April 21, 2009

Abandonment to Love and our Resurrection

A theme that runs through the great christian teachers of the spiritual life is abandonment to the love of God the Father. Our faith tells us that this is the supreme act of love Jesus offers on the Cross. Jesus also directs his disciples to make the same offering when he commands them take up their own cross and follow him. By following the Lord in this, we begin to experience the resurrection. Here I would like to explore this paradox - I ramble abit only because I do not have time to make it more concise - please forgive me.

At the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, two Carmelite mystics have helped shape the way we understand this teaching in our era. Therese of Lisieux and Elisabeth of the Trinity help us understand how to begin to practice this total surrender to the love of God in daily life and prayer. Their lives witness to the fact that this act on our part is something that the Lord will invite us to make at the supreme moment of our lives, and at the same time, it is an act we practice every day. It is a desire of the Christian heart that needs to be fed and strengthened until it bears the fruit of a mature love.

The desire to completely surrender to God's love is holy and all holy desires are produced by the Holy Spirit working within us. It is also true that already desiring something is to possess it to some degree. But in the beginning these holy desires are impeded by deep wounds in the heart - and the heart does not have the power to heal itself either from the harm others have caused it nor from the harm it has caused itself. Our hearts are not pure - at least, they do not start out that way. So eventhough we have holy desires, we might desire them with a mix of impure motives and without the courage such the Holy Spirit demands. Since this desire comes from the Holy Spirit, what can we do to help the Holy Spirit purify and strengthen it?

The first thing that strengthens a holy desire is to give it expression. Both Therese of Lisieux and Elisabeth of the Trinity are known for prayers centered around an act of complete surrender, total abandonment to the will of the Father. Therese wrote her "Act of Obedience to Merciful Love" in 1895 of which she also provides an explanation for in Manuscript B of her autobiography Story of a Soul. Elisabeth of the Trinity likewise authored a prayer Oh My God, Trinity whom I Adore in 1906. (Another similar prayer authored about the same time is Charles de Foucauld's Act of Abandonment to God the Father or Into your Hands I Commend my Spirit.) When we begin to pray these prayers, we do not always feel like what we are actually doing with our lives correspond with the desires we are trying to express. But I do not think this is very important, at least not in the beginnning. The noble desire to completely surrender to God's love is fragile in the beginning. Praying these prayers is like blowing on sparks to light a fire.

Closely associated with giving expression to our holy desires is the cultivation of a humble attitude. Elisabeth calls this simplicity - we must simply learn to rely on the Lord alone and not be distracted by anything that tries to draw us away from him. John of the Cross details a discipline of life in Ascent to Mt. Carmel, Book I, Chptr 13.

Key to his counsels is to practice only enjoying those things that are purely for the glory of God and renouncing the enjoyment of anything that does not give God glory. John of the Cross observes that Jesus acted in the same way and that we should imitate him because we love him. In truth, God is in all things, surrounds all things, sustains all things. Things of themselves never distract us from God when we enjoy them for His sake.

Our problem is that we tend to entertain ourselves for our own sake rather than for God's. As long as we do this, we are living with disparate desires and to have desires at war with each other within the heart is very exhausting. This is why simplicity of heart is so important. The more simple the heart, the less the interior conflict, the greater our strength for the Lord. If we seek him in simplicity of heart, we will find him and have the strength to enjoy his presence.

God is also at work in us to strengthen and purify our desire to completely surrender to him. John of the Cross describes the dark contemplation where God seems absent in prayer as one of the most vital ways God is at work in us. When God seems absent in prayer it is like suffering from a spiritual poverty and a naked vulnerability twoards suffering. It is a very uncomfortable experience to endure. But when we persevere in being present to God when he does not seem present to us the Lord is able to transform our involuntary and unconscious motivations. Those who endure begin to experience an abiding peace in their spiritual life.

Before this dark night of prayer, we seek the Lord in a sort of anxious way - just like someone who in dating is trying too hard to find his spouse. Such anxiety does not instill confidence. But God looks passed this weakness because He always sees the love of which someone capable - and our love enchants Him. He yearns for the soul that begins to move towards Him and his desire is for that soul to thrive. Even when He seems to withdraw his presence for a little while, His purpose is always for a greater union, in this case one characterized not by anxiety, but by peace.

