Christian Life/Personal Holiness: December 2003 Archives

On the Use of Imagery

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When dealing in spiritual matters, it seems best to me to use the imagery that works to bring you into the presence of God and to keep you from sin. For some, that image is a stern Father whose discipline is swift and sure, but whose love is nevertheless there. Others prefer the image of King and sovereign. Some may have other images that they cling to.

In many cases the images of authority, rightful though they are, do nothing to prevent me from sinning, and may actually encourage it. The idea of a holy and righteous person translated to human terms often comes down to one who wishes to impose a ridiculous and arbitrary system of rules and measures that have nothing to do with reality. (In a very mild sense I am a rebel, I suppose.)

The image that is most effective for me in preventing sin is the image of a deeply loving Father in heaven who can be hurt by what I choose to do. Imagine how you would feel if your own mother or father could see everything you do. Would you do all of it? What things might you choose not to do? This is the image I use to help me in temptation. And it still doesn't work very well; however, the instant the "traffic cop" God crosses my mind, I start jaywalking--just a visible sign of the flaw created in me by the fall.

So my advice to each person is to choose the image of God that most speaks to you. Acknowledge that all are true images, if limited in a way that God is not, but meditate and focus on the one image that most helps you to move toward God. Also realize that through time the image the helps your meditation and aids in resisting temptation will change. At one time it may be loving father, at another just judge. There is nothing wrong with changing images or clinging to an image, so long as you bear in mind that any single image, or even all the images you can bring to mind at once, do not begin to touch the truth that is God. The images are mere aids, to be cast aside when their usefulness has gone. The important thing is to find a way to increase your love and desire for God and to move steadily ever closer.

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The classic editions of The Practice of the Presence of God consist of approximately four conversations and fifteen letters of advice offered by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a SEVENTEENTH century Carmelite. Hailing from the province of Alsace-Lorraine, I suppose there is some question as to nationality; however, he wrote in French and thus we might consider him French.

Ms. Deb Platt has reorganized the material thematically and produced an interesting and recommended "study guide" to the work, which makes for a more coherent reading of the main texts.

However, I will follow the classic line and look at the letters (or so I propose, by tomorrow I may have changed my mind)

from Practice of the Presence of God Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection


How the habitual sense of God's Presence was found.

SINCE you desire so earnestly that I should communicate to you the method by which I arrived at that habitual sense of GOD's Presence, which our LORD, of His mercy, has been pleased to vouchsafe to me; I must tell you, that it is with great difficulty that I am prevailed on by your importunities; and now I do it only upon the terms, that you show my letter to nobody. If I knew that you would let it be seen, all the desire that I have for your advancement would not be able to determine me to it. The account I can give you is:
Having found in many books different methods of going to GOD, and divers practices of the spiritual life, I thought this would serve rather to puzzle me, than facilitate what I sought after, which was nothing but how to become wholly GOD's.

This made me resolve to give the all for the All: so after having given myself wholly to GOD, to make all the satisfaction I could for my sins, I renounced, for the love of Him, everything that was not He; and I began to live as if there was none but He and I in the world. Sometimes I considered myself before Him as a poor criminal at the feet of his judge; at other times I beheld Him in my heart as my FATHER, as my GOD: I worshipped Him the oftenest that I could, keeping my mind in His holy Presence, and recalling it as often as I found it wandered from Him. I found no small pain in this exercise, and yet I continued it, notwithstanding all the difficulties that occurred, without troubling or disquieting myself when my mind had wandered involuntarily. I made this my business, as much all the day long as at the appointed times of prayer; for at all times, every hour, every minute, even in the height of my business, I drove away from my mind everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of GOD.

Such has been my common practice ever since I entered into religion; and though I have done it very imperfectly, yet I have found great advantages by it. These, I well know, are to be imputed to the mere mercy and goodness of GOD, because we can do nothing without Him; and I still less than any. But when we are faithful to keep ourselves in His holy Presence, and set Him always before us, this not only hinders our offending Him, and doing anything that may displease Him, at least wilfully, but it also begets in us a holy freedom, and if I may so speak, a familiarity with GOD, wherewith we ask, and that successfully, the graces we stand in need of. In fine, by often repeating these acts, they become habitual, and the presence of GOD is rendered as it were natural to us. Give Him thanks, if you please, with me, for His great goodness towards me, which I can never sufficiently admire, for the many favours He has done to so miserable a sinner as I am. May all things praise Him. Amen.

For the complete, classic work, see here.

What is remarkable in this is the very straightforward way Brother Lawrence treats common problems in prayer. A simple bullheadedness with one Goal in mind--God Himself and nothing less. "I gave my all for the All."

