, deny its importance. But you must not rebury it. Nor must you allow it to paralyze your efforts. You need to accept God’s forgiveness, God’s Mercy, and believe that in spite of this horror in your past, you can still learn to serve and obey God. But equally, you must never forget it. If ever you are in danger of becoming complacent, that bitter temptation to say “I am not as other men are…not as that publican there…”, then you need to remember your Judas Kiss, when you too betrayed God.
How many more temptations will you need to conquer? On your way into the Interior Castle? All the slimy, creeping creatures that slither after you, through one Gateway and the next and the next. Tiredness will be among them. Weariness of soul and heart, even of body. How long Lord? How long?
“Does the road wind uphill all the way? Aye, to the very end. Does the journey last the live long day? From morn to night my friend.”
And as we look back, down the road we have been climbing, how little the distance we have covered. And as we look up ahead, how far it is to the summit. And again the temptation is to despair. How can I go on? But you can, and you must.
Not out of pride, nor hope of reward, nor dreams of holiness, but because God is calling you and there is nothing else in life worth doing, except to answer that call, like distant music, far far away. And then the sweetest singing, very near.
If you have read this far it is possible that you have found some interest in the preceding pages and may even have decided to attempt the Way of Life described in them: the Path of Obedience to God’s Will. And you may have wondered why you have never heard of it before this.
There seems to be, there is nothing secret about it. Nor blasphemous, although certainly there are things in it that a devout Roman Catholic or indeed any Christian would find heretical and unacceptable. But a hundred years ago that same devout Christian and Roman Catholic’s great grandparents would have considered many of the documents of Vatican II heretical and unacceptable. And most of what is related in these pages is not heretical and should not be unacceptable to anyone of good will. It is traditional. And if the writer may say it, it is true. If anyone wishes to repent and search for God, this is a true and traditional way to do it. Even the listening, the hearing. Teresa of Avila listened and heard.
The problem for her, as set out earlier, was that there was only so much she could accept, given her obedience to her human “superiors” and the threat of the Inquisition, ever hovering at her shoulders ready to seize on the least whisper of heresy. For Therese of Lisieux the Inquisition was no longer a threat but obedience to a human authority still set strict limits to what she could accept as Truth. While half a century later Padre Pio was punished by “good Pope John” for going beyond what jealous authorities could stomach.
Even today, a Roman Catholic would need to be either very broad minded or rigidly traditionalist to accept that far from being “good Pope John” he was very far from goodness.
Yet despite these reasons for it remaining unknown why is the Path of Obedience so little spoken of? And practiced even less?
Because it is so difficult to follow? On the contrary, it is easy, once it is understood. Such difficulties as there may be are in understanding it sufficiently.
The problem lies elsewhere, outside the Path, in the lack of a surrounding, supporting structure – an organization. Always in the past, the aspiring mystic, the seeker for God, could find that support, that protection in a monastery or a convent. The support had its price, in obedience to human authorities, and not always wise authorities. But there was support, a degree of understanding, a freedom from worldly pressures, the demands of earning a living or caring for a family.
For the followers of the Path of Obedience there is none of that, once the obedience is promised to God and not to a religious Order, a Mother Superior, a Father Provincial. There is the freedom from accusations of heresy, the support perhaps of a fellow traveler on the Path. But the world presses in with its temptations and its demands. To “fit in”, to be “one of the lads”, “one of the girls” – to do and be like everyone else, all the temptations referred in these pages, and a hundred others, beginning with the temptation to surrender this freedom to believe as one wishes to believe, free of authoritarian correction.
That freedom creates jealousy in those near you. And even more than the freedom, the place of God in you life creates jealousy. “God means more to you than I do”, the wife, the husband, the lover, the “best friend” cries – it may be disguised as humour, maybe the cry is silent – but it is very real, and it is very serious.
Husband, wife, lover, friend demand to be the center of your life. “How can you love this God business more than me? You can’t really love me at all. This nonsense about God is just an excuse. Is there someone else in your life?”
Every scrap of evidence of your love of God, your obedience to Her, to Him, embitters the jealousy. You have given up alcohol. “You’re no fun anymore! How can I sit beside you in a pub and enjoy myself while all you’ll drink is orange juice? Do you know what Tom said about you? And Jane agreed with him! An effing hypocrite! You make a show of me!”
Or the complaints turn to pleading, more subtle temptations. “Please! Won’t you do this for me? I don’t ask you to give up the God business – no, I don’t mean to be rude or sarcastic, truly I don’t. I know you’re sincere, I know you’re good, but you mustn’t take it to such extremes – for my sake. I love you, don’t you know that? And for your own sake too – most of all for your own sake.
You’re too innocent, you don’t understand what you’re doing to yourself. And these so-called friends of yours, these fellow searchers as you call them, don’t you realize how they’re taking advantage or you? Just cool it down, relax, let yourself enjoy a bit of life now and then. I’m your only true friend.”
These pleas and arguments can be sincere. How does one resist them, resist the accusation of selfishness? “All you think of is your precious self and your beliefs. What about me?”
When St. Therese insisted on entering the Convent, leaving her widower father to mourn her loss from the house and family, she could have been accused of selfishness, putting her spiritual hunger for Mount Carmel before her duty as her father’s daughter. But that was a different age. Her father was the first to support her decision. Today there would be general condemnation. “Leaving her poor father alone! And she only fifteen! Shame on her! And on anyone responsible for allowing it!”
Clever critics to-day are beginning to label Therese as suffering from religious hysteria, just as socially minded Franciscans are beginning to be embarrassed by the spiritual legacy of Padre Pio. Raising money for a hospital was good and praiseworthy. But the “miracles”, the ecstasies, the endless hours hearing confessions, no.
This is not a time sympathetic to spirituality of a real kind. “Healing” crystals, Tarot cards, white witchcraft, neo-Druidism, Zen (as reinterpreted in California), channeling, “the God within”, yes. But real spirituality, the true God, who makes demands if we choose to serve Him, obey Her, no.
If you decide to follow the Path of Obedience to God’s Holy Will you will not find large numbers to accompany you on your way. You will be fortunate to find even a few. It is a lonely journey, and it does wind uphill all the way. Yes, to the very end. But it is the only journey worth making.