Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mt 16:24)
Once upon a time, young seminarians were required to take a class in Ascetical and Mystical Theology. The subject was the spiritual life of Christians: how my relationship with God evolves throughout my life. We start off as beginners, struggling with sin, learning our prayers and doing our best to make God a part of our lives. But over time, some Christians grow and prayer becomes easy for them, sin fades away as they learn virtue and God becomes the center of their lives. We all know a few people who are like this; we consider them to be good Christians, the kind we want to become. It’s clear they've moved on to a different level. And then there are the saints. We read their stories and it’s clear they live in a constant dialogue with God, virtue has become part of who they are, not merely something they practice - they are already in heaven, although they still live among us.
These are the three Ways of the spiritual life. Theology calls the first the way of beginners. The second is the illuminative way and the third is the unitive way. Over the Church’s 2000 year existence, we have watched Christians, their lives and their habits; we’ve observed people pass through these three ways as they grow closer to God. Theologians and pastors of souls have gathered the empirical data of these observations like scientists, and long ago discovered the pattern of these three ways. All Christians are following the path of one of these three ways. By far, most Christians live their entire lives on the path of the beginners. Some move beyond that level and enter the illuminative way; as said above, we’ve met such people and we admire them. Very few enter that final way of the saints, where full union with God is experienced here and now, heaven on earth. Yet, this final unitive way is the goal of every Christian.
This branch of theology, called Ascetical and Mystical is the study of the phenomena of these three ways. Every priest should be aware of this, as the pastoral support needed for a soul on the beginner’s path is quite different from the support needed for a soul on the illuminative path. Additionally, the transition from one path to the next involves a difficult period that we usually call a dark night, following the terminology of the great theologian, St. John of the Cross. Between the beginner and the illuminative way is the dark night of sense, where the love of the world is rather violently scrubbed from the soul. Between the illuminative and unitive ways is the famous dark night of the soul, where a soul finally loses that last vestige of self-love in what we understand to be a very painful process.
This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with Jesus’ comment, above? His comment is a very succinct summary of this ascetical and mystical theology. Let’s break it down.
The first phrase is a desire, the desire to follow Jesus. This desire is the key to the spiritual life. Many Christians are committed to be Christians, but they want a non-invasive version that does not involve changing their lives. These are the life-long beginners. It’s an easy life, but it’s a bit risky as we can easily fall into mortal sin or even fall away from the Faith. (Thankfully, Jesus created the Sacrament of Reconciliation for us beginners.) Sometimes a Christian wants a little bit more than this “go to church on Sunday” life, and it is this desire for that “more” that gets things moving. This desire is a great grace and it is simply a desire for Jesus Himself. It is the desire to “go after Him.” He is somewhere in my life; I’m not sure where, so I will go and find Him. The journey has begun.
The second phrase (“deny himself”) is part of the journey, a hint on how to find Jesus. Denial of self is exactly what it seems to be: deny myself the things I love to give myself. Deny myself pleasures, riches, power – the usual things we love to give ourselves. The denial of such things is called asceticism. This is where I choose what to deny myself, based on what I think I love most. It is a very hard thing to do. Most people have heard of the Desert Fathers, who lived in the early centuries of the Church, and their lives of asceticism. We think of hair shirts and flagellations, fasts and night watches, living the hermitic life. Yet, ordinary asceticism is merely self-denial. Passing up a mid-morning snack is a kind of asceticism, as is giving my last five dollar bill to a beggar instead of using it to buy myself a coffee. Denying myself such things is a kind of artificially induced dark night of sense, scrubbing my soul of worldly things and pushing me on to the illuminative way.
Jesus’ third phrase (“take up his cross”) is a difficult path. It is like self-denial, except that instead of choosing my own acts of self-denial, God will choose for me. He knows exactly what I need. And it is difficult, very difficult. The way of the cross is a way of suffering. Instead of denying myself the things of this world that I want, it denies me my will, my very self. Some people have heavy crosses and they suffer daily. Most people experience small crosses daily. All are given to us for the same reason: to destroy self-love, that fierce and final barrier to God’s love. The cross is the dark night of the soul; small crosses prepare us for this night and the big crosses carry us into this night. This is what the word mysticism means; we think of it in the context “mystical” practices like contemplation, but it really means the work that God does in me, without my choice. In fact, it is the “without my choice” part that makes it mystical and makes the work of God so very effective. There is nothing more difficult in human life than to “accept” the mystical crosses given to us.
Once a soul desires Jesus, then removes the spiritual roadblocks to love by practicing ascetical works of self-denial and accepting the mystical crosses she must bear, then such a soul can do what Jesus finally says: follow Him. As an analogy: If a man joins the Army, he is not immediately ready to follow his commander into battle. He must first go through boot camp where he is trained in war – then he will follow his leader into battle. Likewise, we are not ready to follow Jesus, not really. The way of Jesus is so far removed from us, that there is no way we could walk that path, nor even understand it, without a spiritual boot camp.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55:8-9)
POSTSCRIPT: The famous Three Ways of the Spiritual Life is very well known in theology. It is an interesting topic, but there is a caution for the laity: Everyone wants to know which of the three “levels” they are in and so we speculate; but it is impossible for anyone to diagnose their own soul. I caution you, dear Reader, to avoid speculating on your level, or even to care what level you are on. Assuming beginner may be the best advice.