Some Reflections on the Spiritual Life for the Lockdown

With much of our ordinary life still affected by the lockdown, it can be harder than ever to keep our heart fixed on the Lord and his divine providence. Rather than prayer, spiritual reading, contemplation and encouraging others, we may find ourselves sorely tempted to be so ruled by anxiety and fear that we spend too much time escaping into movies, food and drink, just being lazy rather than focusing on God’s indwelling in our souls when we are in the state of grace for consolation and peace. This great escape from the present cross is natural to fallen humans that we are, but ultimately leads to greater unrest than ever. The following reflections are meant to help readers deal with the heavy conflicts that emerge from lockdown living and pursue a spiritual life in the midst of them.

The spiritual life is seeking a union with Christ and the Triune God. To do this, one has to subordinate, not kill, one’s human nature and subject oneself to the supernatural order with all its gifts of grace. While all of God’s creatures are meant to lead us to him, they can be associated with leading us away from him by false and unreasonable desires. Sex, food and drink, honor, material goods, affections and even suffering can be chosen in a way that is not in sync with reason and faith. We are made in God’s image but we are not unlimited gods. If someone wants an interior life, giving oneself predominantly to external life with little prayer, spiritual reading, or recollection will not accomplish the goal. Yet God wants every state of life to be useful in practical affairs for God, self, neighbor, and society.

It does not make much difference if one tries to determine where he or she is in the spiritual life. To try to grade one’s soul like fruit and vegetables can cause trouble. It can be like watching oneself watching God. Everyone should be willing to come to God as he or she is, imperfections and all. And if we have deep prayer, this does not mean that God approves any personal and particular action or policy from self. This leads to illuminism or subjectivism. Humans can still be in error about many things. In ordinary or even infused contemplative prayer, God only shows himself, not necessarily brilliant ideas.

Some natural attractions to created things are stronger than they should be based on original sin. Some things are just too alluring. The more one fills the self with created things excessively chosen, the more diminished becomes the hunger for God. “Detachment” can be understood as making oneself hungry for God. Some are made hungry by God almost forcibly, others by acts of the will. Therefore, good works done for the wrong reasons — family, friends, legitimate pleasures — can get in the way of receiving supernatural gifts from God and thirsting for intimacy with God.

Another way of putting the problem is that the human desire can be so intense when striving for good created things as to upset the desire for supernatural goods and union with God. But natural desires are not to be destroyed or deteriorated. There is a distinction between nature itself and the extremes of fallen nature. Grace does not pound nature into a pile of rubble. Rather, it purifies it with human cooperation. The idea that the more someone withdraws from creation, the more virtue is enhanced, is a false notion of the spiritual life.

In fact, the spiritual life, whether in the cloister or living a good and holy marriage, gives one a greater capacity for joy, because it enhances one’s ability to enjoy the things of the heart! That does not mean one lives or acts for constant delectations, but we do need to experience delights, of both the bodily senses and the spirit. Knowing how to do this, one becomes better prepared for that normal contemplative side of life. Moreover, seeking the perfection of self as an end in itself is not the same as concentrating on growing in the theological virtue of charity. The tyranny of the desert fathers in the early centuries of the Church did not stop God from creating a few saints, but this was the exception. When gazing at and smelling a rose, or appreciating beauty of the fine arts, anyone can become more capable of loving God who is beauty. However, we should not stop at aesthetic experiences either. Everyone should enjoy moments of delight in and with God during periods of recollection. In fact, putting oneself into a recollection of the presence of God is the door most directly opening to that presence which he himself gives, that presence which is known as contemplative prayer. 

Contemplative or vocal prayer is not itself the whole of spiritual life. Rather, the spiritual life means doing God’s will as best as humanly possible through virtuous living and fulfilling the duties of one’s state in life. Holiness is not even infused contemplation, although the latter may aid. One must make strong decisions with determination for God, enduring great negative assaults from within and without and possess a willingness to see one’s great imperfections without discouragement. One’s conversation with God comes about by thinking, desiring and, reflecting on the past and imagine the future with God. Harder is not better if it dehumanizes a person, as if self-discipline is what the spiritual life is all about. As growth in virtues emerges over one’s life, self-seeking in prayer gradually becomes less. The more God-centered a person becomes, the less the delights of God are wanted but just him. Just because someone believes intently that God loves him or her does not mean that God approves everything he or she does or thinks.

