The Divinization of Human Activities
The Divine Milieu. An Essay on the Interior Life, 1927
1. The Undoubted Existence of the Fact and the Difficulty of Explaining It: The Christian Problem of the Sanctification of Action
Nothing is more certain, dogmatically, than that human action can be sanctified. ‘Whatever you do,' says St. Paul, ‘do it in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.' And the dearest of christian traditions has always been to interpret those words to mean: in intimate union with our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Paul himself, after calling upon us to ‘put on Christ', goes on to forge the famous series of words collaborare, compati, commori, con-ressuscitare , giving them the fullest possible meaning, a literal meaning even, and expressing the conviction that every human life must – in some sort – become a life in common with the life of Christ. The actions of life, of which Paul is speaking here, should not, as everyone knows, be understood solely in the sense of religious and devotional ‘works' ( prayers, fastings, almsgivings). It is the whole of human life, down to its most ‘natural' zones which, the Church teaches, can be sanctified. ‘Whether you eat or whether you drink', St. Paul says. The whole history of the Church is there to attest it. Taken as a whole, then, from the most solemn declarations or examples of the pontiffs and doctors of the Church to the advice humbly given by the priest in confession, the general influence and practice of the Church has always been to dignify, ennoble and transfigure in God the duties inherent in one's station in life, the search for natural truth, and the development of human action.
The fact cannot be denied. But its legitimacy, that is its logical coherence with the whole basis of the christian temper, is not immediately evident. How is it that the perspectives opened up by the kingdom of God do not, by their very presence, shatter the distribution and balance of our activities? How can the man who believes in heaven and the cross continue to believe seriously in the value of world occupations? How can the believer, in the name of everything that is most christian in him, carry out his duty as man to the fullest extent and as whole-heartedly and freely as if he were on the direct road to God? That is what is not altogether clear at first sight; and in fact disturbs more minds than one thinks.
The question might be put in this way:
According to the most sacred articles of his Credo , the Christian believes that life here below is continued in a life of which the joys, the sufferings, the reality, are quite incommensurable with the present conditions in our universe. This contrast and disproportion are enough, by themselves, but to them must be added a positive doctrine of judgment upon, even disdain for, a fallen and vitiated world. ‘Perfection consists in detachment; the world around us is vanity and ashes.' The believer is constantly reading or hearing these austere words. How can he reconcile them with that other counsel, usually coming from the same master and in any case written in his heart by nature, that he must be an example unto the Gentiles in devotion to duty, in energy, and even in leadership in all the spheres opened up by man's activity? There is no need for us to consider the wayward or the lazy who cannot be bothered to acquire an understanding of their world, or seek with care to advanced their fellows' welfare – from which they will benefit a hundredfold after their last breath – and only contribute to the human task ‘ with the tips of their fingers'. But there is a kind of human spirit (known to every spiritual director) for whom this difficulty assumes the shape and importance of a besetting and numbing uncertainty. Such spirits, set upon interior unity, become the victims of a veritable spiritual dualism. On the one hand a very sure instinct, mingled with their love for that which is, and their taste for life, draws them to the joy of creating and knowing. One the other hand a higher will to love God above all else makes them afraid of the least division or deflection in their allegiances. In the most spiritual layers of their being they experience a tension between the opposing ebb and flow caused by the drawing power of the two rival stars we spoke of at the beginning: God and the world. Which of the two is to make itself more nobly adored?
Depending on the great or less vitality of the nature of the individual, this conflict is in danger of finding its solution in one of the three following ways: either the Christian will repress his taste for the tangible and force himself to confine his concern to purely religious objects, and he will try to live in a world that he has divinized by banishing the largest possible number of earthly objects; or else, harassed by that inward conflict which hampers him, he will dismiss the evangelical counsels and decide to lead what seems to him a complete and human life; or else, again, and this is the most usual case, he will give up any attempt to make sense of his situation; he will never belong wholly to God, nor ever wholly to things; incomplete in his own eyes, and insincere in the eyes of his fellows, he will gradually acquiesce in a double life. I am speaking, it should not be forgotten, from experience.
For various reasons, all three of these solutions are to be feared. Whether we become distorted, disgusted, or divided, the result is equally bad, and certainly contrary to that which Christianity should rightly produce in us. There is, without possible doubt, a fourth way out of the problem: it consists in seeing how, without making the smallest concession to ‘nature' but with a thirst for greater perfection, we can reconcile, and provide mutual nourishment for, the love of God and the healthy love of the world, a striving towards detachment and a striving towards the enrichment of our human lives…
Let us look at the two solutions that can be brought to the christian problem of the ‘divinization of human activity', the first partial, the second complete.
