"Seeking Union with God"
Personal Spiritual Formation Program
Growing in Holiness and Virtue
"My God, I choose everything.
I will not be a Saint by halves, I am not afraid of suffering for Thee, I only fear one thing, and that is to do my own will. Accept the offering of my will, for I choose all that Thou willest." St. Therese of Lisieux
The title (and goal) of this course is Seeking Union with God. Union with God means a union of love, which consists of loving God above all things. It also consists of being completely united in our wills to God's will, so that there is a union of wills. This ultimately means desiring what God desires to the point that there is no difference between God's will and ours.
As we begin to love God more and more, we start to realize that God really does love us more than we can imagine and loves everyone else too including those we care about. We come to realize that God really knows best and wants the best for us. We start to want what God wants as we begin to see it is the best and perfect. We begin to love what God loves and hate what God hates. (The Bible says God hates sin, for example.)
As we come to realize more and more that God is all good and better than anyone or anything else, we begin to love and desire Him more and more and above all things. This is accomplished not just through our own effort or intelligence. God is reaching out to us and knocking on the door of our heart. It does take our effort and cooperation with God's grace, and God's working in us to accomplish. It makes sense logically to love God above all things, but because of our fallen human nature and personal sins, we need God's grace to be converted.
Matt 22:36-40: "Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said to him: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.' "
What is Virtue?
Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 7 on Virtue. Especially pay attention to the theological virtues and what the Catechism says about the virtue of faith. 2 Cor. 5:7, "For we walk by faith, and not by sight."
Suggested Reading: Virtue (Catholic Encyclopedia) "Virtue - According to its etymology the word virtue (Latin virtus) signifies manliness or courage..."
What is Holiness?
Suggested Reading: Holiness (Catholic Encyclopedia) "Holiness - Holiness or sanctity is the outcome of sanctification, that Divine act by which God freely justifies us, and by which He has claimed us for His own; by our resulting sanctity, in act as well as in habit, we claim Him as our Beginning and as the End towards which we daily unflinchingly tend..."
A quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (click here for footnotes):
"#2012 "We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him . . . For those whom he fore knew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified."64
#2013 "All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity."65 All are called to holiness: "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."66
'In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ's gift, so that . . . doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints.'67
#2014 Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called "mystical" because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments - "the holy mysteries" - and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all.
#2015 The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.68 Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes: 'He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows'.69"
How do we grow in holiness?
We not only have the Bible and Church teachings to guide us in the way of holiness, but we can also learn from those who have achieved holiness in their lives, the Saints, through their writings and their example of a holy life. The reason they are called Saints is because they lived lives of heroic virtue. Here is what some of the Saints and spiritual writers have to say about growing in holiness:
|Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (Chapter 1, Section 8) has this to say:
"God makes saints as He pleases, but they are made always according to His plan, and in submission to His will. This submission is true and most perfect abandonment. Duties imposed by the state of life and by divine Providence are common to all the saints and are what God arranges for all in general. They live hidden from the world which is so evil that they are obliged to avoid its dangers: but it is not on this account that they are saints, but only on account of their submission to the will of God. The more absolute this submission becomes the higher becomes their sanctity.
We must not imagine that those whose virtue is shown in wonderful and singular ways, and by unquestionable attractions and inspirations, advance less on that account in the way of abandonment. From the moment that these acts become duties by the will of God, then to be content only to fulfil the duties of a state of life, or the ordinary inspirations of Providence would be to resist God, whose holy will would no longer retain the mastery of the passing moments, and to cease practising the virtue of abandonment. Our duties must be so arranged as to be commensurate with the designs of God, and to follow the path designated by our attraction. To carry out our inspirations will then become a duty to which we must be faithful. As there are souls whose whole duty is defined by exterior laws, and who should not go beyond them because restricted by the will of God; so also there are others who, besides exterior duties, are obliged to carry out faithfully that interior rule imprinted on their hearts.
It would be a foolish and frivolous curiosity to try to discover which is the most holy. Each has to follow the appointed path. Perfection consists in submitting unreservedly to the designs of God, and in fulfilling the duties of ones state in the most perfect manner possible. To compare the different states as they are in themselves can do nothing to improve us, since it is neither in the amount of work, nor in the sort of duties given to us that perfection is to be found. If self-love is the motive power of our acts, or if it be not immediately crushed when discovered, our supposed abundance will be in truth absolute poverty because it is not supplied by obedience to the will of God.
