It seems that many Christians in our time have lost what might be called the “sense of eternal life.” They believe, it is true, but, practically, in their ordinary lives, they make little account of it. They seem solely intent on acquiring the goods of this world; these, in fact, occupy their minds, rouse their preoccupations, and are the aim of their efforts.
I do not mean by this to say that Christians who live in the world must be disinterested regarding earthly goods that they need for assuring either their own lives or those of their families. A certain solicitude for acquiring earthly goods can even be praiseworthy; but it is a matter of keeping everything in its place and, above all, of giving God His place.
Once a human has been ordered by God to the attainment of eternal union with Him, do you perhaps find it reasonable that we make so little of it? It is not a trifling matter to know that we, for all eternity, shall be able to enjoy intimacy with the divine Persons, who will admit us into society with them, and to know that the degree of this intimacy will depend on the degree of love that we have acquired on earth with the supernatural practice of the virtues. Either we believe it, or we do not believe it. If we believe it, then why not make it effectively the sublime goal of our life?
If we truly seek this supreme good above all things, we will more easily succeed in putting all other goods in their place, by not attaching our hearts to them, by not letting them absorb us.
Not even the spontaneous solicitude that we have for the welfare of our dear ones should succeed in troubling our mind and heart with anxious preoccupation about acquired news. Even regarding our loved ones, our first desire should be to procure their eternal good. We will thus give more importance to their spiritual welfare, which will assure it, than to their material welfare, which so many times is the sole preoccupation of certain people who would like to call themselves Christians, but in reality are not — or are hardly such.
While we urge the desire for the possession of God, we must refute a certain objection: it is said sometimes that it is not opportune to concentrate the soul’s regard on reward, be it even heavenly, because that would come to create in us a “mercenary” spirit, and shut the soul up in itself in the search for its own good instead of God’s. The soul needs, instead, to love God with the highest disinterestedness. As if opposition could exist between the theological virtues, and hope could be opposed to love!
St. John of the Cross has never taken up antinomies of this kind. He also had a doctrine of pure love, but it does not, in fact, exclude the love of hope. On the contrary, the love of hope, well cultivated and concentrating all our desires on God, greatly facilitates the continual practice of love, which would be much more difficult to achieve if the hope of attaining union with Him did not divert our preoccupation from created objects. We must not forget, however, that the same heavenly joy in us may proceed from our actions with which we glorify God in a most excellent manner.
We intelligent creatures are created to glorify the Lord with acts of intellect and will — that is, with acts of knowledge and love— and in life eternal, we will know and love the Lord in the most perfect manner. Consequently, eternal life does not shut us up in ourselves, but it orients us even more toward God and makes us attend to His glory more than ever. The Mystical Doctor, in his Spiritual Canticle, has admirably taught that we are going to heaven to love God, and therefore, the whole of heavenly life does not consist only in receiving, but also in giving. If it is true that, with the beatific vision, the blessed soul receives God, then, with the love that necessarily springs from it, the blessed soul gives itself irrevocably to the Lord, adhering to Him with all its powers. Just so, the blessed soul will eternally glorify the Lord in the same measure of its blessedness. The more the soul possesses the Lord, so much the more will it love Him.
How is it possible that a soul that, during its whole earthly life, learned to find its glory in giving itself generously to the Lord can be happy in heaven if there, too, it cannot give itself to the Lord? Great souls, especially those formed in the school of St. John of the Cross, as was St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, have always understood how. In her doctrine of love, the saint of Lisieux leaned directly on our master, whose Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame she had deeply appreciated. Even in the last days of her life, she loved to nourish her soul with notes taken from these marvelous works. When a Sister was speaking of the joy that she would taste in Paradise in the company of the saints, she replied: “It is not that which makes my heart beat: it is the love that I will receive and that I will be able to give!”
