Recently I have been reading the writings of the Mexican Archbishop and mystic, Archbishop Martinez. He followed the “little way” of St Therese and wrote much about the interior life.
In one of his books, he speaks about growing in the spiritual life, and that we ascend by descending. This is a very counter intuitive concept that seems almost the opposite of what we expect.
So often, we expect to grow in virtue, and instead we face disappointments, temptations, trials and our sinfulness. It can be so easy to get discouraged, instead of seeing these ways as the exact ways given by God’s loving hand to make us Saints. These are His gifts of love but we don’t see this because we don’t expect love to cause suffering. But often, that is the only way to teach us to love. We need to trust in Divine Providence that God allows these things with perfect love, and for our good.
I think we ascend by descending when we come to God with all of our misery – not only recognising it, but loving it. How do we love it? I am still trying to figure that out, but apparently this is what humility is. Maybe we take steps in this direction when we seek God’s glory alone and His Will alone, and then we are happy to have to NEED God so much. He is glorified when He does everything for us because we are nothing. Even though holiness requires our cooperation and much effort, God’s grace is necessary and He wants us to let Him take over and no longer resist His action. God’s free action in out soul is our happiness but for this to happen, we need to be before Him as a grain of sand.
Seeing our misery can be very discouraging. This is from our pride and its something I’ve experienced many times. We want to instantly raise ourselves, to convince ourselves, others and even God that things aren’t so bad. But when we admit that they are, and turn to God joyfully because we need Him, He does not resist and comes to us with all of His graces.. Because finally, we are giving Him permission to act.
One of the points that most impressed me in the writings of Archbishop Martinez is that its our misery that attracts God to us. All else is a gift of His Mercy.
(The book that speaks of this topic is called Worshipping a Hidden God, by Archbishop Luis M. Martinez).
I was taught that we are all called to live holy Christian lives; to be saints. God does not wish for us to be mediocre, lukewarm Christians, content with just avoiding the obvious mortal sins. Yet He is extremely patient with us as we try to grow, and often we don’t even see our own problems and evil tendencies.
I am going to write about a way in which I failed. This summer, I was almost constantly anxious about some uncertainties and questions in my life, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I did not immediately realize my lack of trust in God and level of attachment.
These two things: distrust and attachments, are probably the most difficult effects of the fall to deal with, because they are so deep in the soul and are not immediately recognized. Even when we recognize them, it’s difficult to fight them. The enemy likes to do anything he can to distance us from God, and both distrust and attachments in the soul are linked to pride. We can easily be stuck in these two faults without even seeing it. Only God’s grace can help us to see these tendencies and help us to overcome them. What follows is just a reflection based on my own mistakes. I am not any authority on the faith and I can’t take credit for any of the ideas, many of which come from books.
Attachments can come in all forms, whether it’s to possessions, money, entertainments, distractions, goals, ambitions, reputation, appearance, feelings, or even holy things we want to do for God. The last is probably one of the most dangerous attachments because it can lead to spiritual pride, and the goodness of what we are attached to prevents us from even noticing the attachment. This good thing to do or to be for God can even be the same that He wants for us, but our motive is wrong and infected by pride. Sometimes, God might allow us to go through difficulties and trials just to see this, where everything we do for Him tends to fail. This is really a great mercy from God, because left to ourselves, we would certainly be lost. In the case of other attachments, God often permits the person to lose the object of their attachment or to fail in their plan.
Attachment in a Christian life is like saying to God: “I love You, but let me have this thing, because without it I can not be happy”. It is placing a condition on God. And sometimes, there can be a fear that God’s will for us might be something else. This leads to a general fear of God’s will, which is as ridiculous as it sounds, yet it can happen.
A person in this situation would always be in interior turmoil and suffering, because they want something very much, they are afraid that God might want something else, and they are unable to let that go. When I struggle with attachments, I intellectually know that I should do God’s will first. This is something that we are taught in catechism.. but I am prevented from truly wanting it with all of my heart and will.
