Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Way of Perfect Love: Thanksgiving as the Secret to Holiness

 A Short Spiritual Treatise drawing from Sacred Scripture and Church Tradition, including the lives and writings of the Saints.

Our Tendency to Give Thanks Only for the ‘Good Things’

When we find pleasure in something which seems beneficial according to our understanding, or when something is suitable and pleasing to our sensuality, it is then, as people who are living the interior life, that we give thanks to God with much gratitude. “Thank you for such a lovely day” we say, when the sun is shining. Or “thank you God for illuminating my mind with these insights!” Or yet again “thank you my God for helping me with this problem.” Such gratitude comes easy to us, yet this kind of gratitude is imperfect; for it is a gratitude which flows forth not from the well spring of a perfect love, but from the pond of imperfect love, a pond which is contaminated by selfish sensuality. This selfish sensuality makes love imperfect, since by it we come to love God not so much for Himself or because He has done things for us, but because we have gained sensible –that is perceptible –pleasure from the gifts that He has given to us. Such gifts may be an emotional feeling of joy during prayer or Holy Mass; or financial stability; or a day that just went perfectly well according to human standards. Yet when things go seemingly wrong -when it is cold and rainy- or when we suffer inconveniences, humiliations or trials, it is then that we tend to be less grateful, if not the complete opposite of grateful towards God- resentful.

Imperfect Love, Losing Peace of Soul and the Call to be Grateful,

Even for the ‘Bad Things’

If imperfect love rules in our heart, we lose our peace and sense of gratitude to God whenever sensible pleasure is withdrawn from any experience we are having, or from any activity we are doing. So it is that when we love imperfectly, we become upset, frustrated, disturbed and ungrateful within our interior when anything that we perceive as ‘bad’ or ‘inconvenient’ comes our way –i.e. dryness in prayer, some physical malady or when we suffer unfair persecution. In fact on a rational level to be upset and disturbed about these things seems fairly just; yet the intellect or the reason, when enlightened through faith, knows that such restless responses are manifestations of an imperfect love; for we have the meek and silent example of our Crucified Lord, as well as the lives of the saints to inform us what perfect love truly looks like. The famous example of St. Francis concerning ‘what is true and perfect happiness’ typifies the kind of response we are called to make when ‘bad things’ come our way.

St. Francis shouted loudly: "O Friar Leo, although the minor friar should know to preach so well that he should convert all the infidels to the faith of Christ; write that therein is not perfect joy". And this manner of speech continuing for full two miles, Friar Leo, with great wonder, asked and said: Father, I pray thee in the name of God to tell me wherein is perfect joy". And St. Francis answered him: "When we shall be at Santa Maria degli Angeli, thus soaked by the rain, and frozen by the cold, and befouled with mud, and afflicted with hunger, and shall knock at the door of the Place, and the doorkeeper shall come in anger and shall say: 'Who are ye?' and we shall say: 'We are two of your friars,' and he shall say: 'Ye speak not truth; rather are ye two lewd fellows who go about deceiving the world and robbing the alms of the poor: get you hence'; and shall not open unto us, but shall make us stay outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry, even until night; then, if we shall bear such great wrong and such cruelty and such rebuffs patiently, without disquieting ourselves and without murmuring against him; and shall think humbly and charitably that that door-keeper really believes us to be that which he has called us, and that God makes him speak against us; O Friar Leo, write that here is perfect joy…And if, constrained by hunger and by cold and by the night, we shall continue to knock and shall call and beseech for the love of God, with great weeping, that he open unto us and let us in, and he, greatly offended thereat, shall say: 'These be importunate rascals; I will pay them well as they deserve,' and shall come forth with a knotty club and take us by the cowl, and shall throw us on the ground and roll us in the snow and shall cudgel us pitilessly with that club; if we shall bear all these things patiently and with cheerfulness, thinking on the sufferings of Christ the blessed, the which we ought to bear patiently for His love; O Friar Leo, write that here and in this is perfect joy; and therefore hear the conclusion, Friar Leo; above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit, which Christ grants to His friends, is that of self-conquest and of willingly bearing sufferings, injuries and reproaches and discomforts for the love of Christ; because in all the other gifts of God we cannot glory, inasmuch as they are not ours, but of God…But in the cross of tribulation and of affliction we may glory, because this is our own; and therefore the Apostle saith: I would not glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

