Penance & Mortification
What we can learn about suffering in the story of Joseph, the Patriarch
A Helpful Reminder on the Problem of Suffering
Book Recommendation: Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s St. Therese – A Treasured Love Story
Redemptive Suffering and Penance & Mortification
To Love and To Suffer: The Science of the Saints
The saints would often say that their greatest desire can be summed up in one phrase; to love and to suffer. In the proceeding article, we will attempt to unpack exactly what this means, namely; what does is mean to love? And what does it mean to suffer? And what is the relationship between the two?
The Meaning of Suffering
We live in a world that flees from suffering. Since the time of our youth, we have been raised to view suffering as an impediment to happiness. We are taught to believe that the less we suffer, the happier we will be. This belief is common not only to secular society, but also to religion and philosophies as well. Even certain eastern religions were founded on the principle that suffering is the primordial evil in life, from which mankind must escape (for example, the central tenets of Buddhism; the “Four Noble Truths”). For many people, suffering is viewed as an evil without value, and thus any means should be taken to avoid even a common cold. Yet, in the writings of the saints, we find an entirely different reality; that it is precisely suffering that strengthens us, humbles us, and forges us into saints. But more than this, we discover that suffering is of such inestimable redemptive worth, that nothing equals it in heaven or on earth. As Our Lord told Saint Faustina; “If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering.” (p.1805)
In fact, the saints teach us that suffering is of such great merit, that it is greater than external works such as preaching, writing, or even working miracles; “You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.” (Jesus to Saint Faustina). To illustrate this point, a demon once lamented to Saint John Vianney that hell had lost 80,000 souls due to his prayers and sacrifices alone. Saint Vianney did not need to travel the world and preach. He was a simple parish priest of a remote village. And yet, he was able to save 80,000 souls through a solitary life of prayer and sacrifice.
An Objection: “But how can this be so? How can a God of love value our suffering? After all, suffering exists because of sin.” Yes, it is true. Suffering entered the world through the disobedience of our first parents. So, clearly, God never intended for us to suffer. Even while on earth, Jesus worked miracles of healing for countless people, curing blindness, leprosy, deformities, and disease. It is clear Our Lord wants us to be happy and healthy, not to suffer. But it is when we offer our suffering–the one thing most disagreeable to our human nature–back to the Creator, it becomes a gift of inestimable value; drawing down from heaven more grace than any other action we can possibly make.
In other words, “We love only to the degree that we are willing to suffer.” (Fr. John Hardon, S.J.) Instinctively we know this to be true. After all, if someone preaches to me with great zeal, I will not be as convinced of their love, as when that same person suffers and undergoes hardship for me. Similarly, the defining moment of redemption for humanity was not when Our Lord preached in the synagogues or healed the sick. It was when Love was nailed to a tree and drained of His blood. In a certain sense, love and suffering are inseparable; for love is proven through suffering and suffering is perfected through love. And what greater proof of love is there than the one who dies to save His very executioners? Nowhere in the history of humanity has such kind of suffering (or rather, love) been preached, let alone entered into the thought of man. And it is precisely this kind of suffering (i.e., love) that we as Christians are called imitate, to willingly forget self in order to make others happy. Thus we see the end of suffering, not for its own sake, but for the life it breathes into souls through active love.
The Meaning of Love
This brings us to our next consideration. What does it mean to love? And how does one attain it? Let us first recall that every action of God is governed by love, because God IS love itself (1 John 4:8). It is His nature to love. He therefore cannot do anything but love. This, after all, is what most distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Christianity is the religion of radical love; love in its highest form; not a warm fuzzy feeling, but a manly love; a love that is willing to be trampled upon, to be dragged face-down in the dust so others can be saved. This kind of Love entered our world as a baby, and walked this earth long ago, so mankind could learn how to live in response. And the only true and proper response to love, is love. This is the primordial choice every person is faced with in this life; to choose Love, or to reject Love.
“The soul cannot live without love. She always wants to love something because love is the stuff she is made of, and through love I created her. […] That is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me–that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself.”
But what does it mean to love? How do we live it out in daily life? Let us first begin with the question: What is love. As we know, love is a theological virtue, which means that man cannot attain it on his own. He needs grace. Saint Thomas Aquinas calls it charity, and describes it as the “chief” of all the virtues, because it is the umbrella under which all virtue and every gift is born and sustained. From it flows every gift, grace, and heavenly aid. It is, in short, the goal and purpose of every action in every moment of our lives. But what does this mean practically? How does one love in daily life? One definition which the Church has used to define love is; “to will the good of the other, as other.” In other words, love is primarily an act of the will, which, as pope John Paul II notes, sees the other as a good in itself rather than an object to be used as a means to an end. Said another way, love is total self-gift, which is most manifest through spousal love (finding its source in the Holy Trinity). To put it plainly, love is totally other-centered; it takes no account of cost to self. To love totally, means to be totally forgetful of one’s own needs, and to be constantly in search of doing all that is beneficial for the other’s soul. And what is most beneficial to the other, if not to lead them to heaven? Therefore, to love is to will God (i.e., Goodness itself) for every soul we meet, and therefore govern all our actions accordingly..
“The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to love…all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love, and have no other objective than to arrive at love.”
An Objection: “But”, one might object, “if you always give and give, then you will get burnt out. Surely there are limits to how much we should give of ourselves. After all, we are only human, and need to take some time for ourselves.” This objection warrants some attention, since it seems to be common in our modern sensible worldview today (even in religious life). And although such sensible advice may be given with good intentions, as Saint Faustina says, the devil often comes under the guise of good intentions and sensible advice (think of Peter’s advice to Our Lord: God forbid we should run ourselves into the grave! Save yourself for pity sake!). Why is such advice dangerous? Because hidden with it lies a kernel of egoism, which can grow unchecked if we are not careful. Furthermore, no where in Christ’s doctrine does such advice enter. Rather, it is precisely the opposite that Christ teaches us; that the more we give ourselves away, the more recompense we receive in return.
“Those who are willing to lose their own consolation for their neighbors’ welfare receive and gain me and their neighbors…and so they enjoy the graciousness of my charity at all times.”
