FROM a reader:
So what do I do when I forget that sufferings are His blessings to bring me closer to Him, when I am in the middle of them and get impatient and angry and rude and short tempered… when He’s not always at the forefront of my mind and I get caught up in emotions and feelings and the world and then the opportunity to do the right thing is lost? How do I ALWAYS keep Him in the forefront of my heart and mind and not (re)act like the rest of the world that doesn’t believe?
This precious letter summarizes the wound in my own heart, the fierce struggle and literal war that has broken out in my soul. There is so much in this letter that opens the door for light, beginning with its raw honesty…
THE TRUTH SETS US FREE
Dear reader, you need to be encouraged because, more than anything, you see. That perhaps is the greatest difference between you and “the rest of the world.” You see your poverty; you see your great need for grace, for God. The great peril of our times that has spread like a plague is that fewer and fewer souls see their actions and lifestyles for what they are. Pope Pius XII said,
The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin. —1946 address to the United States Catechetical Congress
On the one hand, you are very much like the world; that is, you need a Savior still. On the other hand, you see this and desire it, and that is the fork in the road between Heaven and Hell.
The very first truth that sets me free is the truth of who I am, and who I am not. I am broken; I am not virtuous; I am not who I want to be… but “angry and rude and short tempered.” When you see this in yourself, and confess it openly to God (even if it’s the thousandth time), you bring your wound into the Light, Christ the Light, who can heal you. God, of course, has always seen this weakness in you, and so it is no surprise. And He also knows that the trials He permits in your life will trigger these weaknesses. So why does He allow these hardships that cause you to fall? St. Paul wondered as well, even begging God to free him from his weakness. But the Lord responded:
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor 12:9)
St. Paul responds with a remarkable revelation, a key to this dilemma:
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:10)
St. Paul reveals that the key to contentment is not, as I wrote last time, the absence of weaknesses, hardships, and constraints, but in surrendering to them. How is this possible!? How can one be content with a short temper, passions, and weaknesses? The answer is not that you should be content with your sin. Not at all. But that your path forward is one of tremendous humility before God because you can do nothing without Him. Without your own merits, you now depend absolutely upon His mercy—a pilgrim, you could say, who travels with her face to the ground.
17th century French monk, Brother Lawrence, often forgot the presence of God, making many mistakes along the way. But he would say, “There I go again, Lord, I have forgotten You and done my own thing. Please forgive me.” And then he would rest again in the presence and will of God, rather than spend any more time bemoaning his frailty. It takes great humility to stop looking at how imperfect one is! His practice of being in God’s presence was not limited to when he was undisturbed, but…
...holding with Him at all times and at every moment humble and loving converse, without set rule or stated method, in all time of our temptation and tribulation, in all time of our dryness of soul and disrelish of God, yes, and even when we fall into unfaithfulness and actual sin. —Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, Spiritual Maxims, p. 70-71, Spire Books
There is more to say on this renewal of the mind, but let me add that the more one desires to become a saint, the more he or she must rely upon grace—not the other way around! Unlike a child who turns 18 and then leaves home having grown in maturity, spiritual maturity is one of more and more dependence upon God. That’s why I say the path forward is one of becoming smaller and smaller. Jesus said as much when He told grown adults they must become like little children to enter the kingdom.
It is difficult, as you say, to keep God in the forefront of our daily lives, that is, to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Indeed, peace comes through seeking the presence of God, not through the absence of crosses. But being with God, resting in His presence moment by moment (“the practice of the presence of God”) is a difficult thing because of our wounded human nature. We were made for communion with God, but original sin dealt a blow to our bodies, these earthen vessels, putting them into rebellion against God’s laws. Our spirit, cleansed in Baptism, is made new and freed from slavery to the flesh through the power of the Holy Spirit. But we must continually open our hearts to this Spirit! That is, we can open our homes to an invited guest, but then do our own thing and ignore him. So too, the Holy Spirit is our invited Guest, but we can also ignore Him and instead entertain the flesh. That is, we can become subject again to the flesh. As St. Paul says,
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)
But I hear you crying out, “I don’t want to submit again! I do want to be good, I do want to be holy, but I can’t!” Again, St. Paul is crying right along with you:
What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate… For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want… Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 7:15-25)
Perhaps many of us have mistaken the end for the way. That is, we have read a story of some saint who floated on the air and responded in utter perfection to every incident in his or her life. That may very well be, but that would be an extraordinary soul given extraordinary graces for extraordinary purposes. The ordinary soul and ordinary path of sainthood in the Church is “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” that is the Way of the Cross. “What slave is greater than his master?” If Jesus had to take the hard and narrow road, so too will we. I repeat:
It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
The most painful hardship most of us will have to endure is that of facing daily our spiritual poverty, our utter lack of godliness, that great abyss in our souls that only God can fill. Thus, the path forward is not a leap, but baby steps, literally, like a little child constantly reaching for its mother. And we must continually reach for God’s presence because it’s in those arms that we find strength, protection, and our nourishment at the breast of Grace.
