When we speak of penance and mortification, the impression that most people may begin with is a rather morbid one. For many, these words may even conjure up images corrupt clergymen, self-flagellation, and stripes of blood (no doubt thanks to 90's Hollywood cinema). But contrary to popular belief, the men and women of history who practiced penance were often the most selfless and self-sacrificing people ever known. From the prophets of the Old Testament, who frequently fasted and wore sackcloth to save their people (sackcloth; a hair shirt, an undergarment made of rough material such as goat hair), to the Apostles who imposed severe fasts on their bodies, to the saints and religious orders throughout Church history, such aceticism has been a mainstay of Christian life. Saint Francis De Sales for example, was known to use the discipline (self-flagellation, using a whip, rod, or lash), as well as an iron belt and hair-shirts. Saint John Marie Vianney was known for his austerities in fasting, as well as frequent use of the discipline. Saint Jose Maria Escriva often wore a cilice (a band of chain links with small prongs, typically worn around the upper thigh). In more recent times, we have the example of Blessed John Paul II, who often slept of the hard floor, or Mother Teresa, who with her sisters voluntarily lived in extreme poverty. To us today, these practices may seem foreign. And indeed, the idea of penance and mortification has all but died away in the West. Yet such austerity and self-mastery has always been part of the Christian life, and even common-place among many religious orders throughout history until the mid-twentieth century.
|Penance and Mortification
"Hence St. Paul exclaimed, that he wished for no other delight or glory than the Cross of the Redeemer...Again he says, that the crucifixion of the flesh is the test by
which the true lovers of Jesus Christ may be known...As the indulgence of the body by sensual pleasures is the sole and constant study of
worldlings, so the continual mortification of the flesh, is to the saints, the only object of their care and of their
desires... Worldlings go in search of sensual gratifications, but the followers of Christ seek only
"Oh, how bitterly shall we regret at the hour of death the time we have given to pleasures, to useless conversations, to repose, instead of having employed it in mortification, in prayer, in good works, in thinking of our poor misery, in weeping over our poor sins; then we shall see that we have done nothing for Heaven. Oh, my children, how sad it is! Three-quarters of those who are Christians labor for nothing but to satisfy this body, which will soon be buried and corrupted, while they do not give a thought to their poor soul, which must be happy or miserable for all eternity."
Why? What is its purpose?
In short, the end of aceticism is love, namely; it enables love to fully mature in the human being. Why? In an attempt to be succint;
- The call of the Christian life is love. This is the greatest commandment.
- To love means to make a total gift of self to another, to give oneself away fully (a common ecclesial definition is "to will the good of the other")
- But, one cannot give what one does not have.
- Therefore, it is necessary to first posses oneself, in order to fully give oneself away.
- Therefore, self-mastery is required.
- And self-mastery only comes by way of aceticism, i.e., denying the inordinate desires of the flesh through self-denial, penance, and mortification.
- Therefore, aceticism is necessary to love, i.e., to being a Christian.
As Saint Alphonsus says, penance and mortification are necessary to"restrain the
inordinate inclinations of self-love". Indeed, self-love is the anti-thesis of authentic love (since self-love is self-centered, whereas authentic love is other-centered). It is with this perspective that we must begin--for, as the saint says, "self-love is the most deceitful of all enemies". He is speaking here, of course, of "the world, the flesh, and the devil," our three principle enemies in this life. And as he notes, the flesh is the more formidable of the three, because it is that which gives way to the other two (originating from within, from the will of the human person). "A domestic enemy," says St. Bernard, "is the worst of foes". St. John of the Cross echoes this sentiment; "The world is the enemy least difficult to conquer; the devil is the hardest to understand; but the flesh is the most tenacious, and its attacks continue as long as the old self lasts."
