by Fr. Charles Willingham, O.Praem.
We heard in the Gospel Antiphon, “Your words Lord are Spirit and life; You have the words of everlasting life.” These words come from the sixth chapter of St. John, speaking of the gift of the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus said, “My words are Spirit and life”; and when Jesus asked the twelve apostles, “Do you want to leave Me, too?” Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of Eternal Life.”
“To whom shall we go?”
Sometimes when we read books or watch movies about saints or other holy people like “Song of Bernadette,” “The Reluctant Saint,” “The Island” (A Russian Film), or most recently “Of Gods and Men,” we come away saying to ourselves, “I have to start again,” or “I have to get started.” “I have to start being good, start living for God, start living religious life the way I should be.” Because compared to what we see in the lives of these saints (or others who aspired to sanctity), we fall short, very short.
The problem is that we make the mistake of thinking that in order to get started, or in order to advance, we have to change our place: become a recluse in the desert, a Carthusian on a mountaintop, or a bishop in charge of a diocese, or a husband and father of ten children. At one point in the film, “Of Gods and Men,” when the monks realize that it could only be advantageous from every natural view point to leave, they all decide to stay. Br. Christien says, “The wild flowers do not change their place to find the rays of the sun. God makes them fruitful wherever they are.”
So we do not move from our place to find God’s grace, to do His will. God makes His grace to shine where He Himself has put us. There is where we accomplish His will. “But,” you say, “the way things are run here, the people I live with, they block the sun. I can’t grow.”
In the trial of beatification for St. Therese of Lisieux, one of the other sister’s testifying described the convent as a veritable madhouse: many divisions among the sisters, poor observance, a superior who would wake up everyone at night to find her cat when it went missing, and other things. But she ends by saying, “In spite of it all, Therese became a saint.” Better if she had said: “Because of it all, Therese became a saint.” Why? Because that’s where God called her, where God chose for her to be: In the Lisieux Carmel, as wacky as it was, to be affected by the other sisters and to affect the other sisters.
St. John of the Cross in his counsels to a fellow religious on how to reach perfection states:
“You should understand that those who are in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to
mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deeds, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you. You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter the religious life for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven. If this was not your reason for entering the religious state, you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.”
And this perhaps is the real reason people end up jumping ship: because they are really seeking their own ease, their own self-determination. They want really to go back to the world, which does not change the fact that God still chose them and called them to be in this place.
Fr. Abbot Parker many times told the story of a postulant years back (before we had such things as gas powered trench diggers) who on the very day that he arrived was put to work digging some kind of trench with a shovel. He suddenly threw down the shovel and said “What on earth am I doing here?” and he left the same day that he came. What was it that this postulant was looking for? What did he expect? Maybe he just didn’t like it. Did he forget, in less than a day, that the One he came to follow said, “Take up your Cross…” “Unless you do penance…” “Pick up your mat…” “Deny yourself…” “As the Master shall the servant be” ?
Maybe he was looking to have his desire for God completely satisfied. That won’t happen in this world. You’ll always desire more.
Was it a mystical experience he wanted? But he would have failed to see that there is something beyond mystical experience that one arrives at immediately through love: that is, simple uniformity with God’s will.
Maybe he left because he felt his gifts were not being noticed, appreciated, or used. Who left like that? Lucifer! Because he thought Heaven could not accommodate his degree of goodness, beauty, intelligence, or understanding.
Maybe this postulant really thought he wasn’t up to this, that is, he felt that he was not good enough, too weak for all this digging and for everything else that was to come. But that is the very best attitude to have, because none of us can look for the ability to live this life from ourselves. No, it comes from God. And because He chose you, and because He brought you here (and has given you so many special graces and “perks” over the years to prove that He wants you here), He will certainly give you the grace to live it.
But “living” the life does not mean “being successful.” It means being faithful. As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “God does not demand that we be successful but faithful.” And when a priest asked her, “Mother, pray that I may have clarity,” she answered, “No I won’t. I will pray that you have trust.”
In “Of Gods and Men,” the old doctor, Br. Luc, quotes a remarkable passage from Pascals “Penses”:“We advance toward God through failure, through weakness, by falling.”
Why does Pascal say that? Because we only advance toward God through trusting Him and nothing brings us to lose all trust in ourselves and put it completely in God more than the realization of our weakness, the acknowledgment of our failures and sins. It is a downward path; really one of falling, but falling on to God.
When I say God will give us the grace to live this life, I mean only this: He will give us the ability to trust in spite of my weakness and falls, in spite of my brother’s weaknesses, in spite of my situation and my health,
in spite of everything, yes even in spite of the very place in which He has put me. Really, precisely because of the place He has put me.
St. Norbert, St. Therese, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila. All of them had very great desires. All of them were probably holier than everyone else in their monastery. All of them felt misunderstood. All of them had great trials. None of them gave up on their Order.
Even St. Teresa of Calcutta, who started a new congregation, had first lived as a Loreto Sister faithfully for nearly 30 years. And the only reason she left is because God knocked on her forehead and said I have a special mission for you and then she got permission from the superiors.
It is St. Alphonsus who tells us in his work, “Uniformity with God’s Will,”
“Above all, let us bend all our energies to serve God in the way He wishes. This remark is made so that we may avoid the mistake of him who wastes his time in idle day-dreaming. Such a one says, ‘If I were to become a hermit, I would become a saint,’ or, ‘If I were to enter a monastery, I would practice penance’ or ‘If I were to go away from here, leaving friends and companions, I would devote long hours to prayer.’ If, if, if– all these ifs! In the meantime, such a person goes from bad to worse. These idle fancies are often temptations of the devil, because they are not in accord with God’s will. Hence we should dismiss them summarily and rouse ourselves to serve God only in that way which He has marked out for us. Doing His holy will, we shall certainly become holy in those surroundings in which He has placed us.”
Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to leave me too?”
Brothers in Christ, a postulant throwing down his shovel is one thing. A man who has consecrated his whole self to Christ in religious life and has even been raised to the sublime dignity of the priesthood is entirely something else.
Jesus went on to say, “Did I not choose the twelve of you Myself? Yet one of you is a devil!”
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