Saturday, 30 March 2013

76: Questions on the Union with God

When shall we start to pay attention to “bearing fruits”?
1- Question: During the first lesson of the First level Courseyou said that the fruits come after the Union with Jesus. "Union with" Jesus is like when a tree reaches maturity, so after that stage the tree is supposed to start to bear fruits. Or, union with Jesus is like marriage and after marriage one has children. My question is: while we are in the state of purification (in order to reach “Union with Jesus”) could she start paying attention to “bearing fruits”? The fear is that the fruit will not be really fruit, because the self who is giving that fruit is not pure yet... So shall we refrain from giving fruits, thinking that we are still in the purification phase?

1- Answer: It depends what you call “fruits”. If you mean by “fruits” the time “after union the union with Jesus” (Spiritual Marriage), then you are right: there is a difference between one act made after Union and all the acts made before. Saint John of the Cross says about that: “an act of pure love [i.e. made after purification] is more precious in the eyes of God and the soul, and more profitable to the Church, than all other good works together [made before], though it may seem as if nothing were done” (Spiritual Canticle B, Stanza 29, Introduction) because the act after union is “informed” (the form is given by) the Holy Spirit. Of course, saint John of the Cross’ statement is quite strong, and it should push us to do all what we can in order to grow. This is exactly what saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus did when she read that passage.

But, under another angle, “purification” is a sacred work and should be considered as a goal in itself (through it, we reach the union); it is of course an intermediate goal. The phase of purification can perfectly be considered as a “fruit”. Each step in the phase of purification is a “fruit”.

From day one, through Listening to the Daily Word of God, we are listening and putting into practise the Daily word received. The real fact of putting into practise this Word is in itself a Fruit, a fundamental fruit, a real change, a real step ahead, and this happens right from day one. And if we do not do it, there is no need to dream of any spiritual future. This is the condition sine quae non in order to reach the further different phases of purification and the later steps.

So maybe, it would be better to have one more understanding of the concept of  “fruit”. “Loving our neighbour” for instance doesn’t wait until we reach the union with Jesus – oh no!! But, certainly, the quality of our love after union is way different/better. But, mind you, if we don’t start from day one to love our neighbour, we will never reach union. So there is an effort made in order to grow (ascending curve) and there is a more direct effort made in order to bear direct fruits. Each, in its own timing is vital, essential and non-negotiable.

What about sins and weaknesses?

2- Question: Even after Salvation (Jesus work on the Cross), what about the sins and weaknesses in us that are forming obstacles to return to that real human being (the original likeness of God)? i.e. how can we understand the relationship between Salvation and actual sins?

2- Answer: The deep analysis of the spiritual journey shows us that there are real changes in the human being. Bad habits stop from existing, sins stop,… (I mean serious sins). When the Power of the Resurrection of Jesus enters in us, real change starts to happen. Otherwise, there is no growth, there is not transformation, there is no purification. The very definition of purification is brought to us from the understanding of a real change: an old “form” in us is taken away by the Holy Spirit, and a holier “form” is brought instead, replacing it. A real change happens, therefore sins and weaknesses (that are sins) do tend to disappear, starting from the lower ones (more materialistic).

Mind you, many Christians don’t believe in real change, they don’t believe that a real change can occur in them. We don’t change our nature, or our character and temperament, but sins do disappear. If the human being on earth doesn’t change, this wouldn’t be real Christianity; this wouldn’t be the message of the Gospel. Some Christians do believe that once Jesus covers us with His Blood that’s enough and this compensates for anything we do later; i.e. we remain as we are, roughly. This is a wrong understanding of the application of Salvation to us. All the Christian Masters of Spiritual Life do state clearly that the human being changes, and they describe the steps of this deep inner (and external) change.
Mind you: the inclination/tendency to sin is not a sin. Let me explain that: if I see a lovely chocolate pudding, yummy, I’ll feel a certain natural inclination/attraction toward it. This is not yet a sin! Baptism doesn’t remove that inclination to sin, it is left in us for the spiritual warfare that will generate real growth and change.

