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Awakening to the Holy Spirit
There is a very important moment in our journey toward union with Christ; it is a moment that deserves much more attention than it is usually given by spiritual writers. It is called the awakening or the awakening of self to the Spirit within our experience. The awakening is a watershed in following Christ. Before the awakening a conscientious Christian attempts to follow Christ by responding faithfully to external laws and to the teaching and example of Jesus. After the awakening the Christian attempts not merely to live life in conformity with the external laws and teaching of Jesus but to respond to the internal direction of the Holy Spirit within experience. Most books about spirituality presume that the reader has been awakened to the presence of the Spirit within the self. This book also begins with that presumption. However, since the topic is generally not discussed in much detail, it seems good to describe exactly what we mean by the awakening and to put it in the context of the entire Christian spiritual path. Before doing this, however, I will present my understanding of the goal of Christian spirituality and then present key aspects from the scriptural view of the person that are essential for understanding this book adequately.
Spirituality As Responding to the Spirit
Each of us is led by God toward an understanding of Christian spirituality that best meets the needs of our temperament and life situation. I believe it is helpful to articulate our own approach so that we can apply it explicitly to every area of our lives. I have been led by the Lord to understand the goal of Christian spirituality as my effort with God’s grace to respond always to the movement of the Spirit within myself.
We know that the completion of Jesus’ work for our salvation occurred on Pentecost with the sending of the Holy Spirit to the Christian community. We know too that the Spirit has dwelt within the community throughout the years and abides in it today. The Holy Spirit is the animating force both of the community’s life together and of the life of each individual member of the community. The Spirit is, simply, our sanctifier. St. Paul put the matter as simply as it could be put: “Since the Spirit is our life, let us be directed by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
This particular approach to Christian spirituality has been very helpful for me in meeting my personal needs. Like many of us, I have an inferiority complex. This tendency causes me anxiety in my relationship with God. In order to feel good about myself I must be “perfect” before God. This means that I must execute exactly all the prescriptions of God and the Church. This tendency toward perfectionism was aggravated when I entered the Jesuit order. During my early years in the Jesuits there was a great emphasis placed on the complete observance of all the rules of the order. I was told as a young Jesuit that the goal of our life was to obey God’s will and that was expressed to us through the rules of the order and the commands of the superior, even the smallest ones. I, therefore, made it my goal to observe all these rules and commands. I was frequently anxious because I often failed in this observance; I felt God was displeased.
As I grew as a Jesuit, I became aware that I had a rather shallow notion of serving God. I became aware that my efforts ought not to be focused simply on the external conformity of my actions to the rules presented to me but on the internal quality of heart with which I performed my deeds. I gradually came to see that the external performance of good deeds was as good as the internal love with which they were motivated. Indeed, Jesus in the Gospels clearly taught his followers not simply to conform to the external law but rather to be faithful to the law of love that arose in their hearts. He himself frequently broke the external law. Consequently I gradually shifted the focus of my spiritual goals from the conscientious performance of external actions to a loving service of God and others in my actions. I simultaneously felt free to let go of certain external performances that did not seem to help my service to the Lord. As I did this I noted that my habitual mood was changing from less and less anxiety to more and more internal peace. I began to appreciate Paul’s message in Corinthians: “Now this Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). For the last twenty years this idea has remained uppermost in my own Christian living and has enabled me to deal constructively with the perfectionistic tendencies of my temperament.
However, I must emphasize that responding to the movement of the Spirit is a goal that is important to me because of my temperament and life situation. There are other equally valid ways of presenting the goals of Christian spirituality. Perhaps it is not an overgeneralization to say that these goals fall within four approaches. Responding to the Spirit is one of the approaches. Another, and perhaps the most common, is imitating Jesus. Many Christians put the focus of their spiritual life on getting to know Christ through studying the Gospels and then imitating the example of Christ in their personal lives. Still another approach is centered on being faithful in doing God’s will. Christians choosing this goal make every effort to discover what God is asking them to do and then spend their lives faithfully attempting to fulfill this will. This is the approach that Jesus himself presented in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” It seems also to be the focus of Jesus’ own spiritual goals. Finally, an approach of many Christians is simply loving and serving others. These Christians concentrate their efforts on being faithful in helping other people, especially those who are most in need. Traditionally, then, the goals of Christian living have focused on responding to the Spirit, imitating Christ, doing God’s will, and serving others. Each approach is equally valid; each approach can be supported easily by plentiful references to the New Testament. But most importantly, each of the approaches complements the others. No single approach is valid unless it includes references to the others; the approaches are merely entry points for a personal internalization of the Christian Gospel. It is important that we choose the approach that best meets the needs of our temperament and life situation. The rest of the Gospel message will fall into place around this particular starting point.