The little saint even wanted to go to heaven in order to love. It is therefore absurd to want to represent heavenly beatitude as a species of egotistical pleasure, thus preferring the cold attitude of the philosopher who, like Kant, wishes to act solely “through duty,” in the austere satisfaction of being able to say: “I have done my duty,” as if man then might not once again shut himself up in himself.
Does it not appear nobler and less egotistical to do one’s duty in order to succeed in loving God eternally in heaven, than to do it to procure for one’s personality the perfection of moral rectitude? St. John of the Cross thought so.
In our lives, we need to make ample room for the desire for God. We need to cultivate this aspiration and to nurture in our hearts the solicitude for the things necessary to attain the possession of God. We also need to nourish a great trust in Him who, in His goodness and mercy, wants to help us realize our hope. In short: we need to cultivate hope either for its purpose or for its motive.
To cultivate it in its purpose brings to mind the formula of the act of hope I learned as a little child, which stated so well the true great objects of this virtue. We were taught to say what we await with confidence from the Lord and through the merits of Jesus Christ: the pardon of our sins, the grace to live good lives, and, in the end, eternal life. Yes, as the last good, eternal life, but then also all that is necessary to get there and, therefore, first of all, pardon for my sins.
How comforting it is to know that the Lord asks me to be certain of His pardon, every time that I am truly sorry for my sins and show the reality of my repentance by wanting to confess them, as He has ordained.
Sin is an obstacle to a holy life; I must therefore have faith that, if I am sorry, the Lord will remove the obstacle to my holiness. That is not all; after the negative side, there is the positive side. The Lord will take away the obstacle and positively also give me help, “the grace to live a good life,” to live according to my condition, according to my vocation, but a truly good life, morally good and therefore holy. The Lord wants me to trust in His help so that I may become holy.
Oh yes, the Lord wants me to be certain of this! It is not a matter of intellectual certainty, but of a certainty of heart — namely, of that extreme confidence that makes one say to someone: “I put my trust in you.” Theology teaches that such trust is the very characteristic of perfect hope. The Lord wants us to tend to the perfection of the virtues, and for that reason He desires that we put our trust in Him.
It is easy to see that in cultivating this sense of
certainty about the divine aid, in order to attain the highest good, we must
become, in some way, strong with the very strength of God, who, we know, wants
to help us. When it is a question of possessing Him, the trust of a soul of
goodwill can be sublime. St. John of the Cross has given us in this regard the
maxim that St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus loved to repeat: “We obtain from God
as much as we hope from Him” (The
Dark Night II, XXI, 8). Note that the maxim was written
by the saint with reference to the soul that has concentrated all the desires
of its life on the attainment of eternal union with God.
This truly is hoping: to make of eternal life our supreme aim that dominates and subordinates to itself all our other desires. Such will spontaneously be the attitude of a soul that lives as a true child of God. Our paternal home is heaven. There we must arrive, and there we shall truly feel in our place.
Let us seek, therefore, to live well, and let us also hope confidently from God the grace to live well, and after that — why not? — the grace to attain while still on earth that state of union that is a pledge of the heavenly union. We must become saints: this is the will of God, and He wants us to feel certain of His help to attain the goal.
How much more courageous does the soul feel, and how easily does it become more generous, when it thus nurtures its hope in the Lord! This hope will become a loving confidence in the heavenly Father and, in its turn, will develop into the most absolute abandonment, since the soul, sure that God wishes to sanctify it and knowing through its spirit of faith that He governs all the events of the world, leaves the sanctifying to Him.
“He will know how to dispose everything in a better way for carrying out my and His desire,” thinks this soul. “Let Him choose the way; He sees more clearly and farther than I. I place my trust entirely in Him!”
Then, according to what St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus taught, the soul becomes like a babe in the arms of his mother and “in the midst of the agitations of the world, sleeps tranquilly in the arms of the Lord.” It always remains serene in possession of itself; for that reason, it is capable of employing all its strength in the service of the Lord without wasting it in useless agitations.