“Your Ways Are Not My Ways”

Christ Carrying the Cross, by Hieronymus Bosch or follower (1510-1535).

Where is God to be found in our secularized western world? It is as if the volume has been turned up on all the distractions and temptations that plague us every single day. Not just the volume, but also the intensity. Everything we see and hear invades our private space, breaking down in the process every trace, it seems, of the Christian call to holiness. There is not one aspect of our lives that is not being tested by the worldly wisdom which preaches a freedom founded on license and an attitude of immediate gratification at all costs. If this is the lifestyle we are encouraged to lead, is it any wonder that the reality of objective truth, and the infinite worth of each person, becomes a whispering voice amidst the maddening crowd. So what do we make of all this? We know through faith that God permits evil to bring about a greater good. But what actually does this mean in real terms? And how do we see this greater good amidst a world that seems to be descending further and further away from our merciful, loving God?

Virtue Is Tested by Its Opposite

In the light of faith, we also know that amidst the turmoil and confusion of our daily lives, God’s loving providence is mysteriously at work, providing the necessary graces for every single soul to achieve, firstly, their salvation, and then, also, their sanctification. But how would we know and recognize this as being the case? The timeless wisdom of the Church’s saints and spiritual writers provides the heavenly lens with which we are able to dimly perceive God’s ways within our troubled and confused world. To begin our journey into the mystery of God’s ways, St. Catherine of Siena in her masterpiece, The Dialogue, highlights how virtue is only proven and tested by its opposite:

You test the virtue of patience in yourself when your neighbors insult you. Your humility is tested by the proud, your faith by the unfaithful, your hope by the person who has no hope. Your justice is tried by the unjust, your compassion by the cruel, and your gentleness and kindness by the wrathful. Your neighbors are the channel through which all your virtues are tested and come to birth, just as the evil give birth to all their vices through their neighbors.1

So, to become more patient, we must be tested by situations that, indeed, test our patience. Instinctively, on one level, we think that to grow in patience, we must avoid situations that make us impatient. Living life as it unfolds in God’s providential plan will provide more than enough opportunities for our patience to be tested! These situations enable us to exercise, develop, and strengthen virtue. Importantly, they also provide us with valuable evidence of the necessity of God’s grace in developing virtue. It is the regular calling on his help, which will provide an opening for God’s inflowing love to enter into our souls. To try to be patient without grace is the equivalent of trying to save ourselves without our Savior.

The Smallest Act of Pure Love

So, we have established that virtue is born through the daily trials and tribulations we experience in the world. Our neighbors are the channel through which all virtue is tested, and the means with which virtue is born within our souls. But hasn’t this always been the case? Yet, today, we are being tested in a multitude of different ways and with much greater intensity than ever before. So why has the volume and brightness been turned up on our screen to life? The great mystical doctor of the Church St. John of the Cross, provides the second glimpse into the unsurpassing and loving wisdom of our heavenly Father. St. John of the Cross proclaims that “the smallest act of pure love is of greater value in the eyes of God, and more profitable to the Church, than the greatest works.”2 The mystery of “the smallest act with the most pure love” is also, by analogy, a reflection of the value and measure of sanctifying grace in proportion to God’s creation. There is a great beauty and paradox in the value of sanctifying grace. The least degree of sanctifying grace is superior in value and more precious than the natural good of the universe, together with all the angelic natures. The natural good of the universe includes all the good acts performed on a purely human level in the absence of the divine light. The exclusion or lessening of the divine in our actions decreases their eternal value. The reward of purely human actions which seek their own glory is treasure for this world. The extent of our treasure stored up for the next world is measured by the degree to which we “share in the divine nature” (1 Pt 2:4) in our journey towards the heavenly kingdom.3

Pure love is only produced in a soul that has been tested by the world, the flesh, and the devil. The devil and the secularized world wage war against our weakened flesh. God allows this because the holiness of a pure soul is of greater benefit to the Church, and souls, than the holiness or virtue of a greater number of souls in a less virtuous state. St. John of the Cross describes this principle of the spiritual life in his “Spiritual Canticle” where he cites the malice of the devil towards a soul advanced in the life of virtue.

The devil, who, in his great malice, is envious of all the good he sees in the soul, knowing of her prosperity, now employs all his ability, and engages all his crafts, to disturb this good, even if only a slight part of it. It is worth more to him to hinder a small fraction of this soul’s rich and glorious delight than to make many others fall into numerous serious sins, for these others have little or nothing to lose; but this soul has much to lose because of all her precious gain. The loss of a little pure gold is much worse than the loss of many other base metals.4

The science of divine love operates in the dimensions of intensity and depth, rather than in the worldly one of quantity. Adopting this principle, it follows that the smallest number of believers with the most pure love will have the most significant effect on the Church, compared to a greater number of believers who have less love for God. The lives of the saints are a living witness to the power of one soul in influencing “the destiny of the whole world,” as described vividly in the Diary of St. Faustina.