Let me illustrate this using my own entry point. How does my approach complement the other three approaches? First, the Spirit is central in any imitation of Jesus: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ unless he is under the influence of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The New Testament teaches that I cannot even recognize Jesus as Lord without the Spirit. In addition the Gospels teach that the Spirit I have received is the same Spirit that moved Jesus: Jesus was conceived, baptized, and led by the Spirit throughout his entire life. Therefore the more I am open to this Spirit of Jesus, the more I will become like Jesus, imitate Jesus. Second, the Spirit I have received is sent to me from the Father. It is the Spirit of the Father. Only because I have received the Spirit can I recognize God as my Father and truly live as a child willing to do my Father’s will.
The Spirit you received is not the Spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again; it is the Spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God. (Romans 8:15–16)
And third, the Spirit I have received is the Spirit of God and God is love. The primary effect of the Spirit in human life is love of God and love of neighbor. The more I am open to God in me, which is the same as saying to the Spirit in me, the more I will desire to love and serve my neighbor.
My dear people, let us love one another since love comes from God and everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Anyone who fails to love can never have known God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7–8)
To the extent that I am open to the movement of the Spirit in me I will imitate Jesus, love and do the Father’s will, and love and serve my neighbors.
It should be added that there are ways of expressing the goals of Christian spirituality that are not fully compatible with the message of the New Testament. We frequently hear people express these goals in language such as the following: avoid sin, keep the commandments, earn grace, get to heaven, save my soul. These goals, while good in themselves, are not adequate expressions of Christian spirituality because they are primarily self-centered. They put the focus of spirituality not on the Father, Jesus, and others but on the self.
All valid New Testament approaches to spirituality are other-centered, not self-centered. Jesus summarized it best in his statement of the two great commandments: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). It is almost taken for granted in the New Testament that if we seek to love and serve God and others, there is no need to worry about avoiding sin, keeping the commandments, growing in grace, and getting to heaven. All this happens spontaneously without self-conscious effort. As we respond to the Spirit and fall more and more in love with Jesus and the Father, we naturally try to avoid all those things that offend them and do all those things which please them. And it is unthinkable that Jesus and the Father will not take care of us in this life and also in the next.
Self-Indulgence and the Holy Spirit
The approach to spirituality we are presenting presumes an acceptance of the scriptural view of the person. From the very beginning it must be acknowledged that Scripture presents us not only as having inner movements toward goodness flowing from the Holy Spirit but also as having inner movements away from goodness which do not flow from the Holy Spirit. The scriptural understanding of the person is complex, but it will be sufficient to summarize the teaching by emphasizing three major themes. These themes are presumed throughout this book. First, human beings are basically good and therefore the movements coming from our deepest center can be trusted. This theme is clear in both the Old and the New Testaments. There are two stories of our creation in the Old Testament, both of them highlighting the inherent goodness of our human nature. In the first story we are presented as being created in God’s own image.
God said, “Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves; let them be masters of the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens, the cattle, all the wild beasts and all the reptiles that crawl upon the earth.” God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)
We recall that, having completed creation, God looked over the work of the six days, climaxed by the creation of man and woman, and “God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
In the second Old Testament creation account this goodness is highlighted because we are presented as proceeding from the breath of Yahweh. “Yahweh God fashioned man of dust from the soil. And he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). We human beings are created by the very breath or Spirit of Yahweh and we are created in Yahweh’s image. The Old Testament writers could do nothing more to show the inherent dignity of the human person. As we have already seen, the New Testament also presents humans as fundamentally good because of our redemption through the grace of Jesus Christ. After Pentecost the believers in Jesus lived a new life, a life flowing from God, the life of the Holy Spirit. And because they had received the life of the Spirit, they could now truly be called children of God. Emphasizing the dignity of the human person because of the Spirit, Paul uses another powerful image: “Your body, you know, is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you since you have received him from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). This passage was especially important for Paul’s hearers because the Jewish people had traditionally localized the presence of God in their temple. Paul is telling them that if God’s presence can be localized anywhere it is within themselves. The conclusion of the Old and the New Testament message on the human person is that we are good through our creation and our redemption; therefore, our innermost being can be trusted.
