Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Spring, Divine Union, and the Spiritual Life

Father John J. Lombardi

"In Your nature, O eternal Godhead, I know my nature." -St Catherine of Siena… "The soul and God: that is all I desire to know." -St Augustine.

Beauty is within, awaiting to awaken-like Spring springing all around us! As we observe the beauty of the Maryland Spring in our countryside-the fertile and soaring mountains, the whirling clouds, the dogwoods and tulip poplars budding, notice, too, the rhododendrons in our Grotto, and their large buds just before flowering. These particular bulbs are tightly wound-big and strong, olive-green with bright purple creasings, and when they bloom they are magnificent-ethereal and translucent. I enjoy watching this-along with all the Catoctin-Mountain splendors-and recall St. Thomas Aquinas' saying: "God is the artist and the universe is His work of art."

As in the spiritual consideration of God's creations in the world around us (yes: Jesus commands us to look at flowers and birds!-Mt. 6:26ff), we may also notice in deeper levels of prayer and being, a mysteriously-entrancing phenomena, self recollection-- "I am observing myself". spiritual St Paul counsels devout, maturing disciples to take off an "old self" and put on a "new self" (Col. 3:9). In the process of, and maturing by, self-recollection, and because we are still and silent-open and more porous-we can see this experience of "self" as in no other time, and we directly experience our self-consciousness.

When we "catch" ourselves in such a glance, we are amazed, and articulate a profound truth: "I exist." The Latin-existere-means "to emerge." Like a sculpture surging forth from encoated layers of stone, so the "new self" bursts forth from selfish ignorance. As a person observes nature in the rhododendron blooms-and is amazed, so too, within deeper prayer the soul sees, and, too, is astounded by the "revelation of that which was previously hidden and now revealed-the birthing of a new reality. St Teresa of Avila described this phenomenon: "All of the senses are so much occupied with this happiness that none of them can be occupied with anything else."

The first kind of being we may call ordinary consciousness: I am the subject and I see the rhododendron outside of me, the object. There is not really any trace of self-existence: my "I" is actively observing and enjoying the flower outside, not noticing itself "inside".

But when praying and when more contemplative, I get hints of self-aware- ness, as my consciousness (from con-science, meaning, literally, "with knowledge"), is turned in upon itself, with no outside world (a flower) to occupy it, but only an inner world of self-manifestation. Herein we become more conscious of:

  1. ourselves;
  2. our existence "independent" of the world;
  3. the inability to catch the self-that-exists, since "I am both the viewer and the viewed;"
  4. there must be some "end" or terminus of all this, and a resting from this, too. This is like the proverbial cat trying to catch its tail: it can't catch itself-it needs help. Jesus similarly says we cannot save ourselves--we must be "born from above" (Jn 3: 3).

We operate from this "I-exist-by-my-own-self"-way most of the time in the world; and we get attached not only to ourselves -as independent existents, but we also get attached to objects in the world, since we seemingly need them to supply our endless wants and desires. St John warns us: "Do not love not the world or anything in it, If anyone loves the world (apart from God) the love of the father cannot dwell in you" (I Jn.2:15).

Now, while our fallen, subjective state can be described like a crude chain of subject (self) chasing objects (worldly things), enmeshed in despair, self-recollection is better described as like a circle, with a spiral radiating off the circumference descending deeply within, to a (virginal) center and soul. St Thomas Aquinas and others describe the subtlety of the soul in this way (it is not simply an inert object).This may represent our soul's journey into deeper levels of consciousness and, ultimately, God. He "is not far from us, He is near to us" (Acts 17:27)…This process and experience of self-consciousness is somewhat like looking in a "spiritual mirror": we look at ourselves looking at ourselves -and it is both a little strange and entrancing at the same time. And we try to define all this inward "looking," but seemingly can never reach it: "We see now, as in a dark mirror, then we shall see face to face, known as we are known" (I Cor 13:12). St Vincent Ferrer describes a hope amidst this interior receding and searching: "In turning back on himself the horizon of his soul broadens; he rises as if ascending a mysterious ladder to contemplate angels and the Divinity."

