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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
God is a Pure Spirit
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We continue with our theological retreat. And the theme for the present conference is: "God is A Pure Spirit": subtitle God is Absolutely Simple. First, a rather long introduction. The word simple is misleading in English. We are not exactly complimented when somebody tells us or says about us "He or she (you know) - very simple - simple minded. What the Church however means by simplicity is that there are no parts. Something or someone is simple when they are not divisible. In other words, (and I am presuming on a lot of theology), in other words, because God is absolutely Simple, He is a Pure Spirit because whatever else a spirit has, it has no divisions or parts. So what is a spirit? A spirit is a real being (what a prejudice, what a prejudice in our materially preoccupied society to think that something is real if it is tangible: has parts, has quantity - not so). A spirit is a real being. Moreover, it is a real substance; and as a spirit it is a being that can know because it has a mind. A spirit can choose and love because it has a will. And whatever else we know (we can all know what) about the spiritual life, let's make sure we know this: The spiritual life is that life by which like God we can know with our minds and choose and love with our wills.
That is why our human soul is a spirit. Angels are spirits. But our souls and angels exist only because God who is a spirit so that our spiritual life is the life of the spiritual part of our being of our soul as that is lived out in union with the eternal, undivided spirit of God. But then we add (and we see that God is not only a spirit) but is a pure spirit which we are not. God is a pure spirit because there is nothing bodily or corporeal in God. Unlike us, God is not composed of body and soul. Nor is God like the angels. We are indeed spiritual but the spirit of the angels and the spirit of our souls are created spirits. The spirit of God is a pure spirit not only because it has no odd mixture of body but also because the spirit of God unlike our spirit never came into being. It always was. So much for the introduction.
We first go to the Old and New Testaments and ask ourselves: "What do the Scriptures tell us about God as Being a Spirit"? Plenty. Before this conference, I went to your local, private library. To the huge concordance (two of them, in fact), to see how many passages in the Old Testament speak of God as Spirit. I counted eight columns - about 70 quotations per, column. If there is anything for the Holy Spirit wants us to know about God is that God has no (long pause) BODY, that God is not material, that God is (and the title of our conference), a Pure Spirit. We read (and I've checked it to make Sure), in the second verse of the Bible: Genesis, First Chapter, I quote: "The Spirit of God was stirring above the waters" (which we know means the Spirit of God was in existence before God had made any creatures). Throughout the Old Testament, the expression Spirit of God recurs constantly.
God, we are told is invisible. God we are told cannot be seen. God, we are told has no bodily parts. And even though what we call anthropomorphisms, (big word to describe a very simple thing), even though the Old Testament speaks of God speaking, and hearing, and seeing, but the Bible couldn't be clearer in insisting that God as God has no bodily parts. He is, in a word, Pure Spirit. As human beings, (still quoting the Scriptures), "As human beings share more and more in the Spirit who is God, they are able to know God and thru Him, have knowledge that no one else can enjoy". As human beings (watch this), become more spiritual (memorize that adjective) - the essence of spiritual applied to human beings means becoming more and more like God. (Continues where the Old Testament leaves off). "The Spirit of God is the power of God". It is the Wisdom of God. It is the Goodness of God. (How I would like to say this). The Spirit of God is God. And we therefore, that the more we become like God, the more spiritual we become. So the essence of the Spiritual Life is to be living the life of God who is Pure Spirit.
This is one conference (surprisingly) in which we'll give most of the time to what I call practical implications. My actual Count - I have 13. We believe therefore that God is Pure Spirit. What is the significance of God's Absolute, Utter, Infinite Spirituality? What is the importance of that in our (and how I can use the word more safely), our Spiritual Life?
First: What God's Being a Pure Spirit tells us is that God as God has no size, no shape, no color, no texture, no weight, no extension in space. Yet the most real being (what a coinage of terms), the Most Real Being in existence, the One Who Existed before the world of size, and shape and color and weight and extension, even came into Being. The most real reality is the Spiritual Being Who is God. How dare we say "Relax, so much, so much" - well just about everything that in the Philosophy of the World is important.
Second implication: God's Pure Spirituality as having not a shred or a shadow of we what we call matter which we can touch or taste and hear or - this mysterious fact of God Being a Pure Spirit, is a constant reminder, (let me change the sentence), is a constant rebuke to us to judge the value of everything and anything spiritually: not by its length, not by its size, not by its mass, or speed or color, or feeling - the value against the background of God of anything to be judged by how closely it approximates the absolute Spirituality of God because God and God alone sets the Standard for judging the value of anything and everything!