"I worshipped Him oftenest as I could. . ." meaning that he did not wait until he was in a chapel or an oratory or some quiet place of continued recollection, but throughout the day of work and labor, he worshipped God. As he did the dishes, He called upon His name. As he swept the floors or attended to whatever needed done, He praised God and called upon Him. In a word--he "practiced."

And by practicing he became adept. He points out that when we often turn our thoughts to God, it becomes very difficult to deliberately offend Him. The thought of God is a bit in the mouth, a bridle that trains us to recognize his touch and respond, in the way a well trained horse needs no encouragement from the reins, but merely the pressure and signal from the rider to turn and to jump. When we accustom ourselves to the bridle, or as Jesus told us, "the yoke" we discover in it a holy freedom and an intimacy that does not make us so reluctant to ask for the graces we require to grow ever nearer our Lord.

And perhaps the most glorious phrase of the letter: "In fine, by often repeating these acts, they become habitual, and the presence of GOD is rendered as it were natural to us." What could possibly be a greater source of delight and joy than for God's presence to be "natural." By that Brother Lawrence means, I think, that it is expected, it becomes in the environment in which we live whether or not we are constantly attuned to it. In a sense, it becomes our hope. When St. Thérèse experienced her long dark night, she still did not fail in faith because she had grown so intimate with God His presence was natural to her--it pervaded her. Her human senses and the devil called her to despair, but her soul knew that it lived and breathed in God's Holy Presence--there could be no despair in such living. That is what Brother Lawrence refers to. We may not be constantly aware of God in our intellect or will, but in the deepest part of our spirit we rejoice constantly in His presence. His presence is habitual, and more than habitual, life sustaining. By the practice of the presence of God, we move toward the intimacy taught by all the great Carmelite Saints. By making the effort to turn to Him (an effort that is sustained by grace alone but willed by ourselves with the help of that grace) we grow accustomed to God the way spouses are accustomed to each other in a good marriage. When one is left alone, there is great longing to be again reunited. The difference is that God never leaves us alone. We are always with Him.

There is so much truth here and such a simplicity that we would do well to consider following this advice. Throughout the day hum a hymn, or speak to God, thanking Him for small pleasures, asking advice in any situation. Bless those around us with His presence with us. When we are so moved, we can perform miracles of grace and draw souls toward God inexorably because it is His Will that moves them, His Grace that calls to them, His Presence that beckons. And best of all, we can start this practice today. And if we fail in it for a while, we can start again, and again, and again, picking up with purpose and following the trail of Grace to our Sovereign Lord.

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Christ Altogether Lovely XVI


I'm sure there will be great rejoicing and a great heaving of sighs that we have at last made it to the opposite shore of our great journey. It seemed at times perilous and uncertain that it might happen, but we are finally there. And we end with the last advice Rev. Flavel has for us regarding the application of the points previously taught.

from Christ Altogether Lovely
Rev. John Flavel

5. Never be ashamed to be counted as a Christian: he is altogether lovely; he can never be a shame to you; it will be your great sin to be ashamed of him. Some men glory in their shame; do not let yourself be ashamed of your glory. If you will be ashamed of Christ now, he will be ashamed of you when he shall appear in his own glory, and the glory of all his holy angels. Be ashamed of nothing but sin; and among other sins, be ashamed especially for this sin, that you have no more love for him who is altogether lovely.

6. Be willing to leave every thing that is lovely upon earth, in order that you may be with the altogether lovely Lord Jesus Christ in heaven. Lift up your voices with the bride, Rev. 20:20 "Come Lord Jesus, come quickly." It is true, you must pass through the pangs of death into his intimacy and enjoyment; but surely it is worth suffering much more than that to be with this lovely Jesus. "The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and the patient waiting for Jesus Christ," 2 Thes. 3:5.

7. Let the loveliness of Christ draw all men to him. Is loveliness in the creature so attractive? And can the transcendent loveliness of Christ draw none? O the blindness of man! If you see no beauty in Christ that causes you to desire him, it is because the god of this world has blinded your minds.

And once again Rev. Flavel hits upon ancient themes of Christian teaching. First, be proud to be Christian, because in Christ is the summum bonum, or perhaps, more appropriately He is the summum bonum (as God is simple and cannot consist of parts but is complete unity, if the summum bonum reside within Him, then indeed it is Him, or so it would seem). By our love of Him, let us guide all of humankind to Him, neither being ashamed of our Christianity, nor halting when there are setbacks (scandals in the Church, etc.)

