Question: Yves Congar has the following quote from Fr. Emile Mersch in his book:

“Wherever humans act as humans, in everything that Christians do – even the best, in all that ecclesiastical leaders do, even the most dignified, human weakness and human malice and the trace of human sins inevitably betrays itself – and does so often. The saints themselves do not totally escape from these bad moments except at the moment of their full spiritual maturity when they’re dying. Grace, as we ought to believe, should preserve the pastors of the church and even more their most important actions, but it does not suppress their failures – that would be to suppress their humanity. There is then, even there, beyond authentic faults, the interference of selfish viewpoints and worldly calculation even in the perspective of the most apostolic persons; there are prejudices and unconscious ignorance, vanity that renders people inattentive, touchiness that nourishes unacknowledged grudges, prideful stubbornness which insists upon respect for the role they play, impotence to have and to keep a genuinely right intention in the spirit of true humble abnegation, etc” (“True and False Reform in the Church” by Yves Congar, p. 84, 2011. The quote is taken from “La théologie du Corps mystique”, vol. 1, p. 368.)

I know that in Proverbs (Pr. 24:16) it states that the just man sins seven times a day but I am trying to square all this with Union with God. I can understand the part of human weaknesses but when he states, “human malice and the trace of human sins inevitably betrays itself – and does so often” I am struggling. I would have thought the purification would have taken care of this for the Union with God to take place. When the saint dies, he/she dies of love so the moment of death can be seen as a moment of their full spiritual maturity but surely human malice and human sins don’t feature often?

Answer: To a certain extent both of you are on the same wavelength. Fr. Mersch says: “The saints themselves do not totally escape from these bad moments except at the moment of their full spiritual maturity when they’re dying.

The saints before they became saints are not saints yet. One needs to observe when and how the change occurs, especially as described by St. John of the Cross: going from the human mode to the divine mode, during the dark night of the spirit. Fr. Mersch says: “except at the moment of their full spiritual maturity….” The maturity is what you are alluding to: when purification is finished, and when they are transformed in God, united with Jesus and are moved by the Holy Spirit. In this sense you both are saying the same thing. Your slight disagreement is elsewhere. There are still two more points to underline:

1- Fr. Mersch adds immediately after “full spiritual maturity”: “when they are dying”. As you can see, “full spiritual maturity” for him is just before dying. He is writing in 1936. The knowledge we had at that time (and we still have the same knowledge today), about the part of the journey of spiritual life that follows union with God, covers a shorter “span of time” than that which Fr. Louis Guillet and I tend to find and explain. Fr. Marie Eugène would agree with Fr. Louis but he didn’t have time to write the third volume of “I Want to See God” as he had wanted to do. It is important to acknowledge, therefore, that the majority of the Manuals of Spiritual Theology to date, state that Union with God is something almost rarely attainable and that if one attains it, he or she will live for only a brief time afterwards. Since Union is considered to be the maximum one can attain in this life on earth, it is thought that very soon after this one dies.

When, during the first lesson in Solid Foundations, i.e. “Goal and Stages of Spiritual Life”, I threw out this question to the students: “Where would you place ‘Union with God’?”… the answer to this question surprisingly was “in the middle” – so to speak – of the spiritual journey. By giving the above-mentioned answer, therefore, I am doing something totally new and extremely audacious. I, in fact, depart from all the manuals of Spiritual Theology except in the case of Fr. Louis Guillet OCD. In fact, nobody till now, except Fr. Louis (and the mind of Fr. Marie Eugene) has stated this! When I ask this question, I am upsetting the apple cart. It is simply revolutionary.

This is the reason for my having tried to demonstrate from the Gospels that we shouldn’t place Union with God at the end of the life of the Apostles. We should rather extend the time after Union with God to show how, in the life of the Apostles, “Union with God” occurred relatively earlier than what we can envisage. This seems to be unclear to theologians who have not said anything to this effect.

What I am proposing is that that more time passes after Union with Jesus, and this would certainly look far-fetched and extremely audacious to any person in the Church (Monks, Religious and Spiritual Masters, Spiritual Theologians)! Everybody accepts that we are called to holiness, but nobody imagines it is possible or can figure out what it really looks like and how we can reach it. Holiness remains very much a taboo subject. If one dares to tackle the subject by explaining or talking about it, he might be considered as unbalanced or lacking in humility.

