“I have come so that they may have life, and have it to the full.” – John 10:10
When I was young, my father, adapting an image from St. Therese, explained to me how there could be “levels” in heaven, with certain saints reaching higher degrees of happiness, while at the same time everyone being perfectly happy. My Dad told me to imagine a large glass and a small one, both filled to the brim with water.
“Which one is more full?” He inquired.
“Neither one,” I replied. “They are both completely full.”
“That’s right. But which one has more water in it?” He pressed.
“The bigger one.” I said.
“And that’s how it is in heaven. Everyone is full, but some have more of God in them because they have made more room for him, and so they experience a greater joy.”
And then he gave me this charge: “David – you always want to have a bigger glass!”
I have come to believe that this image provides a key to the spiritual life. God’s love is such that he gives himself totally – he empties himself for us, pours himself out to us. It is his nature, it is who he is. For God “to be” means “to be pouring himself out.” “He Who Is” and “is Life” is “He Who Pours Himself Out” and “gives Life.” We are receptacles into which God is pouring his own life, his very self. But as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” Thus, what we receive from God depends on our spiritual disposition. The more we are empty, the more space we create, the more he can fill. So, the spiritual life is not so much about “attaining God” as it is about “removing obstacles” and “creating space.” Once the glass of your soul is empty, it expands so there is ever more room for God to occupy. And God just keeps pouring himself out with such superabundant generosity that he flows right over the sides!
What would hell be, then? You seal off your glass, completely turning in on yourself, creating a vacuum of emptiness. God still pours himself out, but what he gives hits the seal and bounces right off. Nothing gets in. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC, 1035). Perhaps, in light of what I suggest above, this separation is more a state than a place; a state in which God is still being God, still pouring himself out in superabundant generosity, but we have closed ourselves off from receiving a single drop. Indeed, though “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39), this doesn’t mean that we can’t refuse that love or close ourselves off from it.
As I grow in the spiritual life, groping along at times, it has struck me that the spiritual life is less about saying certain prayers or practicing certain devotions (though these are good, important, and have their place), and more about creating space so the Holy Spirit can do his work in us. Our main work is emptying our glasses; removing the obstacles that get in the way of God’s work. This will inevitably mean letting go of certain attachments or behaviors or attitudes; emptying ourselves of ourselves (Phil. 2:6). And that is very hard work indeed. It is the work of a lifetime. It’s called sanctity.