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The Priest's Way To God

THERE are few safer sources of doctrine than papal documents. And when to the significance already implied by beatification, such papal documents add that of an insistent emphasis on the universal application of the example and teaching of a particular saint, it would be folly to overlook their importance. It is generally admitted that the sanctification and the example of St. Thérèse of Lisieux were definitely designed by Providence to draw attention to the true way to holiness and to remind us of what holiness essentially requires. This general belief is in perfect harmony with the explicit teaching of Pope Benedict XV. His address on the occasion of the decree

Aug. 14th 1921

on the heroic virtues of the now canonized St. Thérèse is of the utmost importance for the spiritual life of all men, and especially so in the case of all priests. Having summed up the saint’s spirituality in the phrase ‘spiritual childhood,’ the Holy Father proceeds: ‘There lies the secret of sanctity . . . for all the faithful scattered over the whole world! . . . Her example,’ he hopes, ‘will be the means of swelling the ranks of perfect Christians . . . wherever the children of the Catholic Church are to be found.’ These striking words make it impossible for us to refuse to study her teaching and to apply it to ourselves. In order that we might do so the Holy Father went on to explain what he meant by spiritual childhood. Citing the example of a child’s reliance on and confidence in its parents, he teaches that ‘in the same way spiritual childhood is the outgrowth of trust in God and complete abandonment to him.’ And he continues: ‘It will not be out of place to enumerate the qualities of this spiritual childhood, both as regards what it omits and what it includes. It knows nothing of self-pride, or the thought of being able to attain by purely natural means a supernatural end, or those spurious notions of self-reliance in the hour of danger and temptation. On the other hand, it presupposes a lively faith in the existence of God, a practical homage to his power and mercy, a confident recourse to the Providence of him who alone can give us grace to avoid evil and to seek good.’ And having thus summarized the essentials of this teaching, he adds the very grave statement: ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ pointed to it as a necessary condition for obtaining eternal life.’ These words alone justify our insistence here upon our thesis, for it is not merely a question of perfection, but of salvation itself! We must therefore listen further to the Holy Father.

He continues by referring to the incident in St. Matthew’s Gospel where our Lord took a little child as a model and said to his disciples: ‘Amen I say to you, unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’

Matt. XVIII, 3

‘Suffer the little children to come unto me . . . for of such is the kingdom of God. Amen I say to you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter into it.’

Mark X, 15–16

And the Holy Father continues:—‘It is of great importance to note the force of the language used by our Divine Lord. The Son of God was not content with merely stating that the Kingdom of heaven was for children: “Talium est enim regnum coelorum,” or that whosoever should become as a little child would be greatest in the Kingdom of heaven; but he even went so far as to exclude from his Kingdom those who did not become as little children.’ And commenting on the various means used by our Lord to impress this lesson on the minds of his hearers, the Holy Father insists: ‘From this we must conclude that it was the Divine Master’s express desire that his disciples should see in the way of spiritual childhood the path which could lead them to eternal life. In face of this insistent and forcible teaching of our Lord, it would surely not be possible to find a soul who could hesitate in entering this way of confidence and self-surrender, all the more so, to repeat our own words, because our Divine Lord, not only in a general manner, but also by a concrete example, declared this way of life to be absolutely essential, even in the case of those who have lost the innocence of their childhood. There are some who try to persuade themselves that the way of trust and abandonment to God is the exclusive privilege of those souls whose baptismal robe has remained unsullied by sin. They are unable to reconcile the idea of spiritual childhood with the loss of their innocence. But do not the words of the Divine Master, “unless ye be converted and become as little children,” indicate the necessity of a change? “Unless ye be converted” suggests a transformation which the disciples of Jesus had to undergo in order to become children once again; and who should become a child again, if not he who is no longer one?’ And the Holy Father continues his explanation showing that our Lord’s words indicate an ‘obligation to labour to regain the lost qualities of childhood.’ And since there is no question of resuming either the outward appearance or feebleness of the state of infancy, the Pope sees here ‘a counsel given to those who have attained maturity to return to the practices of the virtues associated with spiritual childhood.’

