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On Dying to Ourselves

On the Violence
We Must Use
To Die to Ourselves

(Manual for Interior Souls)

 

Be as eager to break your own will
as the thirsty stag is to drink of the refreshing waters.
—St. Paul of the Cross

 

From the days of John the Baptist, even until now,” said our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “the kingdom of Heaven has been subject to violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matt. 11:12) 

If, in one sense Jesus Christ has rendered the way to Heaven more easy, by the abundant outpouring of His grace, and by the spirit of love with which He has filled His disciples; on the other hand, He has made this way even more narrow and difficult, because He came to fulfill the law (of love) in its perfection, and, as grace is more readily and abundantly available since His coming, He requires more from His followers than God required formerly under the law of nature (natural law) and the law of Moses.  Thus, from the moment when John the Baptist announced the coming of the Savior, the kingdom of Heaven was to be obtained through the violence we do to ourselves; we must seize it and take it by force.  This saying is hard to our fallen nature, because it is against fallen nature itself that we must do battle and wage war, and this resistance must sometimes be “unto blood,” without truce or compromise.  If the service of God and Christian perfection consisted only in a certain routine of external devotion, compatible with a life of ease and comfort, with all the allurements of self-indulgence, and with a secret self-esteem in ourselves and self-satisfaction in all we do, the number of saintly souls—that is to say, true Christians, true lovers of the Gospel—would not be so rare.  But as it is, Jesus Christ has, to a great extent, replaced the exterior practices of the Mosaic Law with interior ones, which are far more difficult and painful as also the grace given is far greater and more abundant, “For the law was given through Moses; but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) 

Our Lord said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth.  I came not to bring peace, but the sword.” (Matt. 10:34)  He puts this sword (which is a “good will”) in the hands of His servants, and He wishes that they should make use of it against themselves, in that circumcision of the heart which mortifies without pity all the corrupt inclinations of their fallen nature (for example, to puffed up pride, impurity, greed or anger), even to finally putting them to death, and leaving in the heart, thus mortified, no single trace of the old Adam.

Oh! what a great and difficult work is this total destruction, this total annihilation, of the selfish and self-centered creature, the false and deceitful old Adam, the sin within—the “old man!”  Again I say, how hard, how difficult to bear this!  So long as it is only a question of saying certain prescribed prayers, of visiting the church, of practicing works of charity, plenty of people can be found to embrace this kind of devotion.  A spiritual leader who requires no more than this is eagerly listened to:  he is a man of God; he is a saint.  But if he begins to speak of correcting certain defects, of overcoming human respect (seeking to please man instead of God), of reforming natural character (the disordered or inordinate aspects thereof), of keeping a check on natural inclinations and feelings, and of following in everything the leading of grace, he is no longer listened to; he is exaggerating, he is going beyond all bounds!

It is nevertheless certain that the true spirit of Christianity consists in this:  that a real Christian should look upon himself as his greatest enemy; that he should wage continual war against himself; that he should spare himself in nothing, and count all his progress by the victories he gains over himself.

When we begin to give ourselves entirely to God, He treats us at first with great clemency, to win us to Himself.  He fills the soul with an ineffable peace and joy (known as the “first fervor”).  He causes us to delight in solitude, in recollection, and in all our religious duties.  He makes the practice of virtue easy to us; nothing is a trouble to us.  We think we are capable of everything.

But as soon as He is certain of a man, immediately God begins to enlighten him as to his defects; He raises by degrees the veil which concealed them from him, and He inspires him with a firm will to overcome them.  From that moment such a man turns against himself; he undertakes the conquest of self-love (pride); he pursues it relentlessly wherever he perceives it; and when he is thoroughly illuminated by the Divine light, where does he not perceive it?  He sees in himself nothing but misery, imperfection, and sin; self-seeking and attachment to his own will; his very devotion appears to him full of defects.  He once thought he loved God, and now he finds that this love was largely but another form of self-seeking; that he has appropriated to himself the gifts of God (through spiritual pride or spiritual gluttony); that he has served God almost entirely for selfish ends; that he has thought highly of himself and despised others whom he considers not to have received the same graces as himself.

God shows him all this gradually; for if He were to show it to him all at once he could not bear it, and would fall into despair.  But the little He does show him is sufficient to convince him that he has many and many a hard battle to fight before he can arrive at the end of it.

If a man is courageous and faithful, what does he then do?  He humbles himself, without despairing; he places all his confidence in God; he implores His assistance in the war he is going to undertake.  Then, he fills his mind and heart with this spiritual maxim from The Imitation of Christ—“The greater violence you do to your (old) self, the greater progress shall you make… For there a man makes greater progress and merits greater grace where he overcomes himself the more and mortifies (empties/humbles) himself in spirit (by self-sacrifice, prayer and penance).”  Here is the purest spirit of the Gospel which all of the saints have followed.

After their example, this man declares war against his fallen nature, against his own thoughts and desires, against his sinful tendencies and vices, including those of the body, along with his soul, “I chastise my body, and bring it under subjection (to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and to the practice of virtue), lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27)  And in order to avoid getting bogged down in scrupulosity or carried away with an impatient or indiscreet zeal, he begs of God that He may Himself direct him and protect him in this battle against the “old man.” 

Now he is a true soldier of Jesus Christ; now he is enrolled under His banner (the cross)—“If any one will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)  Until now God has only been preparing and disposing him for this great grace; but from this moment he is clothed with the armor of faith, and enters in good earnest upon the field of battle.

How long shall this conflict last? 

It shall last as long as there is one enemy to conquer, as long as there is one obstacle in the soul to be overcome, in other words, it shall last until the “old man,” the old Adam, is utterly dead and destroyed and nothing.

A good Christian never lays down his arms, and all is not finished for him even when he has fought until his strength is exhausted.  What do I mean to say by this?  What can remain for him to do when he is worn-out by his own victories, and when he has carried his violence against himself as far as it can possibly go?  There remains nothing for him to do, but there remains for him to suffer the action of God, who henceforth will do alone what is beyond the strength of man.

In the beginning of the spiritual life, our sanctification is the work of our own efforts, sustained and assisted by Divine grace:  it is finished and perfected solely by the Divine operation.  Man raises the edifice (of virtue) as high as he can, but because there is still a great deal that is merely human (and not supernatural) in this edifice (namely, human ego and pride), God destroys all the work of man, and substitutes for it His own work; and the creature has nothing else to do but to allow the Creator to act as He pleases.  The creature acts no more (or very little), but he suffers, because God (who is Purity) is acting upon him (who is corruption).  This is the passive purification of the soul (in both the night of the senses and the night of the spirit).  All the work of God then consists in destroying, in overturning, in despoiling the soul, and reducing it to emptiness, nakedness of spirit.  All that is required of us at this time is to patiently allow ourselves to be despoiled of all the gifts, all the graces, all the virtues with which God had adorned us, and which we had subtly appropriated to ourselves.  From the consciousness of strength which comes from the life of the senses, we are secretly filled with self-love and pride; we feel we are partly responsible for the good we do by the grace of God.  After we have been raised from the life of the senses to the life of the spirit—through the dark night of the senses and, most especially, through the dark night of the spirit, where God’s “power is made perfect in weakness”—we can humbly, yet truly say, “I have strength for all things, in Christ who strengthens me.”
(2 Cor. 12:9)(Phil. 4:13)

Thanks be to Thee, infinite Mercy!  You have begun the work of setting me free of the old Adam; and my ardent hope is that You will continue it and finish it.  I wish to have no other part in it than to co-operate with You as much as I am able, and then to let go and let You do with me as You will.  Amen.”

 

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