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The Priest's Way To God

IN the previous chapter we were insistent that every priest, called as he is by his priesthood to the active life of the apostolate, is by that very priesthood still more urgently called to an interior life of union and intimate friendship with our Lord. In practice we think that no priest will err in accepting this as a working principle. It is perfectly true that a priest cannot continue to be a friend of our Lord’s or to be intimately united to him, if he neglects his apostolic obligations, but it does not always follow that a life of active apostolate is accompanied by such friendship and divine union. The importance of seeking for divine union is, then, obvious. But how in practice are we to find it?

Theoretically, perhaps, faith, hope and charity are the virtues which we should exercise in order to achieve this close union with our Lord. In practice, however, humility has an importance that is in some ways preeminent. For the whole of the supernatural economy is based on grace: everything we achieve must come to us from God. And God, as the Holy Spirit tells us, ‘resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.’

James IV, 6

God made the world, and God redeemed the world, for his own glory. God associates us priests with him in his saving and sanctifying work, but his own glory is still the fundamental motive of this work. It is true that he seeks his glory through his mercy. But the glory of his mercy is his own. He warns us: ‘I am the Lord, this is my name; I will not give my glory to another.’

Isaias XLII, 8

If we have not humility, we shall try to rob God of his glory and appropriate it to ourselves, and then God must resist us.

Let us, however, consider it from the point of view of friendship with our Lord. He has chosen us to be his friends, quite gratuitously. It is not for any goodness or value that is in us that he has chosen us. His motive is rather to give than to receive. He wants to make us sharers in his own happiness and it is in order that we may earn our share of his happiness that he makes us priests. He could do our work himself; he could use the ministry of the angels. But he has decided to co-opt us in sheer loving mercy without any claims on our part save that of poverty. It is his love that animates his choice and his generous bestowal of friendship. Even in human friendship, where one has chosen gratuitously and longs to do everything for the person one has chosen, what can cause so much pain and anguish as self-sufficiency? And in divine friendship the same is true. Our Lord knows our weakness, he knows our meanness, he knows our treachery, he knows our infidelity. All these he can heal and pardon. But self-sufficiency shuts the door on all his advances.

He stands at the gate and knocks, and the self-sufficient will not open to him. Love calls for dependence, divine love especially so. Love wants to give, divine love most of all; but nothing can be given to the self-sufficient.

If a priest, then, asks what he is to do to meet the demands of our Lord for his friendship, the best answer is that he should imitate St. Paul and glory gladly in his infirmities that the power of Christ may dwell in him.

Cf. 2 Cor. XII, 9

Fr. Clerissac O.P. summed it up very neatly in the Introduction to his book, The Mystery of the Church, when he said: ‘It is our emptiness and thirst that God needs, not our plenitude.’ The realization of this truth is a great grace from God and it is one we priests should ask for, earnestly and insistently. Human reason and human experience may, perhaps, indicate to us the poverty of our own resources, but unless God gives us the grace we are not likely to relish our poverty and glory in our infirmities. Yet they are our most valuable assets for they are our title to divine union. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

Matt. V, 3

Thomas à Kempis gives expression to our Lord’s desire by putting the following words in his mouth: ‘What more do I ask of thee than to try to give thyself up entirely to me? Whatever thou givest besides thyself is nothing to me: I seek not thy gift but thyself: just as thou couldst not be content without me, though thou hadst everything else: so nothing thou offerest can please me unless thou offerest me thyself. . . . Behold, I offered my whole self to the Father for thee, and have given my whole Body and Blood for thy food: that I might be all thine, and thou mightest be all and always mine. But if thou will stand upon thy own strength, and will not offer thyself freely to my will, thy offering is not perfect, nor will there be an entire union between us.’

Imitation of Christ IV, 8

As usual, à Kempis sums it up in a phrase. If we ‘stand upon our own strength’ as he says, we cannot have complete union with our Lord. Jesus is not content to be merely our Partner, he insists on being our All.

