Falling From the Heights

Father Benson cautions: “Since every advance in spiritual life has its corresponding dangers—since every step that we rise nearer to God increases the depth of the gulf into which we may fall—a soul that has reached the stage of the Illuminative Way which we have called Ordinary Contemplation (and which is, in fact, the point at which the State of Union is reached) has an enormous increase of responsibility. The supreme danger is that of Individualism, by which the soul that has climbed up from ordinary pride reaches the zone in which genuine spiritual pride is encountered, and, with spiritual pride, every other form of pride—such as intellectual or emotional pride—which belong to the interior state.”

“For there is something extraordinarily intoxicating and elevating in the attaining of a point where the soul can say with truth, ‘Thou lightest my lamp, Lord’ (Ps 18:28). It is bound, in fact, to end in pride unless she can finish the quotation and add, ‘O my God, enlighten my darkness!’”

“Every heresy and every sect that has ever rent the unity of the Body of Christ has taken its rise primarily in the illuminated soul of this or that chosen Friend of Christ. Practically all the really great heresiarchs have enjoyed a high degree of interior knowledge, or they could have led none of Christ’s simple friends astray. What is absolutely needed, then, if illumination is not to end in disunion and destruction, is that, coupled with this increase of interior spiritual life, there should go with it an increase of devotion and submission to the exterior Voice with which God speaks in His Church: for, notoriously, nothing is so difficult to discern as the difference between the inspirations of the Holy Ghost and the aspirations or imaginations of self.”

Quotations from Robert Hugh Benson, The Friendship of Christ (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912).

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Father Benson explains: “The third stage of Illumination, corresponding with that of the Purgative Way, deals with those actual relations between Christ and the soul that are involved in the Divine Friendship. Now we saw that the last step of the Purgative Way was that abandonment of self into Christ’s arms that is only possible when the soul has no longer any self-reliance. The corresponding step of the Illuminative Way is therefore the accession of light which the soul receives as to the abiding Presence of Christ within her.”

“It is at this point, therefore, that the Divine Friendship becomes the object of actual intelligence and contemplation. It is henceforth not only enjoyed, but in a certain degree consciously perceived and understood. This is nothing else than Ordinary Contemplation.”

“It consists in a consciousness of God so effective and so continuous that God is never wholly absent from the thoughts, at least subconsciously. . . . Life is changed by it: all relations are altered by it; Christ begins to be indeed the Light that irradiates every object of the soul’s attention: He becomes the background, or the medium, by whose help all things are seen. Ordinary Contemplation, then, is the fixing of this state by effort as well as by grace.”

“Until the soul has been purged, and until, further, it has been illuminated as to both exterior and interior things, the consciousness of Christ’s interior Presence cannot be a continuous state.  But when these processes have taken place, when Christ, that is, has trained His new friend in the duties and rewards of the Divine Companionship, Ordinary Contemplation is, if we may say so, the attention that He expects from her. Sin, of course, in this state, becomes subjectively, far more grave. . . . But, on the other hand, virtue is far easier, since it is difficult for any soul to sin very outrageously so long as she feels the pressure of Christ’s hand in hers.”

Quotations from Robert Hugh Benson, The Friendship of Christ (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912).

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Seeing the Value of Divine Things

Father Benson states: “The second step of the Illuminative Way—corresponding to that of the Purgative—consists in light being gained from God as to the reality of interior things—for instance, the truths of religion.”

“For example: A soul in the elementary stage of faith adheres to an enormous number of dogmas of which she has no interior experience at all. She adheres to them, and lives by them, for the simple fact that she receives them from an Authority which she knows to be Divine. . . . She holds the dogmas of faith, but cannot compare them in any sense to natural facts or see those numerous points at which they fit in to other facts of her experience.”

