“For the rest, therefore, brethren, we pray and beseech you in the Lord Jesus that, as you have received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, so also you would walk, that you may abound the more.” These are the opening words of today’s Epistle from St. Paul to the Thessalonians, which present the same teaching to the Church now as the apostle did centuries ago.
The practice of the spiritual life is often forgotten about or left aside: it is something about which one can easily become complacent about. Diligence and attention is far sooner given to diets, exercise regimes and the like, than is devoted to increasing in the practice of the spiritual life. In fact, the humble practice of the spiritual life from day to day is often ignored deliberately, as one excuses oneself with matters ‘more important’ such as responding to various crises, either ecclesial or temporal.
One is called to work to save his own soul. Whether this is achieved through actions which are public, noble, hidden, forgotten, or ordinary, then no matter, as long as the aim is always to save one’s soul. How often is it though in the course of a day, that the thought of doing actions that will direct one to salvation, comes into one’s mind? Then again, how often is it, that one takes action on such a thought, assuming one even dwells upon it?
Perhaps one of the most widespread issues in the Church today, is the complacency about the issues of faith, whereby all (this writer included) think hopefully of the mercy of God, yet avoid dwelling upon His justice. Think of the stories of souls, who lived such good and holy lives, and yet endured the pangs of Purgatory for what they deemed minor offences. Would the ‘minor offences’ of these pious souls even register as an offence in the mind of modern man? It would seem that the lively practice of the spiritual life is indeed rarely found.
But with today’s Epistle, St. Paul warns about such complacency, urging people to recommit to the practice of the virtues and regular prayer. He calls for a living of the faith, not a mere knowledge which becomes stale over time. By pointing to the fact that the Thessalonians have been taught how to “walk and to please God,” but have yet to do so, the apostle describes a fact common today: namely how many have perhaps been taught the faith, to varying extents, but their practice of it is widely lacking.
As ever though, the text is carefully chosen for the liturgical season. If ever there is a fitting time to make efforts to practice the spiritual life, it is most certainly the season of Lent. The Imitation of Christ states that if a devout soul wishes to truly follow the Redeemer and attain salvation, he must “study to make his whole life conformable to that of Christ.” Such is the theme of today’s Epistle. “For you know what precepts I have given to you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”
Thus it is that the most vital study which we can make, is that regarding the pursuit of perfection and the cultivation of our devotion to God. St. Francis de Sales describes it as a true love of God which “makes us not only do good, but do so carefully, frequently and readily.” Such devotion is firmly rooted in the interior, and is centred upon the truth that “God being the one source and the one author of holiness, the reasonable creature ought to depend on Him in everything.”
St. Paul mentions specifically that those desirous of perfection should avoid the vices of impurity, envy and dishonesty. “For God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto sanctification,” he writes.
In order to answer this call, avoid such vices and practice their contrary virtues, one must turn to the command given by God in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. (Matt 22:37-39)
This command of Christ demands some explanation, since it is the answer to how to attain salvation. We can notice that He expresses no limits upon the love which we should show Him, but rather states we should love with the entirety of heart, soul and mind. The spiritual life is a share in the life of God, and the perfection of the spiritual life is found by being in perfect unity with God through love. Hence the charity required for the spiritual life and for the reaching of perfection, is a charity which moves us to love God and unite ourselves to Him to such an extent, as to even avoid the slightest sins. Abbe Tanquerey describes it thus: “charity so well established in the soul as to make us strive earnestly and constantly to avoid even the smallest sin and to do God’s holy will in all thing out of love for Him”.
“But we entreat you, brethren, that you abound more.” With these words, St. Paul encourages his listeners to strive for the charity which is required in order to follow Christ, in the manner in which He describes. Paul’s zeal for souls is driven by his love of God and understanding of His words. Commenting on this passage, St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “he is urging them to make progress in charity. He seemingly insists that since you have charity towards all men, we urge you to make progress in it. And though others may ridicule you, nevertheless devote yourself to charity: in abundant justice there is the greatest strength (Prov 15:5).”
It is this charity and union with God which we must strive for in the spiritual life. For it is not spiritual reading, many prayers and severe penances or fasting alone which are the essence of the spiritual life. These are means, indeed necessary means, by which one is able to approach God.
But rather it is the intimate union of love with God, in response to His limitless love, which is the true essence of the Divine life. This charity is “the law of love engraved on the hearts of His faithful servants by the hand of the Lord Himself.” Christ is the model of perfection whom we must follow, for He is the full realisation of Christian perfection.
In uniting charity to works of penance undertaken during Lent, one is able to seek to reawaken the practice of the spiritual life, turning it from a stale practice of meaningless actions, into a daily striving for union with God.