This does not mean, however, that the body itself is "bad". Man was created in the image and likeness of God, and is therefore inherently good in nature, though, having within himself the "germ of sin" (Original Sin, or Concupiscence) which inclines him to evil. It is this inclination to self-love that every Christian is called to wage war on in this life. Every Christian is therefore called to practice aceticism, as we have said (to gain self-mastery), in order for love to exist (to make a gift of self). It is to this end that we must approach the topic of penance and mortification, not in the morbid destruction of the body, but in the elevation of the body and the person to its ultimate end in God, Who is Love itself. As John Paul II states in his book "Love and Responsibility," the need for self-mastery and rules should not be seen as a negative, as one long 'NO', but instead, a 'YES!' from which certain 'NOs' are the consequence. (to draw a paralell, a professional athlete disciplines his body with punishing 'NOs' to achieve the 'YES' of 1st place; devoting his entire life to this single objective. Yet when it comes to religious--who discipline their bodies for an infinitely greater good--such aceticism is seen as disturbed and neurotic.)
To preserve her soul and body free from stain, she must also
chastise her flesh, by fasting, abstinence, by disciplines and other penitential works. And if she has not health or
strength to practice such mortifications, she ought at least to bear in peace her infirmities and pains, and to accept
cheerfully the contempt and ill-treatment that she receives from others.
" [The religious] must ascend Calvary. There she will immolate herself for souls. Love crucifies her; she dies to herself and to the world. She is buried, and her tomb is the Heart of Jesus; and from there she rises, is reborn to a new life and spiritually lives united to the whole world."
"You have entered religion not to indulge the flesh but to die for
Jesus Christ. If we do not resolve to disregard the want of health, we shall do nothing. What injury will death do us? How often have our bodies molested us? Shall not we mortify them in return?"
"St. John saw all the saints with palms in their hands. From this passage we learn that all the elect must be martyrs,
either by the sword of the tyrant or by the voluntary crucifixion of the flesh."
"Hence thou wilt understand the ignorance and error of mortals, and how far they drift from the way of light, when, as a rule, nearly all of them strive to avoid labor and suffering and are frightened by the royal and secure road of mortification and the Cross. Full of this deceitful ignorance, they do not only abhor resemblance to Christ's suffering and my own, and deprive themselves of the true and highest blessing of this life but they make their recovery impossible, since all of them are weak and afflicted by many sins, for which the only remedy is suffering."
"To defend his purity, St. Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, St. Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush, St. Bernard plunged into an icy pond... You... what have you done?" [...] "If you realize that your body is your enemy, and an enemy of God's glory since it is an enemy of your sanctification, why do you treat it so softly?"
"PENANCE, PENANCE, PENANCE!"
These were the words of the angel at Fatima, calling the world to begin doing penance once again. Indeed, the call to penance and conversion has been the constant appeal of Marian apparitions throughout history, but especially within the past hundred years, which have seen more apparitions than any other century in history. As Our Lady of Fatima implored from us; "Sacrifice yourselves for sinners, and say many times, especially when you make some sacrifice: O Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary." Thus we see that penance and mortification not only have a sanctifying effect on the individual, but also on the Church as a whole. The more a person's life is patterned after the life of our Redeemer--Who's greatest work entailed the greatest sacrifice--the more he will make up what is lacking in the body of Christ, as Saint Paul tells us. Our Lord instructs Saint Faustina in this regard;
Jesus to Saint Faustina:
"You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone."
The Primacy of Interior Mortification
Although the dramatic nature of corporal penances, such as hair shirts and cilices, may attract much attention, the saints offer us a word of caution, especially for beginners who may be more lured by the senses to seek sensory penances. While exterior penances can be an important compliment to one's spiritual progress, they are nonetheless of a secondary rank to interior mortifications, whereby we deny our will; our attachments, our preferences, our appetites, our ego, our desires for comfort, etc. These interior mortifications are considered by the saints to be the most meritorious, since they directly cut at the root of self-will and self-love. Wearing a chain or walking barefoot on rocky ground may help to quiet the passions of the flesh, but if a person is filled with pride and vainglory, such practices will only serve to further inflate this vice, thinking himself pious for such performances (and it really becomes nothing more than a performance). Love and humility must be present, as well as obedience and docility to the Divine will. In the final analysis, exterior mortifications should ultimately lead inward toward interior mortification. Teresa of Avila said that interior mortifications are "the means by which every other kind of mortification may become much more meritorious
and perfect". As Our Lord told Saint Faustina;
"The greatest works are worthless in My eyes if they are done out of self-will, and often they are not in accord with My will and merit punishment rather than reward. And on the other hand, even the smallest of your acts, done with the confessor's permission is pleasing in My eyes and very dear to Me."