The second theme present in both the Old and the New Testament is that we humans also have within us inclinations away from good and toward evil. It was clear to Paul that these inclinations did not come from the Holy Spirit but from ourselves outside the Spirit, sometimes referred to as the “flesh.” Indeed in many passages of his writings Paul is graphic in describing the inclination toward evil and self-indulgence that is present within ourselves when we do not operate under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The following passage is Paul’s classic statement of the tension within ourselves between the Spirit and self-indulgence.
Let me put it like this: if you are guided by the Spirit you will be in no danger of yielding to self-indulgence, since self-indulgence is the opposite of the Spirit, the Spirit is totally against such a thing, and it is precisely because the two are so opposed that you do not always carry out your good intentions. When self-indulgence is at work the results are obvious: fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility; idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wranglings, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels; disagreements, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies, and similar things. I warn you now, as I warned you before: those who behave like this will not enter into the kingdom of God. What the Spirit brings is very different: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:16–23)
Likewise in the clearest possible terms in the opening chapters of the Old Testament, the sinfulness of the human race is highlighted in the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, and the tower of Babel. The intent of these stories is to show that evil in the world proceeds not from the creation of God but from the disobedience toward God by human beings. All these stories teach us that from the beginning we human beings yielded to inclinations from within ourselves to go against the word of God. Though God made us good, God also made us free. It is the abuse of our freedom that brings sin and evil in the world. It is the clear teaching of both the Old and the New Testament that not every inclination that arises within us can be trusted.
The third truth clearly taught by the New Testament regarding human beings is that Christ’s death has freed us from the power of sin, and therefore we need no longer be dominated by sin. The New and Old Testaments teach that there are indeed all pervasive influences toward sin arising within our being. But the New Testament also teaches that since we have been redeemed, the grace of Christ has saved us from being helpless before this power of sin. Even though we experience evil inclinations, we remain in the Holy Spirit; our deepest identity is still as children of God and temples of the Spirit. Because grace in us is stronger than sin in us, we can trust our deepest self. This is why the Gospel is such “good news” for Paul—and for us! “So then, my brothers, there is no necessity for us to obey our unspiritual selves or to live unspiritual lives. If you do live in that way, you are doomed to die; but if by the Spirit you put an end to the misdeeds of the body you will live” (Romans 8:12–13).
Awakening: From Law to Spirit
Paul teaches us that we Christians must ever be watchful of our inner motivations to see whether or not they flow from the Spirit. Paul also teaches another lesson related to the Spirit that is essential for growing in union with the Lord. He was talking to Jews who had been nourished on the Old Testament commandments. These people had attempted to direct their lives by the external written laws as presented in the Old Testament.
Good as this was, Paul taught that this was not sufficient for a total following of Jesus. No external law could direct them toward imitating Christ completely; the only law they could use for a guidance in totally imitating Christ was the law of the Holy Spirit written on their hearts. It was this law, Paul taught, that had now replaced the old written law as their fundamental guide in the spiritual life. “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code, but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6, NAB).
Paul saw this transition in his own life and in the life of his community as a new freedom: “. . . where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Paul seems to have experienced the obligations of the old law as something super-imposed on himself and his community. In contrast to this he experienced the law of the Spirit of Jesus as something that spontaneously arose within himself and his community and was natural for human living because it flowed from their deepest selves. We often find Paul contrasting the written law with the law of the Spirit.