From another perspective, detachment is another word for restraining fallen nature so as to keep its interference at a minimum so as to have God fill it with his supernatural gifts and thereby intensify his presence. Spiritual maturity means discovering the particular way to God which is most natural to oneself like St. Thomas Aquinas who knew it was easy for him to study and write due to his incredible memory and intellectual brilliance. It also takes humility to know one’s limitations. God inspires people to find their way and impediments to union with him even if it means a stricter lifestyle, such as religious life, priesthood or even adopting or procreating another child in marriage.

Yet there are many hidden rebellions from within that are solved by believing in God’s love and mercy. Spiritual life is meant to be ongoing spiritual growth amid imperfections and wanderings off the road. God usually alters growth by seasons in the soul from consolation to difficulties and even desolations. Nevertheless, the spiritual life is not exclusively a life of great crosses only but also great joys as well that often accompany heavy crosses.

Nevertheless, detachment is not the most important thing in the spiritual life, as it can lead to looking more at self than God. Many people are held back by fear of what may be asked, or by looking too much at themselves instead of God. In readiness of spirit, there has to be a willingness to give him all, without fearful speculation on what he will want next. And what is given to us as pleasant may be food for the climb to the perfection of charity. So, detachment is a positive willingness to abandon what would keep someone clinging to created goods from greater intimacy with God. However, the first purpose of the spiritual life is the love of God, not detachment. For example, a mother must interrupt her quiet recollection in God to answer the needs of her children.

Purification of interior senses

If grace builds upon nature, it needs discipline from past memories and imagination. Since God can only be found in the present moment, imagination and memory need discipline. It is necessary to think from time to time of one’s our past and future. But as progress in the spiritual life grows, past memories and future dreams (unless major decisions are at stake) need to be put aside so as to live in the here and now with God. This death is not to the faculties themselves but to useless curiosity and daydreaming, resentments, temptations, and past sins leading to discouragement or deep, unconscious despair. These can ruin a basic belief in one’s own value, which is necessary for spiritual growth, realizing that one’s value is given by God.

Discouragement is not necessarily overcome by long periods of prayer. It can make things worse. Sometimes a walk, an amusing conversation with a friend, a movie, listening to a piece of music, or watching a comedy is a natural way of gaining stability from discouragement. In addition, total repression of memory is not a good preparation for darker trials to come, perhaps because one has to come to terms with hidden conflicts within oneself and others even God himself. Hidden wounds need to be known and then healed if not expelled. The way to discipline is not by violent and disordered abuse of one’s human nature.

Purification of the intellect, affections and desires

Praying consists not in thinking much but in loving much, whether acquired contemplation or prayer of recollection or infused. However, it is necessary to seek an understanding of the faith and become delighted by its truth, and at the same time to reject one’s childish and usually erroneous understanding of God, grace, divine providence and importance of the Church and her sacraments.

What about affections and desires? While they can keep us away from God, they are not to be uprooted; rather, learning how to select the things a person may love is the priority by training self to love them in proper proportion. The temptation exists to strive after more created things and unreasonable affirmation from persons than is reasonable. Prudence is demanded in making choices because human needs are of many kinds and differ from person to person. On the other hand, even inanimate and irrational creation can be loved with charity. Contemplating them, one can be guided to the knowledge of God. We may be moved more toward him occasionally by the sight of the stars at night than by exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. What is important is being moved toward God. However, we can only find God where and when he chooses to be found.

The need for relaxing the mind is also important, such that Aquinas gives it considerable space, especially if occupied with work of contemplation provided on does not lose the seriousness of one’s mind altogether.1 St. Thomas calls sadness or depression of mind the most harmful of the human passions spiritually and physically.2 God will always guide those who keep alive a great desire to be guided. No one will ever belong to the heart of God if human nature is killed psychologically, by diminishing the power to desire what is seen as good and helpful according to one’s state in life and degree of perfection. It takes a strong will to be docile and humble in order to be led by God.

Love of friends

One cannot go to God alone but needs encouragement as Jesus sought in the garden. There are two extremes, either total rejection or no limitations to spending time with one’s friends. This requires prudence and restraint according to one’s state in life. The soul resists limitations. The saints had friends, but this does not mean that all friendships are spiritual and helpful. Also, one can idealize a friend and the image can be more attractive than the reality and distract from seeking God. This does not mean that friendship is an evil to be avoided, but that it is not always easy to know when grace or simply nature is operative. There is then a need to learn how to bring friends to God and one’s love for him or her to God. In the love of a friend, everyone finds that he or she is able to believe in oneself by seeing the love and respect in the eyes of a friend, which in turn gives strength for an encounter with God. And during this time of the lockdown, the majority of us need the consolation that comes from friends and relatives who mutually share our grief, sorrow and fear together.