“But when ‘Illumination’ comes, an extraordinary change takes place. It is not that mysteries cease to be mysteries—not that she can express in exhaustive human language, or even conceive in exhaustive images or modes, those facts of Revelation that are beyond reason—but, for all that, there begins to shine to her spiritual sense, lighted by God’s ‘candle’ within her soul, point after point in those jewels of truth which up to now have been opaque and colorless. She can ‘explain’ indulgences, or the justice of Hell, no better than before; and yet there is no longer impenetrable darkness within them. . . . She finds, by a certain inexplicable process of spiritual verification, that those things which she has taken to be true are true to her as well as in themselves; the path where she has walked in darkness, though in security, becomes dimly apparent to her eyes; until, if she, by grace and perseverance, ultimately reaches sanctity itself, she may experience by God’s favour those clear-sighted intuitions—or rather that infusion of knowledge—which is so marked a characteristic in the saints.”

Quotations from Robert Hugh Benson, The Friendship of Christ (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912).

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The Way of Illumination Begins

Father Benson states: “It has been seen how in the Purgative Way, Jesus Christ, in His desire to unite the soul altogether to Himself, strips her gradually of all that would hinder the perfection of that union. . . . There must follow, if the soul is to make progress, a gradual reclothing of her with the graces in which Christ desires to see her. She has put off the ‘old man’; she must now put on ‘the new.’ To this stage spiritual writers give the name of Illumination.”

“The first stage of the Purgative Way, it has been seen, concerns things external to actual religion. . . . The soul learns that external things cannot, in themselves, bear her weight. . . . In the Illuminative Way she learns how to use them rightly—that they are worth a great deal.”

“For example: A soul often complains that she is hindered in her progress by some apparently unnecessary trouble—the constant companionship, let us say, of some person whose temperament jars continually and inevitably with her own. Or it is some untiring temptation. . . . Or it may be that, by some deprivation, by a bereavement which withdraws all human light and strength from her life, she feels herself maimed.”

“The most elementary stage in the Illuminative Way consists usually in light gained from our Lord whereby the soul sees the value of those external things. She sees, for instance, that she could never gain supernatural patience or sympathy or largeness of charity, unless there were present always with her some personality which demanded its exercise. Her natural irritation at this unavoidable companionship is a sign that she needs the exercise; and the demand of constant effort at self-control, and finally of actual sympathy, is precisely the means by which she gains the virtue. . . . In the case of temptation, there is, humanly, no other way by which certain graces can be assimilated than by their exercise. . . . By bereavements which seem to shatter the whole life, which leave the weaker character, that has clung to the stronger, helpless and sprawling and wounded—by this means and this means only is the soul taught to adhere utterly to God.”

“The first step of the Illuminative Way, then, consists, not merely in experiencing these things—for temptations and bereavements are common to souls in all stages of the spiritual life—but in perceiving their value.”

Quotations from Robert Hugh Benson, The Friendship of Christ (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912).

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Responding to Disillusionment with Oneself

Commenting on the third stage of the Way of Purgation, disillusionment with oneself, Father Benson notes: “If a soul has come so far as this, it is extremely rare that sheer pride should be her ruin. The very knowledge of herself that she has gained is an effectual cure of any further real complacency.”

“Yet there are other dangers that face her, and of these one at least may be pride under the very subtle disguise of extravagant humility. ‘Since I am so worthless,’ she may be tempted to say, ‘I had better never again attempt those high flights and those aspirations after friendship with my God. Let me give up, once and for all, my dreams of perfection, and my hopes of actual union with my Lord.’”

“Or her self-knowledge may take the form of despair. . . . ‘I have forfeited,’ cries a soul such as this—a soul which has lost the excuse of pride, but yet clings to its substance—’I have forfeited the Friendship of Christ once and for all. It is impossible that I who have tasted of the heavenly gift should be renewed again unto repentance. He chose me, and I failed Him. He loved me, and I have loved myself only.’”

