We have heard or read this word countless times in our lives but do we really understand what it is? In the Old Testament it is usually used regarding the poor, the humble and the afflicted. But that does not get completely to the heart of the meekness that Christ speaks of in the New Testament.
The Sermon on the Mount uses the word in Christ’s second example: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.” The word in the New Testament Greek is praus which expands the OT understanding to: that disposition of spirit in which we accept God’s dealings with us as good and therefore without disputing or resisting it. It is not unlike the virtue of long-suffering which allows us to bear patiently with ills knowing that God’s will is being done. There is the hope and understanding that God is accomplishing something for the Good though we cannot see it or understand it at the moment. So we bear with it patiently.
When I was younger I used to think of meekness as being humble but somehow construed to mean apathetic as well. So when Christ says to the Apostles that they should “learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart,” it always made the words of Christ seem a bit too contrived or a bit prideful (though He is God with every right to boast of His virtues). Maybe that was just me. But it did strike me as being a bit different from the usual statements I was used to hearing from Christ.
However, when I look back to the Book of Wisdom I find the following: “Let us see then if his words be true, and let us prove what shall happen to him, and we shall know what his end shall be. For if he be the true son of God, he will defend him, and will deliver him from the hands of his enemies. Let us examine him by outrages and tortures, that we may know his meekness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a most shameful death: for there shall be respect had unto him by his words.”
Now that passage seems to foretell the meekness that our Lord was talking about. For He was going to His death on the cross without a whimper, without crying out for mercy or declaring His innocence for the crime He was sentenced. No, He went as meekly as a Lamb to the slaughter.
Now this is not apathy. For if apathy were a virtue, this country in its present age would be a utopia overrun with saints. But meekness is not a virtue you find very much of in this country or in any developed country. It resides mostly in the Third World.
I wonder if we are too far along in our belief in Utilitarianism to ever find meekness as a positive virtue to be practiced. Perhaps, as we continue our slide into the ocean of oblivion which swallows our wealth, freedom and pride, leaving us with shackles and chains of debt to eat the scraps that our lords throw us, we can once again find that God will respect His promise and return the land to the meek.
How do I start? Personal recollection seems to reveal only a scant and inconsistent hodgepodge of memories and insights into one’s personal human experience. How does one glean the essence of the lessons and the truths revealed during life? The file cabinets of memories we’ve stored away are usually lacking in cohesiveness and resemble an office in complete disarray: piles of memories out of order, faded by age so that they are indecipherable, uncategorized and completely overwhelming. This reality leaves us with the distinct possibility that it may be completely beyond our ability. It is no wonder then that most never try to recollect them and come to a place of peace. Though we thirst for answers, we seldom come away with a cogent picture of who we truly are and to what purpose or end we were set upon this earth to fulfill. We ask ourselves if it is worth the trouble and usually lock the door so that we need not look at the mess that we have created: for the task is truly more that we alone can accomplish.
My first thought is that I am totally inadequate for the task – I will need an expert at organizing and prioritizing the scraps of memories strewn throughout my life so recklessly. I never knew that the smaller bits of my experiences during this pilgrimage on earth might actually have importance. They may have significance beyond my understanding and therefore more than likely to have been lost to the dust-bin of my unconscious. Retrieving them and making sense of them is certainly a supernatural undertaking.
This then leads me into the realm of the supernatural and the movement of faith in a man’s life. It seems that prayer and reflection hold our only hope if we are to find peace and make restitution for the wrongs we commit now or committed in our past. A true sense of sin and a firm commitment to amend one’s life seems to be the crux of any true recovery from our fallen state. But more importantly divine help must necessarily be sought from the one who has been witness to our every action and capable of retrieving everything lost to our unconscious: bringing them to the forefront of our minds for a thorough examination – and eventually to seek mercy for our wrongs and develop that supernatural hypersensitivity to anything that makes us less than the creation we were meant to be.