Why do spiritual writers emphasize the interior life so much? Because in self-consciousness and inner being, especially during prayer-the soul is not relying on anything outside itself-transient, fallible, and material things in the world-to affect or inform the mind; the less "mixing" of creatures and creations with the soul, the better. St. John Cassian writes: "In proportion to its innate purity is the elevation of the soul in prayer: the more it withdraws from the sign and recollection of the earthly and sensible things, the greater will become its purity, and the better it will be able to see with its inner sight…" What is the source of the self-reflexiveness, the consciousness, the "I" which is within?-for every effect has a cause. The answer, of course, is that God is the cause.

St Paul reminds us: "You are a temple of the Holy Spirit-are you not aware that you are not your own?" (-I Cor 6:19). St Catherine of Siena described the soul looking into a spiritual mirror of knowledge given by God: "For when I look into this mirror in which You (God), holding it in the hand of love, it shows me myself as Your creation, in You, and You in me, the union You have brought about of the Godhead with our humanity."

We may now call this realization a "spiritual interface": meaning we have being, consciousness and existence from Someone else and that this Someone-God-dwells within, at the most pristine level of just who we exactly are. Bl. Jan van Ruysbroeck describes it this way: "And thus we are brought forth by God, out of selfhood, into the immersion of love, wherein we possess blessedness and are one with God". Jesus says: "The Kingdom of God is within you" (Lk. 17:21). Our souls, like spiritual caterpillars encased by imprisoning cocoons of self, are liberated and reborn as designed by God

St John of the Cross, in The Spiritual Canticle, describes this interior fusion like a ray of sunlight shining upon a window. When our "window" (soul) is clean, God will shine within, and gradually make us like Himself, and we will not be able to distinguish between us and God, so intimate is the "fusion": "The window will be identical to the sunlight and shine just as the sun's ray." Another name for this experience is "mystical marriage". The more we shed of self the more soul there is liberated to give to God. God wants to spiritually inter-twine with us, His creations. This is called the indwelling Trinity--but do we want to embrace Him within? Do we want to remove the smudges from the windows of our selves (selfish actions) and consciousness (ways of thinking) so the Light can transform (change) and transfix (spiritually glue) us more into Him. St Bonaventure says: "In God alone is there primordial delight, and in all our delights it is this delight that we are seeking."

In order to embrace this "spiritual interface" with God, we must eschew ourselves, and this takes much effort. Jesus says: "If anyone wants to be my follower He must deny himself pick up his cross daily" (Lk 9:23). We are prevented from tasting this spiritual marriage because of "Three Enemies": self -thru the faculty of the will wanting the wrong things (people, possessions); Satan-- by his powerful allures and false promises, and the sensuality of the world-other people's pressures and falleness adversely affecting me and my spiritual path... All this deters the enlightenment of spiritual union. We are too distracted by pursuits (objects outside us), and too refracted by an incoherent spiritual consciousness to pursue liberation from sin and self. But we can go from this-fractured consciousness and beleaguered being-to enraptured bliss, by dying to self and world, and living for God and His divine help.

St John describes this help as an inner healing: "But this anointing teaches you about everything and is true and not false; just as it taught you… remain in Him" (I Jn. 2:27). When the selfish-self becomes more entrenched-as if we own ourselves and have independent existence from God (pride)-then re-birth is prevented: . Amidst this we must spiritually transition from, saying, as the world does: "I solidify my 'I,' " (as apart form God), to: "I release towards the Lord's peace" (I have my existence in Him). When we do this, we recognize the treasures of the spiritual life, with St John: "See what love the Father has bestowed upon us calling us His children… we shall be like Him" (I Jn. 3:1-3).

As we meditate and contemplate more, this entrenched "I" may so-slowly dissipate. St Paul implies we can "ignite" the process: "Put away your old self and former way of life, corrupted thru deceitful desires" (Eph 4:22); thus the " breathing soul" trusts more. However, we come to a problem point: we realize the depth and reality of the "self-apart-from-God" and our selfishness, and that we cannot save ourselves (like the cat trying to catch and conquer its tail). Part of the fallen condition of life is that self-preserves-self-we are invested in preserving ourselves against God. Only by the grace of God-His pure free gift-can my soul be liberated from the chains of ignorance and sin. The more this purification occurs the more grace (God's life) we receive, for grace increases attraction of more grace: "From His fullness (Jesus' incarnation) we have all received, grace upon grace" (Jn 1:16). The more empty we are within-less self existing in our souls, the more room for God in our souls. We could describe it in a phrase-- "virginal emptiness is enticement for Divine Inwardness." St John says of the Lord: "He must increase; I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). As we increase the aperture to the soul, then a spiritual interface is opened: God is not far away, He is within. This is like peeling away the hundreds of layers of an "spiritual onion" of self to get to the core, the soul.

