+JMJ+ Welcome to part 2 of our sixth Catholic Book of the Month, Introduction to the Spiritual Life: Walking the Path of Prayer with Jesus, by Brant Pitre. You can get a hardcover copy or a Kindle ebook copy using the links at the end of this post, and view other parts of the series on the annotated Table of Contents page.
We talked about the Three Ways in the last post:
- The purgative,
- The illuminative, and
- The Unitive.
Most of us, let’s be honest, are not even in the purgative stage. This is why St. John of the Cross writes his book, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, for beginners, and he doesn’t mean someone like me. He means someone who already has her feet firmly on the path, walking The Way, not playing at being a disciple but submitting to discipline and making progress in the spiritual life daily, one foot in front of the other and with a solid plan for tackling the mountain and making it to the summit.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched or read anything about mountain climbing, but it’s not a sport one takes up lightly or casually. There’s a great amount of planning involved and the hard work of getting ready to make the climb. Climbing Mount Carmel must be much like that. Even St. Frances de Sales alludes to the need for a plan of attack when he likens the spiritual project to an army setting out to conquer a foe or a builder to build a tower. No one in his right mind would proceed on such a venture without a plan ensuring that he had all he needed before setting out. (At least I think it was St. Francis de Sales. Now I can’t find the reference anywhere. If anyone knows where he said it or if someone else said it, let me know in the comments, please. Thanks!)
Just as St. Francis de Sales sets out a plan in his book–a plan for lay people living in the world (but not of it!)–so Dr. Pitre gives us a plan to follow so that we may finally make some progress on the road to spiritual perfection. We’re not talking prosperity gospel here, or ostentatious achievement that wins awards and accolades. If you become a saint, it’s entirely possible that no one on this side of heaven will ever know. But awards and accolades are not what we’re about in this project.
Before he sets out the plan Dr. Pitre takes some time to lay out the map. There are some things we need to know so we can read it and make use of it.
There are stages of growth in the spiritual life. Now a lot of us–and, again, I am including myself–have spent years and years, going to confession and confessing the same sins over and over. Sometimes we nearly give up hope that we’ll ever make any progress or we resign ourselves to the idea and all but give up trying. It seems no amount of effort gets us anywhere. But could it be that we are not putting our effort where it is most needed or that we are working against ourselves?
Dr. Pitre points out that far from mapping out the spiritual life as one step forward, two steps back, schlepping along, not getting anywhere until we die, the great spiritual writers describe the spiritual life as a series of stages.
The Three Stages
We already looked at the three kinds of prayer, then we looked at the three ways in a very brief cursory way. (See last post.) We’ll look at them in a little more detail now, but remember, we’re still just getting the lay of the land. We’ll see that the spiritual life has three stages and is a process of growth, much like the gwroth of a humuan person. These stages are common to us all, but our own personal experience of them can vary widely.
“…each person’s experience of this process is going to be unique. For in the end, the spiritual life of each human soul is a mystery.”Introduction to the Spiritual Life: Walking the Path of Prayer with Jesus, by Brant Pitre, pg. 23, EPUB edition.
This talk of ways and paths does not negate what Jesus said about being The Way “(Greek hodos) upon which all of His disciples must walk (Matthew 7:14″ (Pitre, 2021, 23). Pitre makes a good point here that “the image of a path presupposes a starting point and progress toward a final destination” and that Jesus describes His “followers as ‘disciples’ or, more literally, ‘students’ (Greek mathētai)” (Ibid., 23).
Universal Call to Holiness
We are all called to be saints. Jesus said we are to be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect. You can use Verbum software and start out with a modest package of excellent Catholic resources and learn some helpful things that way, and get free books and sale books every month.) The Greek word used here in the Gospel is τέλειοι (teleioi).
“Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.”The Holy Bible (Douay-Rheims Bible), Translated from the Latin Vulgate (Mt 5:48). (2009). Logos Bible Software. (I’m using the Verbum version, which is Catholic and, yes, it does make a big difference which one you use.)
Paul told the Corinthian “former pagans and laypeople” that they were all “called to be saints” (See 1 Cor 1:2). And if this hasn’t been sobering enough, there are these words from Hebrews, calling “its readers to ‘the holiness without which no one will see the Lord'” (See Hebrews 12:14).
But nothing so makes my heart burn within me as reflecting on the scene with Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
Jesus answered and said to her: If thou didst know the gift of God and who he is that saith to thee: Give me to drink; thou perhaps wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.Ibid., Jn 4:10.
This water is living water, the spiritual water, gift of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus is offering this holy gift to a Samaritan! Jews and Samaritans were enemies from way back. And she’s a sinner on top of that. But Jesus still calls her and offers her the precious gift of the Holy Spirit. She, too, is called to holiness. We all are. No one is exempt.
No human is exempt from the call, I should say. Someone told me a few weeks ago that some demons were good and some angels were bad. What in the world?! I don’t want to go into that here, just wanted to mention it as an example of what can happen to a person who decides to buid his own theology out of whole cloth, or should I say, hole cloth, as in, full of holes! Argh! Insanity!
