The Union Tribune once had an article about a young woman seeking employment. She took the initiative by carrying a sign that listed the attributes for which she believed made her a desirable employee. Attributes such as intelligence, innovativeness, and creativeness were on top of the list, but humility was next to the bottom. I did not find this surprising, because I am aware that her sign simply reflects worldly values wherein the virtue of humility is not much valued—if at all. From a positive perspective, however, her sign caught my attention, because it made concrete the counter-cultural message of humility in the Gospel. Indeed, being humble is of prime importance for advancing in our journey with Christ our Lord.
Some people though may argue that God accepts us as we are. I would tell them this is true, but this is only as a beginning. In this life, since spiritual perfection is not possible, God expects us to keep advancing in virtue by cooperating with his grace and mercy. This is the meaning of God's continually calling us to holiness, because He himself is holy
(cf. Lev 12:44-45). St. Lawrence Justinian elaborates on this well:
When a person is making headway, they will want to keep going forward, and the further they advance, the more they desire to keep growing. As the light grows brighter, they will think they are less virtuous and are doing little good. If by chance they notice the good they have done, they think it imperfect and of little account. As a result, they keep striving toward perfection without growing tired.
The saints thus did not hold a false humility, because they saw their sinful condition more clearly than we do and so were always alert to improve.
We also need to be watchful that as we grow in virtue in some areas of our life we can, at the same time, also grow in pride which causes us to believe that we no longer need to progress. Our fallen human nature continually tempts us to desire independence from God in believing that we ourselves are capable of living a virtuous life. The law of sin hence does not cease to operate even as the law of grace enters more into our lives.
In our zeal for serving the Lord, pride can easily seep into whatever we do and so St. Augustine maintained that “pride lurks even in good works in order to destroy them (Rule of Augustine Ch. 1.7).” One may certainly reach heights of sanctity wherein one can have better control over temptations, but this does not make one invulnerable to pride or any other form of vice. St. Paul thus tells us, “I do not run aimlessly . . . but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:27).”
Additionally, even if we have maintained a virtuous life for a period of time, we would most likely fail if placed in other circumstances. We have a fallen human nature in which we are unable to gain a full understanding of its depths. There indeed exist only seven capital sins, but the manner in which these sins can manifest themselves in our lives are infinite. We can see this dynamic, for instance, in the area of music wherein only seven notes exist, but one can compose an innumerable amount of melodies.
The depths of humility are indeed inexhaustible and so we cannot afford to be complacent in going forward on our journey towards God. The instant we decide to no longer advance in the spiritual life becomes the moment we begin to fall away from the Lord. Alertness to keeping the ways of humility as a core value in one's life, therefore, distinguishes Christians from those who treasure worldly values such as fame, power, prestige and so on. Complacency is a subtle form of pride which slowly smothers the love we should always have for the Lord (cf. Mt 25: 1-13). Unfortunately, our fallen human nature tends in this direction.
The good news, however, is that we can turn to the Lord for help. When anyone tells me that living a Christian life in its fullness is impossible, I tell them they are correct. Nevertheless, I remind them that Christ gave us the Church to guide us as well as the sacraments and prayer to enable us to become saints, for “[w]hat is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace. If we wish to reach eternal life . . . . (PROL. 41-44).” As Christians, we are called to live a supernatural life which places us above everything else in the world, but remaining in this level requires vigilance!
On any given day we commit innumerable offenses against the Lord. Although many of these offenses are too subtle for our awareness, any offense against God is still a sin. St. John tells us, “If we say, 'We have not sinned,' we make him a liar, and his word is not is us (1 Jn 1:10).” We must therefore always be on guard of giving into concupiscence. This makes it seem impossible for anyone to remain steadfast in loving God as He expects of us. Nevertheless, if we understand that love is primarily exercised in our will—not in our emotions as our popular culture leads us to believe—then we can better understand how we can be faithful to cooperating with God's love in the manner He desires. In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, for example, St. Paul gives a list of charitable acts. Although this list is not exhaustive, the qualities mentioned in this passage point to a common underlying principle which is applicable to all the virtues: subduing our emotions to a higher law. This is what enables us to remain unwavering in love, regardless of whatever adversity we may experience. St. Paul encourages us to practice virtues such as patience with other's shortcomings or to ensure that we do not brood over how others may have hurt us. Whenever we struggle with any of the virtues, we are hence performing acts of love. Though practicing love need not be perfect, we must care enough to try. Through our prayers, God will give us the grace to grow stronger. We especially see this in Luke 22:42 when our Lord Jesus Christ willingly accepted the cross in order to redeem all mankind saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still not my will by yours be done.”