2. An Incomplete Solution: Human Action Has No Value Other Than The Intention Which Directs It
If we try somewhat crudely to reduce to its barest bones the immediate answer given by spiritual directors to those who ask them how a Christian, who is determined to disdain the world and jealously to keep his heart for God, can love what he is doing (his work) – in conformity with the Church's teaching that the faithful should take not a lesser but a fuller part than the pagan – it will run along these lines:
You are anxious, my friend, to restore its value to your human endeavor; to you the characteristic viewpoints of christian asceticism seem to set far too little store by such activity. Very well then, you must let the clear spring water of purity of intention flow into your work, as if it were its very substance. Cleanse your intention, and the least of your actions will be filled with God. Certainly the material side of your actions has no definitive value. Whether men discover one truth or one fact more or less, whether or not they make beautiful music or beautiful pictures, whether their organization of the world is more or less successful – all that has no direct importance for heaven. None of these discoveries or creations will become one of the stones of which is built the New Jerusalem. But what will count, up there, what will always endure is this: that you have acted in all things conformably to the will of God.
God obviously has no need of the products of your busy activity, since he could give himself everything without out. The only thing that concerns him, the only thing he desires intensely, is your faithful use of your freedom, and the preference you accord him over the things around you.
Try to grasp this: the things which are given to you on earth are give you purely as an exercise, a ‘blank sheet' on which you make your own mind and heart. You are on a testing-ground where God can judge whether you are capable of being translated to heaven and into his presence. You are on trial. So that it matters very little what becomes of the fruits of the earth, or what they are worth. The whole question is whether you have used them in order to learn how to obey an dhow to love.
You should not, therefore, set stone by the coarse outer-covering of your human actions: this can be burnt like straw or smashed like china. Think, rather, that into each of these humble vessels you can pour, like a sap or a precious liquor, the spirit of obedience and of union with God. If worldly aims have no value in themselves, you can love them for the opportunity they give you of proving your faithfulness to God.
We are not suggesting that the foregoing words have ever been actually used; but we believe they convey a nuance which is often discernible in spiritual direction, and we are sure that they give a rough idea of what a good number of the ‘directed' have understood and retained of the exhortations given them.
On this assumption let us examine the attitude which they recommend.
In the first place this attitude contains an enormous part of truth. It is perfectly right to exalt the role of a good intention as the necessary start and foundation as the necessary start and foundation of all else; indeed – a point which we shall have to make again – it is the golden key which unlocks our inward personal world to God's presence. It expresses vigorously the primary worth of the divine will which, by virtue of this attitude, becomes for the Christian (as it was for his divine model) the fortifying marrow of all earthly nourishment. It reveals a sort of unique milieu , unchanging beneath the diversity and number of the tasks which, as men and women, we have to do, in which we can place ourselves without ever having to draw.
These various features convey a first and essential approximation to the solution we are looking for; and we shall certainly retain them in their entirety in the more satisfactory plan of the interior life which will soon be suggested. But they seem to us to lack the achievement which our spiritual peace and joy so imperiously demand. The divinization of our endeavor by the value of the intention put into it, pours a priceless soul into all our actions; but it does not confer the hope of resurrection upon their bodies. Yet that hope is what we need if our joy is to be complete. It is certainly a very great thing to be able to think that, if we love God, something of our inner activity, of our operatio, will never be lost. But will not the work itself of our minds, of our hearts, and of our hands – that is to say, our achievements, what we bring into being, our opus – will not this, too, in some sense be ‘eternalized' and saved?
Indeed, Lord, it will be – by virtue of a claim which you yourself have implanted at the very center of my will! I desire and need that it should be.
I desire it because I love irresistibly all that your continuous help enables me to bring each day to reality. A thought, a material improvement, a harmony, a unique nuance of human love, the enchanting complexity of a smile or a glance, all these new beauties that appear for the first time, in me or around me, on the human face of the earth – I cherish them like children and cannot believe that they will die entirely in their flesh. If I believed that these things were to perish for ever, should I have given them life? The more I examine myself, the more I discover this psychological truth: that no one lifts his little finger to do the smallest task unless moved, however obscurely, by the conviction that he is contributing infinitesimally (at least indirectly) to the building of something definitive – that is to say, to your work, my God. This may well sound strange or exaggerated to those who act without thoroughly scrutinizing themselves. And yet it is a fundamental law of their action. It requires no less than the pull of what men call the Absolute, no less than you yourself, to set in motion the frail liberty which you have given us. And that being so, everything which diminishes my explicit faith in the heavenly value of the results of my endeavor, diminishes irremediably my power to act.
