When should we start to pay attention to “bearing fruits”?
In order to address the above-mentioned, I will start by answering the questions that follow.
1- Question: During the first lesson of the First level Course, you said that the fruits come after Union with Jesus. “Union with” Jesus can be compared to a tree that reaches maturity, after which the tree is supposed to start bearing fruits. Similarly, Union with Jesus is like marriage and after which one has children. My question is: while we are in the state of purification (in order to reach “Union with Jesus”) could one start paying attention to “bearing fruits”? The fear is that the fruit will not be really fruit, because the self who is giving that fruit is not pure yet… Therefore, should we refrain from producing fruits, thinking that we are still in the purification phase?
1- Answer: It depends on what you call “fruits”. If you mean by “fruits” the time “after union, the union with Jesus” (Spiritual Marriage), then you are right: there is a difference between one act made after Union and all the acts made before. On this St. John of the Cross says: “an act of pure love [i.e. made after purification] is more precious in the eyes of God and the soul, and more profitable to the Church, than all other good works together [done before], though it may seem as if nothing were done” (Spiritual Canticle B, Stanza 29, Introduction) because the act after union is “informed” (the form is given by) the Holy Spirit. Of course, St. John of the Cross’ statement is quite strong, and it should encourage us to do all what we can in order to grow. This is exactly what St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus did when she read that passage.
But, from another angle, “purification” is a sacred work and should be considered as a goal in itself, for through it, we reach union; it is of course an intermediate goal. The phase of purification can thus be perfectly considered as a “fruit”. Indeed, each step in the phase of purification is a “fruit”.
From the start, when we add to this Listening to the Daily Word of God, we are de facto listening and putting into practice the Daily Word received. In turn the real fact of putting into practice this Word is in itself a Fruit, a fundamental fruit, a real change, a real step ahead, and this happens right from day one. But if we do not do it, dreaming of a spiritual future is pointless. This is the condition sine quae non in order to reach the different phases of purification that follow as well as the later steps.
So maybe, it would be better to give an additional understanding of the concept of “fruit”. “Loving our neighbour” for instance doesn’t wait until we reach Union with Jesus – definitely not! But, certainly, the quality of our love after union is enormously different and exceedingly better. But is important to bear in mind that if we don’t start from day one to love our neighbour, we will never reach union. Hence, two undertakings must be underlined: first, the effort made in order to grow (the ascending curve) and then the more direct effort made in order to bear direct fruits. Each, in its own timing is vital, essential and non-negotiable.
What about sins and weaknesses?
2- Question: Even after Salvation achieved by the work of Jesus on the Cross, what about the sins and weaknesses that stand in the way of our becoming a real human being, namely, returning to the original likeness of God in which we were created? In other words, how can we understand the relationship between Salvation and actual sins?
2- Answer: The deep analysis of the spiritual journey shows us that there are real changes in the human being. Bad habits come to an end, sins stop… I mean serious sins. When the Power of the Resurrection of Jesus enters us, real change commences, otherwise, there would be no growth, no transformation and no purification. The very definition itself of the word “purification” highlights the process of creating a real change: here we see an old “form” in us is taken away by the Holy Spirit and is replaced by a holier “form” instead. A real change happens, therefore sins and weaknesses (that are in fact sins) do tend to disappear, starting from the lower and more materialistic ones.
Having said that, many Christians don’t believe in real change, they don’t believe that a real change can occur in them. Admittedly, we don’t change our nature, or our character and temperament, but sins do disappear. Furthermore, if the human being on earth doesn’t change, this wouldn’t be real Christianity; this wouldn’t convey the message of the Gospel. Some Christians do believe that once Jesus covers us with His Blood that’s enough and this compensates for anything we do later; in other words, we remain roughly as we were. This is a wrong understanding of the application of Salvation to us. All the Christian Masters of Spiritual Life do state clearly that the human being changes, and they do go on to describe the steps of this deep inner (and external) change.
Let us also be mindful of the difference between the inclination/tendency to sin and to sin itself. Let me explain: if I see a lovely chocolate pudding, yummy, I’ll feel a certain natural inclination/attraction toward it. This is not a sin! Baptism doesn’t remove the inclination to sin, rather it is left in us for the ensuing spiritual warfare that will generate real growth and change.
The same is true of the case of weaknesses that are not sins, but are rather based on character or temperament. One must read the great St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus who revolutionised Spiritual Life and Spiritual Theology. Similarly, if we correctly read St. John of the Cross, we will find the same teaching. She introduced the possibility of having errors, faults (fautes) that are not sin, and that don’t sadden God. Making this difference is subtle but important.