Many saints had years and years of service after Union with God: take Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example, who lived for 50 years after Union. Notwithstanding this, this type of analysis is extremely audacious in the eyes of the majority today. We still have many miles to go to accept viewing the journey this way. Maybe in 300 years it will be accepted!

Just think of it: many theologians, and amongst them the very famous, see that Thérèse, Mother Teresa, and many others, are still in the latter period of their spiritual life, in their purification time (Dark Night) when they die, while in fact they are enduring a different type of trial, i.e. participating in the Lord’s Passion. If we follow the common opinion, i.e. that they are still being purified, it means that they would have died without even having finished their main purification! Shocking, no? We still have a way to go in order to really thoroughly understand the spiritual journey, and to do so in a practical way.

So, if many see these great saints as being in the Dark Night toward the end of their life, you can easily understand why Fr. Mersch considers that purification finishes (if it does) toward the end of the life of a human being.

2- Let us now see things from another perspective. Say for instance they have reached Union with God and still have plenty of time ahead to serve the Lord. Would they fall? Would they sin? Theoretically yes, of course they can. Being united doesn’t remove freewill. Think of Adam: he was united to God and still chose to sin. St. Teresa of Avila speaks about Solomon’s sin toward the end of his life (marrying foreign women and worshiping their gods) in the Seventh Mansions. She talks about suffering, trials, wars, in the Seventh Mansions.

But of course, I would recommend the careful reading of St. John of the Cross and see his description of the transformation that occurs in the way the mind, memory and will start to operate, under the divine modality of action of the Holy Spirit. The only one who can save us from going astray in our interpretations is St. John of the Cross, and he needs to be read properly. The course “Reading and Studying St. John of the Cross” aims at that.

Similarly, St. Therese invents a new expression: faults (not sins) to describe what occurs to her (and this is after Union). She falls, out of weakness. But what needs to be “seen” is how one bounces back after falling. This point deserves careful study and analysis. The soul at this juncture has been greatly transformed so that the bouncing back is completely different.

In conclusion, I will return to and emphasise your observation on how the first lesson of the Solid Foundations Course, i.e. Goal and Stages of Spiritual Life, is a fundamental lesson that supports the entire structure of the Course and of any teaching in Spiritual Life or Spiritual Theology. Your observation is both accurate and noteworthy.

The more time passes, I find there is a greater necessity for the renewal of Theology to take place, in the direction of Spiritual Theology, if the notion of the Spiritual Journey is to be fully integrated into it. Therefore any topic addressed by Theology should be particularly considered in the light of the point reached by the human being on his or her spiritual journey. This is particularly so as each stage of growth will offer a different perspective, a new light and depth on any given subject.

The truth is that any discussion about the Spiritual Journey cannot be undertaken because most people fail to comprehend what it really entails, or what the stages of growth mean in practical terms, or more significantly they fail to see their impact on their lives as Christians. Thus, we admit in general terms that Jesus is the Way, but even this truth is understood in a lifeless way, namely, that He comes into our life, walks with us, consoles us, guides us, is our role model… and that is it. There is no journey of growth! Admittedly there is a journey, but it about journeying only, walking so to speak, but this has no effect on our spiritual growth and transformation. The result is that even the essential notion that Jesus is the Way to the Father, is understood in a very static way with no resultant growth. Therefore, when those who think in such a way are faced with the real notion of growth, transformation, and purification, they find it very difficult to absorb these. They most certainly try to understand, but the journey itself does not necessarily take root in their mind and spirit. Consequently, what is written in the old manuals of Spiritual Theology seems remote, including the very concept of ‘holiness’ itself! Sometimes it can even follow a pattern of behaviour, but will not necessarily be a transformative journey. The unfortunate outcome is that many find it acceptable to mix purification with union and then to return to purification… to add a little bit of this and a little bit of that! The message is clearly that the notions involved have not been properly understood. (See the Course: Reading and Studying St. John of the Cross)

The conclusion to this problem is, that there is a fundamental need to offer to the Adult Formation in the Parish, this notion of spiritual growth, with its goal and its stages. Even if at first one finds it all simply gibberish, at least the faith mind-set will have been shaped from the very beginning, to prepare the understanding for the deep changes that will come later, namely, when Jesus will enter in a definite way, a stronger and clearer way into their life.

I hope this helps

In Mary