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A Program of Spiritual Formation for Candidates to the Priesthood

The Lay Monastic Community of Caryana


 
 
 

 

 


CHRISTIAN LIFE


 

by:

 

Dom Basilio Magno




I. Introduction
 

The art of Christian Living is no secret.  

Christ was not negligent in teaching His Way of Life to His Church, either by word or example. So, ignorance of it can only be by choice, i.e., because we have chosen to exert our efforts more on the things of this world.

Neither has the Holy Spirit failed to instruct the Church through her saints. Christian living has been known, practiced and written about from the time of Christ until now.

There is only one way of Christian Living; but it is presented to us in a multitude of different ways, like a bouquet of flowers arranged in different ways, but containing the same flowers. Or it can be compared to a diamond presented to us by the Saints from different angles . . . but it is the same diamond.

In this paper, we intend to write ONLY what has been written by the saints of the Church. We wish to present the same bouquet of flowers, the same diamond; the arrangement and the angle, however, are dictated by some of our favorite saints.

 

II. Frequent pretexts for refusing to learn and embrace Christian Life

       The most common pretext is the impossibility of living the perfection of Christian Life in the world. So we neither seek the knowledge of it nor live it nor teach it.

Popes, bishops and monks go to heaven because they live the fullness of Christian Life. It is the same way that the man in the market place and the wife in the kitchen must take to reach heaven.

We also like to say that this way of life is only for religious and persons totally dedicated to God. But the lists of saints in the Church are made up mostly of ordinary laymen, like St. Thomas More, a lawyer, and Blessed Barbie Acarie, a housewife.

So, let us throw away these pretexts . . . in truth they are heresies, and listen to what Christ has to say: “What I say to you I say to all.” And accept that we can and we ought to live the Christian Life in its perfection, “Be ye perfect as My Heavenly Father is perfect.” Otherwise, we are not Christians.

Those who make such excuses, like the multitude in the multiplication of the bread or the young rich man who turned his back on Christ, are only keeping the trappings of Christianity.


III. “I wish to learn.”

We do not wish to pretend to have lived this way of life to the full, though we admit we have a great desire to do so, and this desire is what encourages us to share with you what one day we dream to accomplish . . . to live the Christian Life to its perfection . . . of course, with the help of God.

And we also dare to teach, for as Erasmus says: “To study is a good way to learn; to hear is a still better way. But to teach is the BEST way to learn.”

St. Augustine affirms this, too, when he says: “The office of giving gives us the merit to receive.” And St. Francis de Sales adds: “The office of teaching serves as foundation for learning.”

So, as a duty to God and in obedience to Christ’s commands, we present this complete outline of Christian Living . . . that we, ourselves, might learn. For a complete knowledge of Christian Doctrine is the first mark of a true child of the Church.

It is, indeed, a difficult task to live a truly Christian Life: “Narrow is the way that leads to life:” but it is not impossible because we have many wise teachers and guides in the writings of the saints. 


What is Christian Life?

 

I. The Apostolic Commission.

When the Apostles received their commission from Christ, the words of Christ were: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and TEACHING them TO OBEY all I have commanded you.”

1.     The first part of the commission is to make disciples or true followers of all nations. How? By Baptizing them. Through Baptism, man receives the fruits of Redemption; it heals the wounds caused by the fall of Adam and Eve, and man receives sanctifying grace, making him a child of God.

You all know this. It is the next step that is important and more often forgotten.  

2.     Christ knew that man has a fallen nature, making him weak and foolish most of the time. It would be impossible for man to keep the graces he receives in Baptism. He, most certainly, would lose them soon. This fallen nature, therefore, would have to be remedied.

3.     So, immediately after giving the command to baptize, Christ made provisions for the PRESERVATION of man’s God-given graces; and, if he lost it, for its RESTORATION, with these words: “. . . Teach them to obey everything I have commanded.”


        Obeying the commands of Christ is the way to maintain and/or regain the sanctifying grace received at Baptism . . . this is Christian Life (St. Cyprian: On Works and Alms 1-5 CSEL 3, 373-7).