But even the above notions have a hidden danger. The danger is explained well in Dietrich von Hildebrand’s classic, Transformation in Christ. It is the danger that we go about our examination of self much like a psychologist; viewing it from afar in a disinterested matter. We have an objective look at ourselves without the true reality of our selves. We are almost watching a movie or a caricature of ourselves.
For real recollection of self to occur, it is necessary to confront yourself with the perfection of Christ and see the infinite chasm between ourselves and our Lord. Our goodness no longer seems good as only God is good. Our sins are against the unfathomable Good and separate us if by an impassible chasm. It is only in our true realization of self that we see the ultimate unbounded Good that made us for Himself.
Should we be lucky enough to glimpse this infinite difference between us, we might begin to feel and recognize the humility (a word that comes from the Latin root for humus or dirt). We are no more than clay pots who humbly pray for God’s grace and Goodness to fill our lowly beings with Himself. It is the only way that our worth might be realized as it really is and to recognize that our gifts and good works are a gift of the spiritual graces that Our Lord has deposited within us. We need not take pride in our successes but always be cognizant of a loving God’s care for those who seek His help and by an act of freewill seek to be transformed by Him to be worthy sons and daughters.
Truly being recollected for prayer is a stripping away of the façade of who we are and replacing it with a true representation of ourselves in the Presence of Perfection Himself.
The spiritual journey is much like an inexperienced mountain climber who strikes out to conquer the largest of peaks with the notion that he will certainly reach the summit. Unfortunately, few make it to the top and fewer still make it to the summit. The following is just from my own experience and is told as a simple allegory.
Let me speak here of spiritual pride from a personal frame of reference. I began the journey full of hope and expectations: I was awash with joy and the comfort of great encouragement which came from all sides. I was aware (for I was well read in such matters) that spiritual pride was a common obstacle but I was certain that this was not a problem I needed to wrestle with. My eye was on the goal and was never on the inadequacy of my ability to make the climb: much like not getting into good physical shape before attempting an arduous climb. It is also like Christ’s words about the foolishness of setting out to build a tower not knowing if you have the means to finish it.
My journey went well at first, as most do. There were consolations and overwhelming grace buoying me up. Once the consolations stopped, I found myself alone and in the dark, clinging to loose stones and as could be expected, I lost my grip. So I plummeted from the side of the mountain and spent some amount of time reevaluating the climb and had decided that climbing was not my thing. I had read from the masters of this journey that if you are not advancing, you are falling backward: for no one can just stay where they are. Well, I found the wisdom in that and had completely lost my exuberance for the climb.
Unhappy, sitting idly at the base of this great mountain, eyeing the summit which I once had thought was nearly at hand, I have begun to walk again up the slopes: this time with trepidation and respect for the hardships this journey requires. I no longer look to the summit. I look to the next step, watching for loose stones and obstacles. I spend the nights in fear and trembling but try to advance just a little so that I might fall into slumber and wake to find I have slipped to the bottom once again.
Can I make it up the slope or to that lofty summit? I don’t know but I know for certain that I do not possess what is needed to get there. I only hope that somehow I will be given a hand or that which I find myself in need of so that I might progress another step for another day.
It’s a hard enough climb on a sunny day while the dark nights test your deisire and enthusiasm; your faith, hope and love. I should have expected the nightfall.
 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? For which of you, desiring to build a tower, doth not first sit down and count the cost, whether he have [wherewith] to complete it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying, this man began to build, and was not able to finish. __ Luke 14:28-30
Some, thinking that I might be addressing the abortion issue, may answer this question with, ‘at birth’ or ‘at conception.’ But such an answer would only speak to the physical reality of our human person and its enfleshed temporal existence. But there is an answer that goes to the heart of all true spirituality. It is an answer that has been revealed by God through Holy Scripture. The surprising answer is that God has known our individual ‘being’ from the beginning – before time itself began. As St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:4, “… he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted in his sight in charity.” So in essence our existence, our very personalities were known and loved by God from the beginning: from the depths of eternity. He has brought us forth at our appointed time according to His will but nevertheless known and held in the bosom of God before time began. Did not Christ Himself reveal that our eternal home, the kingdom, has been prepared from the beginning? In Matthew’s gospel Christ prays for unity, revealing the following in chapter 25, verse 34: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Having this knowledge is indispensable to a proper understanding of humanity, self-knowledge, and the knowledge of God. We can never truly plumb the depths of this mystery but even so, can acquire much fruit in our meditation upon it.
