The Sacramental Life: Keeping Our Eyes on God

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigIn recent weeks we considered several names for the spiritual life as it relates to various persons of the Trinity, and then we considered St. Louis de Montfort’s four different names for the spiritual life as it relates to Mary. Today we begin a series that will consider how the sacraments can serve as names for the spiritual life. All of these things name the same basic reality: our incorporation in Christ, our sharing in the life of God.

But they highlight it in different ways. This is important because in fact it is easy for us to lose track of what the spiritual life is really about.


The two basic poles of the spiritual life are God as our destination and God as our means of reaching that destination. “Charity,” or divine love, is the theological name for loving God as the ultimate good toward which everything is aimed. Grace is the theological word for the transformation of the person by contact with God: the work God does in us.

Our constant temptation is to sink into ourselves. We replace charity with love of self when we focus on experience, as if the real point of the spiritual life was to have visions, or warm fuzzy feelings – or no feelings: spiritual dryness can be idolized too. In fact, I fear that there’s a certain kind of pseudo-mysticism about where people feel like if they space out, especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, that emptying of the mind is the presence of God. Liberal Catholics call this “centering prayer,” and conservative Catholics know it must be bad. But I think a lot of conservative, or quasi-orthodox Catholics, also think silence itself is prayer: a dangerous incursion of Buddhism, a loss of the fire of charity.

But so too can be the fad of journaling. Now, Mother Teresa herself, a real model of divine charity, seems to have liked both silence and journaling. But what are we journaling about? Are we gazing at ourselves in the mirror? Or are we creating a God in our own image, describing the God we love in our own terms, rather than his?

To love truly, we have to keep our eyes on God. Scripture can be a helpful way to do that, which is why the tradition is so in love with the Psalms and various kinds of lectio divina. But in any case, the point is, Catholicism urges us to look beyond ourselves. The true Christian spiritual life maintains charity by thinking about the various names for the spiritual life we have been considering.


The same is true of grace. The constant temptation is to think either that we do it all by our own power (or by the human power of our community) or that we cannot do it – despair is just another angle on trusting in our own powers. When we lose a clear sense that the spiritual life is the work of the divine Trinity, or of the Lord, incarnate in Mary’s womb, true spirituality is replaced.

On the one hand, we focus on our own strength, and begin to exalt in what we do for ourselves instead of what God does for us. But on the other hand, since our own strength can’t get us very far, we begin to set our sights too low, as if the things we can do on our own are the only possibilities of the spiritual life. The spiritual life without an intense emphasis on divine grace becomes hardly any spiritual life at all.


In the next several weeks we will go through the seven sacraments, considering the richness of naming the spiritual life by reference to Baptism, or Confirmation, or the Eucharist (either sacrifice or communion), or Penance, or the Anointing of the Sick, or the Priesthood, or Marriage. In fact, each of these sacraments provides an excellent description of the spiritual life as a whole.

But first, briefly, what is a sacrament? Sacraments are signs that give what they signify. Baptism is a symbol of spiritual washing – and it does in fact spiritually wash us.

Sacraments provides an intense focus on grace. Just as touching the hem of Jesus’s robe made clear that grace came from him, not from our own power, so too with the sacraments. The sacramental life means trusting in his power.

And the sacraments make vivid that the spiritual life means coming out of ourselves in pursuit of the Good God. They are profound signs of the spiritual reality of Christianity.


How do you find nourishment through the sacraments?

For Mary

mary-baby-jesus1The last of St. Louis de Montfort’s descriptors of the spiritual life is “all for Mary.” (I am following the order in the often forgotten little book, Secret of Mary, which gives the bigger True Devotion a run for its money; both are fantastic statements of de Montfort’s doctrine.)

What does it mean to say “all for Mary,” and how does it work as a description of the spiritual life?


First, it means “all for the true doctrine of the Incarnation.” As we have said before, the early Church judged that there was no clearer statement of Christology than calling Mary “Mother of God.” The key challenges to a right understanding of Jesus are Arianism (that Jesus is less than God), Monophysitism or Docetism (that Jesus is not really human) and Nestorianism (that the God-part of Jesus and the man-part are kind of two different persons).