This does not mean, however, that our emotions are irrelevant. Rather, our emotions must be guided properly. This requires that the moral values we choose be directed by a properly formed conscience. A correctly developed conscience leads us to know, deep within our inmost being, that we long for what is eternal. Man yearns to reflect the love God has for him by sharing this love with others, since this is what it is to be made in God's image and likeness. Our need to love is thus a natural outgrowth of our desire for eternity. Since Christ calls us to love him with our whole being, we must thus master all of our weaknesses. All our bad habits and vices must be brought under control by using our will to cooperate with grace (cf. 2 Cor 10:3-6). This is not to say that we will no longer experience temptations. We must instead not allow ourselves to be mastered by our selfishness, but we must be vigilant in monitoring ourselves for the slightest inclinations that may cause us to think, say, or do anything imprudent. This is known as guarding our senses. Exposing ourselves to the slightest misstep is enough to lead us into a predicament (cf. RB 7: 12-13). Loving God with our entire being, consequently, involves a continual inner spiritual warfare in order for charity to prevail in all that we do.
Innumerable circumstances, foreseen or unforeseen, can quickly come about that may drastically change our life. We may, for example, experience deterioration of physical or mental health at any stage of life, or we may experience loss in various ways. Whether we like it or not, life seems to place us in a kind of stock market business—we can crash anytime. The common concept of possessing equanimity is thus very fickle. Nevertheless, we have the means to be continually composed if we accept all that we encounter as coming from the hand of the Lord, because “God is not so much glorified by our works as by resignation and conformity to His Holy Will.”
This approach, however, does not imply fatalism on our part. As Christians, we should seek resolutions to the vicissitudes of daily life, since God has given us all creation as a means for our benefit. Nonetheless, after exhausting all our resources, if we do not attain what we desire, then we would be prudent by accepting as God's will whatever circumstances we must travail (cf. Job 2:10). This is not an act of blind faith. We are rather affirming our trust in God who, if we are cooperative with His grace, will always bring about a greater good out of any distress we may experience. This act of love and humility on our part is what the Lord seeks from us and so is an excellent means of growing in virtue.
We should hence always acknowledge our dependence upon the Lord. This can be particularly challenging for us, since we naturally have a strong sense of being valued by our external accomplishments, and our culture also prizes a strong sense of individualism. However, overemphasizing these qualities can be problematic, for though we may have many external accomplishments, we may yet have failed to remove a single obstacle to receiving God's love more fully (cf. Mt 7:22). We must instead keep in mind that “man comes into the
profoundest sense of himself not through what we does but through what he accepts [emphasis my own]. He must wait for the gift of love, and love can only be received as a gift . . . . ” Virtuous deeds that are most pleasing to the Lord are hence often unseen. In the Gospel story of Mary and Martha, for instance, Mary serves as a good example of being silently receptive to God's will (Lk 10:38-42). The Lord appreciated the concern Martha had for external affairs, but He was more pleased with Mary's openness to receive His love that enabled her to grow more into his likeness.
Our fallen human nature though inclines us to always want to be in complete control of how everyone and everything around us is governed. Understandably, this feeling of control gives us a sense of security, but this is a false assurance. Regardless of how we may feel, we cannot go beyond the laws that God has established in governing all creation. God is the source of love hence man must be the recipient, not the provider. If man wants to reverse this role, he will only harm himself, because this would be a desire to usurp God's authority. The fall of Adam and Eve was due to coveting God's power in this way, for instance. We should instead be receptive to whatever Christ allows us to experience, especially if this poses a hardship for us.
St. John of the Cross gives advice on how we may become more receptive to receiving God's blessings in this way through means of self-denial. In the Ascent of Mount Carmel, he beautifully expresses some of the paradoxes of following the way of our crucified Lord: “[We should always strive] not for the easiest, but for the most difficult; not for the most delightful, but for the most distasteful; not for the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant . . . .” This can be accomplished in many ways, but I will offer only a few concrete examples of how we may apply this in our daily lives:
a) embracing whatever tasks others wish to avoid in our home or work place
b) being charitable with those whom everyone else finds difficulty being with
c) taking material objects that are less attractive and so providing others to take what is more appealing to our senses.
Due to the Fall of Adam and Eve, everyone born is naturally prideful and so we are easily inclined to seek what is gratifying for ourselves, even at the expense of other's well-being. We must hence continually practice various ways of mortification in order to subdue our innate selfishness if we desire to truly grow in charity. This is how we may understand the Lord telling us that “[h]e who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:39).”
