Truly spiritual delights come from the Cross, from the spirit of sacrifice which puts to death all that is inordinate in us in order to assure the first place to the love of God and of souls in God.
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP (1877–1964)
How much detachment is “enough”? It is a universal truth that, regardless of our state in life, we must become detached from the things of the world in themselves and attached to God (and love the things of the world with the love of God). Obviously a kind of separation from the things of the world is (materially) “easier” behind a cloister wall. And obviously fewer duties in an interconnected world free us up to personally suffer more.
This poses an interesting “problem” for lay spirituality. We may rightly observe that detachment and suffering are, in Christ, good. But, we may ask, what of the person in the world with many duties which should not fail? Isn’t there a very obvious limit to such a person’s sufferings and material detachment?
Blessed Elizabeth Catez, before entering Carmel, felt this tension. She wanted very much to become a Carmelite, but for many years she was “stuck” in the world. During this time, did she treat spiritual progress in the world as wasteful? No, she not only made the best of it but moreover achieved great sanctity as a layperson. Still, she knew that self-imposed suffering and detachment could (in some sense) only be minimal in the world, for we laypeople have many duties which prevent painful separations. Perhaps these are duties to family or in one’s job. In any case, they exist. What is one to do? In her journal (written as a young layperson), Elizabeth writes:
Since, for the moment, I cannot impose any great sufferings on myself, well, at least I can at every instant of the day immolate my will.
And that is it. If, for whatever reason (e.g., sickness or precariousness of health, family obligation, duties of employment), we cannot impose any “great” sufferings, penances, or mortifications on ourselves, well, there is another way. We can deny our will in something. We can mortify the deeper root, our will, rather than finding the sufferings to do the work for us. We can still get to the heart of the matter: detachment and love. Nothing prevents us. Certainly, if we are truly and really free to impose a suffering on ourselves, it is, in Christ, good. But yet better is the effect on our will; and in following the course of our duties and mortifying our own will, we can, like Blessed Elizabeth, achieve holiness in the midst of the everyday.
One of the biggest questions confronting spirituality for laypeople is the question of austerity, mortification, penitential acts, silence, distance from creatures. There is no doubt that these things, united to Jesus and his Cross, are good. Even suffering itself, while bad in itself, is good when united to Jesus and his Cross. So still more is austerity in living good.
Even more, the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are suggested to all, so they must imply goodness. Of course, sovereign love itself demands that many of us do not take certain counsels in their exact form, because we have other duties of care (even to our own health or our parents’, to society, and so on). But each of us is required to cultivate the spirit of poverty (detachment), the spirit of chastity (in spirit if not in body), and the spirit of obedience (in general providence if not to a specific superior). That much is not optional. Detachment is required even in the midst of plenty: “Let those who deal with the world [do so] as though they had no dealings with it” (cf. 1 Cor 7:30).
So how does a layperson live this?
That is a big question. Laypeople cannot cut themselves off from creatures, create vast spaces of silence, harm themselves somewhat with fasts, etc. like monks. That is out of the question. Duties prevent it. We have duties to families, friends, employers, and rare is the layperson who, with such duties, could achieve great acts of austerity, great acts of penance, great acts of mortification, and great physical silence.
So then, where is holiness to be found? To be sure, it is found in charity, in love of God and neighbour. But the means of great austerity, helpful to attain great charity, are removed.
This reminds me of the stories of two famous persons. One is the Buddha. One is Blessed Henry Suso.
The Buddha, before his enlightenment, sought a way of great austerity and self-mortification. I’ve written about this before. I find it interesting. Of course, I do not think that the goals of Buddhist meditation and of Christian prayer are the same, but I still find this parallel interesting. The Buddha fasted much. But in the end, that was not the way. Because, of course, then he grew attached to fasting. He was attached to a very means of getting better. And that won’t do. Christians think similarly. Fasting is but a means. It is not the goal. To become attached to the means would be folly.