This great confidence in God is ours, through Christ. It is not that we are entitled of ourselves to take credit for anything. Our sole credit is from God, who has made us qualified ministers of a new covenant, a covenant not of a written law but of spirit. The written law kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4–6, NAB)
This awakening to the Spirit within ourselves as our primary guide in following Jesus is the key to all growth in Christian life. But before we reach this stage of imitating Christ, we all pass through the stage of following as faithfully as we can the teachings and the laws given us by Jesus and presented to us by our Church. Indeed, our desire to observe these laws flows from the Holy Spirit within us. However, as we grow in openness to the Lord, we find that the observance of these external criteria for following Christ are not sufficient. The focus of our morality is internalized and the action of the Spirit is intensified. Gradually we attempt to bring every area of our daily life under the influence of this law of the Spirit. Though our external actions may appear the same to observers, the internal motivation has radically changed; we are attempting to live our life in response to an internal movement and not simply in conformity with an external directive given to us. This is the new freedom of the children of God which we have seen Paul discuss. Only after we have experienced this awakening can we be truly said to be on the Christian spiritual path. Indeed, it is only after this awakening that we can speak of the goal of Christian spirituality as responding to the Spirit. Fidelity in responding to the Spirit will bring us into deeper and deeper union with Jesus and lead us to the highest union with God. The accompanying diagram presents the Christian’s spiritual path in terms of our relationship with Jesus and the effect of this relationship on our daily living and our personal prayer.
The unawakened self does not know Jesus well. The relationship to Christ is defined primarily by the conventional norms presented by the Church for this relationship. The goal for daily living becomes fidelity to keeping the laws and commandments of the Church. Similarly, the goal and reason for prayer of the unawakened self is fidelity to the obligations for prayer that the Church prescribes. This may include Mass on Sunday as well as daily meal prayers and night prayers. There may also be intense moments of prayer for deeply felt needs. For the unawakened self, Jesus is an acquaintance rather than a friend. Since prayer is an expression of our relationship with Jesus and the relationship is not intense, prayer is not usually intense. Prayer is often understood as “saying one’s prayers.”
With the awakening everything changes. Jesus moves from an acquaintance to a personal friend. Sometimes this personally experienced relationship with Jesus is referred to as being “born again” or as a conversion. We are no longer faithful to the relationship with Jesus because it is a religious obligation; we are faithful because Jesus has become our friend. This affects our daily living. Our effort is not simply to keep the commandments that have been prescribed for us but to imitate Jesus completely and become more and more like Jesus in loving and serving God and others. This new relationship also affects the quality of our personal prayer. Since Jesus has become our friend, we now desire to express this relationship in a new, spontaneous form. We pray not because we “have to” but because we “want to.”
Since this awakening is so central for our union with Christ, it is important to reflect on how this awakening occurs. I believe it occurs in two ways. For some it happens naturally with the passage from adolescence to young adulthood. During this time our reflective and emotional capacities develop. In addition we are becoming more and more independent and concerned with forming our own views on life and not having those views dictated by our family, society, or religion. Especially if we have left home and are on our own, we may become concerned with finding a personally meaningful practice of our faith, a practice that responds to our own needs and not merely a practice that reflects our previous indoctrination. The young adult and college years can be an important time for this internalization, especially if there are people who encourage questioning and reflection on inherited religious beliefs. Many of us, then, find ourselves growing toward a practice of the Christian faith during this time that flows more from our own internal desire to know, love and serve Christ than it does from the need to conform to the dictates of our previous religious authorities.
For some, however, this awakening does not happen naturally with the passage from adolescence to young adulthood. It may be delayed to a much later time in life, and it may require a special and dramatic experience for its occurrence. There are very many types of occurrences that can precipitate an awakening. They may flow from very positive life experiences, such as a good retreat; an encounter with a convinced believer; a memorable sermon, movie, or book; attendance at a stirring religious service. The awakening may also occur in an effort to cope with a very negative and life-threatening experience such as the break-up of a treasured relationship; career frustration and failure; accident, illness, or death of a loved one; a theology course that challenges religious assumptions; conflict with parental or religious authority; coping with the problem of evil in the world and the existence of God.
