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The Priest's Way To God

THERE is one point on which every priest should examine himself at intervals during his life. It is not easy to formulate the question exactly. One could approach the point by asking what spirit animates our life and work: the spirit of the world or the spirit of Christ? Each of us could ask himself: who is the centre of my life? Is it Christ or is it myself? Or we might formulate the question in a phrase previously used in these pages which, if lacking in dignity, at least emphasizes the point of the enquiry: am I more intent on delivering the goods than on delivering myself? Christ, the Holy Ghost tells us, did all things well, but above all he delivered himself.

None of these attempts to put the question quite meets the needs of each individual situation but they help to remind us of the necessity for continual vigilance over the attempts of self-love and self-seeking to intrude into and even to take charge of our priestly lives. Our Lord has laid down self-renunciation as an essential condition of being his disciples. And however generously or however thoroughly we renounced self at the beginning of our priesthood, it is, first of all, like a weed that continually tends to return and overrun the garden unless constantly held in check; and also it is a matter which calls for new and further efforts at different stages of our progress.

As a preliminary to our discussion let us note what seems to be a general pattern frequently observable in the life of the soul. When a soul, under the influence of God’s grace, first sets out in pursuit of holiness, there is nearly always a considerable degree of self in both the principle and the end of our efforts. Nevertheless God’s grace is powerful and we do achieve something. But then he seems to decide that what we have built is not good enough and he pulls the whole edifice down, sometimes quite violently and painfully. If we behave as befits men of faith, hope and charity, we begin again in closer partnership with and in greater dependence on him, and we again achieve some success, this time of more value. But, again, our Lord seems not content and again our work is wrecked. This is a process or a pattern which may be repeated quite often in the Life of a soul called to holiness. Sometimes the different chapters, so to speak, stand out in bold relief and the summits and the valleys are clear to the beholder. At other times the re-moulding and the remaking are not so obvious, for the process is more continuous and more even. But it is nonetheless real, nonetheless disconcerting—and nonetheless effective. It is well to keep this pattern in mind for it will help us to understand and accept much that is disconcerting and difficult in God’s providence in our regard. It applies, of course, in the first place to our efforts at spiritual advancement, but it also applies to our work for God among souls.

To take the latter aspect of the matter first, it cannot be denied that there is frequently a good deal of self-seeking in the work of our ministry. Not all of it is culpable—some of it, in fact, at certain times is even praiseworthy. But sooner or later it has to be eliminated. It is amazing how many good works, begun in a true zeal for God’s glory, can become dominated by a self-seeking that is truly pagan for all its facade of apostolic action. We have all heard of the famous preacher on his deathbed whose friends were trying to console him and remove his fear of God’s judgement by reminding him of the great sermons he had preached. His answer, ‘If God does not refer to those sermons I shall take care not to remind him,’ shows a deathbed revaluation of a Life’s work that may well be our own if we are not a little more critical of our motives. Preaching, for example, if a man has a special talent for it, can easily be the occasion of much self-seeking. The truly apostolic man preaches the word of God in order to bring souls to God. As he grows in grace he becomes more and more animated by the dispositions of the heart of Jesus, and his desire to satisfy the longing of that heart for the love of men becomes the driving motive of his preaching. But unfortunately it is possible to let other motives come with us to the pulpit. We may find ourselves preaching ourselves, not Jesus Christ. We may become more interested in showing our talents than in drawing men to our Saviour. Worldly fame, ‘the bubble reputation in the fool’s mouth,’ may even become our aim, and it is not unknown that men will preach to entertain rather than to edify. Such self-seeking, however, is generally quite obvious, and unless a man has become completely impervious to the protests of conscience and the comments of his colleagues, he will soon have to admit and to remedy the error of his ways.