Be willing to let go of everything on Earth that keeps you from completely embracing His loveliness. Be prepared to leave behind prejudices, preferences, and personality. Be prepared to abandon all preconceptions, all restrictions, all modifications, all of our broken notions of God. Be willing to share of our substantial material goods and our wealth of spiritual goods. And be ready to climb out of this world into His embrace, in the next life, if not in this. But better to prepare oneself to this journey here and now. As R. Garrigou-Lagrange points out many times in Christian Perfection and Contemplation--the so called "Mystical life" is in fact the calling of every Christian. Those who obtain it here have a taste of heaven. Those who do not spend some time working it out in the life to come. We have a choice--the bliss of heaven on Earth or the rags of Earth transformed in Eternity.

Finally, we must let the loveliness of Christ speak for itself. We must be exemplars of that loveliness, and by living it, lead all people to it. Through our love, mercy, gentleness, kindness, and true and substantial caring, we should shine out like lamps on a lampstand. We are Christ's body now--His hands, His feet, His capabilities on Earth. We are His instruments, and thus the instruments of salvation to our brothers and sister who still live in darkness. Let us shine light into their lonely and frightening worlds. For once they see light, it is unlikely they will love to remain in the dark.

Thus we complete our cycle with the dear Rev. Flavel. Part of the point is to say simply that much wealth exists in all sorts of sources. We should be willing to mine those veins that yield much worthwhile. Truly there are a great many within the Catholic Church, but sometimes a trumpet from outside is better placed to attract our attention.

So, what to next? The sermons of Johannes Tauler? Van Ruysbroeck's The Sparkling Stone or The Book of Supreme Truth? St. Alphonsus's Uniformity with God's Will or The Necessity and Power of Prayer? I welcome recommendations or requests for any book related to the spiritual life of reasonably short length. I also welcome any conversation that might ensue as we pursue these works. After all, the point is to learn and to practice, we could all do with some reinforcement.

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A Note on the Post Below

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I don't much care for the military imagery of Christianity. "A Mighty Fortress" "Onward Christian Soldiers," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," etc. Since I have a tendency toward an extreme pacificism, one might see how these images would fail to appeal.

However, I cannot but acknowledge that we are locked in a battle with powers not of this world, and the victory has already been obtained. I think of us rather like the Ents at the end of The Two Towers our responsibility now is to stand fast against the raging flood waters and to hold our ground. Even this we do not do alone, because of ourselves we can do nothing. We rely completely upon Jesus Christ, Lord, Savior, source of Strength, as we stand in this battle. We also rely upon the prayers of the Saints and the Prayers and actual spiritual armies of the Angels.

So, while I do not care for the language, nor necessarily for the imagery, it is undeniably Biblical, and undeniably given us so that we understand the extent of the siege. So, please consider joining forces with those around the world who in their daily lives stand fast and wage battle against evil, both natural and supernatural.

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Christ Altogether Lovely--XV


Almost there. We're in the final stretches--the place where Flavel gives concrete advice about what to do in order to demonstrate proper love for and devotion to Christ. And surprise! surprise! It sounds just like what every mystic from the time of St. Paul on says!

from Christ, Altogether Lovely
Rev. John Flavel


1. Is Jesus Christ altogether lovely? Then I beseech you set your souls upon this lovely Jesus. I am sure such an object as has been here represented, would compel love from the coldest breast and hardest heart. Away with those empty nothings, away with this vain deceitful world, which deserves not the thousandth part of the love you give it. Let all stand aside and give way to Christ. O if only you knew his worth and excellency, what he is in himself, what he has done for you, and deserved from you, you would need no arguments of mine to persuade you to love him!

2. Esteem nothing lovely except as it is enjoyed in Christ, or used for the sake of Christ. Love nothing for itself, love nothing separate from Jesus Christ. In two things we all sin in love of created things. We sin in the excess of our affections, loving them above the proper value of mere created things. We also sin in the inordinacy of our affections, that is to say we give our love for created things a priority it should never have.

3. Let us all be humbled for the corruption of our hearts that are so eager in their affections for vanities and trifles and so hard to be persuaded to the love of Christ, who is altogether lovely. O how many pour out streams of love and delight upon the vain and empty created thing; while no arguments can draw forth one drop of love from their stubborn and unbelieving hearts to Jesus Christ! I have read of one Joannes Mollius, who was observed to go often alone, and weep bitterly; and being pressed by a friend to know the cause of his troubles, said "O! it grieves me that I cannot bring this heart of mine to love Jesus Christ more fervently."

