Like most European Catholics I was born and brought up in the aftermath of the Renaissance influenced by a spirituality that owed as much to the rise of humanism as to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Naturally I thought that if I were to attain the perfection to which I aspired it would be primarily the result of my own efforts. I was in effect a Christian Stoic, a Pelagian who had failed so comprehensively to make myself into the saint of my dreams that I was about to give up the spiritual life for good.
It was then that I came across Pax Animae written by a Spanish Franciscan John of Bonilla in 1588. It was a spiritual gem untouched by the spirit of the Renaissance. Reading it was the nearest I came to a Damascus road experience. It immediately enabled me to see that I had been misled into believing that I could be the architect of my own perfection. On the very first page the author made it clear that:
With love you may bring your heart to do whatsoever you may please. The hardest things become easy and pleasant, but without love you will find everything not only difficult but quite impossible.
The rigorous asceticism that I had adopted to make myself perfect did nothing but exhaust me. Now I could see that I would achieve nothing without coming to know and experience the self-same love that animated the man I wanted to emulate more than any other. For the love that John of Bonilla had been referring to was not our love, but the love of God, without which we have no power to do anything.
The trouble was that my Christian education at school made me into a spiritual schizophrenic that totally mixed me up. Although it was a Catholic School run by priests, the Classical education that it provided in the classroom inspired me with the teachings of the Stoics and the great Greek and Roman heroes who were shown to have embodied their teaching. This virile no-nonsense philosophy had its origin in Socrates of Athens, whilst at the same time, the religious education that I learned in religious class taught me the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately an arrogant young teenager who thought he knew everything, and could do anything, was more impressed by a philosophy that taught that you could make yourself perfect by your own unaided endeavour, rather than depending on someone else. Inevitably I was drawn to Stoicism. Yet, Seneca, one of the greatest of the Stoics had said, “Show me the Stoic,” for he had never seen one in real life; he had only seen them depicted in the idealised heroes of mythology. Cicero wasn’t fooled either, for he said, “A stoic is a self-made man who worships his maker.” But I was too busy making myself perfect to listen to him. It was only later, much later, when I failed to make myself perfect and I was, as it were, in the spiritual gutter, that I was ready to hear what Jesus had taught. He simply taught that without the power that he received from God, not only would he be powerless, but so also would those who followed him. And the power he was talking about was the love that he continually received himself throughout his life and then gave to us on the first Pentecost day and on every subsequent day. This love was what he called the “one thing necessary,” and I knew that I would need a new type of asceticism to enable me to receive it. Instead of dissipating my energies, as I had done before trying to do the impossible, I had to gather what little spiritual energy I had to enable me to receive the only love that could make me new.
In short, I needed to gather what little resources that I had to create quality space and time in my daily life for the profound prayer that would give me access to the same love that filled Jesus Christ and inspired everything that he said and did. I knew that this love would eventually have to be experienced if it was going to give me the inner security that would alone do for me, in some small measure, what it had done in full measure for Jesus. I discovered a new asceticism with which to substitute the old, and I called it ‘the asceticism of the heart’.
The spiritual life seems to have become so complicated over the years that you almost feel you need a couple of degrees in theology just to understand it, before you can even attempt to live it! Yet it is essentially simple, so simple that you need the simplicity of a little child to see it. You see, there is only one thing that is necessary, and that is love. Not our love of God, but his love of us. In other words, Christianity is firstly a mysticism not a moralism. It is not primarily concerned with detailing the perfect moral behaviour that we see embodied in Christ’s life, and then trying to copy it virtue by virtue – that is Stoicism, not Christianity, and it is doomed to failure.
Christianity is primarily concerned with teaching us how to turn and open ourselves to receive the same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus. The more we are filled with his love then the easier it is to return it in kind, as the divine suffuses and then surcharges human love so that it can reach up to God and out to others. Then, and only then are we able to Love God with our whole heart and mind and with our whole being, and then to love our neighbours. This means not just loving them as ourselves; that is the teaching of the Old Testament, but to love others as Jesus loves us. That is the new teaching that Jesus gave us at the Last Supper (John 13:34).
The trouble is we make the same mistake with Christ as we do with the saints. We read their lives backwards. We read about their rigorous lives, their superhuman sacrifices and their heroic virtue, and believe that the only way we can be like them is to do likewise. If we would only read their lives forward instead of backwards then we would see that they were only capable of doing the seemingly impossible, because they first received the power to do it in prayer.
If we try to be and do what they did without first receiving what they received, then our brave attempts will inevitably end in disaster. True imitation of Christ or any of his saints, means first copying the way they did all in their power to receive the Holy Spirit who inspired them. That is essentially all we have to do. That is why the spiritual life is so simple, if only we had the simplicity of a little child to see it.
The Asceticism for the beginner then is quite simple. Don’t give up anything you like or enjoy except when it prevents you from giving quality space and time to God in prayer each day. If you think it is too easy then try it, and stick to it, and you will soon find it is not quite as easy as you thought. So do not let first enthusiasm fool you into heroics that you will never sustain. Now, when you have persevered for long enough you will gradually begin to receive and then experience the love that will enable you to do what is quite impossible without it.
When a person falls in love and begins to experience being loved, then there is nothing that they would not do, nor any sacrifice that they would not make for their lover. In fact they positively look for things to do, the harder and the more exacting the better, to enable them to show the real quality of their love. What was impossible to self-centred egotists only a short time before, becomes not only easier but also their greatest pleasure. It is exactly the same in the spiritual life. The exemplary behaviour, the extraordinary self-discipline and the heroic sacrifices made by a person who begins to experience the love of God, are not the results of an arrogant stoic trying to make themselves perfect. They are the actions of those desperate to express their love, in behaviour that could not be maintained for long without the love that sustains it. All the little pleasures and pastimes that were thought indispensable before, suddenly become dispensable, and with the greatest of ease, virtues that were noticeable by their absence before, are born of the love that envelops them!
If you, like me, have been deceiving yourself into believing that you can make yourself perfect by your own endeavour, then this is a wake-up call. Carry on dreaming if you like, but sooner or later you will have to wake up to reality. Reality means that you cannot, and if you will not listen to me, perhaps you might listen to St Teresa of Avila. She put it quite simply:
There is only one way to perfection and that is to pray, if anyone points in a different direction then they are deceiving you.