"Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good estate. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"God has no need of men."

St Philip Neri

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John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 




by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

Eighth Maxim: The natural spirit and the spirit of Christ

Follow the enlightening spirit of Christ: mistrust the blindness and treachery of the natural mind

Most devout persons are religious after their . own fashion and according to their own ideas, and character. The number of those who, denying themselves thoroughly, seek to follow no light but that of grace, and willingly deny themselves their own light that they may be enlightened by eternal wisdom, is very small indeed. The practical application of this maxim, on which depends almost all progress in the interior life, is much more difficult for men than for women, because men trust more to their own judgment. If you were to suggest to a man full of confidence in his own reason and good sense, that he should give up his private judgment in order to enter into the ways of God, he would not understand you, nor would he see the necessity of what you propose. He cannot conceive that God's thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and His ways other than our ways. [39] He believes that he has the right to guide himself, and the power to guide others.

What is the result? He will never be thoroughly subjected to the divine spirit. He will contradict it, fight against it, both in himself and in those for whom he may be responsible. He will form false judgments concerning spiritual things and persons. He will obstinately reject what is good, and approve what is harmful, or else vacillate between one and the other; so that there is nothing fixed or consecutive either in his principles or direction.

What, then, is the natural spirit, or the spirit of private judgment? It is human reason in so far as it professes to judge of the things of God by its own light, without recourse to the light of grace. It is natural prudence, which conceives itself all sufficient, and is ready to propose maxims and rules of conduct, both for itself and for others, without consulting God or those who stand in His place.

Now in order to grasp this fully, we must lay down as a first principle that we do not really know the secrets of the interior life, nor all that pertains to the operations of grace except by a supernatural light: that our ideas on these things are only correct in so far as God impresses them on our souls, and that by this means alone do we rightly understand what is written concerning them in Holy Scripture, and in books treating of such matters. Without that light, it is impossible to distinguish, in ourselves or in others, between what comes from God and what emanates from other sources. Hence it follows that, if we are to form right judgments in these matters, our reason must be in continual dependence on the spirit of God, and fully persuaded of its own insufficiency and complete incompetence. It must have constant recourse to prayer; or, rather, it must be in a state of continual prayer.

It also follows that a true acquaintance with the secrets of the interior life can never be acquired merely by reading books, however exact and profound they may be; nor by the kind of meditation in which one simply relies on one's own reflections. We must have light from above, and this is only possible by humble prayer. Otherwise, we will understand nothing of what we read; or, if by presumption we imagine we understand something, it will be all wrong. In general, anyone who is not leading an interior life will not really understand spiritual things, or be able to make a profitable use of what he understands. And even those who are in the interior way will only appreciate in books what they have learnt from experience. Anything beyond that will be unintelligible to them, unless God gives them the light. And since God wants to lead us by the obscure way of faith, He generally does not give us this light for ourselves, but rather to those who are our guides in this matter.

Now this knowledge, being infused, is only to be retained by humility, by faithful correspondence with grace, and by a continual care to advance in holiness. It is lost if pride appropriates it to itself; if prayer and other salutary exercises are neglected; if too much play is allowed to reasoning and curiosity; if a curb is not kept on the activity of the mind. The mind must be passive if it is to receive what God has to give. Nothing is more delicate than the spirit of God. It is infinitely pure, and will brook no interference from the purely natural spirit. Nothing is more difficult than to receive and preserve it in all its purity, so inclined are we to insinuate something of our own into it. Nothing requires more attention, more watchfulness, more distrust of self. Self-love and the devil make it their one business to abuse and ruin it in our hearts, to turn us away from it, and deprive us of it by secret and imperceptible devices.

A whole volume would be necessary to describe fully this spirit of private judgment: to define its distinctive characteristics, and to tell of its fatal consequences, both for ourselves and for others. It is the oldest malady of the soul, and was the first step in original sin in the case of our first parents. They would not have sinned, had they not called in question God's commandment; had they not searched for the motive of His prohibition, and listened to the tempter's suggestion. The purely natural spirit taught them to scrutinize, and led them to disobey. To it they owed the loss of their original rectitude, simplicity and happy innocence, and their fatal acquaintance with evil, hitherto unknown to them.

Now this malady is the most universal, the most deeply-seated and inveterate, and the most difficult of all to cure. It is a subtle poison, corrupting the whole substance of the soul, and infecting even its good qualities and virtues. It is the enemy of God and of His grace. It forbids entrance to His gifts, or robs men of them. All sins committed are either its effect or its punishment. Ordinary grace is not enough for its cure: it resists the most violent remedies, and calls for very special grace. Its cure demands long and acute trials, and so long as life lasts we cannot be sure that it is eradicated. One glance at self may be sufficient to revive it in the noblest of souls; death alone frees us from it for ever.

