The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 53, No 5, Sept.-Oct. 2000

Theology for the Laity

Aiming For The Summit In The Spiritual Life

By Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

With the place the Holy Eucharist has at the center of the life of the Church, which has been especially emphasized by Pope John Paul during this Jubilee year, there should be no doubt in our minds about the heights of spiritual union to which our Lord is calling every member of the Church. What greater sign of His yearning to bond us intimately to Himself could He give than in providing us with this sacrament of His Body and Blood? Receiving, as we do, the fullness of His human and divine natures in the form of food, the Holy Eucharist proclaims to us that there is deep mystical union and holiness of life that He wants for everyone in the Church.


Despite this deep desire of our Lord so evident in the Blessed Sacrament, some people are mistakenly under the impression that our Lordís invitation to true holiness and deep prayerful union are intended only for a select few in this world. They believe the path He intends for most people is that they make modest progress in the spiritual life, never completely rising to a true holiness of life, then after death find their way into purgatory where God will make them fit for heaven. What of Christís statements in the Gospelís about the holiness of His followers? "You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." These (the mistaken view holds) were intended for rare, specially privileged individuals. For the rest they are goals to set, but never to expect in this life.

But let us stop at this point and consider a couple of things this mistaken view implies about our journey to God. One implication is that purgatory is the standard means of purification for the Church. One can certainly say it is a common means for the Church. But Our Lord has established a whole array of grace-filled practices, as well as trials and difficulties in life, in order that painful purgation after death might be avoided or lessened. The teaching of Christ, the sacraments, prayer, embracing the cross, good works, along with mortification and self-discipline are sufficient in themselves. They have the capacity to free us from sin and its consequences, enabling us to pass quickly on to heavenly union with God. The necessity of purgatory arises when we do not take full advantage of these ordinary means.

But a far worse implication is that there are two different sets of expectations for the faithful. This faulty approach might be expressed as offering two versions of the Gospel, one for the few called to perfection and another for the great majority called to something less. For these latter there is a mitigated version of the Gospel in which minor vices and sinful attachments are tolerated. In this mistaken view instruction such as "You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and all your strength," and "Pray for your enemies, bless those who persecute you," are not strictly binding. The expectation is that one keep oneself from serious mortal sin and take some token steps to reform oneís life. The concern is certainly not to reach the greatness of a saint.

The document of the Second Vatican Council on the mystery of Christís Church, Lumen Gentium, leads us in the right direction. The Gospel call for sanctity is meant for all members of the Church, no matter in what state of life they may find themselves. The working man or woman, no less than the cleric or consecrated religious is bound to aim for true holiness of life:


Advancement in holiness is advancement in friendship with God. The two go hand in hand. Like any friendship, there is a bond established by common goals, interests, and values. Holiness is in part the result of having common goals, interests, and values with God. We take on His way of thinking and acting. "You are my friends if you do what I command you," Jesus says in the Gospel (Jn. 15:14). The deeper the friendship, the more we have in common. In its fullest form, the sharing becomes so complete that there is actually a profound transforming of our nature to be more like Godís. As Our Lord also says in the Gospel, "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (Jn. 14:23).

All the invitations to holiness we find in the Scriptures and in the Churchís teaching have this kind of union in mind. Jesus says in the Gospel that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And how can this be possible with all our weaknesses? For us it is clearly impossible. But our Lord is implying the true indwelling of God within us, providing us with that level of perfection we could never hope to achieve on our own. Thus, what the Gospel call to be perfect amounts to is a summons to be in complete union with God, to be filled with the Divine Presence. St. John of the Cross, the great sixteenth century Spanish mystic and theologian, teaches that when the soul is brought to a state of complete union with God, it is so moved by the "breath" of the Holy Spirit that in all the soulís activity, "everything that occurs and is caused is perfect, for He is the cause of it all" (Living Flame, 4.16).

But with regards to this perfection St. Thomas brings us some helpful clarity. To begin with, he points out that it is charity that makes us perfect; the soul in its highest state is filled with divine love. But a person will be perfect in this life in a different way than the saints in heaven. The perfection of those who see God face to face is unique in that their minds and hearts are continually fixed on God, and filled with a love that reaches out for Him with all the strength they possess. They have an unwavering intensity of love resulting from the direct vision of God that we will never be able to have on earth (II-II, 184, 2).

The perfection we are capable of, on the other hand, consists in being free from everything that prevents us from giving ourselves completely to God. This includes mortal sin, deliberate venial sin, and whatever hinders us from fulfilling the Divine Will, such as needless fears and subtle forms of selfishness (Ibid.). But as St. Thomas also points out, less serious, venial sins will still creep in. Even the greatest saints had inadvertent offenses that resulted from the weakness of human nature (Ibid. 2, ad 2). Thus, although humbling, such sins should never be a source of discouragement, as long as we are doing our best to fight against them.

So this is the perfection we are required to seek. It is summarized by Our Lord in His command to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. All traces of self-seeking and self-indulgence have given way to a love that seeks nothing more than the honor of God and the well-being of our neighbor. The question now arises: what are the steps we can take that will bring us to this glorious destination?