I believe my own awakening happened during the second semester of my senior year of high school. I recall very vividly even today having a very different relationship to God after this semester than I did before. Before the second semester I was a conscientious, conventional Christian, even belonging to and being active in our high school sodality. My spirituality focused on avoiding sins, keeping the commandments, and performing regular religious duties such as Sunday Mass and monthly confession. I am not aware of having any deep relationship with Christ before that time, and I cannot recall setting time aside for personal prayer to develop a relationship, though I am aware of praying intensely for special favors at different times. By the end of the semester my entire relationship with Christ had changed. What I recall most vividly was the difference in my personal prayer. I found myself “sneaking up” to the parish church in the late afternoons and evenings and sitting in the dark in front of the Sacred Heart altar. I recall experiencing a deeper peace and joy in Christ’s presence than I had ever known before. I can also remember getting up earlier to attend the Mass that was offered daily at my high school before classes started. And I also recall going to Perpetual Help devotions in our parish on Tuesday evenings. I was very embarrassed about praying so much and told no one about it. I had a new relationship with Christ, and I wanted to be with my friend.
As I reflect on this semester, the only event that might have occasioned this deepening was my confusion on what to do after graduation—to go on to college or to apply to the Jesuit novitiate. It was in the context of this new experience of Jesus that it began to make more sense to me to seek admission to the Jesuits than to go to college. I did not know anyone who prayed as much as I did. It seemed to me that only priests and sisters prayed in this way, so perhaps Christ was asking me to be a priest. However, I believe that my awakening was a gradual one that came with my personal development in maturity, though perhaps it was precipitated to some degree by the question of what I wanted to do with my future life. From that point on everything changed in my relationship to Christ.
The Spiritual Path: Continuing Conversion
If we are faithful to the guidance of the Spirit in our daily life, we can trust that the Spirit will lead us to the very highest levels of union with Christ and service to his people. In order to recognize the working of the Spirit in our own life, it is helpful to summarize the usual experience of people who have been awakened and are consistently trying to live their life in tune with the Spirit’s guidance. The three stages through which people pass are usually called the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way.5 We will briefly discuss each of these stages in terms of one’s general relationship to Christ, the process of the continuing conversion, and the quality of personal prayer.
The stage of the spiritual path experienced during and after the awakening is usually called the purgative way. How does the Holy Spirit affect our relationship to Christ in the purgative way? As we have seen, Christ is no longer simply an acquaintance about whom we have heard from others and know casually; Christ has now become our personal friend: The Spirit has awakened in us a deeper desire to know Christ, to love him, and to serve him. We begin our imitation of Christ by rearranging the patterns of actions in our life to be more in accord with his actions. We must add patterns to enable us to better know Jesus. We find ourselves desiring to spend more time with him both by reading the Gospels and by talking over our own life with him. We simultaneously begin doing more things for other people, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with our self-centeredness.
It takes a while to bring our actions into conformity with Christ’s; our continuing conversion in the purgative way occurs on the level of our external actions. I find it helpful to distinguish the conversion occurring in the three spiritual stages by comparing and contrasting experiences of temptation, the fluctuation of heart, and the fluctuation of action. The awakening does not take away temptations. Indeed, temptations will be with us for our entire life; Jesus was tempted. It should be stressed, however, that their presence or absence is no indication of personal holiness; how we deal with them is. The purgative way is the beginning of the spiritual journey. As can be expected, we experience many temptations. Having experienced these we find our hearts attracted toward the temptation and moving in the direction of infidelity to Christ. Since we are just beginners in the spiritual path, we find our actions often yielding to these temptations.
For instance, I experience a temptation of jealousy toward a coworker. I become aware of this and in my heart begin demeaning this person by whom I am threatened. Finally, this attitude gets translated into action as I use the next opportunity to “talk down” this person to someone else. However, in the purgative way we are not dealing with patterns of serious or mortal sin; our awakening to the Lord moves us to avoid serious sin. And we do have a general desire to be converted from all our sin. But this conversion comes only slowly as we are faithful in responding to the Spirit in the depth of our heart. We find that in some areas of our life we are doing quite well and the habits of sinfulness are receding, but in other areas we are not doing as well.
