Sunday, July 22, 2012

Beyond the Absolute, Part 3 of 3: Beyond the Absolute

St. Bruno in ecstasy
In earlier blog posts I addressed the essay written by a Carthusian monk regarding the concept of God as Absolute and the wounding embrace with which He calls a Carthusian monk (or any man) to his final and true vocation, taking up the cross in the monastery. This is the last part of the Carthusian’s essay and in my opinion is the better part of the essay since it is the climax of the monk’s work.
The first part discussed the call of God to a radical new way of life by the manner in which He moves our heart and calls us forward to a new embrace of solitude and expressly needful desire for His presence. This movement of his heart is inexpressible says the monk, and the manner in which this embrace of God in that calling moment is the call to solitude, a solitude that breaks with the world and seeks its only call and house within the Lord’s love. The call reaches deep down to the center of a man’s being and is necessary to become concrete and fully willed through his own co-operative response, though it is clear that the vocation would become impossible if God did not lead the way. This is the manner in which God is known as Absolute, that is in that deeply touching moving and life-changing moment when He calls. It is as if He says to us like that young sick girl who passes away in the Gospel of Mark, “Rise up!”, and our soul leaps up by His command, eager to fulfill it due to the transforming work He has instantaneously placed in us. The Divine Absolute seduces us and we remain held in seduction; this is the wound of love in the heart. This was the topic of the first part of my discussion of the essay. You can read about it here.

The next segment of the Carthusians essay describes how this vocation is actualized, how it is that the soul that was so deeply seduced by God’s sweetness is made to flow into the Carthusian order. At once he describes the limitations set up within the Carthusian monastery and in what manner the Statutes of the monastic life place a boundary on what sort of life can be lived in light of God’s call to holiness and perfection. Carthusians live in isolation from others and the boundaries of the monastery prevent them from engaging in others. There need be a concrete expression of the radicality of the Carthusian call in which the Carthusian must learn to follow the call of God in every relation to others and the environment. A once spiritual and deep call must fit within the schema of time and space, and not only human time and space, but that which is required within the walls of the monastery. This manner of enclosure into the desert of solitude for the Carthusian marks the manner in which his soul desires and seeks to be hidden away with Christ in God. The learning of his vows to the Carthusian Statutes are a means to which the Carthusian becomes anchored in God, not only spiritually by taking a vow of obedience to the Order.  In this manner the Order becomes for the monk the gateway to divine freedom in the embrace of God as Absolute. And so it should seem.

Introductory paragraph
Once admitted within the limits of a Charterhouse, we find ourselves right in the midst of  a Carthusian life itself. Now begin the surprises, even if we knew in advanced that we would find ourselves at the heart of a community life. We came with the idea of isolating ourselves completely, and casting ourselves upon God alone. Now we find ourselves caught in the complicated network of obligations involved in family life. We thought to find ourselves surrounded by saints and, to our horror, discover a prevailing mediocrity. Even worse, we end up realizing that the Absolute has vanished within us: nothing remains sidetracked, or is it some new ‘trick’ of God, who is revealing himself in a way he did not expect.

There is certainly much room to grow spiritually in the life of faith and love in God. I know for certain that coming to friendship with a few high school Catholic friends who had so many wonderful stories about their faith and conversion, only to witness daily life with them as showing what seemed to be a spiritually mediocre life with little tenderness and modesty in behavior. Who am I to judge however? I cannot even see the vanity of my own heart with earnest measure and clarity. Have you ever experienced the joy of a Sunday mass only to find one’s self back at home moments later with the same family enduring the same fights and complicated moments of dread about doing the will of an elder? It is difficult to follow the Lord and take up our cross. We discover our mediocrity to follow God in ourselves and at times we see God vanish before our eyes. He who we experienced with loving joy in the Eucharistic feast has become distant, entrenching us in undesirable contact with sinners who distract us and cause us anger from enjoying leisure and sometimes intimate time with God. This is quite unexpected, but common, however there is a remedy.

Joining the family
When there are so few dwelling in the heart of the same desert, drawn by the same ideal, there is no question of living side by side as strangers. He who has no wish to join in the life of the family will be rejected by it and soon discover that his life in his cell is radically undermined. If he truly wishes to persist in his search for the Absolute, there is no alternative but to accept this family life and to join it wholeheartedly, in loyalty and honesty.