In fact, the saints have strong words for those who perform corporal penances without mind of eradicating their self-will and attachments. Evidently many in religious life fall victim to this temptation.
"The ignorance of some is extremely lamentable; they burden themselves with extraordinary penances and many other exercises, thinking these are sufficient to attain union with divine Wisdom. But such practices are insufficient if these souls do not diligently strive to deny their appetites. If they would attempt to devote only half of that energy to the renunciation of their desires, they would profit more in a month, than in years with all these other exercises... I venture to say that without this mortification, all that is done for the sake of advancement in perfection and in knowledge of God and of oneself is no more profitable than seed sown on uncultivated ground (that is, only producing weeds). Accordingly, darkness and coarseness will always be with a soul until its appetites are extinguished."
"There are some religious who perform a great many exercises of devotion, who practice frequent Communion, long
meditations, fasting, and other corporal austerities, but make no effort to overcome certain little passions for
example, certain resentments, aversions, curiosity, and certain dangerous affections. They will not submit to any contradiction; they will not give up attachment to certain persons, nor subject their will to the commands of their
Superiors, or to the holy will of God.
What progress can they make in perfection? Unhappy souls! They will be forever imperfect." [...] "Even works of piety must be always undertaken with a spirit of detachment; so that whenever our efforts are
unsuccessful we shall not be disturbed, and when our exercises of devotion are prohibited by the Superior we shall
give them up with cheerfulness. Self-attachment of every kind hinders a perfect union with God. We must therefore
seriously and firmly resolve to mortify our passions, and not to submit to be their slaves."
It is thus that if a soul is considering taking on a new penance, it would do well to reflect whether the penance will serve to quiet its disorders, or inflame them. For example, a soul with a subtle appetite for pride, might do well to seek those mortifications that are opposed to this vice, such as; seeking humiliations, remaining silent when accused, never speaking about himself, and keeping hidden any austerities he may have permission to practice. As Saint John reminds us, we must concentrate our efforts on our weakest traits, for in freeing ourselves of its slavery, we will be able to make rapid progres in love. (Again, returning to the principle: One cannot give what he does not have. You must first possess yourself, in order to give yourself away.) We must especially lay the axe to the dead roots of self-love, which can manifest itself in even the smallest of things, whether it is attachments to sensible objects, such as; items of clothing, one's cell, food prepared a certain way, etc., or greater interior attachments such as the need for affirmation, pleasure in the praise of others, excessive desires for spiritual consolations or sweetness in prayer, attachment to one's own opinion, desire for physical comforts, attachments to particular friendships, etc. Saint John in fact laments at how few there are who advance beyond this first stage in their battle against the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse; "It is most regrettable that many, on entering this battle against the beast, are even incapable of severing the first head through denial of the sensible objects of the world."
: "My daughter, you give Me most glory by patiently submitting to My will, and you win for yourself greater merit than that which any fast or mortification could ever gain for you. Know, My daughter, that if you submit your will to Mine, you draw upon yourself My special delight. This sacrifice is pleasing to Me and full of sweetness. I take great pleasure in it; there is power in it."
If corporal penances are inferior, then why practice them?
