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Falling towards God

30 November, 1999

Paul Murray OP sets the images of ‘descent’ and ‘falling’ alongside the more familiar images of ‘ascent’ and ‘rising’, in explaining the motion of the soul towards God.

‘On this road, to descend is to ascend and to ascend is to descend.’
St John of the Cross, The Dark Night, Bk II, ch.r.8

One of the preferred images used by St John of the Cross to describe the journey towards union with God or the path of contemplation, is that of an ascent – The Ascent of Mount Carmel. The image is useful in that it underlines the need, on the part of the contemplative, for great personal effort and an almost stoic determination.

Humble descent
But there is another image, one not excluded by John, which is at least as helpful and illuminating, an image not of going up but of going down, an image of a humble descent, and even an image of falling. For the Christian contemplative the great value of this image is the emphasis it places on our need for God’s grace, and the importance therefore of humility in our relationship with God. ‘You wish to scale a mountain,’ Therese of Lisieux remarks, ‘but the good God wants you to descend; he is waiting for you at the bottom of the fertile valley of humility.’ The acknowledgement of human pride and human failure marks the beginning of this journey. Accordingly, in The Steps of Humility and Pride, St Bernard of Clairvaux quite openly admits, ‘I can teach only what I know myself I could not very well describe the way up. I am more used to falling down than to climbing… I can only tell you what I know myself, the downward path.’

Progress on this downward path or the experience of falling can, I suggest, be thought of as taking place in three stages. First, falling into sin; second, falling towards grace; and third, falling in love with God.

Falling into God
‘I tried to rise to the light of God,’ exclaims St Anselm in his Proslogium, ‘and I have fallen back into my darkness. Nay, not only have I fallen into it, but I feel that I am enveloped in it. I fell before my mother conceived me. Truly, in darkness I was conceived, and in the cover of darkness I was born. Truly, in him [Adam] we all fell, in whom we all sinned.’ Falling into sin, the first stage of the downward path, is obviously not a stage of grace at all. But it is the starting point for all of us nevertheless. For it was when we were ‘still in our sins,’ as St Paul puts it, that God in Christ befriended us, a point Teresa of Avila was at pains to make referring in particular to Mary Magdalen and to the woman at Samaria. So our spiritual life begins not with something we have achieved a spiritual assault on the Himalayas – but with God’s saving decision in Christ to descend to our humblest need.

In one of the visions she received concerning the mercy of God, the English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich describes how in the form of a visual parable she saw a man falling into a pit or a dell. The vision represented Adam and his fall. Bur it also represented the saving ‘fall’ of God in the Incarnation. For when Adam fell, Julian tells us, God’s Son also fell: ‘God’s Son could not be separated from Adam… Adam fell from life to death into the valley of this wretched world, and after that into hell.’ Bur God did not wait for Adam to climb up by his own efforts out of the valley of his humiliation. Instead, Julian declares, ‘God’s Son fell with Adam into the valley of the womb of the maiden… to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth; and powerfully he brought him out of hell.’ Accordingly, from the point of view of God, the first stage in the spiritual life refers to ‘the downward path’ taken by the Word of God in the Incarnation, his humble and saving descent to the level of our deepest need in order to seek out and save those who are lost.

Falling towards grace
The second stage of falling, I call falling towards grace. This is the point of breakthrough in our spiritual lives although at first it may feel more like breakdown. We reach a stage when we are no longer able to rely on our own resources. So, trusting in God we fall back on his mercy. It takes courage to do this bur it also takes desperation. In the act of letting go we begin to contemplate – perhaps for the first time – a God greater than our own hearts. It is an experience at once of enlightenment and of purification. We are in one and the same moment exalted and humbled. St Augustine in one of his sermons holds an imaginary dialogue with the Good Thief on the cross. Augustine was puzzled that a mere thief and not one of the Doctors of the Law had been able to recognise the Lord in his last agony. Had this man, this thief, been able somehow to study the Old Testament between his robberies? Had he alone been able to penetrate the meaning of Isaiah ch. 53? To this question the thief replies, ‘No. I made no special study of scripture. But I found Jesus looking at me, and in his look I understood everything.’