Joining our own family is imperative, and those who wish to desert those whom God has obligated us to take care of are not blameless though there may be certain conditions with which to physically abandon family, though not spiritually. We cannot find God if we cannot learn to love our neighbors as ourselves: “He that says he is in the light and hates his brother is in darkness even until now.” (1 John 2:9)

This social dimension is quickly revealed as being at the very heart of Carthusian life. No one can find God while forsaking the road laid down in the Gospels, that is, the path of charity. It would be fruitless to seek the Absolute and, at the same time, seek to dispense ourselves in any way from love of our brothers. For the teaching of Jesus and of the beloved disciple is clear: the love which binds together the children of God is the very same love that unites the Father and the Son. To join the Carthusian family is to enter fully into the life of the divine family and, with the risen Jesus, to penetrate the veil and come into the presence of God. Yet, in a Charterhouse, this human image of the divine family seems limited and constrained and only makes sense when placed within the context of that great family of the children of God- the mystical body of Christ: His Church.

Can one imagine how even in the most isolated and individual based order of the Latin Catholic Church the words of the Gospel pierce human nature and its need? The Carthusian life of little speech or contact with others is inevitably and necessarily tied in with the social dimension of the Gospel, to love one’s neighbor as himself and to care for his brother as his keeper. That love with which binds together the children of God and the Father to the Son, I believe is the Holy Spirit. Peter Lombard in his Four Books of the Sentences wrote that the Holy Spirit is the same love that abides in us to love God and others as He is in that relation to the Father and the Son. Here the Carthusian writes that it is the Holy Spirit which binds us together in the love of God as the Body of Christ in order to unite us as best we can receive in the same manner in which the Holy Trinity is bound together in Love. This is a great thing to say, and certainly no one but a spiritual master could understand the depth of this Love. To enter into the Body of Christ is to enter into the life of the Divine Family, the Most Holy Trinity by which we are made to rise with Christ resurrected into that eternal presence with God. Mystical prayer, most totally and especially that offering which is most holy, the Eucharistic offering, is the means by which we are lifted into Heaven in the symbol and seal to come of our own future participation in Christ’s Resurrection. This is not something that we achieve, but humbly receive according to God’s loving will and invitation, but nonetheless something He builds for us slowly, if we are willing and humble. Only in the deeply interior life can we experience this, and our mediocrity and meekness will dog us forever, until we are molded slowly and painfully according to Christ’s example and grace.

It is impossible to overestimate the mental adjustments often required of the young monk in this apparent reversal of values. Having come to lose himself in an Absolute which had totally overwhelmed him, he suddenly discovers this Absolute to be completely different from what he had imagined. The ‘Absolute’ is a way we have of imagining God: the reality of God is the Son who is in the bosom of the Father, and who revealed this reality to us when He said that the Father loved the Son, and that they both loved us and would come to us. In the end, it is crucifying choice that we have to make either the Absolute which contents us by enclosing us within ourselves, or the relationship that will open us to the infinite, but at the cost of wrenching us asunder and exposing us to all those around us, whatever affinity we may or may not have for them.

This too is the way of the converted Christian. He expects glorious miraculous events, visions, feelings of joy and zeal, deep unitive prayer, but he is not prepared for the road to Calvary. As Ven. Fulton Sheen said, we cannot get to Paradise without first going through Calvary. God removes from us these miracles, these feelings, these visions, as a means of weaning us, to show us that there is more to Him than simply an Absolute, full of Holiness and Perfection and Infinitude, but something deeper that must be experienced, given, received, and cannot be explained. The reality of God explains the Carthusian is the Divine Persons, and nothing else besides that. Whatever God Is, He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Triune, One in Three, and Three in One. This Love that binds them is the Love that God desires us to enter, with which He radiates in glory. In order to achieve this we must give up our thoughts that the life of the Gospel is solely contemplative and not active, but rather the calling of God to both mutually together, but always embraced in the following of the Spirit in the carrying of our Cross. Only in this paradoxical self-emptying and self-giving to others and to God, can we be opened to the Infinite. Is it not strange that in loving others we are brought closer to loving God? Why not love God only and then be brought closer to God? Because God has not made us in that way, and to love God is to love others as well because it is in the nature of God who Is Trinity to give Love abroad. Not the Father to Himself alone, nor the Son to the Son alone, nor the Holy Spirit to the Holy Spirit alone, but the Father to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, and the Son to the Father and to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit to the Father and to the Son.

