Perhaps as coincidental irony for the writing of this essay, I should mention that due to a variety of life changes, I have had to give up having most of my beloved books around me. “The first thing in all progress is to leave something behind…” (GM in Unspoken Sermons) In this case, I have had to leave behind some material possessions, yea, the very books that I hope have contributed to my spiritual growth! I am left with a handful of favorites, my Kindle and the Internet. For better or worse, I am reliant on these and what comes forth from a mind influenced by a variety of spiritual writers, not the least of which is George MacDonald, after a lifetime of living and learning, and regrettably less than perfect loving. What this essay lacks, I hope will be made up for by a spirit which has been infused with his influence.
"When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people." This quote from Jewish philosopher/theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel succinctly summarizes a viewpoint that many adopt later in life; but a few may come to appreciate even sooner. What makes life endurable or even pleasurable but the kindness and goodness of people towards one another? If sanctification is growing up into Christ (Eph. 4:15), I can only hope that I have been in and will continue in that process until the day I am taken up.
Perhaps being a bit simple-minded myself, I have always been drawn to simplicity. Most of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and Kierkegaard are beyond the comprehension of my wee brain! Sanctification must be possible for Sir Gibbie and Little Diamond as well as for the philosophers.
As a child, I enjoyed reading stories of saints. I was particularly impressed with St. Therese of Lisieux, (d. 1897) also known as “the Little Flower.” Her way was the “little way” of making small sacrifices and offering up the small hurts, trials and insults of life which allow us almost constant opportunities to grow in sanctification! Nearly a hundred years after her death was the death of Mother Theresa of Calcutta (d. 1997). Mother Theresa, who will be declared a saint this September by Pope Francis, also found her way in simply “doing small things with great love.” Catholics and non-Catholics alike were drawn to these women who lived out their faith simply, but heroically and without compromise.
In my teen years, I was introduced to two books which became the bulwark of my spirituality. The first was The Way of a Pilgrim by an unknown Russian peasant of the 19th century. This introduced me to what is referred to especially in the Orthodox Church as “The Jesus Prayer.” Various forms of the prayer i.e. “Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner” or simply “Jesus, mercy” are prayed in such a way as to help one learn to “pray always”. Monks would learn to pray this prayer along with their breathing, or while performing repetitious tasks until the prayer seemed to become a part of them, one’s spirit effortlessly invoking the name of Jesus and His mercy at all times. The prayer and the method are so very simple, and with God’s grace may lead one to a most profound spirituality.
The second book to have a profound impact on me was the spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (d. 1751). The essence of this book for me was the simple notion that God’s will is always present before us in the duty of the moment; that holiness was no more (or less!) than doing the one thing that God puts before us. Being faithful to God in what is required at each moment of our lives is the simplest way to holiness. So simple to understand, so difficult at times to practice!
Four years of theology at a Catholic University instilled a greater love for scripture and tools for apologetics; but along the way, through no fault of my instructors, I likely picked up a greater desire for the “letter of the law.” “The Church says”; “The Catechism says”; “The Bible says” were arrows to shoot rather than cords to draw. Defending the Faith and defending God (as though He needed it!) may have trumped true spirituality.
As a young adult, I finally discovered the writings of George MacDonald – first his children’s stories, then the adult fiction, and finally his sermons. What attracted me to him (aside from the sheer delight of discovering how many of his ideas I had already encountered from C. S. Lewis) was his emphasis on ideas that had attracted me many years ago: simple love and unfailing obedience as the way to holiness, that is, as the way to the Father.
As I have grown older, I am convinced that practicing love, kindness and mercy in the ordinary dealings of life is the most necessary way both to grow in holiness and to lead others to the Father. To love one another as Jesus loved us (Jn. 13:34); to love God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22: 37-39) – these priorities have not changed. One need only think about how people are treated at the grocery store, at their place of employment, on the phone with customer service, and so on, to recognize that too many people do not regularly practice or receive simple acts of kindness. God in His great mercy and wisdom has given us the simplest means to grow in holiness and to spread the Gospel.
Before starting this essay, and now in closing, I have asked myself: How can I, a sinner, have anything to say about sanctification and holiness? I assure you that I speak much more from my failings then from my successes, more as a sinner than as a saint. I speak as one who knows what it is I must do: Be kind and compassionate to one another… (Eph. 4:32)