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?

All Saints

All-SaintsToday is the feast of All Saints. Before beginning our next Friday series on living the spiritual life, let us pause to consider what sanctity means.

First, a word about words. England, and thus its language, has a funny history. First it was settled by Germanic tribes: the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes. In 1066, the French conquered, and pushed the German-speaking peoples to speak French. As a result, English is a funny mix of two languages.

This shows up in our religious vocabulary. Sometimes people try to draw a theological distinction, for example, between the Holy Spirit and the Holy Ghost. But they are the same word. Spiritus is Latin, (esprit in modern French); Geist is German. The difference between Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost is only a difference whether you use the French/Latin word or the German word. Two words for the same thing.

The same is true of “holy.” Heilig is the German word. The Latin word is Sanctus, which the French make into Saint. “Holy” and “Saint” are exactly the same word. In Catholic theology (which is not principally done in English), there is absolutely no distinction. No distinction in Greek, or Hebrew, or in any other modern language. It’s just a funny part of English that we have a German and a French word for the same thing.


So what is a saint? Someone who is holy. Vatican II reminded us of the “universal call to holiness”: that is, everyone is called to be a saint – including you. That is what the word means. Part of the feast of All Saints is reminding us of the many ways to Sanctity.

But we still have not defined the word. Sometimes people say that holy means “set apart,” but I think this is misleading. First, because it seems extrinsic. The only difference between this cup and that cup is that this one is “set apart.” But the difference between us and the saints is not how they are used, it is what they are.

Second, holiness is not just in how we behave. Some kinds of Protestants use the word holy to mean that you don’t drink beer or play cards. There might be a right instinct in there somewhere, but again, it doesn’t go deep enough into the person.

The prophet Ezekiel says, “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). The first important part of this definition of sanctity is that it is a thing of the heart. Certainly how our heart is has consequences for our actions. But holiness is about the heart, not just about our actions.

Second, it is a thing of the Spirit. The one who makes us holy is the Holy Spirit. Holiness is about relationship with God. And to reach the heights of that relationship that Christianity promises is a work of God. Only God can unite us to God. Only the Holy Spirit can give us holy hearts.


The tradition likes to talk about three stages of progression in the spiritual life. We should not get too hung up on these stages, but there is an important insight here.

The first stage is often called “purgative.” St. Thomas Aquinas describes this as primarily focused on avoiding sin. At the beginning, it seems to us that holiness means we don’t do bad things. That is a beginning, but it is not the end: we should stop sinning, but we don’t understand holiness until we move beyond.

The second stage is often called “illuminative.” Thomas describes this as focused more on being good. Goodness goes deeper than just avoiding evil. The saints aren’t focused on how much they can get away with. They want to do good, to be good!

But the third stage is called “unitive,” and Thomas says this moves beyond trying to be good, into a focus on someone else: love of God. Mother Teresa was truly holy precisely because she got beyond trying to be holy. She wasn’t looking at herself any more. She was always looking at God, at Jesus – and at “his most distressing disguise,” in the poorest of the poor. True sanctity is focused on Jesus, not on the self.


Today’s solemnity of All Saints reminds us that there are millions of ways to be holy. “Star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41): sanctity looks as different as the millions of situations life puts us in. There is no formula, only the love of God at work within us.

What would sanctity look like in your situation?