This long quotation is only excused by the need of establishing the papal endorsement of the doctrine of spiritual childhood. It is a doctrine which takes on a very special significance when we associate it with the teaching of the apostles in regard to the effects of baptism, by which we become the adopted sons of God, participating in the divine nature and being in all things dependent on him for every movement of life in our souls. Childhood in the supernatural order is nothing make-believe or far-fetched. It is the fundamental fact of the supernatural life. And it is only by spiritual childhood that we can live in true harmony with our nature and our dignity as sons of God.

Spiritual childhood includes three important virtues: humility of heart, poverty of spirit and unbounded confidence. We have been treating of humility in the previous chapters. To what we have already said let us add St. Thérèse’s comment. ‘To be little means not attributing to self the virtues one practises, believing oneself incapable of anything; it means recognizing that the good God places this treasure of virtue in the hand of the little child to be used by him when he has need of it; but always it is God’s treasure. In fine, it means not being discouraged by our faults, for children fall often, but are too small to do themselves much harm.’ For us priests this teaching applies not only to our own personal lives, but also to all the powers and graces we have as priests. Too often, although we do admit our limitations, we credit ourselves with something of our own. When serious obstacles arise in our path, then we are discouraged; the reason is that we have trusted, not in God, but in ourselves. Our proper attitude should be to lay aside any sense of our own self-sufficiency and to expect every necessary grace and strength from God. This of course means a life of complete dependence on God.

Often we are forced to admit our insufficiency. Our incapacity and our futility are only too obvious. But even then we only admit the truth to resent it. This is where we fail. True humility, true poverty of spirit, true love of our Lord rejoices in its poverty and exults in such complete dependence on God. Grace will come to such a soul in abundance when it is needed—but there must be no piling up of reserves, no proprietorship. One has to wait for each day and each deed for the necessary help to arrive. And when it does arrive, we must not make it ours: all is on loan. This poverty of spirit is not a passing phase. We have to be prepared to be poor all our lives. This is impossible if we have not proper confidence in God.

Too often our confidence in God is based on an illusory sense of our own merits. But true theological hope is based on the goodness of God, who is sufficiently good to overlook our lack of merit, and to be infinitely merciful to our poverty and nothingness. When a man realizes this truth, which is one of the most fundamental of all the truths of the spiritual life, he feels an urge to strip himself completely of all pretended possessions for it is when we are poor in ourselves that we are most rich in God. And such souls cannot hope too much in God. St. John of the Cross—a Doctor of the Church whom no one has ever accused of being lax—insists: ‘From the good God we obtain all that we hope for.’

In fact, part of the proper office for the octave of the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is taken from St. John of the Cross and bears out all we have said. The following teaching of the saint is quoted by the Church in the lessons for the second day of the octave:

‘The greater the things God wills to give us, the more he increases our desires, even so as to make a void in the soul, in order to fill it with his good things. Firm hope is all-powerful to touch and vanquish the heart of God; and to attain to the union of love, the soul must walk relying on nothing but hope in God alone, without which it will be unable to obtain anything. The hope of a soul which ceaselessly turns towards him is so acceptable to God that it may truly be said that the soul obtains whatever it hopes for.’

Lest the reader should think that we are getting far away from the life of the secular clergy, let us quote from a letter of Pius XI to Fr. Fray, the superior of the French seminary in Rome:

Oct. 8th 1938

‘The Teresian spirituality cannot be counselled strongly enough to souls, and especially to the souls of priests. It expresses the foundation of the Gospel. Its dominant note is simplicity in renunciation and entire sacrifice to love. And today more than ever the priest should give himself without reserve, without restriction, to the cause of God and the Church.’ Thus encouraged, let us presume to put before the secular clergy another quotation from St. John of the Cross, also cited in the office of St. Thérèse’s octave:

‘It is of the highest importance that the soul exercise itself constantly in the labours of love, in order that, being rapidly consummated, it may not be retarded by anything of earth but quickly come thither where it will behold its God face to face. The smallest act of pure love is more precious in the eyes of God, and more profitable to the Church, than all other works put together. Without love all our works, all our labours, are as nothing before God, for he holds as acceptable only our love. Wherefore the soul which is aglow with this perfect love is named the Spouse of the Son of God, and appears to us as raised to a footing of equality with him, because their mutual affection renders all common between them. Enkindled by this love, the soul desires neither wages nor reward. Its will is to lose all and sacrifice itself without desiring to gain aught for itself, so that it may please Jesus. Happy the soul that loves! The Lord becomes, as it were, its prisoner, and holds himself ready to fulfil all its desires. Love is repaid only by love.’