Show all your faithful, Lord, in what a full and true sense ‘their work follows them' into your kingdom – opera sequuntur illos . Otherwise they will become like those idle workmen who are not spurred by their task. And even if a sound human instinct prevails over their hesitancies or the sophisms of an incompletely enlightened religious practice, they will remain fundamentally divided and frustrated; and it will be said that the sons of heaven cannot compete on the human level, in conviction and hence on equal terms, with the children of the world.
3. The Final Solution: All Endeavor Cooperates To Complete The World in Christo Jesu
The general ordering of salvation (which is to say the divinization) of what we do can be expressed briefly in the following syllogism.
At the heart of our universe, each soul exists for God, in our Lord.
But all reality, even material reality, around each one of us, exists for our souls.
Hence, all sensible reality, around each one of us, exists, through our souls, for God in our Lord.
Let us examine each proposition of the syllogism in turn and separately. Its terms and the link between them are easy to grasp. But we must beware: it is one thing to have understood its words, and another to have penetrated the astonishing world whose inexhaustible riches are revealed by its calm and formal exactitude.
A. At the heart of our universe, each soul exists for God in our Lord
The major of the syllogism does no more than express the fundamental Catholic dogma which all other dogmas merely explain or define. It therefore requires no proof here; but it does need to be strictly understood by the intelligence. Each soul exists for God in our Lord. We should not be content to give this destination of our being in Christ a meaning too obviously modeled on the legal relationships which in our world link an object to its owner. Its nature is altogether more physical and deeper. Because the consummation of the world (what Paul calls the Pleroma) is a communion of person (the communion of saints), our minds require that we should express the links within that communion by analogies drawn from society. Moreover, in order to avoid the perverse pantheism and materialism which lie in wait for our thought whenever it applies to its mystical concepts the powerful but dangerous resources of analogies drawn from organic life, the majority of theologians (more cautious on this point that St. Paul) do not favor too realist an interpretation of the links which bind the limbs to the head in the Mystical Body. But there is no reason why caution should become timidity. If we want a full and vivid understanding of the teachings of the Church (which alone makes them beautiful and acceptable) on the value of human life and the promises or threats of the future life – then, without rejecting anything of the forces of freedom and of consciousness which from the natural endowment proper to the human soul, we must perceive the existence of links between us and the Incarnate Word no less precise than those which control, in the world, the affinities of the elements in the building up of ‘natural' wholes.
There is no point, here, in seeking a new name by which to designate the super-eminent nature of that dependence, where all that is most flexible in human combinations and all that is most intransigent in organic structures, merge harmoniously in a moment of final incandescence. We will continue to call it by the name that has always been used: mystical union. Far from implying some idea of diminution, we use the term to mean the strengthening and purification of the reality and urgency contained in the most powerful interconnections revealed to us in very order of the physical and human world. On that path we can advance without fear of over-stepping the truth; for everyone in the Church of God is agreed upon the fact itself, if not upon its systematic statement: by virtue of the powerful incarnation of the Word, our soul is wholly dedicated to Christ and centered upon him.
B. ‘In our universe,' we went on to say, ‘in which each soul exists for God, in our Lord, all that is sensible, in its turn, exists for the soul.'
In the form in which we have given it, the minor of our syllogism is tinged with a certain ‘finalist' doctrine which may shock those with a positivist cast of mind. Nevertheless it does no more than express an incontrovertible natural fact – which is that our spiritual being is continually nourished by the countless energies of the perceptible world. Here, again, proof is unnecessary. But it is essential to see – to see things as they are and to see them really and intensely. We live at the center of the network of cosmic influences as we live at the heart of the human crowd or among the myriads of stars, without, alas, being aware of their immensity. If we wish to live our humanity and our Christianity to the full, we must overcome that insensitivity which tends to conceal things from us in proportion as they are too close to us or too vast. It is worth while performing the salutary exercise which consists in starting with those elements of our conscious life in which our awareness of ourselves as persons is most fully developed, and moving out from these to consider the spread of our being. We shall be astonished at the extent and the intimacy of our relationship with the universe.
