There is a tendency in modern Catholicism to try to simplify everything, to eliminate words until there’s nothing but a simple glance at God – as if it were more humble to think we have immediate access to God than to approach him through little details.
But Scripture, and the Tradition, give us so many little ways, so many concrete ways of approaching our spiritual life. We are not given a Buddhist wall of darkness. We are given a rich panoply of small, concrete approaches.
One little passage that manifests this richness is in Galatians 5:17-25.
“For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. And these are contrary to one another; lest whatever you may will, these things you do.”
Here is a first opposition, “flesh” vs. “Spirit.” It is an optic to think about the role of God in our lives. But it is also unclear what it means. So St. Paul gets specific.
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. Now the works of the flesh are clearly revealed, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, fightings, jealousies, angers, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkennesses, revelings, and things like these; of which I tell you before, as I also said before, that they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
The Law helps specify what love of God means. Really, there’s just “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” – but it’s helpful to get specific. It’s helpful to have an examination of conscience that helps us find what is not love. Here, Paul gets specific – more specific, deeper into the heart – than the Ten Commandments. This long list of sins helps us understand what he means about the “flesh” warring against the Spirit. Notice that it includes many sins that are not “fleshly,” but that are about excluding God from our life: idolatry, hatred, anger, division, etc. It is worth spending time with this list.
But the Tradition seems to find the next paragraph even more helpful:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control; against such things there is no law. But those belonging to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”
Here is a deep meditation on what the Cross and the Resurrection mean for us: to be reborn by the power of the Spirit. And what is the Spirit? Well, the Spirit is simply love – and yet Paul can get more specific than that. His list takes us deeper.
Curiously, the Latin tradition gets even more specific, adding three “fruits of the Spirit” to Paul’s list of nine. The Tradition adds patience to long-suffering, has humility and modesty for meekness, and adds chastity to self-control. Specifics are helpful.
One way to use this list is to focus on one a day. (It’s nice that they don’t line up with the days of the week, so you can go through the list and keep getting different fruits of the Spirit to think about on Wednesday, for example.)
On the first day of the month, we might think about love, calling to mind in various situations that love – love of this person before me, love of God who calls to me, love even of his creation as I deal with it – is a fruit of the Spirit. Throughout the day we imagine the Spirit breathing love into us.
But we can see deeper if, the next day, we imagine the Spirit breathing joy into us. And the next day peace, and then patience, and kindness, and goodness, long-suffering, humility, fidelity, modesty, self-control, and chastity. Love is everything – yet working our way slowly through this list, perhaps one gift per day, can help keep our meditation fresh, help us see the many aspects of love, the many parts of the transformation the Spirit of Christ longs to work in us.
The Word of God reminds us that each of these virtues is a gift from the Spirit. Again, we could simply say, “all is gift,” and that would be true. But if we spend a day now and then living patience or fidelity as a gift, perhaps we can better appreciate what it means to say that God works in our lives.
The spiritual life is very simple – but we are not. Thank God that Scripture is a thick book, not just a 3×5 card. Thank God for all the little meditations he gives to us, all the many aspects of his work in us that we can discover.
How could you enliven your days by meditating on the various Gifts of the Spirit?