O humility, love flower, I see how few souls possess you. Is it because you are so beautiful, and at the same time, so difficult to attain? O yes, it is both the one and the other. Even God takes great pleasure in her. The floodgates of heaven are open to a humble soul, and a sea of graces flows upon her. O how beautiful is a humble soul! From her heart, as from a censer, rises a varied and most pleasing fragrance which breaks through the skies and reaches God himself, filling his Most Sacred Heart with joy. God refuses nothing to such a soul; she is all-powerful and influences the destiny of the whole world. God raises such a soul up to his very throne, and the more she humbles herself, the more God stoops down to her, pursuing her with his graces and accompanying her at every moment with his omnipotence. Such a soul is most deeply united with God. O humility, strike deep roots in my whole being. O Virgin most pure, but also most humble, help me to attain deep humility. Now I understand why there are so few saints; it is because so few souls are deeply humble.5

The Universal Call to Holiness

If one holy soul, and an act of pure love, are more precious to God than a multitude of regular Church-goers, and all the greatest works, then what does this mean for each one of us as we journey through life? If all that matters to God is love, then the wisdom of St. Therese in doing small things with great love can become our daily maxim. By doing small things in the spiritual life rather than big things, the focus is more likely to be fixed on God. The big things require a lot of human effort, and natural activity, for them to become fulfilled. The small things, such as a display of kindness, a victory over impatience, or remaining silent when our natural disposition is to be talkative, are inconsequential on a human level. On a supernatural level, if the focus remains centered on God, then they are big things as they invite our Lord to abide more in our souls. These small sacrifices enable the Holy Spirit to breath, little by little, the divine life of God into our souls. The renewed emphasis on the universal call to holiness is an integral part of the Church’s new evangelization. It is the seemingly innocuous moments of everyday life that enable us all to grow in holiness, and give God something precious for his kingdom.

Amidst our fallen world, the value of these small things over the big things in life is that we are less likely to seek our own glory in small victories over our natural tendencies. The world sees no glory in them, as there is little human glory in remaining silent, displaying kindness, or being patient. It is when we are tested by everything the world, and our neighbor, can throw at us, that virtue comes to life in the depths of our souls. It is in these moments that the mystery of the kingdom of heaven is to be found. These daily “nothings” are the “mustard seeds” sowed by souls around the world in different times, places, and circumstances. These are gathered up by God to build up his mystical body, and become the shared glory of the saints in heaven. These small “nothings” happen in isolation, are unnoticed, and often are performed with no immediate benefit. The veil will be lifted on these seemingly meaningless actions in heaven, where the limitation of time, place, and circumstances will give way to the real fruit of grace; the visible and eternal glory of the saints. As Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown, it is the biggest shrub of all, and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and shelter in its branches” (Mt 13: 31-32).6

The Future Reign of the Antichrist

So, if we return from heaven to our present day, we can make some sense of the times we live in if we begin to contemplate God’s ways. Our God, who is pure love itself, longs to transform our souls so they reflect the pure love of his kingdom. The problem we encounter is that if we reject God’s love, and the invitations to respond to his grace, then this has the effect of hardening our hearts, and leading to a worse conditions in which we become more ravaged by the effects of sin.

Our heavenly Father’s wish, as expressed in his prayer, is that: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The path to the fulfillment of his desire is a tortured one, in which the invitations to accept his love through turning away from sin has culminated in the sending of his Son as the ultimate sign of his love. If the world rejects the invitations to accept God’s love by not following his law of love, then the natural consequence is a continued increase in the hardness of hearts. The more grace is rejected, the harder and more evil hearts become. The coming of the antichrist is therefore the fruit of the continued rejection of God’s love.

It is by looking at the end of time that we begin to understand our present time. The fruit of mankind’s continued rejection of God’s grace will be the reign of the antichrist, and this will be a time filled with the greatest temptations and horrors; more than we can ever possibly imagine. Mankind will be tested to its ultimate limits. The volume and intensity will be turned up to maximum, with the saints, during this time, suffering the most horrendous persecutions. From what we have discovered from God’s loving wisdom, this will produce the holiest souls, and the most pure acts of love which, as we know, are most precious to him, and valuable to the building up of his kingdom. Fr. Charles Arminjon, in his spiritual masterpiece, The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life, vividly describes how the martyrs at the end of time will have to combat the devil in the full expression of his wickedness.

