St. Kizito, Catholic church of the Uganda Martyrs, Namugongo, Uganda

Early Christian Spirituality was dominated by a world shaking event. Christ whom the masses had been assured was dead, had in reality risen from the dead. He was in fact not only alive as he had been before but since his glorification he was animated by the love of God in an unprecedented way. Now he would be ready and able to pour out that love like never before. This love that was poured out at Pentecost generated what came to be called a mystical body. It was Christ’s new spiritual body animated by the Holy Spirit who would draw all who were open to receive him into itself. Before this happened the followers of Christ would pray together with him, by his side as it were, but now they could pray in, with and through him. The closer that they were united to Christ and to his infinite loving, the more they could receive from God the love that made them more and more like him until they could say, as St Paul said, “I live, no it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me”. In order to keep receiving this love we need a new form of asceticism that I will call the asceticism of the heart.

The Asceticism of the Heart

The asceticism practised by the philosophical religions that abounded in the Hellenistic world into which Christianity was born, promised that if human beings could only take themselves in hand they could make themselves perfect. They were taught by their teachers to impose a rigorous daily ascetism on themselves to do this.  However, the main asceticism that Jesus Christ taught his first followers, is that without God and without his love we can do nothing, let alone make ourselves into paragons of virtue. There is only one form of asceticism that can make us perfect. That is what came to be called the asceticism of the heart. Instead of wasting time trying to do the impossible, use the same time and energy turning to the only One who can do it for you, or rather with you.

Reading the lives of the Saints Backwards.

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 virtues, and we believe that the only way we can be like them is to do likewise by imposing on ourselves what we think was the super human asceticism that galvanised them. If we would only read their lives forwards 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 firstly copying the way they did all in their power to receive the same Holy Spirit who inspired and animated everything they said and did. That is essentially all we have to do. That is why the spiritual life is so simple, if only we have the simplicity of a little child to see it.

Quality Space and Time

The first Christians embraced a new form of asceticism that would not dissipate their energies trying to do the impossible, but which would enable them to do what Christ had called ‘the one thing necessary’. This means above all else, gathering what little resources we have to create quality space and time in our daily lives for the prayer that would give us access to the same love that filled Jesus Christ and inspired everything that he said and did. Asceticism for beginners then, is quite simple. Do not 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. 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.

The Simplicity of a little Child

 The trouble is that 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 firstly teaches a mystical theology not a moral theology. 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 Christ. The more we are filled with his love, 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 hearts and minds and with our whole beings, and to love our neighbour as Christ loves us”.

 When everything falls into place

 When we begin to practise the first of the new commandments in, with and through Christ, everything else in the spiritual life falls into place. 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 result of an arrogant stoic trying to make themselves perfect. They are the actions of someone 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. In short, first seek God and his Kingdom of love, and all else will be given to you.

In order to develop the prayer that can continually help us to raise our hearts and minds to God as we practise the asceticism of the heart please follow the Podcast on prayer on this web-site entitled The Hermit – Wisdom from the Western Isles

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