       Christian Living, i.e., obedience to all the commands of Christ, is the central point of Catholicism. By this norm shall we be judged. This is what differentiates Catholics from other Christian sects.
      

(a) The Sacraments are useless without Christian Living. Baptism, through which we receive God’s Life in us, is useless since we shall lose this life almost immediately because of fallen nature. It is only useful for those who die as babies. One can receive all the sacraments but, without Christian Living, one can lose his soul. Note St. Paul’s warning on receiving the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily, i.e., receiving the Holy Eucharist without Christian Living.

(b) Believing the Apostles’ Creed is useless without Christian Living. One can believe all the articles of the Apostles Creed or even the Nicene Creed and still be condemned. Many Protestant sects recite not only the Apostles’ Creed but even the Nicene Creed.

(c) The Ten Commandments, being of the Old Testament, is insufficient for salvation. One can obey the Ten Commandments, like the young rich man who obeyed them from his youth, and still sadden Christ.

(d) Prayer without Christian Living is Pharisaical. God warned He would turn His face away from such prayers.

So, Part III Section I of the Catechism of the Catholic
Church, i.e., Christian Life, is the center of our Catholic Life.
All the rest are aids or helps for the perfection of this life.

(e) The Apostles’ Creed is the basic truth we must believe to guide our Christian Life. The Sacraments are the visible signs through which we receive graces for the maintenance and restoration of Christ’s life in us. And the Beatitudes are the different degrees of perfection of Christian Living.


II. Baptism

By Baptism, we become members of the Church, the bride of Christ. Through Christian Living, we become FAITHFUL brides.

Baptism, whether sacramental, of desire or through blood, is when we become members of the Church; thus we become part of the Church, the Bride of Christ. We enter into a contract, a spiritual marriage with Christ that requires absolute fidelity on our part (St. John Chrysostom: First Instruction to the Newly Baptized). Through His commands, Christ teaches us how to be FAITHFUL brides. Any neglect or disobedience to these commands, i.e., any attraction towards things other than the Bridegroom is spiritual adultery.

Christian Living is obedience to the commands of Christ. The Carthusian, the Bishop, the gentleman, the worker and servant, the prince and beggar, the wife and the widow, the young girl and young boy all go to heaven through obedience to the commands of Christ.


III. The seeming Differences in the Lives of the Saints.

There seems to be many ways to heaven. No, there is only one way-- by living the Life of Christ. The seeming differences are NOT in one’s way of life. They lie, firstly, in the personal defects each saint is trying to correct; thus the Evangelical medication would be different for each. The life of an aspiring saint overcoming drunkenness will be slightly different from one overcoming lust or vanity.

Then there are the occasions for good works. The life of one aspiring for holiness amidst the poverty in India will be different from the life of one in Sweden. While the one in India will be busy feeding the hungry, the one in Sweden would be busy straightening morals.

Then there is the role one plays in the Mystical Body: while a Bishop rules, a monk prays, and a pastor guides.

St. Francis de Sales states that it is heresy to say that Christian Life is not for soldiers, mechanics, princes, and married couples. St. Crispin in the workshop, St. Monica, the mother, Sts. Cornelius and Sebastian, the soldiers, St. Edward, the king . . . they all became saints by living the perfection of Christian Life in their state of life.


IV. Beware of Fakes

We must know and obey all the commands of Christ because a minor disobedience is like a crack in a building; the damage will slowly go all the way to the whole structure, making the spiritual edifice defective.

Today, we are surrounded by countless teachers claiming to teach the Christian Way of Life. Know that there is only one way; the rest are false. Never say that there is something good even from these false teachers, because falsehood is precisely more dangerous when laced with some truth.

We must know the whole, pure truth.

We must know all the commands. Christ said so: “Teach them ALL...” otherwise, how shall we detect error. St. Francis de Sales warns: “Many Christians tend to paint Christian Life according to their own fancies.” One prays at midnight but his heart is full of hatred. Another lives soberly, not drinking and smoking, but lies about his neighbor. Another gives to charity but utters arrogant words to his servants. Another gives alms all around but shows no kindness to those around. Yet all believe they are living the Christian Life!

