Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Darkness, the Theological Virtues, and Finding the Inflection Point

darkness.jpg

Originally published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review Magazine.

According to many Catholic theologians, there are two purifications in the spiritual life: a purification of the sense, and a purification of the spirit. The purification of the sense is brought on by loss of friends, fortune and the like (1). In this, we are deprived of consolations in order to bring us to trust in God more than in our own resources. In this purification, temptations, which involve chastity and patience, are frequent. (2)

The purification of the spirit involves the higher levels of the soul, so the temptation involved in it are against the theological virtues. (3) These temptations are, by their nature, greater than temptations involving patience, although patience is also involved in their resolution.

When these temptations are met correctly, a final purgation can happen, leading to an upward inflection to the highest level of awareness of God, or the unitive way. It appears, though, that the final purgation of the spirit can be forced by external circumstances rather than by a deliberate practice of infused prayer. This is dangerous because it is unexpected, and, it is happening in a person not prepared by the regular practice of infused prayer. The purgation that is sought by a Christian is looked for and welcomed; the purgation which we are unprepared to meet, that comes from the sudden disasters of life, is more likely to force a downward inflection to the darkness of separation.

When one is assailed by what seemed to be life and death matters of family and fortune, at first, a little hope is lost; then, a little faith; eventually, when one sees the faith decreasing, hope decreases further. The process accelerates until even charity is affected. "And, because the wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold." (4)

At the end, there is a downward slope leading to darkness, and even to leaving the Church, as all faith has been lost, with blame laid on God, who is seen as a fiction, an invention of the earthly power structure. This may be the ultimate darkness on earth. To echo St. Peter: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (5)

In this state, there may still be the knowledge that the Church is the one founded by Christ himself, so leaving the Church is leaving him as well. Then, there is no hope at all. This is the explanation for the high suicide rate among people abused by priests. Because of the authority of the person involved, and the fact that it strikes at the heart of faith, the loss of faith is accelerated, and no resolution can be found. A form of clericalism is at the heart of this problem, a belief that ordination does more than the Church claims that it does. A person who believes that ordination changes a person's free will, and level of sanctity, will fall prey to despair when confronted with evil in a priest. The same principle applies when the person engaged in evil acts is not a priest, but who also has religious or moral authority by virtue of their state in life, such as a parent.

How can one recognize these inflection points, and through an act of will, make them turn upward rather than downward? Ultimately, the downward inflection consists of distrust in God, and a focus on the importance of self. The upward inflection involves abandonment to divine providence, and a focus on reflecting the light of Christ. The temptations during this crisis manifest themselves in temptations against the theological virtues, so the focus during this period has to be on the three formal motives of the theological virtues: primal truth, omnipotence, infinite goodness. (6)

Prayer is the first shield against temptations. When disaster strikes, prayer is the first and best response, in praying even when it seems that God is merely the imaginary playmate of a child. One must focus prayer on the internal process, not the outward cause of despair; God has that under control. "We believe, in the absence of every other reason, for the sole and unique motive: God has said it." (7)

This is the fundamental definition of faith when all else has been lost. People experiencing the cross, "do not lack entirely the relief of consolations; for they are aware of the great rewards they reap by bearing their cross. When they willingly submit to it, their burden of suffering is turned into confidence that they will receive consolation from God. The weaker the flesh becomes through affliction, the stronger the spirit is made by inward grace". (8)

And here is the hope for the future that results from faith: the knowledge that the omnipotent God is in control, even in the absence of outward signs. Another shield against temptations is to internalize all the words on hope and God's omnipotence, especially as manifested in endurance, and the words on faith and God's truth, and on love and his goodness. Memorization is a first step toward internalization, memorization of both prayers and scripture. "But, he who endures to the end will be saved." (9)

For each of us, every day is the "end times" because we do not know when Christ is coming, either at the Last Day, or for us individually. Each day we experience "the tribulation and the kingdom, and the patient endurance." (10)

A person must "desire self-control, and not allow oneself to be dominated by exterior things; to reduce the imagination, the feelings, and even the intelligence and memory to the position of servants of the will, and to make the will conform, without ceasing, to the will of God … " (11)

