The Italian mystic St. Paul of the Cross boldly said, “Be as eager to break your own will as the thirsty stag is to drink of the refreshing waters.” I emphasized the phrase break your own will as that imaginary stood out as quite audacious. To break the will seems such a violent thing to do to yourself. After researching a bit on this saint, I learned that Paul was the founder of the Passionists a religious order dedicated to a penitential life in solitude and poverty. Since, Paul of the Cross lived in isolation from the world do his words hold any meaning for a regular, ‘normal’ people who hold down jobs, have a family? Should not “super-holiness” be reserved for priests and nuns?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2013, “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.”65 All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are coming up on the perfect season to increase our holiness— Lent! The Lenten season is modeled after Jesus’ 40 day time in the wilderness. Because Jesus is God, he was able to stave off the allures of the Devil. His witness showed that both praying and fasting disable the weaponry of the Evil One. The practice of self-denial is absolutely essential in growing in virtue! Saying YES to God through prayer allows us to say NO to those unhealthy pleasures of the world—through the practice of fasting.
I struggle mightily with the pressures of the world, and those self-imposed. Anger, resentment, and impatience come as a result of succumbing to the things of this world instead of first saying YES to God and praying. Self-reflection and renewing a practice for saying YES to pray helps begin a habit of saying NO to the temptations of impatience, pride, greed, envy, power-control, etc. St. Francis de Sales affirms the message of Paul of the Cross, the Catechism and Christ by stating, “The more one mortifies his natural inclinations, the more he renders himself capable of receiving divine inspirations and of progressing in virtue.” Be fast to practice fasting. If you struggle at first remember to say YES to God (pray!) in order to say NO to yourself.
The Catechism tells us, “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (CCC 540). This year I already experienced time in the wilderness not only in the spiritual sense, but in a tangible way as well. As a child, I used to think that the desert only referred to geographic areas with intense heat and little rainfall. However, reflecting on the information I learned from high school geography class and confirmed by Dictionary.com, a desert technically speaking is defined as: “any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil.” Winter 2018 certainly calls into question about whether the United Stated Midwest could be argued to be categorized as a deserted place!
Along with experiencing a physical harshness of climate and barrenness of life during the wintertime, I undergo periods, especially the last couple weeks, of dryness or barrenness in my spiritual life. Spiritual aridity is a topic that I related started to learn about. Saint including, but not limited to, Teresa of Calcutta, Sister Maria Faustina, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross guided me toward a more mature spirituality and to realize that dryness in prayer is not necessary an indictment on a person instead souls undergo periods of purgation to deepen one’s relationship with God. St. John of the Cross, (whose feast day is actually today!) most recently helped avoid me wandering and oriented me toward a mindset that marvels at the Providence of God despite sojourning in the desert of life. Below I wish to share three specific ways Christians will be able to avoid wandering and to start wondering in the desert of life.
- Omnipotent Oases: The great founding father of America Benjamin Franklin once said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Traveling in the desert this insight goes without saying. Quenching of thirst quickly becomes of utmost importance. In a desert certain fertile areas exist that surround a water source—oases. Venturing to an oasis is akin to the 1849 gold rush as water is an invaluable resource in a barren land. I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He promises her the possibility of living water. While it is not speaking of physical water, because humanity still needs that to survive the Christ is referring to the sacraments as being sources of God’s graces.
These omnipotent oases never dry up. We need only be willing to travel to the wellsprings to receive God’s grace. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1210,
Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life:1 they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life.
I wish to share an example of a recent encounter at a well of God’s grace–the Sacrament of Confession. At the conclusion of a long and particular tough week, both physically and spiritually, I realized I needed to do something about my anger issues and lack of patience at home. Traveling to a nearby local Catholic Church I confessed my sins to the priest. Standing in Personi Christi [standing in the Person of Christ] the priest had the authority to forgive my sins through the sacrament of Holy Orders. In the New Testament, Jesus conferred this power to his Apostles–the first Catholic priest– in John 20:22-23. After receiving the healing graces from this sacrament, I returned home with a greater defense and ability to encounter the temptation of anger and impatience head-on.
2. Follow the Caravan: A second tip that I discovered that helped me withstand the sandstorms [no pun intended] and desolation of life is to unite myself with others in community to not only discuss my struggles but to celebrate the joys of life. Sojourning with others assists me in the journey of life. It is not a coincidence that the source and summit of the Christian life involves communal worship in the sacrament of the Eucharist within the Mass. The Church reminds us in CCC number 1369, “The whole Church is united with the offering and intercession of Christ.”
Along with weekly attendance of the Mass, smaller forms of community sustain me during periods of desert-like desolation in my spiritual life. A friend of mine actually reached out to me unsolicited to see if I needed assistance. “I know that you are going through a tough time now Matt, I was wondering if you wanted to get together for dinner or a drink sometime. Know that I am hear for you if you need to talk about things.” This was a text message that I received a few days ago. Truly, the Holy Spirit worked in my friend’s heart to reach out to me to seek an opportunity to console me.