Self-will is another misery which, according to St. Bernard, opened hell, and follows on the heels of the purely natural spirit. It is, so to say, its offspring, for our judgments precede and determine our affections. If the heart clings to objects from which the mind warns it to turn, or if it feels an aversion for what the mind indicates that it should love, it is because then the mind is being guided, not by private judgment, but by an enlightened reason or by supernatural grace, both of which come from God. So the fact remains that, not only deliberate sins but sins of frailty or surprise are all children of the purely natural spirit, from which we see how dangerous the latter is, and how very much on our guard we must be in regard to it.

The marks by which it is known would be easily recognized if seen by other eyes than our own. We have no difficulty in perceiving them in others, and are only too ready to do so. But the signs we notice in others we are blind to in ourselves.

This private spirit is self-confident, presumptuous, argumentative, over-bold and quick to judge. It is stubborn and unwilling to give way, so imbued is it with a sense of its own importance. It wants to see, and is loath to bend itself under the yoke of authority, which would have it believe. It is curious and must know everything. It does not perceive its own limits, and, presuming all things to be within its own depth, ventures to fathom all. It dare not claim to be infallible, but acts as if it were. To admit itself in the wrong is its greatest humiliation. The more one seeks to convince it, the more opinionated it becomes. And even when it is proved to be in the wrong, it refuses to yield. Through sheer obstinacy it shuts its eyes to what is known to be true.

And yet its sight is imperfect. It does not accepl things as they are, but views them in the light most flattering to itself. It is deceitful, false, perverse, haughty, censorious and contemptuous. It fears humiliation as it loves praise, and is continually adding secretly to the adulation it receives. It is mistrustful, suspicious, ready to believe evil and to doubt good, and to give a bad interpretation to the most innocent things. It is self- satisfied, never pleased with others unless praised by them, always holding them to be in the wrong as soon as they begin to contradict or blame.

Such, and still more horrible, are the characteristics of the purely natural spirit. It would be shocked, could it see itself as it is. But the crowning point of its misery lies in that it is blind, and its wilful blindness increases by reason of its deformity. If you endeavour to open its eyes, you irritate and excite it; it rebels against you, and all you say in order to undeceive it merely confirms it in its self-complacency.

The reason is that, blind as it is, it fancies itself clear- sighted. The more it is mistaken with regard to itself, the more certain it feels that it does itself a justice which is refused it by others. Its blindness arises from the fact that it sees itself only in the false glare of pride, vanity and presumption, which not only hides its vices and defects, but gives them the appearance of virtues. If it should consult objective reason, and still more grace, it would know itself truly by means of this dual light. But it never does, and inasmuch as it is a purely natural spirit, it is incapable of doing so.

In speaking thus, I depict almost all men, even those who profess to be pious and good, not excepting even a great number of those who think themselves interior and spiritual souls. This spirit of private pride, as regards religion, is exactly the same thing as the spirit of the Pharisees, of which Our Lord drew so striking a picture in the Gospels, which He attacked so strenuously in His discourses, and condemned so openly by His example. He even consented to be its victim, in order the more thoroughly to deter His disciples from it.

And yet, unfortunately, this Pharisaism is very common among pious folk of all conditions. There are those who, in the exercise of their calling seek for temporal advantages and the good opinion of men. They welcome the rich and great of this world with open arms and flattering words, while they will have nothing to do with the lowly and poor, or treat them harshly. They exercise despotic rule over men's consciences, make a show of the utmost rigour and severity, exaggerate and condemn, and see sin in everything. They are slaves to external practices, and recognize only the letter and nothing of the spirit. They have a set routine of prayers, and make artificial bounds for themselves, which they would not dream of overstepping. They criticize others, setting themselves up as living examples to be followed. Blind to their own faults, they are for ever looking for defects in others.

There are also those who, knowing only their own dry form of meditation, despise simple and humble prayer which, they say, is a waste of time and dangerously like laziness. Others again feign a kind of stiff out-of-the-way spirituality, full of affectation, the seat of which is certainly not in the heart but in a proud mind and a deluded imagination.

At the bottom of all this is the fact that these people have substituted their own private spirit for the spirit of God; or, at least, it is all so involved that they will never make any real progress. What is more, they bring discredit on true piety, and scandalize worldly folk who are thus disgusted with religion, holding it responsible for a jumble which in fact it utterly condemns.

