Blessed James Alberione

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As regards the theory and practice of Ascetical and Mystical Theology, the press apostle will find himself facing four main groups of people: opponents, the uneducated, the indifferent, and those thirsting for the interior life.
With opponents it will be a work of defense. With the uneducated and the indifferent, a work of enlightenment and encouragement. For the fervent, practical guidance.

Work of defense
Even in our times when there are people from every walk of life thirsting for recollection, prayer and the spiritual life, you can find
ways of thinking and living which are the complete opposite of Christian asceticism.
People often have a false notion of such asceticism; a pagan notion of physical activity and material satisfaction to the detriment of the higher values of the spirit and the much more noble and intense satisfaction that they offer us. Notions that creep into young people's thinking and give rise to a pagan mentality which seems a wonderful glorification of life but which, in reality, when not a forerunner of ruin and death, tarnishes life.
Accusations are then leveled against Christian asceticism and mysticism and against the Saints, its most illustrious models. Spirituality, we are told, is a pretense of piety; it disavows life, makes people gloomy, damages their health, is against nature, damages the State and destroys Society...
We need to respond to these and similar objections - accusations at times - with valid and telling arguments. They may vary with the situation but they must always set out and defend the doctrine and practice of Christian spirituality.
Reason, backed by philosophy and science, enlightened by experience and in particular by faith, will indicate valid and persuasive arguments at the right time and place.
One can, of course, respond to many
of the accusations and objections by enlarging on and reiterating, as need requires, the following Catholic principles: "Christian asceticism, practiced in accordance with one's own life situation and freely undertaken in view of self-mastery and the right use of material goods, improves human stock and is a source of ineffable satisfaction for the individual, the well-being of families and the prosperity of the nation. It is the upshot of an intrinsic religious feeling in the soul, which spreads a sacred understanding of life and leads to respect for the body, considered in its noble reflection as an instrument of the soul, a masterpiece of living organic nature, a temple of God, who indwells the upright and honest person with his grace.
"A sense of decency is the outcome of such sentiments; it is not feigned holiness or an artificial and conventional superstructure, but a robust defense against the seductions of evil, a person's wonderful adornment, a spontaneous and necessary manifestation of the morally healthy person who combats in view of his winning the primacy of spirit over matter."1

Work of enlightenment and encouragement
Even more numerous than opponents and critics are the uneducated and the indifferent.
Of course, sheer spiritual knowledge is not enough to make us holy. It is possible, in fact, to find people raised up to the highest degrees of perfection who have never read the most elementary treatise on asceticism, just as, absolutely speaking, you can find wayward people who have an eminent knowledge of ascetical and mystical theology. History gives us an example in a Miguel Molinos2 and in a Madame de Guyon.3
These are exceptional cases since experience shows that, ordinarily, most people do not venture out on the way of perfection either because they do not know about it or because they are held back by prejudice.
Some people, whose main concern is to avoid mortal sin base themselves on the fact that to be saved it suffices to die in the state of grace.
Others, the majority, hold back from any generous attempt at perfection because they consider it the privilege of the few.
Some people, even religious and priests, are convinced of the greatness of the interior life yet lack the courage to embrace it; they see it as a burden which deprives them of freedom and happiness.
Others, lastly, having started out on the road of holiness with heroic enthusiasm then
pulled back, complaining deluded and defeated, that "It is impossible!" "You are swimming against the tide..." "God, everyone, deserts you..." "You are always at the same point..."
In these and like cases you have to enlighten and encourage people with valid and credible reasons advised by the circumstances, widespread experience and competence.
On the basis of authority and that of reason enlightened by faith, you show that in the state of fallen nature a person cannot remain for long in grace and obtain final perseverance without making the effort to advance in the spiritual life and to practice to a certain degree, at least, some of the evangelical Counsels. The practice of the interior life imposes sacrifices which, little by little, become pleasant: "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light",4 said the Divine Teacher. This holy yoke keeps us free of worldly concerns; in many cases it eliminates life's most weighty sufferings (the anguish of doubt, remorse, distress...), it alleviates and enhances suffering quite independently of a person's faith and sense of right and wrong.
There is proof, above all, "that [the spiritual life] not only allows but intensifies all lawful enjoyment (such as the contemplation of nature, the enjoyment of the sciences, the profound and rapturous delight of art,
the savoring of the earth's most variegated gifts and fruits, homely joys, the delight that comes from healthy enjoyment, and so on); that it self-extracts a whole treasure of quite pure and inexpressible delights, a fruit of service to God, an outcome of God's possession."5

