Spiritual progress in the spiritual life
Some few months after my diaconate ordination, a certain pious Lady approached me with a very reflective and informative question: “Rev what are the basic signs to employ and evaluate my spiritual progress, they seem to be many?”
One major mark of our life as Christian is the possibility to change or better still the possibility to experience transformational shift. Thus, St. Paul says “Put off the old man that belongs to your former manner of life…” (Eph. 4:22). Evaluating the relationship between our religious and spiritual involvement and a display of our personality has provoked a lot of perennial questions: why are we Christians? What are our goals for seeking God and the spiritual life? The question is what do we want? In answering these questions, there are basic signs to look out for. In the spiritual life, there are two broad ends: the beginning and the ending. The beginning is characterised by desire and the ending, growth in virtue. Once we are able to attend to the two special poles of the spiritual life, then we can say we are making some form of spiritual progress.
Desire: The ability to know and define our desires actually paves way for us to begin our spiritual progress. The encounter between Jesus and the people who went after Him in John 6:24-35 explicates the importance of desire. “Recognizing our desires means recognizing God’s desires for us” (Martin, 2010). To show how important desire is, Jesus had to encourage Bartimeaus in Mark 10:46-52 to articulate his desire. He asked him “What do you want me to do for you?” In the spiritual journey, we should be able to clearly define what we want. Since our human wants are insatiable, it is increasingly becoming very difficult to define what we really want in the spiritual life. Meanwhile, we have wants at every level of our lives. As teenagers we have all the time and energy but lack money; as working people, we have the money and energy but lack the time to do many things including our time for God and as old people we have money and time but no energy to work or carry out many initiatives and creativities. The challenge is that we have become stunted in our spiritual maturity because instead of desiring God as our goal and end we see God always as the means to our own ends. Our inclinations are at the possession of our socio-economic empowerment and our prayers and personalities radiate the need for material gains as against our spiritual needs and the empowerment to love God and humanity. So, the heart of the question is: what is the object of our desire in the spiritual life? We need to purify our desires; otherwise we will be parading our false self in the spiritual life. If we can answer this question then we can boast of our spiritual progress.
Growth in virtue: Desire in the spiritual life serves as a foundation. However, according to St. Teresa of Jesus, “You must not build … upon the foundation of prayer and contemplation alone, for unless you strive after the virtues and practice them, you will never grow to be more than dwarfs.” The first and the last virtue that other virtues flow in between it is love of God or if you like union with God. This should be the core subject of our resolutions, our self-examination during the day and examination of conscience at night. In short, the love of God ought to be given as an account to our spiritual directors. It is pertinent to note that no one graduates from the struggles of advancing in the love of God. Perfection in virtue and its practice is germane in the spiritual life. The fruits of the spiritual life are simply virtues. No wonder Jesus avers: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20).
Prayer: O God, help me to purify my desire and to realise the essence of you creating me. Lord help me to combat my faults and to put off the old man in order to have the grace to practice virtue and put on the new man. Please increase my degree in the spiritual life in order to love and serve you all the days of my life. Amen.
Fr. John-Mary Atep