The kingdom of mediocrity
One does not need to spend very long in a Charterhouse to become aware that it is rampant with many petty problems and the presence of ordinary human weaknesses, even if everyone is doing his honest best to strive towards that perfection of which the Father is the supreme model. There is nothing new about this. Historical accounts of life in the Charterhouse, as well as the annals of the Order, show that individuals of great sanctity or distinction are very rare in our communities. The life of most Charterhouses is a dull sort of grey. One encounters disputes with neighbours and little incidents within the communities.

Blessed are the meek, the humble, and the pure of heart, for they shall inherit the kingdom, be exalted, and see God. But for us wayfarers we must face the dismal reality of our own weakness, and we might despair of becoming the image of the Father who is perfect and Whom Christ has commanded us to imitate if we had not such a Holy Advocate as God Himself to guard us. To become a saint is rare, at least to become a glorified one, but what matters is to imitate the Divine Heart who was so meek and humble as to not consider His Godhood something to be taken advantage of or thought of when He underwent disgraces. Our lives often follow a dull pace, especially when in the pursuit of holiness. Where are the signs? The prophecies? The angelic visitations? The miracles? The spiritual joys? Do not keep watch for them, for we do not want to store our hearts in such treasures, but rather only in God Himself, a God who is ever present, closer to our souls than ourselves, and yet so very far away from our weak state.

A deeper insight into souls gradually allows us to discover that behind these disappointing exteriors often lie real treasures of interior life, of generosity, and of an authentic search for God. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that these precious gems are often buried in unattractive dress. How could it be otherwise, face to face with the Absolute? Is this not the price of such dangerous proximity to fire? For it highlights all our faults, all our roughness of character and all the petty misery which in other circumstances would be swallowed up in the surrounding sea of trivialities. To wish to come face to face with the light of God is deliberately to consent to expose all our faults and pettiness to the hard light of day. These first become apparent to others, and then, as we become enlightened, to ourselves. We first discover mediocrity in others and afterwards, in ourselves. We first discover mediocrity in others and afterwards, in ourselves.

What we often do not realize in our lives of seeking out holiness is when actual virtues and sanctity are increased, and this is because it is not a thing to be grasped at, just like Our Lord did not seek to take advantage of His being God when He took on the form of a servant. We see the faults of our neighbors too often then we see the gifts God has given them, and this is the method by which we are to improve our charity in seeing the faults of others and then of ourselves. The life of the Christian is buried in difficulty, meekeness, spiritual poverty (he gives up what is not God, and in this God leads him through a desert, from ever-dwindling spiritual oasis to spiritual oasis until he has realized that it is not the spiritual signs to which he looks for but only God Himself), and humility and it is this life which can cause so much stress and disdain of ourselves as we see our own weakness before what God calls us to and Who He Is. He loves us nonetheless and guides us as the Good Shephard, but we know that the deeply interior life with God is one fraught with difficulties as we begin to see ever more deeply the warping of our hearts and souls when they find themselves in sin or simply in physical, psychological, or spiritual weakness. It is a difficult thing to endure this testing in fire with which the Lord tests us, but it is the way that He has mercifully placed us on as pilgrims to a distant land. Rest assured that God guides us ever so tenderly even as fragile as our souls might be.

Risks are always involved when our aim is high. Seeing ourselves apparently ever more distant and removed from our goal is a painful suffering. On a more prosaic level, this mediocrity is the consequence of our separation from the world. To the extent that solitude is effective, it deprives us of a great many advantages which might introduce into the community an √©lan [French for ‘vigorous spirit of enthusiasm’] or a renewal which would mask the mediocrity or remedy it in some way. The critical choice must be made: either choose God and accept that perfection must come first and foremost from within, or leave open certain gates to the world so that certain means, other than those proper to the desert, play a part in one’s life. The usual choice in the Charterhouse is the former. To make such a decision quite deliberately represents a very real sacrifice- an entry into solitude at a very exacting price. In effect, it is a conscious decision to leave untapped a part of our human potential so that God may well up from within. Such conditions are only suitable for those who have already attained a certain level of human maturity and self-motivation in their spiritual and intellectual life.

When we progress spiritually in love with God we become ever more aware of the power of our sins, even to the point where men like St. Francis of Assisi regarded death as better than even venial sins. However it is painful then to see one’s self suffering, languishing, and nearly dying at the increased awareness between one’s self and God. The mediocrity we feel in ourselves is the separation from the worldly which is not our home and the solitude that we embrace for God’s sake can rid us of our vitality, but it is not in vain, because we as Christians have the critical choice of embracing God and seeking perfection in this manner of a lifestyle or to leave ourselves open to worldly embraces which we know we ought to mortify in order to more perfectly find Him. Now this is impossible to do perfectly in this life, and this manner of life is better suited to monks, but we could all use more mortification and solitude in the seeking of God as Divine Spouse.

