Recently I read at the beginning of a reflection for the Mass reading for the day (Rom. 4. 1-8)), these words, “What if God’s grace had a bright face and chased us around the block?” Afterwards it sparked off words I heard many years ago from a spiritual priest in the confessional, “Don’t ever try to be perfect.” The reflective words made sense but those words of long ago, did not. I remember wrestling with them. After all, in the Matthean Gospel are we not told, “Be ye perfect even as my Father in heaven is” (5.48)?
It took some time to comprehend what he meant. I began to ponder more on the writings of some of the mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckkart who encouraged me to meditate more on the mystery of the Holy Trinity in all creation and one’s inter-relationship within this act of love and goodness. This made me think deeper and honestly about my beliefs and relationship with God that led to an inkling of what this priest meant.
I also began to see “Be ye perfect” can become an ego journey by centring on making progress in overcoming faults and sins and of following precepts. Even by being compassionate and caring by visiting the sick and elderly, one still can be self-centred. What about being devout at prayer and daily Mass? These too can be done with a sense of fulfilling one’s obligation rather than being Theo-centred. Another danger is, if one is trying to be perfect one could become judgmental towards others.
Yet life is not about me. It is about the Creator of all life and how one responds to this. He is “the Holy One”. Even the Catechism taught, “God made us for Himself” and as St. Augustine expressed it, “our heart is restless until it rests in you.” God created humans in His own image. If He is holy, then we must be too. Moreover, both the Old and New Testaments explicitly declare, “Be holy, for I, Yahweh your God am holy” (Lev. 11.44-5,19.2, 20. 7, 26), “Be holy, for he is holy” (1 Pet. 1.16) and St. Paul in the oldest document in the New Testament exclaimed that God has called the baptised to a life of holiness (I Thess. 3.7). But how?
What also helped tremendously was discovering at the beginning of one Lent as I commenced my desert journey, a prayer composed by blessed Charles de Foucald:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you. I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and all your creatures – I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father. Amen.
It is indeed a very dangerous prayer to pray with all the heart and soul as it means forfeiting any desire to direct one’s life. It is utter giving of self and will to God to do what He wills. It has to be one’s kenosis or as Meister Eckkart expressed it, “if God is to make something in you or with you, you first must be reduced to nothing.”
Having found this prayer, I wanted to discover how he came to pray it. In the latter part of his life Charles de Foucald lived in the Sahara Desert amongst the Tuareg people who were interwoven into his life. Not unlike the desert fathers and mothers of old, the silence and the sand taught him much, illustrated in this letter written to a Trappist monk preparing for ordination.
You must cross the desert and dwell in it to receive the grace of God. It is here that one drives out everything that is not God. The soul needs to enter into this silence, … If there is no inner life, however great may be the zeal, the high intention, the hard work, no fruit will come forth.
It seemed that silence and abandonment form an equation. It is only in our silent and deep times acknowledging the presence of God that one can begin to learn about abandonment, one’s kenosis. This was also illustrated in a prayer by an African lass, “O great Chief, light a candle within my heart that I may see what is therein and sweep the rubbish from your dwelling place.”
The Benedictine monk who became Archbishop of Canterbury in the time of William 11, St. Anselm, when giving advice on the inner life encouraged one to:
Enter the inner chamber of your soul,
shut out everything except God and that which can help you in seeking him,now, my whole heart, say to God, ‘I seek your face, Lord, it is your face I seek.’ O Lord my God,
teach my heart
where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.
Abandonment to God or trying to, came my desert journey that Lent and since. It meant doing what Our Lord had taught as His main message, metanoia, to turn to God by changing one’s thoughts and ways completely. It meant letting go, being free of all petty ambitions and aspirations; grudges and resentments; indeed, anything that stands in the way between God and oneself. It also means being truly opened to the Holy Spirit.
Eliot in his poem Little Gidding had these two seemingly paradoxical lines towards the end:
“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything).”
Everything must go; it is not unlike those two parables peculiar to the Matthean Gospel, the selling everything for the exquisite pearl or the treasure in the field (Matt. 13.44-46). When that can be reasonably achieved, one’s approach to life becomes much simpler and hopefully “complete simplicity”.
There is also an encouraging Indian saying, “If you take one step towards God, then God will take ten steps towards you.” The Gospels of course makes this abundantly clear, as illustrated in the parable of the forgiving father or as most know it, the prodigal son. It is Love always longing for His created to be His.
During my Oxford days, I was also helped by discovering Taizé worship and joined a group that met weekly in the University church of St. Mary’s at 7.30 a.m. in silence and song from the Taizé community. That soon introduced me to its founder, a holy man, Bro. Roger and his prayer of abandonment.