In this way, attachments can lead to distrust in God. At its worst, it can be a distrust in God’s goodness and love for us, which according to various Saints and even revelations to them from Jesus, is one of the most damaging things that can happen spiritually, if not the most damaging.
In order to deal with this distrust, a person can try to think: “I know God’s will is what is best for me. He wants me to be happy. I’m going to try and trust that God’s will would not lead to my unhappiness”. I tried doing this as I struggled with my attachments, but there was one thing I didn’t realize – at times, I was placing limits on God again and on what COULD make me happy. It was still based on my own understanding and my own conditions.
“I know God wants me to be happy, and His will would make me happy, yet I kind of think I know what would do this for me, so I need to trust that God’s will would be the same”. Clearly, this sort of thinking (which is of course not so conscious on the person’s part), is not true abandonment to the Divine Will. It is rather a trust that God’s will would be the same as mine, because clearly I know what is best for me and what isn’t. Put this way, this thinking is just silly!
If we truly love Jesus, we need to put His Will ABOVE our own. Our own will needs to be simply a way to freely respond to God’s will and to love, nothing more. Ideally in a Christian life, self-will should not exist – yet of course, God is very patient with us as we try to fight this and mortify our self will. It is a lifelong effort. As I read the Saints, it was fairly obvious that every moment of their lives was a mortification to self will, and a death to self. It is definitely not easy or pleasant, especially as it reaches the deeper matters in the soul. It can be more difficult to mortify the attachments we have to the good things we want to do for God, rather than resisting that chocolate bar. We are often our own worst enemy in the way of salvation and holiness.
Reflecting on God’s immeasurable love for us can help us to trust in His will and to choose Him first. A human soul is worth more to Him than all the created world, which isn’t able to know and love Him. God has everything, but since He made us with free will, He is waiting for us to choose His Divine Will, which would be our greatest happiness.
If I try to imagine a person who is truly surrendered to God, (and of course I’m not at that point), they would place no conditions on God’s will. They would love God’s will because it is His will, and for no other reason. They would rejoice in doing His will simply because He rejoices in it – not because of how well it matches their own ideas or preferences.
However, when we love God’s will as far as it corresponds to our will, we are not truly loving Him. This fault can be a very hidden one that can remain unseen for a long time. The goal is to keep our joy and peace when God’s will turns out to be different from ours, and then His will becomes our first priority. In the end, according to various spiritual writers, this is what holiness is. Of course, at first we would frequently experience pain in submitting to God’s will, and it’s important to keep trying and not be discouraged!
We would find much joy and peace in our lives if we simply surrendered to the Divine Will, without caring at all what it is. It’s helped me to think about how much God loves me and rejoices in His Will. Spending time reflecting on this in mental prayer can help to develop this virtue, so that we begin to want to do Jesus’ Will in order to bring Him joy. Then, it’s no longer a selfish thing about ourselves, it’s no longer conditional on our own ideas of personal happiness, or for our own benefit. It becomes something that is an act of love, whereas before, we only loved ourselves.
In the diary of St Faustina, a Catholic mystic and Saint, there is a passage where Jesus asks her if she would like Him to create a whole new world for her, which is much more beautiful than this one, where she could live for the rest of her life. She responds with a question, wondering why Jesus is asking this, because she does not want any worlds. Then, she says that she only wants Him, and nothing else. Jesus responds to her, that now He sees that she loves His Will more than life.
In this example, St Faustina gives up perfect happiness on earth because she does not seek happiness for herself, but the perfect accomplishment of Jesus’ will and His own happiness. She proves in her response that she loves Him and not only herself. This response completely destroys any fear or distrust in the soul, because there is no fear in losing what we do not aim for. If we aim only for God’s will, we would never fear it, or anything else.
