Essay #44, written following a walk past St-Joseph's Oratory in 1998.
Beyond Religion II, Collection of Essays,
Only three more flights.
Her knees began bleeding on the forty-fourth step. Every Good Friday––always on the forty-fourth step. The steps used to be lined with a coarse carpet. Now the church can no longer afford one. It’s really hard on the knees.
Only one more flight.
The agony in her knees is so great, Sister Angelica is slipping into a trance. Ah, the wonderful pain... Humbly, she lifts her eyes to the crucifix atop the St. Joseph’s. It seems enveloped within a strange light. An aura. Her heart is filled with great joy. Perhaps this year she’ll make it to the top... Perhaps she will feel...
The arms of her Savior reach out and lift her just before she faints. She wakes up in the local clinic. The Savior is nowhere to be seen. Only the pain remains.
Sister Angelica does the penitential pilgrimage every year. She must. There is so much sin in the world. So much evil. What else can she do? She gave herself to spiritual life, oh, so long ago. Climbing the hard steps on her knees has been relatively easy––when she was young. Now? Now nothing is easy. But she must keep trying. Last year she almost felt Christ’s arms around her waist. Just before she fell.
There are those, reportedly the Pope among them, who wear haircloth. Not many, nowadays. Some still pierce their bodies, ears eyebrows, noses, tongues, nipples, but those are mostly youth in need of recognition. Some still indulge in flagellation. Not monks, not aspiring saints, but frustrated businessmen seeking outlet for their sexual inadequacies. Some believe that their voluntary suffering will ease the pain in Christ’s crown of thorns implanted by our sins 2000 years ago. Others just like the pain. It is an escape from a reality they cannot face. It gives them an illusion of pleasure, an emotional outlet, often assisted by hard drugs. They know no other pleasure. They are lost. The psychiatric wards can do little to help them. The good doctors no longer pretend, like their sacerdotal predecessors, that physical pain, self-denial, mortification, will lead their patients to heaven. Perhaps they lost the road map. Perhaps they’ve just outgrown some of the perversions of the human mind.
Today is Thursday. Sister Angelica feels better. She stopped having nightmares. She’ll be all right.
Until the next year.
What is spiritual life?
"These things I have spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full," (John 15:11). So said a man in whose name thousands abused, and continue to abuse, their bodies with penitent practices that would make Marquise de Sade proud. Yet among "These things" there is no mention of discomforts of haircloth underwear, of fasting, flagellation, mortification, immolation, self-induced punishment, or any other form of aberrant practices. Of any form of obscure escapism from the fullness of life.
No mention of climbing hundreds of steps on your bare knees.
If our life is not filled with joy––we are not Christians. If we do not delight daily in the "good news"––we are not Christians. If we think of ourselves as sinners rather than children of the Most High––we are not Christians.
If we do not love one another––we are not Christians.
Wherever there is strife, discord, conflict, contention, disharmony, dissension, disunity, division, mischief, war––there is no love. Wherever there is suffering, distress, misery, affliction, anguish, grief, heartbreak, sorrow, woe, pain, denial, sadness, indifference, there no love––nor is there faith, nor abundant hope. Whenever we do not rejoice in life, there is no love––because joy is an amalgam of Life and Love.
Spiritual life is living in the fullness of life.
It is being aware of the abundance of gifts that are ours to enjoy. It is finding joy where others see sorrow. It is finding love where others feel hatred. It is forgiving when others yearn for revenge. It is offering warmth and compassion when others offer indifference. Spiritual life is finding good in everything, everywhere, at all times––because evil is an illusion.
For me, it is also walking the middle path, rejecting extremes, observing, learning, sharing, accepting everyone on my journey as extensions of my own being. It is losing the distinction between you and me. It is sensing oneness with all creation. It is living in full consciousness.
It is accepting full responsibility for my thoughts, words, emotions and actions.
It is never escaping from life, it is finding it.
It is embracing my own immortality.
It is living in the present.