Sunday, November 19, 2006


Fr. Steven Scherrer

October 13, 2006

The world, as God’s creation, is full of good and necessary things which we need to sustain life and promote the Kingdom of God, such as food, computers, etc., which we use in his service and for his glory. The first part of the spiritual journey builds on the good things of this world which reveal the goodness of God to us. But the great mystical writers also teach renunciation of the world in order to reach a deeper mystical union with God and a state of tranquility, light, and peace. This is the ascetical-mystical path of contemplative living, which is a more advanced path, but nonetheless meant for all, as Vatican II has taught us, if only there were those who could show this way to all, and not keep it hidden just for monks.

Once one has gone a certain way, seeing God in all things, in the good things of his creation, to go farther, it is the apophatic, ascetical-mystical path—the path of renunciation and silence, the path of silent mystical prayer—which will take us to the top of the mountain. This is traditional spiritual teaching, which monks have always known and specialized in, but which they can also make known and available to the laity—for they also are called to even the highest degrees of perfection, according to Vatican II. What is needed, therefore, is that monks, who have kept this tradition, present these basic principles of monastic spirituality to the laity as well. The basic spiritual principles are the same for all; but they will be applied differently, adapting them to the vocation and state of life of each one. What monks have traditionally lived in a very literal and radical way can be lived differently by the laity, as the Holy Spirit guides each one.

The monastic tradition of asceticism and renunciation of the world is clearly not to be understood as a depreciation of the world, of the body, of creation, or even of bodily pleasure in itself. It is not in any way based on a dualistic view of the world, considering matter as evil; and only the spirit as good.

The reason for the renunciation, asceticism, and austerity, which one finds everywhere in the monastic tradition, is based rather on the desire to renounce the good for the better; that is, the ascetic and monastic tradition renounces the goods of this world for those of the Kingdom of God; it renounces the goods of this creation for those of the new creation; and it does so in order to have a heart completely undivided for the Lord.

I believe that what is needed today is a balanced view of the spiritual and contemplative life, one that is both ascetical and mystical; both cataphatic (seeing God in creation and vocal prayer) and apophatic (experiencing God through renunciation and silent prayer). Asceticism is the path that leads to mysticism. And a “cataphatic” approach to life, which sees God in everything and prays using words and images, is the first part of the spiritual path which is to end in the apophatic experience of God without words, images, or ideas, and in detachment from the delights of this world. Renouncing the unnecessary pleasures of this world is the way to have a heart undivided and reserved only for the Lord, and hence to be more prepared to experience him in inner light and glory.

Nowadays, it is at times questioned whether we really need asceticism and detachment from the pleasures of this world in order to enter into union with God and arrive at a state of peace and light in the Lord, interspersed with the luminous experience of apophatic prayer. In light of this doubt, it would be helpful, I believe, to see that this is indeed the teaching of the most standard and approved spiritual authors, such as St. Bernard, St. John Cassian, St. John of the Cross, and The Imitation of Christ.

One spiritual author writes thus: “The renunciation of the world and its false joys, the negation of oneself, the depreciation of the sensible, etc. are not an absurd annihilation of the human person, but rather the providential condition for attaining the full liberation and highest development of the personality; we detach ourselves from all and even from ourselves in order to fill ourselves with God and be dominated entirely by love…” (B. Marchetti-Salvatori, “Despojarse,” in Ermanno Ancilli, Diccionario de Espiritualidad [3 vols.; Barcelona: Herder, 1987], vol. 1, p. 565-567).

St. John of the Cross writes: “there are few souls which allow themselves to be purified and detached in their depths by the Lord, and therefore there are few saints” (The Living Flame of Love B 2, 27). The Imitation of Christ says: “The more you retire from the consolations of all creatures, so much the sweeter and more blessed will be the consolations you will receive from your Creator” (3.12). St. John of the Cross also says: “The soul which puts its fondness in creatures will not be able to comprehend God” (Ascent of Mount Carmel 1.4.3), and “…the soul which puts its heart in the goods of the world, is supremely evil before God. And thus, as evil cannot comprehend the good, in the same way such a soul cannot unite itself to God” (Ascent 1.4.4.).

St. John of the Cross also writes: “the soul which is to ascend this mount of perfection and communicate with God, not only has to renounce all things and leave them below, but also the appetites… And thus it is necessary that the road and ascent to God be a regular care to make cease and to mortify the appetites; and so much the quicker will the soul arrive the more diligently it gives itself to this” (Ascent 1.5.6). And “Until the appetites become dormant through the mortification of our sensuality, and until our sensuality itself becomes quieted, so that there be no war within the spirit, the soul will not depart in true freedom to enjoy union with its beloved” (Ascent 1.15.2).

St. Anthony of Egypt said, “The intelligence of the soul becomes strong when the pleasures of the body become weak” (St. Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony 7). This is also the teaching of St. Bernard. His first letter and his third and fourth Sermons for Christmas are good examples of the emphasis which he places on the importance of an austere life. He says: “For him who lives with prudence and sobriety, salt is sufficient, and his only seasoning is hunger (Letter 1.11). And “flee delight, because death is posted at the threshold of delight. Do penitence and you will approach the kingdom” (Third Sermon for Christmas # 3). The reason for this renunciation is to have an undivided heart in our love and devotion to the Lord.

The Imitation of Christ is especially rich in this doctrine. Here are a few more examples of the teaching of the Imitation on this point: “When a man arrives at that point of perfection in which he seeks his consolation in no created thing, then God begins for the first time to be sweet for him” (1.25). “A man approaches God all the more when he separates himself from all earthly pleasure” (3.42.2). “Son, my grace is precious, and it does not want to be mixed with extraneous things, nor with earthly consolations” (3.53.1). “We are at fault if we do not taste—or only very rarely—divine consolations, because we do not seek contrition of heart, nor do we reject vain and exterior joys” (1.21.3). “If you wish to have true joy and be consoled by me abundantly, put your happiness in the depreciation of all the things of the world, and in cutting off all earthly delight. In this way you will enjoy great consolation” (3.12.4). “If you leave off being consoled by worldly things, you will be able to see more perfectly heavenly things” (2.1). And “true glory and holy joy is…not to delight oneself in any creature, but rather only in You” (3.40.5).

Once again, the reason for this renunciation of the world and its pleasures is to have a heart reserved uniquely for the Lord, an undivided heart.

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