When asked whether corporal penances are necessary--since interior mortifications are superior--Saint Alphonsus replies; "Some will say that perfection does not consist in the mortification of the body, but in the abnegation of the will. To
them I answer with Father Pinamonti, that the fruit of the vineyard does not consist in the surrounding hedge; but
still if the hedge be taken away, you will seek in vain for the produce of the vine." In other words, like many things in Catholicism, it is not "either-or", but "both-and". Although the one may take precedence over the other, both are necessary nonetheless. As Saint John of the Cross says; "he who inculcates loose doctrine regarding the mortification of the
flesh, should not be believed though he be confirmed in his preaching by miracles." In a fit of rage, Satan once mocked Saint Faustina; "What have you gotten out of your mortifications and out of your fidelity to the rule? What use are all these efforts? You have been abandoned by God!" Evidently, all her efforts and austerities were infuriating to him.
"Penance to be sure must be used as a tool, in due times and places, as need may be. If the flesh, being too strong, kicks against the spirit, penance takes the rod of discipline, and fast, and the cilice of many buds, and mighty vigils; and places burdens enough on the flesh, that it may be more subdued. But if the body is weak, fallen into illness, the rule of discretion does not approve of such a method."
"Interior mortifications take the first place, but besides this, we must practice exterior mortifications, strictly determined, so that all can practice them. These are: on three days a week, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, there will be a strict fast. Each Friday, all the sisters – each one in her own cell – will take the discipline for the length of the recitation of Psalm 50 and all will do this at the same time; namely, three o’clock; and this will be offered for dying sinners. During the two great fasts, ember days and vigils, the food will consist of a piece of bread and some water, once a day."
read the lives of the saints and see the works of penance that they performed, we shall be ashamed of the delicacy
and of the reserve with which we chastise the flesh... Our pilgrimage on earth will not be of long duration: our home is eternity, where he
who has practiced the greatest mortifications during life shall enjoy the greatest glory."
I don't know what to do to get the priest to allow me to mortify myself. I have so many desires to fast, to wear hair shirts, since I see it is necessary for me to mortify not only my will, but also my body. My Jesus, give me permission to do penance. My Mother, inspire the priest to grant me permission."
: "If we are cruel in crucifying the flesh, you by sparing it are far more cruel."
What is the best of all the external penances?
According to the Church, the chief external penance that anyone can perform is fasting (see; Fasting and the Renewal of Religious Life). There is no other external penance that so effectively makes satisfaction for sin and cuts at the root of self-love as fasting does (since it at the same time is so necessary to life and yet also most often abused). The human body requires food to survive. It demands our constant attention. And as such, it likewise demands a constant effort of detachment, more so than any other necessary activity. Fasting is thus the chief of all penances, and should thus be given primacy of place in the religious life. This is not to say that one cannot request permission for additional penances as well. We just advise caution, again, noting that the best penances are not necessarily the most ecclectic or dramatic ones. In fact, it is a penance in itself to follow the recommendation of the Church, rather than choose for ourselves our own penance. And in fact, it is often in the small hidden penances of daily life that often bear the most fruit; for what speaks the words "I love you" more than the a 1,000 daily small acts, carried on day after day for years? Does this not remind you of a holy marriage, where the true test of love is precisely in the small moments of everyday life, accumulated over much time? Likewise we who are part of the Church, the spouse of Christ, are we not likewise called to be faithful brides to God through our lives precisely in the small moments, and even the most banal acts such as eating?
In addition to fasting, however, we can speak this language of love in other small ways as well. For example, Saint Faustina made such requests as spending extra time kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament, reducing meal rations by half, and reciting certain prayers with arms extended outwards or prostrate on the floor. Padre Pio often asked permission to be excused from table to remain in prayer (though, he was humble enough to do so). We have included below just a small sampling of the many recommendations given by the saints;
"I recall that I have received most light during adoration which I made lying prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour every day throughout Lent."
But I also came to recognize the great virtues of some sisters who always asked for the poorest things from the vestiary. I admired their spirit of humility and mortification.
: "When some one knocks at our door, or when we are rung for, we must practice mortification and refrain from doing even another stitch before answering. I have practiced this myself, and I assure it is a source of peace.”
