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The Priest's Way To God

WE cannot carry our discussion on prayer much further without considering how prayer depends upon the general state of one’s spiritual life. Prayer is a meeting with God, in which we give expression, in speech or in silence, to our acceptance of his will, our intention to carry out his desires and our own desire for union with him. If there is not some degree of sincerity in our dispositions, our prayer is little better than a delusion. Obviously, then, our facility at prayer will depend to some extent upon our general dispositions and upon the degree to which those dispositions influence our daily life. There is, in fact, a parallel between our progress in prayer and our progress in what may be summed up as the purity of our life. The two are mutually dependent. An advance in one will generally produce an advance in the other; and there are certain stages when progress in prayer will become very difficult unless there is also progress in purity of life. However, lest the reader should be discouraged, let us hasten to add that although there is a proportion between the two the ratio varies much from one individual to another. It depends much upon temperament, training, circumstances, previous history and character; and of course it is still more dependent upon the type of grace given by God to the particular soul. Every one has his own special gift from God. One meets men of great fervour of life, whose prayer, apparently at any rate, is not of a high order. On the other hand, one also meets souls who have advanced considerably upon the path of prayer and who still have many failings, sometimes of a surprising seriousness. All that can be said is that no man should allow either the consciousness of his own miseries or the sight of his neighbour’s fervour to discourage him. Even though one feels oneself to be far behind one’s fellow-priests in holiness it does not follow that one may not aspire to advance in prayer. In fact there is hardly any better way of making up for lost time. Nor need it be thought that one must mortify oneself to a heroic degree to achieve progress in prayer; although it is true that any prudent effort to purify one’s life will produce abundant fruit at prayer.

The purity of life of which there is question in regard to prayer is generally considered under four heads: purity of conscience, purity of heart, purity of mind and purity of action.

Purity of conscience has reference to our intention of avoiding deliberate sin. As it develops it will determine us to take measures to avoid being overcome by weakness or by habit. However, it is capable of many degrees, and in practice there is no use in gazing at the apparently dizzy heights of purity to which the saints have attained until one is completely discouraged at the prospect of having to accomplish such an appalling ascent. All that is required is that we decide to take that particular step upwards which lies immediately before us. The rest is God’s business and will be provided for by his grace when the time comes. This work of purification of one’s conscience is one in which grace plays an ever-increasing part, and there is no use in considering tomorrow’s difficulties in the light of today’s grace. In fact it is dangerous and discouraging. Common sense, the Psalmist, the first Pope and even God himself all insistently remind us: ‘Cast your burden on the Lord . . . Ipse faciet.’

Purity of heart has a somewhat wider scope. It refers to our attachments and our interests and, to some extent, to our joys and sorrows. Obviously a deliberately willed attachment, which we know to be opposed to God’s will and which we know will lead us to act against it, is incompatible with sincere friendship with our Lord. To have our own natural tastes and interests is however quite another matter, and although they will often provide matter for mortification, yet if they can be subordinated to our love of God, they can play a very useful part in our spiritual life. In fact, to our mind, it could be a very serious mistake for a priest to reject and oppose all such congenial ‘attractions.’ There are times of temptation when it is very helpful, even for the fervent, to have a harmless interest or recreation to which they can turn, relying upon their attraction for it to draw them out of their difficulty and to give them a breathing space. And in Ireland there is a widespread liability to periodic depression which can be an occasion of serious lapses for a priest who has no ‘attractions’ which can take him out of himself at such times. In practice one must distinguish sharply between inordinate attractions and those which are under proper control. The former, of course, must be opposed; the latter, however, have to be handled prudently and in many cases they are better left alone, at least until one has made further progress in union with our Lord.

Purity of mind has to do with the course of our thoughts. It is, of course, closely connected with purity of heart, for our mind tends to be occupied with that to which our heart is attached. A man who wishes to live in intimate friendship with our Lord cannot let his thoughts and his fantasies run riot. Even apart from avoiding sinful preoccupations, there is room for a measure of prudent self-control in this matter. In fact, it might be advisable for some of us to examine ourselves in regard to the usual course of our thoughts during the day. We may perhaps detect a tendency to live in our imagination, which, by the way, is the direct opposite of living a life of interior recollection in the spiritual sense. In fact the imagination can be a greater enemy to union with God than external distraction. But even if we are extroverted, we may find that certain things are constantly preoccupying our mind. Such a discovery, by making us seek for the cause of the preoccupation, may put us on the track of a major obstacle to our progress in divine union.

