Acquiring the Wisdom of God

Those alone who acquire the wisdom of God who are like ignorant children, and laying aside their knowledge, walk in His service with love.
Saint John of the Cross


The Gifts of Knowledge and Piety in the Contemplative Life

goat and boy

We normally say that four Gifts of the Holy Spirit pertain to action, and three pertain to contemplation. Depending on whom you ask, the three contemplative Gifts of the Holy Spirit are Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge or Wisdom, Understanding, and Piety. It just depends on how we look at these permanent dispositions to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Do we say they’re contemplative because they regard God? If so, we’d choose Piety, which regards God as Father (in other words, it’s a gift very present in Thérèse and Marcel Văn, for example). On the other hand, do we say that the Gifts are contemplative because they direct our interior life? In that case, we’d choose Knowledge, because it affects our view of created things: created by God, but not God – and infinitely less than God.

The divergences in choice have a meaning. But no matter how we slice it, Knowledge and Piety sit sort of on the edge between action and contemplation. A contemplative in the cloister is going to, in all likelihood, have a vocation in which Understanding and Wisdom come to the forefront. A very active personality and vocation will perhaps rely strongly on Fortitude, Counsel, and Fear, depending on the tasks to be done. But a contemplative on the road – what about such a one? If it is characteristic of contemplative vocations on the road to see – really see in the obscure light of faith – Jesus in our neighbours, then Knowledge and Piety have a great importance, though the balance of the two will vary from person to person, from situation to situation.

Knowledge tells us that created things are created – and only that – permitting us to set aright our interior dispositions as regards created things in our lives.

Piety tells us God is Father.

Together, Knowledge and Piety say, God is Father of all that you see. All. Absolutely all. Each created thing is your brother or sister. Saint Francis sang about his Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and Saint John of the Cross said that all things are his through Christ who is his. Well, that’s the crux of it. All things do belong to the one who is Christ’s, for he is ours and our brother; and our Father is Father of all.

Together with this realization comes, to greater and lesser extents depending on the person and situation, the realization of God’s All-Embracing Providence and the divinely initiated act seeing Jesus in others – as Jesus promised us we would do (Mt 25:40).

Without using the traditional concept of the seven Gifts as dispositions to receive inspirations from the Spirit, Jean-Pierre de Caussade touches on most of this:

All creatures that exist are in the hands of God… There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action… If only we had faith we should show good-will to all creatures; we should cherish them and be interiorly grateful to them as serving, by God’s will, for our perfection. If we lived the life of faith without intermission we should have an uninterrupted commerce with God and a constant familiar intercourse with Him…

With faith, we should see God in and behind all things, either actively willing or permitting it to happen. We can swim in his will. And swimming in his will, we can love all our fellow creatures – which is to say, our brothers and sisters in whom God is.

He adds a few pages later:

It is faith that teaches us the hollowness of created things; by it God reveals and manifests Himself in all things.

Exactly. For love-in-faith enjoys the sevenfold Gift of the Spirit, and in the divine use of that sevenfold Gift, inspirations as regards Knowledge teach us to set right our interior attitude and love of created things, especially in their infinite distance from God; but inspirations as regards Piety teach us that God is Father of all, and thus not absent from anything in which there is good.

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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