God has loved each of us individually and by name, loving us like children who might reflect His glory and carry out His holy will from eternity. Can we fathom the love that God has for each of us? Do we grasp the love that moved God to take on our human flesh? Do we really understand the participation of God in the Person of the Holy Spirit that dwells in us after Baptism and urges us to all holiness and love? In any spiritual journey, the logical starting point is the love of God while the consummation of this love is the end.
To grasp the fact that we are each, individually His: created from nothing, and destined to live in His glory forever, is fundamental to our belief and the basis of all Christian hope and love. Having been given the grace to live, as God would have us live, is a dignity that we cannot seem to grasp. To live in a way that would bring God glory seems to be a task that is superhuman at best. But God is not dissuaded by our proclivity to chase rainbows and turn from Him at every seeming whim. Instead, He quietly and steadily pursues each of us until the end, not unlike Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven. No soul would exist that did not have the potential to become a blessed in heaven and God will spare nothing in His pursuit of each and every soul. Should we fail, we have no one to blame but our obstinate refusal to accept His grace and a conscious avoidance of His presence in our midst: for God has left His fingerprints on everything in the cosmos. But His indwelling in our very soul is a formidable mark of grace. We are never without Him nor are we ever separated from His love.
What can we possibly do to ensure that God might reach us and that we might not fail to live up to His plan for our lives? The constant teaching of the Church is prayer and detachment.
Through prayer, especially silent prayer, we discover God hiding in the recesses of our souls, beckoning to us while keeping constant vigil. Having found Him so near, allows the soul an opportunity to willfully increase the room we have allotted Him in our hearts. It also allows Him to fill us with all necessary grace for the rooting out of unhealthy attachments: primarily our attachment to self. Finally the soul is once again reminded of the life that God has desired for us: a life of eternal love – love of Him and love for all creation – including each and every soul that was so lovingly created and known before the foundation of the world.
Catholic saints and spiritual writers have always agreed that the quickest and easiest method of advancing in the spiritual life is in the practice of obedience. The simplicity of this method as thus stated belies the difficulty in the actual living out of this dictum. The reasons for this are many: pride, anger, sloth, and just plain old Americanism. For in our country a pioneering spirit of unbridled individualism and self-actualization is an ingrained commandment that cannot be violated without tearing asunder the very fabric of our self-worth and respect. This is associated with our misguided understanding of one of the very foundation stones of our country; namely, freedom.
How can we feel free if we are to cow-tow to another’s whims and directives especially when we are sure that we are smarter or better equipped to make our own decisions? But that is exactly what we are asked to do in order to become saints ourselves. Note the following quote from the newly canonized Saint, Padre Pio: “Obey promptly! Do not consider the age or merit of the person. And in order to succeed, imagine you are obeying the Lord.” And should you wince at the mistakes that your superiors make and seethe from the unfairness that permeates this world one must also keep in mind another of his councils: “Do not disturb your soul at the sad spectacle of human injustice…. One day you will see the inevitable triumph of Divine justice over it.”