However, to decide the question in some way, I think that holiness can be measured by the love one has for God, and the desire to please Him, and that the more His will is the guiding principle, and His plans conformed to and loved, the greater will be the holiness, no matter what may be the means made use of. It is this that we notice in Jesus, Mary and Joseph. In their separate lives there is more of love than of greatness, and more of the spirit than of the matter. It is not written that they sought holiness in things themselves, but only in the motive with which they used them.
It must therefore be concluded that one way is not more perfect than another, but that the most perfect is that which is most closely in conformity with the order established by God, whether by the accomplishment of exterior duties, or by interior dispositions."
Note: This book is online at the www.ccel.org website if you'd like to read more of it here: Abandonment to Divine Providence. (By the way, this is linked to a noncatholic website so use discretion if you venture out to other books there.)
St. Teresa of Avila in her autobiography when speaking about visions tells us what holiness consists of: "Also it should be considered that, even if they do come from God, Satan may mix with them suggestions of his own; you should therefore be always suspicious them. Also, when they are known to be from God, men must not rest much on them, seeing that holiness does not lie in them, but in a humble love of God and our neighbor; everything else, however good, must be feared, and our efforts directed to the gaining of humility, goodness, and the love of our Lord. It is seemly, also, not to worship what is seen in these visions, but only Jesus Christ, either as in Heaven or in the Sacrament, or, if it be a vision of the Saints, then to lift up the heart to the Holy One in Heaven, and not to that which is presented to the imagination: let it suffice that the imagination may be made use of for the purpose of raising me up to that which it makes me see."
St. Therese of Lisieux (Story of a Soul, Chapter 1) says: "Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be."
Growing in Holiness
Fr. Thomas Dubay devotes chapter #7 of his book, Fire Within, to discuss conditions for growth according to St. Teresa of Avila. If you are interested in contemplative prayer and learning more about Carmelite spirituality, I highly recommend his book Fire Within. He is very scholarly and in my opinion has one of the best commentaries on St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. In his book he goes through many aspects of the spiritual life and explains what they mean including nine points about growing in holiness that I'll summarize briefly below (and comment on in parenthesis):
(St. Teresa of Avila reached the heights of prayer and the spiritual life, and the union of God we are seeking. She was named the first woman Doctor of the Church because of her teachings.)
1. St. Teresa of Avila said: The whole aim of any person who is beginning in prayer and don't forget this, because if it very important should be that he work and prepare himself with determination and every effort to bring his will into conformity with Gods will.
It is the person who lives in more perfect conformity who will receive more from the Lord and be more advanced on this road [of prayer] (Interior Castle, Mansion Three)... I say that had you asked about meditation I could have spoken about it and counseled all to practice it
but contemplation is something else
This King doesn't give Himself but to those who give themselves entirely to Him. (Way of Perfection, Chapter 16)
2. It doesn't matter what our outer conditions, whether we are religious, single or married, rich or poor, etc. to progress in the spiritual life. The time is always propitious for God to grant His great favours to those who truly serve Him." (St. Teresa of Avila, Foundations, Chapter 4.) In other words we can begin right now and nothing on the outside needs to change first. It is a matter of priorities. (God does not ask us necessarily to spend a lot of time in prayer or penances, but only to do His will for our lives. And His will varies in some respects for each person depending on our state of life and other circumstances and duties.)
3. To grow in union with God our generosity must go beyond keeping the commandments. Everything we gain comes from what we give. (St. Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection, Chapter 33) If you are to gain this, He would have you keep back nothing; whether it be little or much, He will have it all for Himself, and according to what you know yourself to have given, the favours He will grant you will be small or great. (St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Mansion 5)
4. We must be purified from our faults (which God shows us more and more clearly the closer we get to Him). Holiness is something that takes time. Working on perfection while beginning in this life, most of the time isn't completed in this life. Purgatory is a chance to further purify ourselves to become ready for Heaven if we don't finish while on earth. Fr. John Corapi once said that we should be thankful for purgatory since nothing imperfect can be in Heaven, as otherwise we'd be expected to be perfect when we die.
5. In order to grow we must make a real effort and also do common sense penances. St. Teresa mentions that growing in prayer and focusing on our own comfort are incompatible. (We need to follow God's will and plan for each of our lives as best as we know it. According to Sr. Lucia a seer at Fatima, the penance God asks of most of us is, first of all, the conscientious performance of our daily duties.)
6. God desires to give to us, but we must ready and generous to receive. We must not measure our progress by the years in which we have practiced prayer, and it even seems, put a measure on Him who gives His gifts without any measure, when He so desires. He can give more to one in a half a year than to another in many years! This is something I have seen so clearly in many person that I'm amazed how we can even stop to consider it. (St. Teresa of Avila, Life, Chapter 39)
7. Retrogression or going back in prayer is possible. (We need to keep moving ahead with the help of God's grace and through our own effort.)