More than this is the fact that spiritual growth (purification) doesn’t generate in us greater strength, but by contrast greater weakness. Jesus says in the Gospel: “blessed the poor in spirit” and to St. Paul who was asking him to remove a “thorn” from his flesh, thinking that that would be “perfection” Jesus likewise says: I rejoice and work in your weakness – this means: you’ll remain weak, and therefore my Grace will work better in you, so you will not lean on your new strength but on my Grace. This is a different understanding of Perfection. We should renew our understanding of “perfection”, of “holiness” – the real goal we are seeking. We are heading toward spiritual growth in the discovery of our weakness, and a growing spiritual experience of the Mercy of God. As can be seen, then, many of our ways of understanding, many elements of spiritual life, will be turned upside-down, during our spiritual growth.
Are there sins after Union?
3- Question: After the Union with Jesus, does sin still exist in the succeeding phases?
3- Answer: God is Freedom. Jesus is God. When a person reaches Union with Jesus, one doesn’t have less freedom, but more freedom. Certainly, the person is transformed in God, in Jesus, but this doesn’t deprive the person of his/her freedom. Remember Adam: he was close to God, in the beginning, and he still sinned.
When St. Theresa of Avila speaks about union with Jesus, she mentions the example of Salomon. He started his spiritual life well but ended very badly worshiping the gods of his foreign wives, just demonstrating very clearly that nobody is exempt from the possibility of sinning – God forbid of course.
During this lifetime we have a body, we have freedom, we can perform acts: therefore, we can sin. This is why Jesus said that we need to persevere “till the end”, and that nothing is guaranteed. Of course, nobody wants to sin, neither Jesus nor we desire this. This is also why we need the final perseverance, and we need to remain in the Grace of God till our final hour as is so significantly petitioned at the end of the Hail Mary: “pray for us, …, at the hour of our death. Amen”
What is perfection?
4- Question: Can we picture Union with God?
4- Answer: Jesus explains to us some aspects of the Union with God when He says: ””You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? 48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48)
However, what is perfection? According to Jesus’ words, then, perfection is to love both your friends and your enemies. Love must flow from an inner abundance, springing from our hearts. The one who believes in Jesus opens himself to the Abundance of Spirit flowing out of God. Accepting Jesus’ Gift (the Holy Spirit) transforms our heart. The Holy Spirit puts Jesus at the centre of our heart, so that we can say: “it’s not I who live, but Jesus lives in me” (St. Paul) as well as acts through me and with me.
Jesus’ pierced heart is open all the time, from which springs forth the Holy Spirit, unconditionally, to everybody. For this reason, one of the most common images used to translate this openness, this unconditional abundance is the Sun. Jesus is our real Sun, radiating continuously upon us.
The perfection of God is a perfection of Love, “Love is to give oneself” for, by its very nature Love gives of itself. This Perfection of God’s nature bears within it “abundance” and “unconditional” love. The very nature of God is to give, unconditionally. God loves because He is Love. He finds the reason to love in Himself (not in us). The power of love, this capacity to love, this ever-flowing unconditional abundance is what characterises the very nature of God, his holiness and his perfection.
We often tend to imagine perfection in an aesthetical way, like a Greek statue, with no errors in its forms, proportions, beauty, expression, and numbers. By contrast, however, we are called to change our vision of God’s perfection and holiness. Our initial idea of perfection is rather a projection, an artificial form of how we imagine it – I call it: perfection as expressed in a Greek statue. But is this how God understands perfection? We need to allow God to show us His true nature, his love and mercy and where perfection lies. St. Paul is a very good example here (see 2 Cor 12:1-10): he wanted hi source of struggle to be removed (the images he uses is: to remove a thorn from his side), but God said to him that His grace works better in Paul’s weakness! Here is the paradox, perfection seen by St. Paul is to have everything in him perfect, while perfection in the eyes of God is an increasing experience of our weakness supported by His utter Mercy. The difference between these two understandings is considerable.
This is essential, in order to be able to “imagine” or “picture” the perfection and holiness we are called to reach. “Union with God” is union with the One who is abundant, who loves unconditionally, and who finds in Himself an endless source of Love. He is the one who encompasses every being in the bosom of his Mercy. He is the “most low” (and not the “most high”), since His Being (Love), has brought Him to the lowest parts of humanity, to our darkness, just like rainwater that trickles down from a high mountain.
Perfection won’t then be striving toward the strongest, the most powerful, the highest etc. that life has to offer, for perfection according to the true God is a downward process bearing the marks of Humility, Love, Compassion, Mercy that lead to eternal life.
It follows then that the greater in Mercy, is the one who is more united to God. The greater in patience, is the one more united to God.
The greater in humility and understanding, and excusing his brothers and sisters is closer to God.
The one who receives in his heart everybody, unconditionally, is the one who has been transformed into God.
Finally, taken as a whole, it can be seen that perfection is not a competition to reach the top of the highest mountain first. Neither is it the most aesthetic movement in our acts – as St. Paul wanted (see above). It is to have our heart replete with the Love of God and to love not with our own strength, but with God’s.
Perfection is letting God transform our heart into His Heart, so we can be and act like Him. To paraphrase St. John who says it so eloquently: The one who believes will have streams of Living Water (the Holy Spirit) coming out of his bosom…. Streams of Mercy, of Love, of Compassion for his brothers and sisters.