Where are the roots of our being? In the first place they plunge back and down into the unfathomable past. How great is the mystery of the first cells which were one day animated by the breath of our souls! How impossible to decipher the welding of successive influences in which we are for ever incorporated! In each one of us, through matter, the whole history of the world is in part reflected. And however autonomous our soul, it is indebted to an inheritance worked upon from all sides – before ever it came into being – by the totality of the energies of the earth: it meets and rejoins life at a determined level. Then, hardly has it entered actively into the universe at that particular point than it feels, in its turn, besieged and penetrated by the flow of cosmic influences which have to be ordered and assimilated. Let us look around us: the waves come from all sides and from the farthest horizon. Through every cleft the world we perceived floods us with its riches – food for the body, nourishment for the eyes, harmony of sounds and fullness of the heart, unknown phenomena and new truths, all these treasures, all these stimuli, all these calls, coming to us from the four corners of the world, cross our consciousness at every moment. What is their role within us? What will their effect be? Even if we welcome them passively or indistinctly, like bad workmen? They will merge into the most intimate life of our soul and either develop it or poison it. We only have to look at ourselves for one moment to realize this, and either feel delight or anxiety. If even the most humble and most material of our foods is capable of deeply influencing our most spiritual faculties, what can be said of the infinitely more penetrating energies conveyed to us by the music of tones, of notes, of words, of ideas? We have not, in us, a body which takes its nourishment independently of our soul. Everything that the body has admitted and has begun to transform must be transfigured by the soul in its turn. The soul does this, no doubt, in its own way and with its own dignity. But it cannot escape from this universal contact nor from that unremitting labor. And that is how the characteristic power of understanding and loving, which will form its immaterial individuality, is gradually perfected in it for its own good and at its own risk. We hardly know in what proportions and under what guise our natural faculties will pass over into the final act of the vision of God. But it can hardly be doubted that, with God's help, it is here below that we give ourselves the eyes and the heart which a final transfiguration will make the organs of a power of adoration, and of a capacity for beatification, particular to each individual man and woman among us.
The masters of the spiritual life incessantly repeat that God wants only your souls. To give those words their true value, we must not forget that the human soul, however independently created our philosophy represents it as being, is inseparable, in its birth and in its growth, from the universe into which it is born. In each soul, God loves and partly saves the whole world which that soul sums up in an incommunicable and particular way. But this summing-up, this welding, are not given to us ready-made and complete with the first awakening of consciousness. It is we who through our own activity, must industriously assemble the widely scattered elements. The labor of seaweed as it concentrates in its tissues the substances scattered, in infinitesimal quantities, throughout the vast layers of the ocean; the industry of bees as they make honey from the juices broadcast in so many flowers – these are but pale images of the ceaseless working-over that all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to reach the level of spirit.
Thus every man, in the course of his life, must not only show himself obedient and docile. By his fidelity he must build – starting with the most natural territory of his own self – a work, an opus , into which something enters from all the elements of the earth. He makes his own soul throughout all his earthly days; and at the same time he collaborates in another work, in another opus , which infinitely transcends, while at the same time it narrowly determines, the perspectives of his individual achievement: the completing of the world. For in presenting the christian doctrine of salvation, it must not be forgotten that the world, taken as a whole, that is to say in so far as it consists in a hierarchy of souls – which appear only successively, develop only collectively and will be completed only in union – the world, too, undergoes a sort of vast ‘ontogenesis' (a vast becoming what it is) in which the development of each soul, assisted by the perceptible realities on which it depends, is but a diminished harmonic. Beneath our efforts to put spiritual form into our own lives, the world slowly accumulates, starting with the whole of matter, that which will make of it the Heavenly Jerusalem or the New Earth.
C. We can now bring together the major and minor of our syllogism so as to grasp the link between them and the conclusion
If it is true, as we know from the Creed, that souls enter so intimately into Christ and God, and if it is true, as we know from the most general conclusions of psycho-analysis, that the perceptible enters vitally into the most spiritual zones of our souls – then we must also recognize that in the whole process which from first to last activates and directs the elements of the universe, everything forms a single whole . And we begin to see more distinctly the great sun of Christ, the King, of Christ amictus mundo , of the universal Christ, rising over our interior world. Little by little, stage by stage, everything is finally linked to the supreme center in quo omnia constant . The streams which flow from this center operate not only within the higher reaches of the world, where human activities take place in a distinctively supernatural and meritorious form. In order to save and establish these sublime force, the power of the Word Incarnate penetrates matter itself; it goes down into the deepest depths of the lower forces. And the Incarnation will be complete only when the part of chosen substance contained in every object – given spiritual import once in our souls and a second time with our souls in Jesus – shall have rejoined the final center of its completion. Quids est quod ascendit, nisi quod prius descendit, ut repleret omonia?