To focus on Mary is, above all, to recognize that we easily lose track of who Jesus really is. If we are not careful, we slip into mistaken ideas of Jesus. To focus on Mary is to be careful about our Christology – to realize that we are constantly tempted to say, “Mary can’t really be Mother of God. That doesn’t make any sense.” To be zealously “all for Mary” is to be zealous about the truth of who and what Jesus really is.

Ironically, there is no other way to be truly Christ-centered than to keep Mary central in our thinking and devotional life.


Second, “all for Mary” means being zealous for the truth of the Redemption. Again, falsehood is so very easy. Protestants tend to fall into a denial that Jesus does anything at all for us. The pleasant way to put the standard Protestant understanding is that Jesus saves us by covering our sins. But a truer way to put it is that in most Protestant understandings, the “good news” is that Jesus does not really care who we are, does not care whether we love God, does not care whether we love neighbor. “Forgiveness” turns into “Lucky us, Jesus doesn’t care.” This is really dangerous.

But equally – perhaps more – dangerous is that Catholics tend to fall into Pelagianism. I believe (above all from my experience teaching candidates for the priesthood, and talking to other people who teach them) that Pelagianism is raging among “orthodox” Catholics today. Pelagianism is the doctrine that we can save ourselves: if we just try harder, we can climb to heaven on our own strength. When was the last time you heard a homily about grace? This is raging, outrageous heresy, and it is extraordinarily dangerous to our spiritual life. It is a denial of Jesus, anti-Christ.

To say “all for Mary” emphasizes not only who Jesus is, but what he does for us. Mary is, on the one hand, against the Protestants, all-holy, fabulously holy. Holiness is possible; mystical ascent into the life of the Trinity is the Gospel. But Mary is also, against the Pelagian Catholics, entirely dependent on Jesus. That’s why we look to Mary more than to all the other saints. It is only proximity to Jesus that makes us holy. It is always his work, not ours. To be “all for Mary” is to keep the truth of the Redemption always before our eyes.


Finally, “for” is a word about motivation, and love. Far more than any of the other words for true devotion to Mary, “for” Mary indicates fire, drive, passion. “All for Mary” means every step of the way, we ask what we are living for.

“All for Mary” means a real passion for evangelization. It means longing to see the image of Mary, radically holy because radically united to Jesus, repeated on every face we see. And thus being radically gentle.

“All for Mary” means a real passion for the possibilities of man. It means remembering that every person we see has the possibility to be what Mary is. Mary didn’t have to convert: God signals to us that his action always comes first by being with her from the beginning. But conversion is possible. The greatest sinner is still made of the same stuff as Mary. He can become what she is. He too can be raised into the life of the Trinity. And so I must love him.

Finally, “all for Mary” means a real passion for the work of God. It means repeating to ourselves, again and again and again, that Jesus saves, that grace is everything, that we totally depend on the mystery of the Incarnation. It means asking at every step, is the work of Jesus—what Jesus does for us—central to what I am doing now?

This is the spiritual life. This is Christianity.


How do you keep alive the fire for Jesus?

Click here for more posts on Devotion to Mary.

Click here for the entire series on Names for the Spiritual Life.

Through Mary

mary-baby-jesus1We now come to St. Louis de Montfort’s third way of describing the Christian life: life “through” or “by” Mary – the French is par.

We look to Mary as the source of all life. The main point of doing this, and the way it shapes our life, is that we recognize our need for grace. On the one hand, simply to recognize that we are not self-sufficient is to make great strides in the spiritual life. The Desert Fathers said the heart of the spiritual life is simply to pray constantly the Psalm verse, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.” To live in light of salvation.


This frees us, on the one hand, to recognize our sin. On first read, de Montfort’s take on this can be off-putting. In an infamous passage, he tells us, “You will consider yourself as a snail that soils everything with its slime, as a toad that poisons everything with its venom, as a malevolent serpent seeking only to deceive.” I know I am not the only one who put this book away the first time I read things like that!

But de Montfort’s point is not about our sin, but our salvation. When we recognize that God sends his grace to heal us, we no longer have to hide our sin. We can acknowledge our stupidity precisely because we know it is not the last word. Pope Francis speaks of “the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin”: the point is not to wallow in sin, but to feel that caress, and know that our sin is the occasion for God to send his healing mercy. I don’t have to defend myself; Jesus handles that.