4. Represent Christ to the world as he is, by your behaviour towards him. Is he altogether lovely? Let all the world see and know that he is so, by your delights in him and communion with him; zeal for him, and readiness to part with any other lovely thing upon his account. Proclaim his excellencies to the world, as the spouse did in these verses. Persuade them how much your beloved is better than any other beloved. Show his glorious excellencies as you speak of him; hold him forth to others, as he is in himself: altogether lovely. See that you "walk worthy of him unto all well pleasing," Col. 1:10. "Show forth the praises of Christ," 1 Pet. 2:19. Let not that "worthy name be blasphemed through you," James 2:7. He is glorious in himself, and he is sure to put glory upon you; take heed that you do not put shame and dishonours upon him; he has committed his honour to you, do not betray that trust.

Nothing new here, just what our stubborn hearts and heads need to hear over and over again before it sinks in. If you love Jesus show it by how you esteem Him above all things. Show it by how you represent Him to the world. And by that how you act toward those who have less than you do, or who through no circumstances of their own are in humbler circumstances than your own. Frequent communion, fervent prayer, frequent confession, charity--all of these things fill hearts and minds around us with thoughts and images of Christ. Be aware of your temperament, treat all with respect, show true love to those that you would rather not.

Detach from the innumerable doo-dads and thingummies that fill a life with debris and focus on what really matters. During this season that may be more important that all the other advice. We all know that gifts and lights and decorations and cookies are not what the Christmas season is all about. And yet, we struggle to place the Person foremost in our hearts in our hurry to see that every material desire of those we love is met to the fullness we are capable of. Let us love the lights, the joys, the delights, and the wonders of Christmas, not for the transient material things they are, but for the reflection they given of the wonder of an Infant born more than 2000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem. Let Him be the source of our hope and delight and our season will have true depth and true light.

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Christ Altogether Lovely XIV

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We're almost at an end. I intend to break the application up into two posts, so after this merely two more and then I may start a discussion of St. Alphonsus's little treatise on prayer or on Uniformity with God's will. We'll see.

from "Christ Altogether Lovely"
Rev. John Flavel

Fourthly, Christ is altogether lovely in the relation of a friend, for in this relation he is pleased to acknowledge his people, Luke 12:4, 5. There are certain things in which one friend manifests his affection and friendship to another, but there is not one like Christ. For,

1. No friend is so open-hearted to his friend as Christ is to his people: he reveals the very counsels and secrets of his heart to them. John 15:15. "Henceforth I call you not servants, for the servant knows not what his Lord does; but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father, I have made known unto you.

2. No friend in the world is so generous and bountiful to his friend, as Jesus Christ is to believers; he parts with his very blood for them; "Greater love (he says) has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends," John 15:13. He has exhausted the precious treasures of his invaluable blood to pay our debts. O what a lovely friend is Jesus Christ to believers!

3. No friend sympathizes so tenderly with his friend in affliction, as Jesus Christ does with his friends: "In all our afflictions he is afflicted," Heb. 4:15. He feels all our sorrows, needs and burdens as his own. This is why it is said that the sufferings of believers are called the sufferings of Christ, Col. 1:24.

4. No friend in the world takes that contentment in his friends, as Jesus Christ does in believers. Song of Songs 4:9. "You have ravished my heart, (he says to the spouse) you have ravished my heart with one of your eyes, with one chain of your neck." The Hebrew, here rendered "ravished," signifies to puff up, or to make one proud: how the Lord Jesus is pleased to glory in his people! How he is taken and delighted with those gracious ornaments which himself bestows upon them! There is no friend so lovely as Christ.

5. No friend in the world loves his friend with as impassioned and strong affection as Jesus Christ loves believers. Jacob loved Rachel, and endured for her sake the parching heat of summer and cold of winter; but Christ endured the storms of the wrath of God, the heat of his indignation, for our sakes. David manifested his love to Absalom, in wishing, "O that I had died for you!" Christ manifested his love to us, not in wishes that he had died, but in death itself, in our stead, and for our sakes.

6. No friend in the world is so constant and unchangeable in friendship as Christ is. John 13:1, "Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end." He bears with millions of provocations and wrongs, and yet will not break friendship with his people. Peter denied him, yet he will not disown him; but after his resurrection he says, "Go, tell the disciples, and tell Peter." Let him not think he has forfeited by that sin of his, his interest in me. Though he denied me, I will not disown him, Mark 16:7. 0 how lovely is Christ in the relation of a friend!