: I found another way to mortify myself before going to sleep: putting my weight on the tips of my toes, causes additional pain. And also, but not omitting any little act for Jesus.
Oh, how I like those little mortifications that are seen by nobody, such as rising a quarter of an hour sooner, rising for a little while in the night to pray! but some people think of nothing but sleeping. There was once a solitary who had built himself a royal palace in the trunk of an oak tree; he had placed thorns inside of it, and he had fastened three stones over his head, so that when he raised himself or turned over he might feel the stones or the thorns. And we, we think of nothing but finding good beds, that we may sleep at our ease. We may refrain from warming ourselves; if we are sitting uncomfortably, we need not try to place ourselves better; if we are walking in our garden, we may deprive ourselves of some fruit that we should like; in preparing the food, we need not eat the little bits that offer themselves; we may deprive ourselves of seeing something pretty, which attracts our eyes, especially in the streets of great towns."
"In the lives of the ancient Fathers we read of a large
Community of nuns who never tasted fruit or wine. Some of them took food only once every day; others never ate
a meal, except after two or three days of rigorous abstinence: all were clothed and even slept in haircloth. I do not
require such austerities from religious of the present day: but is it too much for them to take the discipline several
times in the week ? to wear a chain round some part of the body till the hour of dinner? not to approach the fire in
winter on some day in each week, and during novenas of devotion? to abstain from fruit and sweet meats? and, in
honor of the Mother of God, to fast every Saturday on bread and water, or at least to be content with one dish?"
What if I am too weak or ill?
The saints remind us that penances should never interfere with one's ability to perform one's duties in life. Saint Alphonsus counsels us; "If you cannot chastise your body by positive rigors, abstain at least from some lawful
pleasures....If denied lawful
pleasures, the body will not dare to seek forbidden indulgence; but if continually gratified by every innocent
enjoyment, it will soon draw the soul into sinful gratifications." Weakness and illness is in itself a great treasure in religious life. Saint Maximilian once stated that the infirmary is the place where the greatest work of God is carried out. Therefore, let no one get discouraged if physical illness prevents us from doing more. As Saint Faustina tells us; "Poor indeed is a convent where there are no sick sisters." It is in illness when rapid progress can be made in the spiritual life, and numerous souls saved. In this sense, external penances should only be regarded as an interm measure for when we are healthy, keeping the flesh at bay until we become ill again, and the floodgates of grace open to us.
Likewise, the saints also offer a word of caution about tending too much to the health of the body. St. Joseph Calasanctius says; "Woe to the religious who loves health over sanctity." Saint Teresa of Avila even said it was a temptation by Satan to be concerned for one's own health in religious life. According to the saint, it is the superior's duty to tend to the bodily needs of the nuns, not the nuns themselves. "Let our Superiors, to whom the charge belongs, look after our bodies; let our only care be to hasten to our Lord's presence".
"Although I wish and desire to do so, I cannot practice big mortifications as before, because I am under the strict surveillance of the doctor. But I can practice little things: first-sleep without a pillow; keep myself a little hungry; every day, with my arms outstretched, say the chaplet which the Lord taught me; occasionally, with arms outstretched, for an indefinite period of time pray informally."
"small indeed must be the spiritual progress of the
religious who is continually seeking physicians and remedies; who is sometimes not content with the prescription of
the ordinary physician; and who, by her discontent, disturbs the whole Community."
: "If bodily weakness renders us unable to practice corporal austerities, let us at least learn...to
embrace with joy the infirmities with which Almighty God visits us. If borne with patience, they will conduct us to
perfection better than voluntary works of penance. St. Syncletica used to say, that "as corporal maladies are cured
by medicine, so the diseases of the soul are healed by the infirmities of the body."
