Walking the Three Paths

by on February 19, 2015

Mundelein Seminary leads our students down three great spiritual paths that have always struck me as extremely helpful for thinking about the Christian life: finding the Center, knowing you are a sinner, and realizing that your life is not about you.

Path one was beautifully expressed by St. Paul when he remarked, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Paul was announcing that the center of his life was no longer his own ego, with its distinctive projects and plans, but rather Christ Jesus. Now everything in him – mind, will, passions, talents, etc. – would be in service to Christ and his purposes. Kierkegaard said that a saint is someone whose life is about one thing. He did not mean the saint lives a monotonous existence, but rather all of the elements that constitute the saint’s being are gathered around, focused upon, the Lord alone. What this singular attention produces is the beautiful and integrated soul.

Path two – knowing you are a sinner – follows ineluctably from path one. It is precisely in the light of grace that one understands how far one has departed from the way of God. St. John of the Cross compared the soul to a pane of glass and observed that it is when the light is shining most directly on the glass that the marks and smudges on it are most apparent. Because St. Augustine could “confess” the praise of God, he also was able to “confess” his sin. If the consideration of the Christian spiritual life commences with sin, it gets rather quickly off the rails, devolving into pelagianism or puritanism. It begins indeed in grace, but then moves naturally to the acknowledgement of sin and the deep willingness to do something about it. Path two is, accordingly, the “purgative way” of which so many of our spiritual masters speak. One of the greatest guides on path two is the poet Dante.

In his Divine Comedy, he recounts the journey that he made up the seven story mountain of Purgatory, coming to terms with all of the deadly sins. Anyone who is serious about guiding others on the spiritual journey has to be willing to undergo the “searching moral inventory” that is path two.

Having been purified, the Christian disciple is ready to be sent. In the Bible, no one is ever given an experience of God without being given, subsequently, a mission. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew, Peter and Paul: all of them are commissioned by the God of Israel to go forth.

Path three – realizing your life is not about you – is all about this spiritual adventure. Hans Urs von Balthasar was gesturing toward this path when he spoke of making a transition from the “ego-drama” to the “theo-drama.” The former is the drama we write, produce, direct and, above all, star in; the latter is the drama written, produced and directed by God. Being the star of the ego drama amounts, finally, to nothing. Joseph Campbell said most of us climb the ladder of success only to find out it’s up the wrong wall! But being even a bit player in the theo-drama – acting the role God wants us to play – is to discover the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in the field.

Anyone who wants to be a priest of Jesus Christ must be willing to be an apostle, which is to say, someone who is sent. Anyone aspiring to the priesthood must, like the prophet Isaiah, say, “Here I am Lord! Send me!” He must, in a word, be willing to commit himself to path three, realizing in his bones that his life is not about him.

From grace through purgation to mission: that is the threefold rhythm of the Christian spiritual life; that will be the pattern of our formation program.