St Francis of Assisi by Regina Ammerman

Indeed not only does St. Francis relate how we should not be upset, disturbed or ungrateful when sufferings come our way, but actually the very opposite! We ought to rejoice and give thanks to God for been able to share in the sufferings of Christ; considering ourselves unworthy for being given even the opportunity to suffer for His sake. “Impossible!” we might say to ourselves, considering it ridiculous to think that we could ever respond in such a way. Yet this is a terribly pessimistic and falsely humble attitude, for we are all called to sainthood. Since “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Mt 19”26). All we need to do is ask for the grace of perfect love; persevere in a sacramental life, especially in Holy Mass and Eucharistic Adoration; remain constant in daily prayer; live out a consecration to Mary with the aid of Joseph; strive to love God and neighbour in all things, doing everything –even working and walking- out of love for God; take each opportunity to serve our neighbours as they come; and all the while, despite our stumbles, to simply trust that God will perfect us in sanctity to the degree of holiness He created us to attain.

Imperfect Love, the Faculties of the Soul

and the Simple Remedy of Focusing on God’s Will

The fact that imperfect love is the cause behind our becoming frustrated when things go ‘wrong’, does not mean if we feel upset emotionally we love imperfectly, for this is to confuse love as being "nothing but a second hand emotion". For love is not an emotion –although it may involve the emotions- but rather, love is a free act of the will. Thus what is meant by ‘being disturbed’ or ‘becoming upset’ in this context, refers to losing our peace of soul, that restful disposition that remains so long as we are abiding in the love of God’s Will. So to be upset, frustrated, disturbed and ungrateful in regards to loving imperfectly, is to say that our will moves itself to desire selfishly for want of pleasure; and/or moves our intellect to think that we are been deprived of grace when hardships in prayer arise, or that God is punishing us cruelly when sufferings come our way; and/or moves our memory[2] to reminisce in unhealthy exactness on our individual sins which we've already repented of and confessed, or to recall times of consolation and welfare; lusting over them for their own sake and for the sake of the pleasure one gained from them.  These various interior-movements of our soul and its faculties are the cause of such inner unrest when trials come our way. If indeed our love is imperfect, these interior-movements of the intellect, memory and will take place. Such inner-movements of the will are due to an imperfect love, a love of God that lacks. Whilst such inner-movements of the intellect are due to an imperfect faith, a faith in God that lacks belief in His Goodness and Truth. Whereas such inner-movements of the memory are due to an imperfect hope, a hope which lacks trust in God and in His Mercy, Faithfulness and in His Promises given to us in Christ. By striving to refocus entirely on God and His Will –which is to seek His glory and to seek the salvation of all souls- these imperfect ‘inner-movements’ of the soul’s faculties are automatically remedied.[3] For by such a simple refocusing of love, one’s will is enflamed with the desire to love God more, one’s intellect is absorbed with meditating upon God’s Will in prayer and in His teachings as contained in holy writ or Sacred Scripture; and thus when struggles in prayer comes one knows by faith that such times are periods of ‘extra grace’, and that when sufferings come, they are not so much a punishment but a loving invitation to share in Christ’s sufferings. Meanwhile, by simply focusing on God’s Will and trying to please Him -with the merits of Christ Himself- one’s memory is attuned to recall with gratitude the blessings God has, is and will give to one (including our Triune God Himself, eternal beatitude, the mysteries of faith, the Holy Eucharist, the Virgin Mary etc.), and how the Crucified Christ is a testament to God’s unfailing mercy and kindness; and this thereby expands one’s hope to truly trust in God with a filial trust. Besides, we need not lose our peace of soul by becoming flustered at the fact that these imperfect ‘inner-movements’ of our soul’s faculties occur. Rather, we ought to give thanks for our negligence’s and learn how to profit from them –as we shall go on to discuss.

Giving Thanks for All Things and Drawing Profit from our Failings

Possessing self-knowledge of the fact that to at least some degree we have the pond of imperfect love dwelling in the garden of our soul, is not a reason to wallow in self-pity but rather an opportunity to begin to love perfectly! For although it is true that the words of Saint Paul "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Rom 7:19) is true of ourselves; it is also true that "we know that all things work together for good to them that love God" (Rom 8:28). A most powerful and self-transformative action that we ourselves can practically take so as to love in a perfect way; is to begin to give thanks to God for literally everything and in the midst of every situation. For it is written: "In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." (1 Thes 5:18). Let us make note of the fact that the Scripture reads: "this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you". Thus it is impossible to give thanks for trials and hardships, sufferings and seeming inconveniences by our own might and will power; however it is possible in Christ Jesus by His Might and His Will power. So the deeper we plunge ourselves into a relationship with Christ, or rather the deeper we allow the Holy Spirit, through the Virgin Mary, to lead us into a deeper relationship with Christ, the easier we'll find it to love in a perfect manner and give thanks always. For it will be Christ in, with and through us, loving and thanking God the Father with His Divine Love and Gratitude who is the Holy Spirit.