Christ came to free us and is both the reconciliation of us with God, and the renovation of our souls (see Eph. 2:14, on a "dividing wall" within us). Thru His Sacred Incarnation-His counsels, wisdom, His lifestyle, prayer and serving-He shows us how to die to self and live for God. His sacred Life is a dramatic presentation showing us true freedom in God. When we live more like Him, then, the inner dividing wall- our hardened selves-is broken, and we can be "hidden with Christ in God" (i.e. indistinguishable from Him-Col. 3:2-4). As we shift the anti-God boundaries of consciousness and self , and as we pray more in contemplation, the self is de-creased-peeled away from the soul, thereby allowing it to be enveloped in the Blessed Trinity-like a spiritual letter in a Trinitarian envelope: transforming intimacy. The soul learns-now more liberated and awakened-that its completeness is in God: "May the eyes of your heart be enlightened that you may know …the riches of glory in His inheritance" (Eph. 1:18).

Catholics need to know this process of en-lightenment can be, and needs to be, ignited (sparked by the Spirit) often-by prayer; daily spiritual practices, and chosen for God's--not self--glory. In the Spring as we notice rhododendrons and dogwoods awakening-shouldn't we, within our souls, experience re-birth, renewal? As the "outer garden" is awakened, ask: what about the inner garden of my soul? The first Pope counsels: May you "come to share in the divine nature after escaping through the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire" (II Pt. 1:3).

The Blessed Virgin Mary is the model par excelance of one who gave her-self up and allowed God to literally dwell within her. St Hildegarde of Bingen called her:

" Viridissima Virga, Greenest branch." Mary is called her "green" because this implies fertility, life, wholesomeness, and a soul prepared "fertile" for God who wants to be wed with Him. The Virgin Mary certainly was, and is thus a model for the interior life and contemplatives, and for all disciples.

What are some ways to eliminate the selfish self, and allow God to dwell within? Even though every person is different, most souls, however, travel through Three Paths or Stages of the Spiritual Life: Beginners, Proficients (advanced souls) and Perfect (masters of the spiritual life). Beginners grow by outward religious activities, the conscious practice of virtues and progress in prayer by oral or discursive conversation with God. Jesus points us to this maturing way when He preached conversion, and taught with simple words and in ways people could understand. St Paul said: "You have become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were entrusted" (Rm. 6:17-the learning subject-disciple- needs to obey an object-command --of God, and master this before interiorizing the Law into Love).

The Blessed Virgin said to follow Jesus' teaching: "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn. 2:5). In St John of the Cross's example of the window (soul) and the light (God), I have to stop cracking, or seriously muddying the window of my soul by serious sins (by obeying the commandments), and begin preserving the window of my soul (by practicing virtues) and exposing it to God's Light thru prayer.

Proficients: need less outer activity and more time for meditation and deepening of virtues. They have accepted God in a kind of "spiritual betrothal". Christ taught this when He said: "Come away by yourselves and rest awhile" (Mk. 6:31). St Paul said it: "Set your mind on the Spirit" (Rm 6); and the Blessed Virgin exemplified this by treasuring spiritual truths in her heart (Lk 2:19), In this stage, the soul-window is being immersed in the Life of God and beautified by ongoing and internalized relationship with Him; the self and selfishness of the window are being purified by meditation, and thereby exposing the soul for more union with God.

The Perfect need less outward activities, and enjoy the Lord's sweetness within thru silent adoration; they rarely sin and experience both great bliss and trials. They have accepted God so fully that they experience a kind of "spiritual marriage". Here, the "window of the soul" has totally been exposed to the purifying Love of God, with no "self" or separate consciousness, and the window (soul) and Light (God) have become one, indistinguishable.