Same for the case of weaknesses that are not sins, or character/temperament. One must read the great saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus who revolutionised Spiritual Life and Spiritual Theology. (Even if we read correctly saint John of the Cross we will find the same teaching.) She introduced the possibility of having errors, faults (fautes) that are not sin, and that don’t sadden God. Making this difference is subtle but important.
More than that: spiritual growth (purification) doesn’t generate in us greater strength, but greater weakness. Jesus says in the Gospel: “blessed who is poor in spirit” and to saint Paul who was asking him to remove a “thorn” from his flesh, thinking that that would be “perfection”: I rejoice and work in your weakness – this means: you’ll remain weak, and therefore my Grace will work better in you, so you don’t lean on your new strength but on my Grace. This is a different take on Perfection. We should renew our understanding of “perfection”, “holiness”, the real goal we are seeking.
We are heading toward a spiritual growing discovery of our weakness, and a growing spiritual experience of the Mercy of God.

As you see: Many understandings, many elements of spiritual life, will be put upside-down, during our spiritual growth.

Are there sins after Union?

3- Question: After the Union with Jesus, is there still a sin in the phases after?

3- Answer: God is Freedom. Jesus is God. When a person reaches Union with Jesus, one doesn’t have less freedom, but more freedom. Certainly the person is transformed in God, in Jesus, but this doesn’t deprive the person from his/her freedom. Remember Adam: he was close to God, in the beginning, and he still sinned.
King Solomon's idolatry
When saint Theresa of Avila speaks about the union with Jesus she mentions the example of Salomon (who started well his spiritual life, but ended very badly, worshiping the gods of his foreign wives) just to show us that nobody is exempt from the possibility of sinning (God forbid of course).
During this lifetime we have a body, we have freedom, we can perform acts: therefore we can sin. This is why Jesus said that we need to persevere “till the end”, and that nothing is guaranteed. Of course nobody wants to sin, neither Jesus nor us. This is why as well we need the final perseverance and we need to remain in the Grace of God till the end and we ask it in the Hail Mary: “pray for us, …, in the hour of our death. Amen”

What is perfection?

4- Question: Can we picture the Union with God?

4- Answer: Jesus explains to us some aspects of the Union with God when He says: ””You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? 48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)

What is perfection? According to Jesus words, perfection is to love both your friends and your enemies. Love is coming from an inner abundance, springing from our heart. The one who believes in Jesus opens himself to the Abundance of Spirit flowing out of God. Accepting Jesus’ Gift (the Holy Spirit) transforms our heart. The Holy Spirit puts Jesus in the centre of our heart. So we can say: “its not me who lives, but Jesus lives in me” (st Paul) and acts through me and with me.
Jesus has His Heart opened all the time, and springing of Holy Spirit, unconditionally, to everybody. For this reason one of the most common images used to translate this openness, unconditional abundance is the Sun. Jesus is our real Sun, giving his rays all the time.
The perfection of God is a perfection of Love. “Love is to give oneself.” This Perfection of God’s nature bears in it “abundance” and “unconditional” love. The very nature of God is to give, unconditionally. God loves because He is Love. He finds the reason to love in Himself (not in us). The power of love, this capacity to love, this springing unconditional abundance is what characterises the very nature of God, his holiness and his perfection.
We often tend to imagine perfection in an esthetical way, like a Greek statue, with no errors in its forms, proportions, beauty, expression, and numbers. While we are called to change our vision of God’s perfection and holiness.
This is essential, in order to be able to “imagine” or “picture” the perfection and holiness we are called to reach. “Union with God” is union with the One who is abundant, who loves unconditionally, and who finds in Himself an endless source of Love. He is the one who encompasses every being in the bosom of his Mercy. He is the “most low” (and not the “most high”), since His Being (Love), brings Him to the lowest parts of humanity (like the water of the rain that trickles down the high mountain).
Perfection won’t then be striving toward the strongest, the most powerful, the highest, etc. perfection according to the true God is: “going down”, humility, Love, Compassion, Mercy.
The greater in Mercy, is the one who is more united to God. The greater in patience, is the more united to God.
The greater in humility and understanding, and excusing his brothers and sisters is closer to God.
The one who receives in his heart everybody, unconditionally, is the one who has been transformed into God.
Perfection is not a competition to win the highest mountain climb. It is not either the most aesthetic movement in our acts. It is to have our heart full with the Love of God and love not with our own strength, but God’s.
Perfection is letting God transform our heart into His Heart, so we can be and act like Him.
The one who believes will have streams of Living Water (Holy Spirit) coming out of his bosom (John). Streams of Mercy, of Love, of Compassion to his brothers and sisters.

Friday, 29 March 2013

75: What is Christian fasting?

