He who discovers the interior master has found the mysterious science of the saints, the path of mystical union, the narrow way. This sweet music of the Holy Spirit is like a gentle breeze that moves below the surface of all things. It’s melody plays for all to hear, but yet it can only discovered by the one who learns to renounce all things and bury them under a cloud of forgetting.
How do we discover this gentle voice, this still presence?
First, the lower man must be tamed and put to sleep by God’s grace and by the intentional efforts of believers. Our intellect, memory, and will are a slave to circumstances and they must be educated by penance and by inner concentration. By bearing the discomfort of fasting and by learning to gaze within during mental prayer, the passions are slowly robbed of their chaotic tendencies and they begin to obey the gentle rule of reason.
Next, one must acquire virtue and build effective habits in one’s interior life as well as one’s relationships. The body must be strengthened by physical exercise and activity to the degree that is necessary for each person. To build virtue, one must study the truths contained in the Word of God as well as reflect upon one’s experience. As the philosopher says, the unexamined life is not worth living. To acquire virtue means to learn from mistakes and to build regular disciplines into one’s daily life.
And what does growth look like as we engage in regular discipline and establish our habits and routines?
In terms of sin, first we overcome habitual mortal sin, then we develop a repulsion for venial sins, and in the final stages we are purified of our imperfects and attachments.
In terms of virtue, there is likewise a three fold progression. In the metaphysical imagination of Aquinas, he imagines a movement from natural virtue to the work and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Thus, our nature is first perfected and purified and then it is elevated to participate in God’s activity. Of course, this treatment of the subject is very much theoretical in that in does provide us with immediate markers to distinguish this growth and orientation.
In terms of visible fruit, I would say that we should first look for growth in regards to the four cardinal virtues (and even as we progress, it is good to meditate frequently on these virtues). In terms of temperance which governs our lower appetites and lower emotions, we should look to see a progression whereby we are not so attached to comfort and pleasures. When we go without, instead of becoming angry and disgruntled, do we learn to except momentary discomfort with grace and consideration?
The next virtue is fortitude or courage. In our relationships and our daily lives, do we learn to overcome fear and anxiety by facing challenges head on? Do we take initiative when it is called for? Are we able to have difficult conversations or do we avoid confrontation?
Then comes the virtue of justice. One who learns to be just is able to recognize their prejudices towards individuals and groups, and despite these blind spots, seeks to actively do what is good and just for each person. Justice allows us to not be swayed by our preferences, but rather treat each by an objective standard.
Finally there is prudence. I look for prudence by gauging the effects of one’s decisions and likewise the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. I also imagine that we should grow in competency in our field and in our relationships as victory builds on victory.
Such is the life of virtue, the natural life of man accessible to all people.
As our nature is purified and oriented towards Christ by the grace offered in the sacraments, then the life of the Spirit begins to take hold. We begin to notice inspirations that come to us which open of new insights about God, ourselves, and the world. Also, the gift of contemplation begins to emerge as our faculties rest and we soak in the silence.
This life of the Spirit is the great fulfillment we should all seek. It is the pearl of great price.