If we begin by labouring hard in striving to give thanks for all things and in every situation, then in time God will visit us with a special grace to perfect this labour of loving gratitude. If we stumble or make mistakes, let us be quick to repent but not out of fear of God or out of punishment, but out of loving sorrow for having hurt our God. May we also avoid wallowing in self-pity and regret, and instead make haste to love God by surrendering our faults, sins and weaknesses to Him; and therefore we shall make the best of the situation, and God's grace 'will turn it for the good'. St. Therese the 'Little Flower' exemplified this kind of childlike loving-confidence and trust. For she writes in 'Story of a Soul' that when she comes to realise how poorly she has made her thanksgiving after Holy Communion, she only ever takes such a realisation to act with extra thanksgiving from then on.

At the end of the thanksgiving which I see that I've made it so badly I make a resolution to be thankful all through the rest of the day. You see, dear Mother, that I am far from being on the way of fear; I always find a way to be happy and to profit from my miseries; no doubt this does not displease Jesus since He seems to encourage me on this road.[4]

Indeed, it is not as if the 'Little Flower' spent ten weeks bemoaning over what might have been an occasion of imperfect thanksgiving; but rather she got right back into the business of love without any useless delay; and this typifies for us what she calls her 'Little Way', the way of childlike confidence and love.
St. Therese of Lisieux, 'The Little Flower'

If we are to practically live out this perfect way of love and trust it would profit us to bear in mind this example St. Therese, a Doctor of the Church gives to us. Of course it is impossible to live out such a teaching unless we ask God for this grace of love in prayer and especially in Adoration. The filial (childlike) attitude underlying this perfect way, this 'Little Way', is one which perceives all things in the light of God's Merciful Love. One day we might be feeling so joyous, brimming with insights and aflame with a sensible zeal in our prayers and duties, and it seems as if we are 'doing so well'; wherefore the Psalmist writes: "As for me, I said in prosperity, 'I shall never be moved.' By thy favour, O Lord, thou hadst established me as a strong mountain" (Ps 30:6-7a). Yet the next day we feel tired, emotionally numb, without any appetite for spiritual reading, nor with hardly a flicker of zeal in our prayers and duties, whilst we stumble and sin with an outburst of anger, a moment of lust or an impulsive act of selfishness; wherefore the Psalmist continues the verse, writing: Then "thou didst hide thy face, [and] I was dismayed." (Ps 30:7:7b). Often we spend hours or even the whole day bemoaning over the fact we are so wretched whilst we beat our breasts and pull out our hair with frustration at ourselves. Yet that's not how we will act any longer, for trusting in God and imploring Him for the grace of filial love, we will instead say to ourselves and to God on the seemingly 'good' day (for all days are good in God's Will): "This day is going well, I thank you for it my God. For you have preserved me in your grace and have filled me with such joy and insights! I do not deserve to be treated so well but thank you so much!" Then on the seemingly 'bad' day we will say something to the effect of: "Thank you my God for allowing me to stumble and reminding me of my weakness and sinfullness, for I am always in need of humbling. Thank you for yet another opportunity to grow in self-knowledge and in the knowledge of your merciful love which looks past all my wickedness! Thank you my dear God." For indeed whenever we sin God's Will has not ordained it, because He cannot ordain sin, but He does permit it; and this He does because He knows His grace can work through sin and our sinfulness, 'turning it for the good' of our souls, the souls of others and for the glory of His Name. After all how else can we grow in trust of God if everything always goes so well? For trust can only increase within us when we trust despite the reality we perceive at hand, which tells us that there is no hope of obtaining the end we desire or of attaining perfection in sanctity. So then, when we experience hardships or when we stumble due to our weakness, we ought to repent with deep contrition and then immediately turn with trust to God, with an attitude of gratitude which 'says' explicitly or implicitly: "Despite this impossible situation and despite my weakness and sinfulness, I trust with Mary's trust that You O God will sort this out and will bring me to perfection in Christ Jesus and thus to sainthood!"

The Secret of Surrendering All Things to God

This perfect way, this little way, this way of perfect love, is also accounted in 'Divine Mercy in My Soul', where Jesus tells St. Faustina that He wants us to surrender our sins into the abyss of His Mercy, as one casts a twig into a fire. This we do through repentance in our heart and sacramentally in Confession. He then goes on to say that the fire of His Mercy is so great, that it completely incinerates any and every sin that one casts into it through a repentance of loving trust. Such trust requires that we believe His Mercy is infinitely more powerful than our sins. This kind of trusting surrender of our nothingness, our weakness and sinfulness, ought to be followed by thanksgiving for His Mercy.  I recall reading from the Life of St. Gertrude an excellent example of the power that such surrender has before God, an excerpt which I will paraphrase in my own wording, and I apologise if it happened slightly different to how I recall; since I no longer have a copy of the book, but have remembered the crux of it since it was so profound.

