While still at school I went on a moral leadership course run by a group of priests. Before splitting us up into groups the priest in charge explained that Jesus was the embodiment of all true virtue. If we wished to imitate him we must first study him and his exemplary dealings with others. In order to do this we were taught how to meditate by picturing Gospel scenes using our imagination to home in on the exemplary behaviour of Jesus. Then the members of the groups discussed the virtues they had discovered and listed in order of priority. We had produced a sort of league table of all the most important virtues as practised by Jesus himself. At the end of the course the priest told us that if we wished to become Christ-like people, we must try to acquire the virtues that we discovered together. As a sort of afterthought he said, ‘Oh, any questions?’
The 64,000-dollar question
‘Well, Father,’ said a young man. I have found the course disappointing. You see, our dilemma is the same as that in which St Paul found himself. He could see how he ought to have behaved, but he didn’t have the inner power and strength to do it. Surely this is the 64,000-dollar question? Where do we go to, or rather to whom do we go, to receive the inner power and strength to make us into Christ-like people by practising the virtues that were embodied in him?
The Priest answered, ‘May I suggest firstly that you come to our follow-up course entitled, Tools of the Trade in which we attempt to show how to acquire the same virtues that we have been discerning in the life of Christ this weekend. And secondly, may I emphasize that the grace of God will always be necessary if we are going to generate any authentic Christian virtue.’
The young man stood up again. He was obviously quite worked up but was well able to speak for himself. ‘I followed the course Tools of the Trade last year. This is why I am concerned about the whole approach used in these moral leadership courses. It only pays lip service to the action of God’s grace in the spiritual life, while placing all the practical emphasis on human man-made methods and techniques. I’m not a Scripture scholar or a theologian but I do have a doctorate in philosophy – Greek philosophy, to be more precise – and this enables me to see that these courses have as much, if not more in common with a Greek moralism than with Christian mystical theology which is surely at the very heart of the Gospel. Forgive me for being so blunt, but these courses do not reflect the true spirit of the Gospels at all but rather the spirit of the Renaissance. Please can we have the Gospel in future, not the moralism of the Stoics thinly disguised as Christianity.’
Saved by the Bell
The young man spoke with such authority and confidence that the priest began to wilt visibly as he expanded and pressed home the point he was making. We were all disappointed when the bell for night prayer suddenly ended what was beginning to develop into a fascinating discussion, all, that is, save the priest! We had been satisfied with the course, at least until the young student gave us all pause for thought. He sat next to me on the coach journey home and I had a fascinating conversation with him. He explained how, when Europe was in her early teens, she had a love affair with the classical world of Greece and Rome which inspired her to redesign every aspect of her life and culture after the ideal world that she believed she discovered in the past. This new movement was called a rebirth or a Renaissance. While the writers, poets and the artists of the day were being totally dominated by the influence of their classical Greek and Roman forebears, the thinkers, the intellectuals and the philosophers were influenced in the same way by Socrates, the Greek philosophical genius. He became the undisputed guru of the new movement and his exemplary moral teaching was almost universally applauded and accepted. Go to any major European capital and to this day you’ll see his bust displayed many times over as the undisputed guru of the Renaissance. Although Socrates argued to the existence of God, he could not argue by reason alone that God had any interest in human beings. We are on our own, and so can only better ourselves by striving to acquire all the salient virtues by our own unaided human endeavour. The means of making ourselves into paragons of virtue came to be called Stoicism.
I believe in God, not I believe in Man
The great credo of the Renaissance was not ‘I believe in God’, but ‘I believe in Man’, and in how we can change ourselves, and the world we live in, by our own efforts alone. It was primarily to counteract his incredible influence at the Renaissance that Christians began to present Jesus as their Socrates, an even greater philosopher whose moral teaching was even loftier than his Greek counterpart. They were so successful that to this day many still misinterpret and misrepresent Jesus and the message he came to bring. He is not primarily a moral philosopher who has come to detail the way in which we are to love God and our neighbour, but rather a mystic who has come to give us the power to do it.
I had never looked at the Gospel in that way before. This clear and incisive reasoning was already leading me into my first real conversion experience. It was a conversion to the religion that I was brought up and educated in, but which I never really fully understood before. When I asked my new friend to tell me what practical steps to take as I genuinely wanted to imitate Jesus Christ, his answer came without any hesitation. ‘Imitate what Jesus himself did to enable his weak human nature to be progressively filled by the mystical life and love of his Father. Once filled by the same life that animated him, genuine Christ-like behavior follows as a matter of course. I will explain with a story.’
Famous for fifteen minutes
‘At University I was asked to play the part of Alexander the Great before his famous victory over the Persians at the battle of Issus. The dress rehearsal was a disaster, or should I say, I was a disaster. But moments before I stepped back on stage the director took me by the arm and said, “Forget about that pathetic little performance last night; this is the real thing. This is not a stage, it’s a battlefield. These are your men who are tired and exhausted. They have already been thrown back by the Persian King and have seen their friends falling at their side. They have heard the cries of the wounded, the screeching of the horses and they are all but defeated. Get out there, rouse them up and rally them for one more attack before it’s too late.” Then, with those words he pushed me onto the stage with one hand and pulled back the curtains with the other. Everyone seemed to think it was a great performance, but it was not a performance at all. I was not acting, it was for real. Somehow the English master had managed to inspire me with the spirit of perhaps the greatest general the world has ever known. I was famous for fifteen minutes, not because I was a good actor, but because for fifteen minutes I became a living reincarnation of one of the greatest warriors who ever lived.’
There is Only One Way to Copy Christ
‘That performance was a key moment in my life as it gave me my most important spiritual insight. I was able to see that you can only really become like someone else, act and behave as they do by being inspired by the same spirit that inspires them. There is only one way to copy Christ and that is not by trying to copy his outward behaviour, but by trying to allow the same love that continually animated him to flow into us to animate and inspire us in all we say and do. Throughout his life on earth Christ continually opened himself to be inspired by his Father’s Love, the Holy Spirit who conceived him in the first place, inspiring everything he said and did while he was on earth, and filling him to overflowing when he returned to heaven. The love that continually flows out of the Risen Lord to fill us now, is the same love that flowed into him throughout his life on earth. It is the same love that was brought to perfection after his death, and the same love that reunited him with his Father, enabling his Father to send that love out through him onto and into us to transform us into Christlike people’.
True infused virtues come through the Holy Spirit
There is only one way to receive this love and that is to pray. That is why St Teresa of Avila said there is only one way to perfection and that is to pray, and if anyone points in another direction then they are deceiving you. That is why I keep saying there is only one thing above all else that you must do if you want to be radically and permanently changed to become another living personification of Jesus Christ. That one thing is to find some daily time to pray in such a way that the same Holy Spirit who animated him can begin to animate you. It is only in this way that you will gradually be given all the virtues that are infused in profound contemplative prayer. In the months ahead I will gradually describe and detail what you must do in this sacred time to generate the only love that will enable you to receive God’s love that always contains in it all these virtues that we see perfectly embodied in Jesus in the Gospels. The stoics never did make themselves into paragons of virtue because they totally depended on Man-power. Christians always will if they totally depend on God’s power – the Holy Spirit, who can alone generate in us all the virtues that we see in action in everything Jesus said and did.