Second, to recognize our constant need for grace is to recognize that, beyond our sin, God also calls us beyond the limits of even sinless nature. What the heart of man has never imagined, God has prepared for us (1 Cor 2:9). To live always by God’s power is to realize he calls us not to what our limited power can reach, but “to become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4): the very life of the Trinity.


But why through Mary. Why not just say through Jesus, or with the Desert Fathers, “God come to my assistance”? In fact, de Montfort’s own motto was “God alone!” Why then through Mary?

First, ironically, because Mary emphasizes Jesus. It is so very easy for Jesus to become an abstraction: either a super man, or just sort of a face of God. The Incarnation itself – what happened in the womb of Mary – really does surpass our capacity for understanding. To focus on Mary is precisely to focus on Jesus. To say “all through Mary” is to say “all through the mystery of the Incarnation”: no grace comes to us except through that amazing union of God and man. That is the source of our healing – not some vague God in the sky, but the one in Mary’s womb.

Second, Mary helps emphasize for us the human effect. Grace is God’s work – but it is in the heart of man. To think of Mary as Queen of Heaven is important precisely because it reminds us that a human person can become Queen of Heaven, that we really can enter into the heart of God. That purity from sin is a possibility: an impossibility by our own efforts, but possible by God’s grace. And perfect, divine, Trinitarian love: that can actually happen in a human heart. Mary abides in the heights of heaven, in the heart of the Trinity! Gosh, that is so hard to believe that we need to think about it. To live “all through Mary” is to live in constant union with the truth of what God has done in her, and calls us to let happen in our own hearts.


Third, to think of Mary is to think of the mystery of election, and predilection. Mary is lucky, the luckiest one of all. She did not earn God’s love. Nor do we. We shoud realize how lucky we are: to know the truth of the Gospel, and even more, to have the fire of the Spirit in our hearts. We should not put too human a face on God – it is easy to replace God with something far less. But it is important to remember the tenderness of grace, the personal relationship, the personal choice – not first ours of God, but God’s choice of us. Mary helps to give us that personal touch, without washing out the mystery of God.

All through Mary!


How does Mary help you understand God, and Jesus?

Names for the SpiritualLife: In Mary

mary-baby-jesus1For the last several Fridays we have been considering different names used to describe the spiritual life. We are now considering the four ways that St. Louis de Montfort describes true devotion to Mary: with Mary, in Mary, through Mary, and for Mary. This week we consider what might be the most confusing, but also the most important of these phrases.


For years, I thought “in Mary” meant something like “in her heart.” We can imagine ourselves praying, or – if you have a more diligent imagination than I do – maybe even living, working, conversing, within Mary’s heart. Such a meditation can be a way to imagine her love for us, her love for God, the purity of her intentions and motives.

This is a worthy meditation. But it doesn’t work with everyone’s imaginations, and it’s hard to make it describe the whole of our life: we can’t always be doing this imaginative exercise. I also think it might actually be more what he means by “with Mary.” Always we know that Mary is at our side, and always we try to walk alongside her, to live with her, to imitate Mary. That is wonderful, but I don’t think it’s what de Montfort means by “in Mary.”


De Montfort, always flowery to the point of confusion, describes Mary as a “world,” a “terrestrial paradise.” I think what he means is less an imitation of Mary’s ways than a shaping of our worldview.

What Mary stands for is the total transformation of the person by the mystery of Jesus. Wherever we hear the name “Mary,” we can think “grace” – but the Gospel of grace made concrete, personal, real. Mary means a world in which God so completely heals the human soul that we live lives of perfect love, of God and neighbor. And a world in which God elevates us (sanctifying grace always heals and elevates) beyond our human nature into the interior life of God, the perfect love of the Trinity, which is the height of contemplation.

Mary, moreover, lives this grace as total gift. The Immaculate Conception means that God always makes the first move. Mary has absolutely nothing to credit herself with, and everything to thank God for. He made the first move. And then in her relation to Jesus we see Mary always moving outside of herself, to the source and culmination of grace. Mary’s life begins and ends with Jesus. God is her beginning, and God is her constant destination. This is the perfection of sanctity.


To live “in Mary” is for this to be our constant worldview. What would it mean for us to view absolutely everything in light of this gospel of grace? Always to know that God can do it, that God is the source of every perfect gift, that God brings the healing of perfect purity, and the elevation of perfect love.