 One day St. Gertrude heard an interior voice from the Lord, saying: "Thou art most pleasing to me my Gertrude, more pleasing to me than any other alive on earth." Stunned and shocked, but knowing that the Lord cannot and does not deceive, in all humility she replied: "But how can this be my Lord? For there are others far holier than I, and I sin many times a day, and am filled with so many imperfections!" The Lord replied in a most sweet voice, saying: "Yes this is true. But whenever thou dost sin and whenever thou dost become aware of thy imperfections, thou art always in the habit of surrendering to me all that thou hast done or failed to do; and through this constant surrendering of thyself to me, in trust and love of my mercy, I forget and look past any sin thou hast done and any imperfection thou dost have within you. For through such surrender I see it as if thou didst everything in a perfect manner. In this way, because of thy constant humble surrender in love and confidence, thou art most pleasing to me more than any other."

 Indeed so powerful is this type of trusting surrender! Does this not fill one with consolation? Does this not cause one to understand more deeply the words of our Saviour: "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light"? This surrender, this trust and confidence in our Lord is to bury all our words, thoughts and deeds in Christ and in the Ocean of His Blood; so that from worthless clay they may acquire the very same merit as Christ’s very own words, thoughts and deeds. For after all, it will be He in us who is operating, through the Holy Spirit. Since our Lord has said: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” (Jn 14:12).

Rejoicing and Giving Thanks for Whatever God's Will Ordains for Us

We have diverted on a tangent in one sense, but in Christ all good things are intimately related. So what then about thanksgiving? Why is thanksgiving so important and necessary for perfect love? We have discussed how imperfect love vents itself with thanksgiving only when one draws sensible pleasure from something or some experience; and how perfect love vents itself with thanksgiving not only in the good times and in sensible consolation, but in the bad times and during sensible desolation. The key difference between these two types of love, imperfect and perfect, is that the latter rejoices by giving thanks in God's Will and because God's Will is being fulfilled whilst the first rejoices by giving thanks to God when one's own will and one's own sensual appetites are met. Job is a type of Christ Jesus, and he exemplifies what the attitude of perfect love is, thus revealing to us the attitude of Christ during praise and insult, joy and sorrow.
Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die." But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:9-10).

 Furthermore St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans writes:

Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Rom 5:2-5).

 Let us make note of how Paul says "more than that, we rejoice in our sufferings", which is to say, 'in addition to rejoicing and giving thanks for the glory and delight we receive from God, we also rejoice and give thanks for the sufferings we endure'. Yet Paul does not say: 'we rejoice more in our sufferings', even though it can often be thought it is good to give more thanks in times of hardship than in times of prosperity. However if we are rejoicing and giving thanks to God for any reason other than for His Will for us; then our love remains imperfect. For example: if we were to give God more thanks for having contracted the black plague, than if we were from having being spared from contracting it, then our love would be imperfect. For although objectively it is more meritorious to give thanks to God for sufferings than for consolations; subjectively it is more meritorious to give thanks to God for whatever His Will has ordained -either sufferings or consolations; and this is the loving attitude we ought to adopt. For truly there is "a time to weep, and a time to laugh ; a time to mourn , and a time to dance" (Ecc 3:4); and according to whatever 'time' it is, we must rejoice with thanksgiving; and this is the way of perfect love. It is a fine line, and a seemingly subtle difference, but to give thanks for either consolations or sufferings, in and of themselves, is imperfect compared to giving thanks for such consolations or sufferings because it is God's Will for us.

Walking along the Way of Perfect Love: Thanksgiving as the Secret to Holiness

To love perfectly then, let us strive in Christ to open ourselves up to God the Father, so as to let spring and flow forth from within us, the Divine Love who is the Holy Spirit; who is also the Eternal Gratitude that proceeds from the Father to the Son, and from the Son to the Father. In this way we will have the grace to give thanks in each and every moment -either through a loving gaze directed to God in the Eucharist, or through an affective burst of love, or a mental thrust, or through the silence of resting on our Beloved's breast, or through works of love to our neighbours, or through vocal or a recited prayer from the heart. If we sin we must repent with loving sorrow, surrender with loving trust and give thanks with loving gratitude. For although God does not Will sin by ordaining it, He permits it if we so choose to act in such a way. Yet His Will does ordain our repentance of turning back to Him, and of surrendering our weaknesses and sins to Him; so indeed we ought to even use our sins and our sinfulness as an opportunity to give thanks to Him for His blessings of mercy. 

