*Continued of the audio of Catechetical Homily 4 – Entering into His Rest*
Everyone who knows me, knows about how I played soccer as a kid…. that is actually quite an understatement… from around 12 years old to 18, my main focus in life was soccer. I had other pursuits, but the area of my life where I gave consistent time and attention was getting better at the sport I loved.
In Middle School and High School, I developed a theory of practice that applied over and over again. I would spend hours kicking a ball against a wall or a fence, and this was probably one of the most enjoyable things I did. During the winter, I would go into racket-ball courts and practice over and over again touching the ball, kicking it with different parts of my feet, and visualizing the game. In a certain regard, the hours I spent by myself practicing formed the mentality with which I approached the spiritual life. The combination of consistent practice and visualization has formed the core of how I understand the spiritual life.
I would argue that the key to becoming a saint is consistent practice… but there is a nuance, it has to be good practice that helps us work towards an objective goal.
Our objective goal can be described in a key biblical concept which the saints have meditated upon generation after generation. The scripture often talks about a concept of “rest” which formed the heart of the Jewish practice of the Sabbath. This rest is not simply an absence of work or an engaging in pleasurable activities, but rather is connected with concrete spiritual growth, sacrifice, and ultimately our complete surrender to God’s grace.
The saints understood that a believer who has been purged of the effects of sin and has learned the art of self-mastery, acquires a kind of rest in which the harmony obtained within the intellect and will allow a person to discover God’s presence within.
Jesus himself promises such a rest when he proclaims, “Come to me all you who are burdened and weary and I will give you rest” Matthew 11:28. Likewise the Old Testament speaks about how sinners are not able to acquire this rest in Psalm 95:11, “So I swore in my anger, they shall not enter my rest.”
Building on Psalm 95, the letter to the Hebrews 4:1-6 explains,
“Therefore, let us be on our guard while the promise of entering into his rest remains, that none of you seem to have failed. For in fact we have received the good news just as they did. But the word that they heard did not profit them, for they were not united in faith with those who listened.”
Notice the first thing… this rest comes through Jesus Christ… it involves a listening to God’s word and hearing and receiving the proclamation of our salvation. The author continues,
For we who believed enter into that rest, just as he has said: “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter into my rest,’” and yet his works were accomplished at the foundation of the world.
See how the author points out that through sin we are not able to enter into God’s rest… thus conversion and repentance are not simply about avoiding hell. Yes, the fear of hell is noble, but so many souls fall short because they do not seek the Lord’s rest. The author continues,
For he has spoken somewhere about the seventh day in this manner, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works”;and again, in the previously mentioned place, “They shall not enter into my rest. Therefore, since it remains that some will enter into it, and those who formerly received the good news did not enter because of disobedience,
Now we understand that every day of our lives, we must strive to enter into the rest of the Lord. Our practice and our active efforts are to create the conditions whereby this rest can take hold of our hearts. We could stay for hours on this concept. The tradition expands upon in generation after generation… discussing it in terms of the concept of contemplation, recollection, mystical union… but for now let us stay with our understanding that we must strive every day to enter into the rest of the Lord.
The question now becomes, what are the means by which we enter into this rest. What is the consistent practices we must engage in. Certainly, we must frequent the sacraments. Regular confession and frequent communion are the foundations upon which everything else is built.
That being said, the main area where many fall short is that they fail to establish a habit of regular meditation. There are two integral parts of meditation that each one of us must put into practice. First, there is the meditation on scripture and the study of doctrine. As we meditate on the truths of faith, they shine a light into our hearts, leading us to conversion and ultimately the rest of the Lord.
Second, we must also meditate on our experience. Each day, we must take time to look within and discover the work of the Holy Spirit and vexations of the enemy. When we learn to look within, we discover the deep roots of sin and we allow Christ’s tender mercy into the brokenness of our human heart. In time and when combined with regular confession, we learn to name both our woundedness and the workings of grace in the heart and this allows us to be more intentional… seeing what we do and why we do it.
With hours upon hours of making this interior journey, soon we learn to rest with the Lord in sweet repose.
Even on a natural level, studies show that a habit of meditation can help still the emotions and bring greater peace and calm. Studies on mindfulness show that within six weeks, habits of meditation alter the way the brain operates, making people less reactive and more grounded.
Our practice of Christian meditation goes beyond simply natural benefits and guides us toward our supernatural goal, which is a relationship with Jesus Christ and our salvation. The tradition teaches that this relationship unfolds in a fairly consistent pattern which has been studied and analyzed for over 2 thousand years of collective experience, with each generation of saints adding new insights and clarity.
The science of the saints would talk about a beginning stage after our initial conversion in which we establish our practice of meditation and work on overcoming mortal sin. This stage is marked by the establishment of asceticism, or spiritual discipline. The analogy between athletic training and asceticism began with St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9: 25-27 in which the Holy Spirit inspired him to write,
“Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”
In this way, we can talk about the purgative stage of development (the saints call it this) as an stage of establishing discipline.
The second stage of our spiritual development is called the illuminative stage. Having achieved some freedom around mortal sin, we now seek to deepen our conversion and overcome venial sins as well as imperfections. In terms of prayer and meditation, our meditation becomes more spontaneous and familiar with the Lord.
Continuing with the analogy of sports, having mastered the basic skills of the spiritual life through repetition and practice, the daily meditation period now starts to have a quality of flow and familiarity. This period is also marked by greater self-knowledge and greater awareness of our sinfulness before God. In almost a paradoxical manner, as we first start to taste the rest of the Lord in the illuminative stage, this experience also leads to a greater awareness of our sinfulness and imperfections because we are now beginning to understand ourselves less in relation to other people, and more by comparing ourselves to our Lord.
Finally, the third stage is marked by greater surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit and an ability to enter into the rest of the Lord with greater frequency. This is the stage of the saints and the mystics… those noble souls who have fallen completely in love with Jesus Christ. As St. John of the Cross and other saints have explained, this stage is best expressed in the classic line of the Song of Songs 1:2, “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth.” In his inspiration on this verse of the Old Testament, the saint likens mystical union to a lover who goes out in the night seeking their beloved… the night representing the faith of one who seeks what cannot be found by human senses alone and the lover representing the believer who has given everything to Christ.
Thus, our goal every day of our lives is to walk the path of spiritual growth and enter into the mystical rest of Jesus Christ, to move from the purgative through the illuminative and then to the unitive stage of spiritual development. My hope and my prayer is that each one of you will commit yourself to this interior journey today. The daily habit you must embrace is prayer and meditation. If you make this commitment, I guarantee the Lord will do powerful things in your life.