The Steeplechase: A Hecker Reflection
This is the fourteenth in a series of previously unpublished reflections from the 1854 spiritual notebook of Paulist Founder, Servant of God Father Isaac T. Hecker. The reflection series is being made pubic in conjunction with Father Hecker's cause for canonization. This reflection by Father Isaac Hecker from his 1854 spiritual notebook is a little long, so it will be presented in two parts with two responses.
The Steeplechase:The Ordinary and Extraordinary Way of Perfection
These two ways are exemplified by two kinds of birds: one makes use of its feet to spring up into the air – its natural element; and the other uses its wings like the ostrich to help it walk upon the earth – it’s natural home.
“The extraordinary way,” says Pere Surin, “is a state in which one is led with the help of the Holy Spirit and no longer acts on one’s own.”
My novice master, whom I saw several years after my novitiate, said that the extraordinary way compared with the ordinary way was like one who instead of keeping to the beaten track should cut across the fields and fences to get to the end of the journey; it was a much shorter but more dangerous way. One might call the extraordinary way “a steeplechase after God.”
Response: Father Paul Robichaud, CSP
Do you use your feet not to walk but to leap, because God has given you the extraordinary gift of being able to fly? Or do you use your wings only for balance when you walk, because, like the ostrich, you don’t have the gift to fly? ‘What kind of a bird are you?’ Servant of God, Isaac Hecker writes in his 1854 spiritual notebook. Some 10 years earlier, he was introduced to 17th century traditional spirituality by his Redemptorist Novice Master Father Othman. During his novitiate in Belgium he learned about the two ways to Christian perfection: the ordinary and the extraordinary way. The ordinary way to perfection comes through the God given gifts of faith hope and love. In prayer and the sacraments, in fasting and spiritual direction and most importantly in the development of the virtue of charity for God is love, we move towards union with God. The extraordinary way of perfection is when God moves toward us through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul and we become recipients of God’s action; we spiritually take flight.
St. Theresa of Avila in her spiritual autobiography describes the four stages of growth in the spiritual life like a garden being watered. The garden is the soul, the water the grace of God, and the labor is discipline in prayer. As beginners we take an empty bucket and go to the well in order to water the garden. In time as we become more proficient, our prayer becomes like a water wheel where we only have to turn the crank. As we grow, our prayer deepens into aqueducts and canals that bring a continual flow of water to the garden of our souls. But for St. Theresa the fourth stage is different because it comes not from us but from God, for here God makes it rain on the soul. How do we as Christians have the possibility of reaching this stage in the spiritual life?
Father Hecker was introduced to the spiritual writings of Louis Lallemant and Jean Surin during his novitiate; French Jesuits who emphasized the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul. It was in docility to the Holy Spirit that God might just move towards you, transforming you from an ascetic who walks in prayer to a mystic who flies. Whether we reach that stage or not in our spiritual life, Hecker ends with the words of Father Othman, the extraordinary way is a much shorter but dangerous because there are all kinds of addictive, resentful, angry spirits that substitute for the Spirit of God. Docility to the wrong spirit is far worse a path than the ordinary way to Christian perfection. To paraphrase Father Hecker, if our journey towards God is a steeplechase, let’s make sure we are riding the right horse!
Father Paul Robichaud, CSP, is the Paulist historian and postulator for the cause for canonization of Father Hecker.
About Father Isaac Hecker’s 1854 Spiritual Notebook:
Servant of God, Father Isaac Hecker wrote these spiritual notes as a young Redemptorist priest about 1854 and they have never been published. Hecker was 34 years old at the time, and had been ordained a priest for five years. He loved his work as a Catholic evangelist. The Redemptorist mission band had expanded out of the New York state area to the south and west, and the band’s national reputation grew. Hecker had begun to focus his attention on Protestants who came out to hear them. To this purpose Hecker began to write in 1854 his invitation to Protestant America to consider the Catholic Church, “Questions of the Soul” which would make him a national figure in the American church.
Hecker collected and organized these notes that include writings and stories from St. Alphonsus Liguori, the Jesuit spiritual writer Louis Lallemant and his disciple Jean Surin, the German mystic John Tauler, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Jane de Chantal among others. These notes were a resource for retreat work and spiritual direction and show Hecker’s growing proficiency in traditional Catholic spirituality some ten years after his conversion to the Catholic faith. They are composed of short thematic reflections.