Henry Suso also pursued extreme fasting, mortification, and penitential acts. First he slept oddly. Then he wore much in the way of uncomfortable clothes. Then he bore a cross on his back, complete with nails piercing his skin. Then he denied himself water except for one glass a day. He pursued each practice sequentially. At the end of a certain period of each practice, God showed him that this was not the real way. It was insufficient. It might have tamed his body and soul somewhat. But it was not deep enough. When he realized this, he would move on to a new austerity. This continued for some time. Then came a breaking point. He realized that each of his austere practices and any more that he might ever be inclined to in the future was insufficient and that a new step had to be taken. At that point, he wrote in the book of his Life:
God showed him that all this austerity and all these practices were nothing more than a good beginning, and a breaking through his uncrushed natural man; and he saw that he must press on still further in quite another way, if he wished to reach perfection.
If such an austere first step is possible, given one’s life circumstances, then it may perhaps be taken. But it is only a first step. The real goal is to curb the deeper parts of our will. We must resist ourselves, and we must let God do even greater work on his own. In a later chapter in his Life, Blessed Henry describes this as “a perpetual giving up of self, as far as human frailty will allow.” He gets past human strength and speaks of human frailty. And not only that. He gets past human actions and gets to the heart of the issue: giving up our self, so that God can fill it with himself.
Austere penance, great physical silence, and immense mortification can be good, and no one should say that they are to be avoided by all. But even for those to whom they are possible, they are only a beginning. They tame the “old man.” They are not necessarily manifestations of the “new man.” It is that new created being that we are after. And that is something that lay spirituality can pursue, regardless of how much mortification, penance, silence, and austerity we are able to adopt.
What the great spiritual writers tell us about contemplative prayer is within the reach of the interior soul if it is willing to follow the way of humility and abnegation, and if it daily grasps a little better the following verse of the Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” [Lk 1:52].
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP (1877–1964)
It’s Lent. Many of us, if not most of us, reading this blog are doing some sort of penitential acts to better grow in Christian virtue during this season. As we anticipate Easter and the celebration of the glory of the Resurrection, we better train ourselves in this spiritual “competition” which is life (cf. 1 Cor 9:25; 1 Tim 2:5; 4:18).
Those practices that I just mentioned are likely exterior mortifications of some form. Perhaps we forgo eating this, perhaps we force ourselves to eat a meal of that, perhaps we deny ourselves this physical luxury. We build up patience, fortitude, and love. And this is all well and good.
But the primary thing that has to be curbed is not our appetites for things but our will itself. It is our will that is the root cause of our distance from God; it is our will which God wants to clean up, reform, and turn to his advantage. Tauler tells us all this in a sermon:
In proportion as a man renounces himself and goes out of himself, in the same proportion God enters into him in very truth… One drop of this renunciation, one rill of it, would better prepare a man and lead him nearer to God than the most absolute exterior denudation… A short moment lived in these dispositions would be more useful for us than forty years following practices of our own choice.
In the measure that our own will, intent on its own way, is emptied out and renounced, so does God enter in. But to only hollow out space for God as regards what we choose to eat or what physical sacrifices we make would be to effect an insignificant transformation. It is good. It is needed. But it is not enough. There is yet more space than that for God in our lives. We can think about it this way. The exterior mortification which we choose is still something of our choice. They do not necessarily imply that our will is humble, pure, and wide-open to God in such choices.
A denudation of having our own way is in order. The hollowing out of a space in our lives for God must become more interior. A spiritual emptiness and mortification is required. It will come eventually, and we cannot choose its form. We can only endure and hope. Indeed, just a short time of such mortification, penance, and denudation is worth much, much more than a long time of exterior penance: “A short moment lived in these dispositions would be more useful for us than forty years following practices of our own choice.”
What before was hard, troublesome, and impossible, becomes easy and pleasant; fasting, watching, praying, self-denial, and every sort of rigour, are made sweet by Your presence.
Blessed Henry Suso (c. 1300–1366)
Little corporal or spiritual tribulations are first steps of this lofty and holy ladder which great and generous souls climb. They ascend step by step until they reach the last rung. Then, at the summit, they find the purest suffering, without the slightest admixture of consolation coming from heaven or earth. And if these souls are faithful in not seeking consolation, they will pass from this pure suffering to the pure love of God, without anything else being mingled with it… But if the soul is faithful, what treasures it amasses! The storms pass and go, the soul approaches true, very sweet, and very close union with Jesus crucified, who transforms it in Himself and reproduces His own features in it.
Saint Paul of the Cross