To make Mary “our world” is to see everything in this way, to begin and end our day, to face every difficulty, and every simplest task, in light of the mystery of grace. For Mary to be our worldview.

It means, too, to see the dignity of human nature: to look at every person and know that he shares the same nature as Mary, that God can do in him the most wonderful things that he did for Mary.


We can live our lives “in Mary” by meditating on her two greatest prayers. We can pray the Hail Mary: pray it well during our rosary, and then pray it throughout the day, and try to learn from it who Mary is, what God has done in her.

And we can live our life, too, in light of the Magnificat, Mary’s own prayer and the perfect articulation of her worldview.

To live in Mary is always to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord” and “exult in God,” who we recognize as “our Savior.” To see ourselves as nothing but “lowly servants” whom he has “lifted up.” To know that he is mighty, and does great things. To fear only him, and the loss of him, and to trust in his mercy.

To live in Mary is to know that the “proud in their conceit,” the “mighty on their thrones,” and the “rich” will be sent away empty. Our strength is in being lowly, and hungry – and members of “his servant Israel,” and trusting him to lift us up. Our hope is in trusting his promise to those who believe – to Abraham and his children forever.

To live “in Mary” is to make our worldview Mary, Our Lady of Grace.


What does Mary tell you about the world?

Names for the Spritual Life: Life with Mary

mary-baby-jesus1For the last few weeks we have been considering names for the spiritual life. In relation to us, we considered “sanctity” and “the interior life.” In relation to the Trinity, we had “life in the Spirit,” “life in Christ,” and “divine filiation,” which we further considered as “spiritual childhood.”

In the next four weeks, I propose to consider how devotion to Mary can be seen as a model for the spiritual life. Following the great Marian teaching of St. Louis de Montfort, I propose, first, that true devotion to Mary is no more or less than living out our baptism: that is, true devotion to Mary simply is the spiritual life/life in Christ/the life of divine filiation, etc. – though obviously de Montfort believes that Mary provides helpful ways of thinking about this. Second, de Montfort finishes his masterwork, True Devotion, by saying true devotion to Mary is best described under four headings: life with Mary, life in Mary, life by Mary, and life for Mary. Our next four weeks will consider these titles.


We begin with life with Mary, or alongside Mary. As de Montfort understands it, we could also describe this as Imitation of Mary.

We considered a few weeks ago how imitation of Christ is a slightly deceiving idea. Jesus is God, and we are not. We are meant to put on Christ, to be Christ-like – but also to recognize our radical dependence on him. Imitation of Mary – life with, or alongside Mary – is in this sense a better description of the Christian life.

Imitation of Mary means imitation of her virtues, of course. Mary is a particularly fine model of the virtuous life, precisely because her life isn’t very interesting. We should imitate the saints, but most of the canonized saints are recognized by the amazing things they did. (Whereas, in fact, most of the saints are not canonized, because they did nothing by which the world would remember them.) Mary, by her connection with Christ, is the one saint who both lived a profoundly ordinary life and yet is easily recognizable.

Of course, Mary’s ordinary life still includes the extraordinary. She was called to radically consecrate herself to Christ. She suffered enormously, especially in the exile under Herod and even more at the Cross. She witnessed, and even participated in, the miraculous, especially at the wedding feast of Cana and at the Resurrection. She saw the miracles of the Church, especially at Pentecost.

But our ordinary life of sanctity must be extraordinary in the same ways. We too will have to suffer profoundly if we are to follow Christ. And we too will see miracles, though the world probably won’t see them. Nonetheless, like Mary, we should not expect to be miracle workers. At best, we will beg Jesus to care for our family and friends, and beg him to rise again when he seems lost – and we will see him do it. Meanwhile, we will serve him through our ordinary, humble lives.


But a second and even more profound way we should imitate Mary, live our lives “with Mary,” is through profound reliance on Christ. Everything depends on our closeness to him. We look to her as the exemplar of a life lived in total dependence on him.

Of course, during his earthly life, she lived a closeness we can never have. But we can imitate her love of Christ by loving his face and voice as she did: by adoring his image, pondering his words. As a parent today might keep a picture of his children on his desk, so too we imitate Mary by keeping Jesus’s picture always before us.

But we can imitate her too in her life after his Ascension. We imagine what the Mass meant for her, what even the Church he had founded meant to her. For Mary, these were not just goods in themselves, but traces of him, the one her heart adored. The Bible – just being collected, in her time – was not just wisdom, it was his wisdom. She loved him. So must we.