The trap, however, that many fall into, is in reducing this notion of “self-gift” down to merely external works, such as, for example, social justice. And as a result, they do get burnt out and tired over time; for one cannot give what one does not have. People too often rely on their own strength, running from one activity to the next, and neglect prayer–the one wellspring of infinite grace. We forget that Christ Himself, our model, often spent entire nights in prayer, so that He can be first filled with the love of the Father before going back out into the world. The foundation of prayer is therefore essential to love, for we cannot make a supernatural gift of ourselves unless we first possess what is supernatural.
I cannot emphasize this point enough. If we want love, we must pray. We simply cannot love with supernatural charity until we first make it our practice to learn from the Master, Love itself, by kneeling at His feet in humble adoration. If one acts in this way, then love becomes easy. Giving becomes easy. Rather than getting burnt out over time, love becomes invigorating, wanting to give of itself more and more. Rather than getting worn down from the dirt of the world, it will fall from him like water from rock. The only pain one experiences, says Catherine of Sienna, is the pain that the wicked inflict on their own souls (for as Thomas Aquinas reminds us, “sin is its own punishment”). In fact, this is the surest sign that one loves totally: when he finds himself searching out precisely those most difficult to love, those who others avoid. For love is not content to remain in comfort among friends, but desires to pour itself out on those most in need of God’s mercy, those whose souls are in greatest danger. Suffering then becomes easy for the one who loves. In fact, Catherine of Sienna says that the holier one becomes, the less they suffer!
“Wait. The holier one is, the less they suffer? What about Mother Teresa?”
Yes. As a general rule, this is true. As Saint Catherine confirms; “the more they have scorned pleasure and been willing to suffer, the more they have lost suffering and gained pleasure.” Why? Because as God tells her, “I will never withdraw from their feelings. No, their spirits always feel my presence within them, whereas regarding others I come and go…In other words, they can join their spirits with me in loving affection whenever they will…Every time and place is for them a time and place of prayer.”
This seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which sees the Mother Teresa’s of the world and concludes that the holier one is, the more in darkness and dryness they experience. This is a dangerous misunderstanding of the Dark Night (which, after all, is only a temporary state), one which causes an irrational fear of holiness. It is important to stress that Mother Teresa had a very unique calling, and not every saint is called to be a victim soul. Let us remember that God is a good and loving Father, and will not give us more than we can handle. He wants us to be beacons of light for others, to draw souls to God. And to do this, we need to be filled with love, joy, and peace, so that we may give love, joy, and peace to others (are not these three fruits of the Holy Spirit after all?). In Catherine’s chapter on tears, God speaks of this 4th stage of tears, “She begins to feel joy and compassion: joy for herself because of this impulse of love, and compassion for her neighbors. Then her eyes, which want to satisfy her heart, weep in charity for me and her neighbors with heartfelt love, grieving only for the offense done to me and the harm done to her neighbors.” This is not to say, however, that the saints do not experience trial and hardship. Quite the contrary. But the trial and hardship will be of no account to them, and will become occasions of growth and great fruit due to the patience with which it was borne, just as the Apostles rejoiced in all their trials and persecutions (see Acts 5:41, 14:21, Rom 8:18, 2 Corinthians 12:10, etc.). Let us be assured, then, that holiness is not something to fear, but rather, something to be sought after with great diligence; for there are no more happy and peaceful on this earth than the saints.
The Highest Suffering: Redemptive
When one prays, one is able to love supernaturally. And when one loves, one is able to bear all things joyfully for love of Christ, just as the Apostles did. And in so doing, we participate in God’s plan of salvation so intimately that we become little “co-redeemers”, as it were, and obtain the conversion of souls. As God told Saint Faustina, it is as if God hands are bound by the creature who loves. Even one small act of love, is enough to open the heavens, and cause an overflowing torrent of grace to pour forth upon the world. As Our Lady told the world at Fatima; “Many souls go to hell because there is no one to sacrifice themselves and pray for them.” This is what it means to share in a “common priesthood” of Christ. While priests of the Old Testament sacrificed animals to atone for sin, Christ became the Sacrifice par excellence to atone for all sin. And in like manner, the servant must follow the master. We too therefore must offer ourselves upon the altar of the cross, patterned after our Model and Savior–but not in a morbid way. Rather, it is in offering daily small sacrifices with joy, and accepting with resignation the divine will in all things, that the infinite wellsprings of grace pour forth. Such prayer enables one to elevate their suffering for this supernatural purpose, becoming a means of inestimable value.
“Love wants to suffer for the Beloved… Love wants to expiate the sins that have so deeply penetrated mankind. Love wants to make up for the lack of love among those who sin. Love wants to relieve the debt of suffering that sinners owe to God. Love wants to give God what sinners are depriving Him of by their sins.”
“I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, that there are many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of the Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God I choose all!’ I do not want to be a saint by halves. I’m not afraid to suffer for You. I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!”
“I remind thee that there is no exercise more profitable and useful to the soul than to suffer….Therefore, my daughter, embrace the cross, and do not admit any consolation outside of it in this mortal life. By contemplating and feeling within thyself the sacred Passion, thou wilt attain the summit of perfection and attain the love of a spouse…I find so few who console with me and try to console my Son in His sorrows…”
“Jesus says; ‘My daughter, I want to instruct you on how you are to rescue souls through sacrifice and prayer. You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone. I want to see you as a sacrifice of living love, which only then carries weight before Me… And great will be your power for whomever you intercede. Outwardly, your sacrifice must look like this: silent, hidden, permeated with love, imbued with prayer.”
“Never does our suffering make Him happy, but it is necessary for us, and so He sends it to us, while, as it were, turning away His face…. I assure you that it costs Him dearly to fill us with bitterness. The good God, who so loves us, has pain enough in being obliged to leave us on earth to fulfill our time of trial, without our constantly telling Him of our discomfort; we must appear not to notice it…Far from complaining to Our Lord of the cross which He sends us, I cannot fathom the infinite love which has led Him to treat us this way…What a favor from Jesus, and how He must love us to send us so great a sorrow! Eternity will not be long enough to bless Him for it.”