Reflecting on these ideas, I see how far I am from these virtues and how much distrust and attachment I still have. It is probably a real life-long battle to fight these tendencies in our souls. Thankfully, Jesus really does provide the grace, and increases the grace whenever we correspond to it. Simply saying “Jesus, I trust in You” or “Your Will be done, not mine” in difficult situations, can help to grow in the virtue. (Anyone can do this when it’s easy, but virtue grows in battle).
Our Lord told a priest from last century that an act of surrender is worth more than many prayers. In difficult moments, we can make an act of surrender to God’s will, saying “Jesus, I trust in Your will for me”. Yet in order for this to be an act of love for God, the statement should mean “I trust in Your will for me and rejoice in it because it is Your will, and I love You” – not “I trust in Your will for me because I trust it wouldn’t be something that I think makes me unhappy”. God knows us much better than ourselves 🙂
How do we know what God’s will is?
Catholic teaching distinguishes between God’s direct, and permissive will. His direct will are things He wants, such as things He wants for us to do. His permissive will includes anything that God allows us to happen to us.
It’s a real struggle to fully surrender to both God’s direct and permissive will. If we only submit to His direct will, we would always be discouraged and unable to deal with our sufferings, which God still permits. A full submission to God’s will needs to include both, and to say to God “I trust in Your will for me and surrender to it fully and joyfully, not just in the things You want me to do, but in everything that You allow to happen to me, including suffering.” Taken this way, even suffering becomes a joy, because God’s will alone becomes our joy.
Absolutely everything that happens to us in within God’s permissive will. If He didn’t permit it, it simply wouldn’t happen. Even suffering is within His providence, and this is where our trust can really fail us. I have often wondered, why God permitted something to happen to me, and this wondering is already a form of distrust. It’s best to have a full confidence that God allows things to happen for our good, that He can bring good from evil, that He doesn’t delight in our suffering itself but in the virtue that can come from it, and that our suffering can help other souls. Jesus told St Gertrude in a revelation that when we trust that He has the power, the wisdom, and the goodness to help us, He cannot resist this trust and comes to the soul. This was particularly spoken in the context of fighting temptations. Anything that God allows, He allows with love and goodness, because there is no evil in Him. We don’t always understand at the moment how it can be, but this is simply because our understanding is too little compared to the perfect, infinite Wisdom of God.
Someday we would understand, and rejoice in His Will, and in this life we can rejoice in His Will through faith, even though it is often a dark faith requiring much effort and death to self.
Sometimes it’s frightening to think that to who much is given, much is expected, and that God might be asking something difficult from us. Recently I’ve been thinking about the idea that when God asks us to do something, He always gives the grace for us to accomplish it. He doesn’t leave us alone to fulfill His Will, because He knows we are weak. If we only try to cooperate with His grace honestly, He would provide all that we need. As Our Lord said, without Him we can do nothing.
I also came across a quote by St Teresa of Avila that made me think. God had called her to something difficult, which was entering a monastery. She describes her efforts to stay there despite hardship:
“Though I could not at first bend my will to be a nun, I saw that the religious state was the best and safest. And thus, by little and little, I resolved to force myself into it. The struggle lasted three months. … When I took the habit, Our Lord at once made me understand how He helps those who do violence to themselves, in order to serve Him, I was filled with a joy so great that it has never failed me to this day.”
Even though God gives us all the grace we need, sometimes we don’t notice it in our lives automatically but we need to put in effort to cooperate with it. Through this cooperation, God gives more graces to help us advance in holiness. Although this quote can seem overwhelming because it shows we need to do violence to ourselves, it can also help to prepare us for the cross. Sometimes part of the battle is just accepting that there will be crosses and not trying to flee from them, and that can bring a lot of peace in our suffering.
Recently, I began reflecting on Christmas. It’s ironic (and I have to admit, pretty sad) that I am starting to reflect more seriously on Christmas after Christmas has happened. Isn’t that was Advent was for?
Things started out okay – I had a book of meditations by St Alphonsus Liguori, and was planning to use that to finally make Christmas more meaningful. Than a week before Christmas, it all hit me at once: all the shopping, packing, travelling, etc. The little book by St Alphonsus was forgotten, as I was running from one thing to the next, and then (maybe not surprisingly) lying in bed with a cold.