It is through the collaboration which he stimulates in us that Christ, starting from all created things, is consummated and attains his plenitude. St. Pal himself tells us so. We may, perhaps, imagine that the creation was finished long ago. But that would be quite wrong. It continues still more magnificently, and at the highest level of the world. Omnis creatura adhuc ingemiscit et parturit. And we serve to complete it, even by the humblest work of our hands. That is, ultimately, the meaning and value of our acts. Owing to the interrelation between matter, sold and Christ, we bring part of the being which he desires back to God in whatever we do . With each one of our works , we labor – in individual separation, but no less really – to build the Pleroma; that is to say, we bring to Christ a little fulfillment.
4. Communion Through Action
Each one of our works, by its more or less remote or direct effect upon the spiritual world, helps to make perfect Christ in his mystical totality. That is the fullest possible answer to the question: How can we, following the call of St. Paul, see God in all the active half of our lives? In fact, through the unceasing operation of the Incarnation, the divine so thoroughly permeates all our creaturely energies that, in order to meet it and lay hold on it, we cold not find a more fitting setting than that of our action.
To begin with, in action I adhere to the creative power of God; I coincide with it; I become not only its instrument but its living extension. And as there is nothing more personal in a being than his will, I merge myself, in a sense, through my heart, with the very heart of God. This commerce is continuous because I am always acting; and at the same time, since I can never set a boundary to the perfection of my fidelity nor to the fervor of my intention, this commerce enables me to liken myself, ever more strictly and indefinitely, to God.
The soul does not pause to relish this communion, nor does it lose sight of the material end of its action; for it is wedded to a creative effort . The will to succeed, a certain passionate delight in the work to be done, form an integral part of our creaturely fidelity. It follows that the very sincerity with which we desire and pursue success for God's sake reveals itself as a new factor – also without limits – our being knit together with him who animates us. Originally we had fellowship with God in the simple common exercise of wills; but now we unite ourselves with him in the shared love of the end for which we are working; and the crowning marvel is that, with the possession of this end, we have the utter joy of discovering his presence once again.
All this follows directly from what was said a moment back on the relationship between natural and supernatural actions in the world. Any increase that I can bring upon myself or upon things is translated into some increase in my power to love and some progress in Christ's blessed hold upon the universe. Our work appears to us, in the main, as a way of earning our daily bread. But its essential virtue is on a higher level: through it we complete in ourselves the subject of the divine union; and through it again we somehow make to grow in stature the divine term of the one with whom we are united, our Lord Jesus Christ. Hence whatever our role as men may be, whether we are artists, working-men or scholars, we can, if we are Christian, speed towards the object of our work as though towards an opening on the supreme fulfillment of our beings. Indeed, without exaggeration or excess in thought or expression – but simply by confronting the most fundamental truths of our faith and of experience – we are led to the following observation: God is inexhaustibly attainable in the totality of our action. And this prodigy of divination has nothing with which we dare to compare it except the subtle, gentle sweetness with which this actual change of shape is wrought; for it is achieved without disturbing at all ( non minuit, sed sacravit …) the completeness and unity of man's endeavor.
5. The Christian Perfection Of Human Endeavor
There was reason to fear, as we have said, that the introduction of christian perspectives might seriously upset the ordering of human action; that the seeking after, and waiting for, the kingdom of heaven might deflect human activity from its natural tasks, or at least entirely eclipse any interest in them. Now we see why this cannot and must not be so. The knitting together of god and the world has just taken place under our eyes in the domain of action. No, God does not deflect our graze prematurely from the work he himself has given us, since he presents himself to us as attainable through that very work. Nor does he blot out, in his intense light, the detail of our earthly aims, since the closeness of our union with him is in fact determined by the exact fulfillment of the least of our tasks. We ought to accustom ourselves to this basic truth till we are steeped in it, until it becomes as familiar to us as the perception of shape or the reading of words. God, in all that is most living and incarnate in him, is not far away from us, altogether apart from the world we see, touch, hear, smell and taste about us. Rather he awaits us every instant in our action, in the work of the moment. There is a sense in which he is at the tip of my pen, my spade, my brush, my needle – of my heart and of my thought. By pressing the stroke, the line, or the stitch, on which I am engaged, to its ultimate natural finish, I shall lay hold of that last end towards which my innermost will tends. Like those formidable physical forces which man contrives to discipline so as to make them perform operations of prodigious delicacy, so the tremendous power of the divine attraction is focused on our frail desires and microscopic intents without breaking their point. It sur-animates; hence it neither disturbs anything nor stifles anything. It sur-animates; hence it introduces a higher principle of unity into our spiritual life, the specific effect of which is – depending upon the point of view one adopts – either to make man's endeavor holy, or to give the christian life the full flavor of humanity.