Jesus spoke these words; “My child, I have need of victims, and strong victims, who by their sufferings, tribulations, and difficulties, make amends for sinners and for their ingratitude.”
“Her sacrifice is perpetual, without mitigation, from the time her religious life begins until she dies as a victim according to the example of Jesus Christ. And she does all this in silence with no one aware of it. Yet how many are there who think of this life as useless. Nevertheless, she (the religious) is like the Lamb of God. She removes sins from the world. She sacrifices herself to bring back to the sheepfold those sheep who have gone astray. But just as Christ did not know the world, neither does she know it. This abnegation enchants me completely. There is no room for self-love. She doesn’t even see the fruit of her prayer. In heaven alone will she know this.”
“Jesus said to me; ‘How many times would you have abandoned Me, my son, if I had not crucified you. Beneath the cross, one learns love, and I do not give this to everyone, but only to those souls who are dearest to Me.”
How much prayer is required?
As we have said, prayer is step one, the foundation upon which everything in the spiritual life is built. If love is the goal, then prayer and sacrifice are the means. Without prayer, one cannot love supernaturally. And without supernatural love, one will be converted only with difficulty. As Saint Catherine of Sienna says; “Every perfection and every virtue proceeds from charity. Charity is nourished by humility. And humility comes from knowledge and holy hatred of oneself. To attain charity, therefore, you must dwell constantly in the cell of self-knowledge.” This passage by Saint Catherine is of utmost importance. Notice the clear ordering of actions listed here. It first lists charity as the end. But to attain charity, one must grow in humility. And humility only comes from self-knowledge, which as Catherine later clarifies, only comes by way of “constant, humble prayer.” Therefore, constant humble prayer is the beginning of everything (visually, it would be; prayer –> self-knowledge –> humility –> love). But note, not any kind of prayer will do. It must be “constant, humble prayer.” Saint Catherine is emphatic on this point. In fact, this phrase is repeated throughout her Dialogues more than any other phrase. Clearly, this is very important to her. Prayer must be humble, and it must be constant, for it bear the power to make saints of sinners. When done rightly, prayer becomes the greatest force on this earth. As Saint Catherine confirms, “the medicine by which He willed to heal the whole world and to soothe His wrath and Divine justice was humble, constant, holy prayer.” In this one passage, Saint Catherine is essentially giving us the key to life, to peace, to happiness; the simplest and surest formula for sanctity. This is not too good to be true. This is simply what a loving father would do for a child who is constantly at his feet looking up with adoring and trusting eyes. What good father would not melt at seeing such in his child?
This brings us to our next question: Exactly how much prayer is necessary? Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a specific number in the writings of the saints, since ultimately the goal is to become so filled with God that everything becomes a prayer. But if we could specify is general consensus as a starting point, we would say that three hours of prayer daily would be a minimum, if one is serious on becoming holy (mostly silent meditation in front of the Blessed Sacrament, spiritual reading, rosary, daily Mass, etc.). This may seem like a lot for the working person, but if one considers there are twenty-four hours in a day, three of those hours is hardly more than 10% of the day, which is nothing more than tithing our time, just as we tithe our money. And the more one prays, the less of a burden prayer becomes, because it begins to invigorates and enliven everything they do. By giving up our time to prayer, we seem to gain more time in return, and accomplish more more through the day.
This is the beauty of religious life. It already has heavy regimen of prayer built-in. So the question then becomes, why are not all religious saints? If prayer is everything, why do I see some people pray often but do not seem to reflect the love of God interiorly? Again, prayer alone is not enough, if one’s heart does not have the right intentions. As Saint Catherine specifies, prayer must be humble. In other words, one must enter into prayer with a spirit of docility, of reverence, of a willingness to learn, to be corrected, to make changes to one’s life, with the final view of giving to others what one receives. If one is resolved on becoming a saint, this kind of prayer, together with fasting, is perhaps the simplest and surest formula for doing so).
The Purgative, Unitive, and Redemptive qualities of Suffering
Now let us begin to parse the distinct fruits of suffering. As we have said, the highest form of suffering is redemptive. But suffering also bears other fruits with it as well, both for ourselves and for others. The following are three distinct fruits of suffering;;
1. Purgative. Suffering acts to purify and humble the soul. It is a crucible in which the impurities and worldly attachments are unmasked and expelled. Suffering can be physical (such as illnesses), emotional (humiliation, persecution, etc.), or spiritual (dryness in prayer, temptations, etc.). It can also be passive (imposed on us, beyond our control), or active (through penitential practices such as fasting or small acts of self-denial). This purgative trait of suffering [n.b., Purgative Way] is the first and most necessary step toward union with Our Lord, because it helps divest from the soul the “old man”; pride, avarice, lust, and worldly attachments. And like a good mother who is quick to shower her child with kisses for a good effort, so too is God quick to shower the soul with consolations and sweetness in prayer for every small act of love made in suffering. The more faith and trust the soul has, the more it will be compensated and given supernatural value. Saint John of the Cross believed that this stage was so necessary, that without a complete and total eradication of the appetites and self-will, a soul will never advance to higher degrees of holiness. He states; “One inordinate appetite alone….suffices to make the soul so captive, dirty, and unsightly, that until the appetite is purified, the soul is incapable of conformity with God in union.” And again he writes; “It makes little difference whether a bird is tied down by a thread or by a chain. The bird will be held down just the same.
O my Jesus, I know that, in order to be useful to souls, one has to strive for the closest possible union with You, who are Eternal Love… I can be wholly useful to the Church by my personal sanctity, which throbs with life in the whole Church, for we all make up one organism in Jesus.”
“You cannot arrive at virtue except through knowing yourself and knowing me. And this knowledge is more perfectly gained in time of temptation, because then you know that your are nothing, since you have no power to relieve yourself of the sufferings and troubles you would like to escape….for the devil is weak and can do nothing of himself, but only as I permit him. And I give him leave not through hatred but through love, not so that you may be conquered but that you may conquer and come to perfect knowledge of yourself and of me, and to prove your virtue–for virtue can only be tested by its opposite.”