Now that I was back to my regular life, one day I finally went to my parish church and knelt by the Nativity scene. I was out of town for Christmas and hadn’t seen the baby Jesus in the manger yet. Last time I was here, it was empty. I didn’t have to go anywhere: there was nothing to cook, nothing to prepare for, no visits or parties. It was just me and God and the Nativity scene before me. I had an undetermined amount of time to just be there and look and reflect.
The little Jesus was looking up happily, with His little arms stretched out. Mother Mary was beside Him, also smiling and kneeling, and St Joseph was standing by her. I thought – whoever set up this scene did a wonderful job, because they made it very detailed – there was even a painted backdrop with the night sky and Bethlehem. Jesus was covered in a white garment and lying in the manger, with straw all around Him. There was a little wooden stable over the figures, decorated with little white flowers on the roof.
Something about the scene impressed me and it was the poverty and simplicity of the surroundings. God who made the stars and angels, was lying in a little poor stable, unknown and ignored by the world, recognized only by some simple shepherds. He was lying on a manger, which is just a feeding place for animals – a beautiful sign of Jesus becoming our food in the Holy Eucharist.
As I looked at the little Jesus on the manger surrounded by straw, I saw that He was smiling. In the book by St Alphonsus (“The Incarnation, Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ”), he says that Our Lord’s sufferings began right from His conception, and continued in His childhood. Yet He was ready to suffer, ready to be poor, cold and forgotten in a little stable, and to descend from Heaven to experience all the misery of our human condition. He embraced all the suffering that came from this and from seeing, even then, our sins and the torment He would have to undergo in the Passion. Even if I was the only person on earth, He would still have done this, just for me. He was suffering with joy and love, and He was glad to come secretly into the world as the Saviour.
This is all that matters. It’s not wrong to spend time with family and friends during the holidays. But I was really being like Martha rather than Mary – I was running around trying to do everything, worried that I wouldn’t have enough time, instead of spending more time sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from Him. What would He say to me about Christmas? What is He saying now?
For most of us a lot of time before Christmas is spent shopping for presents. It can be a joy to give something to a person we love. Yet as I looked at Jesus in the manger, all I saw was His poverty. Did I forget Him? I received so many gifts, and He had nothing. Why was I so concerned about earthly possessions, instead of being like Jesus? And what present could I give Him?
There in the stable, our Creator has emptied Himself of all – He doesn’t even have a house, and none of those things we put on our Christmas wish lists. Yet He is not asking for that. He is hungry and poor for our love, and if we haven’t given it to Him during the hectic Christmas season, at least let us do so now. The people in the inn didn’t give Jesus a place to stay, but we can give Him our hearts, – a home for Him on earth, where He can come and rest. We can make it a secluded place for Jesus that is reserved just for Him, and stay with Him there. As the three Kings bring gold, frankincense and myrrh, we can comfort Jesus with our love, and kneel in adoration as the Mother of God cradles her Holy Infant in her arms.
Also posted on Made4More
Imagine a beautiful princess who marries a prince. As in all fairy-tales, this prince is a real Prince Charming: courageous, kind, and loves the princess more than life. He builds her a magnificent castle and she is unspeakably happy to share her life with him. However, on the first day of their marriage as he is waiting to have supper with her inside the castle, the princess is outside in the garden. She has completely forgotten her prince, and is spending all her time thinking about what she sees outside: the city, the castle walls, and what people think of her as they are walking past the garden gate. As she is admiring herself in the reflection in the pond, or talking to visitors, she forgets that somewhere inside the castle, her husband is waiting to spend some time with her.
I think if I read a fairy-tale like that, I would be very puzzled and wonder why this princess is acting in such a way. I would probably wonder if she has been placed under some spell by an evil witch in the story. However, – as I thought about this image, I decided that maybe it’s not too different from the reality that has often occurred in my soul.
St Teresa of Avila was a Spanish Carmelite nun who helped to reform the Carmelite order at a time of great laxity. One of her greatest works is a book called the ‘Interior Castle’, in which she describes the soul as a castle, in the center of which dwells the King – Jesus. Our spiritual growth consists of going through various mansions in this castle until we reach to the very center. Each mansion is characterized by different ways of prayer and levels of virtue and love for God.
The journey starts somewhere outside the castle or in the first mansion, where the soul is more in danger from the allurements of the world and the enemy. This soul does not yet have a strong interior life or strong virtue. In this way, she is much like the fictional princess in the fairy-tale: she is living outside, forgetting that God is waiting for her in the center of her soul to commune with her.
St Teresa herself experienced distraction and temptations to vanity in her youth. She struggled with not going into the castle deeply. In her autobiography, she writes that as a young lady in the world, she spent hours reading books on chivalry, seeking to please others, and adorning herself. She met and talked with a lady who was described as being very “frivolous” in her conversation. The amount of time and effort that she spent on these things, and the way her heart was perhaps attached to them, caused her to not progress as much spiritually as she did later in life. Even as she entered the convent, at first she continued spending time in more worldly pastimes, and speaking often with people in the parlour.
For those living in the world, the question may arise – is this really all that wrong? Is it wrong to spend some time caring for our appearance, or having more casual conversations with others? I think what St Teresa was trying to say is that having an attachment to these things and spending an inordinate amount of time with them, could become a distraction. We begin spending all our time facing ‘outward’ from the castle, instead of being attentive of God. The better solution would be to spend time in prayer and learn to continually be aware of His presence within us, even as we live in the world. This might also require giving up some attachments, as the Holy Spirit prompts us during prayer. This can be a very challenging area of growth.
St Teresa found that over time as she continued living in this way, she lost her taste for prayer and spiritual things, and found less joy in them. She also began to feel ashamed and guilty, and began to avoid prayer while seeking to please others. Eventually, God lead her deeper into prayer and she began to advance far beyond the first ‘mansion’ in the castle, until she became a Saint.
As I thought about her life, I began to remember the ways in my life in which I’ve been forgetful of God within me and instead focused on myself and others in ways that were distracting. This way of focusing on others by trying to get their approval, is different from charity and is in the end, only about the self. I also thought about the ways in which this is promoted in our society today.
One way I’ve noticed we can lose focus on God’s presence within, is by being inordinately anxious about how others perceive us. It can even be little things such as: “What will they think if I wear the same sweater as yesterday? Why didn’t enough people ‘like’ my picture on Facebook?” There could be an obsession over ‘likes’ on Facebook, on selfies, or on spending an extremely long time on appearance. In this state, we don’t really think what God’s view of us is, and others’ approval seems much more important. We are also not being honest in relationships with others that become tinged by jealousy and competition instead of self-giving and charity.
Another form of vanity is not so much about others’ approval as it is about use of time. Spending days reading ‘escape’ novels or watching romance movies that present an unrealistic view of women and relationships, can distract from God’s plan for us and from building healthy relationships with others. At one point in my life, by spending all my time being focused on externals – media, uninterrupted talking, checking my phone every ten seconds to escape silence – I had no more time to give to God and to simply listen to Him. I was risking making my life all about the world’s expectations instead of His will for me.
In reading St Teresa’s book the ‘Interior Castle’, we see a beautiful life with God in an inner world that is captivating in its variety of ‘mansions’ or levels of knowing Him. It is never dull or repetitive and it brings peace and joy to the soul. I believe that God is calling each of us to spend time with Him inside the ‘castle’, and to forget what is outside as we go deeper into our relationship with Him in prayer. I do not think this is something selfish because in the end, it allows us to face our relationships with others in a more Christ-centered way. In the center of a soul in grace, Christ is waiting to be discovered, to show us His healing love in a deeper way.
Also posted on Made4More