If you’re familiar with the old farm buildings below our natural cemetery you will have seen the old Waterloo House falling into ruin. It was once a beautiful house and is probably not beyond restoration. However, if this were done the complex process would include removing much of the existing structure that has decayed beyond repair. If the Waterloo House had consciousness this necessarily drastic restoration process would probably leave it feeling that it was losing itself and heading for total annihilation rather than restoration.
We are not unlike the Waterloo House when we authentically embrace our Cistercian vow of Conversion of Life and submit to the purifying and recreating fire of the Holy Spirit. And this is because sanctification is a radical restoration of what has been disfigured and decayed through both original and personal sin. Although created in the image and likeness of God we have has lost that initial glory and dignity that was ours at the beginning. Baptism began the complex work of restoration and, as we know, we are all still very much a work in progress.
However, just as restoring a tumble-down house necessitates drastic measures that often leave a mere skeleton of the original structure, so our restoration typically involves radical transformation that requires the uncovering of diseased and decaying elements of our hearts and souls. And thus even for those who embrace conversion with a stable and secure sense of self, the probing of the Holy Spirit can reveal formerly unknown aspects of themselves that can be disturbing and difficult to acknowledge and not repress. And thus ways of thinking about ourselves and a longstanding sense of our true identity are found to be either inaccurate or incomplete. Attributes like altruism, empathy, generosity, and selflessness that we thought were some of our defining qualities are found to be infected with the wood-worm of self-seeking, self-protectiveness, with perhaps a subtle overlay of superiority and vainglory.
And as these unflattering layers of the self are gradually uncovered we can anxiously wonder if anything of what we thought ourselves to be will remain. But for those who, assisted and sustained by grace, don’t give up or escape from this indispensable uncovering the process described so beautifully by Saint John in today’s Second Reading proceeds to its glorious goal and conclusion. For, though divinization—which is ultimately what Saint John is describing—sounds wonderful (and it is), becoming like God so that we may see God as he is, involves not the waving of some divine wand, but rather this sometimes agonizing process of restoration. Unfortunately, precisely because it is an aversive experience, progress is anything but linear and uninterrupted. For most of us there are times when the sense of inner disintegration is too disturbing and we find ways of resisting the searching and revealing light of the sanctifying Spirit.
For some monks this can involve radical steps like leaving the monastery, or lesser ones like curbing or neglecting times of prayer and lectio divina. For others it involves more subtle ways of avoidance like substituting scripture study for lectio. Others attempt to control God during times of prayer with what Jesus termed “babbling” and fail to take a breath and listen. Still others cultivate that pseudo-contemplation where the mind is stilled as a way of blinding or deafening oneself to what threatens to enter consciousness through the enlightening Spirit.
However, if we are ever to become that restored house and that noble dwelling place of the Spirit, then there is no other option but loving trust in God’s saving plan for our lives. This entails repeatedly surrendering ourselves to the divinizing work of the Holy Spirit who only waits for our “yes” to undertake the great work of restoration that Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection made possible. There is some consolation in the realization that ultimately there is no alternative to this difficult process: if not undertaken in this life, it will need to be undergone in purgatory. So let us recommit ourselves to this restoration process and in those moments when we simply seem to be disintegrating and losing ourselves let us recall Saint John’s assurance: What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.