When we a open ourselves to God's love in this way, we would have accomplished diminishing one of the major roadblocks that we place in God's way for bringing more blessings into our lives
pride. Graces continually flow from Christ, but we are not receptive to much of this due to our impeding His love for us. A crucial part of our inner-life journey thus involves an active effort to overcoming spiritual obstructions due to our self-will. Success in this gives us a greater capacity to exercise the virtues, since we would have more room to receive Christ into our lives. Therefore, “the primacy of acceptance is not intended to condemn man to passivity . . . . On the contrary, it alone makes possible to do the things of this world with responsibility, yet at the same time in an uncramped, cheerful, [and] free way . . . .”
Our fallen nature has greatly shaped much of our preferences and so we can actually be smug in our broken condition, as opposed to being whole. St. Augustine, for instance, clearly expressed this in the early days of his conversion when he prayed, “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.” He knew what God expected of him, yet St. Augustine wanted to cling to his vice, because it was pleasurable. We can all identify with this proclivity to experiencing what is enjoyable and shunning any form of pain. However, our faith teaches us that the vicissitudes of life are a great means for advancing in virtue.
The late Archbishop of Mexico City Luis M. Martinez emphasized this need to undergo hardships in order to be strengthened in virtue: “The Christian life . . . does not suppress suffering. [Rather, the Christian] life implies purification of our hearts and the heart is not purified completely except by suffering and sacrifice. To live the Christian life fully is to take up the cross and follow Christ to Calvary, as he himself taught us
(cf. Mt 16:24-5).” This is indeed more easily understood than practiced, for the questions of loss or why innocent people suffer can be especially painful and will never be fully answered in this life. Nonetheless, in the book of Job, we read about a pious man who, despite experiencing many adversities, always remained faithful to God. By the end of the book, although Job had not received a direct answer to his complaints, we find that he is blessed by coming to a deeper acceptance of his own finiteness, compared to God's unfathomable wisdom in governing all of creation.
Blessed Pope John Paul II, however, addresses the enigma of loss or innocent suffering on an even deeper level: “[O]nly in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take light. Seen in any other terms, the mystery of personal existence remains an insoluble riddle.” In short, the sufferings we experience have value, because our crucified Lord himself has touched human misery; Christ Jesus took on our human nature and experienced suffering as we do and so sanctified it. Our risen Lord hence has now given us the means to use our sufferings to grow in virtue and so enter into heaven. Consequently, although we do not seek pain, we will not necessarily seek escape whenever faced with affliction either. We acknowledge that suffering exist, but we also believe this can be used by God to bring about a greater good for us.
Perseverance is thus essential in the Christian life, because we need to be steadfast in following God's commandments when the circumstances in our life become difficult in order to break through towards freedom in Christ Jesus. St. Benedict hence wrote, “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and faith, we will run the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love (Prologue 48-9).” The fourth step in the Rule of St. Benedict also addresses this issue from another dimension of the inner life: “[A monk in obedience] under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, [must in] his heart quietly embrace suffering and endure it without weakening or seeking escape. For Scripture has it: Anyone who perseveres to the end will be saved (Mt 10:22; RB 7:35).” Uniting our sufferings with Christ in this way is especially helpful for advancing in sanctity, since this keeps us humble by enabling us to remain grounded in reality by knowing that ultimately we are in control of so little in our lives.
Growing in Christian discipleship is then foremost available when we are given opportunities to practice the virtues in difficult circumstances. This is especially the case with being charitable towards those whom we are most inconsonant. Though this is trying, this enables us to grow in humility. Our Lord hence tells us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . . For if you love those who love you, what reward have you (Mt 5:44-6)?” St. Augustine also beautifully expresses the essence of this love by saying, “[I]t is part of the Christian's strength not only to do good works but also to endure evil.” Charitable works are necessary, but the principal issue is how we handle adversity thus—contrary to popular belief—God may show us his mercy by sending us hardship.
Our fallen nature, which inclines us to self-will, unfortunately makes us often think opposite to the ways of God: “A person then very easily rejoices in what deserves no rejoicing, hopes for what brings no profit, sorrows over what should perhaps cause rejoicing, and fears where there is no reason to fear.” We should rather say with St. Paul, “For the sake of Christ . . . I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:10).” Indeed, the saints, unlike ourselves, only became worried when they experienced periods in their lives that never challenged them to sacrifice.
