22 November 2010

The Fullness of the Life of Christ Within Us

Transforming Union or possessing the fullness of Christ is something most of us will never experience in this lifetime. But certainly we’re familiar with stories of saints and mystics who have been there. But what is this transforming union? Why do so few experience it? Is it available to everyone? A Carthusian writer tackles this subject.

‘My Beloved is mine, and I am His’ (Song of Songs 2:16).

Transforming union is the full development on earth of sanctifying grace, that is, the fullness of the life of Christ within us. Sadly, it is a state which is rarely reached, for it implies a plenitude of love. But, however far we may be from that state, we should know something about it, so as to be able to distinguish what is only transitory in the spiritual life, from that which pertains to its perfection.

There is one last trial, a testing of love, in which the soul, intensely drawn to the One it loves, aspires with its whole being to heavenly union. It is the desire to die, to break the chains of this life. If the Lord inspires this desire in the soul, it is in order to fulfil it, but in an unexpected way, by giving the grace of transforming union.

Sanctifying grace is the free gift of alliance contracted by God with each one of us, in the Church. It consists in the gift of the Holy Spirit Who communicates divine life to us: the knowledge and love which enable us to know and love God in an intimate exchange of personal friendship. He says to each of us, ‘I am calling you and you are My friend’. And His Creator Word establishes us in a sort of equality with Him, of friend to Friend (or, in other words, makes us share in the divine nature). The life of prayer is all about learning to live this friendship. We have to be gradually raised to this dignity, purified, and slowly transformed, until our will is one with the will of the Lord and our heart belongs totally to Him. Love is at the heart of transforming union, it is the substance of it. The phenomena which usually manifest this state are secondary, and in some cases are quite hidden, or even absent.

The life of grace becomes conscious. God is experienced not only as the objects of our acts of faith, hope and love, but as the interior source, the indwelling co-principle, of these acts. The sap of divine life flows in our faculties.

The term ‘spiritual marriage’ is sometimes used to indicate this fusion of two lives: an intimate and stable union, based on the total, mutual gift of love between two persons, a gift with implications of rights and duties. ‘All that is Mine is yours, and all that is yours is Mine’ (Saint John 17:10).

The soul shares in the knowledge of God. It is given a mysterious knowledge, both luminous and obscure, by the love poured into it by the Holy Spirit. Love is itself a form of knowledge that goes further than any knowledge that can be formulated in images or ideas. It plunges into the infinite reality of divine life. The Spirit is the flame of love in the soul, a brightly burning flame.

There is no longer any distance. God communicates Himself to the soul by substantial touches, that is, directly, substance to substance, without passing by the faculties. Plunged into the divine fire, the soul becomes fire. Immersed in the vast sea, the drop of water becomes sea. Traversed by light, the pane of glass becomes light, without however ceasing to be what it is. No image can adequately express the reality. The saints and great mystics of all times have tried to speak of it, but this irruption of infinite life into the tiny space of a human soul is beyond words; do we not however, each one of us, recognize in this, in some obscure way, our deepest desire? How strange. But not so strange really, for our heart is made for You, Lord.

This union is the source of special insights on God and on the mysteries of the faith: sparks from the furnace at the centre, that the intelligence receives by way of intuitive knowledge. The faculties no longer operate in their usual way, which is more or less discursive, but in the mode of the Holy Spirit acting through the gifts of intelligence and wisdom.

In this state, there is an habitual vision of the presence of God in the centre of the soul, which is perceived, without mediation, as the dwelling of God. The higher faculties are drawn passively and imperiously towards the deep centre of the soul where God dwells. They are plunged into this source of life, and emerge from it transformed, to act at the exterior. The activity of the soul flows from this deep centre, the initiative comes from the interior and not from outside, from the Spirit and not from the world. This is why it is so important for the person of prayer to be able to enter into the interior depths of his or her soul, to remain there habitually, and to act from that centre.

The soul often possesses habitually, but with differing degrees of intensity, the vision of the Holy Trinity, or of the divine nature. This is the highest point of spiritual illumination, but paradoxically is sometimes called ‘the Great Darkness’, for in drawing nearer, God reveals Himself to be supreme mystery, and totally different.

Whether this vision concerns the divine Persons or their unique nature, seems to depend on the religious sensitivity of the soul and the path followed. There is an Eastern tradition particularly directed towards experience of the divine nature, without however excluding, or regarding as secondary, loving intimacy with the Persons of the Holy Trinity. But at this level of mystical experience, however necessary the concepts of nature and person may be, they are very inadequate with regard to the incandescent reality of the union of God.

The Holy Spirit is in charge of the whole of this transformation. It is the Spirit Who acts in us as the principle of our sanctification. He inclines the soul to these supernatural acts, not by passing through the faculties, from outside, but from inside, from His dwelling in the centre, in the substance of the soul. Thus the Spirit moves the faculties, but in His own particular way, enabling them to attain their objects directly with an assurance and strength beyond their normal possibilities. Paradoxically, there is great liberty in this, for the soul is not moved like a lifeless puppet, but as someone who is free. This is a great mystery. The spiritual acts flow freely from a person transformed in his very substance by the Spirit; and these acts express perfectly the most intimate depths of that person, there where he adheres to God so closely that, with God, he is spirit, and source of life (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:17).

