It seems that many times our spiritual life falls into one of two extremes. On one hand, we may shove it to the outskirts of our mind and hope that as long as we keep it happy with the weekly trip to church or Bible study it won’t bother us. On the other, we may hold visions of using it to ascend to a veritable Christian utopia in which we have reached the pinnacle of spirituality and can at last bask in the warm glow of victory. This utopic vision of our faith both drives and haunts us. We feverishly pursue the glittering image of having the perfect spiritual life while also rebuking ourselves for not having already attained it. Though this pursuit may have the appearance of being good and beneficial, its gently sloping path threatens to lead us to a very different destination than we expect.
But why? Aren’t we supposed to seek to grow closer to God? Aren’t we supposed to imitate Christ? Yes, we are. However, we must pause to reflect on whether that is truly what we are seeking to do. This isn’t a question of checking our motives as much as checking our goals. If our chief aim is to draw closer to God and live out the Gospel message, then we will find ourselves on the right track. However, if we are seeking to achieve a state of spiritual utopia, we’ll find ourselves going nowhere fast. In fact, the word “utopia” literally means “nowhere”.
The images we chase are just that: images. They do not exist in substance as something for us to grab and possess. Rather, just like light streaming through a window, the more we attempt to hold them, the more they evade our grasp. The more we try to be the person we are imitating, the more we find ourselves drifting from God. This is because our relationship with God is between us and God, not this other person and God. As we are shaped into Christ’s likeness, we grow into a unique reflection of Christ. In trying to be someone else, we are fighting against God’s shaping of us. He created us to be us, with our own personality, talents, and gifts.
Let’s use Ignatius of Loyola to construct an example: he developed a spirituality that has influenced and helped countless people grow closer to God. Following the path of Ignatian spirituality provides a way of proceeding that helps us to be shaped into Christ’s image. It does not provide a way of proceeding that aims us at being Ignatius of Loyola.
In Christ’s example, we see how to live our lives with God. He showed us what it looks like to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind as well as to love our neighbor as ourselves. This example is given to us to the end that we grow towards Christ-likeness and that we become able to show others who Christ is, not that we should become Christ. After all, we must remember that Jesus was fully God and fully human, living a sinless life to the end that He might offer himself as a perfect sacrifice for all.
It will be helpful to reflect on the words of Paul as we wrap our minds around this:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” -Galatians 2:20
Paul is writing about the new life he has in Christ, being justified by faith and not by works of the Law. It is interesting to note the phraseology that he uses here, stating that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ lives in him. Christ is the vivifying power which guides and directs his life. When we were dead in our sins, there was no life in us and we were compelled as undead minions to serve our whims under the direction of our sinful nature. In Christ, we have life and have it abundantly: we are made free from the dictatorship of sin and are able to live and to grow and to give our lives, not as compulsory tribute, but as love offerings to God in a renewing, life-giving relationship. Through this relationship we are shaped by God as His love works in and through us, forming us into the unique person we were created to be.
Consider an artist and painting as a metaphor: a painting is given life and meaning by the artist acting through their brush and each painting is a unique expression of the artist’s heart, so that no two are the same. Each life is a masterpiece which God has a vision for, a unique expression of love and beauty that He wishes to create. What’s more, He includes us in the creative process so that we are not a passive canvas which is acted upon, but rather a fellow artist who works in cooperation with the divine maestro upon the canvas. The end result is that the person we are is a unique work of art: an expression of the heart of God that is unlike any other. In attempting to be someone else, we try to become nothing more than a copy. A copy is a lifeless duplicate of the original work: the artist is unable to put any heart or expression into it because it is simply a retracing of lines. Similarly, when we set out to live a utopic vision of picturesque Christianity, we are doing nothing more than sitting down to copy an image. Because we are tracing lines, our focus is on attempting to recreate each stroke and we have no time for interaction or relationship with the artist Himself. We do not allow God to have any input or to help us put any of ourselves into the work, and so our copy remains lifeless no matter how well we trace. That enlivening and animating power of Christ which Paul wrote of is absent.
Rather than an empty duplication, our life and relationship with God is a vibrant work-in-progress during our time on earth. It will only reach its completion when it becomes a part of the glorious mosaic in Heaven. The life of Christ is a foundation to us. The lives of our fellow Christians, both those who have gone before and our contemporaries, serve as influences and inspirations to us. We work with God to have ourselves formed into a portrait of Christ that is uniquely ours, one in which our heart beats with God’s as they are both poured out onto the canvas.