And she lived from him, knew all her life flowed from the awesome event which was the life and death of Jesus Christ. That is what we most imitate in the life of Mary.


The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth got to observe Vatican II. He didn’t like, though, that they said Mary is model of the Church; he preferred Joseph, a bit more removed. We should recognize Mary for the scandal she is. No, we are not a step removed. Jesus comes to lay in our arms, to be that close to us. We imitate Mary, live all our life alongside her.

What does life with Mary mean to you?

What to Call It? Spiritual Childhood

All-SaintsWe have all struggled with the line from the Gospels, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3; cf. Luke 18:17). How should we be like children? Innocence? (And in what ways are children innocent?) Silliness? Some people say we should be truthful like children . . . Bill Cosby has some funny words about how truthful children are (not)! I knew one priest who gave a great homily every year on how children can focus on detail and ignore world issues. It was a good homily . . . but I’m not sure it was what Jesus was getting at.

Continuing our meditations last week on our relationship to God the Father, this week we consider how sanctitythe interior life, the spiritual life, life in Christ, divine filiation – can be described as “spiritual childhood.”


Let us consider spiritual childhood in relation to being sons of God. Last week we said, to be a son (or daughter) is to possess the same nature as the Father. Catholic theology, especially the theology of the fathers of the Church in the early centuries, emphasizes what a radical claim this is. We truly are born again; we are a new creation; we receive a new nature, and a new heart. We are reshaped to see with the eyes of God, to love with the heart of God, to be truly divine creatures.

Although this theology permeates the New Testament, the most direct text on it is the First Letter of St. John. “Whoever is born of God does not commit sin; for God’s seed remains in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whoever does not keep righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother” (I John 3:9-10).

To be a son of God is truly to receive his nature. The Greek for “seed” is the shockingly biological term sperma: we are reproduced. And thus we are changed, new, different. If we are not new, not righteous, not living in the love of God, and expressing it in our relationships with our brothers and sisters, then we are just plain not born again, not begotten of God.

The problem is . . . we aren’t. But the strange thing is, John knows that. In the same letter, he says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:8-10).

Now, one solution to this apparent contradiction, Luther’s solution, is to accept the paradox. Simul justus and peccator: yup, we are “righteous,” but in a sense that is perfectly reconcilable with continuing to sin, continuing not to love, continuing not to live as if we have been begotten as sons of God.


But another solution – a solution worked out nicely in Augustine’s Homilies on First John, a real spiritual classic – is to say that we are in process. We are not yet fully sons of God, but we are on our way.

Or in other words . . . we are children. What is a child? Someone on the way to becoming an adult like his father. Yes, the child shares the same nature as his father – and Augustine insists that the lines in First John that insist on our righteousness mean we must really live, at least deep down, in charity, or we are not Christians, not sons of God.

Yet a child does not yet live as his father does, does not yet fully express the nature of his father. As is our case, while we stumble through this world. We are still growing toward spiritual maturity, still waiting to fully possess the nature of our father.

The case is parallel to God’s fatherhood. It is not just a metaphor from some nice character trait of fathers: being nice, or whatever. Fatherhood says something essential about our natures. So too childhood is not about some detail of how children play (or are supposed to play). It is an essential thing about natures: about growing into the adult nature of our parents.

To live spiritual childhood is to live as if we are on our way to the full divine transformation which is sanctity. Moving toward the perfection (in Latin, perfection is the word for adulthood) of charity – but realizing we aren’t there yet.


What does it mean for you to be on the way to divine transformation?

Click here for the entire series on names for the spiritual life.

What to Call it? Divine Filiation

All-SaintsWe have considered the topic of this web site as it relates to us (holiness, the interior life) and as it relates to the Son and the Holy Spirit (life in Christ, the Spiritual life). Let us now consider our relation to God the Father.

The first thing to say is that God as Father is NOT just a metaphor. In Catholic theology, to call God father is not to say he’s really nice (are fathers a great example of being really nice?), or that his love is unconditional, or that we really look up to him.

Nor is it merely to say that God made us. The difference between begetting and making is at the very heart of Christianity. God made the mountains and the trees and the puppy dogs, but they are not his children, and he is not properly their father. Just as I can make a pizza, but I am only father to my sons and daughters.