The human being is: body, soul and spirit. (we usually prefer the grammatical expression “is..” then: “made of” to show the unity of body-soul-spirit) 

The body, on top of all its organs, has its 5 senses, and the brain.
The soul has various faculties. The main rational ones are: mind, will and memory. Other faculties are: emotions, imagination, passions, inner senses,... . 
The spirit is the upper part of the soul, the part that enters directly into contact with God. The spirit is the very image and resemblance of God in the human being. 

Fasting exists before the coming of Jesus, in the Old Testament, in other religions before Christ (Hinduism, Buddhism,…) and in religions after Christ (Islam,…). While fasting is universal, Christ gave Fasting a new frame, a new meaning, and new means.

Jesus showed us the Way, by fasting himself for 40 days. He is our Way, and opens the Way for us. Therefore, Fasting has a very specific christian aspect to it. While Fasting, Jesus was tempted in three different ways. This moment is Jesus life, is a light on our way, to show us that we should gain control over ourselves, over our body, our senses, our desire of food.

Fasting is not anymore just a repentance, or penance or ascetical exercise. Not even only a cleansing exercise (as many claim today). It is part of the global effort that the human being makes in order to reach the fullness of his vocation as Christian: the Union with Jesus and the Perfection of Love/charity. 

Christ never separated fasting from praying. If fasting is closer to emptying our body, our tendencies to love food with excess (gluttony), praying is filling the emptiness the exercise/sacrifice of fasting created. This is why they shouldn’t be separated. We empty ourselves from our desires of eating something that pleases us, or the quantity that pleases us, but in the meantime we are invited to fill that empty-gap with prayer, with the consolation of the meditation of the Word of God. 

We are also invited to widen our understanding of fasting: It can be depriving ourselves from something we like. It goes with a renewed inner knowledge of ourselves. Fasting by “not eating” or “eating less”, has its own value. But, without neglecting fasting with food, fasting can go deeper: fasting with the eyes (not spending time with TV and/or internet,…). Fasting can be with the tongue: not saying bad words, not speaking badly about somebody, not loosing time in useless chatting. Fasting can go even deeper: controlling our own thoughts, and stopping from thinking badly about people, refraining from judging any person, … 

We fast, says Jesus, because we don’t have the Groom, Jesus Himself. We fast in order to offer as a small sacrifice, something we like, in return of our spiritual search for Jesus himself. As we see, if we deepen our understanding of fasting, the Christian Fasting, we are in for a spiritual journey that has as a goal: reaching the Groom, Jesus Himself.

We can’t transform fasting to a simple body exercise consisting in depriving ourselves from something, without looking at the frame Jesus gave it, and the means he offered. 

The main means Jesus offered for fasting is the Power of His Own Grace: the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit there is no spiritual life, there is not connection with Jesus, we can’t fast, we can’t listen to His Word. The Holy Spirit fills us with His strength, He motivates us to search for Jesus and Pray, He fills us with the Presence of Jesus. So fasting becomes a deep meeting with Jesus, and a spiritually enjoyable time. In fact, Lent time is a time were the Grace of God is doubled, in order to boost our journey to reach Union with Jesus. 

We can’t even transform fasting in a simple sacrifice, bodily exercise that we offer to God. Christian Fasting is infinitely more than that. It encompasses body, soul and spirit. It encompasses Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and a deep Spiritual Life. 

Sins come from the soul and not from the body. Jesus says: it is from the heart of the human being that come all bad things (bad thoughts, bad acts, hatred, …). Jesus said that the food enters our body and then goes away. It doesn’t bring any moral dimension as such. ("heart" in a biblical meaning means the centre of the human being)

Jesus freed us and said that all foods are good, and that there are no forbidden foods (not the case of Jews who were asked to consider some foods as forbidden, as an education matter). So food is good, but the use we make of food is not always good. It is in order to get control over our body, our gluttony, that we use “Christian fasting” (see: temperance). It is in order to learn the spiritual warfare that we fast and pray. It is in order to reach the Union with Jesus that fasting (in its deep meaning) is a Christian practise. 

The first stage of purification is the purification related to our body and to our senses. Our attachment to food and to worldly goods are the first object of fasting. We offer this or that “attachment” to Jesus, and for the sake of His Love, and therefore we fill the gap or emptiness created by this absence by meditating the Word of God, contemplating Jesus Passion, and helping the needy because Jesus is in the needy.