What, finally, is the quality of personal prayer in the purgative way? Since we have been awakened to a desire to know Christ better, we experience ourselves wanting to be with Jesus and to pray more; we are not content merely with saying the prescribed prayers expected of all Christians. But our efforts to pray in the purgative way are often difficult at the beginning because it is hard to quiet down; it may take great effort to concentrate. Since the focus of our prayer is to get to know Jesus so that we can better imitate him, prayer will be marked by much talking with the Lord, making resolutions to imitate him more closely and reviewing our life to see how well we are doing. In traditional terminology, the prayer of the purgative state is called discursive meditation if thinking about Jesus predominates, and it is called affective prayer if making acts of love and of the will predominate. In both experiences the mind is active under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
The next stage of the spiritual path is the illuminative way. What is the predominant quality of the imitation of Christ in this stage? To a great extent we have eliminated the external patterns at odds with Jesus’ teaching and example, and we have substituted many positive rhythms allowing us to become more like Jesus. To the outside observer, in fact, our lives may appear completely sinless. Without a great deal of effort, we find that our hearts are responding to the Spirit’s presence in our daily actions and we are becoming more like Christ. The comparison with human friendship is helpful. The opening stages of getting to know a friend are often painful. We must yield patterns of selfishness in order to accommodate ourselves to the other person. Having done this, however, we find a new level of communion arising. Our friend remains gentle on our mind; our hearts and actions move consistently and effortlessly toward our friend. The Spirit is now holding us toward Christ in a similar way. Because we are held toward Christ without a great deal of personal effort, we can be said to have entered the initial stages of becoming a contemplative in action. Our habitual union with Christ is flowing over and affecting all our actions without the same amount of effort it required when we were in the previous stage of the spiritual path.
And yet sinfulness remains and so the need for conversion. Since our external actions are for the most part in conformity with the example of Christ, we are now led by the Spirit to look more deeply at the quality of heart which underlies them. The focus of living at the illuminative stage is not only to imitate Christ in our external actions but also to imitate Christ’s internal attitude of continually loving and serving the Father and others. It helps to understand this stage by comparing it with the experience of temptation, fluctuation of heart, and fluctuation of action in the purgative stage. Like every human being we continue to experience temptations, and we often allow our heart to dwell on these selfish and self-indulgent attitudes. However, there is a difference from the purgative stage. Since the Spirit has been mightily at work in us, the temptations usually do not flow into our actions. For instance, we now experience a temptation to jealousy of a coworker. We become aware of this temptation and may even be willing to indulge ourselves by demeaning the person in our heart. However, the temptation stops at this level and does not flow into our outward actions. The focus of our moral effort has shifted from external actions to our internal quality of heart. In the illuminative stage our effort is to become progressively more aware of the shifting quality of our heart so that we come to recognize automatically those internal movements that do not flow from the Spirit and so refuse to allow them to flow into actions. The approach to spirituality I am describing in this book is useful for all Christians who have been awakened to the presence of the Spirit. I believe, however, that it is most suited for those Christians who are now attempting to imitate Jesus within the illuminative way.
As may be expected, the quality of our prayer in the illuminative way also deepens. Since prayer is the expression of our relationship with the Lord, as our relationship grows, so does our prayer. This relationship has come a long way since our awakening; Jesus has become our best friend. It is no longer necessary to do a lot of thinking to get to know him better. We are now drawn by the Holy Spirit to rest quietly in his presence with very little activity of our mind and will. As with human friendship we find ourselves simply enjoying being with our friend without the necessity of doing a lot of talking; we are attentive to the presence of our friend and enjoying an I-Thou relationship with him. There are, of course, times when we do become more active in our prayer, making an effort to get to know Jesus better in order to integrate Jesus’ example more deeply into our own life. But in general, our prayer is marked by a quiet resting in the Lord. In the traditional terminology this quality of prayer is referred to as “beginning contemplation.” The term contemplation implies that our own efforts to pray are decreasing and the activity of the Spirit in our prayer is increasing. Happily there is a relationship between contemplative prayer and being a contemplative in action. The same Holy Spirit that holds our heart to God in prayer also holds our heart toward serving others outside of prayer.
The final stage in the spiritual path is called the unitive way. St. Paul gives us insight into his experience of the Lord at this level of union: “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is the life of perfect friendship with the Lord. Its dominant characteristic is an increased zeal to serve God in all that we do. Our previous efforts of service do not seem to be enough. The Holy Spirit has been at work purifying our hearts and actions, and we now find ourselves existing with the desire totally to serve the Lord and not being torn from this desire by selfish needs. Perhaps this level of union can be compared to a perfect human friendship occasionally found in married couples or good friends. After years of relationship with one another, couples and friends may find that they are utterly sensitive to the other’s needs and not held back by personal selfishness in being responsive to these needs. Their fulfillment comes in serving the other.