Going beyond the Absolute
The discovery of mediocrity is first in others and then in oneself is a step towards an even more disconcerting discovery. Holiness, perfection and virtue- all these qualities which, without realizing it, we believed to be reflections of the Absolute within ourselves- begin to vanish. Everything which tends to make the ego a point of reference or an autonomous centre must disappear in order to conform with the resurrected Christ who is but pure relation to the Father. Even His humanity is now endowed with divine names. All created riches have been stripped away in order to be nothing but pure relation

In the spiritual life of embracing the desert what can we find in ourselves? What do I have O Lord if I do not have you? Vanity of vanities, all things are vanities without You O Lord. All of the things that we think we have and that make us close to God, in the journey upwards become almost as nothing compared to the splendor of His presence, and in themselves we begin to lose the reference to which these things are things to be grasped and held as if they were ours and contained by us, but rather we must lose ourselves in God, and lose even that which we thought we held as our own. This is very mystical and beyond my own comprehension. I have been talking beyond my capacity in great part during this essay, and some others, but to be Christians is to follow the image and likeness of Christ and it is in Christ who ascended to the Father who becomes as a pure relation in His humanity and Divinity to the Father in Love. My understanding of the phrase from St. Paul that when Christ ascended to the Father that His humanity receives divine names is that it is glorified and finally revealed to all persons that He is God, though not to say that on Earth He did not deserve divine names even in His Humanity as it related to His Divinity, but on Earth He was as a servant, emptied out, and meek and humble, but as He ascended, He shows Himself in His glory, just as He showed Himself at the Transfiguration in anticipation of His Resurrection and Ascension. “Furthermore, I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ, my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)

Such is the direction which the monk must take little by little: first, in his interior life and then in all his activities, whether in cell or in community. He must learn never to focus on himself but to be taken up in the movement of a divine love which has neither beginning nor end, neither goal nor source, neither limit nor shape. He must surrender to the breath of the Spirit, without knowing whence he comes nor whether he goes.

Slowly and surely we climb the ladder of holiness to glory, not in anything in ourselves as if holiness and sanctity was a thing itself to grasp at apart from the pure relation and whole hearted desire to be like Christ’s Sacred Heart, one with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The life of the Gospel is the life for the other, charity, whole-hearted self-sacrifice and self-giving in the same example as the God who emptied Himself out as a Servant to live, suffer, and die for us, the infinitely unworthy. We must in every moment be taken up by the love of God to go wherever He calls. Let us be as Samuel, ever praying, Speak Lord, for your servant is listening! (1 Samuel 3:10)

These few reflections give some idea of the increasingly disconcerting discoveries that await us when we allow ourselves to be guided by divine light. Yet this evolution, which obliges us to go infinitely beyond what seemed to us in the beginning the most the most alluring ideal, is the work of God. He would seem to have deceived us, since He has drawn us where we had no wish to go, but, in fact, little by little He is unveiling a truth to us which we were unable to accept at the start. This amen of God which precisely entails His holding nothing back, and finding no longer in himself any wellspring of strength or autonomous judgment. He must only believe in Love and give himself to It.

Here the Carthusian has beautifully left us with the guide and the way in which we are slowly guided by Divine Light through the toils of spiritual progress. Toil because it is difficult, but joy because there is no life greater than that given over to us by the One who spoke the Good News. This Good News is to follow Him, to lay down our lives for Love, and to be inwardly transformed and transfigured according to the grace of God into what man was always meant to be, children of God. What we sought in finding the Absolute, God for Himself, can only be transformed into gradually finding God in our everyday imitation of Jesus. This revelation is in the heart and above the heart by which we receive that light and life which is the life of the Most Holy Trinity. Let us daily strive to hold nothing back in our own prayers and Amen’s to God’s will and love. Let us empty ourselves out, realizing that there is nothing totally in our power and that our human frailty while our weakness is sufficient unto the Lord for His reworking of our souls.

“And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for you: for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Sacred Heart of Christ take us unto Thineself, make us humble and meek like Thee! Let us adore You forever and ever! Amen!

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love writing essays about monks' reflections on the holy life and other spiritual classics. Deo Gratias!