Faith is more than accepting suffering; it is rejoicing in it, because we then become more like Christ. "Jesus has many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few crossbearers. Many desire his consolation, but few his tribulation. Many will sit down with him at table, but few will share his fast. A desire to rejoice with him, but few will suffer for him." (12)

"Our faith is never more alive than when what we experience through our senses, contradicts and tries to destroy it." (13)

The same thing is heard from soldiers who tell of never having felt more aware of themselves and their surroundings than before they had experienced battle. "If I say, 'Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,' even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with you." (14)

God made everything, and governs everything. There is no place where he has not been. So, we need not fear where we are going either, as he will be there also. (15)

"Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church." (16)

If we suffer like Christians, we apply the merit of Christ's passion to other souls. St. Augustine wrote that the sufferings were filled up by Christ as the Head. But, now it is the time for the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, to suffer. (17)

Fr. Frederick Faber wrote that suffering is the greatest of the sacraments. We unite our sufferings with those of Christ's and, in so doing, we participate in the efficacy of the Precious Blood. (18)

Our participation in the efficacy of the Precious Blood at Mass helps us individually, but through our suffering, our participation helps both us, and the people for whom we offer our suffering. To focus on the offering of our suffering for someone else's benefit, is the outward focus on the reflection of Christ's light that is needed to combat the self-pity that takes us on the downward path. "Then, they were given a white robe, and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been." (19)

Even if we may not be called to be martyrs and saints raised to the altar, we are to help complete the number of smaller saints and martyrs which has been ordained by God's will. "You are seeking for secret ways of belonging to God, but there is only one: making use of whatever he offers you. Everything leads you to union with him. Everything guides you to perfection, except what is sinful or not a duty." (20)

Too often, we see the way to perfection as being paved with only beautiful paving stones. The idea that imperfections are also guides to perfection is foreign to us. We like to think our imperfect path is due to our not living in a perfect world of contemplation, but even nuns and monks have problems with each other in community. Contemplatives have internal imperfections which seem at times to block the way to sanctity. God "comforts us in a our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ, we share abundantly in comfort, too." (21)

Our purpose in suffering is not necessarily for us to reach sanctity, but to reflect the light of Christ to others, by reflecting the hope of Christ to others who suffer. In this way, we reach sanctity through a more external path. "Since his uncreated hands do everything for me, why should I run about seeking help from ignorant, helpless creatures who have no real affection for me?" (22) We should not rely on people, even priests, who often are no better equipped to deal with spiritual upheavals than anyone else. Mother Teresa knew this in the darkness of Calcutta, as she experienced no sense of God's presence for years, and spent extended periods without access to a spiritual director. "From within and from without, I find no one to turn to. He has taken not only spiritual but even human help." (23)

She knew that spiritual help, and human help, are of a different quality and an efficacy, the spiritual far more than "even" human help. Seeking human help rarely is useful-as even though there are many who suffer in so many different ways, so few people have the degree of introspection to become intimately familiar with the way of darkness, or how to articulate guidance through it. This requires being already in the unitive way, at least part of the time. To reflect his light, we must reflect all parts of it, words and deeds, carrying our crosses even to death. The Son of God didn't come to play "patty-cake" and die of old age. We are to follow him in all things, even to the shedding of blood, though sometimes white martyrdom seems worse, being more protracted and less certain as to its outcome. We are not sure of its outcome because of the worldly causes or nature of our suffering. We refuse to believe that it qualifies as spiritually genuine suffering or martyrdom. This is a kind of false humility. "Pain is, in appearance, the most useless of things, but it becomes fruitful by the grace of Christ, whose love rendered his sufferings on Calvary infinitely fruitful … Pain makes us desire God, who alone can heal certain wounds of the heart, and who alone can fortify and remake the soul. Pain invites us to have recourse to him who alone can restore peace and give himself to us." (24)

Someone who is not a Christian may cry out to God in suffering, asking for him to take away that suffering. But a Christian will cry out for him to use that suffering. "Instead of stifling her missionary impulse, the darkness seemed to invigorate it. Mother Teresa understood the anguish of the human soul that felt the absence of God, and she yearned to light the light of Christ's love in the "dark hole" of every heart buried in destitution, loneliness, or rejection." (25)