Obedience - The Greatest Vow
Among the vows of a religious (poverty, chastity, and obedience), obedience is considered by the saints to be the greatest of the three--for it is on obedience that the other two vows depend and are brought to perfection. In religious life, obedience is the principle means of mortification, which is infused into the daily life of the religious, from the rising bell in the morning to the grand silence after compline. Every hour of the day is accounted for, and the religious must do as the horarium dictates, not as they please. Saint Faustina describes it as a continuously burning ember of incense, perpetually offering a sweet aroma before the throne of God. Accordingly, it is not through great works, but through the ordinary daily life of obedience that best serves to expiate for sin, to merit grace for souls, and ultimately to speak "i love you" most profoundly.
Obedience is of such great value, that one act of disobedience caused the greatest angel in heaven to be cast into hell along with one-third of all the angels. By a further act of disobedience, mankind's relationship with God was forever wounded when an apple was eaten against God's command. All this, through a single act of the will. Thus, when we deny our will out of obedience to God and His representatives, we in some small way make reparation for the greatest tragedy that has ever befallen both the material and spiritual world alike. Is it then any surprise why religious life was designed by Our Lady in the way it was, with a superior and rules that souls are subject to? For it is through religious life--that is; being subjected to a superior and a rule of life--that souls are given the clearest possible means by which to advance in virtue and become perfect. By offering no resistance of the will, the action of grace is able to form a soul with the least possible hindrance, and in this way, all its faculties will be strengthened because it no longer relies on its own reasoning and self-will, but submits to an authority outside of itself, namely; the representative appointed by God and the rules of the community. As a monk once said; "We have chosen to be a monk, but after, we do not choose anything else."
"My daughter, know that you give Me greater glory by a single act of obedience than by long prayers and mortifications. Oh, how good it is to live under obedience, to live conscious of the fact that everything I do is pleasing to God! [...] even the smallest thing should bear the seal of obedience."
"For I assure thee, my dearest, that those who are perfect and punctual in their religious obligations can equal and even surpass the martyrs in merit."
"I feel so much improved through obedience to my confessor and the spiritual director of my soul that I would consider myself little less than damned were I to act contrary to them in anything."
"To those who are about to enter religion it is my custom to recommend, above all things, the practice of obedience,
and of patience under contempt. I have been anxious to treat the latter at full length. Because I am convinced that
without bearing contempt it is impossible for a nun to advance in perfection; and because I hold as certain that the
religious who cheerfully embraces humiliations shall become a saint."
"Once I was asked to pray for a certain soul. I decided at once to make a novena to the Merciful Lord to which I added a mortification; namely, that I would wear chains on both legs throughout Holy Mass. I had been doing this already for three days when I went to confession and told my spiritual director that I had undertaken this mortification, presuming permission to do so. I had thought he would not object, but I heard the contrary; that is, that I should do nothing without permission. O my Jesus, so it was willfulness again! But my falls do not discourage me; I know very well that I am misery itself. Because of the condition of my health I did not receive this permission, and my spiritual director was surprised that I had been allowing myself greater mortifications without his permission. I asked pardon for my self-willfulness, or rather for having presumed permission, and I asked him to change this mortification for another one. My spiritual director replaced it with an interior mortification; namely, throughout Holy Mass I was to meditate on why the Lord Jesus had submitted to being baptized. The meditation was no mortification for me, for thinking about God is a delight and not a mortification; but there was a mortification of the will in that I was not doing [simply] what I like, but what I was told to do, and it is in this that interior mortification consists. When I left the confessional and started to recite my penance, I heard these words: I have granted the grace you asked for on behalf of that soul, but not because of the mortification you chose for yourself. Rather, it was because of your act of complete obedience to My representative that I granted this grace to that soul for whom you interceded and begged mercy. Know that when you mortify your own self-will, then Mine reigns within you."