(T)he persecution under the antichrist will be the bloodiest and most barbarous of all those which Christianity has ever suffered. Jesus Christ so assures us, when he says, “For those days will be more filled with anguish than any from the beginning of the world until now, or in all ages to come.” This can be surmised if we refer back to two causes. The first is the vast power and the stupendous instruments of force and destruction that the antichrist will have at his disposal and, with these, the evil and fury of the men appointed to execute his commands. The second will be the terrifying wickedness of the devil, because in those days, says St. John, God will allow him to leave the fiery prison where he is chained, and will give him full permission to seduce and satisfy the hatred of the human race. Whence it follows, says St. Cyril, that there will then be multitudes of martyrs, more glorious and admirable than those who formerly fought with lions, in the amphitheatres of Rome and Gaul. These had to struggle against mere agents of the devil, but the confessors of the last ages will have to struggle against him who is a murderer from the beginning. To torment them, the old enemy will practice monstrous tortures with unheard of refinements, unparalleled in past centuries, which the human mind could never have contrived to invent itself.7

What we experience now foreshadows this time. Just as we can see the trace of God’s creative love in the beauty of creation, and in the uniqueness of every single soul that we encounter, so we can also see the scratches of the future antichrist, as the spirit of evil attempts to inflict the horrendous deformity of its kingdom on the world. The “vast power and stupendous instruments of force and destruction” inspired by the evil one is seen in our present day, where the rapid advances in technology have enabled man to possess the frightening potential to inflict worldwide destruction. The sexual and technological revolutions have unleashed an unheralded escalation in both the variety and intensity of seductions which are so easily available. Whether people are aware of it or not, they become instruments of the devil when they are seduced by the passing seductions of this world and, as a consequence, wander blindly down the wide road of worldly freedom, and immediate gratification. Beneath the superficiality of the things that glitter in the world, a spiritual warfare is taking place against the powers of darkness that inhabit our world. As St. Paul says: “For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the principalities and the ruling forces who are masters of the darkness in this world, the spirits of evil in the heavens” (Eph 6:12-13).

The Power of God’s Grace

While this is the case, we know, through the light of faith, that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20-21). God’s grace will forever be more powerful than whatever the powers of the evil one can tempt us with. God alone knows the full depravity of men, and the full depth of evil that can be inspired by the devil. This dimension is thankfully hidden from our eyes, but to combat the powers of evil, the immense power of God’s grace is glimpsed, when we consider just how powerful it must have to be for the saints at the end of time to withstand the horrors of the antichrist. The grave problem mankind faces is that this power remains undiscovered, and basically inert, if it is rejected.

Why on earth would God allow the reign of the antichrist to happen? We can now begin to dimly understand the magnitude of the prophet Isaiah’s famous words: “Your ways are not my ways” (Is 55:8). If virtue is tested by its opposite, and where sin increases, grace abounds even more, then God permits evil to produce a tested humanity that will be pure, holy, and spotless at the end of time. In recalling St. John of the Cross’s principle in which the smallest act of pure love is of greater benefit to the whole Church than all the greatest acts, then the pure love of the saints at the end of time, which will be the fruit of their persecutions under the reign of the antichrist, will be of incalculable benefit to the new heavens and the new earth. The experience of the saints entering the kingdom will truly be beyond “What no eye has seen and no ear heard, what the mind of man cannot visualize; all that God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).

  1. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue: The Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 38.
  2. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Christian Perfection and Contemplation: According to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross (Tan Books and Publishers Inc., 2003), Footnote, 77.
  3. Brent Withers, “The Science of Divine Love,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (July 18, 2013).
  4. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, rev. ed., trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), 538.
  5. Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 2005), MA Entry1306, 469.
  6. Brent Withers, “The Science of Divine Love,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (July 18, 2013).
  7. Father Charles Arminjon, The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life, trans. Susan Conroy and Peter McEnerny (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2008), 60.
Brent Withers About Brent Withers

Brent Withers is originally from New Zealand. He is now living in Farnborough, England, with his wife and two young children. He returned to the Catholic Church about ten years ago after being away for about twenty or so years. He has previously published essays with the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Presently, he is employed as a commissioning manager for mental health services in an inner London City borough.

