Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 4: The Illuminative Way

 Previous: Erin on Chapter 3, the Purgative Way

On and off over the years, I've tried to read The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. The initial image of the soul as a castle composed of a single crystal, with many rooms all leading inward, is so evocative, and yet I always choked -- probably because I simply was not spiritually ready to understand Teresa's charming Spanish mysticism. Benson's chapter on the Illuminative Way talks about many of the same processes as Interior Castle, but more concisely, and in ways I understand better. (And it encourages me that perhaps, if I pick up Interior Castle again [if I can find my aged paperback], I might find it more accessible now.)

Teresa's crystalline imagery is romantic, but I suspect Benson would be more attracted to the structure of crystal. His Illuminative Way echoes the structure of the Purgative Way, but now each illusion stripped from the soul in the Purgative Way is given back -- as reality, not as illusion. 

1. External Illumination

The first step of the Purgative Way was the stripping away of external comforts: the aesthetic or spiritual padding of our choosing that made the spiritual life sweet and easy. In the first step of the Illuminative Way, our external surroundings take on their true spiritual significance. But -- and this, I think, is the crucial distinction -- we stop choosing, and start accepting.

What do we accept? The thorns in our flesh, the goads that reveal our weakness, the trials that seem like distractions in our spiritual progress. The illumination is the realization that what we think hinders us from our path is in fact the path. Our chosen path that makes it easiest to hide (or hide from) our flaws; the path that God in fact gives us is the one that most reveals our flaws and makes us confront them -- through his strength, not our own.

An illustration, drawn from my last post: one of the great aesthetic comforts of my choosing is good music at Mass. When that crutch was taken away from me, I had to learn to love the Mass for its own sake, regardless of the externals. Now, once again, the quality of music at my church is slipping, and I'm the one singing it for the congregation. It is a mortification to me to have to sing such stuff, and yet, it is also an act of humility to give up my choice and take what I'm given in obedience. It's also an opportunity for discernment: is there any song which I feel is so inappropriate for Mass that I need to protest it? Are the lyrics actually from scripture? If so, can I sing the scripture itself, and give the awful tune to God? Twice recently, I've spoken up: once for a proposed change to the Gloria that was so liturgically off-base that I felt I could not cantor it in good conscience, and once against a song that was so banal and inappropriate both musically and lyrically that it had no place in Mass. 

And yet, the humility (and mortification) comes from the fact that these are mostly hidden measures, not big public battles where I'm a champion of good taste for the masses. I'm still singing bad fluff in church. This is the thorn in my flesh, and through it I learn obedience and the virtue of giving my best to God in all circumstances. 

It's interesting that Benson includes grappling with, and coming to accept, the Problem of Pain in this first step of illumination, not in some further, higher level. 

And it is, therefore, exactly at this stage that the soul ceases to be bewildered by the Problem of Pain; for, while she cannot, of course, intellectually solve the problem, she answers it, in the only way in which it is possible, by grasping Pain, or at any rate acquiescing in it. She now sees it practically to be reasonable; and henceforth endeavours to act upon that intuition.

A caveat, of course: accepting what the Lord gives us is not the same thing as submitting to spiritual (or physical, or emotional, or moral) abuse. Sometimes what God gives through this first step of illumination is the strength to step away or challenge people who claim to be acting in his name. 

2. Internal Illumination

I once took a class called Human Anthropology, a theology class devoted mostly to reading The Acting Person by Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II). It was pretty dense stuff, and I took page after page of notes, only to find, when I looked back through them to study up for a test, that almost every single one said "Gift of self."

You can find "God is Love" in curly letters on stacks of plaques at Hobby Lobby, waiting to be hung in someone's bathroom to be idly contemplated during calls of nature. Everyone knows "God is Love", or that Christians say "God is Love" while doing a lot of things that seem unloving. "God is Love"; "gift of self": phrases that are deep, sure, that we profess with our lips, that we even try to slot in to our daily practice of religion. Am I giving myself here? Am I being loving there, because "God is Love"? 

And there are the tiny epistles of John, in which "God is Love" is a phrase that has become shot through with profound, incredible significance, so deeply, almost inexpressibly amazing that John trips over himself and repeats himself, trying to reveal every facet of this gemlike saying:

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the World. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfect with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (1 John 4:7-21).