A. The sanctification of human endeavor.
I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that nine out of ten practicing Christians feel that man's work is always at the level of a ‘spiritual encumbrance'. In spite of the practice of right intentions, and the day offered every morning to God, the general run of the faithful dimly feel that time spent at the office or the studio, in the fields or in the factory, is time taken away from prayer and adoration. It is impossible not to work – that is taken for granted. Then it is impossible, too, to aim at the deep religious life reserved for those who have the leisure to pray or preach all day long. A few moments of the day can be salvaged for God, yes, but the best hours are absorbed, or at any rate cheapened, by material cares. Under the sway of this feeling, large numbers of Catholics lead a double or crippled life in practice: they have to step out of their human dress so as to have faith in themselves as Christians – and inferior Christians at that.
What has been said above of the divine extensions and God-given demands of the mystical or universal Christ, should be enough to demonstrate both the emptiness of these impressions and the validity of the thesis (so dear to Christianity) of sanctification through fulfilling the duties of our station. There are, of course, certain noble and cherished moments of the day – those when we pray or received the sacraments. Were it not for these moments of more efficient or explicit commerce with God, the tide of the divine omnipresence, and our perception of it, would weaken until all that was best in our human endeavor, without being entirely lost to the world, would be for us emptied of God, But once we have jealously safeguarded our relation to God encountered, if I may dare use the expression, ‘in his pure state' (that is to say in a state of being distance from all the constituents of the world), there is no need to fear that the most trivial or the most absorbing of occupations should force us to depart from him. To repeat: by virtue of the Creation and, still more, of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see. On the contrary, everything is sacred to the men who can distinguish that portion of chosen being which is subject to Christ's drawing power in the process of consummation. Try, with God's help, to perceive the connection – even physical and natural – which binds your labor with the building of the kingdom of heaven; try to realize that heaven itself smiles upon you and, through your works, draws you to itself; then, as you leave church for the noisy streets, you will remain with only one feeling, that of continuing to immerse yourself in God. If your work is dull or exhausting, take refuge in the inexhaustible and becalming interest of progressing in the divine life. If you r work enthralls you, then allow the spiritual impulse which matter communicates to you to enter into your taste for God whom you know better and desire more under the veil of his works. Never, at any time, ‘whether eating or drinking', consent to do anything without first o fall realizing its significance and constructive value in Christo Jesu , and pursuing it with all your might. This is not simply a commonplace precept for salvation: it is the very path to sanctity for each man according to his state and calling. For what is sanctity in a creature if not to adhere to God with the maximum of his strength? – and what does that maximum adherence to God mean if not the fulfillment – in the world organized around Christ – of the exact function, be it lowly or eminent, to which that creature is destined both by natural endowment and by supernatural gift?
Within the Church we observe all sorts of groups whose members are vowed to the perfect practice of this or that particular virtue: mercy, detachment, the splendor of the liturgy, the missions, contemplation. Why should there not be me vowed to the task of exemplifying, by their lives, the general sanctification of human endeavor? – men whose common religious ideal would be to give a full and conscious explanation of the divine possibilities or demands which any worldy occupation implies – men, in a word, who would devote themselves, in the fields of thought, art, industry, commerce and politics, etc., to carrying out in the sublime spirit these demands – the basic tasks which form the very bonework of human society? Around us the ‘natural' progress which nourishes the sanctity of each new age is all too often left to the children of the world, that is to say to agnostics or the irreligious. Unconsciously or involuntarily such men collaborate in the kingdom of God and in the fulfillment of the elect: their efforts, going beyond or correcting their incomplete or bad intentions, are gathered in by him ‘whose energy subjects all things to itself'. But that is no more than a second best, a temporary phase in the organization of human activity. Right from the hands that knead the dough, to those that consecrate it, the great universal Host should be prepared and handled in a spirit of adoration .
May the time come when men, having been awakened to a sense of the close bond linking all the movements of this world in the single, all-embracing work of the Incarnation, shall be unable to give themselves to any one of their tasks without illuminating it with the clear vision that their work – however elementary it may be – is received and put to good use by a Center of the universe.
When that comes to pass, there will be little to separate life in the cloister from the life of the world. And only then will the action of the children of heaven (at the same time as the action of the children of the world) have attained the intended plenitude of its humanity.