Why is obedience to those in a position of authority a necessity for spiritual progress? Why should we take our direction from those who seem incompetent or those who we know are simply wrong? Saint Pio responds, “Where there is no obedience, there is no virtue; where there is no virtue, there is no good. Where good is wanting, there is no love; where there is no love, God is absent; where God is absent, there is no heaven.” Therefore, obedience is directly connected to our salvation by its relationship to the theological virtue of charity or love. Says our Saint: “Charity is the queen of virtues. As the pearls are held together by the thread, thus the virtues are held together by charity; as the pearls fall when the thread breaks, thus virtues are lost if charity diminishes.” Obedience it seems is the epitome of self-denial: correcting inordinate self-interest and self-love, for the love of God. Christ counseled us on precisely this same point: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” __Luke 9:23
Obedience in little insignificant things is necessary in order that we might become prepared for more important things. “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in that which is greater: and he that is unjust in that which is little is unjust also in that which is greater. If then you have not been faithful in the unjust mammon, who will trust you with that which is the true?” __ Luke 16:10,11
So according to Padre Pio we are told the following: “Try always to advance more in charity; enlarge your heart with confidence for the divine gifts which the Holy Spirit is anxious to pour into it.” Because, “To fail in charity is like wounding God in the apple of His eye. What is more delicate than the pupil of the eye? To fail in charity is like failing against nature.” In order to gain this virtue, obedience leading to humility is needed. Our Saint makes this connection when he says: “Humility and charity go hand in hand. The one glorifies, the other sanctifies.” Since, “The pivot of perfection is love; he who lives in love lives in God, because God is love, as the Apostle says.”
If you think that glorifying God by your obedience and humility is foolishness, our Saint reminds us that: “The time spent for the glory of God and the salvation of souls is never spent badly.” For, “God can reject everything in a creature conceived in sin and of which it bears the indelible impression inherited from Adam. But He can absolutely not reject the sincere desire to love Him.” Your desire to love Him is proved by your everyday practice of obedience for love of Him.
Applying the Rosary As a Model for Perfecting the Soul
Preface: What follows is strictly a personal reflection on the Mysteries of the Rosary that has, over time, grown into this form – though abbreviated for publication. For quite some time I have been convinced that the original 3 sets of Mysteries contained in the Rosary correspond in some way to the classical 3 ages of the interior life – though the possible correlations, considerations and insights that the Rosary offers are practically limitless. These Mysteries of Our Lady and of Our Lord seem to give insight into how we might live in accord with our ‘image and likeness’ of God; both Jesus and Mary being the Perfect Models for this Spiritual Journey. “For thou lightest my lamp O Lord: O my God enlighten my darkness.” __ Ps. 17:29
Choosing Sides – Preparing for War
- The Annunciation: Every Christian life begins with a ‘yes’ to the basic propositions of Christianity. This ‘fiat’ of ours plants the Seed of Faith deep in our hearts and awaits its growth.
- The Visitation: We seek the water that will give life to this Seed of Faith and find this nourishment in the Womb of the Church (a distant cousin that we will soon adopt as our mother); for She contains the Waters of Baptism – the Water of Life. Just as John the Baptist leapt in the womb of Elizabeth so too the members of the Church will continually rejoice at the Baptism of each new soul.
- The Birth of Jesus: Now having been nourished by the Waters of Baptism and reborn into the Family of God (the Church) we begin to put flesh on our Faith and begin to take our first steps in this New Life of the Spirit. We are a New Creation, reborn of water and the Spirit.
- The Presentation: The Church strengthens us in Confirmation – our chance to present our New Life, Reborn in the Spirit, to the Church while we offer ourselves to God through Her. We beg for God’s help and for the help of Mother Church in this bold undertaking. As Mary caught a glimpse of the suffering of Her Son and of her participation in the suffering, we too, start to enkindle some inkling of the participation to which we are called and the pains of renouncing the wisdom of the world.
- The Finding in the Temple: Having found Christ our Savior in the Tabernacle of the Church, the Church in turn helps us to find Christ in the Tabernacle of our hearts – in the very center of our soul – never to be lost again. We wish to emulate our Lord and His Holy Mother and have prayed for all of the Christian Virtues. Though we have grown in virtue they have not as yet been tested and purified by the fires of trial. However, the necessary preparations for a successful Spiritual Journey have been made; a step that will lead us into battle with the world the flesh and the devil and hopefully win countless victories for the Glory of Christ’s Holy Name. We too should now be ‘about our Father’s business.’
