Our Lord reminds us in Matthew 7:17-20 that we can tell good from bad trees by the fruit they bear. How we cultivate the tree of our life reveals whether or not we radiate a harvest of goodness guided by God or revert to the spoiled fruit of selfish concerns.
When Christ is the center of our lives, one fruit guaranteed to be good is compassion for others, from neighbors next door to new friends we meet in unexpected places.
Growth in the life of the Spirit is difficult to measure because it is hidden from sight. At the start of each new season, we put away the sweaters we wore in winter and look forward to dressing more lightly in summer. How did so many months pass without our ever noticing how fast time flies?
Growth never stops. Last year’s clothing does not fit the children any more. What looked like a barren bush suddenly blooms. How and when did this death-to-life event occur?
The silent, imperceptible mystery of growth defies the most astute powers of measurement. We can facilitate this process, for example, by making sure children eat good food and get enough sleep or by watering the soil around a recently planted tulip bulb, but we cannot control the growth process.
The life of the Spirit can be compared to what happens in these examples. Certain conditions foster growth in nearness to God, notably inner silence, fidelity to prayer, and practice of the spiritual disciplines that direct us from contemplative quiet to charitable service of others.
Were we asked to explain in detail when and how our spiritual life began to flourish, we might well be at a loss for words. All we know for certain is that this growth is a gift of God and that by our fruits others will know whose servants we are.
This “I don’t know” disposition keeps us humble and increases our longing for union with God. Awe replaces arrogance the more we trust that it is the Lord who gives us the grace of growth in his own way and in his own good time.
Too much preoccupation with the progress we might or might not be making in our spiritual life can be a hindrance rather than a help. The danger is that our will, not God’s will for us, becomes the focal point of our concern. We reduce spiritual growth to a functional agenda to achieve measurable success. We devise a map to reach our goals, all the while missing the simple truth that adherence to the Divine Mystery, not mastery of it, is the key to Christian maturity.
Day by day, we let each situation in which God places us yield an as yet undiscovered opportunity to become more like Christ. Through every advance and every defeat, he is with us when we are most in need of help.
Rather than becoming concerned about how fast or how slow we seem to have progressed, we try to surrender to God’s will and to let the Holy Spirit lead us.
Once I asked an older and wiser pastor and spiritual director, “So how do you know when you are growing closer to God?” He smiled and said, “You know it when you do God’s will. You just know it.”
Father’s answer, “You just know it” came without hesitation and with the confidence of a lifetime of experience. There was no need for us to enter into a lengthy discussion. He reiterated what St. Paul tells us, “…he is not far from each of us, for in him we live and move and have our being…” (Acts 17:27-28).
To grow in the spiritual life is to realize that this wondrous process occurs not only on special occasions, like celebrating the Eucharist, but also in the loving acts we perform everyday: preparing meals, paying bills, tending to a family crisis, and trying our best to choose virtue over vice. Behind all these prayers and projects stands the Lord: “You just know it.”
No matter how much attention our daily involvements demand, we never let pressures to perform interfere with our desire to grow closer to God. We behold the people we serve, the dreams we dream, the relaxed and anxious moments we experience against the backdrop of a more radiant light. We see in our ordinary decisions and actions openings to deeper intimacy with the Divine. Such seeing is a sure sign that we are become spiritually mature.
Being called, committed, and consecrated to Christ enables us to offer the bread of our daily responsibility and the wine of our suffering for the sanctification of the world.
On the path to spiritual maturity, we behold life as a pattern of providential disclosures, not a haphazard collection of accidental happenings. Though we may not always grasp what abandonment to the mystery means, we accept what God asks of us because, in the words of his Son, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16).