Progress in the Spiritual Journey According to Little Văn

Those following the beatification cause of Marcel Văn CSsR know that his cause is (and this is almost unique for Southeast and East Asia) as a confessor of the faith, not as a martyr. The reason relies partly on the fact that it is what he says which makes him more accessible as a saint than how he died. In other words, those close to Little Văn believe he is a teaching saint. He is someone with a message. Well, it is obvious that I subscribe to such a view, given that, on this blog, I quote him more than anyone else.

However, one of the things that the teaching saints – especially the great teaching saints whom we call Doctors of the Church – teach about is spiritual progress. They usually have some idea about what it means to get closer to Jesus. Maybe the thoughts come haphazardly. Maybe the thoughts come in a great synthesis like those of Saint John of the Cross. Maybe the thoughts occur within the context of other, more general books, as with Saint Alphonsus and Saint Francis de Sales. Maybe the thoughts are buried in correspondence, as with Saint John of Ávila. But some sort of more or less explained and more or less technical idea of spiritual progress exists for all the saints.

Does such an idea exist for Marcel? Yes, it does. Where does he express it? In letters, mostly.

Marcel’s idea of spiritual progress comes very close to that of Thérèse (it might have surprised Marcel to hear someone like Edith Stein claim that this childlike spirit of Thérèse is really what all of Carmel pushes towards in all its saints). Perhaps his idea is even closer to that of Saint Bernard than to that of Thérèse herself (this too would have surprised Marcel). Well, what is Marcel’s idea? Increasing childlikeness and total abandon-in-confidence is spiritual growth. It’s measured in terms of faith, for faith grows alongside love. To have faith is one step; to have great faith, presumably detached from enough disordered links to this world, is another step; to abandon everything into the providential, all-consuming, all-accompanying, everywhere-present love of the Father is a third step:

VanIf our faith is weak, we obtain little; if it is great, we obtain a lot; and if we place all our confidence in him, God gives us all his power to be active in us, since, being infinitely just, if we offer him everything, necessarily, his justice obliges him to give it all to us. (1 March 1953)

These particular formulas are reminiscent of Bernard of Clairvaux. This threefold division, though, is common. It’s remarked by (to provide a far-from-exhaustive list) Bernard, Thomas, Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, and Francis de Sales. They all use different words and different emphasis, but they say the same thing. To have faith is one thing. To begin to lose attachments to the world is another. To lose attachments to our own spiritual preferences and need for consolations is a third. Marcel says exactly this – for total abandon, total trust and confidence, is the same as losing spiritual needs for consolations, spiritual preferences, and so on. We want only God’s will:

VanOnce we have placed our entire trust in God, once we have placed our whole life in his hands, necessarily he will protect us, he will take care of us, he will guide us, which is to say, he will make us walk according to his will. (6 September 1953)

Our life, so to speak, becomes simpler. Everything condenses into one: the will of God. Another letter testifies to the trajectory:

I see God making me become, day by day, more and more like a child. I leave to him all the freedom to make of me what he wants, until the day that he will transform me into a little child, entirely helpless left to himself, resting in peace in his heart, without any possibility of leaving from there… (24 January 1954)

This is a genuine description of spiritual progress as progress. It’s Marcel’s own. But the ecclesial sources are deep and real. It’s the same pattern over and over again: have faith; lose disordered dependence on the things of the world that are not God; lose disordered dependence on the good spiritual things that are not God himself. Little Văn, little as he is, chooses to describe the whole thing in terms of childlikeness, abandon, confidence, faith.

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2 thoughts on “Progress in the Spiritual Journey According to Little Văn

  1. Very interesting, especially the notion of the nature of faith and progression of faith. I think this is something that often is lacking in protestant churches. Where it’s not lacking, in my experience, so often the emphasis is placed on ‘I can make myself better’ (or, worse, ‘I’m better than so-and-so’) rather than ‘I can surrender every part of me’.

    • Growth in the spiritual life is also mentioned often in Scripture, especially by Paul and Peter. At least once the reference is to ‘growth’ in faith itself (Eph 4): “The gifts he gave were … for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to unity of faith … to maturity, to the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children … we must grow up in every way into him who is the head…” =)

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