But there are more dangerous forms of self-seeking in the ministry. In our work we can aim at and achieve a success which seems directed to God’s glory, which excites the commendation of our superiors, the praise and perhaps the envy of our colleagues. Yet the whole thing can be vitiated by a secret worship and seeking of self that makes all our activity a devotion to our own glory rather than to the glory of God. Even such works as the conversion of non-believers or the reform of sinners can be animated by motives that are centred on ourselves. There is, however, more danger of a deviation where the work we have to do is less directly concerned with the service of souls, such, for example, as the building of churches, the raising of funds, or the organization of some outstanding enterprise or function. In all these cases, what makes the position so invidious is that the work is the work allotted to us by authority—it is God’s will. And our success is also what authority hopes for and commends. It is easy to fool ourselves under such circumstances and to blind ourselves to the fact that love of ourselves, not love of God, is the mainspring of our activity. And that is such a tragedy! For if we do all these things without charity, they profit us nothing—and we are nothing.

The general pattern of a ‘priestly’ life is determined fairly clearly by regulations and clerical conventions. These restraints on our freedom can, no doubt, be irksome, but many of us can adapt ourselves fairly easily to the mould. For some of us such a life is even congenial; for others it presents no great difficulty. But inside the limits laid down by such a life a man can do his whole work as a priest in much the same spirit as laymen carry on their professions or pursue their careers. And to make it more dangerous, many of the principles of conduct imposed by the demands of a priestly life are almost identical with the dictates of worldly prudence in the pursuit of a career. The avoidance of mistakes, continual circumspection in conduct, due submission to authority, careful restraint in speech, assiduity in work, promptness in performance, correctness of behaviour: all such have to be observed by the careerist as well as by the man of God. I do not say the difference is not noticeable, for ambition will in the long run betray itself, but the resemblance can be an occasion of self-deceit for the unfortunate man who tries to persuade himself that his devotion to self is really devotion to God. The desire for advancement, for fame, for self can possess the heart of a priest just as it can possess the heart of a layman, and the pursuit of such desires can disguise itself, at least with some success, as real prudence or charity to one’s own family or in many other ways. We have always to be on our guard against becoming the victims of such self-seeking.

Not only in our work for others, but even in the effort to perfect ourselves and to acquire holiness, the influence of self-seeking can be considerable. A priest could seek supernatural perfection in a spirit very much akin to that in which an artist seeks to perfect natural talent. There is a world of difference between the search for holiness for our own sake and the desire to be holy for God’s sake. It is important to recognize the fact that self-seeking can, and in the initial stages usually does, play a part in our desire to advance in spirituality. But it is equally important to be very prudent and cautious in all attempts to remedy this condition. In fact, to some extent, such self-seeking, far from being blameworthy, is actually quite praiseworthy and even necessary. As one progresses, the part played by it has to decrease and the ultimate removal of the defects caused by self-love is really the work of God. But even though in the beginning self-seeking can have its proper place, it very often leads to excesses and exaggerations that make difficulties not only for oneself but also for others. In a book called The Salt of the Earth,