2. Unitive. Once metal has been sufficiently purified in the crucible, it can then be forged into a proper instrument; to be wielded by the hands of Christ. This second quality is a natural consequence from the first, in that the purification enables the soul to be united with God. The voids that are created in the fire of purification can now be filled with grace and sealed with virtue. In this stage, the soul begins to realize what it once thought was love, was only an imperfect affection. It is now beginning to understand what true love consists; not in consolations alone, transports of the spirit, great works, or ecstasies, but in loving; in spending oneself for others; in giving until it hurts, without expecting any recompense. It is now discovering the true “secret to happiness” that so many self-help books attempt to answer; what men have searched the globe to find. It is a great mystery that has eluded many, and yet it is a profoundly simple foundation of Christianity, that; man can only find himself by giving himself away. As the pastoral council of Vatican II reminds us; “Man cannot find himself except by making a sincere gift of himself” The gaze of his entire being must turn away from himself completely, and only toward God and His beloved children; as total self-gift. As Saint Therese of Lisieux once said; “I never made more progress in the spiritual life, as when I began to devote myself to praying for others.” And so, in this stage, the soul is now “finding itself”; it is becoming more what it was created to be before the fall (“original man”), and its happiness increases seven-fold. Just as the force of a magnet increases as it draws nearer to iron, so too does the union between God and the soul increase in like kind. But now, the soul is still not yet perfect. And so Our Lord may ask (but does not force) the soul to continue its advance. If the soul complies, she may begin to experience periods of interior darkness, or nights, where she must learn become detached not only from creatures and things of this earth, but also spiritual attachments as well; at times feeling as if a blind man walking in darkness, relying on only blind faith and obedience as its guide. It is during these periods that the soul makes the greatest progress, unbeknownst to itself. It is only until the darkness passes that the soul looks back and sees a great chasm it has crossed, utterly overwhelmed and inflamed with love.
“Sufferings, adversities, humiliations, failures and suspicions that have come my way are splinters that keep alive the fire of my love for You, O Jesus.”
3. Redemptive. The third quality of suffering is the highest form of suffering, because it is directed entirely outward toward the salvation of souls. Redemptive suffering most intimately configures us to Christ, Who entered this world for this very purpose. It is the culminating work of Christ, and thus there is nothing greater that we can do in our imitation of Him. It is the kind of suffering that cries to heaven for humanity;”forgive us!”, and searches for reasons to excuse humanity; ” for we know not what we do!”. It sheds copious tears not only for mankind, but especially for hardened sinners; “those in most need of God’s mercy”. Redemptive suffering is offering oneself as a holocaust; to suffer the very fires of hell in order for others to obtain heaven. It takes on the sins of others, acting as a kind of sponge absorbing the evil around him. This form of suffering is so powerful–because love is so powerful–that its arms can span the entire world and has the potential to affect countless souls.
And yet, redemptive suffering does not have to take on extreme forms as we might expect. But rather, any suffering, if offered with love, can be given redemptive value, even something as mundane as a toothache. As Saint Therese reminds us, the smallest act of pure love is greater than the greatest miracles and feats of human strength, and can merit the conversion of souls. How is this possible? How can the prayers of a single person alter the lives of people on the other side of the world? How did Saint Faustina save 1,000 souls in just 40 days, by her sacrifices and prayers behind the walls of a cloister? As we have learned by now, love knows no bounds; love is not limited by this world; love cannot be caged.
“On the First Friday of the month, before Communion, I saw a large ciborium filled with sacred hosts. A hand placed the ciborium in front of me, and I took it in my hands. There were a thousand living hosts inside. Then I heard a voice, These are hosts which have been received by the souls for whom you have obtained the grace of true conversion during this Lent.”
“We [religious] are co-redeemers of the world. And souls are not redeemed without the cross.”
“Never cease offering me the incense of fragrant prayers for the salvation of souls, for I want to be merciful to the world. With your prayers and sweat and tears I will wash the face of my bride, holy Church.”
In a vision given to Saint Faustina, we observe that it is the daily sacrifices made by religious communities that sustain the world in existence, acting as a shield blunting the sword of God’s justice upon the world;
“During the renewal of the vows, I saw the Lord Jesus on the Epistle side (of the altar), wearing a white garment with a golden belt and holding a terrible sword in His hand. This lasted until the moment when the sisters began to renew their vows. Then I saw a resplendence beyond compare and, in front of this brilliance, a white cloud in the shape of a scale. Then Jesus approached and put the sword on one side of the scale, and it fell heavily towards the ground until it was about to touch it. Just then the sisters finished renewing their vows. Then I saw Angels who took something from each of the sisters and placed it in a golden vessel on the other side of the scale, it immediately out weighed and raised up the side on which the sword had been laid. At that moment, a flame issued forth from the thurible, and it reached all the way to the brilliance. Then I heard a voice coming from the brilliance: “Put the sword back in its place; the sacrifice is greater.”
No words can describe the image this vision paints. And what makes the sacrifice of religious life so great? Again, “humble, constant prayer.” This is the single most important determination whether a community is alive or dead, whether a community succeeds or fails. If it’s prayer is humble, then one has found a gem to behold; a rare find indeed. Is such a gem not worth diligently searching for in one’s discernment? As Our Lady revealed to Venerable Mary of Agreda, if the saints in heaven were able to feel regret, they would lament over not making better use of their time on earth. Let us then take advantage of this great gift of life, recalling the profound love Our Lord has for us. All He asks of us is our love, and if we are willing, a little sacrifice. And for such a small price, He will descend into the world and altar the course of history for the sake of so many lost souls.