The life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.2565
But we don’t acquire this habit except by “baby steps.”
We cannot pray “at all times” if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it. —CCC, n.2697
HUMILTY AND TRUST
Fortunately, in this age of sin, we have a saint who chronicled her miseries and then wrote down the verbal responses she heard our Lord give her. I’ve written of these diary entries before, but—if you’ll excuse me—I need to hear them again. Within this conversation lies two key points that our Lord gently reveals to St. Faustina: the need for humility (opposite of self-love) and the need to trust in His mercy absolutely, even should one’s faults pile up to the Heavens.
Conversation of the Merciful God
with a Soul Striving after Perfection.
Jesus: I am pleased with your efforts, O soul aspiring for perfection, but why do I see you so often sad and depressed? Tell Me, My child, what is the meaning of this sadness, and what is its cause?
Soul: Lord, the reason for my sadness is that, in spite of my sincere resolutions, I fall again into the same faults. I make resolutions in the morning, but in the evening I see how much I have departed from them.
Jesus: You see, My child, what you are of yourself. The cause of your falls is that you rely too much upon yourself and too little on Me. But let this not sadden you so much. You are dealing with the God of mercy, which your misery cannot exhaust. Remember, I did not allot only a certain number of pardons.
Soul: Yes, I know all that, but great temptations assail me, and various doubts awaken within me and, moreover, everything irritates and discourages me.
Jesus: My child, know that the greatest obstacles to holiness are discouragement and an exaggerated anxiety. These will deprive you of the ability to practice virtue. All temptations united together ought not disturb your interior peace, not even momentarily. Sensitiveness and discouragement are the fruits of self-love. You should not become discouraged, but strive to make My love reign in place of your self-love. Have confidence, My child. Do not lose heart in coming for pardon, for I am always ready to forgive you. As often as you beg for it, you glorify My mercy.
Soul: I understand what is the better thing to do, what pleases You more, but I encounter great obstacles in acting on this understanding.
Jesus: My child, life on earth is a struggle indeed; a great struggle for My kingdom. But fear not, because you are not alone. I am always supporting you, so lean on Me as you struggle, fearing nothing. Take the vessel of trust and draw from the fountain of life-for yourself, but also for other souls, especially such as are distrustful of My goodness.
Soul: O Lord, I feel my heart being filled with Your love and the rays of Your mercy and love piercing my soul. I go, Lord, at Your command. I go to conquer souls. Sustained by Your grace, I am ready to follow You, Lord, not only to Tabor, but also to Calvary.
—taken from Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary of St. Faustina, n. 1488
As with St. Paul, St. Faustina’s peace and joy—and even zeal—came, not because she presented to the Lord a list of successes, but because she trusted in His love and mercy. She had nothing to show except humility. This is profound. What I am writing to you is very important, because if you do not accept it, do not accept this limitless Mercy, you risk allowing your soul to wander into the dangerous waters of despair, the very shoals that carried Judas to his perdition. Oh my goodness, dear reader, I feel within myself the powerful undertow of despair pulling at my own soul! And so then, together, you and I, we must fight for our lives. Moreso, we must fight for our King and the souls He wishes to touch precisely through our weakness! He knows what He’s doing, and even in this state of utter nothingness that we find ourselves in, He has already said that He is powerful. Our duty then at this moment is to pick ourselves up from the puddle of self-pity and begin to walk again. In this regard, frequent Confession is a safeguard, strength and constant help in times of sorrow. Is not the breast of Grace ultimately found upon the bosom of Mother Church?
But I must correct you on one thing. With God, nothing is lost:
This firm resolution to become a saint is extremely pleasing to Me. I bless your efforts and will give you opportunities to sanctify yourself. Be watchful that you lose no opportunity that My providence offers you for sanctification. If you do not succeed in taking advantage of an opportunity, do not lose your peace, but humble yourself profoundly before Me and, with great trust, immerse yourself completely in My mercy. In this way, you gain more than you have lost, because more favor is granted to a humble soul than the soul itself asks for... —Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary of St. Faustina, n. 1360