To be the son of a father is to receive from him his very nature. Only human beings can be my children; Jesus is Son of God because he is God.

Now, Jesus is the only begotten Son, whereas we are “adopted” sons. (Daughters, too, though sometimes it is emphasized that we are “sons through the Son”: sons and daughters parallel to Jesus’s sonship.) But don’t misunderstand. The Latin ad-optio means that someone has become a son through a later choice: “option.” But you can only adopt someone who possesses human nature: you cannot adopt a dog (at least not as your son).

And the parallel to human adoption is not perfect, because God the Creator can give us a nature we did not have. In fact, the Greek is huiothesia, from huios, son, and thesis, placing or putting. That is, God makes us into sons.


St. Paul tells us, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). God creates us new. He makes us something that we were not. He makes us divine. The early Church used the Greek word theosis: divinization, being made gods. “God became man so that man could become God.” Crazy, I know – some of my students just look confused when I teach this. But this is Christianity.

We don’t have a good word for this in English – “son-ification”? – so we use the Latin, filiation, from filius, son.


Divine filiation, becoming children of God, has contemplative and practical aspects. On the contemplative side, only God can see and fully love God. Filiation means that we are lifted up, given a new, divine nature, so that we can see and know God. “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). Only a son of God can enter the contemplation Christianity offers. To say that there is no access to this but through Christ is not a put-down of non-Christians – it is to say what an awesome grace we believe is offered to us in Christ. True contemplation.

But also a life of Christianity. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ proclaims the Beatitudes – radical! – and tells us to fulfill the Law radically, so that we do not even lust in our hearts. This is humanly impossible, but he says, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Indeed: we can only live the life of Christianity if God is truly our father: if we become not merely human, but sons of God.

This is the context of Christian morality. It is impossible, super-human. That’s precisely the point. Every page of the New Testament proclaims that we are to live the life not of mere humans, but of a “new creation,” divinization, divine filiation. That’s what Christian “spirituality” is about.

This is the context, too, for the Catholic understanding of faith and works. No, we do not earn our salvation. To the contrary, the question is how a “new creation” lives: doesn’t quack, not a duck; doesn’t act like a son of God, not a son of God.


Not everyone is a son of God. In Catholic theology – I hate to shock you – we even say that God is not everyone’s father. He becomes our father by grace, by adoption, by our being born again in Baptism, and living that regeneration through the other sacraments. But all are made in the “image of God”: not the same as being like God, but on the way.

The radical dignity of the human person is the possibility of being lifted up into the life of God. The respect Christians owe every human being focuses on that radical possibility.


But what does it mean? How do you see divine filiation in the life of the saints, and in your life?

Click here for the rest of the series on names for the spiritual life.

What to Call it? Life in Christ

All-SaintsWe continue our series on names for the topic of this web site. We have considered sanctity, the interior life, and the spiritual life. Today let us consider “life in Christ” or “the Christian life.”

We could say “the imitation of Christ”; indeed, one of the greatest works on the spiritual life is the fourteenth-century Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.

An interesting element of U.S. history: a scholar told me, though I have not confirmed, that a Protestant version of the Imitation was the most popular book (after the Bible) in America at the time of the Revolution. Casts a different light on our founding fathers, doesn’t it? Whatever Thomas Jefferson thought, the foot soldiers of the Revolution seem to have been a profoundly Christian people. It should be noted, however, that the Protestant version removed the fourth and final part of the book: “On the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.”

To imitate Christ is to live the Beatitudes: poverty of spirit, meekness, sorrow, hunger for justice, mercy, purity of heart, and making peace. And the culminating beatitude: to be persecuted. To imitate Christ is to be meek and humble of heart, to seek and save the lost, to lay down our life for others. And to offer our life, even to the Cross, as a sweet sacrificial offering to the Father.

Beautiful. Radical.


Another way to say the same thing is that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” He: Jesus Christ. Finally, we will be judged on nothing else but how we stand before Jesus. The most direct teaching Jesus himself gives on this is in Matthew 25, where he says we will be judged for how we treated him in the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

We will look on him whom we have pierced, and our final judgment is nothing more nor less than how we stand in that comparison.


But to say that much – to speak only of the imitation of Christ – is not enough. Because with man all of this is impossible! We cannot be judged by Christ’s standard. We cannot fulfill the Beatitudes. We cannot stand under the pressure of this radicalism.