“For the sake of your love, I withhold the just chastisements, which mankind has deserved. A single act of pure love pleases Me more than a thousand imperfect prayers. One of your sighs of love atones for many offenses with which the godless overwhelm Me. The smallest act of virtue has unlimited value in My eyes because of your great love for Me. In a soul that lives on My love alone, I reign as in heaven. I watch over it day and night. In it I find My happiness; My ear is attentive to each request of its heart; often I anticipate its requests. O child, especially beloved by Me, apple of My eye, rest a moment near My Heart and taste of the love in which you will delight for all eternity. But child, you are not yet in your homeland; so go, fortified by My grace, and fight for My kingdom in human souls; fight as a king’s child would; and remember that the days of your exile will pass quickly, and with them the possibility of earning merit for heaven. I expect from you, My child, a great number of souls who will glorify My mercy for all eternity. My child, that you may answer My call worthily, receive Me daily in Holy Communion. It will give you strength’… Jesus, do not leave me alone in suffering. You know, Lord, how weak I am. I am an abyss of wretchedness, I am nothingness itself; so what will be so strange if You leave me alone and I fall? I am an infant, Lord, so I cannot get along by myself. However, beyond all abandonment I trust, and in spite of my own feeling I trust, and I am being completely transformed into trust-often in spite of what I feel. Do not lessen any of my sufferings, only give me strength to bear them. Do with me as You please, Lord, only give me the grace to be able to love You in every event and circumstance. Lord, do not lessen my cup of bitterness, only give me strength that I may be able to drink it all. O Lord, sometimes You lift me up to the brightness of visions, and then again You plunge me into the darkness of night and the abyss of my nothingness, and my soul feels as if it were alone in the wilderness. Yet, above all things, I trust in You, Jesus, for You are unchangeable. My moods change, but You are always the same, full of mercy.”
“It is the way of wicked sinners, and I beg you to pray to me for them. I ask for your tears and sweat on their behalf so that they may receive mercy from me.”
“If my lord and master has made Himself the life and the way for men though his Passion and Death, is it not evident that in order to go that way and live up to this truth, they must follow Christ crucified, afflicted, scourged and affronted? Consider the ignorance of men who wish to come to the Father without following Christ, since they expect to reign with God without suffering or imitating his Passion, yea without even a thought of accepting any part of his suffering and Death, or of thanking Him for it. They want it to procure for them the pleasures of this life as well as of eternal life, while Christ their Creator has suffered the most bitter pains and torments in order to enter heaven and to show them by His example how they are to fight the way of light.
“…but they [mankind] make their recovery impossible, since all of them are weak and afflicted by many sins, for which the only remedy is suffering…tribulation earns the pardon of the just Judge. By the bitterness of sorrow and affliction the vapors of sin are allayed; the excesses of the concupisible and irascible passions are crushed; pride and haughtiness are humiliated; the flesh is subdued; the inclination to evil, to the sensible, and to earthly creatures is repressed; the judgment is cleared; the will is brought within bounds and its desultory movements at the call of the passions, are corrected; and above all, divine love and pity are drawn down upon the afflicted, who embrace suffering with patience, or who seek to imitate my most holy Son. In this science of suffering are renewed all the blessed riches of the creatures; those that fly from them are insane, those that know nothing of this science are foolish.”
What if I am afraid of suffering?
When we think of suffering, many are tempted to think only of only the more extreme forms; hospital beds, terminal illnesses, or perhaps even torture and martyrdom. Others might think of victim souls such as Mother Teresa or Saint Faustina, who spent years in total darkness and anguish. If this is our idea of holiness, then it is no wonder why some are afraid of advancing further, if this is what we have to look forward to!
As we have said above, suffering does not have to take on these more extreme forms. Anyone can offer little sacrifices each day, and become holy by doing so. Remember, God is a loving and gentle God, and He wants us to be happy. He will only permit someone to become a victim soul if that soul is especially called to such a life and firmly resolved to that end. (The soul is free to choose its path, since God has given us the gift of free will, and honors that gift assiduously). Our crown in heaven will radiate to the degree that we loved on earth, and suffering adds further gems to our crowns, whether it be short periods of intense suffering or spread out thinly over time. Every day presents a thousand opportunities to offer oneself as a gift to God and others; even something as simple as a broken toe-nail, being accused unjustly, or being asked for help at an inconvenient time. How we respond in such instances, can have profound hidden effects on the world and the radiance of our own souls. In fact, these little daily opportunities can be more efficacious than if we offered our necks to the guillotine as martyrs. For, to persevere day-in and day-out in a thousand small victories can require a greater act of the will than a single moment of heroic virtue fortified by grace. We become, as it were, slow burning embers, continually offering incense before the throne of God. As Our Lady told Venerable Mary of Agreda; “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.” This same sentiment is echoed by Saint Therese; “There are trifles that please Our Lord more than the conquest of the world; a smile or a kindly word, for instance, when I feel inclined to say nothing or to appear bored.” If one is still afraid of suffering, it may be comforting to know that you are not alone, since even the saints had to grow in their love;
“At the beginning of my religious life, suffering and adversities frightened and disheartened me. So I prayed continuously, asking Jesus to strengthen me and to grant me the power of His Holy Spirit that I might carry out His holy will in all things, because from the beginning I have been aware of my weakness.” [p. 56] She later writes; “From the moment I came to love suffering, it ceased to be a suffering for me. Suffering is the daily food of my soul.”
“Do not be afflicted if your heart often experiences repugnance and dislike for sacrifice. All its power rests in the will, and so these contrary feelings, far from lowering the value of the sacrifice in My eyes, will enhance it. Know that your body and soul will often be in the midst of fire. Although you will not feel My presence on some occasions, I will always be with you. Do not fear; My grace will be with you…[…] “O my Jesus, farewell; I must go already to take up my tasks. But I will prove my love for You with sacrifice, neither neglecting nor letting any chance for practicing it slip by.
“Once, when I was in the kitchen with Sister N., she got a little upset with me and, as a punishment, ordered me to sit on the table while she herself continued to work hard, cleansing and scrubbing. And while I was sitting there, the sisters came along and were astounded to find me sitting on the table, and each one had her say. One said that I was a loafer and another, “What an eccentric!” I was a postulant at the time. Others said, “What kind of of a sister will she make?” Still, I could not get down because sister had ordered me to sit there by virtue of obedience until she told me to get down. Truly, God alone knows how many acts of self denial it took. I thought I’d die of shame. God often allowed such things for the sake of my inner formation, but He compensated me for this humiliation by a great consolation. During Benediction I saw Him in great beauty. Jesus looked at me kindly and said, ‘My daughter, do not be afraid of sufferings; I am with you.'”
Distrust Wounds Our Lord More than Anything Else!
