From “Transformation in Christ:
On the Christian Attitude”
by Dietrich von Hildebrand, 1889-1977
Man is in his innermost essence specifically ordained to God.
“Thou has created us for Thee’’’ says St. Augustine. (Confessions 1.1)
In the measure that man submerges himself in his adoration of God, his personality becomes ampler and richer and adorned with higher values. Inversely, in the measure that he is concerned with his own self and the consideration enjoyed by that self, he becomes poorer, narrower, more arid and jejune. That is why, as the example of the holy Cure d’Ars (John Vianney) shows, even a man of scant natural gifts may develop into a great and rich personality, if only he gives himself fully and unreservedly to God; whereas, in comparison with such a man, a person who is endowed with the highest natural talents, but who shuts himself off from God, will emanate a barren and oppressive atmosphere. To be sure, we receive supernatural life, just as the natural one, as a free gift from God’s hand, without any contribution from our part. Yet we cannot become transformed in Christ unless we lose ourselves in our vision of Christ. Only if we immerse ourselves in a loving adoration of Christ can we be transformed in him.
What does God, above all, demand of us? Our love. What is the question our Lord puts thrice, emphatically, to Peter in that great hour when he entrusts him with the care of his flock? It is the question as to his love.
“Simon, son of John, lovest thou me?” (John 21: 16).
Those men err who believe it to be our supreme goal that we become pure instruments of God. Certainly, we are also meant to be tools of God. But our proper and ultimate vocation is to be transformed in Christ: that is, to become saints.
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification,” says Saint Paul (1 Thess. 4:3).
So long as we are a mere channel for the flow of God’s will, so long as we are nothing but an impersonal tool in the hands of God, so long as we have no desire other than to discharge a certain function in the universe according to the plan of God, we cannot be transformed in Christ. The attainment of our proper supernatural aim presupposes an entirely different attitude on our part. It requires that we surrender ourselves to Christ by an act of love which is nothing if not eminently personal. It demands that we thus help the divine life unfold in us. Christ must become the centre of our thought, our yearning, and our will. Our every act must be stamped, as it were, with his seal. In all our conscious being we must become imprinted with the Christ-stamp. It requires, indeed, our having that drunkenness with Jesus which was present in the great saints. Only think of these, of a Saint Paul, a Saint Francis of Assisi or a Saint Catherine of Siena! What a full personal life it is that pulsates in them! Do they not represent the utmost antithesis to any impersonal and neutral mode of being, yet at the same time, to any subjectivistic narrowness?
The secret of their being both at once lies in Saint Paul’s words: “I live, yet it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me”; in St. Francis’: “My God and my all”; in St. Catherine’s: “That Thou be, and I be not.”
This is the meaning of “He that loses his life shall win it.”
The saints do die to themselves, in the sense of being absorbed by their love of Christ, losing themselves in Christ, and only thus do they find their true selfhood, their self as intended by God.
Our integral relationship with Christ, the head of the mystical body which encompasses and sustains us and works within us, necessarily implies, then, an express confrontation of our I with the divine thou. True self-surrender consists in our giving ourselves to Christ absolutely, in a spirit of loving adoration; in the full renunciation of our sovereignty; in our becoming empty with regard to all other things. It means that we make no reservation whatsoever; that no province subsists in our personal world over which we still want to reign in our own right or in which we still are somehow asserting ourselves. So long as we still draw the line somewhere in us (even though we do not expressly formulate that limitation), so long as we, however tacitly, at some point still utter a ne plus ultra (“no more beyond”) which opposes a barrier to the extension of the Lord’s empire in us, we have not given ourselves to Christ in a way that is a true self-surrender. We must really push our skiff from off the shore; burn the boats behind us. The important thing is to do away with all conditions and reservations, overt or hidden. In this matter, very much is of little avail: it has to be all It is only by the totality of our surrender, the heroism, unspoilt by any proviso, of our leap in the dark, that we achieve the loss of our soul.
But there is one more aspect to this loss of self as implied in true self-surrender: namely, that state of being possessed which we experience when dimly aware of a power stronger than ourselves taking hold of us. In such moments we feel as though, like Habakkuk, we were taken “by the hair of our head” and lifted above ourselves.
Plato has seen (he develops it in his “Phaedrus”) that all great things are somehow done in a state of madness (the term meaning here, not, of course, a pathological condition of insanity, but our being entranced by something greater than we are). Then we thrust off or become enchanted away, as it were, from the secure base which we have laboriously established for ourselves and on which we have built our ordinary life.
These are the moments, then, in which a great thing bursts into our life and shakes its hitherto solid framework. The firm ground on which we have formerly moved securely, able to govern and to order rationally all our affairs, is drawn from under our feet. We no longer have, as we had before, a sense of sovereignty over the situation. That is why Plato attributes a specific value to being in love: for being in love essentially implies a kind of soaring above the normal level of our life, a certain rapture. Whenever anything thus causes us to soar above the habitual plane of our life, whenever we are possessed by something that overwhelms us not by its mere dynamism but by its objective superiority, we also become delightfully aware that it is precisely this renunciation of our sovereignty which makes us really free. Supernatural life as a whole requires us to depart from that firm natural terrain.
The Apostles, indeed, left that solid ground when in response to Christ’s sequere me (“keep it real”) they left everything behind and followed the Lord unconditionally; when they spoke, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:69).
Yet, they did so, not in an unsanctioned way, yielding blindly to a compelling urge, but in the blissful consciousness which we find in the words of Saint Paul, “For I know whom I have believed” (2 Tim. 1:12).
They gave themselves wholly to the absolute Lord over life and death, from whom they had received everything. Their departure from the framework of their former lives, their loss of self, bore the most express and most complete personal sanction a human act can bear. Any self- surrender that lacks such a sanction lacks ultimate validity. We must, then, never abandon ourselves to any unsanctioned impulse. The true state of dwelling with ourselves, again, presupposes what we have called the sanction. But the endeavour to shun all risk and flee all danger of being possessed, to carefully preserve the firm ground under one’s feet, is not consonant (and is even inconsistent) with the true habitare secum (“living in oneself”), though it represents a kind of illegitimate counterfeit thereof. It is the source of all philistine mediocrity. It is doubtless better to abide on the firm ground of one’s well-ordered natural life than to allow oneself to be swept off one’s feet, but again it is infinitely better to lose oneself in Christ and to be seized by him than to keep smugly within that secure natural framework. Not only is such seizure better, but it is also necessary for us if we are truly desirous of being transformed in Christ. Our abandonment of self is an indispensable condition of the full unfolding in us of supernatural life.
For our Lord says, not only “He that shall lose his life for me shall find it,” but also “He that findeth his life shall lose it.”
We must, then, lose our soul so as to find it. In other words, we should renounce all vain effort to incorporate Christ into our life, but endeavour wholeheartedly, with the full sanction of our central personality, to transpose our life into Christ and entrust it to him; indeed, to be possessed by him.