Burns, Oates and Washbourne

which we heartily recommend to every priest, Fr. S. M. Shaw paints a striking but sympathetic picture of this conflict between nature and grace. He describes a young priest who feels called to advance beyond the apparent mediocrity of his colleagues. He does not frown at the amusements indulged in by his friends, but he feels that he is above such things. In his efforts to avoid appearing to condemn the comparative laxity of his companions, his expression assumes a sweetness that shows his tolerance for such self-indulgence. But when the critical comments of his neighbours come to his ears, the realization that he is sharing in the saints’ lot of being misunderstood and even persecuted leads to such an intensification and etherealization of the sweetness of his expression that his colleagues become infuriated. The good young man is perfectly in earnest and perfectly sincere. Yet his friends are not altogether mistaken in feeling that there is a good deal of self-seeking in his conduct. Grace, eventually, will enlighten him and the value of the canon that frowns on singularity may manifest itself to him. But all such happenings are really only different symptoms of the one fundamental disease: the failure to make Christ the centre of the spiritual life and of all apostolic work. It is not easy to correct errors of perspective without falling into exaggeration or such overstatement as would lead to new errors. It is perfectly true that in our apostolate we have to serve God, to do things for him, to labour in his vineyard. It is perfectly true that in the spiritual life we have to aim at and labour for our own perfection. We have to fight the good fight, we have to earn heaven as the reward of our good work and merit eternal beatitude by our own acts. Yet, true as all that is, it is far less than half the truth. In the first place, everything that we have to do is supernatural—completely beyond our powers—and therefore it can be done only by God’s help. Has he not himself reminded us that without him we can do nothing? In the second place, our capacity ‘to do things for God’ and our power to merit are the gratuitous gifts of God’s mercy. He has no need of us except in so far as he may wish to allow the outcome of some of his plans to depend on our co-operation. And if he does thus make us of some importance in his plans, it is because he has compassion on our infirmities and, in his generous love, wishes to give us some opportunity of adding to what he has in store for us the relish of having, in some measure, earned it. Christ could save every soul in the world without a single priest. If he does not choose to do so but decides to make us ministers in the work of Redemption, it is solely because he wishes to share with us his happiness and his crown. If he makes us his servants, it is because he has quite gratuitously chosen to make us his friends. The same principle applies to our own spiritual lives. It is not we who perfect ourselves; our sanctification is the work of God. And if he lets his work involve our co-operation, it is only because his loving kindness wants to clothe his gifts with the mantle of rewards. There is only one mediator between God and men: Christ Jesus. And we will never be true apostles until we realize that our function is to let him use us just as he wills in the work of mediation, always remembering that we are but helpless instruments in his hands. There is only one spiritual life and that is the life of Christ. And we can never begin to be saints until we realize that all sanctity consists in the replacing of ourselves and our lives by Christ and the life of Christ. He is the life of our souls. Therefore the sooner we die to ourselves, the sooner he will live in us.

Let us add to that two very important principles. The first is that while God created the world and rules the world for his own glory, he intends in this life to glorify himself by his mercy. It would seem that the glory of his justice refers more to the next life. Here below mercy is the predominant attribute which animates all his works. The second principle is this. In all his dealings with our souls here below Jesus is always a Saviour and is always acting as such. Until we realize this and adopt in all sincerity and cheerful willingness the attitude of one who needs continually to be saved, we are not in our true relationship to God nor are we living as we should.

In what we have written we have merely pointed out the fairly obvious fact that self-seeking can easily intrude into our spiritual lives and our apostolic work. We have not sought to give any detailed analysis of the matter nor—and at this the reader may be surprise have we discussed how we are to get rid of the intruder. Our reason for leaving the subject without any practical discussion of the counter-measures to be taken is that in the long run we think that the fewer counter-measures we take, the better! Frankly, we think that this battle against self is a battle which, to some extent at any rate, is better fought by not fighting and more easily won by running away. That, obviously, requires some elucidation, for the classical spiritual tradition is rightly insistent on depicting the spiritual life as a war against self. But who is going to conduct this war? If it is our self, then victory only means a further exaltation of self, and the attention to self necessary for the fight is about the worst way to forget self. The answer to the paradox is that the proper way to deal with self is to forget self altogether and go to Jesus. If we concentrate our attention on him we will forget ourselves; if we hand over our work to him, he will soon accomplish our death to ourselves and bring us to a new life in himself.

The one thing, then, that is really necessary for the priest who wishes to fulfil his vocation is to study Christ, to talk to Christ, to know Christ, to seek Christ, to put on Christ and to love Christ with every fibre of his being. Our Lord himself had no other counsel for his apostles on the night he made them priests than to insist that he was the Vine, they the branches, that they could bear fruit only by abiding in him and that to abide in him was all that was necessary in order to bring forth fruit. All his disciples must leave themselves and follow him. To the mother of the two apostles who wanted the chief posts in his kingdom for her sons, he had nothing better to offer than that they should drink the chalice of which he was to drink unto death. To anyone who reads the New Testament in a proper frame of mind, every page is eloquent of the truth that we can reach eternal life only by dying to ourselves.