Many men and women throughout the centuries, as attested through the lives of the martyrs and the saints, have lived in this spirit though. In more recent times, however, we are reminded of someone such as Blessed Pope John Paul II. His role, for example, in helping to bring about the demise of atheistic communism, his numerous pastoral visits around the world, his various encyclicals and so on are truly important contributions for mankind. Nonetheless, we should not overlook his gift to the world during his waning years when he was afflicted with Parkinsons Disease. By his presence, he displayed to the whole world that suffering is redemptive and so benefits the entire Mystical Body of Christ. John Paul II bore witness that those closest to God may often suffer as much or (in some instances) more so than others, but God's love will sustain those who love him: “[T]he genius of the saints [thus consisted in knowing] . . . how to find spiritual profit in every situation, even the most painful. This is the expression of the work of contemplation (God's presence) that teaches the soul secretly and instructs it in the perfection of love . . .”
In our spiritual journey, we may like to display the bravado of St. James and St. John who asked the Lord to be seated at his right hand. Although this raised the ire of the other apostles, the Lord himself didn't feel the same way as they did. Rather, the Lord simply asked, “Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptized with the baptism which I must be baptised?” Essentially, the Lord was asking them if they really knew what it takes to be his true follower. We need to know what we're getting into in order to better prepare ourselves for the struggle that's involved in attaining eternal life. If we're ignorant of this, then it would be difficult for us to succeed. In using a sports analogy, for instance, we can easily see that the team that isn't as well prepared as their competition will have a more challenging time achieving victory.
This is the same case with the inner life. We may, for example, be moved to ask God to help us become more humble in order to become more spiritually mature. However, St. Dorotheos of Gaza tells us that “[w]hen we ask for humility, we are asking God to send someone to make life difficult for us.” We normally don't think of discipleship in this way and so don't prepare ourselves properly to grow in virtue. We like to believe that we'll somehow grow in holiness without trials in life. However, this isn't right, since the principles that govern the inner life don't operate this way. We may, for instance, deny the law of gravity, but we'll still be subject to it as long as we stay on the earth.
Being the church militant, we're meant to struggle within ourselves and also deal with whatever externally may hinder our growing in charity. When we want to build up our physical strength, for instance, we must accept the maxim “no pain, no gain.” Likewise, the cost of discipleship also requires that we put forth effort. Living a Christian life isn't easy and our Lord doesn't want it to be so. How can we grow in humility by forgiving others if no one will ever offend us? How can we be patient, for instance, if we have no one to test our patience? As a natter if fact, we should even ask God to send us trials in order to help us grow in our discipleship.
We must remember that the saints craved to have opportunities to practice the virtues. We must imitate them if we desire to attain eternal life. Nevertheless, the saints were also realistic, because they knew that they couldn't succeed on their own power. They knew that God's help was necessary to accomplish anything good. Therefore, we should pray to be given crosses, but we must also ask God to have the strength to bear them. Indeed, adversity can be a gift in disguise, because experiencing hardships remind us that we are finite and so invite us to turn to the Lord for help. Trials in life can hence serve as an excellent impetus to prayer. Acknowledging this can be frightening, because we are dealing with the unknown—with mystery.
Nonetheless, the gift of faith helps us to break free from these shortcomings, which would otherwise hold us back from growing in love. By doing this, we'll be following the faith of Abraham who left his country to settle in another land he did not know. Abraham simply trusted that God would lead him were he needed to go. Likewise, the Virgin Mary, the perfect Christian disciple, initially didn't know exactly how God would bring about the plan of salvation through her; however, she trusted in God's love to make all things right. These are not examples of blind faith. Rather, these models show us that we must use our rational powers, but we must also acknowledge their limit. Undoubtedly, our ability to reason can often cause us to fear that we are kept from taking the necessary action we need to grow in charity. The gift of faith helps us to transcend these fears and so become true disciples of Christ.
Spiritual consolations increase our love for God; nevertheless, regardless of how pleasant they may feel, consolations must not be an end in themselves. Love seeks fulfillment by making the presence of Jesus Christ more evident among all those we meet. In this life, therefore, we are meant to continually subdue our self-will and strive to serve others in order that life on earth may reflect a greater likeness to heaven. In the Lord's prayer, this is what we are petitioning when we ask that God's will and his kingdom be manifested on earth. Consequently, the consolations we are given by the Lord are meant to aid us to especially practice charity during times of trial. This in turn imparts strength to others to be virtuous. Performing acts of love during adversity is thus how we best grow in Christ.