I might further show you the loveliness of Christ in his ordinances and in his providences, in his communion with us and communications to us, but there is no end of the account of Christ's loveliness: I will rather choose to press believers to their duties towards this altogether lovely Christ, which I shall briefly conclude in a few words.

Summary--no friend is as open-hearted, generous, sympathetic, impassioned, and constant. No friend is so able to bring contentment, peace and delight to all His friends. No friend loves as this Friend.

Jesus is our friend, our advocate, our constant intecessor, our companion. When we grow unaware of Him, it is not because He fails, but because we are weak and stubborn.

The Friendship of Christ is a prize beyond measure and beyond accounting. And that friendship costs so little. Indeed, even in making friends we gain much. We spurn a spurious "freedom" that enslaves one to the things of this world to achieve a true freedom that allows one to serve as part of God's Kingdom. We abandon the lies that substitute as a life and learn the Eternal Truth. We quit false comforts and seductions, and take instead the true Comfort of the one true Comforter, friend and advocate who prays for us when we do not know how to pray.

Jesus is a friend whose friendship is beyond our reckoning wonderful. His friendship is at once the most important thing and the only thing. Praise Him in His perfection as Friend.

Soon, we'll talk about what this entire long sermon means and how one actually uses anything said to improve one's life in God. That's one of the things I truly love about a well-constructed sermon or homily--one takes away something to act upon.

(And that reminds me of something I was remiss in not saying. I attended only a daily Mass at which Father Jim presided, but he gave a wonderful short homily--not spending the entire time trying to tell me the intricacies of what the particularly Bible passage meant [althought there was some of that], but instead gave me one solid positive thing to act upon. Which I did for about a week, which is why good homilies are important every week. Because, poor mortals that we are, our attention is captured for perhaps a week at a time and then trails off. Anyway, if you're out in the Woodbridge area, you could not do better than to stop in at Our Lady of the Angels. Each priest there is wonderful in his own way, and I was blessed by my attendance.]

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Christ Altogether Lovely XIII


Now seems to be a good time to continue our reflection on Flavel's remarkable sermon and his vision of Jesus.

from "Christ Altogether Lovely" Rev. John Flavel

Thirdly, Christ is altogether lovely, in the relation of an Advocate. 1 John 2:1, "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the Propitiation." It is he that pleads the cause of believers in heaven. He appears for them in the presence of God, to prevent any new alienation, and to continue the state of friendship and peace between God and us. In this relation Christ is altogether lovely. For,

1. He makes our cause his own, and acts for us in heaven, as if for himself, Heb. 4:15. He is touched with a most tender understanding of our troubles and dangers, and is not only one with us by way of representation, but also one with us in respect of sympathy and affection.

2. Christ our Advocate tracks our cause and business in heaven, as his great and primary design and business. For this reason in Hebrews 7:25. he is said to "live for ever to make intercession for us." It is as if our concerns were so attended to by him there, that all the glory and honour which is paid him in heaven would not divert him one moment from our business.

3. He pleads the cause of believers by his blood. Unlike other advocates, it is not enough for him to lay out only words, which is a cheaper way of pleading; but he pleads for us by the voice of his own blood, as in Heb. 12:24, where we are said to be come "to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel." Every wound he received for us on earth is a mouth opened to plead with God on our behalf in heaven. And hence it is, that in Rev. 5:6 he is represented standing before God, as a lamb that had been slain; as it were exhibiting and revealing in heaven those deadly wounds received on earth from the justice of God, on our account. Other advocates spend their breath, Christ spends his blood.

4. He pleads the cause of believers freely. Other advocates plead for reward, and empty the purses, while they plead the causes of their clients.

5. In a word, he obtains for us all the mercies for which he pleads. No cause miscarries in his hand, which he undertakes, Rom. 8:33, 34. 0 what a lovely Advocate is Christ for believers!

For the complete sermon, see here

"No cause miscarries in his hand." What a wonderful and powerful reflection. When we consider that Christ's advocacy is an advocacy not merely of words, not merely of action, but of His own Precious Blood, poured out for us--more than sufficient--utterly efficacious. In this we obtain all that we need but know not to ask for. We obtain the reality of who we are in God. Once lame, we walk. Once blind, we see. Once deaf, we hear. All of our infirmaties are encompassed and abolished by the completeness of His offering for us. He is an advocate whose pleading cannot be resisted. He is a Lord who loves beyond all loving and who gives to the very last measure. He is indeed altogether lovely as advocate, as tender brother, Lord, and friend. Praise Him and welcome Him into your home--this most precious advocate, this most generous Soul, this most loving companion, this very Son of God who is the source of our hope and our salvation.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from December 2003.

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