What are the characteristics of continuing conversion at this level of union? Like every human being we continue to experience temptation; Jesus experienced temptations. However, these temptations do not hold our heart away from serving God, nor do they flow into actions. As we become aware of the temptation, we dismiss it through the power of the Spirit and reaffirm our desire to serve the Lord. In short we handle the temptation the same way the Lord did: “Be off, Satan! For Scripture says: ‘You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone’” (Matthew 4:10). For instance, as soon as we become aware that we are experiencing a temptation to jealousy, we turn away from it, neither allowing ourselves to indulge in the selfish attitude nor letting the temptation affect our actions. In the unitive way, then, there is no deliberate sinfulness in actions or in thoughts. We may be caught off guard at times and not recognize a temptation toward sinfulness, but as soon as we do, we turn from it.
The quality of our prayer in this stage also deepens. The activity of the Spirit has increased to such a degree that we are held in union with the Lord with almost no use of our own faculties. In addition, we find that we are slipping into a union that is not mediated by self-consciousness. In the illuminative way we enjoyed a conscious attentiveness to the presence of God; in the unitive way we find ourselves slipping away from this conscious attentiveness, forgetting ourselves and being absorbed in oneness with God. It is similar to the experience of concentrating on something so totally that we are not even aware of the fact that we are concentrating until we emerge from the experience. This type of self-forgetfulness and absorption may be present in earlier stages of prayer, but it is not present with the same degree or frequency. This prayer is called “advanced contemplation.” There is a clear relationship between this contemplation and the zeal for serving God: The same Spirit that has transformed our service has now entirely taken over our prayer. Since the activity of the Spirit is at its greatest at this level of union, it is the person in this state that can be called most fully a “contemplative in action.” It seems that very few of us live on this level of union habitually.
Here a brief clarification is in order. The spiritual path really has two meanings. The first is the successive states of the spiritual life that follow one another in our growth in union with God, that is, the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. But the spiritual path also has a second meaning. It also refers to the complementary moments of purgation, illumination, and union present within each period of growth in union with the Lord. For instance, beginners on the spiritual path may experience at times the deepest union with God in prayer; those well advanced may find themselves caught in an embarrassing pattern of sinfulness and so need a deep conversion in some aspect of their life. The path is more cyclic than linear. We have attempted to describe the dominant characteristics of each stage, realizing that we experience aspects of each stage all along the way. But it remains true that as we grow in union with the Lord, we find our experience marked more by the characteristics of one stage than of the others.
Be Not Anxious
As a young Jesuit I worried much about my spiritual growth. I was concerned to get out of the purgative way as soon as possible and move into the illuminative way. I saw the project as being entirely in my own hands; if I did not become perfect, I had not put enough effort into it. My efforts were centered around conformity to rules, prayer, silence, reflection on my life. I was convinced I could earn union with God by these efforts. I now realize that much of my effort was misplaced; I placed the project of my spiritual growth in my hands and not in God’s. I do realize that growth in union does not come automatically and does indeed require effort. But I now know that the focus of my effort must be living in tune with God in my daily life and so allowing God’s Spirit to draw me to ever greater union and love. Happily, I no longer worry about the project of my spiritual growth: I have turned it over to the Lord. I know that this growth will come in God’s time, not my own. Since we become contemplatives in action to the extent that we live in tune with the Spirit, it is now necessary to discuss the criteria for recognizing the Spirit within our inner experience.
5. The book I have found most helpful in understanding the spiritual path is Evelyn Underhill’s classic Mysticism.
by Richard Hauser
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There is a hidden presence within each of us that constantly works to bring us closer to God. This hidden presence is the Holy Spirit, and the more we become aware of him, the more we can respond to his guidance in our lives. Seasoned spiritual director Father Richard Hauser provides insight into how you can recognize the Holy Spirit’s movement in your heart and what to do with inner attitudes, habits, and struggles that don’t flow from the Spirit.
Fr. Hauser also gives advice on seeking God’s will for significant decisions and shares practical tips for keeping a spiritual journal. Moving in the Spirit will show you how to recognize and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, constantly present within us all.
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Product Type Media Books
Author Richard Hauser
Book Format Paperback
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