ND   The Friendship of Christ / by Robert Hugh Benson


The Illuminative Way

Thou lightest my lamp, O Lord: O my God, enlighten my darkness. -- PSALM xvii: 29.

IT has been seen how in the Purgative Way, Jesus Christ, in His desire to unite the soul altogether to Himself, strips her gradually of all that would hinder the perfection of that union, and brings her at last to such a "denial" and emptying of self that, seeing her own worthiessness, she casts at last her full weight upon Him who alone can bear it.

But this process is in itself little more than negative. There must follow, if the soul is to make progress, a gradual reclothing of her with the graces in which Christ desires to see her. She has put off the "old man"; she must now put on "the new." To this stage spiritual writers give the name of Illumination; and it will be convenient, in treating of it, to follow the same lines as those which have been followed in the treatment of the preceding stage; and to give what may be called specimen examples of the effects of grace, parallel to those by which the Purgative Way has been illustrated.

I. The first stage of the Purgative Way, it has been seen, concerns things external to actual religion: the soul is gradually deepened and sifted by being taught the essential valuelessness both of them and of the emotions which they awaken. The first step of the Illuminative Way, then, may be said to lie, by a paradox, in the instruction which the soul receives as regards their value. (For Grace, it must be remembered, is even more paradoxical than Nature.) In the Purgative Way the soul learns that external things cannot, in themselves, bear her weight -- that they are worth nothing. In the Illuminative Way she learns how to use them rightly -- that they are worth a great deal.

For example: A soul often complains that she is hindered in her progress by some apparently unnecessary trouble -- the constant companionship, let us say, of some person whose temperament jars continually and inevitably with her own. Or it is some untiring temptation from which she cannot escape; some occasion of sin, constantly present, a thorn in the flesh, or a warp in the mind. Or it may be that, by some deprivation, by a bereavement which withdraws all human light and strength from her life, she feels herself maimed and her wings clipped in her struggles upward to God.

Now the most elementary stage in the Illuminative Way consists usually in light gained from our Lord whereby the soul sees the value of those external things. She sees, for instance, that she could never gain supernatural patience or sympathy or largeness of charity, unless there were present always with her some personality which demanded its exercise. Her natural irritation at this unavoidable companionship is a sign that she needs the exercise; and the demand of constant effort at self-control, and finally of actual sympathy, is precisely the means by which she gains the virtue. Or, again, in the case of temptation, there is, humanly, no other way by which certain graces can be assimilated than by their exercise -- no other way, for example, by which natural ignorance can be transformed into supernatural innocence; above all, no other way by which the soul can be taught to rely utterly and perseveringly upon God. For it was by some such constant spur as this that St. Paul himself was taught,{1} as he openly confesses, to understand that it is only when human weakness is most sensible of itself that Divine Grace is most effective, or, as he says, "perfected." Finally, by bereavements which seem to shatter the whole life, which leave the weaker character, that has clung to the stronger, helpless and sprawling and wounded -- by this means and this means only is the soul taught to adhere utterly to God.

The first step of the Illuminative Way, then, consists, not merely in experiencing these things -- for temptations and bereavements are common to souls in all stages of the spiritual life -- but in perceiving their value, intellectually and interiorly, so clearly and unmistakably that never again, if the soul continues in her course, can she resent or rebel against such things -- except perhaps in momentary lapses -- but that rather, understanding their value, she bends all her will to accept them and use them as God wills. And it is, therefore, exactly at this stage, that the soul ceases to be bewildered by the Problem of Pain; for, while she cannot, of course, intellectually solve the problem, she answers it, in the only way in which it is possible, by grasping Pain, or at any rate acquiescing in it. She now sees it practically to be reasonable; and henceforth endeavours to act upon that intuition.

II. The second step of the Illuminative Way -- corresponding to that of the Purgative -- consists in light being gained from God as to the reality of interior things -- for instance, the truths of religion.

For example: A soul in the elementary stage of faith adheres to an enormous number of dogmas of which she has no interior experience at all. She adheres to them, and lives by them, for the simple fact that she receives them from an Authority which she knows to be Divine. But, not only can she not intellectually understand many of them but she has not what the Scriptures call any "spiritual discernment"{2} with regard to them. She has received the Faith, as our Lord tells us we must all receive it, as a "little child";{3} she holds the casket of the Creed tightly in her hands, guides her life by its light, would die sooner than part with it, and ultimately sanctifies and saves her soul by her simple faithfulness towards it. But she has never dreamed of opening it: or, if she has opened it, all -- or at least much -- within is dark to her.

Such a soul as this, for instance, wins indulgences by fulfilling the necessary conditions; and can, perhaps, even give the orthodox theological account of what an indulgence actually is; but the spiritual transaction is as impenetrable to her eyes as a jewel in a locked box. Or it may be the doctrine of Eternal Punishment, or the prerogatives of Mary, or the Real Presence. She adheres to these things, and lives according to their effects and consequences: but they have no glimmer of light within them so far as she is concerned. She walks wholly by faith, and not at all by verification. She holds the dogmas of faith, but cannot compare them in any sense to natural facts or see those numerous points at which they fit in to other facts of her experience.