Remember that the money saved by eating less, or less expensive food/meals, you can put it aside and give it to the poor. Fasting humbles us, and makes us closer to the poor. Jesus is in them, and we can't forget them.

We are far of course from trying to show to anybody that we fast. This is why Jesus said: when you fast, don’t show it to others, it is a matter between you and God (with the advice of your spiritual master). 

We are far as well for the very pointless materialistic view that says: this croissant is made of butter or of oil (some Eastern Churches forbid dairy food for certain type of fasting). This would be emptying fast from its deep Christian meaning, frame, and means.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

74: Reading The Interior Castle

Somebody asked me for some advice in his reading of the book of saint Theresa of Avila: “The Interior Castle” (see: this version  or this other one two different translations).

It is difficult to do so in a short text, but still, I will say few things that hopefully will help:
Some people start reading saint Theresa of Avila with this book (“The Interior Castle”). It is true, this is her “Masterpiece”, but this doesn't mean that we can understand her right away. My suggestion would be (if the person is only starting to read saint Theresa) to read the book of her “Life” written by herself. Then the "Way of Perfection", then "The Interior Castle". It takes more time to do it this way, true, but maybe it is easier, more fruitful and more faithful to her thought and to the chronological process of her thought. “The Interior Castle” ("Castillo interior" or "Las Moradas") is a work of maturity (1577).
Some other persons would start by reading an introduction to her thoughts, to her terminology (the words she uses).

Marcelle Auclair
Some would prefer to read a Biography of Theresa of Avila. We have various good ones (Marcelle Auclair, Ephren de la Madre de Dios-Otger Steggink)

Her thought is not systematic, even if the book of the Interior Castle looks systematic.

One advice thought while reading any of her books. While reading, try to see:

1- What God wants to do in the Soul (in general and in yours in particular): His goal, his aim. The holy project of God for you.
2- What are the advices saint Theresa gives in order to know what to do in order to grow. The obstacles to avoid (temptations, sins, bad habits, …), the acts to do, the virtues to grow (with the grace of God),...
3- What will happen if I do what I have to do (at the stage where I am): description of the action of the Grace of God in us, the transformation that it provokes. What you feel, what you experiment.

So one can read the book once, just to have a general idea. Then, re-read it again, with a pen and a notebook handy, writing down, for each stage, the 3 points mentioned above.

While reading the Interior Castle, the "temptation" is to try to know where we are in the journey, if we are at the first, second, third, forth, fifth mansion,... If we are motivated by the true desire to know what we are supposed to do in order to grow, this means that our conscience is pure, and that we will make a good use of this knowledge (knowing were we are are). We will focus on the useful advice given to us by saint Theresa, at our stage.
Another advice to the reader who reads for the first time: take what God gives you, what speaks to you (regardless of where you are in the journey). One can do a kind of revision to what could be lacking.

Remember that a normal “fervent Christian” or “charismatic person” (a person that belongs to the charismatic movement in the Church) already crossed the border between the third and the fourth mansion (entering what Theresa calls the “supernatural” that doesn’t depend on us, or the "specific help of the Grace of God"). So, please let us not spend all our life reading the first 3 mansions. Let us go rather swiftly through these first 3 mansions and focus a lot on the Fourth and the Fifth.
The majority of fervent people (charismatic certainly) are in these two mansions. The art would be to practise with constancy the advices given in these two mansions, especially the fourth, so the will becomes rooted in God, and one reaches the fifth mansions. (fourth are like climbing and the fifth are like being stable in a “state” (the “Union of will”).)

Mind you, after that, God starts to "talk" to us differently. Here we need the help of saint John of the Cross and the description of the deep purification of the spirit (the upper part of the soul). Saint Theresa of Avila doesn't really mention it in an obvious way, while it is important. (See how Father Marie Eugene in his book "I want to see God", intended to be a comment to her book "The Interior Castle", did add the description of the deep purification of the spirit explained by saint John of the Cross. They in fact complement each other.)
This change of behaviour of God toward us is in fact fundamental. We need to know it. This is why saint John of the Cross writes his books at the first place. He sees beautiful and fervent souls who reach that point (end of the fifth mansions) and stop their growth, and the reason is that while God is changing His behaviour with us, the change is perceived as a “regression” (going backward in the spiritual journey). Because one perceives that God is far, against us, and all the "milk" we used to get disappeared.

I hope this helps.