None of them are. Most Christians, St. Francis de Sales continues, are, in fact, living a way of life that is nothing more than a caricature or illusion of Christian Life.

The Commands of Christ That Make
Christian Living



In the Gospels, Christ gave commands; often He gave them in general form, summarized into one, two, or four commands. The best known generalized command is: “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.” Sometimes He gave them in specific form enumerating twenty to thirty commands, as in Matthew 5, 6, and 7.

Herein lies the genius of the so-called Fathers of the Church, more specifically, the Desert Fathers, saints shining in holiness and experts in the spiritual life. They describe Christian life in a very short but complete way. All their writings are preserved for us in the Apothegmata.

So, Christian Living can be described either in a few minutes, in a few hours, or in a lifetime, as monks study it in the monasteries.

 

I. The Young Rich Man.

       Why am I making such a big fuss about the commands of Christ? Because this is Christian Living and it is by these norms that we are saved or lost . . . and few seem to realize this.

The Gospel tells us of this story. A young rich man went to Christ and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?” This is what interests us also, isn’t it? It is the only reason why we are Catholics.

Well, Christ set three requirements. The first was the Ten Commandments of God. And, asked whether he had observed them, the young man answered, “Yes, Lord, from my youth.” From my youth . . . now, isn’t that something! Few of us can brag of having obeyed the 10 commandments from our youth.

The young man had evidently complied with the first requirement. But that was an Old Testament requirement.

The New Testament prescribed new requisites “. . . to have eternal life.” And so when the young man asked, “What else do I lack?”, Christ enumerated what he lacked-- the two New Testament requirements: first, to go home, sell all his things and give to the poor; and secondly, to “Come follow Me.”

These two New Testament requirements are examples of generalized commands of Christ. The second, “Come follow Me,” is, strictly speaking, Christian Living. The first, “Go home . . .," is a sort of prerequisite for Christian Living, which the young man could not or would not do, but which Mary, Martha and the Centurion, Cornelius, could do.

But for our purposes, let us consider the two commands making up Christian Living.

So, as we have mentioned, the first purpose of Christ’s commands is to preserve the graces we received at Baptism; and if we lose it, to restore the same. The commands of Christ are also designed to perfect us in the Life of Christ.

 

II. What Went Wrong With the Young Man.

What prevented the young man from following Christ? How come Mary, Martha and Cornelius could do it . . . and St. Agnes, St. Dominic Savio, and St. Aloysius Gonzaga . . . and even Abraham in the Old Testament?

Note that to “Go home, sell all . . .”, literally speaking, is not the New Testament requirement. This command was just a test by which the true state of the young man’s soul was revealed. Just as to sacrifice one’s first-born child was NOT an Old Testament requirement for salvation. It was merely a test by which the state of the soul of Abraham was revealed. The command given to the young man revealed a sick soul; the command given to Abraham revealed a righteous soul.

A sick soul cannot follow Christ; he must heal himself first. For the young man, the medicine was denying himself of his possessions: “ Go home, sell all . . .” To another young man, the medicine was not the same, but merely not to bury his father; to another, not to say goodbye to his relatives before following Christ.

Christ directed the command, “Come follow. . .” to many persons in the Gospels. When addressed to healthy souls like Matthew, Nathaniel and Peter, no prior medication was required of them. But when addressed to sick souls, an accompanying prior medication was required of them: to the young rich man, to sell all things; to another young man, not to bury his father; to another, not to say goodbye.  

We all know that Christ is inviting us to follow Him. Is His invitation with a pre-requisite, a prior medication? We must know, otherwise, neglecting this prior condition will make us unfit to follow Christ.

 

Christian Life
as Described by the Saints.


       We have seen how Christ described Christian Life in a summarized form. Let us now see how some saints described Christian Life, also in a summarized manner . . . and see if our way of life in anyway approaches their description.