In fact, the classical Protestant solution – above all, the theology of Luther, and also of Calvin – takes more seriously the Imitation of Christ than do many Catholics, when it says: therefore, we must give up. Luther says, obviously I cannot be Christ, therefore I accept salvation from him, and give up even trying to imitate him. Luther has a point.

The true Catholic response – real Catholic theology, which is infinitely deeper than the semi-Pelagian gruel that most modern Catholics starve on – says, “with man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” The imitation of Christ is only possible if we are in Christ.

Or to put it another way, to truly imitate Christ is above all to imitate Christ’s dependence. He was not a mere man; he could only be Christ by the power of God. We too. The saints are not saints by their own strength, but by relying on God. Thus what we said last week about the Holy Spirit is operative here too: you cannot imitate Christ without the spirit of Christ. You cannot live the Christian life without being in Christ, relying on the power of Christ.


How do we do that? Well, first, we discover the reality of the Church, which is truly the Body of Christ. No Christian becomes a hero except by being truly part of Christ’s body, with Christ’s blood pumping through him, vivified by Christ’s spirit. “I am the vine, you are the branches; He that abides in me, and I in him, he shall bring forth much fruit; for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

To put the same thing a different way, the only way to be a Christian is through the sacraments of Christ. Baptism is true incorporation into Christ, entering truly into his death and resurrection. Confession is casting our sins on him, and receiving the spirit of true repentance from him. The Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Christ, true food and drink for the soul. Only his sacramental Body can make us truly part of his Body, truly living by his life.

That fourth part of The Imitation of Christ turns out to be the most important part of all. We cannot imitate unless we enter in.


Concretely: How do you practice the imitation of Christ? How do you receive life from Jesus?

What to Call It: The Spiritual Life


Today we continue our considerations of what it is this web site is about. Two weeks ago we talked about sanctity. Last week we called it “the interior life.” This week we will call it “the spiritual life.”

In one sense, of course, “the spiritual life” says the same as “the interior life.” We are talking, not about our outside, not just what we do with our bodies, but our inside, our spirit.

But for the Christian, “the spiritual life” is a more powerful term, because we believe that God has a Spirit, the Holy Spirit. In this sense, “the spiritual life” can also be called “life in the Spirit.” This is important. Our “interior” may be where the spiritual life takes place – but it is more important to talk about what happens there, what goes on. Our interior life does not just involve our interior. It involves God’s Spirit, moving in us. It is not too much to say this is Christianity: to believe that God’s Spirit does something for us, that our “interior” is not left on its own.


What is the Holy Spirit? Obviously that’s a big question, but we can say a couple things in brief.

First, the Holy Spirit is God. Really God. God works in us. The Holy Spirit is another way of God-with-us – like Jesus.

Second, the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. He is the “third person of the Trinity.” But in a good theology of the Trinity, the three are not just Thing One (or God One), Thing Two, and Thing Three, they are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we understand these three by understanding what their names mean.

Father-Son is a relationship. That, really, is the heart of the Trinity. The Son is God like the Father, except that the Father is Father and the Son is Son: the Son receives everything from the Father. Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is a generic name: God is holy, God is a spirit. Holy Spirit, then, names what Father and Son share. St. Thomas says the Holy Spirit is the “bond” between the two, the gift that they exchange, the love of Father and Son. Not Thing One, Thing Two, and Thing Three, but Father, Son, and the bond between them.


In Scripture, St. Paul says it is the Spirit by which we cry out Abba, Father. To have the Spirit is to have the relationship between the Father and the Son. If the Holy Spirit is their relationship, then to have the Holy Spirit is, in some sense, to enter into the relationship: to be a son as the Son is. The Holy Spirit is not an alternate route, not another God, in case you aren’t into the Father and the Son. He is the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit of Sonship.

The Spirit is love. Most basically, what the Spirit does is to fill us with the love of God. It is a love that moves upward, so that we are as in love with the Father, as infinitely grateful to the Father, as is the Son himself, a love that carries us to the heavens. And it is a love that moves outward, so that we driven forward by that love, even to the streets of Calcutta.

The Spirit, says the tradition, is charity. (In Catholic theology, charity, agape in Greek, is divine love, the love of Christ, the love of Father and Son.) To have the Spirit is to have that love. Very simple.