It is, perhaps, an instinctive desire and striving for independence that is in many cases the cause of our failure to fulfil our vocation to be the friends of our Lord. In the natural order, the sons of men grow up from absolute dependence to an ever-increasing independence of their parents. In the supernatural order growth is quite different. In the earlier stages God’s gifts endow us with a certain measure of independence. We feel we can stand, if not on our own strength, at least on the strength God has given us. To us it seems as if we had a reserve of power at our disposal, as if our priestly powers were our own. As we grow, however, our dependence becomes greater and greater. The more our union with Christ develops, the more complete becomes our dependence upon him. It is essential that we priests realize this. Otherwise all our striving will lead us away from God instead of bringing us to union with him, for our whole natural tendency is to try to develop our own competence and efficiency even in the supernatural order. We look forward to being able to handle any situation, to being strong enough to deal with any temptation, to being virtuous enough to perform all good works. True advance is quite different. One becomes more and more convinced of the essentially super-human nature of all supernatural works, whether in the service of souls or in our own sanctification. The inadequacy of our own power becomes more and more manifest. It is true, of course, that our confidence in God and our assurance of his co-operation are also ever-increasing, but we clearly realize that all that we have or do is the work of God rather than our own. In fact, our futility becomes so obvious that when souls come to us for help we hesitate to do more than promise to pray for them. Charity, and perhaps duty, demand that we make an effort to assist them, but our attempts are so clumsy and our words so foolish that we fly to our Lord to supply for our futility and failure. This is especially marked where there is question of direction of souls who are well advanced in the spiritual life. It sometimes seems that the grace we minister to them must be paid for by our own painful incompetence.

Yet this is typical of all our priestly life, in all its aspects. Divine union here below is to be sought for through and in Jesus Christ. And it is through and to Jesus as our Saviour that we must be united. The necessary disposition, then, on our part is the realization of our need of being saved. This is the very antithesis of self-sufficiency. And it makes clear to us how much of our striving to achieve union as a merited prize rather than as a merciful gift is wide of the mark. It also gives us great consolation and courage. For misery is the title to mercy and our short-comings are our claim to be saved. So that we cannot ever go to the throne of grace with more confidence than when we are most conscious of our own emptiness and futility. Even our sins and infidelities are no obstacle. We go to our Saviour to be saved from ourselves. And he himself will come and save us. This is the essential part of that self-denial upon which he insisted when he told us that we must deny ourselves and follow him. For he intends to replace our ‘self’ by himself. He is our Life and our All. If only we priests could grasp this principle, our whole life could be changed in a short time. But it means a complete change of outlook. Too many of us regard divine union and friendship with Jesus as something remote, something only to be achieved after a long laborious struggle in the spiritual life, something which is the reward for our fidelity and merit, and the crown of our strength and virtue. Nothing could be more misleading! The very commencement of the spiritual life involves divine union—a union so intimate that we are made partakers of the divine nature and become the dwelling-places of the Blessed Trinity. We are warned that we cannot have life unless we eat the Flesh of Christ and drink of his Blood; and this physical union with him, intimate as it is, is only a shadow and a sign of the much more intimate spiritual union with God which it produces in our souls. This union is the essential source of all Christian life. For us priests, especially, it is unquestionably true that we are called, and called most urgently, to live in intimate friendship with our Lord, not merely in the remote future, but here and now at this very moment. The friendship is not a reward for our virtue but a remedy for our sinfulness; it is not the result of our achievements but the essential means of our fruitfulness. We must, therefore, get rid of all that interferes with this friendship, and do all we can to promote it. In a word, we must be humble.

Perhaps the best way in practice to estimate our lack of humility is to consider the defects that this lack produces. And lest we be afraid to admit our shortcomings, let us consider these very defects in the apostles themselves. First of all, let us stand with the apostles when our Lord asks us all: ‘What did you treat of in the way?’

Mark IX, 32

Like them, probably, we shall have to hold our peace because it would be hard for us to deny that we were disputing, in one way or another, which of us should be the greatest. The desire to excel, to be successful, is usually evidence of self-seeking ambition. We feel we are self-sufficient and we wish to have our sufficiency recognized and praised. Our Lord’s answer should warn us of our error; ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’

Matt. XVIII, 3

Again, perhaps, we can find a fellowship with the apostles in that scene where St. John reported to our Lord: ‘Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, who followeth not us: and we forbade him.’

Mark IX, 37

How many diseases may lie behind such an attitude, all different forms of self-seeking, jealousy at another’s success, a desire to monopolize for ourselves the glory of the apostolate, stubborn attachment to our own views, to our own traditions, to our own ‘school.’ Is there any danger that we are tempted to hinder or decry work done in the name of Christ for which we ourselves are not going to obtain the credit?

Then, perhaps, we can find further fellowship with the sons of thunder, who would command fire and brimstone to come down from heaven and consume those who opposed them or rejected their teaching.

Luke IX, 54

If so, we should be mindful of our Lord’s rebuke: ‘You know not of what spirit you are. The Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save.’

Ibid.

Patience and mercy were characteristic of Christ; they must also be characteristic of us if we are to be of the same spirit as he is. These same sons of Zebedee may reveal to us our own thoughts and desires when, on hearing. our Lord foretell his passion and death and ultimate resurrection, they pleaded for seats on either hand in his glory. Our Lord’s answer applies to us also. It is an invitation to drink the chalice that he drinks of and to be baptized with the baptism wherewith he is baptized.