The first thing to be resolved by anyone who sets out to lead a truly Christian life and to discard from his devotions all the faults I have just mentioned is, not only to mistrust his private spirit but to study how to rid himself of it. He must fight against it and pursue it relentlessly. This spiritual combat forms the main part of that denial of self which Our Lord enjoins on all who seek to follow Him. [40]

But the private spirit cannot fight against itself, because it does not know itself. Reason, unless enlightened by faith and aided by grace, is but a feeble weapon. We know of no case of any philosopher, who by his own deliberations ever succeeded in ridding himself of his private spirit. The slight conquests won in that way, far from weakening it, only supply it with fresh vigour by reason of the vain complacency it derives from its triumphs. The only way to master it is to engage it with the arms of grace, and to beg God to take the matter into His own all-powerful hands. It must be handed over to God as His mortal enemy, protesting that its utter destruction will be hailed as the greatest of blessings. If this prayer is sincere and often repeated, God will certainly take over the battle, while instructing us how to fulfil our part. He will endow us with His own spirit, and we shall quickly be aware of its presence. His spirit will gradually undermine and regulate our own activity. It will cause its deliberations to cease, quieten its agitations, correct its wrong notions, lessen its malignity, crush its pride, and overcome its egoistic bent. Then it will not be long before we can say with St. Paul: I live, now not I, but (the spirit of) Christ liveth in me. [41]

How is all this to be brought about? That is God's secret, so utterly inexplicable that the human spirit cannot penetrate it, and will never die if it attempts to do so. It can only die in so far as it allows itself to be deprived in turn of every private judgment, of every private act, of every private feeling. What I can say is that we soon begin to perceive the effects of the work of grace. We feel ourselves to be a totally different person, and we know that the cause of the change is the interior spirit communicated to us by God. But what that interior spirit is, and how it works, we do not know.

The change at once produced by it in our ideas and affections is such that it has to be experienced to be understood. Holy Scripture speaks of it as the birth of the new man: an inward, spiritual man who, by his gradual development, imperceptibly destroys the old man and, arrived at his full strength, slays him utterly. The food of this new man is prayer, infused prayer, continued almost unceasingly so long as reason retains its sway, and resumed on waking after the night's sleep. It is prayer, interior, yet, so to speak, without our own act; which, once it becomes habitual, maintains itself.

This is the unobtrusive weapon we are to bring to bear upon the purely private spirit. Its work is furthered by temptations, trials, contradictions and humiliations. God employs all these means to quell so formidable an enemy, even the prejudices and wickedness of men, the malice of Satan, and the threatening arms of His own justice. So Job says: The terrors of the Lord war against me. [42] The soul seconds God in this war by yielding itself to His crucifying operations, adding to these its own practices of interior mortification.

It will readily be allowed that the natural or private spirit is as I have described it: blind, deceitful and treacherous, and that we must follow the spirit of Jesus, which alone prevents us from walking in darkness and gives us the light of life. No doubt all who would faithfully serve God intend to follow His spirit, but why, it will be asked, do so few do so in reality?

I would suggest that the number of those who sincerely desire to serve God is not so great as is commonly supposed. Not because we are hypocrites, or that we want to deceive others, but because we deceive ourselves. If we were really honest, would we flatter ourselves, spare ourselves, withhold from God so many things that we know He is asking of us? Would we turn a deaf ear to grace and complain of its importunity; use every device to deafen our conscience and try to fit God's interests in with our own? Do we not know that God requires of every Christian that he deny himself in all things and always? [43] And yet, do we do so? What does the voice of conscience say to us in this matter; or rather what does it say to God?

And so I aver that the intention men entertain of the following of Christ is for the most part vague and speculative and not really deep. It is indeterminate, it does not spring from the depths of the will, and is rarely maintained in practice. Yet if we are to follow the spirit of Christ we must know that spirit. It must be studied, and that means entering into the mind of Christ, searching out, as the Imitation says, the sentiments and dispositions of His soul. Who are those who make the interior of Jesus their habitual dwelling place? And still more, who are those who put into practice what they learn there, and recognize no half measures in their determination to conform themselves to the mind of Christ? [44] Such Christians are indeed rare.

Most persons have not even the slightest idea of the spirit of Jesus. Others are afraid of knowing too much about it, because they know they would have to conform their lives to it. Others are willing to imitate (but how imperfectly) some of its features, but will not walk with Him the whole way.

