Spiritual progress is continual

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

On Friday May 20, at the Augustinian Institute in Pieta, I had the joy of attending an interesting lecture given by Fr Johnatan Farrugia on the life and theology of St Gregory of Nyssa. His well prepared lecture prompted me to delve deeper into a key concept in St Gregory’s theology, namely epektasis.

In his famous work the Life of Moses, this fourth century Bishop wrote: “And so every desire for the Beautiful which draws us on in this ascent is intensified by the soul’s very progress towards it. And this is the real meaning of seeing God: never to have this desire satisfied. But fixing our eyes on those things which help us to see, we must ever keep alive in us the desire to see more and more. And so no limit can be set to our progress towards God: first of all, because no limitation can be put on uponthe Beautiful, and secondly because the increase in our desire for the Beautiful cannot be stopped by any sense of satisfaction”.

This continual spiritual progression to God, epektasis, can be better appreciated in St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward towhat lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14). This “straining forward to what lies ahead” (verse 13) is what makes a spiritual journey true, fascinating and, as Fr Johnatan rightly put it, “rewarding”.

St Gregory of Nyssa exposed this point in his Life of Moses when he said: “For this reason we also say that the great Moses, as he was becoming ever greater, at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course.  Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained… He shone with glory.  And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more.  He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God’s true being”.

This power of this great teaching is found when we “com[e] down the mountain” of Jesus’ transifiguration to us (Matt 17: 19; Mark 9:9 see also Luke 9:37). This continual spiritual journey to God needs to be enfleshed in our daily lives. Pope Francis’ message to participants in the Macerata-Loreto pilgrimage of June last year is very illuminating on this point.

“A pilgrimage is a symbol of life; it makes us think that life is to walk, it is a path. If a person does not walk and stays still, it’s no good, he does nothing. Think of water, when water is not in the river, it doesn’t go forward but stops and is corrupted. A soul that does not walk in life doing good, doing the many things that must be done for society, to help others and who also does not walk through life seeking God moved by the Holy Spirit from within, is a soul that ends in mediocrity and spiritual misery. Please: do not stop in life!”

A real life pilgrimage is ongoing. “If you have made a mistake rise immediately and continue to walk. ‘Sing and walk,’ said Saint Augustine to his faithful. Walk with joy and walk also when the heart is sad, but always walk. And if you need to stop, may it be to rest a while and get some breath to go forward afterwards. Sing and walk! Always sing and walk! There is also thedanger of mistaking the road. One who walks can err on the road. This can happen to any one of us, and how many times we have done this. If you err on the road, return. Return, because there is Jesus’ mercy”.

Keep walking! Epektasis!

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