St. Paul summarizes, in one verse-Eph 3:16-the stages of the Spiritual Life "God-may grant you, to be strengthened (I -Purification: external teachings to help us), with power thru His Spirit in the inner self ( II: Illumination- increasing with-in-ness)…that Christ may dwell in you…and be filled with all the fullness of God" (Stage III: Union-total harmony of Creator and creature). Jesus Himself describes a spiritual similitude: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock, ( Purification, knocking off selfish self), if anyone opens the door then and there (Illumination opens within), I will come in and dine with him and he with Me" (Union joins-Rev 3:20)

So now: Take time each day to pray and meditate. Give God one hour each day (St Frances de Sales' suggestion.) Prayer is like the acronym "ACTS"-Adoration of God; Contrition for sins; Thanksgiving; Supplication-intercession… Three Steps of Meditation--Think lovingly about an object of devotion (God Himself, the Eucharist, Jesus or Mary, scenes from the Gospels), and then gradually Thank God for the illuminations within.

Thenceforth plan to pray and live according to new truths uncovered. Cultivate this holy practice daily by gradually and consistently dispelling distractions of thought and refractions of mind by focusing on the object of meditation within-get anchored in meditation. Then, as God gives you more graces and as you "put away your old self" (Eph. 4:22), and clothe "yourself with Christ" (Gal 3:27), allow any inner subject-object relation to disappear -i.e., self and God above me; thinker and thought, a separate me worshipping God, etc. At advanced levels of prayer and discipleship God calls us to even cede ourselves, since such a self, even a "separated soul," can still control, fail to be purified and unite with God as He wants.

Like this, the prophet hears God saying: "I will give you a new heart and place a new sprit within you; taking from your bodies your stony hearts…" (Ez. 36:25). Notice: it is God doing the work-all is grace, his freeing gift. We come to a point where we cannot do anything. We must be willing, like a patient undergoing an operation, to embrace an "inner anesthesia" whereby we become more passive, trusting , still and calm in our souls-totally receptive to the Divine Physician's cure. St Teresa says our faculties must undergo a 'sleep"-our intellects not thinking in a chattering way but still calmly receptive; our memories not providing bad or trivial thoughts or remembrances; and our wills wanting only to be in God. This state of prayer is God's gift to us-infused contemplation: God is pouring into our souls, purely, His life and changing us since we are receiving Him without any barriers or any pre-conditions or even good-intentioned, but human attempts. We, ourselves, must work for this and then, finally realize, only God can accomplish the reminder.

his "art of prayer" --knowing how much to be active within by thinking and using the senses in beginning stages of prayer, thru conversation and meditation (Stages I and II), and then knowing when to relinquish even these good practices, and all internal activities thru total releasement towards God's infused graces, by entering a more intuitional an d pure prayer is the souls' discernment and higher calling. Fr Tanquerry, classic spiritual guide, describes the nature ecstatic union: "There are two elements which constitute his union-absorption of the soul in God and the suspension of the activity of the senses".

This is both a process of "spiritual mechanics-knowledge of the ways of the soul-and also mystery-an indescribable process of mystical divine and human love. God will grace us, if we persevere and totally entrust our souls, thru more passive, loving, docile and surrendering prayer: "So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: old things have passed away , behold, new things have come" (II Cor. 5:17)…Sacrifices: In your marriage, in your family life are many opportunities to embrace hardships thru patience and forgiveness-let these daily occurrences help shave off your old selfish self and reveal your soul for new growth…Eucharist: Here we have THE re-presentation of the Life of Jesus.

We go to Mass to honor and adore him, and also to crucify our old selves with Him on the Cross-as St Paul counsels in Rm. 6, so as to be risen anew. The Mass is the most perfect and living mystical Illumination and illustration of Life in, thru and with God …Learn how to die-to self-and thus, to live for God. We can go to Mass to receive God within and also be reminded of God's sacrifice for us and that we should always love and do anything thru Him-Jesus, with Him and in Him…

As Spring continues to spring-stop and smell the flowers-and act like one: let the beauty of the Beloved emerge from within. Die and rise with Him.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi