The Connection between the Conscience,
Seeing the Will of God,
and Our Becoming Mystics
To students of the mystics, it is entirely expected that Pope Francis speaks of holiness, meekness, and humility at the same time that he speaks of mysticism and mystical knowledge of things Divine, of Godly realities.
Pope Francis knows that holiness and humility are the base, the foundation, of so many good things; and they are the necessary cornerstones of higher mystical understanding, and of a more mature relationship with the Holy Spirit, to which we are all invited and called especially today, in this time of Vatican II.
This is the second of three essays on the new Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. The first essay noted how Vatican II and Pope Saint John XXIII call all people to be more empowered and mature participants in the Second Pentecost, the New Pentecost, that is happening now, in this time of Vatican II:
The first essay also sketched the vast arc of the new Exhortation, by taking up Pope Francis’ frequent citations (nine times) from the First and Second Letters of Peter. It noted how Pope Francis is following Saint Peter in outlining the human path to a more holy (and therefore more Spiritual) humanity. Early in his first letter, Peter makes, as we saw, a fascinating development of a verse from Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16) Then, early in his second letter, Peter tells us that we are to be participants in God’s own nature. (2 Peter 1:4) Obviously, a tremendous amount of progress is intended to occur in the course of our growth, according to St. Peter, for us to grow from the pursuit of holiness all the way to sharing in God’s own nature. In addition to being the leader of the Apostles, and the first Pope, Peter also has left us two precious letters that are Scripture.
A question may arise: How do we get from acting in virtuous and humble and holy ways, all the way to being participants in God’s own nature? How is it that we become mystics, as Karl Rahner, a primary theologian of Vatican II, urges us to become? Why does Pope Francis speak about mystical mysteries and mystical saints at the same time that he discusses holiness, humility, and meekness?
This second essay will take up these questions. It will begin by returning to the letters of Peter, and presenting an amazing discovery of a literary technique that Peter weaves into his writing, showing how humanity progresses from the pursuit of “holiness” to becoming “partakers in the Divine nature.” Then, the essay will show developments similar to Peter’s are also occurring in the Letter to the Hebrews and in the Acts of the Apostles.
Then we shall turn directly to Gaudete et Exultate, to observe Pope Francis’ superb development of these themes from the New Testament.
How the Letters of Saint Peter Show Us the Path
To a More Profound Union with God
As a prelude to the discussion of Peter’s letters, let’s review a trajectory of holiness that was discussed in the previous essay:
-This time, today, now, is the time of Vatican II. Pope Saint John XXIII said that the time of Vatican II is a New Pentecost, a new immediacy of relationship with the Holy Spirit (we will discuss this below).
–Holiness strengthens and illuminates and cleanses our conscience.
-Our conscience is the primary organ with which we communicate directly with the Holy Spirit.
-Communicating directly with the Holy Spirit, we shall transform the world in the best and most beautiful ways. Karl Rahner, an influential theologian at Vatican II, said that the future Christian will be a mystic. This is happening today, thank God.
From these four points, let’s take the middle two points, which are the arc of trajectory of personal development in the faith:
–Holiness strengthens and illuminates and cleanses our conscience.
-Our conscience is the primary organ with which we communicate directly with the Holy Spirit.
This practicing of holiness, which leads first to the refinement of our conscience, and then to a more direct participation in God’s life and being, are a hidden thematic development of Peter’s letters. This is also an important, though quiet, trajectory of development in Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation.
Gaudete et Exsultate mentions the conscience twice, in the final paragraphs of the document. The First Letter of Peter mentions conscience three times. Yet throughout Peter’s first letter, our conscience has a hidden companion. Let’s begin our survey of Peter’s first letter:
Pairs of Terms in Peter’s First Letter
The second verse of the First Letter of Peter speaks of our sanctification (our being made holy) and of our obedience. There is not yet any discussion of mystical realities or special participation in the being of God, or of working directly with the Holy Spirit. This emphasis on holiness and the living of the rudiments of our faith appears also in Gaudete et Exsultate, where cognates of “holy” appear at least 133 times in the English translation. In translations of the document in other languages, where, for example, the word “saint” is cognate with “holy,” there are over 200 appearances of words related to “holiness” in the Exhortation.
So from the outset, there is a great emphasis on practicing personal holiness, and on making strong, morally good choices. The same emphasis and reality is in the Bible’s letters of Peter. Saint Peter is going to show us the potential spectrum of development of holiness in our life, if we catch what he is doing.
He promises that by living a holy life, we shall begin to see “things into which angels long to look.” (1 Peter 1:12) Peter then tells us to get ready for a contest, or a battle (1:13) that will be fought largely in our minds/souls. He urges us to “be holy yourselves in all your conduct.” (1:15) Then comes his amazing improvement of the verse from Leviticus, “Be holy, for I am holy,” which was discussed in the first essay. (1:16)
Peter next speaks of a preliminary arrival, an early stage of advance, as if to a way station, or a base camp at the foot of a mountain that is to be climbed:
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1:22-23) This purity of love is not milquetoast. Rather, purity speaks of strengthened love, and of the growing strength of the person’s will to love well. This also shows that the person’s ascent to join more deeply into the “nature of God” is a journey with various parts. Peter’s letters take us through some of these stages.
First, he urges us to become purified, to become holy. Obedience is a large part of this. And Peter and Pope Francis are in agreement that this obedience is not merely to God and God’s rules, but also to a sincere love of the people in our community. The root of the word “obedience” is obedire, “listen.”
Also, obedience is a way of connecting our individual wills with a larger body. This is very important to the discussion of Peter’s letters that we are now beginning.
Obedience has further revelations: By listening and obeying the rules of our communities, and listening and performing the more nuanced requests of the community, we prepare ourselves for a deeper listening to the Holy Spirit. This shall be instrumental in developing our direct communication with the Holy Spirit.
Peter’s Literary-Mystical Way
Peter is going to show us precisely how this mystical ability to listen more deeply to the Holy Spirit develops in us. For the rest of his first letter, beginning in Chapter Two, he is going to present us with hidden pairs. We will discuss four hidden pairs of words in his first letter.
The first three of these hidden pairs place “God’s will” and our human “conscience” into a relationship with each other. It turns out that each person’s individual conscience has the capacity to become more thoroughly engaged with the Will of God, and this is the optimum development in every way. The fourth pair also has “God’s will,” but the term “conscience” will be replaced by something else.
These pairs have remained largely hidden for the last 1900 years. Let’s bring them into the light of this time of Vatican II and discuss them.
The First Hidden Pair
The first pair happens in Chapter Two. The will of God appears first. Peter writes, “For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of the foolish men.” (2:15) Peter calls us not to mystical intervention, but to simple good behavior, as a way of overcoming evil and strengthening community. This is God’s will for us, which we are free to obey, thereby having actual positive effects on our community and world.
Additionally, by having these first, slight thoughts about “God’s will,” the growing morally-awakened person is beginning to think of the larger picture, and of the greater community, and the good of the community. This is foundational for further growth in the Faith.
Right after this verse, Peter gives us specific instructions, such as “Live as servants of God. Honor all people. Love the community. Fear God [=have awe of God-given processes in life].” (2:16b-17a)
Continuing along this trajectory of development, Peter then presents the letter’s first appearance of conscience: “For one is approved if, conscience towards God, she/he endures pain while suffering unjustly.” (2:19) This shows that our conscience has vital early growth when it treats God’s goals as our own personal goals. We choose to have external good goals that are like God’s goals for us. Although our nature has not yet merged with God, nonetheless, our goals can certainly try to emulate the goals of God, and what God encourages us towards.
Pope Francis has echoes of this at many points throughout Gaudete et Exsultate, including in the title itself, which is taken from the end of the Beatitudes, at Matthew 5:12, where Jesus tells us to “rejoice and be glad” when we are reviled and persecuted on Jesus’ account. (Mt 5:11) So at this point of the letter there is no mystical insight in the faithful traveler’s experience, but there is much communal work to do, some of which may be difficult and painful. Experience tells us that authentic love develops in us when we engage this work; however, Peter will wait longer before showing us further fruit of this labor.
The Second Hidden Pair
The second appearance of this pair, “God’s will” and “conscience,” appears in Chapter Three. Peter says, “Keep your conscience clear [literally, “keep your conscience good”], so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” (3:16) This sounds somewhat like verse 2:15 above, except that “conscience” has replaced “God’s will.” This replacement of “God’s will” with “conscience” is a miniature picture of the transformation that Peter is secretly presenting in the ongoing human development through his two letters.
Although “conscience” has just taken the place of “God’s will,” in the next verse we see that “God’s will” comes right back, mirroring how closely “God’s will” and our human “conscience” can operate together: “For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong.” (3:17)
By his suffering Christ was made “alive in the Spirit.” (3:18) Christ wants to “bring us to God.” (3:18) There are hints here of Baptism, which will be much more emphasized in the amazing appearance of Noah’s Ark in Peter’s letters.
The Center of the Four Pairs: Noah’s Ark
On the Ark were Noah and his three sons, and their wives. There were four pairs of people, four couples, eight people, on the Ark. Peter intentionally says the number “eight souls” during his discussion of the Ark at the end of Chapter 3 of his first letter. In his second letter, Peter says the word “eighth,” while again speaking of the Ark. (2 Peter 2:5) Pope Francis mentions the word “eighth” in the Exhortation. (Paragraph 115) We will discuss this below and in the third essay of this series.
The four pairs of “souls” echo the four word-pairs that we are tracing through Peter’s letter.
Baptism is a great new beginning for us humans. We appeal to God for a clean conscience (among many other realities of the Sacrament). So too in the Exhortation, Pope Francis is exhorting us to think about the function of our conscience (see Paragraphs 169 and 174, to be discussed below). We can reflect on our conscience. We can realize how vitally important our own conscience is to our ongoing journey. We can learn to listen to our own conscience. We may learn that our conscience has far more functions than we previously knew.
The four pairs will return many times in the rest of our discussion in this essay, and in the next essay, which discusses mystical Realities in the New Testament, and in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, and in the Book of Psalms.
The Third Hidden Pair
The discussion of Baptism flows directly to the third appearance of “conscience.” (3:21)
In the second pair, we saw that the human “conscience” took the place of the “will of God.” As a further development, in the third pair, the “will of God” enters into the conscious life of the emerging human person, in the area of the human conscience and spirit. The conscience is meant to reign here, and through our conscience, the Holy Spirit. Our relationship with God deepening, and our conscience becoming healthier and stronger, the Holy Spirit tells us the will of God in more specific and direct and helpful ways. Our conscience conveys to us the direct messages of the Holy Spirit when we have entered into this phase of our Spiritual life!
And again, this is an invitation, ever fresh, ever waiting for those who have not entered into this phase of life quite yet. We might say that the will of God merges with our individual conscience/spirit’s awareness more and more frequently, seamlessly, and painlessly.
Concluding the discussion of Noah’ Ark and baptism, Peter restates Paul’s sayings about how our baptism allows us to participate in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ:
“And baptism, which this (Noah’s Ark) prefigures, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” (3:21-22)
After our deeper Spiritual “Baptism” in the Holy Spirit, we see that our human conscience is very much more clearly involved in dialogue with heavenly realities. Our conscience, with its heightened powers of awareness, places us in greater dialogue with the Realities of Heaven and of God. This is what Saint Peter is saying. So many references in Gaudete et Exsultate point to this as well. This is what Pope Francis wants to get us aware of.
Observing the great developments that the suffering of Christ did for Christ himself and for humanity, Peter then asks us to emulate the suffering of Christ: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by mortal lusts but by the will of God.” (4:1-2)
Humanity has progressed so very far: we can both know and do the will of God, and we can live by the will of God. (See John 4:32-34) This is a momentous development. Our awareness of our connection to greater Realities is growing. Our conscience is connected to the Risen Christ, and therefore to his Holy Spirit, which he sent to earth, directly to us, after his Ascension. With this empowered conscience, now guided far more directly by the Holy Spirit of Christ, we can better know and perform God’s will.
Yet note how this progression is not empowered by magical formulae or secret incantations. Rather, the progress is connected to our suffering, suffering that happens when we are truly participating in the Body of Christ, the koinonia, the community. To drive this point home, cognates of “suffer” appear 16 times in 1 Peter. The mystical path involves immersion into the Body of Christ, and into our Baptism, and this will necessarily involve suffering. Additionally, there are a number of other terms that are connected to suffering as well, but they are from other word groups, not directly cognate with “suffering.” In fact, “suffering” has been a word that is found in the first three pairs of ‘conscience’ and ‘will of God’; and “suffering” will also appear at the fourth pair. More than a glue, suffering is a unifying cross that unites us to God. (Paul sees our human suffering as connected to the cross of Christ, and he sees the Cross of Christ as unifying and connecting all good things in Reality: “May I never boast of anything except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14))
In this third pair, Peter speaks more deeply of the inner workings of the human person. He speaks of powerful deep drives of eros and sexuality, the misfiring of which is connected with lust. This shows how the process of purifying our conscience includes the wrestling with our will that happens as we overcome lust. The cross is again central here. Jesus, on the cross, says in John’s Gospel, “I thirst.” One meaning of this is that Jesus has achieved a fiercely true eros for humanity. Purifying our love is strengthening our love. And our suffering is a purifying fire that strengthens our love.
[Let’s not be overfocused on suffering, however. Suffering is not meant to be permanent, although some people seem to have more of it than others. Saint Mother Teresa suffered much, but also had radiant joy.]
By living holy lives, and by becoming ever-more-empowered members of the Body of Christ, the Church, we begin to live in the Spirit, according to God.
The Word of God, the Gospel, is preached to the world, and even to the dead. By allowing it to work in us, we better enact our Baptism: “For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the Spirit as God does.” (4:6; and see again 3:18)
Peter is emphatic that our life in the Spirit is rooted not in pie-in-the-sky pseudo-mystical weirdness, but in concrete participation in the community, the Church, the Body of Christ, which includes loving all people and caring for the poor: “Discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” (4:7b-8) While focusing on the new presence of the Holy Spirit, and teaching us about this wonderment, Peter is always exhorting us to good behavior and caring communal awareness. (This is quite the opposite of how gnostics and Pelagians act, against which Pope Francis warns us in Chapter Two of the Exhortation.)
This “constant love for one another” is also the message of the letters of both John and Paul, and of all the New Testament, especially the Gospels and Acts. When we arm ourselves with this “same mind” as Christ (4:1), we always love and consider the community: “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (4:10) We are to be empowered with Spiritual gifts and greater dynamic power in community; this power comes from God, and our mind is to be always more focused and aligned with God: “whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” (4:11)
The rest of Chapter 4 speaks more of suffering that we will experience as we enter more deeply into the Body of Christ, and participate more deeply: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (4:12) No, this suffering is to be fully expected. It’s simply an organic part of what it means for a person to be progressively worked deeper into the Body of Christ, and to become an empowered and functioning member of the Body of Christ. When you join the Church, expect that there will be trials in addition to the grace and light. We cannot have one without the other. On the positive side, know that the grace and light will always come, at many points along the journey.
Then, Peter, echoing the “9th Beatitude” of Matthew 5:12, tells us: “But rejoice in so far as you are sharing (koinoneite, cognate with koinonia, ‘community’) Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13) Rejoice and Be Glad is the title of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation. Peter’s letter echoes the words from Matthew that are the title of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation. Peter’s next verse is an actual Beatitude: “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed/happy, because the Spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.” (4:14) Today, the Spirit of God is resting upon the entire Church, desiring to lead us more deeply in the light of Vatican II.
The Fourth Hidden Pair
Peter urges us to obey the Gospel, which includes listening to its fullness. (4:17) We will enter yet more deeply into relationship with God: “Therefore, let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a loving Creator.” (4:19) Here we are, near the end of the Bible, talking about our ability as Christian persons to participate ever more deeply in the actual Will of God! This is the only path forward for our evolution. So why does Peter suddenly fly back to the first page of the Bible, and speak of God as a “loving Creator?!”
The answer is shocking. We are being invited to begin to imitate the life of the Trinity, and to enter into God’s own creative power! When “God’s will” appears here for the fourth and final time in Peter’s letter, at 4:19, there is no corresponding “conscience” as we have become accustomed to expect by now. Of course Peter did not forget to add it. Rather, “conscience” has been replaced by a tripartite development of the human person who is living the Christian life! Here is a tremendous metamorphosis in the Christian person who has learned to participate more deeply in the Body of Christ, in the community, in the Church:
“Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly (ekousios), as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly (prothumos). Not as lording it over the allotments, but becoming examples to the flock (tupoi ginomenoi tou poimniou). And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.” (5:1-4)
For the experienced Christian who truly lives in the Spirit, our conscience transforms into a direct conduit between our will and God’s will. Our will merges with God’s will, in a glorious process of patient steady growth. This is demonstrated by the three terms that show how the mature Christian has blossomed into an adult agent of the Church, becoming a fully functional and participating member of the Body of Christ, looking out for entire community, reflecting goodness to each individual whom they encounter.
This is what Saint Peter is teaching us.
This is what Pope Francis is teaching us.
And this is the way to live the Church of Vatican II.
The Second Letter of Peter will begin to sketch what a Spiritual, humble, and loving humanity will look like. Peter shows us this by, for the first time in his writing, describing actual mystical developments in people’s lives.
Mystical Developments for Humanity in Peter’s Second Letter
What happens when, by living lives of holiness and authenticity, we begin to hear the calls and directions of the Holy Spirit through our conscience? What happens when we begin to more deeply know the Will of God, and so become co-creators with God in the ongoing Creation?
We begin to be more authentically Spiritual. Spiritual gifts are given to us.
First, let’s finish our discussion of the First Letter of Peter by noting how Peter, after showing us the tremendous metamorphosis of humanity that can happen when we have empowered consciences, places yet further stress on humility and diligence.
He mentions humility three times, another triple emphasis. (5:5-6) He warns us to “Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” (5:8)
Even in his first letter there are many hints about mystical realities, while Peter maintains a veil of regular normality about these things. For example, he says, at the end of some verses telling us to resist the devil, to “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brother-and-sisterhood throughout the world.” (5:9) All the way back in 60 A.D., Peter mentions global Christianity! And he mentions knowledge of similar experiences shared among this global Christianity, this Body of Christ. In this case, the shared experience is suffering. [It may happen that a somewhat advanced form of mystical participation in the Body of Christ is being able to understand how the suffering of the world is allocated among humanity, especially among the more connected members of the Body of Christ. (Another form of shared experience, not directly mentioned by Peter here, is being able to share thoughts, knowledge, and sense experience via something like telepathy. And there are other forms of mystical sharing in the Body of Christ too.)]
Yet the work always remains God’s, who shares with us: “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” (5:10-11)
In his second letter, as we shall see, Peter begins to discuss mystical experience more explicitly and openly.
A hint of this development is in the discussion of the forms of knowledge that appear at the beginnings of both letters. The first letter mentions the “foreknowledge (pro-gnosin, 1 Peter 1:2) of God the Father” in the second verse of the letter. The entire thrust of the early part of the letter is on what God has done for us.
In his second letter, it seems that God is sharing God’s own divine knowledge with us. Three times in the first 8 verses of the letter, Peter prays for our knowledge and tells us how we grow in the “full knowledge,” epi-gnosin, of God. Knowledge of God is how we grow. This already is showing a process of us being given admittance to God’s own Knowledge, including mystical knowledge. This triple development of pro-gnosin into epi-gnosin mirrors the triple development of “conscience” (suneidesin) into “willingly” (ekousios), “readily” (prothumos), and the transformation into “examples for the flock” (tupoi ginomenoi). (1 Peter 5:2-3)
Centered within these three appearances of this “full knowledge” that God is giving to us, there is one of the most remarkable verses of the New Testament. As was discussed in the first essay, Peter tells us that we are being invited to become participants in, “partakers of God’s own nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) But this is astounding. God, as a reward for our growth, is granting us the possibility of participating not merely in God’s own knowledge, but also in God’s own nature.
Do you see how this gradual metamorphosis is described, beginning in Peter’s First Letter, by the slow merging of our human conscience (and will) with the will of God? The growth proceeds to the point where the leaders of the Community, the various shepherds (which can certainly include laity today) develop a concern and consciousness for the entire flock; leaders become cognizant for a much larger part of the Body of Christ, as they “lose” themselves, or merge themselves, into a larger body. The result of this glorious process of growth is not merely that our volition is in harmony with God’s volition, as wondrous as that is, no—God wants to give us far more. We are then called farther forward, to participate in God’s own nature!
Immediately after this amazing pronouncement, Peter gives us another image of the process of our joining into the nature of God. He paints the picture of a Staircase, or a Ladder:
For this very reason, you must bring all diligence [or “every effort”] to support your
Faith with virtue,
And your virtue with knowledge,
And your knowledge with self-control,
And your self-control with patience,
And your patience with godliness,
And your godliness with brother-and-sisterly love (philadelphian),
And your brother-and-sisterly love with [Divine] Love, (Agape).
–2 Peter 1:5-7
As St. John says twice, “God is Love (Agape).” (1 John 4:8, 16) So here in his second letter, Peter is again telling us to participate in the Love that is God, or, in God’s own nature. (The First Letter of John follows the Second Letter of Peter in the canonical order of the Bible, and these two great Christian writers share many themes. In fact, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, the Letter to the Hebrews, share these themes.)
Notice that in this developmental Ladder, there are 8 terms from “Faith,” at the beginning, to “Love (Agape),” at the end. When we include “diligence,” there are 9 terms. We shall return to this in the third essay.
Peter continues by stressing the importance of our own action now, not merely the Divine initiation of Creation: “For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.” (2 Peter 1:11) We give thanks to God for everything, but it is up to us to get with the program and enter into heaven. We must strengthen and direct our will, connected with our ability to properly love, guided by our developing conscience (through which we communicate with the Holy Spirit), if we are to enter the “eternal kingdom,” which is heaven, the kingdom of God.
Verse 1:4, discussing our participating in “the nature of God,” shows us the goal of this journey in capsule form. The progressions elaborated in 1 Peter, which we discussed above, and the 9-part Ladder of 2 Peter 1:5-7, show us longer and more articulated images of our journey.
The Second Letter of Peter continues its discussion of things that are more overtly mystical. In verse 1:14, Peter shares with us some of his own mystical experience, namely, how “Our Lord Jesus Christ” showed Peter that he would die soon. In this, Peter is like a new Moses. The Torah, evidently, includes Moses writing into it his own death. (Dt 32:50; 34:5) In the next verse, 1:15, the connection with Moses continues, as Peter speaks of his “departure,” exodon, which is cognate with the word “exodus.” Jesus himself spoke of his imminent exodus on with Moses and Elijah on Mt. Tabor. (Luke 9:31)
Jesus is the new and best Moses. Jesus is a new Moses combined with the Burning Bush, where God said his verb-name, “I AM.” Moses was also a shepherd at the time he saw the Burning Bush. However, as 1 Peter 5:4 speaks of Jesus as the Chief Shepherd, we who are leaders in the Body of Christ are also shepherds, and we are also truly meant to be Moses-like leaders for the community, no matter what our official roles are. As we grow in the Faith, we are all leaders. We should not be surprised by what Peter is saying here, speaking of Christians being of a higher stature than Moses. Jesus himself says that those IN the kingdom of God shall be greater than John the Baptist, whom Jesus said was the greatest prophet. (Luke 7:28) Is Saint Peter saying too much? Well, as Peter will say a few verses later, Peter himself was told to write this (1:21), as we will discuss below.
Peter next speaks of how, on the “holy mountain” where Jesus’ Transfiguration occurred, he and the two other disciples heard the voice of the “Majestic Glory of God the Father” speaking a word to Jesus, saying, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (1:17) As we become deeper participants in the Body of Christ, and in the nature of God, God the Father will say to all of us that we are his beloved children.
The privileged disciples heard this voice directly from heaven. (1:18)
This is one of the places outside of the Gospels where we are told of Divine events in the life of Jesus.
The next verse of 2 Peter shows us this personal fulfillment of the prophetic messages of the Scriptures being fulfilled in our own individual lives. And Peter says this in a beautiful way: “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (1:19)
The mystically-laden discourse continues. Peter speaks of his own personal experience as an author of Sacred Scripture, and of the experience of all authors of Scripture; and in doing so he humbly returns to the previous letter’s discussion of will and the Holy Spirit: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came into being by human will, but holy people of God, borne along by the Holy Spirit, spoke (it).” (1:20-21)
This process of becoming “borne along by the Holy Spirit” is the subject of the above reflection of 1 Peter.
The first chapter of this Second Letter of Peter has already had far more overt discussion of mystical matters than did the entire First Letter of Peter. And this is how Peter planned it, to show the fruit of our life’s ongoing relationship with the Holy Spirit. All people’s lives are meant to become gospels.
And just as Saint Peter does, so too does Pope Francis write a beautiful organic text that combines humility, meekness, and human holiness, with sets of stunning new hints of authentic mystical Reality.
We have treated Peter’s letters at some length because of the Apostolic Exhortation’s powerful resonance with these Petrine letters. Let us now, after two more words, turn to Gaudete et Exsultate.
The same judicious development of themes discussed by Peter continues throughout the Apostolic Exhortation. The discussion of meekness, humility, and personal moral goodness and holiness are always in close proximity to these discussions of more hidden, mystical Realities.
How the Letter to the Hebrews Shares
The “Conscience” and “Will of God” Theme with 1 Peter
In another stunning New Testament development, the Letter to the Hebrews shares in the fascinating pairing of the human conscience and the will of God. In Chapter 9 and 10, this letter has three appearances of conscience, followed by three appearances of the will of God. After this triple alignment, there will be two pairs of individual appearances of conscience and the will of God.
Chapter 9 of Hebrews begins with a caring discussion of the how the old tent of meeting, and the temple after it, were very limited. The old tent of meeting, which started during the exodus (mythically, anyway), is already long in the distant past for the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. However, the tent serves as a “parable” for the old stone temple, the second of which was standing in the time of the first Christians, a temple that was to be destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 C.E. The old stone temple and its systems of sacrifices are long outdated and wrong for the time of the New Testament, the Age of Christ. The stone temples of Jerusalem had blood sewer systems to remove the blood from the hundreds (thousands during festivals) of daily sacrifices there. This is strongly expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews author’s discussing the old systems of sacrifices, which “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right.” (Heb 9:9b-10)
The human person replaces the temple as the dwelling place of God after the first Feast of Pentecost. As Paul says, “You are the temple of God” (1 Cor 3:16) and “Your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit within you.” (1 Cor 6:19) The impermanence of the old stone temple was actually inscribed in the Scriptures at its founding. Both in 1 Kings 8 and the parallel account in 2 Chronicles 6, the prayers of Solomon and the building of the temple are replete with language about the human heart. The heart is at once the center and the totality of the human person. (Gaudete et Exultate mentions the “heart” about 48 times.) A chrysalis adjacent to the heart is the conscience, which blossoms in the Christ Event. (Importantly, the word conscience appears twice in Gaudete et Exsultate, near the very finale of the document, as we shall discuss below.) And as discussed above, with the Pentecost and the formidable new presence of the Holy Spirit, the conscience is the place where the human person hears the still small voice of the Holy Spirit, and learns to be a more empowered human agent of the Holy Spirit. The Letter to the Hebrews is showing how the human conscience is a great advance in humanity’s spiritual evolution, and is far more important than the old stone temple. A few verses later we hear: “ . . . how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the Living God!” (Heb 9:14)
The letter mentions the Holy of Holies; however, the author is boldly saying that the Holy of Holies is now the human soul, among whose central chambers is the conscience! This is why the conscience is such an important word in the New Testament, but doesn’t exist in the Old Testament.
To drive the point home, the author states, “Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have a conscience (confounded by) sin?” (Heb 10:1-2)
In these verses we have seen the first three appearances of conscience in the letter. Next, we shall have three appearances of the will of God. The first of these is brilliantly taken from Psalm 40, which says,
Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
But a body you have prepared for me;
In burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come
To do your will, oh God’
(In the scroll of the book
it is written for me.)” -Heb 10:5b-7
Then, to Biblically underscore its great importance, the author repeats the Psalm’s phrase, “See, I have come to do your will.” (Heb 10:9a)
The author continues, “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by that (God’s) will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb 10:9b-10)
The three initial appearances of conscience are spread out over much of Chapter 9 and the first verses of Chapter 10. However, once Jesus Christ comes and purifies our conscience through Baptism (see 10:5), the parallel initial three appearances of the will of God come to us very quickly, in just 4 verses (10:7-10).
This parallels historical fact. Humanity needed many millennia of development to arrive at a more empowered conscience. Today, however, our conscience provides us tremendous amounts of guidance, regarding the will of God.
In the next appearance of this same pair of words, the conscience again comes first. This time, it is preceded by the human heart, a human heart that has finally become true: “Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Heb 10:22) Like Peter, the unknown author of Hebrews stresses the vital realities of community and charity that permanently reside on the Christian Way: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Heb 10:24) Baptism is also central for both Biblical authors.
Some verses later we again hear the matching appearance of the will of God, and how God’s will strengthens us in preparation for the reception of further gifts from God, and even for the encounter with God: “For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” (Heb 10:36) This concludes the fourth appearance of both “conscience” and “will of God” in the letter, and the first individual pairing of these words.
The final pair of these words occur in the final verses of the letter. After a discussion of the communal leadership that is reminiscent of 1 Peter 5, there is an emphasis on community and conscience: “Pray for us; we are sure that we have a clear [good] conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you all the more to do this, so that I may be restored to you very soon.” (Heb 13:18-19)
Directly following this, in the benediction, is the final discussion of the Divine will: “Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Heb 13:20-21)
Notice the shepherd language that echoes the final chapter of 1 Peter. Additionally, as Hebrews closes with the blood of the Paschal lamb, so too does 1 Peter begin with that sprinkled blood.
This shows how the 5 appearances of conscience are carefully paired with the 5 appearances of the will of God in the Letter to the Hebrews.
Just as Pope Francis has many quotations from 1 Peter in the Exhortation, so too does he have a number of quotations from the Letter to the Hebrews. In fact, the very first words of Chapter 1 of the Exhortation are: “The Letter to the Hebrews presents a number of testimonies that encourage us . . . “ (Paragraph 3)
Paul, in Acts of the Apostles
This pairing of conscience and the will of God appears again in Acts of the Apostles, in a more understated way. The will of God is mentioned in Acts 21:14, and again at 22:14. Both instances involve Saint Paul. In the second telling of Paul’s conversion story, Luke has Ananias say to Paul, “the God of our fathers appointed you to know his will.” (Acts 22:14).
The phrase “will of God” disappears from Acts after this, to be replaced twice by Paul’s own “conscience.” In 23:1 he speaks from his “good conscience.” In 24:16, Paul says “And in this I exercise myself to have always a blameless conscience toward God and people.”
Space prohibits us from exploring this further here, but one may instantly see connections to the letters of Peter and the Letter to the Hebrews.
How is the Conscience Connected to the Will of God?
This consideration of 1 Peter, Hebrews, and Acts begs the question: So, how are the conscience and the will of God connected? Although we have already considered this question above, let us look at it anew from a different perspective. Let us consider practical applications of our new-found discovery of the “will of God,” or the voice of the Holy Spirit, being given directly to us.
In times past, the conscience was often merely considered to be a very simple indicator, an internal traffic light that told us to go or to stop. Here is an example of how it worked: Let’s say a young person has a decision to make that is bigger than usual decisions, and which is not totally clear. The decision the person faces causes some unease, some moral discomfort. Should the person do it or not? The “conscience,” according to the usual understanding, would then step in, giving the person permission to do the act, or, slamming on the brakes, and telling the person “No, don’t do it.” The conscience might have had an additional role: After the decision, if the wrong decision was made by the person, then the conscience sent guilt to the moral offender.
This description of the conscience is perhaps accurate, but it is very, very partial and misses realms of roles that the conscience can learn to participate in fully.
What if the conscience is the intelligent window within the soul through which we communicate with the Holy Spirit? And when a person is in a good moral state, and when that person has met the Holy Spirit and learned how to work with the Holy Spirit—what if the conscience can then develop further, and become the organ by which the will of God is constantly being transmitted to us? And, over time, what if the conscience, its strength being constantly increased by a person’s good decisions, becomes a constant reliable indicator of the will of God—provided that we are also receiving constant guidance and input from the community.
Let’s see how much this can empower and enable a person to become an active agent of the Holy Spirit now, in this life.
Let’s do this by considering the difference between “law” and the “will of God.” The “laws” that we have to deal with are usually proscriptive: “Don’t do that!” “Stop!” “Doing that action is forbidden!” “You must turn right here, you cannot turn left!” As we know, these laws are very helpful for society.
However, laws that modify our behavior are not the crowning achievement of individuals or of society. And this is precisely where the growth and evolution of our consciences has so often become bogged down. Our conscience is not merely a law-applier, an internal judge that says “Go” or “Stop.”
The will of God, however, is tailored to individuals. It is positive. It is most concerned with our growth as individuals and as a community. It is concerned with our ability to help other people, for the will of God can lead us to help other people in far more effective ways than we can help them if left to our own lights, even if we have vast experience already in helping other people. There is an amazingly wide spectrum of ways in which the will of God can help us in powerful ways. In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis quotes 1 Thess 4:3, saying, “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (Paragraph 19). It is good to know that God’s will is our sanctification. This also makes us more enthusiastic to do God’s will.
So God’s will is for us. God’s will is helping us. God’s will leads us all the way to that summit of Divine-human sharing, as 2 Peter 1:4 says, in which we become “partakers in God’s nature.” So following God’s will is in our best interest, since our best interest is precisely what God wills. God loves us. God desires our authentic growth. God’s will actually does lead us in the best and most efficient avenues of our growth.
Laws are helpful, but they are not nearly as fulsome as the will of God is. If a person merely obeys laws but doesn’t practice much love and share much life in their earthly time, then their growth, in the eyes of God, might be much less than it could have been. The person may have avoided serious trouble by obeying the various laws one finds in life, but the person didn’t do much, especially by way of neighborly love, and contributing to the wider community.
However, what if a person can actually be led by the will of God, given to us by Holy Spirit? What if the Holy Spirit could say to you, “Hi, turn left at the next street. Now turn right. Keep going for a bit. Now turn left again down that side street. There, see that person by the dumpster?” You see a person slumped over and bloodied. The Spirit says, “I’m out. You’ve got it from here, friend.” And you quickly discover that the person by the dumpster has just been mugged and you later learn that this person has been going through a rough time in recent months. You help the person, and you then invite the person to your Church. Their life blossoms and they rediscover themselves and joyfully set off down the road of faith.
This might seem contrived, but exactly these sorts of events, in the Spirit, happen frequently in the lives of many people in the Church today.
In the above incident, if you had merely obeyed the laws, you might have gone home that afternoon and made yourself a cup of tea. Instead, by being able to discern the still small voice of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Kings 19:11-13), you saved a soul and greatly empowered the Body of Christ by bringing that person into the Body of Christ. And by bringing salvation to that person, you powerfully helped create and extend the Kingdom of God, on earth, now and in the future.
Do you see the difference between the person who merely obeys laws, and the person who has become an agent of the Holy Spirit? Both are good. But the one who becomes an agent of the Holy Spirit can bring home a tremendous bounty of fruit, the good earth of Mark 4 that produces 100-fold.
Most stories are not this simple, as our lives tend to be more complex these days, but some stories are that simple. And there are myriad other examples.
After my Spiritual awakening, when I was a teacher in the inner city of New York, an abuela (grandmother) who was a wisdom figure in the neighborhood was walking towards me when I left the school one evening. She engaged me in conversation, and said, “The Spirit sent me here right now.” She then told me that a particular person was going through a rough time and that I should seek him out and counsel him. Having asked around, with some ‘hints’ from above, I found him an hour later. He was indeed going through a rough time, and we talked. He emerged from the conversation happier and focused. Now, this fellow was, physically, a very strong young man. Weeks later, he told me that at that moment when I found him, he was mere seconds away from having gone to a local drug dealer and becoming part of his gang. (The dealer had offered him a lucrative job, both as a junior dealer and as muscle. If he had gone to meet the dealer, he would have walked away with a wad of franklins, becoming an instant Mr. Bling. He would then likely have been out of touch, from my perspective, for months or years, or until disaster struck him.) The conversation that I had with him had stopped him from introducing that great harm into his life. But it was not me who did it. It was the Body of Christ, through which great amounts of grace flow from the Holy Spirit, and the abuelita, and, at the tail end, a bit of action from me. It was a truly communal effort. It was the greater Body of Christ at work, saving that young man.
People who operate in the Holy Spirit have many, many stories like this.
We are all members of the Body of Christ. We are all invited to deeper participation in the Body of Christ, and we are invited to receive Spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit wants to give us to help and enable our deeper participation in the Body of Christ. This is especially the case now, in this time of Vatican II, a time that, as discussed above, Pope St. John XXIII has declared is a New Pentecost, a reality of a new immediacy of relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Here is another way to say this, regarding laws, in contrast with our greater ability today to do the will of God:
The Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy will be done.” We ask that God’s will be done. The Lord’s Prayer does not say, “Thy rules be followed inerrantly.” Of course, rules are good. They help society to function, they guide the proper upbringing of children so that they learn to act in wider society, and sometimes they prepare us for greater accomplishments in certain skills: the rules of musical instruments, sports, art, conversation, and writing, all help to make better practitioners of these skills; and, when the times are right, they prepare the practitioners of these skills to momentarily discard the rules like training wheels, and to dance more freely with the Holy Spirit.
The vast majority of ethical and moral rules should never be broken in our lives. There is no need to break rules, in the overwhelming majority of situations. However, the mere observance of these laws is nothing like the heights that our faith wants to lead us to. The rules train us, and they guide our development. In society, they keep society healthy and operational. Laws are wonderful. But they are not the final goal of things.
No, the Lord’s Prayer says “Thy will be done,” not, “Thy rules be administered to all.” The Holy Spirit wants us to do God’s will, and will only show us how to do God’s will if we want to! To do God’s will is exciting. To do God’s will is to engage life more fully. If we tell the Holy Spirit that we are open to being an agent of God’s will on earth, and so build up the Body of Christ in this manner, the Holy Spirit will respond. Jesus came to teach us relationship with the Holy Spirit. This is the fullness of life that he promised us (see John 10:10). The strong help of the Holy Spirit is mentioned all through his Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel (Chapters 13-17), and throughout the New Testament. The letters of Paul, Peter, John, and Hebrews all speak of it too. The Holy Spirit communicates God’s will to us once we have learned the languages of the Holy Spirit and learned how to listen to the still, small voice of the Spirit that slowly arrives to us via our conscience.
What is Gaudete et Exsultate About?
The first paragraph of this Apostolic Exhortation does not have a thesis statement, however, it does set the stage for the document, which has 177 numbered paragraphs:
- “REJOICE AND BE GLAD” (Mt 5:12), Jesus tells those persecuted or humiliated for his sake. The Lord asks everything of us, and in return, he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence. The call to holiness is present in various ways from the very first pages of the Bible. We see it expressed in the Lord’s words to Abraham: “Walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1). [Emphasis added, as in all quotations from the Exhortation below.]
There is no thesis statement yet. In the next paragraph, Pope Francis presents the thesis statement as a “modest goal”:
- What follows is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification. My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us “to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph 1:4).
While these two paragraphs are adjacent to each other in the text of the document, they hiddenly contain, from the first to the second, the entire arc of human history and Salvation History. The Genesis quotation from God’s message to Abraham is God speaking to a humanity that has not yet been in a deep personal and volitional relationship with God. In a way, this represents God waking humanity up, and the very beginning of humanity’s learning to pursue things that are good. This quotation closes the first paragraph of the work.
Pope Francis says in the second paragraph that his “modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness.” He could not have said this in the first paragraph, because he was pointing far back to Abraham’s very basic and simple, and new, relationship with God. But in the second paragraph, Pope Francis replaces the paragraph-closing quotation of Genesis with one from Paul’s (or a close student of Paul’s) Letter to the Ephesians. In the Genesis quotation, God tells Abraham to be “blameless,” to not sin. In the quotation from Ephesians, Paul tells the people “to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Do you see the huge amount of human spiritual evolution that is traversed between these two quotations? Paul has taken the original line from Genesis 17:1 and added at least two vital elements to it: Paul tells us to imitate God in holiness, and also to be a humanity that is founded in Love. (Below, in Paragraph 10, Pope Francis will quote from Leviticus and 1 Peter about the Lord’s command to holiness.)
Here is the more full context of the quotation from Ephesians 1:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who blessed us with every Spiritual blessing in the ‘heavenlies’ in Christ; according as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, for us to be holy and unblemished before him in love, predestinating us to adoption through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of (God’s) will.” (Ephesians 1:3-5)
The progression from Abraham all the way forward to Saint Paul, the co-worker with the Holy Spirit, is simply immense. And within these initial paragraphs, there are other vital historical arcs:
The first word of the Exhortation is “Rejoice,” or, GAUDETE. This word is cognate with GAUDIUM, which is the first word of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, one of the two central constitutions of Vatican II. Therefore, Pope Francis is intentionally underlining the span of time between the 1960’s actual meetings of the Council, and the time now, in 2018, 50+ years later.
What happened in the 1960’s with the Second Vatican Council? Well, Pope St. John XXIII said that this time would be a New Pentecost, as we have discussed above.
We are now 50+ years after Vatican II. Pope Francis is telling us to live deeply the truths and the developments that Vatican II revealed to us. Having been working the earth of our hearts for some decades, the promise of Vatican II is unfolding and blossoming today. The Holy Spirit is indeed among us like never before.
There are many mystics in the world today. Recall that Karl Rahner, the main theologian of Vatican II, said that the future Christian would be a mystic, or Christianity would no longer exist.
So where are we?
We are on the threshold of a great advance for humanity—an advance that has been predestined by God.
Let us proceed to the Exhortation’s third paragraph, which begins Chapter One:
- The Letter to the Hebrews presents a number of testimonies that encourage us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us (12:1). It speaks of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Gideon and others (cf. 11:1-12:3). Above all, it invites us to realize that “a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) impels us to advance constantly towards the goal. These witnesses may include our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones (cf. 2 Tim 1:5). Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.
Gideon knew what it was like to work with God. And Gideon is an example for us in forming a direct relationship with God. Often God tests us before giving us Spiritual gifts. One night, the Spirit of God really pushes Gideon to the limits of his faith. He was a judge of the ancient Israelites. Before a battle, God told Gideon to send most of his army home. Obviously, this is not a normal thing for a leader to do before a battle. Gideon, very nervously, did this. Then, with diminished troops, Gideon was able to surprise the enemy and win a resounding victory. His trust in God was the right call, it turns out.
Gideon’s faith in God must have been far more solid after this episode. If, later, the Spirit of God asked him to do things that seem risky, Gideon would have been far more willing and much less hesitant in leaping to obey God’s subtle commands, that is, in doing God’s will.
In fact, this episode with Gideon has powerful resonance with everyone who has been through a dark night of the soul. This is very much how the Holy Spirit works today, especially in our initial “boot camp” training times under the Spirit.
After Gideon he also mentions our mothers and grandmothers. There may be a very clear tactical reason for this. Women, especially loving women with experience in the Church, are often in a direct relationship with the Holy Spirit, although these women might never discuss it. Perhaps Pope Francis is mentioning that it is now time for these women to be more forthcoming in their discussing the ways of the Holy Spirit. Also, he may be asking these women to consider ways in which they could more directly teach people about the relationship with the Holy Spirit.
The fourth paragraph of the Exhortation has an emphasis on our communion with those in heaven and on earth:
- The saints now in God’s presence preserve their bonds of love and communion with us. The Book of Revelation attests to this when it speaks of the intersession of the martyrs: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘O sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge?’” (6:9-10). Each one of us can say: “Surrounded, led and guided by the friends of God… I do not have to carry alone what, in truth, I could never carry alone. All the saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me.” [This first non-Biblical quotation of the Exhortation is from Pope Benedict XVI’s first homily as Pope.]
Let us now return to the opening words of the Exhortation, the “Gaudete et Exsultate” of Matthew 5:12, from the end of the Beatitudes that begin the first truly public words of Jesus Christ in history, and his first public words in the Bible.
Paragraphs 3 & 4 also speak Christians who are in heaven right now, reflecting, again, history; the Body of Christ is the beneficiary of the fact that 2 millennia of departed Christians are now interceding for us in heaven. Also, as people become more Spiritual, it is more possible to imagine this community that, right now, spans both heaven and earth. 1 Peter 5:1 has a hint of this too, when Peter speaks of the glory he participates in: This is speaking of the interpenetration of heaven and earth, of heaven and Church; and this is a project which is already 2000 years underway. When we sing the Litany of Saints, they are standing right beside us in the church. Additionally, these saints are with God right now.
The next paragraph considers again historical processes, as well as events in history:
- The processes of beatification and canonization recognize the signs of heroic virtue, the sacrifice of one’s life in martyrdom, and certain cases where a life is constantly offered for others, even until death. This shows an exemplary imitation of Christ, one worthy of the admiration of the faithful. We can think, for example, of Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, who offered her life for the unity of Christians.
Pope Francis deliberately makes us consider the processes, in history, where agents of the Church examine the lives of people who may become officially recognized as saints. This makes us consider, as well, the actual processes by which we may become more saintly, more holy, and possibly achieve sainthood ourselves now, in this life. How we become emissaries of Divine Love on this Earth. How are lives become holy, enriching the community around us.
And Pope Francis chooses a recent holy woman, a “Blessed,” who is herself on the way to Canonization. In the same way, all of us are on the way to holier lives, to new processes of growth in holiness. Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu is one who leads the way for us.
Pope Francis is always grounding his high Spiritual message in the basics: Humility, holiness, service, and genuine actions of mercy for other people.
At the same time, he wants to bring the Church into the positive growth that Vatican II envisions for us. He wants us to have living relationships with the Holy Spirit, not merely to try to “do good” by our own lights and safely inside the rubrics of faith, and the legislative laws that are in place. Rather, he wants us, as individuals and as the unified Body of Christ, to guide more fully by the Holy Spirit. We can walk directly with the Holy Spirit. We can be directly led by the Holy Spirit.
In the next section of the essay we shall consider how Pope Francis commends all people in the Church to a path that is at once meek and mystical.
Specific Themes in Gaudete et Exsultate
God Talks To Us. We Are Invited to Listen
Pope Francis, and all humble true mystics, tells us that God initiates the contact. Speaking of errors of the gnostics, he writes, “It was forgotten that everything ‘depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy’ (Rom 9:16) and that ‘he first loved us’ (cf. 1 John 4:19).” (Paragraph 48)
God’s early words to us, as individuals, often encourage us to holiness. And Pope Francis’ entire Exhortation is about holiness.
If we prove able, with God’s grace, to make good decisions, this is a positive first step for us in our life. And if we start to see, and to make sense of, the ways of the operation of the Holy Spirit in our life, this too is positive growth. Our prayer life may grow deeper. The Scriptures may start to open up their marvelous depths and their personal revelations, to us.
And something else may happen:
In the English translation of the document, the word “sign” appears about 13 times. The Holy Spirit very often communicates to us through signs.
However, in this essay we shall not explore the specific features of these signs and languages, and of what they might be. Let us save that for a future essay.
Growth in Mystical Aptitude and Perception
Life is about growth. We are creatures of Growth, and creatures of Healing. God wills our Growth, our Healing, our Sanctification, our strengthening and preparation for the weight of glory that is eternal life.
The word “grow,” and cognate terms, appear about 19 times in the English version of the Exhortation. 8 of these 19 appearances occur in the repeated phrase, “grow/growth in holiness.” Other terms and phrases of growth, such as “develop,” “transform,” and “process,” occur at least 45 times.
And as mentioned above, the word “holy” appears about 133 times. In various other languages, it is about 200 times.
So what is all this growth in holiness leading towards?
It’s leading to the transformation of us and of our Church and our world that Vatican II is about. Again, Karl Rahner, the main theologian of Vatican II, says that the future Christian will be a mystic, an operative of the Holy Spirit, an agent of the Holy Spirit. If not, says Rahner, then there won’t be Christianity.
Thus, we see that “history” is a major theme of the Church. And the word “history” appears 11 times in Gaudete et Exsultate, although language referring to historical processes appears far more frequently than that. Thus, we have strong emphasis on both personal development and global historical development. The human person and the larger communities to which we belong, especially the Body of Christ, are growing together.
Let’s return to the “signs” that were mentioned just above. The Holy Spirit communicates with us in many ways. And when the Holy Spirit begins to really talk more fully and individually to us, the means of communication that the Spirit employs can be surprising.
The Holy Spirit likes style, but can also be austere. The Holy Spirit likes expression, but can also be an efficient minimalist. The Holy Spirit relishes all languages, but also likes new simple languages of only a few characters (and with such simple unexpected languages the Holy Spirit can teach us something like astrophysics). As a commanding general in the field, the Holy Spirit likes issuing simple orders to us; we are the Spirit’s soldiers. We receive the simple orders, and act on them. This helps the Body of Christ, the Church, to grow on Earth.
The New Testament, especially the Gospels, Acts, the letters of Peter, Hebrews, John, and Paul all show myriad hints of the Holy Spirit communicating with us in these mystical ways.
This is the hidden generated groundswell movement of Gaudete et Exsultate, Rejoice and Be Glad.
When we have done some perseverance and growth in the Faith, we may well be invited into a direct relationship with the Holy Spirit. Modern people and events like Vatican II, Pope Francis, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Karl Rahner, St. Mother Teresa, Pope Blessed Paul VI, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope St. John XXIII are pointing the way: we are to become a more mystical humanity.
Which is to say: We are to become more authentic Christians, with ever-growing love for neighbor and God, and with a direct relationship with the Holy Spirit.
That Pope Francis is clearly inviting us to deepen our relationship with the Holy Spirit is abundantly obvious in Gaudete et Exsultate. Here are some statements that point in precisely this direction, urging us to a direct relationship with the Holy Spirit:
Mystical Language in the Exhortation
-In Paragraph 8, Pope Francis quotes a powerful statement from Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross:
“The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed.” (Paragraph 8)
One of the joys of being a member of the Body of Christ is knowing when your own sacrifices are helping another member of humanity. Or helping the growth of the entire human family.
She says that the holiness, prayer, and effort of hidden saints are deeply involved in both global and individual history. This makes good sense, because we are all members of the Body of Christ. Many hidden athletes of prayer are fully operational power plants for the Body of Christ—but unknown to the majority of people.
-The hiddenness of the great contributions of the saints and good souls who have gone before us is reflected also in the apparently “informal” ways that the Holy Spirit communes with us as individuals. Soon after the above quotation, Pope Francis references another great Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross:
“Indeed, when the great mystic, Saint John of the Cross, wrote his Spiritual Canticle, he preferred to avoid hard and fast rules for all. He explained that his verses were composed so that everyone could benefit from them ‘in his or her own way’. For God’s life is communicated ‘to some in one way and to others in another’.” (Paragraph 11)
It is worth noting that Saint John of the Cross is perhaps the favorite author of Pope Saint John Paul II. The young Karol Wojtyla wrote his first doctoral dissertation on the question of “Faith” in Saint John of the Cross.
-Following this, Paragraph 12 speaks of women and their special abilities, mentioning also the “genius of woman.” A forthcoming book discusses how, in their New Testament letters, Peter and Paul are telling men to listen to women, because women may be closer to the Holy Spirit than men typically are.
This would be a positive contribution to the ways in which we consider the letters of the New Testament.
-Pope Francis mentions how we are meant to deal directly in the things of God:
“In this way, led by God’s grace, we shape by many small gestures the holiness God has willed for us, not as men and women sufficient unto ourselves but rather ‘as good stewards of the manifold grace of God’ (1 Peter 4:10).” (Paragraph 18)
Immediately after this, he mentions how “The New Zealand bishops rightly teach us that we are capable of loving with the Lord’s unconditional love, because the risen Lord shared his powerful life with our fragile lives . . . ‘Christ shares his own risen life with us. In this way, our lives demonstrate his power at work . . . ’” (Paragraph 18)
-Immediately after this, we again hear of God’s will, and how that will of God desires and helps our growth in Godliness: “A Christian cannot think of his or her mission on earth without seeing it as a path of holiness, for ‘this is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1 Thess 4:3).” (Paragraph 19)
God wills our growing closer to God, and our sharing in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)
-Similarly, we identify with Christ and his will: “Your identification with Christ and his will . . . ” (Paragraph 25)
This tells us that the will of God is deeply involved in our own identity.
-Learning how to follow the divine will has wonderful outcomes for us: “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” (Paragraph 32)
-Soon afterwards we hear more echoes of this: “Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit.” (Paragraph 34)
-Again, “If we let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit . . . ”
All of the above quotations from Gaudete et Exsultate are inviting us to a real growth in Spirituality, including mysticism. This next quotation sharpens that focus further. With the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we can actually develop the ability “to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace . . . ” (Paragraph 50, emphases added)
-Pope Francis knows what the Letter to the Hebrews, and 1 & 2 Peter, are saying about the merging of our conscience with the will of God. The next paragraph says that we can actually “walk in union with him.” The Pope urges us not to be afraid of God’s “presence.” In this deeper union with God, “we will know the pleasing and perfect will of the Lord (cf. Rom 12:1-2) and allow him to mold us like a potter (cf. Isaiah 29:16). So often we say that God dwells in us, but it is better to say that we dwell in him, that he enables us to dwell in his light and love.” (Paragraph 51)
-Once we connect with the Holy Spirit in this more overt and mystical way, the journey continues and gets more exciting. Yet we still remain humble before God’s gift: “Only on the basis of God’s gift, freely accepted and humbly received, can we cooperate by our own efforts in our progressive transformation….. (In this way) his free gift may grow and develop within us.” (Paragraph 56)
-The emphasis on the Spiritual connection continues, as we should let ourselves be “led by the Spirit in the way of love.” (Paragraph 57)
-And the next paragraph urges us not to ignore the “promptings of the Spirit.”
All this might sound as if the Church is taking off in a wild new direction. But this is not the case. The Body of Christ, and the living connections of the Church, has grown tremendously in the last 2000 years. The Church is growing, like a young tender tree that has finally reached the right year in which to bring forth its first fruit. In fact, Pope Francis gives us many reassurances that we must never lose the core Gospel message, and that some things should never change, even as the Church grows and develops: “At the center is charity. Saint Paul says that what truly counts is ‘faith working through love’ (Gal 5:6) . . . ‘love is the fulfillment of the law’ (Rom 13:8-10). ‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.’(Gal 5:14)” (Paragraph 60)
-Again, Pope Francis speaks of the obvious mysticism of the Church that is seen in so many places and persons of our glorious history. We should celebrate the “luminous mysticism so evident in the lives” of the Church’s saints. (Paragraph 100)
Now, Friedrich Nietzsche was an occasionally clever writer who had his own personal pet project to destroy Western civilization. He was a fairly sick fellow, and went insane and incommunicative in the final years of his life. One of his humorous comments was, “Methinks these redeemed ones ought to act a bit more saved.” He was saying that Christians don’t always live in full relationship to what our glorious faith is actually saying about the miracles that we are participating in on a daily basis. In response to him, we can happily hold up the tremendous fruit of the 2000 year history of the Church, including astonishing new developments such as what we are entering now:
-Why shouldn’t the Spirit be leading us to new epochs of our history, of Salvation History? Pope Francis writes a bit later in the document: “The prophets proclaimed the times of Jesus, in which we now live, as a revelation of joy. ‘Shout and sing for joy!’ (Isaiah 12:6).” Pope Francis immediately continues with four more Old Testament quotes encouraging us to praise, exclamation, and joy. (Paragraph 123)
And in exactly this way, just as we are now living in the times of Jesus, so too are we now living in the times of Vatican II, which is a great step forward for the Church into deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit.
