The practice of the spiritual life.
“You must be honest with yourselves; you are to live by the word, not content merely to listen to it”.(1) These words from the Epistle of St. James ring out as a terrible challenge. They call to mind the words of Christ: “Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven”. (Matt 7:21).
In what does this honesty consist in the everyday life of a Catholic? The answer lies in the humble practice of the spiritual life, as taught and demonstrated by the saints throughout the Church’s history. The spiritual life can be defined thus: “a share in the divine life given us by the Holy Ghost who dwells in us, because of the merits of Jesus Christ”.(2) In recent times particularly, the practice of the spiritual life has greatly declined. Even, often especially, amongst many who would consider themselves faithful and pious Catholics, the spiritual life can often be largely ignored (including by myself). One reason for this is that amongst such souls the spiritual life is simply not attractive enough! It is all too enticing to study some particular branch of theology, become an expert on current affairs in the political or religious sphere, or simply become too caught up in day to day activities.
In an age of great crisis, chiefly in the spiritual realm, reading about the daily life of prayer or the manner of making a good examination of conscience, can readily appear unappealing or unimportant. We tell ourselves that surely there are many more important things to be doing, or more interesting subjects to be studying. Or again, that we do not need to pay attention to the spiritual life, since it is something which we grew out of when we finished our youthful studies of the catechism. And so we fall into the habit of trying to become an expert on any subject other than spirituality. Again, I speak from experience.
Yet, this clarion call from the Sacred Scriptures cannot be ignored, for we are to be honest with ourselves if we wish to attain salvation. Indeed, regardless of whether we are or not, God will certainly be honest with us in the hour of our judgement. For at that time it will serve us nothing to be able to cry out ‘Lord, Lord’ and to express the greatest theological or scientific truths, whilst we yet remain completely inept in the spiritual life. St. James warns that if we are not doers of the word then we deceive only ourselves. (cf James 1:22).
What is it then that we find so unappealing, difficult or annoying about the spiritual life? Is it surely not one of the greatest temptations from the devil, to so belittle or ignore our daily time deepening our love of God! How great a paradox it is, when we will give time to matters of the world or even of the faith, yet avoid giving the time to practicing this faith. The words of the epistle ring altogether too true: “if any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue, but deceiving his own heart, this man’s religion is vain”. (James 1:26) Again, I speak from experience. Faith must be practiced and lived, not learned and forgotten.
Often the spiritual life can seem such a trial precisely because we know how important it actually is. Perhaps there is something which we have done, or failed to do, which is troubling our conscience, causing us to avoid spending time in prayer lest we encounter that which we seek to avoid. In this way, we can become like Jonah, trying to avoid the voice of God which we know we will encounter when attending to the spiritual life.
Or again, it can be easy to avoid the spiritual life because of the change of life which we know it necessitates and the sacrifices we might be called to make. Knowing the reality of the nature of the spiritual life, we seek to avoid it, lest perhaps we have to forego any enjoyment which we are particularly attached to.
Yet all these excuses and methods which we can employ in order to escape the practice of the spiritual life are the greatest folly. Did not St. Augustine profess the truth that ‘our hearts are restless until they rest in you O God’? Is it not always the case that avoiding the spiritual life, for whatever purpose, will in time lead us to such a confusion, bewilderment and trial as experienced by Jonah? No manner of success or worldly enjoyment can make up for the gaping whole in our souls by the rejection of Christ through the abandonment of the spiritual life. It is because by avoiding the spiritual life we are thus abandoning the call of Christ imprinted on our souls; this call is the call to be perfect in imitation of God. “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). These words give meaning and purpose to the spiritual life. In practicing the spiritual life we are fulfilling the greatest commandment, that of loving God with our whole heart, soul and mind.
Dom Marmion mentions that the soul in the spiritual life is characterised by a love of God which “causes us to refer ourselves entirely to God and find in Him the Supreme Good which we prefer to all other good”.(3) The spiritual life is in essence a sharing of the life of Christ, which is the life of the cross. We cannot learn to love Christ without loving the cross: “he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me”. (Matt 10:38). These few words can serve as a guide for our daily life. It is not in the attainment of the highest honours, the most acclaimed accolades of man, the largest salary or the greatest academic degree, that we follow Christ. It is in the faithful, daily practice of the life of Christ and the life of the cross.
We have been called to imitate God Himself, to model ourselves upon Him and grow in perfection. We have been called to put off ourselves and put on the life of Christ. St. Peter mentions that we have a divine vocation to the cross: “for unto this are you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow his steps”. (1 Peter 2:21) We have further been given a mandate by God Himself to grow in holiness and unity with Him, and consequently to receive a peace and a joy which will be unobtainable without Him. Yet how often is it that we reject these truths and ignore the spiritual life out of one reason or another - a reason which will never be worthy enough to excuse the rejection of the love of God.
By practicing the spiritual life we fulfil this call to imitate God and grow in that loving bond of union with Him which is centred upon the cross. The practice of the spiritual life is a look in the mirror of which St. James speaks, but one which moves us to conform to the will of God and practice the words which we hear. It is only in the practice of the spiritual life that we can change from those who cry ‘Lord, Lord’ to those who do the will of Our Father in heaven.
(1) James 1:22. Taken from the epistle of today’s Mass, James 1:22-27.
(2) Abbé Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, (Brattleboro, Vermont, Echo Point Books & Media, 2015), 44.
(3) Blessed Columba Marmion, Christ, the Life of the Soul, (Tacoma, Washington, Angelico Press, 2012), 209.