8. There is a connection between virtue and prayer... as one becomes more virtuous, prayer develops and also as one prays, it becomes easier to be virtuous including being more humble, temperate, patient and loving. In fact, St. Teresa of Avila says that one way we can tell if our prayer is genuine is whether or not we are growing in virtue.
9. Finally, St. Teresa says we must have determination... a very determined determination. (She also advised her nuns to be manly in their efforts.)
Specific conditions for growth include: humility (submissiveness and lowliness in regards to God, a very important virtue in the spiritual life), detachment (meaning no selfish clingings to lesser things than God), solitude (time alone with God), suffering (doing what is needed regardless of the cost), obedience (to legitimate authority when asked to do legitimate things) and generosity. (The two links are to the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1918 version.)
Suggested Reading: If you have the book, Fire Within, by Fr. Thomas Dubay, read chapter #7 as it goes into detail about the above.
Seeking Union with God
As many of the above readings suggest, we see the importance of conformity of our will to God's will. Holiness does not consist in good feelings (even though these may be part of it), nor miracles or blessings or prayer experiences, but in loving God and doing His will. This should be our focus.
For example, one thing we can make a mistake about in the spiritual life is to focus on seeking experiences or look for techniques that bring on certain experiences. Feeling good or having spiritual experiences, which can be very pleasurable, is something that can sidetrack us if we focus on this. If you think about it, seeking a high supernatural experience is not exactly seeking God. These types of experiences often accompany our progress in the spiritual life, and even aid us on our journey as they help us to take our focus off of the world, but they are not an end in themselves. St. John of the Cross in Ascent of Mt. Carmel mentions that we are to seek only the honor and glory of God to ascend the mount where God dwells. Thomas Merton mentions that we are to seek the God of joy and not the joys of God.
The reason I mention this is that love focuses on the one loved, not on oneself or one's own experience. God will give us the experiences He wants us to have to draw us to Himself and the experiences of union He wants us to have at the right time. We can leave it all in God's hands and just focus on God alone.
On our search for union with God and holiness there are two things necessary to progress, God's grace (which is always available to us) and our active cooperation. The Bible says that we can do nothing apart from God, and it also says that with God we can do all things.
"I am the vine: you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing."
"I can do all things in Him who strengthens me." Phil. 4:13
"And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her."
"The Blessed Virgin is the perfect realization of the Church's holiness and its model." Pope John Paul II, from his general audience on September 6, 1995, L'Osservatore Romano, September 13, 1995
Some other Bible verses to consider:
Luke 14:26 "If any man come to me, and hate not* his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. [*Footnote in Duoay-Rheims Bible for "Hate not"... The law of Christ does not allow us to hate even our enemies, much less our parents: but the meaning of the text is, that we must be in that disposition of soul, as to be willing to renounce, and part with every thing, how near or dear soever it may be to us, that would keep us from following Christ.]
27 And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
28 For which of you having a mind to build a tower, doth not first sit down, and reckon the charges that are necessary, whether he have wherewithal to finish it:
29 Lest, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that see it begin to mock him, 30 Saying: This man began to build, and was not able to finish.
31 Or what king, about to go to make war against another king, doth not first sit down, and think whether he be able, with ten thousand, to meet him that, with twenty thousand, cometh against him?
32 Or else, whilst the other is yet afar off, sending an embassy, he desireth conditions of peace.
33 So likewise every one of you that doth not renounce all that he possesseth, cannot be my disciple.
34 Salt is good. But if the salt shall lose its savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned?
35 It is neither profitable for the land nor for the dunghill, but shall be cast out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."
Matt 5:48, "Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect."
Luke 18:26-30, "And they that heard it, said: Who then can be saved? He said to them: The things that are impossible with men, are possible with God. Then Peter said: Behold, we have left all things, and have followed thee. Who said to them: Amen, I say to you, there is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, Who shall not receive much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting."
Summary and Goal for Lesson 6: "Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be," St. Therese of Lisieux. If we haven't already, let's decide today that we will do as St. Teresa of Avila suggests, which is making a very determined determination to work on becoming holy while depending on God's help and grace to succeed.
Note: Please feel free to take your time for each lesson. There is no need rush to complete the class as it will be online indefinitely. I'd rather have you take your time and absorb all you can than to rush through. So just work at your own pace.
Click here to go to Lesson #6 Assignment and Feedback Form
as well as to see the feedback from other course participants.