Agreeing to lose everything for You, O Christ,
in order to take hold of You,
as you have already taken hold of us,
means abandoning ourselves to the living God.
Centring our life on You, Christ Jesus,
means daring to choose:
leaving ourselves behind so as no longer to walk
on two roads at the same time:
saying no to all that keeps us from following You,
and yes, to all that brings us closer to You.
This prayer was suggesting that one’s abandonment should be because God has “already taken hold of us” and therefore one must centre one’s life in Him. In his book on Holiness, Donald Nicholl also wrote about being “drawn into the Holy One”. He advised, “At the very centre of the universe is a loving Heart whose longings are ‘the source of our hearts’ longings.” Thus “the call to holiness is the echo of God’s longing for each one of us, or that our search begins and ends in longing.”
The desert Fathers and Mothers had too taught to “Listen with the ear of your heart,” the centre of the divine. What does one’s heart tell about God, the Holy One, whom Moses first encountered in the Midian desert in the burning bush? He stepped aside to examine this phenomenon and a voice declared, “the place whereon you stand is holy” (Ex. 3.4-5). This was Moses first encounter with the Holy One.
Years later on Mt. Nebo as the Israelites were poised to enter the Promised Land, Moses in his farewell discourses, exhorted the Israelites to let the commandment to love God be written in your heart, not your mind, because your heart is where your affection is (Deut.6.4).
Listening to one’s heart takes one back to stillness and silence into the presence of God, the shekinah. If one’s mind and body are always racing, in a hurry, thinking of the next thing to do, then one does not give oneself a chance to know the Holy One let alone let Him into one’s heart.
The necessity of listening was at the heart of Benedict’s monastic rule. In the Prologue, the very first word is “Listen”. “Listen carefully, my son to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” The ability to listen occurs over and over again, especially to listen to the Scriptural readings “to walk in His path by the guidance of the Gospel”.
Another helpful tool for holy living, I discovered, was/is the Johannine Gospel. By carefully digesting our Lord’s teaching, it is abundantly clear that He became incarnate to teach His followers that it is necessary to do the will of the Father. “The son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father do; for whatsoever things he does, these also does the son do” (5.19). Our Lord lived in complete obedience to the will of the Father that brought Him to Golgotha.
Perhaps the priest-poet, George Herbert, was meditating on His obedience when he penned:
O, let thy sacred will All thy delight in me fulfill!
Let me not think an action mine own way,
But as thy love shall sway,
Resigning up the rudder to thy skill.
Another Johannine teaching is that Christ is the Light of this world, that light that illuminates everything, including one’s path. That true seeker of God in the seventeenth century in England, George Fox, travelled much of England trying to discover a path to his troubled soul in different forms of worship but found not one that truly helped him. He concluded to find Christ outwardly in worship was useless. It had to be from within. He eventually discovered this Johannine teaching, enlightenment of Christ through His pure Light. That enlightenment within, changed his life and mission and led to a life centred completely in Christ. As Eamon Duffy wrote there was something of that same freedom within him as had been in St. Francis of Assisi. Fox taught by example that when Christ shines through one, one has a life of freedom – free of the many earthy yokes such as success, ambition and power.
Furthermore, in the Johannine Gospel, on the night before His triumphal victory on the cross, Our Lord taught many things. Amongst those was Love. “As the Father has loved me, so I love you: continue in my love” (15.9). Yet it is not only continuing but also recognising that Love is the pivot of the Christian life. From the beginning, we were made simply because God loves us and for Himself. We are His joy and delight, and He wants us to reciprocate these. As Julian of Norwich expressed it, "So man's soul is made by God, and in the same instant joined to God." She also reflected, "His will is that we should know that our soul is alive, and that through His goodness and grace this life will continue in heaven for ever, loving Him, thanking Him, praising Him." Furthermore:
The love of God Most High for our soul is so wonderful that it surpasses all knowledge. No created being can know the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness of the love that our Maker has for us. By His grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand and gaze, eternally marvelling at the supreme, surpassing, single-minded, incalculable love that God, who is goodness has for us. ... We shall never cease wanting and longing until we possess Him in fullness and joy. Then we shall have no further wants.
Julian is thus articulating that when one opens one’s heart to God’s love one will be able to possess Him and in time fully and joyfully.