Cf. Mark X, 35 et seq.

And his warning to those who seek power and authority may have its meaning for us if we wish to be friends with him: ‘Whosoever will be greater shall be your minister. And whosoever will be first among you shall be the servant of all. For the Son of man also is not come to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life for the redemption of many.’

Ibid.

When we fail in our efforts, could he not often say to us, as well as to the apostles, that it is because of our unbelief, and when we succeed, do not our elation and self-satisfaction contrast with his words: ‘When you have done all these things that are commanded you, say: we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do.’?

Luke XVII, 10

How often do we regard ourselves as the one best fitted to deal with a certain situation or to handle a special type of soul! How often do we magnify ourselves in our thoughts, turning the gifts of God to our own glory, and flattering ourselves that we indeed are profitable servants, whose services are so valuable and almost necessary to our Master!

If we are to live in friendship with Jesus we must share his sentiments. We must, in fact, follow the precept of St. Paul: ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.’

Phil. II, 5

Our Lord’s whole aim was to ‘empty’ himself, to humble himself, to be obedient even unto death. In all things he was led by the Holy Spirit and lived for the glory of his Father. If we do not share his sentiments, if we are not of one mind with him, we are really against him. That is why he is so insistent that we, his disciples and his friends, must deny ourselves. No form of self-denial is so important as this complete renunciation of self, of self either as the centre of our life or as the source of our strength, a renunciation which is involved in true humility. In fact, it may be said that without this form of self- denial, all other forms are not merely delusions, but are even dangerous, for they can be the food of pride.

To acquire this humility, we must pray with sincerity and insistence. We must also cultivate the company of Jesus. He dwells in our hearts, he resides there to be our All. He is there as our Saviour. We must study him in the Scriptures; we must learn his ways—so meek and humble—by constant conversation with him. We must forget ourselves and depend on him. But we must, above all, have unlimited confidence in him. His mercy is infinite. There is nothing which he is not prepared to forgive. There is nothing which he is not prepared to remedy. There is nothing which he is not prepared to restore. He literally rejoices in being our Saviour. He is Love incarnate. His love rejoices in its omnipotent power to save us from ourselves. He rejoices with the whole heavenly court when, like the prodigal son, having wasted all our substance, we turn to him. He is on fire to make us his loving friends. We believe in him, but we must also believe in his infinite mercy and infinite love. He asks us for our love and that we should never doubt his love for us; above all he asks us priests that we should trust him and never, never doubt his mercy.

The virtue that opens the door to his love, and which is the foundation of our trust, is humility. It has a wonderful power of transmuting all our sins and debts into assets. Let us quote the words of Blessed Guerric, a disciple of St. Bernard, which are thus rendered and partly summarized by a modern Cistercian. ‘Humility has a very special property of its own; it not only ensures that the other virtues are really virtues, but if any one of them is wanting, or is imperfect, humility, using that very deficiency, of itself repairs the deficiency. Therefore, if something seems to be lacking in any soul, it is lacking for no other reason than that the soul should be all the more perfect by its absence, for virtue is made perfect in infirmity. “Paul,” saith the Lord, “my grace is sufficient for thee.”

2 Cor. XII, 9

He for whom the grace of God is sufficient can be lacking in some particular grace, not only without serious loss, but even with no small gain, for that very defect and infirmity perfects virtue; and the very diminution of a certain grace only makes the greatest of all God’s graces—namely, humility—present in a fuller measure and a more stable way. Far, then, 0 Lord, from thy servants let that grace be—whatever it may be—which can take away or lessen our grace in thy eyes (gratiam tui), by which, namely, although more pleasing in our own eyes, we become more hateful in thine. That is not grace, but wrath, for it is only fully fit to be given to those with whom thou art angry, in whose regard thou hast disposed such things, and that because of their simulation, thrusting them down at the very moment of their elevation and rightly crushing them even while they are raised on high. In order, therefore, that that grace alone, without which no one is loved by thee, may remain safe in our possession, let thy grace and favour either take away all other grace from us or else give us the grace of using all properly; so that having the grace by which we serve thee pleasingly with fear and reverence, we may earn the favour of the Giver through the grace of the gift, and that, growing in grace, we may be the more truly pleasing to thee.’

Humility, then, is all-important. And by humility we understand a disposition that tends to forget self completely and to remember only Christ. It is a great gift from God; in fact, in its higher stages, it seems to be an infused grace. But it is essential to divine union and friendship. So that we who are literally called to the wedding feast of the Lamb must have the wine of humility. And if we have no wine, we have but to turn to her whose humility prepared her to be the Mother of God and ask her, in the name of her Son, for that humility without which he cannot live in us. How can such a prayer be refused?








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