This contemplation of a God literally wounded by love is, of course, at the core of our Christian experience and our Christian prayer. Again and again, to our astonishment, we discover that God has used the experience of suffering in our lives and even the experience of sin, to make us contemplative of his love. Augustine states in the seventh book of The Confessions that those who were once proud now see ‘under their feet’ a God who has made himself weak for their sake; and being wearied at last by their own hopeless efforts, they cast themselves down on him  down ‘on his humanity’ so that when he rises, they rise with him. By falling back on grace in this way, we ourselves can now begin to experience in wonderful depth the mystery of our baptism. For not only are we drawn to remember Christ’s death and resurrection in a new way, we actually begin to experience this death and this resurrection as events which are taking place now within our own lives. It is, in fact, as Johannes Tauler explains, by ‘dying to self’ and abandoning ‘our presumptions and arrogant ways’ that we learn ‘what it means to truly arise.’ For the authentic followers of Christ Jesus, in Tauler’s opinion, are those who never insist on ‘their own ideas’ nor on ‘their own techniques in prayer and meditation.’

They permit God to prepare the ground, leaving themselves entirely to him. By this act of self-surrender they refuse to cling to anything of their own, be it their works, their special devotions, what they undertake and what they leave aside. They accept all things from God in humble awe and refer them back to him in total detachment, bowing lowly to the divine Will… When tempted through pride or carnal desire, through worldly attachments, anger, or whatever else, they immediately surrender it all to God and they allow themselves to fall into his loving arms. Such people do indeed rise up, for they go beyond themselves.

Falling in love with God
The process I have described so far has been one of healing and purification. God has allowed us to te stripped naked of any pride we may have had in our own righteousness. The purpose being, of course, that when in utter nakedness of spirit and vulnerability, we at last fall back on him, his touch is felt by us as never before. We are drawn to him, as to a friend and even as to a lover. ‘Indeed, the soul is led by a heavenly love and desire when once the beauty and glory of the Word of God has been perceived, he falls in love with his splendour and by this receives from him some dart and wound of love.’

One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
Ah, the sheer grace!
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled.

Commenting on these lines from his poem, The Dark Night, St John of the Cross explains for us in simple prose something of their mystery: ‘In this first stanza,’ he writes, ‘the soul is speaking.’ Now so intense is the love the soul feels she deliberately slips out into the night ‘unseen,’ following a way, as John explains, ‘from love of self. . . through a method of true mortification. . . to begin the sweet and delightful life of love with God.’ The soul, the bride ’emphasises the intense happiness it possessed in journeying to God through this dark night.’ Elsewhere, in his book, The Spiritual Canticle, John describes how at a certain stage ‘the soul faints with longing to be engulfed in that supreme good she feels present and hidden. ..she is drawn and carried toward this good more forcibly than any material object is pulled toward its centre by gravity.’ And again, ‘At this period the soul feels that she is rushing toward God as impetuously as a falling stone when nearing its centre.’ The ‘gravity’ of which St John speaks here is that weight of love which in the end is more powerful than the gravity of sin, that pondus to which Augustine refers in his Confessions Amor meus pondus meum”  that is, love is the weight by which I act. Love is certainly the weight by which Augustine prays, and by which he is led or drawn into contemplation. ‘To whatever place I go,’ the saint remarks, ‘I am drawn to it by love.’

Late have I loved you
I would like to end these introductory reflections on Christian contemplation by quoting another passage again from St Augustine in which the divine love which intervened to save him and which, in the end, clearly overwhelmed him with its beauty, is so memorably acknowledged. It is a passage which contains what must surely be one of the most moving descriptions of falling in love with God ever written:

‘Late, late, have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you… You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and now I burn for your peace.’

This article first appeared in Spirituality (Jan-Feb 2001), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.