The Battle is Entered – We are Not Alone
- The Agony: Thus prepared for battle, the Newly Formed Christian is faced with apprehension at the onslaught of his first trial. “Do I enjoin the Spiritual Battle or remain a safe distance away?” “Am I strong enough? Am I fully prepared? What if I fail? Can I endure the suffering and hardships of the upcoming battle?” But Mother Church has taught us to emulate our Savior King and though we wish to be spared from the fight we are all invited to repeat with Him: “Not my will, but Thine be done.” Keep in mind that this election to enter the spiritual fight is rare; requiring Supernatural Aid to allow us to proceed past this point. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
- The Scourging: Thus the Christian who seeks to be Perfect in this life has uttered a new Fiat. He has accepted the Will of God for his life though he may suffer many blows for His Lord. His scourging may come from any direction and source as he is tied helplessly to the Pillar of Truth; that for which he is willing to give all.
- The Crown of Thorns: Indignity, loss of stature, money, friends, health, or family may turn this Warrior for Christ into another ‘Man of Sorrows” – a castaway who is derided and avoided by all. But his transformation into this Man of Sorrows has begun to give him a shadowy likeness to Christ Our King. Should he endure these trials, the battle-scarred Christian will surely need new and greater strengths to enable a successful journey home.
- The Carrying of the Cross: The Faithful Servant is forced to carry his cross much as Christ did on His way to Calvary. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”__ Matt. 16:24. Likewise, even as Christ found help with His Cross in the person of Simon of Cyrene, Jesus helps us carry ours (or are we helping Christ with His?). At times this aid arrives through the visible help of family, Church, or friends.
- The Crucifixion: The final battle is upon the Pilgrim of the Spiritual Journey. This is the final test and most crucial. Where before he found aid and comfort in little things and readily found God dwelling in the Tabernacle of his heart, all known comforts seem now to fail him. He no longer is sure of his journey, his faith, his hope or his love. His hard-won virtues seem nowhere to be found. Self-Doubt is oppressive. In this abandonment and darkness the world seems to be the only one who cries out to him: “come down from the Cross.” The world offers her comfort and beckons the warrior to retreat to a comfortable and safe distance from the battle – offering a sponge soaked with her pain-killing diversions. A retreat is offered whereby the Spiritual Journeyer can leave the battle and no longer hear the cries of Christ, no longer see the Blood of our Tortured Lord, and no longer feel the Agony and Suffering that is His. The successful Pilgrim, however, responds by an act of sheer will and refuses these temptations of the world. Dimly he beholds the Church and Her Posterity at the foot of the Cross, and for their sake and their King’s he repeats with our Lord: “Into Your hands, I commend my Spirit.” These valiant soldiers abandon themselves to the Will of their God, and likewise offer themselves up as Sin (offenses that essentially beat against Love) just as their Lord did before them. They unite their trials with His and share in His death but also in His Glory.
The Spoils of War – a Hero’s Welcome
- The Resurrection: For those who have cooperated with Christ in the conquering of Sin a resurrection of faith is imminent. The return of faith for these Heroes of Christianity is purer and more steadfast than what they previously perceived as having lost. Their virtues have been purified in the fires of love; they have become Living Saints – the most exceptional of human beings.
- The Ascension: Transformed by the Journey of Faith, the Pilgrim Saint can now repeat with St. Paul: “And I live, now not I: but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). This death of self and transformation in Christ has left our Saint living physically on earth but spiritually and mentally in heaven – his eternal home. He has in a real sense, ascended to His God and His King though he walks among us.
- The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles: As the Holy Spirit once gave birth to the Church through the Apostles on Pentecost, so too does the Holy Spirit give new birth to the Spiritual Pilgrim who conquered all in the name of Christ – who now possesses the virtues in a perfected state. As with Mary, his Spiritual Mother and Model, God now fills His Saint with Grace. This indwelling Spirit of Love unites the Saint with Christ, His Mother and with all the members of the Church in a way that before was purely intellectual but is now as substantial as the ground upon which he walks.
- The Assumption: The Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the Model of the Church, is now perceived in a very real way as God’s revelation to our Saint that salvation is indeed assured for those who steadfastly cling to their faith. Faith, Hope and Love have now been perfected to such a degree that the Saint is almost without need of the first two; for he sees, though as through a veil, what lies behind death’s dark door.