But the Tradition meditates on how that love transforms us. It is not a love that touches one part of us and leaves everything else in place. It is a love that lifts up and transforms every angle of us. Thus, though the Spirit is one, and simple, his work in us is manifold, and complex, as we are complex.

A classic traditional hymn says he is “sevenfold” in his grace. In one sense, seven is just the Scriptural word for “abundant.” The love of God poured into our hearts does . . . lots of things!

But the tradition also meditates on the spirit that Isaiah 11 says rests on the Messiah, the Spirit of Christ: “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and fortitude, a spirit of knowledge and piety and fear of the Lord.”

Perhaps after Christmas we will consider all these aspects of the Spirit of Christ. For now, suffice to say that the Spirit, the transforming love of God, penetrates into every nook and cranny of our being: our thoughts and our affections, positive and negative, practical and contemplative.

That is what a Catholic means by “the spiritual life.”


How do you experience the Holy Spirit in your life?

Naming the Spiritual Life: The Interior Life

All-SaintsHaving finished our Friday series on the seven cardinal vices, we will spend the next few Fridays considering different names for the spiritual life. In a sense, this series began last week, with the Feast of All Saints: one name for the spiritual life is sanctity. But in the weeks to come we will consider what we can learn from names such as “the spiritual life,” “life in Christ,” “divine filiation,” “spiritual childhood,” and “living our baptism.” Each of these names describes the same thing, but from different angles. We will better understand each of them, and our own Christian vocation, by considering them one by one.


We begin this week with a title that is in the subtitle of this web page, but might be the most deceptive: “the interior life.” This has somehow become one of the most popular names for the spiritual life among Catholics. In fact, we put it in the title of this web page figuring that, sociologically, people who search for “the interior life” are more interested in theological reflections like these, whereas people who search for “spirituality” tend to prefer things more vague and mushy.

The first thing to realize about this name, in contrast to all the others, is that it is non-relational. “Interior life” says nothing about the Holy Spirit, Jesus, God the Father, the sacraments, or the Church. That is the weakness of this title, and it is considerable.

The strength is that, though it ignores the way these external forces influence us, it points to where they influence us: on the inside. The spiritual life – or, the interior life – is about us, our hearts, who we are.

Maybe part of the reason this title is popular is that it points out that life is not just about the exterior. Personally, the greatest moment in my conversion to Christianity was the night I first read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. I had thought Christianity was principally about following the commandments. What I found in the Sermon on the Mount was a God who cared about my heart. Not just murder, but anger, and hatred. Not just adultery, but lust. Not just charity, but poverty of spirit. The Gospel is, above all, about what goes on in our hearts: our interior life.


Now, one danger is that we can create too much of a separation between the interior and the exterior. Modern philosophy, especially since Kant, drives a huge wedge between “facts” and “values,” between the objective world and the subjective world, between “out there” and “in here.”

There may be nothing more important in philosophy than overcoming this divide. In fact, the human heart is all about “out there.” Our eyes see things, our minds know things – out there. We desire things, and our choices are about doing real things. The most important thing to know about the human heart, the human interior, is that we are profoundly related to the world around us.

Another way this plays out is that sometimes there is a division created between spirituality (the interior life) and morality (the exterior life). But morality matters precisely because it is where spirituality is lived. What does it mean to love unless we act? That is where the Sermon on the Mount comes full circle. Brands of Christianity (mostly Protestant) that say that our actions don’t matter ultimately end up saying our hearts don’t matter. Faith without works is also faith without love. There is no spirituality disconnected from morality.


That said, the name “interior life” points to the immense transcendence of the human person. The eyes see a mountain; the heart sees the beauty of God. As children we were taught to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – but that isn’t true. Words can never hurt my body, but they can hurt my heart. Real suffering is never just physical; what makes suffering profound is the meaning we see in it. Different words applied to the same physical pain mark all the difference between comfort and someone trying to grind us down. Our interior perceives things our exterior never could.

So too in our actions. We mustn’t make too great a separation between our actions and our intentions – intentions are expressed in actions. Nonetheless, the same action can express vastly different intentions. It is in our interior that we decide whether to be silent out of reverence or contempt; to apologize out of conniving or humility; to praise God or to withdraw into ourselves.


What do you discover in your interior?