With another Sunday in Lent, comes another exhortation from St. Paul about the spiritual life. Each line of the Epistle contains a wealth of teaching, as he presents the grounding principles of spirituality in just a short space of time. As if to summarise his teaching even further, Paul opens with a line which portrays the nature of the spiritual life, as it should most properly be lived: “Be ye therefore followers of God, as most dear children.”
This style of spiritual childhood is a sure way by which to develop some key principles which the saints encourage - namely the fight against concupiscence, a knowledge of God and self, and the practice of the presence of God. By the very nature of allowing oneself to be guided in the spiritual life in the manner of a child, humility along with a deeper knowledge of God and self, comes more naturally. A child needs direction, instruction, prompting and correction, and all this is necessary too in the spiritual life. Adopting the practice of approaching God with a childlike trust and willing obedience, opens one to thus being guided in the way of perfection, instead of perhaps ignoring the Divine Wisdom.
This practice also allows one to develop a proper understanding both of self and of God, learning one’s own weaknesses and God’s omnipotence. When working with two materials, a scientist must first know the various properties and how they will interact with each other. In like manner, since the spiritual life is a sharing in God’s life, we must seek to know God and ourselves. Knowing God leads us to love Him and to deny ourselves for love of Him. Knowing ourselves leads us to realise the wonders of God’s majesty, as well as the utter dependance which we have upon Him and the humble nature of our sinful state.
It is with this in mind that St. Paul counsels on how to best conform oneself to God, after having approached Him in the manner of a child. “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not so much as be named among you, as becometh saints: Or obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility, which is to no purpose; but rather giving of thanks. For know you this and understand, that no fornicator, or unclean, or covetous person (which is a serving of idols), hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
Spiritual childhood involves not just a childlike abandoning of self to God, but also an adoption of childlike innocence, in order that one might adhere to the words of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.” It is surely somewhat of this Gospel passage which the apostle has in mind when writing and directing that souls seeking God must do so purely. A heart divided between things of the world and things of God is unable to flourish, and soon the temptations which surround one may prove too great. Yet St. Paul urges that one who choose such a lifestyle forfeits his inheritance before God.
In the season of Lent, the Church thus presents this passage, from which two principal themes can be drawn. One is that the lines presented for use in the Epistle serve as a handy guide sheet for the spiritual life. They are ready to be printed out and carried around, so that one always has them to hand.
But another theme which can be drawn is that of the threefold struggle against the flesh, the world and the devil. This is clearly alluded to by St. Paul, and it is this which is one of the key struggles during the Lenten season.
As the plight of mankind throughout time can attest to, each of the senses can be a gateway to temptation and sin. Be it by sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing, the rebellion in the natural order leaves us weak and vulnerable to the temptations which arise from our surroundings. Christ warns of this inherent danger: “if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome”. (Matt 6:23) St. Augustine reflects at length on this rebellion of the passions towards the end of his Confessions, praying that he might be “freed from the hold of concupiscence: so that it may not be in revolt against itself”. The remedy for this weakness is of course mortification of the senses. Just as the plants are pruned in order to produce more abundant and healthier fruit, so the the devout soul must mortify itself in order to produce the fruit of a flourishing spiritual life. Christ gives us the sword of self-mortification “and He wishes that they should make use of it against themselves, in that circumcision of the heart which mortifies without pity all the inclinations of corrupt nature, even to finally putting it to death.” (Fr Grou - Manual for Interior Souls)
Outside of the temptations arising from one’s senses, are those stemming from the world. The ‘world’ which the faithful are called to fight against is not the creation of God, but the conglomeration of all those who reject Christ and place themselves above Him. The spiritual authors denote four such categories of people - unbelievers, the indifferent, hardened sinners and the worldly. The world proposes its alternative values and commandments which are contrary to those of the law of God. It is imbued with a spirit which is completely contrary to the spirit of God and of the Gospel. Those things which all faithful children of God must fight against, temptations of the senses and the love of money, the world proposes as desirable and maligns as peculiar those, who disagree with it.
As a remedy and defence against the world, faithful souls should recall that all is but a short time in comparison to eternity with God. God does not permit us to be tested more than we are given graces to cope with, and hence all the suffering which we must bear is given so that we might purify ourselves and merit one day to attain sanctity and dwell with God. We must be content to be at war with the world, for the apostle tells us, “if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ”. (Gal 1:10)
Finally, then, one must make war against those temptations which have their origin with the devil. God permits such actions of the devil in order that we might be purified and grow in sanctity, though not that this thought should lead to nonchalance about temptations. The devil seeks to influence the exterior and interior senses, to effect an indirect action upon the human will, seeking to gain the assent of the will through the movements and desires of the appetites. However, whilst the devil may present an evil action as good in some way, he is never able to completely cloud our reason or free will, and hence we are responsible for each sin.
The proper remedies against the attacks of the devil might well be summarised as the faithful practice of the spiritual life and a love of God. Indeed, this it what St. Paul recommends in today’s text “walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness.” Hence, we must be faithful to our prayer, worthily receive the sacraments as frequently as possible, and develop a firm trust in God and hatred of sin. The Gospels teach about the importance of prayer in such times: “pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak”. (Matt 26:41)
The lines of Scripture following the passage used in the Epistle, support this remedy for temptation: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God and the Father.”
Hence, by adopting the manner of a child before God in the spiritual life, one is able to better understand his own faults, and the perfection of God. This is not to say that he will be spared from all trials and tribulations, indeed the threefold attacks will surely come to all seeking to advance in the spiritual life. But St. Paul presents the means by which one can rebuff these attacks, outlining the principles of the spiritual life, and urging souls to “Walk then as children of the light. For the fruit of the light is in all goodness, and justice, and truth.”