Purity of action is not altogether distinct from the other three divisions for it concerns the motives and desires which animate and dictate our actions. A good work done for a selfish motive is obviously not perfectly pleasing to God. Yet there is a legalistic mind which satisfies itself that it has fulfilled all justice in performing the daily duties of a pastoral charge without any advertence to the interior ‘how’ and ‘why’ of their performance. Prayer is not the only thing which God will reject because the heart is far from him. The true perspective in this matter can best be formed and maintained by a frequent reading of our Lord’s address to his apostles at the Last Supper.

In practice, we would suggest to any priest who desires to advance in his spiritual life a threefold attack on this problem of purity of life. First would come the question of habitual sin or of some habitual compromise in regard to one’s clear obligations. If a short examination reveals the existence of some constant lapse of this sort, then the situation calls for a deliberate and definite decision in regard to the future—a decision which must be energetic enough to initiate measures to remedy the fault and firm enough to persevere in the amendment of one’s shortcomings. Prudence of course will avoid a too general assault on a number of failings all at once. Where the enemy is manifold, the sound policy is to divide and conquer. However, this particular point is amply treated in ascetical literature.

The second suggestion is that we make a not-too casual survey of the customary course of our thoughts. First of all, one should look out for any constant inordinate preoccupation of one’s mind, especially for a habitual tendency to roam in forbidden fields or along their borders. Even in imagination one must always play the game according to the rules. Those self-exalting day-dreams that are the refuge of an inferiority complex or the result of a self-centred ambition may perhaps be excusable in the adolescent, but not in the mind of the mature priest. Even where the customary course of our thoughts runs on the works by which we serve God, there is still room for a critical enquiry lest concentration on the service of God should exclude from our minds the God whom we serve. The ideal to which we should tend is to have God—in some way—habitually in our thoughts. To do this, one might aim at the ideal of entertaining no deliberate thought which we cannot share with our Lord. But such an aim must be accompanied by a well-balanced outlook in which the will of God is not distorted. For example, it would be fatal if we thought that we could not share our recreations or our pleasures with him who is our Friend. In this way an over strict, quasi-. Jansenistic outlook can easily ruin our spiritual life. We must never forget that our Lord insisted that his yoke is easy and his burden light. He understands our needs and has compassion on our weakness. We must not think of him as a prying policeman anxious to catch us overlooking the letter of the law or as a dean of discipline intent on keeping us from every distraction. (It is extraordinary how much we transfer the memories of these two personages to him!) No! Our Lord is first of all our Saviour and we are his friends. He died to make us happy—praying that his joy might be in us and leaving us his peace.

The third suggestion we make is that each priest should try to find out what are the motives which habitually dominate his actions. This is, perhaps, the most important of all, and its importance increases the more exact a priest feels himself to be in the performance of his apostolic duties. We must always be on our guard lest the work which we commenced for the sake of God should be continued primarily for its own sake. When we examine the motives and zeal of those pursuing a career in secular activities we cannot deny the possibility that similar motives could assume charge of some of our ministerial work. Living among men whose lives are animated by the pursuit of power or of place, of pleasure or of possession, we priests should not too easily assume that we are immune from any infection of that sort. And such infection could, of course, have grave consequences. If a priest allowed advancement or preferment to become the main object of his work, he would no longer be serving God, he would be simply serving himself. And this could be done without departing externally from any of the conventional standards of the zealous priest. It might even produce a life of energetic activity which, since it is not possible for those in charge to assess the interior springs of such activity, might win official approval. For that reason we must be censors of our own motives and aims. Our Lord laid down the only principle of fruitful activity in the apostolate: to abide in him. If we do not abide in him, it is possible that our ministry may appear fruitful, but it is certain that the fruit is ours only in appearance. Its real author is some hidden soul who abides in the Vine in poverty of spirit, and who will be given the eternal credit for the fruit of his abiding therein, even though it seems to be the result of our labours. We are, of course, only pointing out the dangerous rocks to be avoided, but human nature is such that the avoiding of these hazards is secured only by constant vigilance.

