False Trails

SPIRITUALITY IS THE “IN-WORD” today. It can be a misleading word in these days of New Age religion and popular religiosity. Many people are searching for ‘spirituality’?, while books and gurus abound to lead would-be searchers in their way of enlightenment. Often they give no more than ‘techniques’ of self-control, a kind of pre-occupation with the inner life that through a methodically acquired euphoria should result in a serenity. Is this why stressed-out businessmen go into ‘retreat’ or strange things go on in some of our retreat houses?

This is not Christian ascesis, where the term Christian life is a more exact description of the Christian’s response to a revealed personal presence that requires faith and humility. The Christian life cannot ever reduce the divine to the exploration of one’s own inner life or the acquiring of transcendental powers. Our personal response to God has nothing to do with scientism however motivated spiritually. The difference between the heretic Pelagius and Augustine is that for Pelagius asceticism was one means available to combat concupiscence whereas at the heart of Augustine’s understanding is the gospel fact that it is grace that destroys concupiscence. The Christian way avoids false trails.

The Work of Grace

It all depends on grace and taking note of God’s will, because he comes to us in the Sovereign freedom of his love and this cannot be made to order. We respond by preparing ourselves to meet him, waiting attentively for a possible encounter. Faith is the way that cannot be without risks. We cannot see the map before we set out but the eyes of the heart are opened in contemplation to the truth and the life by faith and interior purification. St. Paul keeps reminding us that here we see only dimly as in a mirror (I Cor.13.12), and this is faith, but at the same time Christ lives within us by faith so that we get glimpses of him. Thereby do we ‘know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge’ and ‘ filled with all the fullness of God’. Contemplation is this fullness and is the fruit of a dying and rising experience. It is a consequence of being hidden with Christ in God that results in the awakening of ourselves to a new kind of awareness in Christ, created in him, redeemed by him, to be transformed and glorified with him. Thomas Merton (Contemplation in a World of Action, p 176) uses William Blake’s words to describe the effects of this experience, ‘the doors of perception are opened’, and all life takes on a new meaning. Merton goes on:-

the real sense of our own existence, which is normally veiled and distorted by the routine distractions of an alienated life, is now revealed in a central intuition. What was lost and dispersed in the relative meaninglessness and triviality of purposeless behaviour (living like a machine, pushed around by impulsions and suggestions from others), is brought together in a fully conscious integrated significance. This peculiar brilliant focus is, according to the Christian Tradition, the work of love and the Holy Spirit. This ‘loving knowledge’ which sees everything transfigured ‘in God’, coming from God and working for God’s creative redemptive love and tending to fulfilment in the glory of God, is a contemplative knowledge, a fruit of living and realising faith, a gift of the Spirit.

This chimes in with what St. John writes. ‘Beloved, we are God’s children; it does not yet appear what we shall be.’ is what we mean by faith. ‘We know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ (I John 3.2). Is not this contemplation?

In one of his sermons St. Augustine says,

“There are some who would like to discover pure and unchanging truth themselves before believing. But only a heart that has been purified can enable them to contemplate it. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt 5.8). Otherwise they would be like blind men thinking they can be cured by turning their unseeing eyes towards the sun. Who can possibly contemplate its light before recovering his sight?”

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College Durham.