But when "Illumination" comes, an extraordinary change takes place. It is not that mysteries cease to be mysteries -- not that she can express in exhaustive human language, or even conceive in exhaustive images or modes, those facts of Revelation that are beyond reason -- but, for all that, there begins to shine to her spiritual sense, lighted by God's "candle" within her soul, point after point in those jewels of truth which up to now have been opaque and colorless. She can "explain" indulgences, or the justice of Hell, no better than before; and yet there is no longer impenetrable darkness within them. She begins to handle what she has already only touched; to comprehend what she has handled. She finds, by a certain inexplicable process of spiritual verification, that those things which she has taken to be true are true to her as well as in themselves; the path where she has walked in darkness, though in security, becomes dimly apparent to her eyes; until, if she, by grace and perseverance, ultimately reaches sanctity itself, she may experience by God's favour those clear-sighted intuitions -- or rather that infusion of knowledge -- which is so marked a characteristic in the saints.

III. The third stage of Illumination, corresponding with that of the Purgative Way, deals with those actual relations between Christ and the soul that are involved in the Divine Friendship. Now we saw that the last step of the Purgative Way was that abandonment of self into Christ's arms that is only possible when the soul has no longer any self-reliance. The corresponding step of the Illuminative Way is therefore the accession of light which the soul receives as to the abiding Presence of Christ within her, or -- perhaps it is safer to say -- of her abiding Presence within Christ.

It is at this point, therefore, that the Divine Friendship becomes the object of actual intelligence and contemplation. It is henceforth not only enjoyed, but in a certain degree consciously perceived and understood. This is nothing else than Ordinary Contemplation.

Extraordinary Contemplation with its supernatural and miraculous graces and manifestations is a favour bestowed by God motu proprio. It is something for which it is practically always presumption to pray -- a state which, in its earlier stages, is always to be regarded with self-distrust. This, then, is not our affair at all. . . . But Ordinary Contemplation is not only a state to be prayed for, but a state to which every sincere and devout Christian is bound to aspire, since it is perfectly within his reach by the help of ordinary graces.

It consists in a consciousness of God so effective and so continuous that God is never wholly absent from the thoughts, at least subconsciously. It is a state which, as has been said, the soul, when first initiated into the Friendship of Christ, in the beginning enjoys with extreme though fitful intensity. Life is changed by it: all relations are altered by it; Christ begins to be indeed the Light that irradiates every object of the soul's attention: He becomes the background, or the medium, by whose help all things are seen. Ordinary Contemplation, then, is the fixing of this state by effort as well as by grace. Until the soul has been purged, and until, further, it has been illuminated as to both exterior and interior things, the consciousness of Christ's interior Presence cannot be a continuous state. But when these processes have taken place, when Christ, that is, has trained His new friend in the duties and rewards of the Divine Companionship, Ordinary Contemplation is, if we may say so, the attention that He expects from her. Sin, of course, in this state, becomes subjectively, far more grave: "material" sins easily become "formal." But, on the other hand, virtue is far easier, since it is difficult for any soul to sin very outrageously so long as she feels the pressure of Christ's hand in hers.

IV. Of course, since every advance in spiritual life has its corresponding dangers -- since every step that we rise nearer to God increases the depth of the gulf into which we may fall -- a soul that has reached the stage of the Illuminative Way which we have called Ordinary Contemplation (and which is, in fact, the point at which the State of Union is reached) has an enormous increase of responsibility. The supreme danger is that of Individualism, by which the soul that has climbed up from ordinary pride reaches the zone in which genuine spiritual pride is encountered, and, with spiritual pride, every other form of pride -- such as intellectual or emotional pride -- which belong to the interior state.

For there is something extraordinarily intoxicating and elevating in the attaining of a point where the soul can say with truth, "Thou lightest my lamp, O Lord."{4} It is bound, in fact, to end in pride unless she can finish the quotation and add, "O my God, enlighten my darkness!" Every heresy and every sect that has ever rents the unity of the Body of Christ has taken its rise primarily in the illuminated soul of this or that chosen Friend of Christ. Practically all the really great heresiarchs have enjoyed a high degree of interior knowledge, or they could have led none of Christ's simple friends astray. What is absolutely needed, then, if illumination is not to end in disunion and destruction, is that, coupled with this increase of interior spiritual life, there should go with it an increase of devotion and submission to the exterior Voice with which God speaks in His Church: for, notoriously, nothing is so difficult to discern as the difference between the inspirations of the Holy Ghost and the aspirations or imaginations of self.

For non-Catholics it is almost impossible to avoid this elevation of self, this reliance upon interior experience -- those elements in fact which still keep Protestantism in being, and still endlessly subdivide its energies: for they are aware of no such Exterior Voice by which their own experiences may be tested. But it is possible, too (as our own days shew), for even educated and intelligent Catholics to suffer from this disease of esotericism, to imagine that the Exterior must be avoided by the Interior, and that they are better able to interpret the Church than is the Church to interpret herself. Vae soli Woe to him that is alone! Woe to him who hav< 42 THE FRIENDSHIP OF CHRIST -->ing received the Friendship of Christ, and its consequent illumination, believes that he enjoys in its interpretation an infallibility which he denies to Christ's outwardly commissioned Vicar!

For the stronger the interior life and the higher the degree of illumination, the more is the strong hand of the Church needed, and the higher ought to be the soul's appreciation of her office.

It is, we are bound to remind ourselves, from the inner circle of Christ's intimates, from those who know His secrets and have been taught how to find the gate of the Inner Garden where He walks at His ease with His own, that the Judases of history are drawn.

{1} II Cor. xii: 7-9.

{2} I John iv: 1; I Cor. xii, etc.

{3} Mark x: 15; Luke xviii: 17.

{4} Ps. xvii 29.

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