The Importance of Remaining Hidden
The saints were always very careful to hide their penances from the world as much as possible, including their own conferrer's. A hidden sacrifice, according to the saints, is most pleasing in the eyes of God, and a defense against pride and vainglory. To be considered an average religious, to them, was of far more value than to be highly regarded as an austere aesthetic. Any instance that would draw the praises of men was to be severely shunned, for true humility demands a deep and lasting desire to be regarded as nothing, as ordinary (for every person is more or less ordinary compared to God). And the more gifts and graces one receives, the more humble he must become, always recalling to mind how poorly he has used such gifts without any merit of his own. This cannot be emphasized enough; for without humility, everything we do in religious life will be in vain; every prayer, every sacrifice, will all be for naught. When Padre Pio received the stigmata, he felt ashamed, and pleaded with God to make it invisible, so others may not see it. It was a great trial for him to receive so much attention from people, who always wanted to kiss his hands. He later spoke to a friend; "Lets pray together to ask Jesus to take away this annoyance. I want to suffer, even to die of suffering, but all in secret." When Saint Teresa of the Andes was caught up in an ecstacy during community meditation, she became pained that people were noticing her; "I felt the greatest pain in seeing that all were noticing something strange in me. This filled me with pain, since I desire to remain unnoticed."
"I want to become a sacrificial host before You, but an ordinary wafer to people. I want the fragrance of my sacrifices to be known to You alone."... "In the midst of all sufferings, both physical and spiritual, as well as in darkness and desolation, I will remain silent, like a dove, and not complain.
I will empty myself continually at His feet in order to obtain mercy for souls."
"Through our little acts of charity, practiced in the dark, as it were, we obtain the conversion of the heathen, help the missionaries, and gain for them plentiful alms, thus building both spiritual and material dwellings for Our Eucharistic God."
"Thus in many pretty ways she hid her mortifications. One fast-day, however, when our Reverend Mother ordered her some special food, I found her seasoning it with wormwood because it was too much to her taste. On another occasion I saw her drinking very slowly a most unpleasant medicine. “Make haste,” I said, “drink it off at once!” “Oh, no!” she answered; “ must I not profit of these small opportunities for penance since the greater ones are forbidden me?”
: "O life so dull and monotonous, how many treasures you contain! When I look at everything with the eyes of faith, no two hours are alike, and the dullness and monotony disappear. The grace which is given me in this hour will not be repeated in the next. It may be given me again, but it will not be the same grace. Time goes on, never to return again. Whatever is enclosed in it will never change; it seals with a seal for eternity."
"Oh, what joy it is to empty myself for the sake of immortal souls! I know that the grain of wheat must be destroyed and ground between millstones in order to become food. In the same way, I must become destroyed in order to be useful to the Church and souls, even though exteriorly no one will notice my sacrifice. O Jesus, outwardly I want to be hidden, just like this little wafer wherein the eye perceives nothing, and yet I am a host consecrated to You...I am striving for sanctity, because in this way I shall be useful to the Church. I make constant efforts in practicing virtue. I try faithfully to follow Jesus. And I deposit this whole series of daily virtues--silent, hidden, almost imperceptible, but made with great love--in the treasury of God's Church for the common benefit of souls. I feel interiorly as if I were responsible for all souls. I know very well that I do not live for myself alone, but for the entire Church."
The Need for a Wise Spiritual Director
The Saints teach us that a holy spiritual director is a rare grace to be cherished, for it is a gift granted to few souls. If a soul has been blessed with a saintly spiritual director, it ought to thank the Lord every day for such a grace. As Saint Faustina noted; "Oh, if only I had had a spiritual director from the beginning, then I would not have wasted so many of God's graces." She then explains the reasons of his importance;
"a soul which is faithful to God cannot confirm its own inspirations; it must submit them to the control of a very wise and learned priest; and until it is quite certain, it should remain distrustful. It should not, on its own initiative alone, put its trust in these inspirations and all other graces, because it can thus expose itself to great losses. [...] Even though a soul may immediately distinguish between false inspiration and those of God, it should nevertheless be careful, because many things are uncertain. God is pleased and rejoices when a soul distrusts Him for His own sake; because it loves Him, it is prudent and itself asks and searches for help to make certain that it is really God who is acting within it. And once a well-instructed confessor has confirmed this, the soul should be at peace and give itself up to God, according to His directions; that is, according to the directions of the confessors." diary, p. 78
The saints remind us that a spiritual director is especially necessary for chosen souls, destined for the steep slope to calvary. Such souls, amid the darkest nights, when God is hidden and everything spiritual becomes obscure, find their only solace and comfort through obedience to the counsel of a wise spiritual director. In these moments, the director's guidance is a dim light in a dark chasm, without which a soul would find greater difficulty in advancing through the trial. It is thus that if a soul desires to attain divine union, then it ought to pray daily for the grace of a holy spiritual director; a grace which seems to be a near prerequisite for perfection.