There are, then, many possibilities of subtle self-seeking and merely human motives which can interfere with our priesthood. If we make our priesthood consist in the active work of the ministry, in preaching, in administration, in organization, in direction, in hearing confessions and guiding souls, there is a danger that we welcome or at least permit such motives to animate our work or to make it more energetic. Our very zeal for souls may welcome such motives as allies. The immediate effect of such a development is loss of purity of intention and a corresponding decrease in our union with Christ. That is serious enough, but still more serious is the effect on our general lives as priests. We become impatient with all those things that interfere with or lessen our success. Official orders or appointments that interfere with the development of our own methods or limit their application are resented. Work that does not suit our special talents may even be despised. The hundred-and-one happenings which should be accepted as manifestations of God’s will are impatiently resented as enemies of our own ends.

Our own personal spiritual life suffers. The time given to attempts at mental prayer comes to be regarded as time wasted. Reading and reflection, if not completely given up, are used as a preparation for preaching and direction. At best, our own spiritual life is regarded as ancillary to the work of the ministry; at the worst, it is viewed as an accidental ornament in the life of a priest and eventually neglected as quite a useless one. These, of course, are only possibilities and things may never go so far. We may still regard trials and disappointments as something to be tolerated and offered up for souls. But we find it hard to embrace such things by preference as the best way of saving souls and as the real work of the priesthood. Yet—what is the lesson of our Lord’s life?

For our Lord redeemed and saved the world on the Cross. It was by his Passion and his Death that he gave life to men; everything else centred on that. It was by his sufferings rather than by his activities, by what he permitted men to do to him rather than what he did externally to men, that his life-work was accomplished. If such a paradoxical mystery can be summed up in a phrase, that phrase would be St. Paul’s assertion: ‘Christ delivered himself.’

That is our vocation. Pius X puts it clearly. ‘Est igitur nobis persona Christi gerenda.’

Letter to the Clergy, Aug. 4th 1908. Cf. I. E. R. 24 p. 527

The same Holy Father insists on the need for a true interior reproduction of the life of Christ in our souls. ‘Unum est quod hominem cum Deo conjungat. . . . vitae morumque sanctimonia. . . . Haec. . . . sacerdoti si desit, desunt ei omnia. . . . Sanctitas una nos efficit quales vocatio divina exposcit: homines videlicet mundo crucifixos et quibus mundus ipse sit crucifixus, homines in novitate vitae ambulantes, qui ut Paulus (2 Cor. vi.) monet, in laboribus, in vigiliis, in ieiuniis, in castitate, in scientia, in longanimitate, in suavitate, in Spiritu Sancto, in caritate non ficta, seipsos exhibent ut ministros Dei.’

We have, perhaps, drifted away from the direct discussion of our original topic of purity of intention and action. Yet the drift is not into irrelevancies. It is only in light of the cardinal principle of all fruitfulness, namely abiding in Christ, that we can see things in their true perspective. And it is only when one reads such authoritative statements of the need for sanctity and ‘self-deliverance’ in a priest that our insistence on the fourfold purity will not seem impractical idealism.

It is therefore in the complete oblation of ourselves at Mass in union with Christ, who delivered himself, that we shall find the solution of all the problems of our spiritual life as well as those of our ministry. If we may use a phrase, unsuitable, perhaps in such a context but at least expressive in its brevity, we would say that our main object in the service of souls should be, not so much to ‘deliver the goods’ but rather, like our Divine Master and Friend, to deliver ourselves.

The proper discussion of this question must be reserved for further treatment. Here we only say that in this delivering of ourselves, in this purification of our motives and actions there must be prudence. If a man throws away all his natural motives and interests, he may find that his physical organism suffers. There is a physiological need for pleasure, for interest, for enthusiasm, as there is for food. Extremes must be avoided. One young priest, when told that if Christ were his all there would be no need for any recreation, made the quite logical retort that on the same basis of argument there would be no need for any dinner! A man will get the best out of himself only by adapting his way of life to the complex nature which he has to handle, but he must make sure that it is for God and not for himself that he is doing so. And as his complex nature changes through growth in grace, he may have to change his policy accordingly. He must at all times try to have a dominating supernatural motive. In fact he must make God and union with God the principal motive and aim of his whole activity. As we have said before, a frequent re-reading of our Lord’s address to his apostles at the Last Supper is an excellent way of maintaining a true perspective, but sincerity in our offering when we say Mass is the secret of living in true accord with the mind of Christ.

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