A marvelous way of ensuring our gaze is fixed on Christ and not on our own wretchedness -for it is good to be aware in self-knowledge of our wretchedness, but not to worship it- is to get into the habit of surrendering throughout the day whenever we remember, especially as we wake and before we sleep, all our words, thoughts and deeds, and those sins we have committed through doing or not doing, into the raging furnance of God's Merciful Love. "For our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29), and if we consistently cast ourselves and all that we do or don't do into It, we shall be pleasing unto Him. For ourselves and our acts are mere dust, and our sins are mere ash; but if we cast them into the Fire of God through trustful abandonment and surrender -thus imitating and participating in the total naked surrender of Christ on the Cross- we shall be exchanging dust and ash for the gold of perfect love. This will be in obedience to the counsel of the Lord, since He says in the Book of Revealtion: "I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich" (Rev 3:18). For we buy this gold with the dust and ash of our wickedness, through our surrender of faith, and we claim this gold of love with our hope. Concerning the faculties we can say that this gold of love is received through the intellect's assent of faith, is able to be stored in the soul through the memory's vessel of hope, and finally this Gold of Perfect Love is stored in the substance of our soul through our will. However although faith receives this gold, and hope determines the capacity that can be stored, the act of thanksgiving for the sake of God's Will is an act of faith, hope and even love; for by thanksgiving one manifests a (1) love which has (2) faith in God's Will and which (3) hopes/trusts in It. There is thus no surer way of obtaining this gold of perfect love than through thanksgiving. It is no light matter nor coincidence then that Francis de Osuna in 'The Third Secret Alphabet' speaks of thanksgiving as the secret to holiness.
Icon of the Trinity

Conclusion: The Deification -the 'Gold Gilding'- of Ourselves and our Acts

Indeed when Christ lived on earth, the Holy Spirit who is this Gold, invested all of Christ and all His acts, since in His Divinity He was one with the Spirit by nature. This was the same of our Lady, although by grace alone was She one with the Holy Spirit; this is why the angel called Her "full of grace" (Lk 1:28), that is, 'full of the Holy Spirit, the gold of perfect love.' It is the same with us; for through, in and with our true devotion to Mary, although in a less fuller way, we can come to share in her fullness of grace; thus having all that we are and do be transformed and invested with the Gold of Perfect Love of the Spirit, just like Jesus. This is how we shall please God the Father, for He will behold in us and in our every deed the Gold of Perfect Love, the very same Gold that He beheld in His Son and in His deeds. For this Gold is Eternal Love, is Eternal Gratitude, is Eternal Trust, all of which are various names for the Holy Spirit; He that Third Person of the Trinity who wants to indwell all that we say, think and do. So let us invite Him, let us develop a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit; asking for the grace to treat this Divine Person no longer like an impersonal force or energy, but as an actual Person that yearns for our friendship. Yet this deep intimacy with the Spirit will only go to shallow depths unless we invite His Spouse the Blessed Virgin Mary to come with Him through our devotion to Her. Yet our devotion to Joseph will take us further in our relationship with the Holy Spirit; for in one sense, through Joseph did Mary wed the Holy Spirit. So then, if we become one with the Spirit through grace, and allow Him the Eternal Desire and Eternal Love of God to expand within us, we shall truly and totally be hiding in Christ, and thus the pleasure (and this Pleasure is the Holy Spirit) God the Father took in His Son whilst on earth, He shall take in us. In this way the old man of our wickedness will lay buried with Christ, and our new man of holiness will be living "in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness, sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, 'Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.'" (1 Cor 1:30) Which is simply another way of saying: 'Let him who rejoices and give thanks, rejoice and give thanks in the Lord, with the Lord and through the Lord; in the Eucharist, with the Eucharist and through the Eucharist.

[1] The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, Chapter VIII.
[2]“Here we are concerned at the same time with the sensible memory, which exists in animals, and the intellectual memory that is common to men and angels. The intellectual memory is not a faculty really distinct from the intellect; it is the intellect in so far as it retains ideas.” Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, II.25.
[3] “St. John of the Cross answers that the memory which forgets God must be healed by the hope of eternal beatitude, as the intellect must be purified by the progress of faith, and the will by the progress of charity.” Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, II.25.
[4] St. Therese of Liseux, 'Story of a Soul', 3rd ed., Manuscript A, Chapter VIII, ICS Publications Washington, p.173.