No reader need be surprised at this sudden leap from the depths of childlike humility to the ardent heights of divine love. The vocation of every Christian is to love God with his whole heart and his whole soul. One might even say that his vocation is to love God with the love with which God loves himself. And the teaching of all Christian time, coming down from our Lord himself through his apostles, re-echoed by St. Benedict, by St. Thomas, by St. John of the Cross, by St. Thérèse, is that the way to the heights of divine love is by the path down into the depths of humility. To gain life we have to lose our own. To put on Christ, we have to deny ourselves. To let God act freely in our souls, we have to remove all self-centred or self-seeking tendencies which oppose his action. The foundation of our hope is God’s goodness. We must believe in his love for us.

St. Thérèse describes holiness by saying that it ‘does not consist in this or that practice, but lies in a disposition which renders us humble and little in God’s hands, aware of our weakness and confident to the point of audacity in our Father’s goodness.’

There is nothing to stop any soul from reaching the heights of divine love—so important for the Church as well as for itself—except its own self-sufficiency, its own independence, its own pride. Humility, we repeat, is the ladder to the summit of divine love. And self-renunciation, carried out in true simplicity, is the sure way of finding union with God. Poverty of spirit is the divinely announced title to the kingdom of heaven. Ultimately we must find God, we must renounce ourselves, we must be reduced to poverty, if not in this life, then in the next in the purifying fires of Purgatory. But now is the acceptable time, and St. Thérèse has been raised up to show us the true way.

We have already, in previous chapters, insisted upon the special propriety of humility in one who daily offers sacrifice to God; we feel bound to return to it. The Benedictine concept of humility as flowing from reverence to God is especially significant in this connection. A man who is called by his profession, as a priest is, to proclaim God’s glory before heaven and earth, can find no better way of doing so continually than by true humility and spiritual childhood. St.

Thérèse has given us one example. Another example, perhaps more akin to our own vocation, is that of

Dom Marmion, the Dublin priest who became a

Benedictine abbot and wrote what I think I may justly call the theology of spiritual childhood. Time and time again he insists in his writings that we must find all in Christ. Time and time again he urges us to lay down our will and judgement, our own way of seeing things, at the feet of Christ, and to tell him that we do not want anything except what comes from him, that we do not desire to do anything except what he, as the Word, from all eternity has decided for us; that in fact we should try to live in the spirit of St. Paul’s words: ‘Vivo autem, jam non ego: vivit vero in me Christus

Gal. II, 20

This of course means a high degree of self-abnegation. But that is not so difficult if only we can stir up a lively and unlimited faith in two things: in the burning personal love that God the Father has for each of us, a love which animates all his providential dispositions in our regard and which makes him ever solicitous for our welfare; and, secondly, in the infinite riches that are ours in Christ. His merits, infinite as they are, are ours. His claim upon the Father is ours. Truly has he borne all our infirmities and our weaknesses and has made ample provision for them. Truly has he taken away all our sins and has paid the price of our iniquities so that we may be delivered from them. In him there is nothing wanting to us in any grace.

If we have a real conviction of these two truths about God, we shall not be afraid to face the truth about ourselves. The ordinary priest who is not conscious of mortal sin finds it rather difficult to apply to himself what spiritual writers say about the nothingness and the sinfulness of the human creature. But there is a misunderstanding at the root of his outlook. He forgets that a man in the state of grace is neither a mere creature, nor is he alone. He is then a creature raised to a participation in the divine nature, and one in whose soul God dwells as a partner. To see the truth about ourselves we should abstract from the effect of grace, and view ourselves as we would be without it.

In this condition, in so far as the supernatural order is concerned, we are literally dead. We cannot make a single movement towards God, we have not even any claim upon God. All our riches are in Christ. In his name we can call upon God with the assurance that he must hear us. By his grace we can believe in God, we can hope in God, we can love God. By his strength we can live in God and for God. Gladly, then, let us glory in our infirmities that the power of Christ may dwell in us.

We have, therefore, to make up our minds whether we are going to live by our own strength or by the power of Christ. If we decide—as faced with a superhuman vocation we must decide—that we must live by the power and strength of Christ, then immediately we are committed to that complete emptying of ourselves which is summed up in true humility and spiritual childhood.

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