Returning to the Farewell Speech Our Lord also assured us that “the Paraclete will guide you into all truth” after I have ascended to my Father (16.13). The evangelist has deliberately used parakletos not pneuma as the former is more meaningful. Literally it means “call alongside one to help”. Later St. Paul insisted that the Spirit (pneuma) lives within the baptised who are His/Her temple (1 Cor. 3.16) but also rises to new life in Christ (Rom.6.3-4). Both Jesus and Paul were clear about living in the new creation after the death and resurrection of Our Lord. The Johannine evangelist also emphasised that Jesus was buried in a new tomb in a garden where He appeared to Mary Magdalen. This garden symbolised life, unlike the first that pronounced alienation and death (Jon: 19.41, 20.15; Gen: Ch.3).
That Spirit dwelling within one’s heart will also lead one into all truth. Does not that suggest to be holy one must let this Spirit speak and work through one? Put simply one becomes the Spirit’s instrument to work in one’s daily life? As that famous saying of St. Teresa of Avila expressed it:
Christ Has no body, now on earth but yours’ No hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
you are the eyes through which
he looks with compassion
on the world.
Or as George Herbert wrote:
Christ is my only head,
My alone only heart and breast,
My only music striking me ev’n dead
That is the old man I may rest
And be in him new drest.
Furthermore, it is the Spirit within one that prays to the Father as St. Paul taught (Rom 8.26) and changes one more into the image of God and teaches one of divine Love and in turn to reciprocate this love. In other words, it is this Spirit that enables one to become holy by joining heart to Heart. Again, Julian has sensible advice. "How greatly should we rejoice that God indwells our soul! … Our created soul is to be God's dwelling place: and the soul's dwelling place is to be God. This led Julian to conclude:
And so I saw fully that before ever God made us, he loved us. And this love was never quenched nor ever shall be. And in this love he has done all his works, and in this love he has made all things profitable to us, and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning, but the love in which he made us was in him from the beginning, in which love we have our beginning. All this we shall see in God for ever.
The twentieth century French mystic, Simone Weil, in her acknowledging that love has been there from the beginning enquired how can the journey be made “in the opposite direction,” meaning towards God? She suggested that “when the seed of divine love” has been placed in us, it grows and becomes a tree, a beautiful tree. It is this beautiful tree within one that makes that love travel in the opposite direction. Only a betrayal of why we have been created could eradicate this from us. Weil reminds one only too well it is the divine within that enables one to respond to and reciprocates God’s love. One can never love God with all one’s heart, soul and strength alone. It is a gift given to us by Love.
As we are meant to live in the new creation, one should focus more on “original blessing” rather than sin that unfortunately dominated the Western church ever since Augustine but not the Eastern. The mystic poet, William Blake, understood this when he penned, "Everything that lives is holy." That surely expresses that one is an intricate part of that wonderful, glorious creation of the divine Trinity. Thomas Traherne, a poet and priest, writing in the seventeenth century posed this question, “Can you be Holy without accomplishing the end for which you are created? His answer, “The end for which you were created. Is that by prizing all that God hath done, you may enjoy yourself and Him in Blessedness.”
Furthermore, a focus on blessings makes one constantly realise that the Cross and salvation must be understood only in conjunction with the Resurrection and Ascension. A Christian should be an Easter Day person not a Good Friday one.
Part of this process of becoming holy as God is holy is, as the Franciscan, Richard Rohr is often teaching today is to be one’s ‘true self’ and leave behind the ‘false self’. This is not always easily achieved as the ‘false self’ is often so comfortable. It is the true self that God desires because He had made each one of us differently but it also means learning to be stripped of anything that is false and pretentious. To acknowledge who one really is in the eyes of God can only be achieved by God’s grace and to believe that the kingdom of God is here now and within. Thus, to be holy also means being the person God made and using His gifts to do His work and will in this world. Charles Wesley captured this in one of his many hymns:
Forth in Thy Name, O Lord I go,
My daily labour to pursue;
Thee, only Thee, resolved to know
In all I think, or speak, or do.
The task Thy wisdom hath assigned,
O let me cheerfully fulfill;
In all my works Thy presence find,
And prove Thy acceptable will.
From my reading and own experiences, I think it is necessary for all people to discover the God-given nature within to live fully and holy. Sometimes it will take many years to be a seeker and many never seek. Some discover this very early in life such as the mystics and some saints. For some like myself, it became a gradual process, as indicated, after I was challenged by that holy priest. Unfortunately, one hardly hears about holy living from the pulpit or in the confessional these days.
Allowing God to work through one is a life’s work by constantly opening one’s heart to the Spirit in the depth of one’s being. Daily one can struggle to keep the heart open for God’s indwelling. That is a process that I daresay continues until one is fit for heaven. It means having faith that God is indeed the Potter ever reshaping one more and more in His image in the depth of one’s being (cp. Sir.33.13). It is His life in one that makes one holy. St. Catherine of Genoa summed it up superbly, “In God is my being, my me, my beatitude, my good and my delight.”