Also, might as well say it now: if you’re living a life of sin, especially mortal sin, and you are not the least bit repentant, don’t expect to excel at the spiritual life. You’ve got to get the muck out of your eyes and ears before you can see and hear what the Lord wants to reveal to you. If you think He’s leading you to do those things that He has revealed to us are sins and mortal sins, then you have already gone far down the wrong path. Stop and turn around now while you can. It’ll take a fair amount of humility and you’ll probably shed a river of tears along the way, but there is no other way to proceed unless going backward is your goal. Yeah, don’t do that. It doesn’t end well. But all you have to do is turn around and begin to move toward Him and He will run to greet you the way the Merciful Father did in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (See Luke 15:11-32.) It’s impossible to transform your life the way the Lord wants to transform it, on your own, but with Him all things are possible.
Stepping off of my soapbox now. Back to what Dr. Pitre says in his book.
He’s going to root his teachings on the spiritual life in the teachings of Christ and in the words and images of the Jewish Scriptures, the way Jesus Himself did. He’s going to help us understand the jewish context, the Old Testament.
Here is his plan for our spiritual program. He’s going to focus on “the biblical foundations of key topics in Christian spirituality,” including:
- Vocal Prayer, Meditation, and Contemplation
- Three Major Temptations and Three Remedies
- Spiritual Exercises: The Lord’s Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving
- The Seven Capital Sins and the Seven Opposing Virtues
- Lectio Divina: How to Meditate on Scripture
- The Dark Night of the Soul (And that doesn’t mean what most people think it means.)
Keep in mind that this whole book is focused mainly on the “first stage of spiritual growth” known as the purgative way. He’s going to show “what the spiritual classics say about each topic, what Jesus himself said about it, then conclude with some practical implications… You can think of this book as a ‘biblical road map of the spiritual life,’ with Jesus as the primary guide.”
So buckle up and get your bucket ready. This is not about merely reciting some prayers (badly) and trying to avoid hell, or merely reading one more spiritual book and marking it off the list. This is about learning to really follow Christ as a honest-to-God disciple following a discipline.
Next week, learning to talk to God. At some point we’ll even learn how to LISTEN to Him, too.
As far as I can understand, the gate by which to enter this castle is prayer and meditation. I do not allude more to mental than to vocal prayer, for if it is prayer at all, the mind must take part in it. If a person neither considers to Whom he is addressing himself, what he asks, nor what he is who ventures to speak to God, although his lips may utter many words, I do not call it prayer.  Sometimes, indeed, one may pray devoutly without making all these considerations through having practised them at other times. The custom of speaking to God Almighty as freely as with a slave—caring nothing whether the words are suitable or not, but simply saying the first thing that comes to mind from being learnt by rote by frequent repetition—cannot be called prayer: God grant that no Christian may address Him in this manner. I trust His Majesty will prevent any of you, sisters, from doing so. Our habit in this Order of conversing about spiritual matters is a good preservative against such evil ways.
Let us speak no more of these crippled souls, who are in a most miserable and dangerous state, unless our Lord bid them rise, as He did the palsied man who had waited more than thirty years at the pool of Bethsaida. We will now think of the others who at last enter the precincts of the castle; they are still “very worldly, yet have some desire to do right, and at times, though rarely, commend themselves to God’s care. They think about their souls every now and then; although very busy, they pray a few times a month, with minds generally filled with a thousand other matters, for where their treasure is, there is their heart also. Still, occasionally they cast aside these cares; it is a great boon for them to realize to some extent the state of their souls, and to see that they will never reach the gate by the road they are following.Ávila, Teresa de, Santa, 1515-1582. The Interior Castle or The Mansions. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, public domain.
There is danger around us and the day is far spent. Let us make a firm resolution to apply ourselves to making progress in the interior life before it is too late. When I was younger I thought I would live forever and had all the time in the world. After a few brushes with death and more years behind me, I am no longer so deluded. Let us get on with it then. Join me next Thursday and we will!
That’s it for tonight. Thanks for joining me as we prepare for the Quest. I pray that you and I will stay holy and virtuous during this new year, and help each other to become who the Lord intends us to be: SAINTS. God bless you and may His Peace be always with you. +JMJ+
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Notes and Links
- The Catholic Book of the Month for January 2022 is Introduction to the Spiritual Life: Walking the Path of Prayer with Jesus, by Brant Pitre: Hardcover, Kindle. (Amazon affiliate links, see Full Disclosure below.)
- There are a lot of books on the spiritual life listed in a post I did a few years ago on Dr. Pitre’s audio course on Spiritual Theology. There are links in that post for some of those books in PDF format for free at archive.org.
- There are many editions of St. Teresa’s works. I have some of the ICS versions in print, some in Verbum. I used the The Christian Classics (3rd edition) for the quote. There’s one (2nd edition) at archive.org for free, too.
Image: 1) in the banner, same one the cover of the book uses: The Road to Emmaus (or The Way to Emmaus), by Robert Zund, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain. 2) Teleioi, screenshot from Verbum. 3) Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well, by Maria Anna Angelika Kauffmann, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain. 4) Night view of Avila, Spain, showing the town walls (Oh, how I want to see this in real life!), via Wikimedia Commons, photo by Choniron, license CC BY-SA 3.0 ES.
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