Third implication: Christ's statement: "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his soul?" Christ's statement - a rhetorical question tells us we are indeed composed of body and soul (we're now to begin using the vocabulary we are talking about), we are composed of matter and spirit. But what is a matter? (With the vocabulary we are using!) - What is it matter? Imagine anyone speaking English and saying: "What is its spirit?" As though the fundamental norm of the value of anything is matter! What value, Christ tells us is there in possessing the whole wide world but then losing the destiny for which our spirit was made to possess the infinite Spirit of God for all eternity. That's why we're on earth. God made us, body and spirit, indeed but to use the body so that the spirit might reach its goal in possessing the Divine Spirit who is God.
Fourth implication: Everything in the visible world now has only as much value, should be counted only as useful, should even be on our minds, only in so far as it enables our spirit to remain united with the Spirit of God by His grace in this world and enjoy that Spirit who is God in the world to come.
Fifth implication: Unlike God, we have both a body and a spirit. However, only our spirit is immortal. And if ever we want to reassure ourselves that spirit is more important than body, we call in memory a person whom you've known still alive and that same person, now, may look the same - you touch the body, may feel the same and not long after death, the body as Martha reminded Christ, begins to stink. Stench is God's way of teaching us the value of the spirit! Oh how much we have to learn!! We are composed as we are of body and spirit; we are only as pleasing to God as our spirit is united with the Spirit of God. What do you mean? Simple. We are only as pleasing to God as our wills (you've got to be a spirit to have a will) - as our wills are united with the Will of God. Everything else from the perspective of our Faith is not only unimportant, but meaningless unless and only in so far as our spirit is alive with the Spirit of God. I'm still on implication number five. Look, I have a body and the people I am talking to also have a body. Otherwise, I couldn't speak and you couldn't hear. We do not demean the value of the body. We don't say (like some of the early heretics of the Church claimed "the body was bad or useless"). NO! But listen, we have a body in order to help the spirit. Why do we feed the body? - To keep the spirit alive! - and united with the body! Why do we have a body? So that by using the body, (here, you patiently listening), might learn more about the God who made us and understand His Will more perfectly. We have a body in order to enable the spirit to grow. And we may say, once God who knows more than we do - once God sees (well), the spirit of that person has reached that degree of perfection which "I" intended for that person to have, "I" will now pluck the spirit and leave the body behind, otherwise known as bodily death. In God's designs, He has given us a bodily life in order that we might grow in the spiritual life: meaning, in the life of our spirit. No wonder Christ could say about Judas: "It would have been better for him if he had never been born in body."
Sixth implication: We should all as ourselves (that's what a retreat is), asking ourselves embarrassing questions. We should ask ourselves whether we are indulging the body. That verb "to indulge the body," is important. Bodily indulgence means not using the body as the body should be used to help the soul.
Seventh implication: If we are to become more and more like the God who made us, we should be willing to endure in our bodies. We should be willing to suffer in our bodies. We should be willing to sacrifice (drop the preposition), sacrifice our bodies. We should be willing to exhaust our bodies. One of my favorite passages in the whole Bible (when the Evangelists tell us about Jesus) - one verse: "And He became tired." Thanks, Lord, I need that. That kind of mysticism, I can understand. I can lecture on raptures and ecstasies but I had never had one. I know however, what it means to grow in the spiritual life and to become more and more like the God who made us. By wearing ourselves out in body, (I mean every syllable of that sentence) - in as Christ exhausted Himself so that by working, laboring with our bodies, we might serve God more generously in our spirit. And the price to serving God as He wants to be served (I tell you), the price in the labor and efforts of our bodies is great! But is worth it.
Eighth implication: We should use our bodies according to God's Will in order to grow in the life of the spirit. How do we grow in the spiritual life? By using our bodies according to God's will. I have three recommendations. May I commend all three to your planning to decide as a fruit of this retreat. We grow in the spiritual life thru control of our bodily inclinations when we pray. I've prayed too many hours myself over the years. I've had too many people tell me: "Father, I want to pray, but you can't imagine how hard it is for me even to stay awake." If we want to grow in the spiritual life, we must control our natural bodily fatigue. There are two duties in everyone's spiritual life and they are prayer and the practice of charity. I defy anyone to pray as we should unless that person is willing to control their natural desires and is willing to labor and exert oneself in order to pray. (I hope you hear this again in some future days). In order to pray well, we must exert ourselves in body. No choice!