Work of guidance
There are, finally, quite a number of people who sincerely desire the interior life and who do make the effort to practice it. But they are often put off by discouragement; they lose their way and drift into a vague and thoughtless sentimentalism. People on whom God has showered exceptional gifts and graces, who while not falling into mediocrity have a relationship with God that is quite inferior to what it should be.
Since the apostle's task is not only to help people readjust and safeguard them, but also to guide them to perfection, let him recommend the theory and practice of the spiritual life in its threefold form: purgative, illuminative and unitive.
He should direct this work of his not only to individual lay persons or to lay groups, but also and in particular to religious men and women, and to priests, as persons
who have a particular obligation to tend towards perfection.
Religious are bound to do so by virtue of their state: an obligation based on the three vows and on the Constitutions of their respective Institutes.
Priests are bound to do so by virtue of their ministry and the mission they have to sanctify people.
Apart from authoritative documents it is clear from reason itself that, before his ordination, a priest must have reached a certain degree of holiness and, once ordained, he must continue to advance towards ever-greater perfection.

Practical norms
Before the apostle prepares to deal with a question of ascetical or mystical theology he must be suitably qualified, both intellectually and morally.
Intellectually: there has to be a complete, serious and deep study beforehand of ascetical and mystical theology and of its sources and supports (dogmatic and moral theology).
Morally: he himself must be gifted with no ordinary perfection; he must have a thorough understanding of the human heart and of the diverse and wonderful workings effected on it by the supernatural
influence of grace. He must be upright, prudent, and have that enlightened discretion without which he risks undertaking tasks that would not only prove useless, but also highly dangerous.6 Once at work he is not to disorient himself or others, getting sidetracked by frivolous and dangerous questions that veer from what is the essence of perfection. He is to hold fast to the Church's ordinary teaching and to draw his explanation from secure sources: Scripture, Tradition and reason enlightened by faith and experience. He will not find a summary of spiritual doctrine in Holy Scripture but what he will certainly find are valuable documents spread here and there both in the Old and the New Testament, under the form of teaching, precept, counsel, prayer and example.
Tradition, which is expressed in the Church's solemn and ordinary teaching, will be a back-up for the press apostle inasmuch as it interprets Holy Scripture authentically and sets out truths that are not contained in it.
Reason, guided and perfected by the light of faith, will help him to coordinate the data of Holy Scripture and Tradition, to show how spirituality has been historically lived out
by the saints, as well as how to apply the general principles and rules to individuals in particular, taking into account their temperament, character, age and sex, their social standing, their duties of state as well as the supernatural pull of grace, while bearing in mind the rules on the discernment of spirits.
What the apostle has to aim for is to perfect not just one of the human faculties, but the whole human person gifted with intellect, will and feeling, while at the same time setting out for her or him the truth to be believed, the way to be followed and the means to acquire God's grace to believe and to act in accordance with one's own calling.
The spiritual life is not a method. So instruct and teach people to acquire docility to the Holy Spirit quickly. Then again, since the spiritual life is not disorder let the apostle explain that a good method, understood properly and applied in time, leads to maturity and onwards to perfection and to perfect union with God.
Let him bear always in mind this key element: Christian perfection is to live in Jesus Christ, and that our incorporation in him is the basis and motive of imitation of Jesus Christ, of our spiritual progression7 towards him and of our life of union with him.

1 CAVASSA, Ascetismo cristiano e vita moderna.

2 * Miguel de Molinos (1628-1696), a Spanish theologian condemned for his Spiritual Guide which was suspected of Quietism.

3 * J.-M. Bouvier de Guyon (1648-1717), a French mystic, also charged with Quietism.

4 Mt 11:30.

5 CAVASSA, Ascetismo cristiano e vita moderna.

6 The history of the Quietists and the pseudo-mystics is sufficient proof.

7 * The Italian edition notes: It is obvious that the word ascesi (Greek áskesis = moral combat) used here means ascensioni.