In sufferings, the soul must trust that it is in God’s care, and that nothing will harm it–for God’s goodness will never give a soul more than it can bear, or more than it permits to bear. Our trust in His goodness must be unerring and absolute;
“Your great trust in Me forces me to continuously grant you graces. You have great and incomprehensible rights over My Heart, for you are a daughter of complete trust.”
“[Jesus says;] Distrust on the part of souls is tearing at My insides. The distrust of a chosen soul causes Me even greater pain; despite My inexhaustible love for them they do not trust Me. Even My death is not enough for them. Woe to the soul that abuses these gifts.”
“O what precious moments these are. It is a happiness that the Lord gives me to relish almost always in moments of affliction. At these moments, more than ever, when the whole world troubles and weighs on me, I desire nothing other than to love and to suffer. Yes my father, even in the midst of so much suffering I am happy because it seems as if my heart is beating with Jesus’ heart.”
To Court the Cross
If suffering is the greatest form of love, then meditation on Our Lord’s passion is the greatest form of meditation. As Jesus told Saint Faustina once; “There is more merit to one hour of meditation on My sorrowful Passion than there is to a whole year of flagellation that draws blood; the contemplation of My painful wounds is of great profit to you, and it brings Me great joy.” A soul that always has Our Lord’s Passion and Our Lady’s agony on the forefront of its mind will make rapid progress in the spiritual life, for it is through the passion of Our Lord that God’s love for man is revealed in its highest form. We read similar sentiments in a vision given to Saint Faustina, during a time when she had great dryness of prayer;
“Jesus was suddenly standing before me, stripped of His clothes, His body completely covered with wounds, His eyes flooded with tears and blood, His face disfigured and covered with spittle. The Lord then said to me, “The bride must resemble her Betrothed.” I understood these words to the very depth. There is no room for doubt here. My likeness to Jesus must be through suffering and humility. “See what love of human souls has done to Me. My daughter, in your heart I find everything that so great a number of souls refuses Me. Your heart is My repose. I often wait with great graces until towards the end of prayer.”
“When Jesus wants me to understand that He loves me, He allows me to savor the wounds, the thorns, the agonies of His passion…When He wants to delight me, He fills my heart with that spirit which is all fire; He speaks to me of His delights. But when He wants to be delighted, He speaks to me of His sorrows, He invites me — with a voice full of both supplication and authority — to affix my body [to the cross] in order to alleviate His suffering. Who can resist Him? I realize how much my miseries have caused Him to suffer, how much I have offended Him. I desire no other than Jesus alone, I want nothing more than His pains (because this is what Jesus wishes). Let me say–since no one can hear me–I am disposed to remain forever deprived of the sweetness Jesus allows me to feel. I am ready to suffer Jesus hiding His beautiful eyes from me, so long as He does not hide His love from me, because then I would die. But I do not feel I can be deprived of suffering–for this I lack strength. […] Perhaps I have not yet expressed myself clearly with regards to the secret of this suffering. Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, wants all Christians to imitate Him; He has offered this chalice to me yet again, and I have accepted it. That is why He does not spare me. My humble sufferings are worth nothing, but Jesus delights in them because He loved [suffering] on earth…Now shouldn’t this alone be enough to humiliate me, to make me seek to be hidden from the eyes of men, since I was made worthy of suffering with Jesus and as Jesus? Ah, my father! I feel too keenly my ingratitude toward God’s majesty.”
Penance and Mortification
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.
“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 corporal austerities.
“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;
“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.”
“If we 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”.
“When [satan] sees us a little anxious about our bodies, he wants nothing more than to convince us that our way of life must kill us, and destroy our health. Even if we weep, he makes us afraid of blindness. I have passed through this, and therefore I know it. But I know of no better sight or better health that we can desire, than the loss of both in such a cause. Being myself so sickly, I was always under constraint, and good for nothing, till I resolved to make no account of my body nor of my health; even now I am worthless enough…But when it pleased God to let me find out this device of Satan, I used to say to the latter, when he suggested to me that I was ruining my health, that my death was of no consequence. When he suggested rest, I replied that I did not want rest, but the cross…My health has been much better since I have ceased to look after my ease and comforts.”
“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 ascetic. 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.
What we can learn about suffering in the story of Joseph, the Patriarch
One of the greatest and most painful of mysteries is the problem of suffering and the broader problem of evil in the world. I was meditating with my Sunday School parents this past weekend on the Old Testament Patriarch Joseph. That story is rich with lessons about family struggles, envy, jealousy, pride, mercy and forgiveness. But the story also has a lot to say about suffering and the way that God can use it to bring blessings.
Lets take a moment and consider the problem of suffering and see what Joseph’s life has to teach us. But first we ought to begin with some background.
I. Prequel – God had set forth a vision for us; let’s call it “Plan A” also known as paradise. But of course that plan came at the “price” of a an intimate relationship with God the Father. Man would not be at the center; God would be.
The word “knowledge” is key here. In scripture, to “know” almost never means simple intellectual knowing. Rather, it means to know something by experience. In effect, the title of the tree teaches that God did not want Adam and Eve to know what was good and evil by experience. Rather, he wished them simply to trust Him to be their teacher, to be their Father who would guide them in these matters.
But as we know, Adam and Eve gave way to the temptation of the devil yielded to pride. They insisted on “knowing” good, and, more problematically, evil by experience. In effect, their decision amounted to saying,
“I will not be told what to do. I will decide what I want to do and I will decide whether it is right or wrong. I will conduct experiments in this way for myself because I do not trust God to act in my interest, or to teach me accurately.”
The Catechism says Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness. (# 397)
Thus, they would not trust God to teach them what was good and not. They insisted on knowing and deciding for themselves. Adam and Eve wanted a “better deal” than paradise. So welcome to the better deal.
We live now in Paradise Lost, a world where the imperial autonomous self creates a kind of hellish existence often marked with great suffering and, ultimately, death. In wanting to know, that is experience, evil we sadly got what we wanted: sin and evil, sorrow and death as our daily fare. And this is the first Biblical explanation of the problem of evil.
II. Prescription – What then is God to do? If He simply canceled our choice, or the consequences associated with it, could we really say that he is serious about our freedom? No. So working within the parameters of our decision, a decision that included the experiencing of evil, suffering and death, God chose to make those consequences the very path of our healing and salvation if we will walk with him in these.