Inner and outer trials 

Inability to pray by means of meditations, spiritual reading, and affections may occur for prolonged periods of time for those who are in the depths of the spiritual life. Terrible temptations against faith, hope, charity, chastity and patience, scruples of conscience and a feeling of being forsaken by God can be a deep trial.

Then there are external desolations such as illness, loss of fortune, misunderstandings by friends or superiors, which can nonetheless coexist with a profound trust that in the end “all will be well.” There are some unknown cesspools or ugliness, irrational resentments, false self images, glorifying self, desire to dominate others, all avoided for many years in the depths of one’s heart. These need to be faced and taken away by love from God. The true self slowly emerges and finds God in unfettered freedom and the resistance to God passes according to one’s capacity and need. Somehow, the person knows God is present and does not know how it knows it.

But not everyone necessarily goes through this. The main principle of guidance should be to fix one’s gaze on God and take each portion of our life as it comes from his hand. He knows when we need purifications and the precise manner in which we will best be purified according to capacity and need. A hidden and unconverted area of one’s attitudes stands in the way of completely giving self to God.

Fears, compulsions, phobias, and inhibitions paralyze and make it difficult to give God one’s all. Worries and deep depressions need to be poured out in purification. Ideally, any interaction between grace and human nature should be harmonious, but the action of God is not immediately pleasing to a fallen nature. Deep down, there is a storehouse of forgotten or half-remembered memories with emotional content, with unresolved resentments that have influenced present thinking and acting. Repeatedly rebelling against authority has an underbelly of fighting against a domineering parent of the past. Likewise, pride has a hidden place within that has created an unreal image of what the ego thinks or should be, how it should always be able to act or what life should give contrary to reality. This does not mean one has no virtue, just imperfect virtue.

Time after time, one hates not one’s sins and imperfections but one’s very self. If someone has not lived up to a false self-image formed by pride, then deeply hidden conflicts and the desire for supreme glorification of self, made by false self-images, end in pitiless self-hatred. These deep sources of unrest must first be seen and understood. As the underworld of self becomes known, this enables a person to face and reject them. What is within is not necessary voluntary. One has to learn to see “hell” come out of oneself and remain morally unconquered. One does not encourage the impurities, hatreds, rage at one’s self or God or neighbor, blasphemies, and rebellion, but puts them gently aside with the help of grace. Seeking God and possessing him demands seeking wholeness for the sake of God. Introspection alone will not bring all this out. It must be waited for.

Many a time, purification shows someone how decisions are based on pride, subjective compulsions and fears. It creates a false self. Failure to live up to the dictates of false pride then leads to self-hatred. A man fears to go to God because he is afraid of what God might ask him. Yet true self-esteem, believing in oneself, self-appreciation is not a vice but a virtue working together with humility. Generally, for some priests and religious as well as parents, good works come from a great desire to excel, to be someone great in the eyes of others (even one’s children), which is a form of false ambition or vainglory. Purifications are meant to relieve the soul from these inner pressures coming from past repressions and forgotten/forgiven sins. No saint ever claimed the journey of the spiritual life is easy, but the Lord Jesus and his Church does teach that it is not impossible either.

  1. Summa Theologica II-II 168, 2, 3, 4.
  2. ST I-II 37, 3.
Rev. Basil Cole, OP About Rev. Basil Cole, OP

Fr. Basil Cole, OP, is Ordinary Professor of Moral, Spiritual, and Dogmatic Theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He has authored Music and Morals (Alba House, 1993) and co-authored with Paul Connor, OP, Christian Totality: Theology of Consecrated Life (St. Paul’s Editions, in Bombay, India 1990; revised in 1997, Alba House). He has written for The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Reason and Faith, and Angelicum. He has also been a long-time collaborator for Germain Grisez’s four-volume series of moral theology, The Way of the Lord Jesus.

Avatar About Fr. Dominic Hoffman

Fr. Dominic Hoffman, OP was a teacher for many years at Daniel Murphy High School in Los Angeles. During this time he wrote five books on the spiritual life, which have since gone out of print save for Beginnings in the Spiritual Life, also published in Spanish. He also was assigned to various apostolic works as a parish priest and chaplain to a hospital throughout his life as a Dominican in the Western Province. He died in December of 1998.

Comments

  1. Avatar Larry Frey says:

    I believe it’s a time to get back into nature and look at God’s creation and earth colors, green, brown, yellow and blue that aren’t apparent in concrete and asphalt jungles in these Mega cities! Thanks again for your article.

  2. Very helpful article! Thank you Fr Basil for making available the thought of Fr Hoffmann. Excellent. Happy Feast of St Catherine of Siena. It would be interesting if you could spell out more of what was meant by the “tyranny of the desert Fathers.”

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