St. Francis de Sales describes Christian Life as love of God shown by obedience to all His commands. Love of God, he continues, is like sugar. It sweetens our whole life; it removes bitterness from everything unpleasant; it removes grief from the oppressed, discontent from the poor, pride from the exalted, loneliness from the melancholic. It makes us use prosperity well and endure want patiently. Christian Life has no other purpose but that of pleasing God.

St. Augustine describes the whole life of a Christian as a lifting up of the heart, “Sursum Corda.” If your heart is focused on yourself or on the things of the world, then your heart is here below. We must lift our hearts up to heaven.

St. Gaudentius of Brescia describes the way of life of Christians after baptism thus: those who were baptized but already married are encouraged to possess their spouses as though they possess them not; to avoid drunkenness and that unworthy conviviality where the seductive gestures of evil-living women awaken unlawful desires; that the houses of Christians be refined, hospitable, and sanctified by earnest prayer with psalms and hymns and spiritual singing.

And he warns us that we will not stumble and are only safe if inside the Ark, the Church, after obeying all the commands of Christ.

St. John Chrysostom writes that the way of life is sweet and light. Then he adds, “Christian living entails renouncing the vanities of the world, riches and ornaments of gold.” And with St. Gregory of Nyssa, he continues that the Christian way of life is the way to wisdom and true doctrine.

St. Augustine, in his writing “On the Christian Life”, describes Christian Living in this way: “He must be holy in whose heart evil finds no room. He knows only how to bring help to all and does not know how to harm or injure anybody. He who has hurt or harmed another lies when he calls himself a Christian.”

St. Augustine continues: “Let no one decide that he is a Christian unless he both follows the teachings of Christ and imitates His example. Christian Living is one holy desire”. . . to be united with God. And so he is a Christian “of whom none would call anything his own.”

The above are some general descriptions of Christian Life. The only trouble with general descriptions is, we don’t know where to start. So Christ, the apostles and the saints explain all the commands in detail, reducing them into specific commands, telling us where to start, how to continue, and how to end.

To explain each command is a lengthy undertaking; time and space will not allow us to do it in this short treatise.

Internal Disorder


       We have seen how Christ gave the young man three commands-- one from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. The young man did the first well but could not do the second, thus, preventing him from doing the third, which is living the Christian Life.

Why did the young man turn his back to Christ? St. Clement of Alexandria attributes it to an INTERNAL DISORDER, something Mary, Martha, and Cornelius no longer had.

So when Christ gave the command, “Go home, sell . . .”, Christ was giving the prescription for the young man’s INTERNAL DISORDER. Since Mary, Martha, and Cornelius no longer had an internal disorder, they were not required to take the medicine, “Go home, sell . . .”

The commands of Christ are meant to cure our internal disorders, for a sick person can hardly walk, much less, follow Christ. To be able to live a Life in Christ, we must first remove our internal disorders. And in Christ’s above-mentioned command, the first two commands are meant to cure this internal disorder; the third is Christian Living.



What is this internal disorder?

St. Basil (Letters II, I, 5-13) describes it as wrong beliefs about the things of this world, attachment to the things of the world, excessive desire for these, or diseased excitement over the things of the world.

This disorder is internal and spiritual. Man carries it wherever he goes. St. Basil compares this illness to seasickness. No matter what ship you ride, you have it. Whether you are in the world or in a monastery, you have it. Except that, in the world, the illness gets worse; while monasteries are really meant to cure the illness.



What Causes This

St. Basil wrote: The eyes cannot see objects in front of it if they keep on moving left and right. So if with your spiritual eyes you keep on looking at worldly things, you will not see the way to Christian Living. The gaze must be firmly set on our goal if we must see it clearly. The mind is incapable of attending clearly to the truth if it is distracted by a host of worldly cares.

Imagine the countless worldly cares we have: the need to protect our families, the proper upbringing of our children, management of the house and servants, worry over money we lose or invest, litigations we must attend to . . . everyday fills our soul with darkness, and the night is spent worrying.

Such a mind has no space nor time for the doctrines of Christian Living. Basil insists: “It is impossible to write on a wax tablet without first erasing whatever is written on it. The command, “To deny yourself”, is the way to erase everything that is not of God from your soul so that God’s Life may be written on it.