Now suffering and death provide a way back. And by his suffering and death Jesus sets us free and, still respectful of the choice we have made, Jesus bids us to follow him in the way of the cross.
So, as we’ve seen, God has entered our broken world, and made this brokenness a pathway by God’s grace. Suffering often produces glory and refines us so that we are pure gold. Through suffering, grants us wisdom and helps us to learn new skills, new insights.
III. Picture – Perhaps the story of saint of Joseph in the Old Testament helps illustrate a lot of this. While are many layers to the story, both personal and communal, it is clear that God often allows great injustice and suffering, only to produce great glory and healing on account of it. Lets weave the story with some basic teachings about suffering.
A. Structures of Sin bring suffering – The story of Joseph begins in the dysfunctionality of Jacob’s household. Jacob had two wives (Leah and Rachel) and 12 sons in different combinations with them and their maids (Zilpah and Bilhah). Now polygamy, and adultery is not God’s plan! And, to be out of God’s will is always to ask for trouble. And having sons by four different women produces no end of internecine conflicts. Sure enough Jacobs sons all vie for power and have divided loyalties because they have different mothers.
Thus the sons of Jacob have been born into a mess, and into what moralists describe as the “structures of sin.” In these broken situations of structural sin, sin and suffering multiply.
And it is often the children who suffer. They themselves, inheriting a mess begin to act badly an disdainfully. Suffering and evil grow rapidly in these settings.
In the world today, it is probably not an exaggeration that 80% of our suffering would go away at once, if we all kept the Commandments. But sadly we do not repent, individually or collectively.
And thus the first answer to why there is suffering, is sin. Original Sin ended paradise, and individual sin brings dysfunction and a host of social ills and the sins that go with it. And while this does not explain all suffering (e.g. natural disasters etc) is does explain a lot of suffering.
Thus we see Joseph is about to suffer on account of a structurally sinful situation brought about by Jacob and his wives and mistresses and contributed to all the members of the household. It’s not his fault but he will suffer.
B. Suffering can bring purification and humility – Though the brothers of Joseph all fought among themselves, all of them agreed on one thing, Jacob’s youngest son Joseph had to go. Jacob’s favorite wife was Rachel and when she finally had a son, Joseph, he became Jacob’s favorite son. Jacob doted on him, praised him, and even gave him a beautiful coat that enraged his brothers with jealousy. They were also enraged and envious because Joseph had many gifts. He was a natural leader, and had the special gift to be able to interpret dreams. Joseph had the kind of self-esteem that perhaps too boldly celebrated his own gifts. Among the dreams that he had and articulated was if he would one day rule over his brothers. This was altogether too much for them. Even Jacob at the school Joseph for speaking in this manner.
And while this has some validity, it is possible for us to conclude that Joseph was awfully self assured and may have lacked the kind of humility that required purification.
Surely as a young man he also had a lot to learn, and suffering has a way of both purifying us and granting us humility and wisdom. If Joseph is going to be a great leader, he like Moses, needs some time in the desert of suffering. And thus we sense God permitting trials for him to prepare him for wise, effective and compassionate leadership.
And so too for us. Trials and sufferings prepare us for greater things and purify us of pride and self-reliance. Woe to the man who has not suffered, who is unbroken. Thus God permits us trials and difficulties that help us hone our skills, know our limits, grow in wisdom and develop compassion and trust.
C. Suffering Opens Doors – On account of all of this is brothers plotted to kill him. But figuring they could make money on the deal, they instead sold him to the Ishmaelites as a slave. He ends up in Egypt, in the house of Potiphar. His natural leadership skills earned him quick promotions and he soon came to manage the household of this very wealthy man.
And within months Joseph was in a good spot, working for a wealthy man as a trusted adviser and manager. As we shall see, more will be required for Joseph to be prepared for his ultimate work.
But for now, the lesson is clear enough, God permits some sufferings to get us to move to the next stage. He closes one door to open another. There is pain in the closing of the door to the familiar, but there is greater joy beyond in the door He opens.
How about for you? What doors has God closed in your life, only to open something better? At the time a door closes we may suffer, and wonder if God cares. But later we see what God was doing. For the new door opens to things far greater.
D. Suffering helps summon courage – In a tragic way, sorrow was again to come to Joseph. For Potiphar’s wife took a liking to Joseph and sought to seduce him. Joseph refused her advances out of fear of God, and respect for Potiphar. But in her scorn she falsely accused Joseph of having made advances on her, and Joseph lands in jail! More misery, more suffering, and on account of the sins of others, not his own! Joseph is suffering for doing what is right!
But courage, like any virtue cannot simply be developed in the abstract. Rather, it is developed and refined quite often in the crucible of opposition and persecution.
And thus we see how God helps Joseph develop his courage and trust by permitting this trial. Jesus would say many centuries later, In this world you shall have tribulation, but have confidence, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33) He also said, Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs (Matt 5:10).
As for Joseph, so also for us. If we are going to make it through this sinful world with our soul intact, we are going to need a lot of courage. The Lord often develops his courage in the crucible, asking us to trust him that we will be vindicated, whether in this world or the next.
E. Suffering builds trust – Joseph just happened to meet to prisoners from Pharaoh’s household, the Cup-bearer, and the Baker. In prison, they experience Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, and observe his natural leadership skills. In accordance with a prophecy given by Joseph, the cup-bearer was restored to Pharaoh’s service who then reported Joseph’s skills to Pharaoh who just happened to be having dreams that troubled him.
Sure enough, in jail Joseph has his trust confirmed. Through his connections in jail, of all places, he will rise to become the prime minister of all Egypt. Having come through the crucible, Joseph is now ready for the main work that God has for him.
Consider how in your life, God’s providence has prepared you for something that an earlier stage in your life you couldn’t handle. Surely he prepared you in many ways; but among those ways was the way of humility and suffering. Setbacks or failures have a way of teaching us and preparing us for some of the greatest things that we enjoy. And in our struggles we learn the essential truth and we must come to trust and depend on God who knows what we need, what is best for us, and who knows how to prepare us for the works he expects of us.