“And yet, if the soul only knew it, now is the very moment to which all the preceding stages have led. Now is the very instant in which the beloved soul, having learnt her last lesson of the Purgative Way, is fit. . . . Christ can be her all. No longer can pride, whether whole or wounded, keep her from Him.”

“The way of the spiritual path is strewn with the wrecks of souls that might have been friends of Christ. This one faltered, because Christ put off his ornaments; this one because Christ did not allow her to think that His graces were Himself; a third because wounded pride still writhed. . . . All these stages and processes are known. . . . But the end and lesson of them all is the same—that Christ purges His friends of all that is not of Him; . . . for no soul can learn the strength and the love of God, until she has cast her whole weight upon Him.”

Quotations from Robert Hugh Benson, The Friendship of Christ (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912).

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Disillusionment with Oneself

Continuing his instruction on the Way of Purgation, Father Benson states: “There follows, however, a third stage before the Way of Purgation is wholly passed. The soul has learned that external things are not Christ; that internal things are not Christ. She has become ‘disillusioned,’ first with the frame of the picture, and next with the picture itself, before she has reached the original. She now has to learn the last lesson of all, and become disillusioned with herself.”

“Up to now she has always retained a belief, however faint and humble, that there was something in herself, and of herself, that attracted Christ towards her. She has been at least tempted to think that Christ had failed her; now she has to learn that it is she who, all along, in spite of her childlike love, has been failing Christ; and this is at once the real essence and object of Purgation.”

“She begins then in this third stage to learn her own ignorance and her own sin, and to learn, too, that which ought to have been wholly incompatible with her ignorance and her sin—her amazing self-centredness and complacency. Up to now she has thought to possess Christ, to hold Him as a lover and a friend, to grasp Him and to keep Him. Her previous mistakes came from this very thing; now she has to learn that not only must she relinquish all that is not Christ, but she must relinquish Christ—leave, that is to say, her energetic hold on Him, and be content, instead, to be altogether held and supported by Him. . . . Now she faces the fact that Christ must do all, that she can do nothing without Him, that she has no power at all except what He gives her.”

She begins to see the problem: it is “not so much that she has done or not done this or that, that she has grasped at this or that,” but that “she has sought to possess, not to be possessed” by Christ.

Quotations from Robert Hugh Benson, The Friendship of Christ (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912).

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Responding to Disillusionment With Divine Things

Commenting on the Way of Purgation, Father Benson remarks: “Now this stage [disillusionment with divine things] is an infinitely more dangerous one than the preceding [disillusionment with human things]; for while it is comparatively easy to distinguish between Christ and, let us say, ecclesiastical music, it is not so easy to distinguish between Christ and grace—or rather between Christ and our own imaginative conceptions of what grace should be and do.”

“There is first the danger of gradually losing hold on religion altogether, during a long lapse of discouragement. . . . A soul such as this passes often, in a burst of resentment and disappointment, either to some other religion—some modern fad that promises quick and verifiable returns in spiritual things—or to that same state in which she had been before she ever knew Christ.”

“Or there remains one further state more outrageous and unnatural than any—the state of a cynical and ‘disillusioned’ Christian. ‘Yes, I too,’ she tells some ardent soul, ‘I too was once as you are. I too, in my youthful enthusiasm, once thought I had found the secret.’”

“Yet, if all goes well; if the soul is yet strong enough still to cleave to what seems now a mere memory; if she is confident that an initiation so bewilderingly beautiful as was hers when the Friendship of Christ first came to her, cannot, in the long run, lead to barrenness and cynicism and desolation; if she can but cry in her sincerity that it is better to kneel eternally at the grave of the buried Jesus than to go back and mix again in the ways of the world; then she learns at least one lesson when Jesus rises again (as He always does)—that she cannot hold Him in the old way, because He is ‘not yet ascended to His Father,’ and that, in one word, the object of religion is that the soul should serve God, not that God should serve the soul.”

Quotations from Robert Hugh Benson, The Friendship of Christ (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912).

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