The End of Man Part I: A Hecker Reflection
This is the twelfth in a series of previously unpublished reflections from the 1854 spiritual notebook of Paulist Founder, Servant of God Father Isaac T. Hecker.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. Part one of contains a response from Father Brett Hoover, CSP, and part two will be published next week with a response from Father Thomas Ryan, CSP.
The End of Man, Part I
What is the end of man? That which will satisfy him? Will riches, pleasures, travels, society or knowledge? There is no truth in life except living for eternity. Jesus Christ is once and for all, and for all eternity, the end of all men. Therefore the least act done in imitation of Jesus Christ is of more value than a life spent in the attainment of the highest end of mere human endeavor. A glance at the Crucifixion has a merit that the knowledge of all human philosophy and graceless science cannot possibly give.
Our object in this world is to know love and serve God. We cannot know God without loving Him; we cannot love God without wishing to serve Him. We must overcome ourselves by suffering in imitation of Jesus Christ; this is our work and our destiny on this earth. The end of man and all his effort is contained in these words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Our life has no more truth in it than its conformity with the end for which it was given. For truth is found in equating a thing with its final end. But man has a supernatural end. He was created for eternity, for God. Therefore the saints alone were true and great, for without truth there is no greatness. “Unless a man is elevated in sprit and united to God, whatever he knows and whatever he has is of no great weight.” (Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Chap. 6)
What is not God or does not tend directly to God, is unworthy of our attention. Our object should be to fix all the faculties of our soul in God, in order to attain a perfect union with Him which is the true end of our being.
Response: Father Brett Hoover, CSP
We easily misread any spiritual writer of the past by seeing them from the perspective of our own time and place rather than letting them speak from their own context. In this case, it would be easy to read Isaac Hecker as promoting an ascetical disdain for this world. But this does not jive well with the real Hecker, who often saw evidence of God’s Spirit in unlikely places in this world.
Some Catholics of a certain age will recognize in Hecker’s words the language of Scholasticism, especially the notion of grace as “elevating” us across the impossible distance between this world and the eternal. Hecker also refers to the ascetical spirituality of The Imitation of Christ by the fifteenth century monk Thomas a Kempis. Today we are less likely to see the distance between heaven and earth as a kind of intractable spiritual problem. As a result, we may be tempted to dismiss Hecker’s remarks.
But Hecker’s deeper point remains true, that human beings tend to underestimate their God-given identity and destiny. We are ultimately made for something greater than most of us think, greater than our material surroundings. Hecker never forgot what he learned among the Transcendentalists, that the human person is fundamentally a seeker. The otherworldly language of Scholasticism and The Imitation of Christ help him bolster his chief point that nothing in this world satisfies a being made to seek for God. But for Hecker seeking God is not primarily an individual quest (as it was for the Transcendentalists) but a beckoning of the Holy Spirit to the soul in Christian community. The last sentence gives Hecker’s orientation away: “Our object should be to fix all the faculties of our soul in God, in order to attain a perfect union with Him which is the true end of our being.”
In other words, the problem is not that there is something morally bankrupt about the world. Unlike many religious leaders both Catholic and Evangelical today, Hecker did not have a “countercultural” view of faith and culture. Rather, he understood that worldly things can always distract us from hearing the Holy Spirit calling us to our true destiny. Those too laden down with material possessions and concerns easily miss the Spirit’s voice.
Father Brett Hoover, CSP, teaches in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is the co-founder of BustedHalo.com, the Paulist Web site for spiritual seekers in their 20s and 30s, and the author of Losing Your Religion, Finding Your Faith.
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.