3. Marian Moonlight in the Dark Night: The third means I learned that helped me learn to marvel at God’s majesty instead of aimlessly wander in the desert of life is turn more to the Mother of God for support and comfort. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, the moon has be a symbol associated with Mary. Oftentimes she is a guide to pilgrims in this earthly existence during a dark night of the soul. Venerable Fulton Sheen spoke this once, “God who made the sun, also made the moon. The moon does not take away from the brilliance of the sun. All its light is reflected from the sun. The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son; without Him, she is nothing. With Him, she is the Mother of men.”
Mary reflects or shines the light of Christ during the darkest of nights. During particularly frustrating nights when my children struggle with going to sleep–I ask the Blessed Virgin for assistance in my time of need. Recently, I started to pray a decade of the rosary when rocking my youngest child to bed. Looking to Mary for help is in no way a circumvention around God. I still worship Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, however, the humanity of Mary appeals to me and her maternal mediation always works on our behalf to bring our prayers to God.
I will close with a quote from the J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: During a particularly desolate part of the journey to destroy the ring [which represents sin and corruption] the hobbit-companion to Frodo [the ring-bearer] is Samwise ‘Sam’ Gamgee. He confidently told Frod, “I made a promise, Mr Frodo. A promise. ‘Don’t you leave him Samwise Gamgee.’ And I don’t mean to. I don’t mean to.” Do we possess similar resolve when times get tough? If we are married, do we remember our marital commitment to fidelity in the good times and bad? Do we have the courage and empathy to reach out to friends in need? Let us reflect on the promise of Jesus in Matthew 28:20, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
This Lent I am revisiting the great spiritual treatise of St. Francis de Sales’– Introduction to the Devout Life. Reading a couple meditations each day provides me ample time to reflect on the wisdom of the timeless truths of the Gospels as given to the world by God through St. Francis. During the height of a stressful work day, I gazed at this book on my desk and resolved to take 5 minutes of my break to read the third meditation.
The theme for that meditation was titled: On Gifts of God. Below is an excerpted section from this third meditation:
- Consider the material gifts God has given you—your body, and the means for its preservation;
your health, and all that maintains it; your friends and many helps. Consider too how many persons
more deserving than you are without these gifts; some suffering in health or limb, others exposed
to injury, contempt and trouble, or sunk in poverty, while God has willed you to be better off.
2. Consider the mental gifts He has given you. Why are you not stupid, idiotic, insane like many
you wot of? Again, God has favoured you with a decent and suitable education, while many have
grown up in utter ignorance.
3. Further, consider His spiritual gifts. You are a child of His Church, God has taught you to
know Himself from your youth. How often has He given you His Sacraments? what inspirations
and interior light, what reproofs, He has given to lead you aright; how often He has forgiven you,
how often delivered you from occasions of falling; what opportunities He has granted for your
soul’s progress! Dwell somewhat on the detail, see how Loving and Gracious God has been to you
Affections and Resolutions:
1. Marvel at God’s Goodness. How good He has been to me, how abundant in mercy and
plenteous in loving-kindness! O my soul, be thou ever telling of the great things the Lord has done
2. Marvel at your own ingratitude. What am I, Lord, that Thou rememberest me? How unworthy am I! I have trodden Thy Mercies under root, I have abused Thy Grace, turning it against Thy very
Self; I have set the depth of my ingratitude against the deep of Thy Grace and Favour.
3. Kindle your gratitude. O my soul, be no more so faithless and disloyal to thy mighty
Benefactor! How should not my whole soul serve the Lord, Who has done such great things in me
and for me?
What probably gave me most pause from the above except was St. Francis’ second resolution he charges: Marvel at your own ingratitude. Wait, what? Marvel at my epic fail of thanksgiving this week?! Yes, you [and I] read St. Francis’ words correctly. Pondering my own failure to be thankful for the gifts God bestowed upon me is a necessary step towards improvement of an attitude of gratitude. It did not take me long reflecting about my own spiritual ineptitude on this issue to realize most of my suffering and negativity this week stemmed from failure to simply thank God for the gifts–however big or small– He already provided me.
Gratitude helps to stave off greed and pride. I am thankful that I decided to spend a small amount of break-time in prayer. I am grateful for the example of holiness St. Francis de Sales. Finally, I am thankful for the gifts of my faith, family, and friends that God grants me daily!
I wish to prayerfully ponder the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading and provide a brief reflection on his message as it relates to my life:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected
by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?”
Do I truly desire salvation for my soul? Or do I simply seek a respite from my suffering? These two questions will be on the forefront of my mind this Lenten season. Jesus is certainly clear that this life involves suffering– and it is inescapable! Even God made Incarnation entered this reality to suffer. More precisely He took suffering head-on, in obedience to God the Father.
Humanity is so weak-minded (myself especially) that we need to be continually reminded to carry our crosses and to unite our suffering to Christ crucified and Resurrected in order to truly acquire life. I ask for strength from the Holy Spirit to suffer gracefully this Lent.