Contemporary spirituality tends to identify holiness with wholeness. Given that theology has always affirmed that grace builds on nature, that equation is, if taken correctly, good algebra. What is less emphasized in contemporary spirituality is how difficult it is to attain any kind of wholeness.
Why? Because we are all so incredibly complex. We spend much of our lives sorting through various rooms within our hearts trying to find out where we are really at home and trying on various personalities the way we try on clothes. It’s hard to come to wholeness when we aren’t always sure who we are or what’s ultimately truest within us.
I remember once seeing a fascinating interview with Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate. She was already 80 years old and was reflecting upon her own spiritual struggles. “Inside of me,” she said, “there are three persons:
There is someone I call the Baroness. This person is very spiritual, efficient, and given to asceticism and prayer. The baroness is the religious person. She has founded a religious community and writes spiritual books challenging others and herself to dedicate their lives to God and the poor. The Baroness reads the Gospel and is impatient with the things of this world. For her, this life must be sacrificed for the next one.
Then there is Catherine. Catherine is, first of all and always, the woman who likes fine things, luxuries, sensual things. She enjoys idleness, long baths, fine clothes, putting on make-up, healthy sex life. Catherine enjoys this life and doesn’t like renunciation and poverty. She is nowhere as religious or efficient as the Baroness. In fact, she hates the Baroness, she and the Baroness don’t get along at all.
And finally, inside of me too there is another person, a little girl, who is lying on a hillside in Finland, watching the clouds and daydreaming. This little girl is quite distant from both the Baroness and from Catherine.
… And as I get older I feel more like the Baroness, long more for Catherine, but think that maybe the little girl daydreaming on a hillside in Finland is the true me.”
Had these words been written by someone with fewer credentials within the spiritual life, they would not be as meaningful. However they basic level of initial conversion, but from someone who had long before made a deep irrevocable commitment to God, community, and the poor.
How complex is the human personality and how difficult is the struggle for wholeness!
Soren Kierkegaard once said that to be a saint is to will one thing. However, given all of these people inside of us, what can we really will?
Moreover, given too that grace is not meant to annihilate nature it is too simple to say that the spiritual life is simply a question of having the “spiritual person” win out over the “hedonist,” the “sensualist,” the “lover of this world,” and the “daydreaming child.” Wholeness must somehow mean precisely that, a making of one whole out of all of these parts. To ignore, annihilate, invalidate, or bypass one part for another is precisely never to achieve wholeness.
The truly spiritual person is a whole person and a whole person is, as Christ was, the ascetic and the hedonist, the lover of this life and the lover of the next life, the dreamer and the realist, and countless more things, all at the same time.
What must be rejected in our spiritual quest is not our nature, with its endless paradoxes and seeming schizophrenia, but all spiritualities, ideologies, and conventional wisdom, which tell us it’s simple, and would have us believe that holiness can be achieved quickly, unmessily, without confusion and without great patience.
All of us are pathologically complicated. Each of us could write our own book on multiple personalities. But that points to the richness, not the poverty, of our personalities. It does not suggest that there are parts of us that aren’t spiritual, but that the attainment of wholeness is a lot more complex than any one part of us would have us believe. Nikos Kazantzakis once wrote that “the spirit wants to wrestle with flesh that is strong and full of resistance … because … the deeper the struggle, the richer the final harmony.”