To be relatively free of mixed involuntary motives like anxiety is a great grace. To live a peaceful spiritual life of walking with the Lord is worth anything trial that one must endure. But the Lord is not satisfied with a peaceful desire. He wants a joyful desire. And to accomplish this, he must allow us to suffer even greater and more intense spiritual trials. These are never the punishment of an angry God but always the careful remedy of the Divine Physician. He yearns for us to be whole - which means to ceaselessly desire to love, peacefully and with joy.

Until now, our desire for abandonment into the merciful love of the Father has freed us from sin and from the involuntary inclinations to sin. Here our desire for abandonment has matured. But though we have matured in our holy desires, there are still deep abysses of the heart that rebel against the love of the Lord, that prevent us from abandoning ourselves completely. This is where John of the Cross explains there are still first movements of the soul. Original sin deeply wounded the first movements of our soul so that they are not disposed to God. This fundamental movement is such that only sheer grace can heal and restore it so that our souls become as innocent as those of Adam and Eve. Here, God begins to heal even that which causes our unconscious motivations. The very depths of our misery, the rejection of God that lives within us and is our hell, is embraced by the Lord. Free to offer God this misery, we discover his abiding joy - a love that is stronger than death, that can overcome even our deepest resistance to him.

Thus, insofar as our desire for abandonment disposes us to these experiences of the Dark Night, it helps to cause the night. As this same desire is purified through these difficult trials, a more perfect desire for abandoning ourselves into the hands of our merciful Father is also a fruit.
When the soul becomes perfect (in this life it is always a relative state of perfection), it is finally free to abandon itself in such wise that it becomes a complete and holy sacrifice of love to the Lord.

In the Oblation to Divine Mercy, Therese is celebrating this fruit. The heights of Christian mysticism do not culminate in being removed from messy humanity but being submerged in it with Christ. Nothing holds it back from completely trusting the Father and wholeheartedly doing everything for love of Him that his merciful love might be known. Such a soul fully realizes what it means to be an instrument of divine mercy for others. It is free to receive all the graces rejected by others and to become a conduit through which these gifts of love flow into the world, even into those places where the Lord is most absent.

This is what John of the Cross describes in Spiritual Canticle where he says that such souls become springs of living water for others. By desiring to be a spring for others, we already are to some extent. Yet it is of the very perfection of the Christian life to become a spring for others in a more perfect way - without anxiety, in peacefulness, and in joy. And today, so many thirst for peace and joy.

All of this is the experience of the great saints that everyone points to. But this path from glory to glory - from desire to peace to joy - is experienced as a smooth transition. It is lesser known that the mystics also testify to this more difficult and more human reality. All along the way, no matter how much we strive to edify others and love them as Christ has loved us, we know that this is not enough. We see what lies ahead, what the Lord really desires for us but it seems impossible. Elisabeth acknowleges in the face of such noble aspirations we become curiously aware of our weaknesses and deficiencies. For some this awareness is so great they are tempted to discouragement. She, however, turns to the Lord even more, begging him to achieve through her what she cannot possibly achieve by herself.

Elisabeth's prayer is rooted in an insight from her older Sister in the Spirit, Therese. Therese in the midst of the same trial would think about the goodness of God in relation to her holy desires to give everything to him, to be completely surrendered to his love. She reckoned that God's goodness and her desires must collide and she wanted to know how. Why would God fill her with such noble desires if He did not have a plan to realize them? Yes, God would realize her desires in his own time and by his own power.

She understood that her job was to trust him, to believe in love, to love unto the point of folly, just as He did not the Cross for those whom he loved. In this, a path was opened to her and she discovered a new way to draw her strength from the Lord. She would persevere in love, waiting for Him to lift her up. She called this kind of surrender, a surrendering to the Lord as his prey.

The image she used was that of a little bird yearning to fly to the sun without the wings to do so. How could God allow her, like that little bird, to suffer such great desires if he did not intend to satisfy them in another way? Christ would come like a great Eagle and lift her on high just like an Eagle might carry a small bird in its pinions. Her job was to wait on the Lord and to trust in his power. To him, would be all the glory for any good that she might do.

Her insight is rooted in a profound teaching on the Holy Spirit and the nature of Christian hope. The Holy Spirit lifts us up To surrender ourselves as his prey, to abandon ourselves to him as our Father – these are the same movements of heart produced by the Spirit of God that raise Jesus from the dead. God in his merciful love will raise us up to realize the perfection of these holy desires in us - the realization of the holy desires of our hearts, this is the beginning of our own resurrection.