Sadly, however, because of our attachment to the worldliness written on the tablet, we insist on writing Christ’s Life on it without erasing the old writings. Thus, our way of life becomes unreadable.

 

How To Erase

 To erase, according to St. Basil, is to rid the soul of all concerns for the physical, to call no nation or home as one’s own, to renounce human learning, to prepare the heart to receive the impressions of divine instructions. John states (2:15): “Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Our internal disorder consists in loving what is not supposed to be loved.


Solitude Is Needed for Erasing

"To deny oneself" is the way to erase; but solitude is needed, in the process, to erase the “old” and put on the “new.” Solitude helps to still the passions and make us see who we really are. The passions are easier to control if they are stilled by solitude and not stirred up by repeated provocations, as what happens in the world.

Solitude is needed for disciplined piety, and only with disciplined piety can Christian Living be attained. St. Basil describes solitude as the tongue not discussing the affairs of man, the eyes not looking at the beauty of figures, the ears not listening to pure pleasures, the mind not disturbed by the world of senses. With solitude, it is easier to rise up to the things of heaven.

But, you may ask, if everyone went into solitude, who will save the world? Ahhh, man! He always thinks he is the one saving the world.

So we have seen a general command, “To deny oneself,” and a specific command under it-- to go into solitude. Christ denied Himself and, as part of His self-denial, went into solitude. It is said He went to lonely places and spent the first 30 years of His life in solitude.


Going Back To the Young Man

It was his internal spiritual disorder that made the young man unable to follow Christ. His inability to go home and sell all his things were mere symptoms. The ‘going home and selling’ was to be his medicine.

Now, just as there is nothing marvelous in drinking an aspirin, there is nothing marvelous about a rich man giving everything to the poor. Pagans, criminals, and many others have done this for the mere acquisition of dead wisdom, empty fame and notoriety. To give up all things for unholy reasons, in fact, makes one worse. It makes the person arrogant, boastful, vain, and contemptuous. Such persons become twice more miserable--firstly, because they long for what they have given away, and secondly, because they regret having given it away (St. Basil, Letter II I, 5-13).

Commenting on the young man’s predicament, St. Clement of Alexandria says that the way you handle your possessions shows if you are ready to live a Christian Life or not. Do your possessions rule you or serve you? If you cannot leave them right now, they rule you. What was wrong with the young man? Was it the fact that he was rich? No. It was the infirmity of his soul that caused him to be unhealthily attached to his possessions rather than to Christ.

St. Basil concludes by saying that giving up all things brings no salvation. The command of Christ is to EXCISE or EXPEL from the soul everything alien to God. This is what Mary and Martha did. This is what the young man could not do; not that he could not give up his possessions but more because he could not give up his unhealthy attachment to his possessions.

St. Basil states that for the soul with an internal disorder, everything in the world brings spiritual death. To the soul cured of this disorder, everything is useful unto salvation. And so while everything was useful to Mary and Martha, everything was harmful for the young man. That’s the reason he was commanded to get rid of all harmful things, which in his case was everything he possessed. The world is like meat--beneficial to the healthy, harmful to the sick.

A sure sign that one has been rid of this internal disorder is cheerfulness in abundance and in want. The young man was sad at the mere thought of being in want.

A sure sign that we are already living the Christian Life is we “cannot sin (John 3:4) . . . nor are possessed of hatred for anyone.” For those who profess themselves to be Christians shall be recognized by their way of life. The beginning of their acts is love and the end of their acts is also love (St. Ignatius of Antioch).

Christian Life does not consist in the material things you can distribute around but in imitation of the excellence that is in Christ (St. Justin: First Apology).

Some Specific Commands


      
The general commands are too general; there is great danger of interpreting them according to one’s fancies. To prevent such personal, individual interpretation, Christ broke down the general commands into specific commands. These were further made more specific by the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church.