John repeats the word "love" in some form 26 times in this passage (not counting the address "Beloved"). He has been illuminated, and he is ringing all the changes to place love in every context he can: God's gift to us, our response to God, our response to others because of God, the very nature of God himself. The very word "love" has been transformed from an idea to a Person. As Benson says:

[The soul] finds, by an certain inexplicable process of spiritual verification, that those things which she has taken to be are true to her as well as in themselves; the path where she was walked in darkness, though in security, becomes dimly apparent to her eyes; until, if she, by grace and perseverance, ultimately reaches sanctity itself, she may experience by God's favour those clear-sighted intuitions -- or rather that infusion of knowledge -- which is so marked a characteristic in the saints.

Including St. Teresa and her Interior Castle.

3. True Illumination: Christ as Light Itself 

If the third stage of the Purgative Way was the soul learning to rely on Christ alone in a negative fashion, through realizing that she herself has no strength or goodness except through him, the third stage of the Illuminative Way is the positive formulation of this truth: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me

Benson uses the word "pressure" to describe Christ's presence in this stage: 

...Virtue is far easier, since it is very difficult for any soul to sin very outrageously so long as she feels the pressure of Christ's hand in hers.

In our Facebook reading group, this word "pressure" was a bit of stumbling block. The soul sins less because Christ watching over my shoulder, monitoring my every deed? That sounds like scrupulosity to some. But I thought of another example. My oldest daughter has a weighted blanket that she loves. The sense of constant and sheltering pressure is soothing. It's not oppressive to her to be under her blanket. It orients her in space and surrounds her securely. She is aware of the blanket. 

In the same way, the soul becomes aware of Christ everywhere and in everything. This is not something added suddenly; Christ has always been there. There was never a time when he wasn't present in the soul. But now the soul is always conscious of him at the root of all things and in every other soul. And it is he who is her strength and her salvation, as the Psalmist knew so long ago. 

This does mean that smaller and smaller sins, humanly speaking, take on greater and greater weight, just as in marriage, the tiniest acts take on great significance (both for good and for ill) because of the closeness and intensity of the relationship. A sigh, a roll of the eyes, a moment of freezing up before responding: every one of these can wound in marriage where they would mean almost nothing to a mere acquaintance. 

And yet, this constant awareness of Christ's presence, and the realization that our own strength is nothing, doesn't make us perfect people. I am here to attest that I am an objectively less organized, less hard working, less dedicated person now than I was when I was younger and thought that I could make myself into something different through my own efforts. Relying on Christ to strengthen you also means accepting that there are ways in which he will not choose to strengthen you, or that your weaknesses mean that you need to rely on the strengths that he has given to the people around you. 

And it will mean, not that you stop sinning altogether, but that you turn back to him constantly and are not afraid to confess to him what he already knows about you, because he is at the very core of your being and knows you better than you know yourself.

4. Dangers along the Illuminative Way

What is absolutely needed, then, if illumination is not to end in disunion and destruction, is that, couple with this increase of interior spiritual life, there should go with it an increase of devotion and submission to the exterior Voice with which God speaks in His Church: for, notoriously, nothing is so difficult to discern as the difference between the inspirations of the Holy Ghost and the aspirations or imaginations of self. (emphasis added)

No man is an island. We are created to be in community, and not a community of our own creating. Benson cautions that a soul, enamored of the interior illumination of Christ, must, conversely, also be willing to submit to Christ as he reveals himself to the world in the Church. This is not the Church as interpreted by the World, as interpreted by charismatic figures, as interpreted by people who want to use it for their own means, but as the Church interprets herself through Christ, in her teachings, traditions, and documents -- the True Church, not the idea of Church.

Ideas are heady things. The Purgative way strips away ideas from reality. Now the Illuminative Way emphasizes the reality behind ideas -- the testing of spirits, as St. Paul says. Otherwise, we can be lead away by high spiritual contemplation to do practically terrible things. "Rely not on your own understanding," cautions the Psalmist. Christ does not illuminate us and no one else. We have a part in the Body of Christ, and Christ tells us that that Body is the Church. 

Woe to him who having received the Friendship of Christ, and its consequent illumination, believes that he enjoys in its interpretation an infallibility which he denies to Christ's outwardly commissioned Vicar!

And so it behooves a true Friend of Christ to draw not only from his strength, but from his humility. And this humility is one of the greatest qualities to consider when looking for guidance from people who claim to speak in Christ's name. Do they model, not just his zeal or his power, but his humility as well? If not, better test that spirit some more. 

Next: Part II: Christ in the Exterior; Chapter 5: Christ in the Eucharist.

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