Comments

  1. Excellent article that deserves more attention. Thank you particularly for connecting the dots between personal holiness & new evangelization. God has been whispering insistently to me encouraging me to live in silence in my heart. This has made me more aware that I don’t need to have an opinion about most things that come up during the day-> This freed more time/space within me to be with God-> This gave me the necessary preparation I need to deal w/ hard family situations in more peace. -> This presents a witness to the reality of God to those around me who’ve put God on a back burner.
    We need more teaching like this.

    • I totally agree especially knowing my impatient personality especially within the heaven sent ministry of sanctuary house I am in charge of and it’s laity brotherhood of the passion of Christ …. for more info MEN can contact me at:
      sanctuaryhouse_99@yahoo.com
      Frank
      Albany NY

  2. In silence the heart is able to Converse with God… thanks for that lovely time and sharing your inner silence…

  3. Thank you, Mr. Withers, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking article. The mysteries of God’s ways among men are indeed deep and profound, and are beyond our very limited understanding. Yet I believe He wants us to grow in understanding, through His enabling grace, even if in millimeter increments per century.

    Your concluding last paragraph begins with, “Why on earth would God allow the reign of the antichrist to happen? We can now begin to dimly understand the magnitude of the prophet Isaiah’s famous words: “Your ways are not my ways” (Is 55:8).” I am led to look at the question in the light of the Church’s teaching in the Catechism:
    ++++++++++
    675 Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. [Cf. Lk 18:8; Mt 24:12] The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth [Cf. Lk 21:12; Jn 15:19-20] will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. [Cf. 2 Th 2:4-12; I Th 5:2-3; 2 Jn 7; I Jn 2:18, 22]
    ….
    677 The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. [Cf. Rev 19:1-9] The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. [Cf Rev 13:8; 20:7-10; 21:2-4] God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgement after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world. [Cf. Rev 20:12; 2 Pt 3:12-13]
    +++++++++++

    How important it is that the Church know of this “final Passover”! How important to be prepared, in our souls, for the testing that will certainly come to us. A final test, the time of personal death, will come to every human person; the time of the “final Passover” of the Church will come to some: how important it is to be prepared! When I reflect on the depth (or lack of depth) of so many Adult Formation programs (when any programs exist at all) and the lack of depth of so many homilies (We are in fact all called to holiness, now!), I shudder to think how unprepared so many will be.

    Mk 8:34  And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
    Mk 8:35  For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
    Mk 8:36  For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?

    Jesus gives us fair warning! Are we, the Church, doing our job in making disciples?

  4. This is so intensely rich that I need to copy it and hand it out.
    When God has someone speak His message this succinctly it renews my strength and is fresh, clean water in a parched land! I know if I needed to hear this as as reminder to stay strong and keep to the course then many others do also.
    Thanks for being a clean vessel! :)

  5. Beautifully written….

  6. How does one know what is ‘a small act in pure love’? What is ‘pure love’? Is it laying down ones life for a friend as there is no greater love than this. But that is something most of us will not experience and definitely not on a daily basis, obviously. But is it in suffering? Must we suffer to have ‘pure love’? Does this go hand in hand with ‘pure remorse’? Another phrase I’m not sure about. I’m guessing its probably something we are doing and do not even realize it?
    Anyone have any answers?

    • Maybe it is easier to recognize “impure love” – also called “mercenary love” – love in a heart mixed with persons or objects of love. A mercenary soldier fights for some country or cause – but he fights for pay: he is a “mercenary”. So also it is possible for a Christian to love God, yes, but mixed in his love-actions for God, is the concern, “what’s in it for me?” We are called to whole-hearted love for God! To love God with one’s WHOLE heart and soul and mind and strength! Our first question ought to be, what does God want me to do? After that question, nothing else ought to matter. In Him is our happiness, our provision of all we need.

Trackbacks

  1. […] In the light of faith, we also know that amidst the turmoil and confusion of our daily lives, God’s loving providence is mysteriously at work, providing the necessary graces for every single soul to achieve, firstly, their salvation, and then, also, their sanctification. But how would we know and recognize this as being the case? The timeless wisdom of the Church’s saints and spiritual writers provides the heavenly lens with which we are able to dimly perceive God’s ways within our troubled and confused world. To begin our journey into the mystery of God’s ways, St. Catherine of Siena in her masterpiece, The Dialogue, highlights how virtue is only proven and tested by its opposite: You test the virtue of patience in yourself when your neighbors insult you. Your humility is tested by the proud, your faith by the unfaithful, your hope by the person who has no hope. Your justice is tried by the unjust, your compassion by the cruel, and your gentleness and kindness by the wrathful. Your neighbors are the channel through which all your virtues are tested and come to birth, just as the evil give birth to all their vices through their neighbors.1 […]