Listening to (an older recording) of Fr. Mitch Pacwa on my local Catholic radio station last night while running an errand, I heard him explain why Pope John Paul II had written some of his theological works in poetic form, instead of, say, in the form of a standard doctrinal treatise. Pacwa explained that poetry is a very “concentrated” form of expression, such that the reader must “dilute” it for himself in order to grasp it cognitively and emotionally. He didn’t go on to say all of what forms my following, brief point, but I do owe the basic idea to him.
Spiritual growth, in its Marian, as opposed to its Marthan, dimensions, requires three metaphorical elements: the concentrate, the water, and the glass. The spiritual texts (and teachers) are the concentrate. The believer’s prayer and vigilance (Colossians 4:2 – γρηγοροῦντες) are the water. Silence stillness and wakefulness (I Pet. 5:8 – νῆψις) are the glass which must be filled. (Here’s a good article on this ancient idea, from, perhaps obviously, an Eastern Orthodox perspective: “The Therapeutic Strategy of Nepsis”. For a fuller treatment, I highly recommend The Person in the Orthodox Tradition by Metropolitan Nafpaktos Ierotheos.)
Just as concentrate is unpalatable without the proper dilution, so spiritual truth is repugnant to the mind unwilling to blend it with the water of open affection towards the object spoken of in the text. The deeper the truths within, such as in the Bible, the harsher the flavor at the outset; and yet the more benefit we gain from assimilating its wisdom to ourselves by praying over it. This is the action of faith: it follows the direction of the teacher even when the beginning is arduous or obscure.
Stillness, in turn, is the sign of hope. For when one is hopeful, one waits, even if one does so with jostling emotions. The hopeless are give up waiting, and so their feet are restless, ever fretting, “Should I stay here or move on?” Stillness requires carving out mental and temporal space in one’s life simply to be in the presence of spiritual wisdom, as prayer slowly soaks into it and its beauty is assimilated like an I.V. drip. One cannot receive what one is not prepared to receive. Just as a wide receiver with sluggish, drooping hands will suffer interception after interception, so believers––and even seekers––who create no upward, open space in their lives to receive spiritual wisdom, will find it stolen from them. You cannot find holiness in a ten-second Internet search, nor download it if you did find it. Waiting is the skeleton of love; prayer is the musculature.
Finally, there is charity, but, this, being the highest fruit of the Spirit, is also the most paradoxical. For, once the believer has created the empty space of hope and watered it with the silent chant of prayer, he must drink. He cannot, however, drink without losing his hard-won contents. And that is just the point––the cruciform point of the entire Christian life. Stillness is not an end in itself––which is why pure Quietism and Zen Buddhism are unChristian. Nor is the sheer “will to prayer” an end in itself––which is why roving pentecostalism and Montanism are also unChristian. The point of gaining spiritual riches is to lose them, by becoming poor in the service of others; the aim of spiritual wisdom is to confess it, albeit in words that sound unwise and unworthy of their reality. The believer creates a hopeful space that becomes filled with personally assimilated spiritual truth, and then pours it out for others. If he does not pour it out, it merely evaporates and hardens back into thick, sluggish, acrid spiritual obscurity. As St. Thomas Aquinas argues in Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 188, a. 6, “For even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.” As Elisha multiplied the widow’s meager water, and as Jesus multiplied His disciples’ meager offerings, so God sustains us supernaturally precisely as we lose what we gain in prayer. To hoard our “precious” insights and solitary spiritual serenity for ourselves, we lose both ourselves and the wisdom we prize. In contrast, by casting our gains to others––in word and in deed––we win even more wisdom and even more than ourselves, namely, Heaven––eternal communion with God and others.