Saturday, February 26, 2011

Growth in Holiness: First Pain

Among my morning readings of late is a small book titled: The Friendship of Christ. Written by Robert Hugh Benson, an Anglican convert who died in 1914, the book reads as fresh as written yesterday. I particularly liked his treatment of spiritual growth, which he described as a friendship with Jesus, and his treatment of the classical Purgative and Illuminative Ways. In short, The Purgative Way describes how we must be torn down of our own ideas, and the Illuminative Way describes how we must put on the light of Christ, and see life with God in a wholly different way, a way of holiness, not just any ordinary friendship.

Benson notes that friendship with Christ begins like all friendships, we see something God or His Church and we think we have detected a soul exactly suited to our own; He has knocked at our door, and we have answered. He begins to live before our eyes. And then we are happy with our new friend, very happy. All is well in our life, and we are enthusiastic about all things spiritual. But this is just the beginning of a growth in holiness, even though some may see it as the end: Isn’t this the faith I have been longing for? Isn’t this walking with my friend, God, wonderful? But then, Benson notes, the soul herself must be educated. She must be purged and then illuminated. The initial friendship gave the soul a reason, or desire, to do this, to grow closer, but no friendship stays as it first started.

The first stage of the purgation is what the world calls disillusionment, specifically disillusionment with earthly things associated with our newfound friend. The novelty begins to wear off. She becomes disillusioned with human things, and finds that however Christian they may be, they are not, after all, Christ. Just as something sparks the initial friendship, often something sparks the disillusionment, perhaps a disgruntled priest, a disunited congregation, or maybe a misunderstanding of Church teachings. She had thought the Church must be perfect, because it was the Church of Christ. Some souls may walk away at this point, they never took the time to try and understand their friend, but those that stay have learned their first lesson: that divinity is not in these earthly things, that the love of Christ is a deeper thing than mere presents He makes to His new friends.

The second stage of purgation is a disillusionment with divine things; the monotony of piety. Prayer and meditation become a chore. Prayers not heard lead the soul to question if anyone is listening. Christ has cheated her, it almost seems, with promises He cannot or will not fulfill. Here is where some souls become cynical because things are not going their way. They tell others: I was once as you are. But you will become practical, some day too. Yet if the soul can perceive yet another lesson here, it can grow greatly: the object of religion is that the soul should serve God, not that God should serve the soul.

And despite all these things which might tear many friendships with God asunder, there is a final stage to purgation. Disillusioned with things of earth, and disillusioned with things divine, the soul has to learn the last lesson of all, and become disillusioned with herself. She has been tempted to think that Christ had failed her; now she has to learn that it is she who, all along, in spite of her childlike love, has been failing Christ: and this is at once the real essence and object of purgation. She begins to learn … her amazing self-centeredness and complacency. She begins to see … that she has sought to possess, not to be possessed. She sees for the first time that there is no good in herself apart from Christ; that He must be all, and she nothing.

Mr. Benson points out the benefits of going through these classical steps of purgation, a tearing down of what we believe in, but he notes that all is not despair, because now the stage is set for a building up, an illumination of a better way of believing, a closer friendship than any we have ever known. But he also points out a grave risk at this point, that the soul having seen itself clearly may despair. There are dangers of false humility. Depart from me, for I am a sinful man. But Christ purges His friends of all that is not Him … in order that He may be wholly theirs.

A growth in holiness starts with an initial friendship with God, and then inevitably comes the purgation and pain, and many fall away from Him, to their great loss. They can’t give up the pleasures they covet for themselves in this world. They had the opportunity to not just find a friendship for life, but a friendship for eternity, and they failed. But that doesn’t have to be us, my friends; a friendship with God is no ordinary friendship; it requires the deep commitment of our lives.

We can make that commitment. Explaining how we do that is described in The Illuminative Way, the next chapter in Mr. Benson’s book. But I’ll stop here, for now. There is much here to think about. Where are we at in our walk with God? Are we still at that initial step? Have we begun to become disillusioned? Are we stuck on a step? But, these are just steps; if we persevere and walk these steps, there are new heights at the top of the staircase, heights we can’t even begin to imagine.

It’s always easier walking down a staircase; we don’t have to exercise our heart as much. Where is your heart?

No comments:

Post a Comment