“To become a Christian saint is nothing more than to take Christ’s words at face value and live up to them,” says monk-writer Dom Hubert Van Zeller in his book, The Inner Search.
When I first picked up this book, I had never heard of it or of Van Zeller. Newly reprinted in 2023 by Sophia Institute Press, this book about prayer and the soul’s quest for God was originally published in 1957, and it still rings true today. I must confess it was also a pleasure to crack open the soft cover of the book!
The Inner Search contains 26 chapters and 255 pages, covering a vast range of topics, including, “Why doesn’t God just openly manifest himself to us?”, “What are some common errors I can fall into when striving to grow in prayer?”, and “Why should I ask for the Blessed Mother’s intercession?”
Van Zeller was many things: Egyptian and British, a Benedictine and Carthusian, a sculptor, and a contemporary of renowned writers Msgr. Ronald Knox and Evelyn Waugh.
The claim on the back cover that Van Zeller “reads like Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen” intrigued me, and when I read the book, I was excited to find the resemblance. Like Sheen, Van Zeller uses punchy, thought-provoking lines: “Before a man can have the wool drawn away from his eyes, he must admit to himself and God that the wool is there… and that in all probability he put it there.”
Fans of G.K. Chesterton will also be happy to hear that Van Zeller is a fan of pointing out paradoxes: “To reflect the Passion in his own life, a man must be ready to forego the satisfaction of seeing how he can possibly reflect the Passion of Christ’s life.”
Another paradox that I enjoyed, and that sounded particularly Sheen-ish, was, “If courtesy is not the expression of charity, it may well be the disguise of uncharity. Just as awkward behavior springs either from thoughtlessness or overanxiety to please, so correct behavior springs either from interest in others or interest in self.”
This book sails into deep waters. I’ll admit that a few of the chapters, such as those about the experiences of people who are very advanced in their prayer lives, were above my head, but were still very thought-provoking.
Moreover, it felt like Van Zeller was speaking about today’s culture. In a section about relating to others, he writes, “No one person will understand another if he regards that other as being sealed off from him by either class, nationality, age, or outlook. To posit hypothetical barriers in others is to erect an actual one in oneself. To suppose barriers within oneself is to build them up in the minds of other people.”
A common catchphrase today is, “If you’ve never had this particular experience, you will never understand.” Whenever we say this, we’re repeating a line that we heard somewhere – on the news or social media, maybe – that closes ourselves and other people off in forever-separate bubbles. Van Zeller’s statement hits hard.
Van Zeller is very forthright and says things as they are, because he truly believes that “the truth will set you free,” even if it’s a bit hard to digest at first. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and the Christ-figure character of Aslan, who “is not a tame lion”; “he isn’t safe, but he is good.”
One example that comes to mind is Van Zeller’s explanation about peace. He states that, although we must go through suffering in this world, “we search also in the peace of Christ, the peace which the world cannot give.”
“It is a curious sort of peace that our searching brings, and by the world it would not be called peace at all; it is the peace that you feel when you know you cannot do anything else but what you are doing, and that there is nothing worse to be afraid of,” he states. “It is a peace that may not bring great joy to the heart, or even tranquility to the nerves, but somewhere, deep in the soul, there is the obscure knowledge that you will find yourself at rest eventually in God. Whatever life is like now, the time must come when your essential being will be caught up into your true vocation which is love. And this is peace.”
At first, when I read this explanation, my response was (cue salty tone): “Well, thanks, that’s really comforting.”
However, when I thought about it, I realized that these “hard truths” actually bring freedom: now, when I’m wondering why I still feel anxious even while I’m trying my best to trust God, I can realize that peace isn’t always a feeling. It’s about knowing that God will never abandon me and is always by my side.
When we decide to walk hand-in-hand with God through life, we open ourselves up to finding the authentic freedom and joy that he is longing to give us. We will realize, as Van Zeller says, “The whole shapeless mass of the past is seen to have had some sort of design about it after all. Not only what had been painful and unintelligible, but also what had been pleasant and carefree, had, in fact, been planned by the Holy Spirit for the training of the soul.”
The Inner Search is available from Sophia Institute Press.