To saintly souls, "If he takes from them their powers of thought and speech, their books, their food, their friends, their health, and even life itself, it means no more to them than if he did the exact opposite. They love what he does, and find his activity always sanctifying. They do not reason about what he does, but approve of it. They know it is never without significance." (26)

This is a process like winnowing in a storm. We are afraid that the wind is too strong, and some of the grain will be lost. But nothing is lost. "What this year contained has gone into the abyss of eternity. Nothing is lost. I am glad that nothing gets lost". (27)

"You would be very ashamed if you knew what the experiences you call setbacks, upheavals, pointless disturbances, and tedious annoyances really are. You would realize that your complaints about them are nothing more, nor less, than blasphemies-though that never occurs to you. Nothing happens to you except by the will of God, and, yet, his beloved children curse it because they do not know it for what it is." (28)

Realizing what it means, that God's care for the fallen sparrow is a sign that his care for us is assured, (29) we then believe in the promise that "I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten." (30)

The restoration is of years, or time, rather than physical crops, which are replaceable. Time is not replaceable, and here it represents all irreplaceable things: confidence, joy, trust, and faith. Eternity is not just endless time, it is outside of time, so in eternity, God can restore our years of prayer, labor, and suffering.

"It is no easy thing to bear sufferings joyfully, especially those which are unmerited. Fallen nature rebels and, although the intellect and will are above suffering because they are able to do good to those who inflict suffering on them, nevertheless, the emotions raise a lot of noise and, like restless spirits, attack the intellect and will. But, when they see they cannot do anything by themselves, they quiet down and submit to the intellect and will. Like some kind of hideousness, they rush in, and stir up a row, bent on making one obey them alone, so long as they are not curbed by the intellect and will." (31)

The will is the key to finding and turning our inflection points upward. The will is the one thing over which we have complete control. There is a popular belief that if one doesn't have faith, then one just doesn't have it. However, faith is an act of will, just as much as the propensity for it is a gift. And hope and charity are just as dependent on the will as is faith.

"We are now living in a time of faith. The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do, from moment to moment, is live this new Gospel of the Holy Spirit. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and our actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are the pen, and with it he writes a living gospel; but it will never be read until that last day of glory, when it leaves the printing press of this life … The book is on a press and, never a day passes when the type is not set, ink applied, and pages pulled … The paper is blacker than the ink, and the type is pied; the language is not of this world, and we understand nothing. We shall be able to read it only in heaven." (32)

Endnotes:

1. Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange, Life Everlasting and the Immensity of the Soul (TAN Books, Rockford, IL, 1991) 33.

2. Garrigou-LaGrange, 33.
3. Garrigou-LaGrange, 34.
4. Mt 24:12 RSV
5. Jn 6:68 RSV
6. Garrigou-LaGrange, 34.
7. Ibid.
8. Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ, ed. Claire Fitzpatrick (Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York. 1977), Book 2, chapter 12, "The Royal Road of the Cross."

9. Mt 24:13 RSV
10. Rev 1:9 RSV
11. Jean-Baptiste Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate (TAN Books. 1946; 2008) 23.
12. Thomas á Kempis, Book 2, chapter 11, "On the Small Number of Lovers of the Cross"
13. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence (Image/Doubleday, New York. 1975) 39.

14. Ps 139:11-12 RSV
15. Ps 139.
16. Col. 1:24 RSV
17. Chautard, 119.
18. Chautard, 120.
19. Rev. 6:11 RSV
20. de Caussade, 55.
21. 2 Cor. 1:4-5 RSV
22. de Caussade, 54.
23. Brian Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the Private Writings of the "Saint of Calcutta" (Doubleday, New York. 2007) 249.

24. Garrigou-LaGrange, 31.
25. Kolodiejchuk, 185.
26. de Caussade, 61.
27. St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, Divine Mercy in My Soul (Marian Press, Stockbridge, MA. 2009) paragraph 855, p. 355.

28. de Caussade, 47.
29. Mt. 10:31
30. Joel 2:25 KJV
31. Kowalska, para. 1152, p.422-423.
32. de Caussade, 45.

 

Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.


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