- The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary: We see the Coronation of our Virgin Mother as also being the Coronation of the Church Triumphant – somehow, all of us participating in the Glories of the Kingdom and co-operating in Mary’s Singular Boast. For the Saints have emulated both Christ their Savior and Mary their Mother in this struggle to enter Heaven. A hero’s welcome awaits these brave men and women, as they will surely hear their Savior say to them: “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” __ Mt. 25:21
Comment: Few attempt the Journey to Perfection in this lifetime and those who have tried usually flee somewhere during the Sorrowful Mysteries of this Living Rosary. Although fraught with great trials and sorrows, the Sorrowful Mysteries must be said (that is lived). We can either recite them in this life with great merit or wait to chant them in Purgatory. But make no mistake, all who enter into the joy of the Lord will be cleansed of all their sins; for this putting to death of sin is an essential and necessary precondition that allows us entry to the eternal joys of the Glorious Mysteries which await us.
The basis for all spirituality is adherence to a standard. In the case of Catholic Spirituality the standard is, of course, the definitive teachings of the Roman Catholic Church; including Her moral standard, as well as Her practices.
To borrow one of the late Fulton Sheen’s illustrations, let’s imagine ourselves sitting at a piano.
When we strike any key on the instrument no one can say that we have hit a wrong note. However, in the context of playing a particular piece of music, many wrong notes are possible. The music to be played is a standard that must be followed precisely if we are to receive the applause that follows a successful rendition at a concert.
Our spiritual lives are very much like this. Our saints are like the virtuosos who garner much admiration after a difficult musical performance. We do not see or hear the mistakes previously made during practice nor are we made aware of the depth of the trials that these persons overcame in order to achieve their success. But rest assured that a struggle was a necessary prelude to all that they achieved.
The piano player made mistakes in practicing and worked them out. If they were beyond his ability to recognize and correct, he sought out a maestro or teacher who could give them musical exercises to overcome their shortfalls. But never did they decide to rewrite the score themselves in order that they might more easily play the piece or because they disagreed with some section of the musical piece. They adhered completely to the standard.
Likewise, a Catholic soul who desires to lead a spiritual life, who wishes to attempt Christ’s lofty goal to “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), must practice holiness like a virtuoso practices his instrument. When he stumbles and falls, he returns to his Maestro (the Church) for correction. It is through this never ending and meticulous process of failure, confession, absolution, and spiritual direction that the soul is purified and our Catholic Spirituality made sound. We don’t rely solely on our own abilities nor do we re-write the teachings of the Church to aid us in our journey. For then we have only substituted our private standard for that of the Church and our spirituality becomes as flawed as the musician who ‘does his own thing’ without regard to the music that he has been asked to play. Just as such a musician will not long be a member of an orchestra, so too those who create their own standards cannot long remain members of the Divine Orchestra the Holy Catholic Church unless one fully accepts the Divine Music and at least attempts to play the performance according to Her Standard.
The first step to a healthy spirituality then is the desire to play in the Heavenly Orchestra and to humbly submit to play only those notes that are written. The next step is to practice according to the rules those things that are difficult and to seek help in correcting those things with which we constantly have problems. Once the soul has begun to faithfully apply himself to this humble obedience (this training of the will) and has sought help through prayer, countless days of practice (making virtues habitual, and through the utilization of appointed teachers within the Church, much progress in the Spiritual Life is assured.
In music one studies the theory of music, seeks help and listens to others who play well, while in Spirituality the soul studies the teachings, the moral laws and precepts, prays, practices the virtues, and acquaints themselves with the great saints in order that he might acquire their abilities which are not yet possessed in full. Imperfections and failures are certain along the way but with these basics one can proceed safely without danger to ones immortal soul. “For what will it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26) Remember that sloth or laxity is a capital sin that we must always be on guard to fight. Zeal for the Faith and zeal for Christ comes no other way: it requires spiritual exercise and slow, hard work.