There are changes that need to be made to bring us out from a condition that is simply incompatible with God. Behind the intimate union with God had by all the saints were years of achieving, through grace, a state of soul that allowed deep communion to take place. St. Thomas states the incompatibility problem as one of purity:

A mind focused on the things of earth has acclimatized itself to the inferior reality of the material world. This is the level where it desires to remain, a level that is crude compared with God who is pure spirit. Without a turning of the mind from the lesser reality of matter to the ultimate reality of pure spirit, there will be an impossibility of union. For union to happen there needs to be some likeness, some sharing of characteristics. A materially saturated mind, consumed with love for food, entertainment, and sensual pleasure, has departed so radically from the divine likeness that it has made itself utterly incapable of union with God. Friendship with Him has no chance to get started.

But even a mind only somewhat tainted by love for material things, the state of many of us who seek to serve God, lacks the truly perfect degree of compatibility that is necessary. For deep union with God we must be willing, as St. John the Apostle tells us, to become pure "as He is pure" (1 Jn 3:3). Once again, the frailty of human nature in our present condition will prevent us from reaching the level of purity we will have in heaven. We will still have inadvertent sins. But the purity we strive for here is nothing to take lightly. It is no less than complete freedom from willful sins and attachments to the things of this world which hinder the union of God with the soul.


A great mistake at this point would be to imagine that material things lie at the root of the problem. Many people desiring spiritual growth unfortunately tend to think along these lines and end up getting nowhere spiritually and making themselves thoroughly miserable in the process. They mistakenly identify anything pleasurable as the enemy and set about denying themselves of many things they should, with due moderation, be enjoying.

St. Thomas and all the great saints of the Church, simply proclaiming what is found in Sacred Scripture, deny outright that there can be anything wrong with the material world in itself. It was created by God, and from Him can come nothing but goodness. And what is more, God has made us such that we depend upon material things for our well-being. We are part material ourselves by Godís wonderful design! We need to be sustained by food and drink, to have a home in which to live, to possess things useful for work, to refresh ourselves with a hike in the mountains, and so on. We are not at all on the right track if we think that the real obstacles to approaching God in intimate union are the very things He has provided for us to enjoy, and even made us depend upon for our very existence.

So where is the problem? Itís in our will. When St. Thomas, in the citation above, speaks of withdrawing from the inferior things of this material world, he is obviously not referring to our withdrawing from every earthly reality in a physical sense. He is rather speaking of a withdrawal of the will from any material thing desired for its own sake. Only God can be desired for His own sake. Nothing should be desired that leads away from Him. Once we long for something in itself, seeking it as our ultimate goal, we turn that thing into our god.

The principle then that the great mystics of the Church use as a pathway for full union with God is called detachment. Briefly put, it involves breaking every longing that turns things into gods. And what are the signs of such longings? Fr. Thomas Dubay, in The Fire Within, offers three helpful guides for identifying desires that have gone astray:

  1. An "activity or thing is diverted from the purpose God intends for it." This is what happens when, for example, one tells a lie. Godís gift of speech, which He intended for such things as helpful exchange of information or forming friendships, is twisted to oneís own selfish purposes, to manipulate another, to hide oneís own failings, etc.
  2. One carries a good thing too far. Excessive eating, drinking, use of entertainment, speaking, or working are all signs that we are seeking fulfillment in a created thing that it was not meant to provide, that can be found in God alone.
  3. Means are turned into ends. The goal of our lives is to be united to God and lifted up to heights of joy beyond our imagining. Everything else we come across in life is a means to this end, whether it be going out to dinner, watching a program on television, or buying some items for the home. Not being able to directly or indirectly relate some thing or activity to reaching our final, glorious destination is a sign that we have given ourselves over to other gods than the one, true God (p. 135).

St. John of the Cross is very clear that all such desires must be put away. And in this he includes not only longings that involve mortal and venial sin, which are obvious enough, but even those that are the least serious of all our desires, that constitute imperfections: selfishness that causes undue worry, slips in thoughtfulness, generosity, etc. For total union with God to take place we must be brought to a state where our will "is so completely transformed in Godís will that it excludes anything contrary to Godís will, and in all and through all is motivated by the will of God." (Ascent of Mount Carmel I, 11, 2)

The change required is indeed total, which can seem so daunting a challenge that many are left wondering how realistic this can be for the ordinary person living in the world. It even seems daunting for the person in religious life. But those who have seen this way of detachment through to its glorious end, like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, will tell us not to be dismayed. We are not alone in this quest for holiness. Once we unite ourselves to God in an active prayer life, and seek the summit of holiness with determination, our Good Lord is not slow to respond. He comes to the rescue to do for us astounding things that we could never hope to do for ourselves (as Fr. Dubay relates very clearly and extensively in the book mentioned above.)

By way of conclusion, it should be remembered how complete detachment from material things taught by the saints is no more that what our Lord is demanding of us in the Gospel when He says, "Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:33). This is not to say that Our Lord necessarily expects all of us to take on the radical poverty of the Churchís strictest religious orders. But there will be no way we can truly speak of ourselves as His disciples as long as our love for Him is compromised with love for anything else in this world - even love for our lives here on earth (Lk. 14:26). This is the true basis for the complete detachment that the great mystics of the Church tell us is so necessary, without which no one will see God face to face.

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