F. Suffering produces wisdom. – Joseph is brought to Pharaoh and he so powerfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, not only as to their meaning, but even as to a 14-year plan that will lead them through a looming crisis. Pharaoh was impressed, and Joseph is appointed to the equivalent of prime minister of all Egypt.
There’s a great wisdom in grasping that what is seen and experienced in this world is transitory. And thus we do well to listen to the Lord’s wisdom which is eternal.
Centuries later, the Lord spoke a parable of the certain wealthy man who had a great harvest and thought he was forever set. Lord called him a fool for thinking this way. Our abundance is not meant to be hoarded for ourselves. Excess food is not to be stored for myself, but rather stored in the stomachs of the poor and the hungry.
And thus Joseph, has been prepared for this moment by God, and he’s no fool. He has learned God’s wisdom and direction. Whatever abundance occurs in the next seven years must be set aside for those who will be hungry in the years that follow.
His wisdom is no accident, no mere hunch. It has come from the crucible of suffering. Suffering does that, it helps us become wise, get our priorities straight, and in this case, understand that our wealth depends on the Commonwealth. We cannot live merely for ourselves. That is foolishness, we are called to live for others.
What wisdom has God taught you through suffering? How has suffering helped you to get your priorities straight; to see the passing quality of life in this world, and to set your sights on the world it is to come and on the judgment awaits you? On the day of judgment will God call you a fool or a wise person? And if you are wise how did you get there?
G. In our suffering, we learn that our lives are not about us. – Joseph had predicted seven years of plenty, to be followed by seven years of famine. Hence, under Joseph’s direction during the years of plenty, grain was stored in abundance. So abundant was the harvest that with the grain stored, not only was Egypt saved from the famine, but also many neighboring lands. In a twist, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking food. And he is able to save the very brothers who thought to kill him. To his anxious brothers, who recognizing him fear for their lives, Joseph reassured them by saying you intended for evil, but God intended for good.
God did not simply prepare him to be a big cheese. God did not prepared him for glorious leadership for his own sake, but for the sake of others.
One of the lessons that we learn in Joseph’s story is that our life is interconnected with many other members of the Body of Christ, all of whom are precious and important to God.
God had to put Joseph through a lot to prepare him for his role of helping others. We are not called to live only for our self. God loves us individually, he also loves others through us; and he loves them enough that sometimes he is willing to make us wait, for their sake, or to cause us to suffer in order to groom us to help them. And the same is true of them toward us. All of us have received from the sacrifices of others, and are called to make sacrifices for others.
It is a hard truth, but true nonetheless, that God sometimes asks us to accept suffering for the sake of others, even as we are blessed by the sufferings of others who made many sacrifices for the things we enjoy.
This is the communal dimension of suffering. How is God prepared you through sufferings today to be able to help others?
Biblical stories have a wonderful way of teaching truth, and about our own life. And thus the Patriarch Joseph speaks to us from antiquity, and the pages of God’s holy Word. And somehow, I can hear Joseph saying that God can make a way out of no way. Somehow I hear him calling us to courage in our sufferings, and to perspective. Somehow I can hear him singing an old gospel hymn “God never fails. He abides in me, give me the victory for God never fails!”
A Helpful Reminder on the Problem of Suffering
There are many questions related to the problem of suffering and of evil: Why does God permit evil? Why does He not intervene? Why does He delay? Is God really good if He permits such things? Is He really omnipotent?
The answers we can propose address some but not all aspects of the problem of evil. Suffering and evil are not meaningless, as the cross of our Lord shows, but we must humbly and reverently acknowledge that there will remain mysterious aspects.
One of our chief problems is that we often rush to call something “bad,” “unfortunate,” or “evil,” without recognizing that there are some aspects of it that bring blessings. For example, one cause of suffering and tragedy in our world is the fiery center of our planet. We live on a thin crust of cooled rock that floats on top of a cauldron of melted rock or magma; this causes suffering but also brings blessings. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and occasional climatic shifts are among the effects of living above a molten sea; they can bring suffering and loss of life. And yet without these realities life would not be possible here. Volcanic explosions produce important gases for our atmosphere, essential for life. They also produce valuable nutrients to the surrounding soil. Even more, the movement of the molten mantle beneath us is essential in developing the magnetic field that surrounds Earth and helps to deflect the harmful effects of solar winds.
So the burden of volcanic activity also brings blessings. Fearful as eruptions and earthquakes can be, we probably wouldn’t be here without them. One might still ask, “Could not God have come up with a less deadly way of dispensing blessings?” Arguably He did: in offering us the paradise of Eden, where we would be protected. But as we know, Adam and Eve sought a “better deal.” Ever since, we’ve been living in a “Paradise Lost.”
In this “Paradise Lost,” we must learn to look for blessings in strange packages; we should not assume that things or events that cause suffering are wholly lacking in value or bereft of any good at all. God may close one door as a way to open others. He permits affliction in order to bestow other blessings. We do well to avoid hasty conclusions when pondering the problem of evil.
This leads me to a memorable story from the tradition of the Eastern Desert Fathers. I am indebted to Bishop Robert Barron for reminding me of the story via his book, Vibrant Paradoxes (p. 233). I recount the story here in slightly greater detail than did the good Bishop, but I would recommend you read his thoughtful commentary. The story teaches on the often ambiguous qualities of events and problems:
There was a man who was a farmer, and one day the wind blew the gate of his field open and his valued and only horse escaped, and was not to be found. His friends came to commiserate with him at this loss, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”
Several days later, the horse returned with a wild stallion and a mare. And his friends came to rejoice with him in his good fortune, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”
Several days later, his son was breaking in the new horses and was cast from the back of the wild stallion and suffered a broken arm and leg. And the farmer’s friends came and commiserated with him at the injuries of his son, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”
Several days later, troops of the emperor came to the area to draft and compel the young men of the village in the army. But the farmer’s son was exempted due to his injuries. And the farmer’s friends came to rejoice with him that his son was not taken away, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”
Yes, in so many events of life we lack the comprehensive view to sit in judgment on their full meaning. Blessings are not always as they seem; neither are burdens. Sometimes the best we can do is to say, “We’ll see.”