-And as we grow into deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit, the glad living bonds of our koinonia, of our community, will deepen also and become resplendent with joy and brotherly/sisterly love. Pope Francis says, “Here I am speaking of a joy lived in communion, which shares and is shared, since ‘there is more happiness in giving than in receiving’ (Acts 20:35) and ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Cor 9:7). Fraternal love increases our capacity for joy, since it makes us capable of rejoicing in the good of others: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice’ (Rom 12:15).” This last expression is quite mystical, as it speaks of losing ourselves into a larger body, which is a powerful part of the reality of mystical participation in the Living Body of Christ. (Paragraph 128)
-Again, even as we are called to enter into a more full, a more mystical relationship with God and the Church, for the foreseeable future we are still utterly dependent on the initiatives of God: “We need the Holy Spirit’s prompting.” (Paragraph 133)
Indeed, the initiative of God, who loved us first, was present at the first Pentecost, when those in the Upper Room “’were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31).” (Paragraph 133)
-Pope Francis reminds us of how unfathomably strong and free God is: “God is eternal newness.” And God wants us to learn how to participate in this radical newness, which is vital for our future. (Paragraph 135)
-And yet, in living this Divine newness, we are always in dialogue and relationship with our beautiful Church’s past: “In every situation, may the Holy Spirit cause us to contemplate history in the light of the risen Jesus. In this way, the Church will not stand still, but constantly welcome the Lord’s surprises.” (Paragraph 139)
Indeed, this is precisely what Vatican II calls us to as well. The Council urges us to go back to the beginnings and sources of our Faith, even as we are counseled to read “the signs of the times.”
-Pope Francis presents to us the remarkable Paragraph 142: “Each community is called to create a ‘God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord.’ Sharing the word and celebrating the Eucharist together fosters fraternity and makes us a holy and missionary community. It also gives rise to authentic and shared mystical experiences. (Paragraph 142, emphasis added)
In the same paragraph, Pope Francis begins a hidden string of 4 pairs of saints; the pairs are always saintly woman-man friends or relatives. These saints are:
Saint Benedict, and Saint Scholastica
Saint Augustine, and Saint Monica
Mary, and Joseph
Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Teresa of Avila
Right in the middle of them is Jesus. The first two pairs are on Paragraph 142. Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, are in Paragraph 143. Saint John of the Cross is in Paragraph 148. His dear friend Saint Teresa of Avila is in the next paragraph, 149.
This is also a nod to Saint Peter’s letters, both of which allude to the four male-female pairs of people on the ark. (And let’s not forget that the four pairs of people mirror the four pairs of conscience/”will of God” terms.)
The third essay of this series with take up these four pairs of holy male-female friendships in greater detail.
-As we near the end of the document, the emphasis on Unity grows. The Body of Christ is One, even though we remain many free individuals, each person unique. Our journey “can only make us identify all the more with Jesus’ prayer ‘that all may be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you’ (Jn 17:21).” Jesus’ words here, of mutual indwelling, are obviously mystical and mysterious and hard to fathom. Yet he clearly wants us to participate in this Unity. (Paragraph 146)
-The next paragraph informs us that we can actually develop a “habitual openness to the transcendent.” Obviously, this also speaks quite clearly of a deeper Spiritual awareness of “what” our God is choosing to do with us. (Paragraph 147)
-In the next paragraph he quotes Saint John of the Cross, who advises us: “Always go to God and attach your heart to him.” Earlier in the same paragraph he again quotes Saint John of the Cross: “Endeavor to remain always in the presence of God, either real, imaginative, or unitive, insofar as is permitted by your works.” (Paragraph 148)
-Then Pope Francis quotes the good friend of Saint John of the Cross, that is, Saint Teresa of Avila, another great mystic of the Church. She too speaks of the presence of God: “We all have need of this silence [in prayer], filled with the presence of him who is adored.” Pope Francis builds upon Teresa’s thought: “Trust-filled prayer is a response of a heart open to encountering God face to face.” Again, the deeper encounter of prayer that is given to the mystics is suggested to and offered to all members of the Body of Christ. (Paragraph 149)
Continuing the Thread of Commentary:
What Pope Francis Is Doing in Chapter 5,
As He Concludes Gaudete et Exsultate
The fifth, final chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate brings to the discussion a more detailed treatment of human activity that we can practice in our spiritual growth. One of the concluding events of the document is a recommendation for us to practice the daily Examen of Conscience, which is a beautiful way for us to better know the internal geography of our soul and psyche; we shall discuss this below.
Combined with this, there is a good emphasis placed on the skill of discernment. Discernment is both a human skill and it is one of the 9 Gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly the “discernment of spirits” (see 1 Cor 12:10).
There are many reasons why discernment is an important skill and Spiritual aptitude for us to develop in today’s world. We are potentially overwhelmed by communication, media, technology, information, opinions, and projected politically-motivated tugs at our emotions.
And if humanity continues on this rapid pace of technological development, then the technological innovations occurring in life and in society will hit us even faster.
It is at precisely this point that this “deeper immediate relationship with the Holy Spirit” that is the overt topic of this paper, and which is a slightly more subtle topic of Pope Francis’ Gaudete et Exsultate, can especially help humanity.
Let’s say a person is navigating the internet to gather local and global news. The slightest nudge from the Holt Spirit could lead that person to alight upon an important story at a site, a story that is good for that person to see. The person might be in a position from which to help resolve the issue at hand: by sharing it on social media, or by starting a petition to raise awareness and bring about an effective response, etc. This is one of the many benefits of a more global humanity, which we are/becoming in today’s world.
Another example: a scientist is wondering what direction in which she/he should take their research. A few suggestions from the Spirit, all subtle and known privately by the scientist, could help her to choose the best path forward to a wondrous breakthrough discovery, and avoid developments that would harm humanity, as science and technology become more powerful in this era. (Some people think that science proceeds automatically in the direction in which it is “meant” to grow, to forge new discoveries of the operation of the natural world. But this is emphatically not the case. To study the ways in which a few people decide how the powerful eye of science will be focused in one direction, and not in others, is a fascinating topic to learn. Therefore, it would be good to introduce the subtle guidance of the Holy Spirit to the ways in which the directions of scientific research are chosen.)
Legislators could make better laws and systems and models for the workings and laws of government.
Diplomats could be given hints about the best way to resolve situations, and to create peace in all lands.
Therapists and counselors can know far more potently how to help their patients. Teachers can know more precisely how to help their students. Parents can be guided in various kinds of decisions on how to raise their children. In workplaces, all the employees can work together to build a more healthy and happy community in their workplace. Imagine a world where all of our workplaces are sources of joy and community and human growth, without unnecessary contention, difficulty, envy, and selfishness.
And as these realities spread and deepen and coalesce with each other, our knowledge and understanding of the Body of Christ will bloom.
The Holy Spirit can guide humanity in every situation in which we find ourselves.
Now imagine the globe, or large tracts of humanity, all being led by the Spirit in a billion different social situations. If such a condition obtains, then we will be a far more advanced form of a “united humanity.” Then we will truly be brothers and sisters all. Then we will be on the same page, playing to the same score. Such a humanity will be far more empowered as we proceed in the best possible directions forward, for our present health and for our future evolution. Consensus will be reached quickly on pressing questions, such as how we might best respond to the global warming and environmental degradation that is happening now. The best paths forward, the best resolutions to these concerns, will be forged in a humanity that is united by the subtle suggestions of the Holy Spirit, who always prefers to operate behind the scenes.
How do we, as individuals, get to a place where we can help humanity reach such a stunning plateau, such a marvelous vista?
Pope Francis’ answer is disarmingly simple: the Examen of Conscience. This is a way for us to activate our new, living relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Let us now turn to Chapter Five:
The fifth, final chapter of the work is the shortest chapter, with only 18 numbered paragraphs, not counting the final two paragraphs that are the conclusion of the Exhortation. Let us now continue our commentary on various key points of the Exhortation:
-Chapter Five begins with a discussion of the reality of evil, and the devil, in the world. The chapter is entitled Spiritual Combat, Vigilance and Discernment. This appearance of the word “Discernment” is the first of 17 appearances of this word in the chapter. The first sentence is: “The Christian life is a constant battle.” (Paragraph 158) Yet a moment later there is also sweetness in this struggle: “The battle is sweet, for it allows us to rejoice each time the Lord triumphs in our lives.” (158)
Jesus triumphs, and the triumph is in us.
-Then the Pope speaks of the first missionary mission of the disciples, in Luke’s Gospel. Completing this mission, the disciples joyously reported back to the Lord and told him of their successes. “Jesus himself celebrates our victories. He rejoiced when his disciples made progress in preaching the Gospel and overcoming the opposition of the evil one: ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ (Lk 10:18).” (Paragraph 159)
-Then he gives us a strong, healthy suggestion for our life’s journey: “Along this journey, the cultivation of all that is good, progress in the spiritual life and growth in love are the best counterbalance to evil.” (Paragraph 163)
-The Spiritual life has its simple phases, where things are set before us in great clarity. However, there can also be subtle complexities in the Spiritual growth we undergo. Sometimes logic itself seems to wobble in front of the logic of the Kingdom of God: “Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.” (Paragraph 163, which is quoting from Evangelii Gaudium)
-Jesus says, in his Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel (Chapters 13-17), “My peace I give you. Not as the world gives peace do I give peace.” (John 14:27) So despite the opening sentence of this chapter from Pope Francis, that describes Christian life as a “constant battle,” there are also, paradoxically, many joys to be found along the way: “The path of holiness is a source of peace and joy, given to us by the Spirit. At the same time, it demands that we keep ‘our lamps lit’ (Lk 12:35) and be attentive.” (Paragraph 164, emphasis added) The intriguing phrase “At the same time” shows us how the Spiritual life will also teach us how to handle multiple states of affairs at one and the same time. This too is mystical. Adroit multi-tasking is a Spiritual gift.
-The section of the chapter entitled “Discernment” begins with Paragraph 166. He says that discernment is “an urgent need,” and speaks of the necessity of discernment for this current time: “The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good.” (Paragraph 167) He continues, “We can navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three virtual scenarios. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend.” (Paragraph 167) This speaks of the crucial ability, discussed above, to be able to choose the best course out of ever-widening spectrums of choices before us.