B. The humanization of Christian endeavor
The great objection brought against Christianity in our time, and the real source of the distrust which insulates entire blocks of humanity from the influence of the Church, has nothing to do with historical or theological difficulties. It is the suspicion that our religion makes its followers inhuman .
‘Christianity,' so some of the best of the Gentiles are inclined to think, ‘is bad or inferior because it does not lead its followers to levels of attainment beyond ordinary human powers; rather it withdraws them from the ordinary ways of humankind and sets them on other paths. It isolates them instead of merging them with the mass. Instead of harnessing them to the common task, it causes them to lose interest in it. Hence, far from raising them to a higher level, it diminishes them and makes them false to their nature. Moreover, don't they admit as much themselves? And if one of their religious, or one of their priests, should happen to devote his life to research in one of the so-called secular disciplines, he is very careful, as a rule, to point out that he is only lending himself for a time to serve a passing whim of scholarly fashion or even something ultimately of the stuff of illusion, and that simply in order to show that Christians are not, after all, the stupidest of men. When a Catholic works with us, we invariably get the impression that he is doing so in a spirit of condescension. He appears to be interested, but in fact, because of his religion, he simply does not in the human effort as such. His heart is not really with us. Christianity nourishes deserters and false friends: that is what we cannot forgive.'
We have placed this objection, which would be deadly if were true, in the mouth of an unbeliever. But has it no echo, here and there, within the most faithful souls? What Christian who has become aware of a sheet of glass insulating him from his non-believing colleagues, has not asked himself uneasily whether he was not on a false tack or had not actually lost touch with the main current of mankind?
Without denying that some Christians, by their words more than their deeds, do give grounds for the reproach of being, if not the ‘enemies', at least the ‘stragglers' of the human race we can safely assert, after what we said above concerning the supernatural value of our work on earth, that their attitude is due to an incomplete understanding and not at all to some ineradicable flaw in our religion.
How could we be deserters, or skeptical about the future of the tangible world? How could we be repelled by human labor?: how little you know us! You suspect us of not sharing your concern and your hopes and your excitement as you penetrate the mysteries and conquer the forces of nature. ‘Feelings of this kind,' you say ‘can only be shared by men struggling side by side for existence; whereas you Christians profess to be saved already.' As though for us as for you, indeed far more than for you, it were not a matter of life and death that the earth should flourish to the uttermost of its natural powers. As far as you are concerned (and it is here that you are not yet human enough, you do not go to the limits of your humanity) it is simply a matter of the success or failure of a reality which remains vague and precarious even when conceived in the form of some super-humanity. For us it is a question in a true sense of achieving the victory of no less than a God. One thing is infinitely disappointing, I grant you: far too many Christians are insufficiently conscious of the ‘divine' responsibilities of their lives, and live like other men, giving only half of themselves, never experiencing the spur or the intoxication of advancing God's kingdom in every domain of mankind. But do not blame anything but our weakness: our faith imposes on us the right and the duty to throw ourselves into the things of the earth. As much as you, and even better than you (because, of the two of us, I alone am in a position to prolong the perspectives of my endeavor to infinity, in conformity with the requirements of my present intention), I want to dedicate myself body and soul to the sacred duty of research. We must test every barrier, try every path, plumb every abyss. Nihil intentatum … God wills it, who willed that he should have need of it. You are men, you say? Plus et ego .
Plus et ego . There can be no doubt of it. At a time when the consciousness of its own powers and possibilities is legitimately awakening in mankind now ready to become adult, one of the first duties of a Christian as an apologist is to show, by the logic of his religious views and still more by the logic of his action, that the incarnate God did not come to diminish in us the glorious responsibility and splendid ambition that is ours: of fashioning our own self . Once again, non minuit, sed sacravit . No, Christianity is not, as it is sometimes presented and sometimes practiced, an additional burden of observances and obligations to weigh down and increase the already heavy load, or to multiply the already paralyzing ties of our life in society. It is, in fact, a soul of immense power which bestows significance and beauty and a new lightness on what we are already doing. It is true that it sets us on the road towards unsuspected heights. But the slope which leads to these heights is linked so closely with the one we were already climbing naturally, that there is nothing so distinctively human in the Christian (and this is what remains to be considered) as his detachment.
6. Detachment Through Action
There heardly seems room for any dispute between Christians about what we have so far said about the intrinsic divinization of human endeavor, since we have confined ourselves, in establishing it, to taking, in their proper strict sense, certain universally recognized theoretical and practical truths and confronting them with each other.
