“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’” (Jn 21:15)
If to fall in love with God is the single most stupendous adventure awaiting the human heart, why are there so few inclined to take the plunge? Why this reluctance to seek the face of the One from whom no greater good can possibly come? Could it be that desire—eros—having grown anemic, we’ve lost the savor for God? But how can that be? It is hardly credible that the God whom we know as Love through and through, right down to the bottom of his eternal being, should have fallen so far into disrepute. Surely there can be no greater need in the spiritual life than to try and restore a taste for God, whom we have grown so used to doing without.
So where do we begin? Suppose we start with Pascal, who, in the Pensees, his unfinished masterpiece in defense of Christian belief, describes three very different categories of men. First, he says, there are those who because they have already found God, or have allowed themselves to be found by him, are both reasonable and happy. These are the saints, all those wonderful warriors of the spirit-world who have made themselves, in the words of Paul Claudel, “worthy of the flame consuming them.” Like Mary, the Mother of God, on whom no light shines save that which she receives from Another—which she at once mediates to others—they represent sheer undistracted readiness for God; nothing will be permitted to stand in the way of their ardor, which is pure and undiminished. Here is the great summons to sanctity, the siren sound we have all heard; and in the evening of our lives all the baptized shall be judged on how well we have responded to the call. “If you are what you are meant to be,” exclaims St. Catherine of Siena, “you will set the world on fire.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Who does not, in his better moments, aspire to achieve such heights of holiness? Then there are those who, while they have yet to find God, do not thereby give up the search, resolving always to seek out signs of his presence. Haunted by God, by so many echoes of the poetry of the transcendent, to borrow a lovely phrase from an old friend and mentor, they hunger to know only the truth, whose lineaments they look for everywhere. They are like Kafka, whose ambition, he announced, was “to be a true attendant upon grace. Perhaps it will come—perhaps it will not come. Perhaps this quiet yet unquiet waiting is the harbinger of grace or perhaps it is grace itself. I do not know. But that does not disturb me.” What matters to these anguished souls is that they never give up, disposing themselves in every moment to remain worthy of God. “Teach us to care,” T.S. Eliot admonishes us in Ash Wednesday, “and not to care. / Teach us to sit still.” Yes, even among the thorns and thistles that hinder the search.
And never mind how long it takes, or however painful God’s seeming absence may be felt, they do not desist. Pascal would certainly approve; indeed, for the longest time he counted himself among their number. And because of the undaunted persistence of their search, he would pronounce them as the most reasonable of men, however much their restlessness left them unhappy. “Even if I am late,” as the Ambrosian Liturgy puts it during Holy Week, “do not close your door. I have come to knock. To one who seeks you in weeping, open the door, merciful Lord; receive me in your dwelling, give me the bread of the Kingdom.”
Which brings us to the third and final category, those who neither search for God, nor evince any interest in being found by God; whose essential aimlessness of soul has left them bereft of both reason and happiness. Having lost, as Aristotle would say, “the good of the intellect,” they languish in a sort of antechamber of the soul, where no choice they make will matter in the end. It is a place where nothing comes of nothing. Dante, his pen dipped in irony, sticks them in the Vestibule of Eternity because, he says, they are not good enough to go to hell. In fact, neither heaven nor hell will have them. How can they go to heaven? Having no interest in the place, no appetite for the joys God has prepared for those who love him, they would refuse even to consider the possibility. Besides, the landscape would prove far too bright and beautiful to bear.
As for hell, the guardians of that doleful city would be utterly uninterested in souls so insipid that the choice between the two was a matter of everlasting indifference. Their presence, in a manner of speaking, would only lower the tone of the place. As the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier puts it, when asked how it feels to be a husband whose wife has been deceiving him for most of their marriage: “I do not know. It feels just nothing at all. It is not hell, certainly it is not necessarily heaven. So I suppose it is the intermediate stage. What do they call it? Limbo.”
Of course, as both he and Dante must know, not to choose is to choose; and so, in the end, under the weight of so much impacted indifference, such souls will sink, ineluctably as it were, into the depths of hell. To quote a wise and holy priest who, on being asked what hell was like, replied at once: “It is a place where the soul says to God, ‘I do not want to love. I do not want to be loved. I just want to be left alone. Forever.’” And God, taking him at his word, suffers the self-damning soul to burn even his last bridge to beatitude.
So, then, if we are to succeed in restoring something of that taste for God, what Monsignor Knox used to call relish for eternity, we need to know which category we’re up against, and frame the appeal accordingly. And to that end I would suggest that while not much in the way of argument is likely to awaken the dead, i.e., the souls of those who have already pulled the plug on God, and no argument at all is needed to persuade the saint, there are at least two things on which the pilgrim soul can draw to help in his quest for God. The first is exhortation. Urge him never to lose heart, never to give up. Because in a deeply mysterious way, the mere fact that he does soldier on amounts to a kind of proof that victory cannot be far off. It is part of the larger mystery of prevenient grace that sanctity is to be found in the struggle. “Take comfort,” Jesus tells Pascal in the dark night of his soul, “you would not be looking for me if you had not already found me.”
And the second? Example. One’s own most especially. Let the genuine seeker know that he is not alone, that you also are in the struggle to give voice to a love you may not feel, directed at a God you cannot see. But that, once more, as Jesus tells Pascal in the anguish of his uncertainty, “I thought of you in my agony: I shed these drops of blood for you.” That Christ loves us with an intensity that infinitely exceeds even that love which we have so foolishly squandered on our own sins.
And, finally, let us not forget that included in all this is the witness of prayer, one’s own especially, which Pascal reminds us that God himself instituted in order to confer upon us the dignity of becoming a cause. By our prayers we bring about the very thing we most long to possess, which is the joy and the peace of those who have tasted the goodness of the Lord.