We have all heard the adages: When you die you cannot take it with you. He who dies with the most toys still dies. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?
We understand the truth of these sayings, but in practice the task of piling up money and toys, on a purely instinctual level, seems far more urgent to most of us than building up treasures in heaven. And this is not purely a matter of greed: you don’t need to be Ebenezer Scrooge to experience the seemingly pressing necessity of making a grocery list or checking email while attempting to pray.
St. Alphonsus Liguori vividly frames this tension, fought within the human soul, between the natural and supernatural orders:
If an accident happens to a house, what is not immediately done to repair it? If a jewel be lost, what is not done to recover it? The soul is lost, the grace of God is lost, and men sleep and smile. We attend most carefully to our temporal welfare, and almost entirely neglect our eternal salvation. We call those happy who have renounced all things for God; why then are we so much attached to earthly things?
St. Alphonsus’ last question points to the great challenge of living the spiritual life in an age when the quantity of earthly things and their accompanying obligations multiplies almost daily. If God and the supernatural are really the most important things, why is it so difficult to focus on them? Are they even real? If they are real, how can we see them?
Original sin permanently shattered the inner harmony between body and soul that was present at creation. Instead, “the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would do” (Galatians 5:17). What our souls would do – seek union with God – is impeded by our flesh as it continually longs for the comforts and amusements of the world. This concupiscence makes our earthly trifles seem so incredibly urgent and is the source of our difficulties in reaching God.
St. Alphonsus Liguori
How, then, does fallen humanity put the supernatural before the natural so that the soul may find its way back to God? The sixth beatitude promises, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). In his exegesis of this verse in the first Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI begins not with “the blessed,” but with the heart, for it is the “organ for seeing God. The intellect alone is not enough.” For Benedict the heart represents “the wholeness of man,” which requires the unity and proper interplay between soul and body: “This means he places his body under the discipline of the spirit, yet does not isolate intellect and will. Rather, he accepts himself as coming from God, and thereby also acknowledges and lives out the bodiliness of his existence as an enrichment for the spirit.”
Integration – not combat – of the spirit and the flesh is Benedict’s preferred path to see God. But seeing God requires not just an integrated heart, but a pure one, and Benedict turns to the psalms and to St. Paul to discover that “inquiring after God, seeking his face – that is the first and fundamental condition of the ascent that leads to an encounter with God.” This inquiry presupposes one’s adoption of the content of the Decalogue, but it takes on a deeper meaning in the Incarnation, for “purification of heart occurs as a consequence of following Christ, of becoming one with him.”
According to Benedict purity of heart – and its attendant reward – comes only after we embrace the cross. “The ascent to God occurs precisely in the descent of humble service, in the descent of love, for love is God’s essence, and is thus the power that truly purifies man and enables him to perceive God and to see him. . . .God descends, to the point of death on the Cross. And precisely by doing so, he reveals himself in his true divinity. We ascend to God by accompanying him on this descending path.”
But what of those who strive mightily to accompany the Lord on his descending path, yet turn away to indulge the first creeping distraction? Christianity has always likened life to a journey or pilgrimage, which implies that the task of purifying our hearts is a slow and continuous process rather than an instant transformation.
Our fallen nature virtually guarantees that our bodies will break free from the discipline of the spirit one time or another – or still more often. It is at this point, not when our focus is perfect, but when we fall off the trail and can do nothing but descend with Christ to the lowest level, that we may well see the reality of the supernatural breaking into our narrow field of view.