August 4, 2009

St. John Vianney Continued

I would like to continue some thoughts on this feast of the Priest of Ars. There was a particular kind of prayer he tried to promote among his people, a kind of prayer which must have been very important to him in his own struggles. He advocated contemplation, a loving awareness of God's presence, especially in the Eucharist. There is this great story about an old man that John Vianney found in the Church just staring at the tabernacle. The priest asked him what he was doing and the man explained, "I look at him and he looks at me."

Contemplation is gazing on God with the eyes of the heart. Part of this gazing is to believe He is present even when the heart seems overwhelmed with other things. This gaze of love searches for Him and this search takes time. For those who take up silent prayer, who obey the voice which calls out, "Be still, and know that I am God", such contemplative souls understand why the Priest of Ars was moved by the witness of that old farmer.

The question is if St. John Vianney so valued this kind of prayer, why did he also insist on conversion of life and the ongoing struggle against sin? This kind of prayer is so peaceful - why should we disturb it with the hard discipline of the Christian life, the ongoing struggle that seems to never cease? The answer is that this prayer and the peace it brings is not really an end in itself. Contemplative prayer and the peace God gives through it are only part of a way of life in which God teaches us how to be free and true in our friendship with Him.

Contemplative prayer does provide a beautiful wisdom that disposes the heart intensely to God so that one is actually freed from those troubled anxieties that too much attachment to the things of this world can cause. In this, there is a very satisfying peace that one discovers. Anxieties and worries do not have the same disturbing effect because worldly affairs no longer seem as important. If persevered with, this contemplative prayer also frees us from false notions - like the idea that religious practices somehow appease the wrath of God, or that the Christian life is all about storing up merits for oneself.

But while a certain kind of indifference and equanimity can be characteristics of spiritual maturity, these virtues are only so to the degree that they are informed by charity -- which is friendship love of God. Without charity, these qualities become what Augustine considers splendid vices. It is simply cold indifference to remain detached in the face of a neighbor's plight. It is a slothful equanimity that does not resist such sin. Rather than strengthening our relationship with the Lord, this kind of peace becomes a barrier to the friendship the Lord has invited us into.

The temptation to seek the peacefulness contemplation produces rather than God who is the source of all true peace found its theological expression in Quietism two hundred years before the Cure d'Ars. Thinkers like Fr. Maravel, Fr. Molinos, and Mme. Guyon, similar to St. John Vianney, promoted the practice of the awareness of God. They, like the Cure d'Ars, rejected the notion that the spiritual life was about appeasing an angry God. They also upheld, however, the conviction that spiritual maturity requires attaining indifference to sin and one's own salvation. Enchanted by a certain passivity that they mistook for supernatural virtue, they and their followers were often proported to be the source of scandal. Especially dangerous was their notion that one ought not to resist sin - because resistance and struggle disturbs one's inner peace. Check out http://tiny.cc/bvRvJ.

Unlike the promoters of Quietism, the Cure d'Ars understood that peace is the fruit of our friendship with the Lord. This friendship requires vigilance and struggle against anything that might harm it. When we struggle against sin, we are really struggling against the tendency in us to act against love, to act without love. Only when we act in love does God create the space in our hearts that peace requires. His secret was to allow himself to be pierced by the plight of the people Christ entrusted to his care. Once pierced by their need for God and at the same time drawn to enter into God more deeply, he found the ability to surrender what he thought was best for what the Lord thought was best.

This trap of Quietism is at least partially rooted in a need for control and a lack of trust in the Lord. Becoming passively indifferent about one's own life is so much easier than actively pursuing friendship with God with all our strength and determination. This is because indifference towards one's self does not require trusting God or surrendering to Him who yearns for us. Indifference does not require vulnerability. Like Adam and Eve, such indifference offers a fig leaf, a place to hide from the One who searches for us, something that appeals to our imagination more than the unimaginable thing God has called us to.

In his own journey, John Vianney realized Christ's saving hand over this spiritual trap. God's friendship was necessary for real peace. He instinctively understood that this friendship with God, like all friendship, demands daily discipline of opening one's heart and the willingness to go into His heart. Such discipline would be impossible without grace - but by the grace of Christ, this struggle yields peace. In this way, Contemplative prayer and asceticism went hand in hand for him.