What really was the mind of Christ; the spirit which gives us light, and guides us in the way of salvation? It was a perfectly interior spirit, by which He was constantly united to the Father, entirely devoted to His glory and to His good pleasure. It was a spirit lifted infinitely beyond all perishable pleasures, riches and honours, leading Him to choose and embrace poverty and obscurity, toil and suffering, humiliations and opprobrium in the extreme. [45] It was a spirit detached from all natural affections and feelings, always and in all things dependent upon grace, and so submissive to its workings as never to think or will or desire or do anything apart from it. It was a spirit over which the divinity, to which His humanity was hypostatically united, exercised perfect sway, boundless authority, and a constant influence. It was a spirit which never permitted Him to think of His own interests, His own glory. It attributed nothing to Himself, and never permitted Him one glance of self-complacency to the unique and infinite dignity to which He was raised by the hypostatic union, but which He maintained in a state of perfect devotedness to His Father's interests, [46] of unreserved sacrifice to the claims of divine justice, of utter humility, and continual self-effacement.

This is the spirit of Christ which, as Christians, we are bound to make our own. [47] It is in this respect, above all, that as head of the elect Jesus is given to us as our model. God wanted to show us in Him what we ought to be. It was as our example that the eternal Word deigned to assume our nature, and if we would be His disciples we must follow in His steps. [48] Some persons excuse themselves by saying that Jesus was God. But it is not as God but as man that He offers Himself for our imitation. We shall never attain to the perfections of the divine original: we know that, and it would be impiously absurd to try to do so. But all must endeavour to respond to the graces given them, just as Jesus responded to His. That is all God asks; but He also asks no less.

It may also be suggested that because Jesus was God everything was easy to Him, that it cost Him nothing. It is true that He could not sin, nor could He resist grace. It is also true that He found no obstacle within Him to any virtue whatsoever. But it is also true that He habitually endured sufferings infinitely more distressing than those of all the martyrs and saints put together, and this because His human nature was overwhelmed and crushed under the terrible weight of the divine justice. As God-man He certainly felt and suffered all that a God-man could feel and suffer. God does nothing in vain, and in the great design of the Incarnation and the redemption of mankind, all was ruled and measured by infinite wisdom and justice. What the Father required of the Son was proportioned to the grace and strength given Him.

Yet if the sight of so perfect a pattern terrifies us in our cowardice, let us turn our eyes on mere men. On St. Paul, for instance, who called on Christians to be followers of him as he was of Christ. [49] Study the mind of the apostle in his epistles, and seek to make it a model for your own conduct. You will tell me that he was a man converted by an extraordinary grace, a chosen vessel, concerning whom God had special designs, and on whom He lavished His gifts. I would answer that St. Paul was sanctified neither by his apostleship nor by his election. He was sanctified by his correspondence with God's grace, and it is in this, and this only, that you are asked to imitate him. What is there to hinder you? Was not St. Paul a blasphemer and a persecutor when God threw him to the ground? When grace, then, calls to you, say as he said: Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? [50] And then do the bidding of grace as faithfully as he did.

Would you have patterns more within your reach? Then read the lives of the saints, of all ages, of all ranks, and of all conditions. Many retained their baptismal innocence; other had been great sinners, subject to the same passions, the same habits, the same temptations as ourselves, and often greater. They had as many or more obstacles to surmount, and it is remarkable that the Church never won more saints than in those early ages when to profess Christianity was a pledge of martyrdom.

But you will complain that they were saints. What other models would you have? What are you called to, except to sanctity such as theirs? They were sanctified only because they were true disciples of Jesus Christ, and by following the spirit, the teaching and the example of their Master.

But whence do these vain objections come? From our purely natural spirit, and nothing reveals more clearly how blind it is. In all the imitative arts, it is always the best models that are sought, studied with the greatest care, and painstakingly copied. Why should we complain, then, in this most important of all the arts that our models are too perfect when what is at stake is the right conduct of our lives, and our well-being in God's eyes, which is to make us worthy of His eternal possession? What a contradiction! We refuse to put on the spirit of Christ, because it means putting off our own. But so long as men will not give up their purely natural spirit or the spirit of private judgment they must give up the idea of being true Christians. For there is no genuine and practical Christianity except that which consists in thinking and acting in conformity with the spirit of Christ.

39. Isaias lv. 8
40. Cf Luke ix:23
41. Gal. ii.20
42. Job vi. 4
43. Cf. Matt. xvi. 24
44. Cf. Phil. ii. 5
45. Cf. Phil. ii. 8
46. Cf. John xiv. 31
47. Cf. Phil. ii. 5
48. I Peter ii. 21
49. I Cor. xi. 1
50. Acts ix. 6