Theological commentary

Living the Christ Life

by Audrey English

Being citizens of two worlds is a difficult situation. We must live a life of prayer, intent on heavenly things and yet at the same time work for a living, interact with others, participate in our community, our society. In the vocation of a layman, there is always conflict between the obligations of our state in life and the desire to live the life of the spirit.

The city of the world is built on self-love and the city of God is built on the love of God. How do we reconcile the heavenly and the earthly, how live a spiritual life within a world of matter? How can we be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect?

St.Paul had the same difficulty when he said: "The things I want to do I do not do and the things I do not want to do I do". This division within the self is resolved when he exclaims "For me to live is Christ, it is not I who lives but Christ who lives in me." To live in Christ means to put on the habit of Christ. A habit has a dual meaning; it is a piece of clothing which characterises someone and a way of acting, of living. The habit of Christ, the outer garment, is our Christian behaviour, our way of interacting with the world around us. This habit, this external symbol has to be a reflection of the core, the reality of a Christ life lived from within.

Putting on the habit of Christ means that Christ must take over our lives. There must be no conflict, no tension, no obstacle in the way of God. Docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we have to respond to grace with the fullness of our being.

Actual graces are offered frequently. How often do we co-operate with grace? Since grace builds on nature, the natural virtues must be developed, intensified. The natural virtues are habits acquired by repetition. "We become good by doing good acts" says Aristotle. To what extent does the weakness of our natural virtues become an obstacle to the growth of our supernatural virtues?

Because we learn through our senses, we must learn to use our senses not merely to enrich our own life for this would be self-love. To reach the spiritual world we have to transcend the material and this involves a refinement of our sense perceptions, a denial of these to come to the heart of things, the immaterial Being.

So we learn the way of self-denial even in small doses, through our limited paltry sacrifices. Denial of the sense of hearing - avoiding the temptation of finding out the unnecessary, refusing the legitimate pleasure of listening to another piece of music. Denial of the sense of sight - not looking a second time at something irrelevant, choosing not to continue reading. Denial of the sense of taste - countless are the occasions when appetite or greed are tempted, limited the times when we choose self-denial.

In his poem The Habit of Perfection, Gerard Manley Hopkins reflects on the denial of the senses. What appears as loss leads to enrichment for such denial allows the soul to move towards the delight of union with God.

Elected Silence, sing to me
And be the music that I care to hear....
Be shelled, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light....
And you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

It is this paradox which St. John of the Cross presents in The Ascent of Mount Carmel:

To come to the pleasure you have not
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not...

Putting on the habit of Christ means to live in such a way that the habit of love, the habit of prayer become a second nature. We need to acquire the habit of the love for others. Charity of thought - avoiding judgements about other people, about their motivations, their failures. Practical charity - having compassion, finding time to listen, putting ourselves out to give help. Often this requires the humility of thinking that the difficulties, the needs of others are more important than our concerns, more urgent than our physical or intellectual fulfilment.

Putting on Christ means putting on the habit of prayer. The Catechism tells us we must pray constantly - anywhere, everywhere "...while walking in public or strolling alone... while buying or selling...or even while cooking" (St. John Chrysostom, CCC 2743), "on the train, donít forget to pray, it is the perfect time for it". (Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Letters from Carmel).

The tradition of the Church offers us rhythms of prayer, such as morning and evening prayer, the Angelus, grace before meals - reminders of the presence of God, "intended to nourish continual prayer". (CCC 2698)

The saints know how to shed the outer world and enter into the inner world of the spirit; they can teach us the ways of prayer. "You must build a little cell within your soul as I do. Remember that God is there and enter it from time to time." (Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity, L.123).

Unlike the saints we have to learn to discipline our mind, to concentrate, to avoid distractions. To pray without distraction requires the elimination of the trivial, of the unnecessary in our lives so that we might acquire the habit of recollection. It requires attention, so that prayer is not reduced to mechanical repetition. It requires focusing on God so that our prayer does not degenerate into a conversation with ourselves when we think of our problems, organise our concerns and forget our conversation with God. "It is the heart that prays." (CCC 2562)

The Catechism reminds us that we cannot pray "at all times if we do not pray at specific times" (2697). Christ often prayed in solitude. For those of us who live our life on the run we must occasionally find some quiet place for prayer, perhaps before the Real Presence.

Commitment to a definite time of adoration requires sacrifice, giving up some other time, some legitimate pleasure, but Our Lord himself will teach us that this is a very precious time. "Contemplation prolongs communion and enables one to meet Christ ... in a lasting way..." (John Paul II, Letter on the 750th Anniversary of the Feast of Corpus Christi #3). Developing a hunger for the Eucharist prepares the way for a more loving reception of the Sacrament; longing for the time of adoration prepares the way for a greater intimacy.

Adoration may be withdrawal from the world but enables us to better fulfill the obligations of our life. Indeed the prayer of adoration is an incentive to works of charity: "closeness to Christ in silence and contemplation does not distance us from our contemporaries, but on the contrary makes us attentive and open to human joy and distress, and broadens our heart on a global scale." (ibid., #5)

Through prayer a natural affection can be transformed and elevated into supernatural love: "Let us meet each other in the Sacred Heart of Jesus" (St. Margaret Mary). "I am keeping a special rendez-vous with you three times a day at the Angelus. We will ask the Incarnate work to keep a dwelling in our souls through love and that they might never leave Him again". (Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity)

The habit of prayer requires perseverance. Christ prayed and in His agony, he prayed the more earnestly. How well to remember this not only in the times of need when the "help!" cries spring instinctively, but especially in times of dryness when prayer seems to be a chore rather than a delight and we have to persist.

Just as it is not possible to serve two masters, in the spiritual life it is not possible to do two-timing. The quest for "He whom my heart loves" must be constant, must be complete. We must let God own us totally so that He can reshape us to His liking, not only through the eliminations of minor betrayals, the avoidance of small infidelities, but rather through a generous response to grace.

Loving God above all things means loving Him preferentially most. Loving God with our whole heart, our whole mind and our whole soul means doing things with the fullness of grace of which we are capable. Like the son in the parable who did his fatherís will but kept on complaining, we tend to do things in a half-hearted manner, with a delay, looking for approval or sympathy - unnecessary features that mar the generosity of a full response to grace.

Like Mary at the Annunciation we give our assent. Assent means obedience. Total acceptance of whatever God wants, of everything disagreeable, every disappointment, contradiction, joyful acceptance of suffering, in accordance with the original Fiat of our commitment.

The Angelus encapsulates the movement from God to us, from us to God in the spiritual life. God calls Mary, she gives her assent and the Word is made Flesh by the action of the Holy Spirit. Mary clothed Christ with her flesh and she who is full of grace is clothed with His grace. In union with her, the perfect model, we can learn to live Christ.

Audrey English


Audrey English is a mother of seven, schoolteacher, and an occasional contributor to the Catholic press in Australia. She has also written a number of educational textbooks.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 2.
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