It is easy to say words that mean nothing, or say too much. It has been suggested – and by the mystics sometimes – that the soul breathes the Spirit with the Father and the Son; that it creates the world; that, placed within God’s creative act, it is maintaining all things; that, in a game of love, it gives God to God, since God in all truth has given Himself to the soul… All this is true, but in a sense that in no way diminishes the infinite transcendence of the Lord which is radically beyond our grasp. What is clear is that, by grace, in transforming union, the soul is plunged into a life that is infinitely beyond anything that we can possibly imagine. The fine shell of its little personality becomes perfectly transparent to the marvellous light in which it bathes. The soul is known and it knows. It is loved and it loves: perfectly, beyond anything we can possibly imagine or hope for.

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18).

We set off to seek God, following in the steps of Jesus, on the path of the beatitudes of poverty and purity of heart, by the way of the cross and love, towards the Father. Now at the end, we find Christ again, but the risen Christ. The extraordinary phenomena of the mystical life are an irruption in our world of the life of the resurrection, rays of light from Mount Tabor. If we can come to the Father in all confidence, as sons, it is because of the grace of Christ communicated to us through the Spirit. We are taken up into the life of Christ, we become as it were one person with Him, to constitute what Augustine called ‘the total Christ’. ‘It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ Who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20).

When the Word became flesh, He did not eliminate human nature, but raised it, rather, to the fullness of its liberty and perfection; and in the same way, when divine life takes flesh, so to speak, in us – not hypostatically, but by union of grace – our humanity is not eliminated, but radically transformed. It is really our own self that is transformed; myself, with my own features, my character, my feelings, my personal history, my wounds, my limits, my sufferings, my sensitivity… Christ in His glory bears the marks of the nails. The glory He communicates to us is the glory of humanity redeemed, and is all the more luminous because of that. The bread that we offer to be consecrated is the bread of our whole nature. That is why the Eucharist is so important: for there, the Body and Blood of Christ, the living humanity of Christ, touches us, penetrates us, in order to transform us into Himself.

The spiritual person does not become an angel, he or she becomes Christ. And just as so few were able to recognize God in Jesus, so we too often pass by the saints. We look out for the extraordinary and the spectacular, and all we find is something marvellously human, a humanity that is in the likeness of God.

Generally there are not many extraordinary sensory phenomena, and hardly any more ecstasies. The human nature of the mystic is now used to God’s action, and has adapted to it. On the level of the senses, there is no resistance, and the higher faculties have been strengthened in their usual mode of activity.

We are so concerned with the outward show of sanctity, with appearances! Yet the whole life of a monk, and especially of the solitary monk, is on the level of being, where all show is ridiculous comedy. The ‘little’ Thérèse said once: ‘There is no need for appearances, as long as the reality is there. Our Lord died of love on the Cross, and yet look at His agony’.

And all is humility, because humility is born of truth. In this ultimate intimacy with the Lord, the monk knows, he experiences, that all is grace, that all comes from God. He takes stock in his own minute little self in the shadow of the greatness of God, the greatness of infinite Love. He makes no effort to be humble. We do not need light to see daylight.

In the mystic, the struggle between attention to God and contact with the world no longer exists. Throughout the whole development of the life of prayer, we have seen a ligature of the powers of the soul, from the partial withdrawal from the world in the prayer of quietude, up to the point of ecstasy, when all its usual activity in relation to the surrounding world becomes impossible: it has to be Martha or Mary. But from now on, we find Martha and Mary living together in harmony. Interior union with God is not hindered by the activity of Martha, and vice versa.

There are two levels of conscience, simultaneously occupied each with its own object, natural or supernatural, without hampering one another. This is the secret of the activity of the great saints, which is so fruitful spiritually: it flows from the source, without leaving it. Everything in the saints is unity, and they have tremendous strength to act – if God calls them to do so – and to suffer.

The soul is not exempt from temptations and trials, which are usually of short duration; but it is not deeply affected by them. The great peace in the depths of the heart is not troubled, even when the surface is tossed by the storm. ‘My peace I leave with you’ (Saint John 14:27).

Let us not forget that, except for a few moments on Mount Tabor, Christ offered us the humble, hidden image of the Servant. He renounced, precisely, the outward show of glory that so attracts our ambivalent desires. The light of a soul transformed by grace often dwells in a humanity which seems quite ordinary, sometimes even in one that is heavily burdened, always in one that is simple. Christian perfection does not lie in the Greek ideal of an earthly fulfilment of all one’s human potential; its aim is the plenitude of charity, which, in a world marked by sin, can take the form of sacrifice and suffering assumed in a consent of faith, and of which the fulfilment is on the other side of death, in eternal life.