Nevertheless, some readers, though without finding any specific flaw in our argument, may feel vaguely upset or uneasy in the face of a christian ideal which lays such stress on the preoccupations of human development and the pursuit of earthly improvements. They should bear in mind that we are still only halfway along the road which leads to the mountain of Transifugration. Up to this point we have been dealing only with the active part of our lives. In a moment or two, when we come to the chapter on passivities and diminishment, the arms of the Cross will begin to dominate the scene more widely. Let us consider it for a moment. In the very optimistic and very broadening attitude which has been roughly sketched above, a true and deep renunciation lies concealed. Anyone who devotes himself to human duty according to the christian formula, though outwardly he may seem to be immersed in the concerns of the earth, is in fact, down to the depths of his being, a man of great detachment.
Of its very nature work is a manifold instrument of detachment, provided a man gives himself to it faithfully and without rebellion. In the first place it implies effort and a victory over inertia. And then, however interesting and intellectual it may be (and the more intellectual it is, the truer this becomes), work is always accompanied by the painful pangs of birth. Men can only escape the terrible boredom of monotonous and commonplace duty to find themselves a prey to the inner tension and the anxieties of ‘creation'. To create, or organize, material energy, or truth, or beauty, brings with it an inner torment which prevents those who face its hazards from sinking into the quiet and closed-in life wherein grows the vice of self-regard and attachment (in the technical sense). An honest workman not only surrenders his calm and peace once and for all, but must learn continually to jettison the form which his labor or art or thought first took, and go in search of new forms. To pause, so as to bask in or possess results, would be a betrayal of action. Over and over again he must go beyond himself, tear himself away from himself, leaving behind him his most cherished beginnings. And on that road, which is not so different from the royal road of the Cross as might appear at first sight, detachment does not consist only in continually replacing one object with another of the same order – as miles, on a flat road, replace miles. By virtue of a marvelous mounting force contained in things (and which will be analyzed in greater detail when we consider the ‘spiritual power of matter'), each reality attained and left behind gives us access to the discovery and pursuit of an ideal of higher spiritual content. Those who spread their sails in the right way to the winds of the earth will always find themselves borne by a current towards the open seas. The more nobly a man wills and acts, the more avid he becomes for great and sublime aims to pursue. He will not longer be content with family, country and the remunerative aspect of his work. He will want wider organizations to create, new paths to blaze, causes to uphold, truths to discover, an ideal to cherish and defend. So gradually, the worker no longer belongs to himself. Little by little the great breath of the universe has insinuated itself into him through the fissure of his humble but faithful action, has broadened him, raised him up, born him on.
It is in the Christian, provided he knows how to make the most of the resources of his faith, that these effects will reach their climax and their crown. As we have seen: from the point of view of the reality, accuracy and splendor of the ultimate end towards which we must aim in the least of our acts, we, disciples of Christ, are the most favored of men. The Christian knows that his function is to divinize the world in Jesus Christ. In him, therefore, the natural process which derives human action from ideal to ideal and towards objects ever more internally coherent and comprehensive in their embrace, reaches – thanks to the support of Revelation – its fullest expansion. And in him, consequently, detachment through action should produce its maximum effectiveness.
And this is perfectly true. The Christian as we have described him in these pages, is at once the most attached and the most detached men. Convinced in a way in which the ‘worldly' cannot be of the unfathomable importance and value concealed beneath the humblest worldy successes, the Christian is at the same time as convinced as the hermit of the worthlessness of any success which is envisaged only as a benefit to himself (or even a general one) without reference to God. It is God and God alone whom he pursues through the reality of created things. For him, interest lies truly in things, but in absolute dependence upon God's presence in them. The light of heaven becomes perceptible and attainable to him in the crystalline transparency of beings. But he wants only this light, and if the light is extinguished, whether because the object is out of its true place, or has outlived its function, or has moved itself, then even the most precious substance is only ashes in his sight. Similarly, within himself and his most personal development. It is not himself that he is seeking, but that which is greater than he, to which he knows that he is destined. In his own view he himself no longer counts, no longer exists; he has forgotten and lost himself in the very endeavor which is making him perfect. It is no longer the atom which lives, but the universe within it.
Not only has he encountered God in the entire field of his actions in the perceptible world, but in the course of this first phase of his spiritual development, the divine milieu which has been uncovered absorbs his powers in the very proportion in which these laboriously rise above their individuality.
P. Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu. An Essay on the Interior Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), pp. 50-73, Engl. transl. by William Collins