Asceto-Mystical Ascent in Three Stages

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“Strider can take you by paths that are seldom trodden.  Will you have him?’” (The Lord of the Rings)

 Extreme Adventure

No warriors have endured greater risks or achieved greater glories, no explorers have charted more unknown territories, no mountaineers have climbed a more difficult K2,  no adventurers have had more extreme tension and excitement than those who have dared to  set out on the inner journey towards the high altitudes of  union with God: the ascent of Mount Christian.

Within this journey there are levels, traditionally classified as three by St.Thomas Aquinas: the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive or the stages of beginners, the advanced and those who are on the heights.

Greater fulfillment  cannot be had than by those who struggle to reach these heights, no experience more awesome than the peak experience of the Unitive level; no greater tragedy  than those who never begin climbing.  For in the ascent you are fulfilling the reason for the descent of God among men:: “The only-begotten Son of God…assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods. (St.Thomas Aquinas)

No Greater Fulfillment, No Greater Happiness

At the very beginning, in the first stage of the ascent of Mount Christian, the path of holiness seems  cramped and narrow and destructive of  fulfillment and happiness: that is exactly what He told us “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life and those who find it are few”(Mt.7:14). For we, as sons of Adam, are in poor spiritual condition and – just like men in poor physical condition –  find the initial climbing a hard struggle.

However  the further up you go, the stronger your limbs become, the wider the path and the greater the vista.  His words come to your mind: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold  now in this time….” (Mk 10:29-30).

The Christian who reaches the  top ( the unitive level) is a man who reflects the  supernatural in his deep knowledge of God,  superhuman serenity in the face of obstacles, and a love that is not of this world. A non-Catholic philosopher expressed the personality transformation insightfully:

 “An irresistible impulse which hurls it into the most vast undertakings. A calm exaltation of all the faculties makes it see things on a grand scale and turn the most idealistic dreams into concrete reality. Above all, it sees simply and this simplicity, which is as obvious in word as in conduct, guides it across complications which it does not even seem to have perceived. An innate knowledge or rather an acquired innocence suggests the useful undertaking to it, the decisive act or a word to which there is no reply. However, effort remains indispensable and also endurance and perseverance. But they come of themselves and they deploy themselves in the soul  that is at once acting upon and whose liberty coincides with the Divine activity” (HENRI BERGSON, Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion,  Paris, Alcan, 1932, p. 248)

And don’t think for a moment that this ultimate level of prayer is for hermits or priests isolated from the world. The most socially,politically and intellectually  influential man  of his century was the great St.Bernard of Clairvaux and it is to him that we owe this description of the  mystical knowledge of God:

“I confess, though I say it in my foolishness, that the Word has visited me, and even very often.

But although He has frequently entered my soul, I have never at any time been sensible of the precise moment of His coming.

I have felt that He was present. I remember that He has been with me; I have sometimes been able even to have a presentiment that He would come, but never to feel His coming, nor His departure…

And thus I have learned the truth of the words I had read : In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts, XVII, 28); but blessed is the man in whom He is, who lives for Him, who is moved by Him.

You will ask then, how, since the ways of His access are thus incapable of being traced, I could know that He was present.

But He is living and full of energy, and as soon as He has entered into me He has quickened my sleeping soul; has aroused and softened and goaded my heart, which was in a state of torpor and hard as a stone.

He has begun to pluck and destroy, to plant and to build, to water the dry places, to illuminate the gloomy spots, to throw open those which were shut close, to inflame with warmth those which were cold, as also to straighten its crooked paths and make its rough places smooth, so that my soul might bless the Lord, arid all that is within me praise His Holy Name.

Thus, then, the Bridegroom-Word, though He has several times entered into me, has never made His coming apparent to my sight, hearing or touch. It was not by His motions that He was recognized by rue, nor could I tell by any of my senses that He had penetrated to the depths of my being.

It was as I have already said, only by the revived activity of my heart that I was enabled to recognize His Presence; and to know the power of His sacred Presence by the sudden departure of vices and the strong restraint put upon all carnal affections.

From the discovery and conviction of my secret fault I have had good reason to admire the depth of His wisdom; His goodness and kindness have become known to the amendment, whatever it may amount to, of my life; while in the reformation and renewal of the spirit of my mind, that is, of my inward man, I have perceived, in a certain degree, the excellence of the Divine beauty.” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs,  Sermon 74, nos. 5-6)

Thus the soul that contemplates the Word feels at once His Presence and His sanctifying power.

At the summit of Mount Christian, according to St.John of the Cross, demonic influences can no longer harm: “When she is united with Him in transformation, they fear her as much as they do Him, and they have not even the courage to look at her. The devil has an extraordinary fear of the perfect soul (The Spiritual Canticle, stanza 24)

The saints, on the “inside of reality”, cannot hold back a certain sense of  frustration that others are content to live in spiritual slums when they could be living in supernatural palaces: “O souls”,  St.John of the Cross exclaims, “created for these grandeurs and called to them. What are you doing? How do you spend your time?”

Likewise St.Teresa of Avila: “Either desire, my King, I beseech You, that all to whom I speak become mad from Your love, or do not permit that I speak to anyone!”

Blaise Pascal, scientist, philosopher, genius in 1654, on Monday, 23 November, “from about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight” had some type of similar experience which he hastened to try, in some unsatisfactory way, to put into writing immediately after it occurred:

“FIRE. GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.” (PETER KREEFT, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées edited, outlined and explained)

And at the end  what does it all matter?

“It matters more than anything else in the world.

“The whole dance or drama or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each of us: or, putting it the other way around, each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance.

“There is no other way to happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire; if you want to get wet you must get into the water.

“If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life you  must get close to, or even into the thing that has them. 

“They are not a sort of prize which God could, if he chose, just hand out to anyone.

“They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality.

“If you are close to it the spray will wet you; if you are not, you will remain dry.

“Once a man is united to God how could he not love forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die? (C.S.LEWIS, Mere Christianity)

Moreover, it matters ‒ as Daniel-Rops remarked ‒ to the history of the Church on earth for there is a law, as real as that of gravitation, which governs her life: holiness. The history of the Church is first and foremost that of her saints.

“The apostle”, said Lacordaire,  “is not only a man who knows and who teaches with the help of the word; he is a man who preaches Christianity with his whole self and his very presence is already an apparition of Jesus Christ.”

 “‘Son of man, I have appointed you as watchman to the house of Israel.’ Note that Ezekiel, whom the Lord sent to preach his word, is described as a watchman. Now a watchman always takes up his position on the heights so that he can see from a distance whatever approaches.  Likewise whoever is appointed watchman to a people should live a life on the heights so that he can help them by taking a wide survey.’” (Pope St.Gregory the Great)

In one of Paul Claudel’s dramas, a question is posed by a blind, young Jewish girl to a Christian boy who has both sight and the light of grace: “But you who can see, what do you do with the light?” (Paul Claudel ,  Le Pere Humilié,  Act 1, Scene 3)

The ascent of  “Mount Christian” is the answer given by the great Christians through the ages, those who realized that this ascent is the prelude to eternal life.