Bodily mortifications, bodily self-control: indispensable (I don't say for growth in prayer) - even to practice the fundamentals of the life of prayer, I must have learned to master my body: as simple but as important to think as the posture of my body in prayer. The surest way for most people to go to sleep is to lie down. Is it possible to pray while lying down? Yes! Is a supine posture conducive to prayer? (Question. Answer.) NO. And this bodily control is not only the control of the external members of the body; it is also and especially the control of the imagination. And for the practice of charity, we need to use the body (what a safe statement), to practice charity. If someone did not cook a meal, well, we wouldn't eat. Every act of charity though it is indeed from the inside of the human spirit (ah, but the charity that I practice), demands and how it demands the loving use of my body! I gauge myself in order to give this retreat; I will spend an average of ten hours a day in writing. You think with the mind. You have to write with the body. And the mind must be in control, otherwise, you doodle - you don't write.
Implication number nine: We should be willing to give up even legitimate bodily satisfactions as a loving holocaust to God. That by the way is what Catholic Priests and Catholic Religious who undertake a life of Consecrated Chastity do - sacrifice the deep, very satisfying and provided it is within the precincts of marriage, holy and pleasing to God - the pleasure in order to become more and more like the God whom being Pure Spirit (what are we saying), tells us "I am pleased if you sacrifice the deepest bodily pleasure out of love for Me."
Tenth implication: We must beware of the pressure to conformity where the world in which we live (I believe both of the following sentences are true) - (I would define the world on Christ's terms - the world that He said: "I do not pray for." I would define the world as first; the world is that philosophy of life in which bodily pain is an absolute evil. And the world in that philosophy of life where bodily pleasure is an absolute good. To be worldly means to avoid bodily pain at all costs.
To be worldly means to enjoy bodily pleasure at all costs. This tenth implication, by the way, is no mere pious afterthought. The Catholic Church in one materially, super-developed country after another, the Catholic Church is fighting in some places for her existence because she insists that bodily pain is not an absolute evil. Bodily pain can be a great, (comma), very great (comma), very, very great good. You don't talk that language to the world. And the Catholic Church teaches (let me change the sentence), those in the Catholic Church who are still faithful to the Faith given Her by Her founder teaches: "Not all bodily pleasure is good." And God being God, has a right to tell us what bodily pleasure we might enjoy and what bodily pleasure we must (and the verb is we MUST) avoid.
11th implication: In order to put our faith in Christ who gave us the beatitudes, in order to put this faith into practice, its foundation is that God is a Pure Spirit: in order to put the First Beatitude into practice, and the first beatitude is a condition for the other seven - in order to live and not just talk about the spiritual life - we must practice "Poverty of Spirit": meaning what: DETACHMENT of our wills from all material possessions in this world. This 11th implication means that in every state of life, though we are surrounded, enveloped, immersed in the world of space and time, and the world now which has exhausted human genius in inventing means of titillating the human body and satisfying bodily desires - we must remain strong as a piece of steel in not giving in to a world that is gone mad with its lust for bodily satisfaction.
12th implication: We must never forget another statement of the Master in which Christ told us: "How hard it is for a rich person to enter heaven." And the primary meaning that Christ had when he spoke about which people, the primary meaning was that who have an abundance, even a super-abundance of material things to satisfy their bodies. My friends, there is only one person whom Christ, the All-loving and Merciful God in human form - there is only one person whom God, as Jesus Christ consign to Hell - (remember? the Vulgate, the Douay Rheims translation calls him remember - DIVIES which is simply the Latin "dives" for a rich person. Remember the dialogue between Divies in Hell and Lazarus saved, (as the expression goes: In the bosom of Abraham"). Our bodily life is too short to make any mistake here. If we want to keep out of hell, and reach heaven, we must be sure we know that unless we use the material things of this world and experience the satisfactions of the body according to God's Will, unless we do that, we will not be saved.
Finally, 13th implication: We must be convinced that the precondition for salvation and with (emphasis), for SANCTIFICATION, is the willing surrender of what our bodies with our fallen human nature so constantly crave. Three words each beginning with an "s" should always go together: Salvation, sanctification and sacrifice. And the sacrifice which has been the focus of this meditation is the sacrifice of everything that Faith and Reason tell us would displease God, so that sacrificing what we like for our purpose in body we might, (hear it), when our body dies, that our spirit might be alive. That's all that matters. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING else in our lives matters. NOTHING! Except that when our body dies our spirit will be alive with the Spirit of God. Having sacrificed out of love for Him in this world that we might see Him, enjoy Him in the world to come provided our lives here had been lives especially of bodily sacrifice.
I've got a short prayer. Lord God, You are Pure Spirit which we are not. If you want us to become more and more like you by seeking always the things of the Spirit, even as we use our bodies and use material things in order to please you, detach us from the unruly love that we have for this world so that we may grow in the Spiritual Life here on earth and be ready when You call us for the Eternal Life, everlasting spiritual life for which You have made US. Amen. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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