Love Above All
Everything we have said, or could say, about the spiritual life, can be summed up with one word; love. It is love that must govern all our actions. For it is love, as Saint Catherine of Sienna says, that binds the hands of God; "your weeping has power over me and the pain in your desire binds me like a chain." (The Dialogue) Can you imagine? How much God must love us that He would give us the power to, as if, bend God to move the earth. As the saint says, it is precisely love, through humble and constant prayer, that is the medicine that will heal the world.
When Saint Therese of Lisieux discovered her vocation, she wrote; "I understood that the Church has a heart, that this heart was burning with love, and that it is love alone which gives life to its members; that if this love ever became extinct, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, and the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places...in a word, that it was eternal! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out; O Jesus my love...my vocation, at last I have found it...my vocation is love!"
"Oh, how sweet it is to toil for God and souls! I want no respite in this battle, but I shall fight to the last breath for the glory of my King and Lord. I shall not lay the sword aside until He calls me before His throne; I fear no blows, because God is my shield. It is the enemy who should fear us, and not we him. Satan defeats only the proud and the cowardly, because the humble are strong. Nothing will confuse or frighten a humble soul. I have directed my flight at the very center of the sun's heat, and nothing can lower its course. Love will not allow itself to be taken prisoner, it is free like a queen. Love attains God." - diary, p.199
Put your self-love in the last place, so that it does not taint your deeds. Bear with yourself with great patience. Do not neglect interior mortifications. Always justify to yourself the opinions of your superiors and of your confessor. Shun murmurers like a plague. Let all act as they like; you are to act as I want you to. Observe the rule as faithfully as you can. If someone causes you trouble, think what good you can do for the person who caused you to suffer. Do not pour out your feelings. Be silent when you are rebuked. Do not ask everyone's opinion, but only the opinion of your confessor; be as frank and simple as a child with him. Do not become discouraged by ingratitude. Do not examine with curiosity the roads down which I lead you. When boredom and discouragement beat against your heart, run away from yourself and hide in My heart. Do not fear struggle; courage itself often intimidates temptations, and they dare not attack us. Always fight with the deep conviction that I am with you. Do not be guided by feeling, because it is not always under your control; but all merit lies in the will. Always depend upon your superiors, even in the smallest things. I will not delude you with prospects of peace and consolations; on the contrary, prepare for great battles. Know that you are now on a great stage where all heaven and earth are watching you. Fight like a knight, so that I can reward you. Do not be unduly fearful, because you are not alone.
"O Most Holy Trinity dwelling in my heart, I beg You: grant the grace of conversion to as many souls as the [number of] stitches that I will make today with this crochet hook." Then I heard these words in my soul: My daughter, too great are your demands. "Jesus, You know that for You it is easier to grant much rather than a little." That is so, it is less difficult for Me to grant a soul much rather than a little, but every conversion of a sinful soul demands sacrifice. "Well, Jesus, I offer You this whole-hearted work of mine; this offering does not seem to me to be too small for such a large number of souls; You know, Jesus, that for thirty years You were saving souls by just this kind of work. And since holy obedience forbids me to perform great penances and mortifications, therefore I ask You, Lord: accept these mere nothings stamped with the seal of obedience as great things." Then I heard a voice in my soul: My dear daughter, I comply with your request.
Davide A. Bianchini, Contact