* * * * * * *Looking back in all sincerity over our spiritual life, we are surprised, if not disheartened, at our slowness, not to say complete lack of progress. How is it that there has been so much effort with so little to show for it? Why, after so many years, it may be, of a life of asceticism, we must own to the same weaknesses, admit the same faults? Is it not possible that from the very beginning we have missed the essential point of it all, and have been following the wrong road?
For there is only one door by which we can enter into our spiritual heritage. In our vain attempts to enter by some other way, it is obvious that we are bound to meet insuperable difficulties. Have we not been rather like a foolish robber who seeks by some ruse to effect an entrance into a place only too well defended? Our Lord says, "He that enters not by the door, but climbs up another way is a thief and a robber" (John 10:1). This one door is Christ: faith in Christ; a faith quickened by love, which by fortifying our heart makes us capable of loving in return with a love which burns more intently and radiates more widely, thus resembling more and more the love of Jesus Himself.
But first of all we must make one thing perfectly clear: any kind of asceticism which has for its sole object the perfecting of self - an asceticism which is egocentric - is utterly worthless. Such a way of life pays very poor dividends, and the profits it yields are very disappointing. He who sows human seed can only expect to reap a human harvest.
Christian asceticism is based absolutely upon a divine principle, and this same principle inspires and animates it, and guides it to its end."You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5). Here we have the summing-up and essence of the Old Law: the New Law has done no more than repeat this first and greatest commandment, making it clearer for all to understand, and promulgating it universally in all its divine simplicity and force. From the very beginning of our spiritual life we must keep our soul set towards this plenitude of love, towards God alone. To act otherwise is to fail to recognise the profound purpose of Christianity; to return to the notion of a self-centred perfection, to that delusive egoism of certain pagan moralists – in a word, to Stoicism, ancient and new – which is so exacting a culture of so miserable a pride.
If only we could convince ourselves once and for all of the truth of the words of our divine Master: "Without Me, you can do nothing" (John 6:5). How changed our whole outlook would be. If only our minds were penetrated with the doctrine of life contained in those few words, we would concentrate on practicing, not just one or two virtues, but all without exception, knowing so well that it is God Himself Who must be both the term and source of our actions.
Then, having done all we can, we would remain humble in our progress and confident after our falls. Knowing that of ourselves we can do nothing but that in Christ we can do all things, we should no more be discouraged by our faults than proud of the virtuous acts His grace has made possible.
And not only that: once we are convinced that we are nothing and that God is all, our very weaknesses and failings need no longer be obstacles. Indeed, they are changed into means: they are an occasion for our faith to grow by the exercise of heroic acts, and for our trust to triumph before the manifest rout of all that draws us away from God. The apostle says, "Gladly I will glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me" (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Once, then, we have learned to trust in God and mistrust our own strength, we shall run like giants in the way of love. More and more will love motivate our actions and purify our intentions, until before long its influence will penetrate every corner of our lives.
And so, if we would be faithful to the teaching of the Gospel, we must spare no effort until we have arrived at acting solely from motives of faith and love. And since a purely natural principle can never produce supernatural results, we shall never reach our goal unless from the outset we endeavor to act solely from specifically Christian motives. For if, as Saint Paul says, we cannot even pronounce our Lord’s Name, save by His grace, how can we hope, by our own efforts, to arrive at our supernatural end?
We do not deny that, if we are to put our house in order, some effort of will on our part is absolutely necessary; but if we ask ourselves whether the impetus of our will responds more readily and more efficaciously under the influence of faith and grace or when moved solely by reason, we know well the answer. Why not, then, since it is a question of developing our spiritual life, profit as much as we can from the light and strength that the theological virtues can give us? Why not, from the very start, enter straight away into the Kingdom within us, into the intimate friendship of God?
This Kingdom of Christ lies open before us. Not only so, it is our Lord’s express desire that we should make that Kingdom ours. "Abide in Me, and I in you" (John 15:4). Why not respond to His call, and begin to live by faith now, even as Saint Paul tells us: "The just man lives by faith" (Romans 1:17).