Yet when we start to live a spiritual life our whole preoccupation is with ourselves. We become meticulous in the scrutiny of our actions; we spend our energy in planning the details of our programme and worrying over our policy. Our hope is measured by what we see in ourselves—if not what we actually see, at least what we see potentially. Everything has to be merited or bought from God. In fact, we see ourselves as the principle and purpose of our sanctification. Now, we cannot altogether be blamed for that. There is much in our surroundings, in all that we see and hear, to help us to form that view. But it is, of course, a completely mistaken view. After all, as St. Thomas says in discussing sacrifice: ‘By sacrifice we show the ordering of our mind to God. For the right ordering of our mind to God it is necessary that we should recognize that all we have is from God as a first principle and should be directed to God as to the ultimate end.’ And we, as priests, offer sacrifice daily! As priests too, we preach the theological virtue of hope. We tell our people that they should hope in God because God is good, but in actual fact our own hope is rather in ourselves because we are—or expect to be—good. Once, however, we grasp the glorious truth, everything is changed. For our title to the kingdom of heaven is no longer our own pretended riches but our spiritual poverty—as our Lord told us it should be. Then we begin to glory in our infirmities, for virtue is made perfect in infirmity and God’s grace is sufficient for us. Our sufficiency in fact is from God.

That is why it is so important to get away from ourselves as quickly and as completely as we can. And we will never understand God’s dealings with our souls until we realize that they are based on this need for getting rid of self and replacing that self by God. God may draw us at first by condescending to make use of our self-love. He may show us the sweetness of his service and the charm of his companionship. But then he withdraws these concessions to our self-seeking

Our work goes wrong; it is misunderstood; we meet with criticism, with opposition and with failure. God seems to have let us down even where the good of others is concerned. And the desolation in our spiritual life is still more complete. We can no longer pray. Our exercises of piety are at best a dull weary routine and may even be an intolerable burden. Spiritual books are distasteful, even painfully so. The Bible commands a certain respect, but not much more. Hope: the very word is a mockery. Like the two disciples going down to Emmaus, our hope is in the past tense: ‘We had hoped . . . !’ And our desolation is akin to that of Job on his dunghill. Blind that we are, we cannot see that that is the most glorious assurance we can possibly have. The story of Job is the story of every soul that is to reach sanctity: there is no other way. It behoved Christ to suffer and to die and to enter into his glory and there is no other way for us. Until we are brought to nothing and accept that nothingness, we cannot be men after God’s heart, for Christ cannot live in us.

At first sight, then, the war on self would seem to be our most important contribution to the work of our sanctification. That, however, is a view which we cannot quite accept, for at least two reasons. Firstly, as we have said, self may find still more food for its own exaltation in such a warfare. Secondly, no sane human being will let go of the only plank he has until he is convinced that the surrounding ocean will support him. No reasonable man can be expected to discard self until he learns Christ and is sure that he can cast his burden on him. That is why we feel that the most important thing for us to do is to build up a proper idea of Jesus, of his love for us, of his constant care for us, of his unlimited willingness to help us and to save us.

And we also feel justified in saying that when things go wrong or appear to have gone wrong—at any period of the spiritual life—whether it be a falling into mortal sin or the deprivation of some extraordinary grace, there is always the same sovereign remedy, that of casting our burden on the Lord, of abandoning ourselves to Jesus. Sins are terrible things. They matter fearfully, for they crucify Jesus. But in another sense they do not matter at all, for if we are sorry for them Jesus can and will save us from them. They will be no obstacle to our close friendship with him but will even be used by him for our benefit. Discouragement is one of the most dangerous diseases of the soul and one which can occur at any period of the spiritual life. Yet it is nearly always due to the same cause: too much regard of ourselves and too little regard of Jesus. Once the cause is known the remedy is obvious. Scruples have much in common with discouragement. While they do present a special problem which needs sympathetic and understanding treatment, the ultimate remedy is recourse to Jesus. In this case, however, the psychological obstacles to such a recourse must be removed. The same remedy is the only remedy for all self-centred piety. And it is the absolute necessity for the replacement of the self by Christ that is at the root of all God’s dealings with the soul. We have been told we must die in order to live. We have been told that we must leave ourselves and follow Christ. We have been told that we must be made new creatures in Christ. Why, then, worry about ourselves? Let us take God at his word and cast our burden upon his Son, cleaving to him who is our sufficiency, who is not only our all but even all the glory of God.

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