At the beginning of His ministry in Galilee (Matt.4), Christ gave His general commands in the Beatitudes (considered the eight degrees of holiness), then immediately went into specifics for the attainment of the FIRST beatitude, introducing it with this warning: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so . . .,” but also encouraging, saying: “Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Then He began to enumerate a few specific New Testament commands: “You have heard from your ancestors, i.e., the prophets, that whoever kills is liable to judgment ... but I say to you, whoever is angry (just being angry) will be liable to judgment. . . If you offer sacrifices and remember you are at odds with a brother . . . leave the altar and be reconciled . . .” showing that charity is superior to sacrifice.

“ It is said, do not commit adultery; but I say, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.”

Then, listen to these few distasteful commands. “When someone strikes you on the left cheek, turn the other one as well. . . If someone asks for your tunic, offer your cloak as well. . . . If someone presses you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.”

“If you love those who love you, what recompense will you have. Even the pagans can do that. . . Do not lay up treasures here on earth. . . Do not worry about .. . . what you will eat or drink or about your body, what you will wear . . . all these the pagans seek.”

St. Paul adds: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed . . . that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. . . Pay all your dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. . . 13:7).

The above are examples of specific commands found in Scriptures. Let’s see some specific commands reiterated by the Fathers of the Church.

St. Augustine, in his writing, “On the Christian Life,” enumerates the following specific commands:

He shows mercy to all.

He is not disturbed by any injury.

He does not allow the poor to be oppressed in his presence.

He is reduced to tears by the weeping of another.

His house is open to all and table served for all.

He lives poorly that he may be rich in the eyes of God.

He wishes to be of no account before men that he may be great before God.

The Shepherd of Hermas re-enumerated Christ’s commands thus:

The second command of Christ is, ‘Be simple and innocent and you shall be like children who do not know the evil that destroys the life of man and woman.’

“Those who listen to evil talk share in the sin of the speaker

“His twelfth command is: ‘Keep your heart pure by emptying it of the desires for this world . . . and you shall live in God.’

Collating the teachings of the Apostles, the Didache enumerates the command of Christ. Here are some:

"Keep clear of every evil person."

"Do not let your eyes wander because it leads to adultery."

"Do not be boastful or too fond of money for all these lead to theft."

"Do not grumble for this leads to blasphemy." Note the cause and effect: grumbling leads to blasphemy. Then ends with this warning: "You are not to neglect the Lord's commands but faithfully keep what you  have received, not adding to it or taking anything away...If you love Me keep my commandments..." This is the way of life...of Christians. 

For us to be ignorant of one or two commands is taking away; for us to add our fantasies is to add.

Here is a list of specific commands by St. Barnabas on some evil we must avoid:

                “Do not be unchaste by corrupting boys”

                “Do not procure abortion nor kill new-born children.”

               “Do not spoil your children”

                “Do not be a gossip.”

                “Do not abandon God’s commands.”

                “Do not exalt yourself.”

                “Do not be arrogant.”

                “Do not give harsh orders to your maid or servant.”
Then, like the Didache, he ends by saying: “Keep faithfully the commands you have received, neither adding to it nor taking it away.”


Conclusion

Christian Life and the world of worldliness are opposites, yet at first glance there is nothing noticeably different between them. But Christian Life is clearly not invented by some sharp or inquisitive mind or advocate of man-made dogmas; it reveals a wonderful and undeniably strange character of its citizenship. What is this?

The Christian seems at home yet far from home. Christians are citizens of the land but suffer like strangers. They get married but do not expose their offspring. They share their table for all but not their marriage bed. They walk on earth but live in heaven. They love all but are hunted down by all. Though poor, they make others rich. Lacking many things, they have an abundance of everything. Though dishonored, they gain much honor. They do good, yet are punished and falsely accused for doing evil. They are hated by many, though those who hate them cannot say why (Letter of Diognetus 101-112).

Is our way of life anything close to what we have just described?

If our life is truly Christian, St. Augustine says, not only must strangers find nothing to censure in us; they must find something to admire.

To be a man is common to us all; but to be a Christian distinguishes one from the other for he who is a Christian is superior to man, having become like unto God.

 

 

 

(updated 01-03-02)

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