Along with this, is shows how the human person may, with mystical guidance from the Holy Spirit, develop new capacities to deal with multiple issues at once. Again, formal laws of logic may be suspended a bit in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Saint Paul says things like this frequently. In fact, saying something that is actually subtly different from a similar expression in Genesis, Paul says in Ephesians 5, “The two become one.” He is not talking merely of a wedding ceremony, but of something mystically deep and profound, where the regular way of things may be newly expanded in mystical ways. God moves both within, and far beyond, conventional logic.
-Speaking of the potential of discernment in these times, let us quote Paragraph 168 in its entirety:
“This is all the more important when some novelty presents itself in our lives. Then we have to decide whether it is new wine brought by God or an illusion created by the spirit of this world or the spirit of the devil. At other times, the opposite can happen, when the forces of evil induce us not to change, to leave things as they are, to opt for a rigid resistance to change. Yet that would be to block the working of the Spirit. We are free, with the freedom of Christ. Still, he asks us to examine what is within us—our desires, anxieties, fears and questions—and what takes place all around us—‘the signs of the times’—and thus to recognize the paths that lead to complete freedom. ‘Test everything; hold fast to what is good’.(1 Thess 5:21)”
-Discernment works hand-in-hand with the mystical gifts that God wants to give us. In fact, discernment will help us to gauge and measure and understand mystical communications more deeply and precisely: “Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times, when we need to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions. It is a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully. We need it at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow.” Yet again, Pope Francis is speaking to us directly about mystical awareness and aptitude.
How, then, do we achieve the ability to enter into a more mystical relationship with the Holy Spirit, if this stage of life has not begun for a person yet? In this same paragraph, Pope Francis urges all people to practice the Examen of Conscience: “For this reason, I ask all Christians not to omit, in dialogue with the Lord, a sincere daily ‘examination of conscience’. Discernment also enables us to recognize the concrete means that the Lord provides in his mysterious and loving plan, to make us move beyond mere good intentions.” This last sentence of the paragraph begins with the third mention therein of ‘discernment’, and speaks again of our becoming more aware of the mystical communications that the Holy Spirit may saturate us with. (Paragraph 169)
A very brief outline of how to practice the Examen of Conscience is available here:
-In discussing Pope Francis’ next paragraph, I want to proceed with great care: “Certainly, spiritual discernment does not exclude existential, psychological, sociological or moral insights drawn from the human sciences. At the same time, it transcends them. Nor are the Church’s sound norms sufficient. We should always remember that discernment is a grace. Even though it includes reason and prudence, it goes beyond them, for it seeks a glimpse of that unique and mysterious plan that God has for each of us, which takes shape amid so many varied situations and limitations.” Never should we ignore the teachings of the Church, or think that a person is capable of moving beyond them. Much rather, with humility, we realize that when the Holy Spirit starts speaking to us directly, there is simply no human authority that is greater than the Spirit. This is a source of confidence for the trying times of following the Spirit’s lead, those “Gideon moments.” In these times, our growing abilities of discernment and our faithful experience of life in the Church both help us in this new and exciting work with the Holy Spirit. This paragraph, like the previous one, has three appearances of the word “discernment.”
And despite the fact that we are capable of dancing and flying with the Holy Spirit in a radically new relationship, the concrete bedrock reality of our Faith is eternally the same: “It has to do with the meaning of my life before the Father who knows and loves me, with the real purpose of my life, that nobody knows better than he. Ultimately, discernment leads to the wellspring of undying life: to know the Father, the only true God, and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ (cf. John 17:3). It requires no special abilities, nor is it only for the more intelligent or better educated. The Father readily reveals himself to the lowly (cf. Mt 11:25).” (Paragraph 170)
-The discourse on real mystical experience continues: “The Lord speaks to us in a variety of ways, at work, through others and at every moment.” Pope Francis then emphasizes the importance of prayer in our life, “which enables us better to perceive God’s language, to interpret the real meaning of the inspirations we believe we have received, to calm our anxieties and to see the whole of our existence afresh in his own light. In this way, we allow the birth of a new synthesis that springs from a life inspired by the Spirit.” (Paragraph 171)
-Pope Francis does not want us to misinterpret, or pridefully overinterpret, the messages of the Holy Spirit. Nor does he want us to miss the signs of the Spirit, or remain inactive after we have correctly read them: “Nonetheless, it is possible that, even in prayer itself, we could refuse to let ourselves be confronted by the freedom of the Spirit, who acts as he wills. We must remember that prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways.” Prayerful listening and discernment also lifts us above the shortcomings of our habitual mindsets: “God may be offering us something more, but in our comfortable inadvertence, we do not recognize it.” (Paragraph 172)
-The role of the Church does not change in this era of Vatican II, this era of the Second Pentecost: “Naturally, this attitude of listening entails obedience to the Gospel as the ultimate standard, but also to the Magisterium that guards it, as we seek to find in the treasury of the Church whatever is most fruitful for the ‘today’ of salvation. It is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past, since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances and what was useful in one context may not prove so in another. The discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial ‘today’ of the risen Lord. The Spirit alone can penetrate what is obscure and hidden in every situation, and grasp its every nuance, so that the newness of the Gospel can emerge in another light.” (Paragraph 173)
-In this journey with a direct relationship with the Holy Spirit, we must never think that we know it all, or become smug: “An essential condition for progress in discernment [of the Holy Spirit’s direct participation in our life] is a growing understanding of God’s patience and his timetable, which are never our own.” Then Pope Francis encourages us to never forget generosity and kindness. He concludes the paragraph with a consideration of the often difficult “mysterious logic” of the Divine: “For happiness is a paradox. We experience it most when we accept the mysterious logic that is not of this world: ‘This is our logic’, says Saint Bonaventure, pointing to the cross. Once we enter into this dynamic, we will not let our consciences be numbed and we will open ourselves generously to discernment.” This is the Exhortation’s second and final mention of the conscience. (Paragraph 174)
-The opening of our life to the light of God’s gaze is not a cause for fear, but is something that should give us comfort: “When, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no areas can be off limits. In all aspects of life we can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult. We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of lives.” (Paragraph 175)
We see that this is a fulfillment of the call of Vatican II. But this is not a strange thing, a new contraption imposed on the Church. No, much rather, as we have seen by the Exhortation’s magnificent and deft allusions to Scripture, the 2 millennia of Salvation History that has been riding upon the arc of the Church are reaching the next development promised to the Church precisely in the developments of Vatican II.
The Spiritual leaders of the Anglican Church know this too. For example, there is a superb new film-and-discussion series that a group of enlightened Anglicans has made, called Alpha. One of the remarkable things in the series is that it actually begins to broach mystical operations that happen in the life of the Church and the lives of individual people. For example, coincidence (which we might also call by its technical Spiritual name, synchronicity) appears in very many of the films of the series. Additionally, there is hands-on teaching in the series about how to discern the direct, yet subtle, signs and communiqués of the Holy Spirit. This is the strong beginning of global Christianity talking, more openly and in new ways, about mystical realities becoming more familiar with the individual lives of all people, as well as the larger Church. And the series has good ecumenical sharing, as Catholic cardinals, nuns, monks, and the preacher to the Papal household appear, some of these people giving multiple talks in the films. People of other denominations share their own wisdom, knowledge, and experience too.
Another wonderful Anglican, Professor N.T. Wright, has a new book, The Case for the Psalms. The book is a truly excellent discussion of the Psalms. However, in the Afterword, he does something radically new: He discusses 12 specific cases of how the Psalms have had powerful mystical and Spiritual effects in his own life. We shall discuss his book more in the third essay.
And people of other denominations are aware of the deep moves of the Holy Spirit in the world today.
The first essay presented the endpoints of a journey that Saint Peter presents in his two letters in the New Testament. That essay notes how the beginning of the First Letter of Peter calls us to be holy, a verse which is echoed early in Gaudete et Exsultate. From this call to humility and holiness in his first letter, Peter then promises humanity’s arrival to a grand new reality for us: That we are to become “partakers in God’s nature.” (2 Peter 1:4)
This wide-ranging essay attempts to add details to the journey between these endpoints of the map laid out in the first essay. It has traced in greater detail how, hiddenly, Peter has charted this journey for us in 1 Peter. The journey involves become more aware of our conscience, listening better to the voice of the conscience, and learning the many capacities of the conscience, which, in the past, many of us have not developed. Our conscience is shown to be connected with the Will of God. Peter shows this connection by hiddenly pairing the terms “conscience” and “will of God” in 1 Peter, as the essay has presented above.
The unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews does the same thing. “Conscience” and “will of God” are paired in the letter. This too is discussed in the essay above.
And Luke, in Acts of the Apostles, may be saying something similar, in a more subtle way.
This essay then turns to Gaudete et Exsultate, and traces how the document is full of allusions to mystical awareness and the organic development of our Spiritual life.
This essay concludes by considering Pope Francis’ emphasis upon discernment in these amazing times, and by encouraging us to take up a personal practice of the Examen of Conscience, to better know our own conscience and, because of this greater familiarity with our conscience, to be better co-operators with the Holy Spirit. (Perhaps the Holy Spirit will make an overture to more individuals in these days.) And with the counseling of all persons to take up the daily Examen of Conscience, Pope Francis, in a very quiet way, makes a strong connection to the radical new discoveries, in 1 Peter, the Letter to the Hebrews, and Acts of the Apostles, to the possibility of our knowing the will of God. With empowered consciences, and therefore knowing far more precisely the will of God, we will begin to be the Spiritual humanity that Vatican II is calling us to be now.