However, if we are unwilling to practice acts of charity to those who need our love and forgiveness, then we can never grow out of self-love. All our actions, regardless how good we believe them to be, will essentially be filled with selfishness. We only grow in freedom in proportion to the degree that we grow in our love for God and all of our fellow men. Consequently, the more we feel challenged to be charitable toward others then the greater opportunity we have for growing in the likeness of Christ. This is why the Lord tells us to “. . . love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . . For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit?” Even those that are far from God can be kind to those of whom they are fond, but any consolation they may experience from their kindness earns them no reward. Therefore, “[t]he person who truly wishes to be healed is he who does not refuse treatment. This treatment consist in the pain and distress brought on by various misfortunes. He who refuses them does not realize what they accomplish in this world or what they will gain for them when he departs this life.”
Consolations and bearing our crosses are hence analogous to our manner of breathing. We inhale as we experience consolations, and we exhale as we bear adversities. This dynamic must be present in our lives for us to thrive—not just survive. Consolations should then only act as catalyst for us to imitate our crucified Lord, because the essence of Christianity transcends (though does not exclude) having feelings of solace as the basis for practicing religion. We'll experience spiritual stagnation then if we only desire consolations and not seek to partake in struggling for eternal life. Having a life devoid of any adversity is thus not a life worth living.
The Lord himself tells us, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man's enemies will be those of his own household.” When we choose to follow Christ, division will naturally follow, since the ways of God are opposite to worldly values (i.e. seeking notoriety for its own sake or lusting after power and so on) which many people, who might be those closest to us, may desire more than God. Indeed, as our Lord was winning the battle on the cross, the forces of hell wouldn't be defeated without first putting up resistance. Consolations hence give us the strength we need to wrestle with life's challenges in seeking the kingdom of God when we experience temptations to move away from the right path.
St. Leo the Great tells us that “[t]he great reason for [the] transfiguration was to remove the scandal of the cross from the hearts of his disciples, and to prevent the humiliation of the voluntary suffering from disturbing the faith of those who had witnessed the surpassing glory that lay concealed.” Whenever they experienced challenging circumstances, the Apostles could recall the Lord's love and promise of glory for those who follow him. We must, likewise, continually call to mind all the blessings that God has brought into our lives in order to share Christ's love with others. Our fallen human nature though can sway us to fall into self-pity during the course of our daily lives. Therefore, the Transfiguration is the Lord's way of giving us the gift of hope during times of adversity.
On the other hand, during times of prosperity, we must keep our minds focused on Christ crucified. Remembering the various trials the Lord experienced should especially be meditated upon when times are good for us. In this way, we'll not get overly elated and so fall into pride. Times of prosperity can indeed be problematic if not handled prudently, because the absence of adversity will eventually lull us into complacency. We must understand that we are also called to share in the Lord's sufferings for our own benefit. By uniting our sufferings in prayer with our crucified Lord, we will better prepare ourselves to act more prudently during times of trial. If we do this, we will be like the wise man who built his house on rock. Christian discipleship must hence always involve the dynamic of embracing adversity and living in the hope given by our Lord's Transfiguration. By keeping these gifts in balance, we'll obtain the continual equanimity we need for our spiritual development. This is how we obtain the peace of Christ.
With the peace and hope given by the Transfiguartion, we can then have the strength needed to continue the Lord's work. What is this work? God manifested himself in the flesh in order to break the power of Satan's kingdom! Our Lord's divine mission of love hence came with the supernatural battle cry of rescuing mankind from the grip of the Devil, who is the originator of sin and death. St. Paul corroborates this saying, “For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the Sovereignties and the Powers who originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens.” We must then follow in the sacred work of Christ, accompanied by his grace, by doing good and resisting evil.
Our understanding of Christianity, consequently, must never be diminished to simply accepting a set of ethical or moral principles. We must beware of reducing our religion to a purely humanistic dimension. This is a terrible error which causes us to believe that participating in the life of the Church has nothing to do with what is transcendent. We cannot afford to ignore the supernatural dimension, because our understanding of right and wrong flows from this. If we ignore the spiritual dimension, then we do so at our own risk. The result of this can cause many to question the divine authority given by Christ to his his bride, the Church. We will thus not have the truth in its entirety, which is essential for salvation. We will deceive ourselves into believing that man—not God—is the source of determining good from evil. Indeed, this was an outcome of Adam and Eve's disobedience. Therefore, in order to guard ourselves from this same pitfall, we need the gift of hope stemming from the Transfiguration, because it helps us keep our eyes fixed on truth and things eternal.