To respond to Love
Penance and spiritual progress
Saturday morning … July 31
Passive interior purifications. These have to do with the interior purifications. The most painful of any of them. They correspond to the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Faith is the first is purified. It is a virtue of the mind. When the mind is purified there will be all kinds of doubts about the faith. The mind will be filled with all kinds of doubts. Doubts about the faith. Doubts about the faithfulness of your spouse. Doubts about whether Jesus is really present in the Blessed Sacrament. Doubts about whether your sins are really forgiven in Confession, or doubts about whether or not God is a Trinity. Doubts about whether Mary was conceived without original sin. There is one doubt after the next.
It is a very, very painful thing because the devil torments the mind. What will happen through that purification is that faith becomes strengthened. You are able in that, or the way we deal with that, is to continue to say, ‘Yes, I believe.” It is very easy to say, “How do I know?” or “What proof do you have?” How do you know that Jesus is really present there in the Eucharist? It looks like a piece of bread?” How do you know that the priest really intended to change the bread into the Body and Blood of Christ? Why do you really think that through a man sin can be forgiven? God only can forgive sin. Who does this guy think he is that he is going to forgive your sins? Do you really believe that Jesus has wiped them off of your soul? Doesn’t that sound kind of stupid and foolish? All of these kind of thoughts occur to the mind. And we have to just keep saying, “Yes, I believe. I really believe that Jesus is there in the Eucharist. When you sit down to prayer and it seems God is a million miles away when He is there in front of you in the Blessed Sacrament. There seems to be no connection there on the emotional level. No feeling of anything at all. And so we doubt, and we become concerned. To say “I believe’ is an absolutely necessary thing if our faith is going to grow.
St. John of the Cross tells us that the most sure way to God is in the darkness of faith. And there is absolutely nothing, other than faith, to go on. That is the surest way. To us it seems like the least sure way because it is a walk in the darkness, while it is, in fact, the most perfect way to God. And, it is the surest way to know you are on the right track.
When the virtue of hope is purified, that is a virtue of the will. So when hope is purified, there is a whole series of things that get purified with it. The intellect gets purified. Purity gets purified; there are a whole variety of different things that happen. But ultimately what will happen is that God will push a person to the point of despair. The feeling that you are lost. The feeling that there is no hope. Total darkness. It is a very painful thing interiorly. Painful as it is to go through it, it is equally painful to watch someone go through it. There is absolutely nothing that you can do. Nothing! You can keep trying to assure someone that it is normal, but how is anyone going to believe it is normal when they feel like they are suicidal, that there is no hope for them at all? And again, this is a passive thing. An oppressive interior darkness that falls upon the soul. And it is in that hope is being purified.
Now, I should point also that each of the virtues, when the one virtue is primarily being purified, the other two are being purified with it to the same level. So, for instance when faith is being purified hope and charity are being purified as well, but only to the level that you are able to go. So, being that hope is going to be purified to a deeper level then your faith is also purified at that same time. So, as long as you are despairing, you are going to doubt. Because you are in despair and you are feeling almost suicidal you doubt the existence of God. You doubt the mercy of God. You doubt the reality of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament; and in Confession and so on. And so it is not just that at this time this one is being purified and the next time it is this one. Now, there is one that is primarily being purified but the other two are being purified with it.
The most painful of all is when charity is purified, because all three are being purified to that level. At that time the soul feels it has been completely abandoned by God. It feels like you are going to hell, quite literally and you are completely convinced that is what you deserve and that is where you belong and yet at the same time you are being asked to continue to love God and that is why the Saints will say things like even if I am in hell for eternity I will continue to love God in hell, because He is God and He deserves to be loved. And we look at that and we say, how can a Saint be saying something like that?
It is because of what is going on inside. They are being crushed. Every last ounce of the self is being crushed when charity is purified. And so it is complete doubt. It is complete despair. And it is complete selflessness. God is asking that we continue to give in a selfless way even amidst all of the doubts and all of the despair. When it is complete darkness; complete dryness; and you are feeling crushed. And he is asking that you continue to love just as if you were completely infatuated and filled with consolation because that is the way that things are going to be purified. And these are passive purifications; there are not things you can do for yourself at all. And that is the difficulty with some of the areas of virtue in our lives. They are not things that we can do.
For instance; try to be in control; try to trust; try to be humble. Good luck. You cannot do it. There are things you can do to try to cooperate, but they ultimately have to be torn out of our hands. We like to be in control. It is the biggest problem for our spiritual life. It is like hanging on to something with a white-knuckled grip, hanging on to it, and God saying, Let go! Just, trust me, and I will take care of you. And we say, Uh uh, I can’t see you; I can’t hear you; how do I know you are there? Trust is what is purified with the virtue of hope. So when you despair in God that is who to trust. He is crushing you and he is asking you to let go.
All these things work together, and this is where it is absolutely critical that you have some good direction, because the natural thing is to assume you must be doing something wrong. If I were doing something right this would not be happening to me. God must really be angry with me because look at what is happening. That is not true. It is happening because God is very pleased with what you are doing and He loves you immensely. And he wants you to be able to love him more perfectly, which is exactly what he asks you to do.
On the good days we will go to prayer and ask him to help us and to take control of our lives. Then, when he tries to take us up on the offer, we kick and scream and we don’t like it so well. Point? He will take us at our word. And, like I said earlier, he isn’t going to force anything. He is going to ask you at every step to cooperate. He isn’t going to violate you; so he asks for your permission. You have to keep saying, yes. In the midst of the darkness. And it is critical at this point that you have a director that understands what is going on because if you do not the director is going to tell you to stop doing what you are doing, which is the worst thing that can happen to you.
That is why, if you read St. John in the Dark Night of the Soul, in the center of Mount Carmel, his favorite whipping boy was he spiritual director because they mess up so many people’s lives. Because, they don’t know what the spiritual life is about, and so when God is trying to purify the soul the director doesn’t have a clue what is going on and therefore, they blame the directee and thinks you are doing something wrong.
So, you have to be very careful whom you chose for a director. It can be a penance in itself. St. Theresa can tell you how badly a director can mess someone up because it happened to her.
At any rate, those are things we need to keep in mind. If your spiritual life is going the right way these things will happen. In time. Our daughter, St. Theresa, makes other things very clear. Sorry, I can’t help but bring Carmelite things in. I wear these sandals and it is very distracting thing, because people keep stopping me to say “Oh, so you are a Franciscan.” It is very distracting. It is not distracting that I am called a Franciscan; it is distracting that they have never heard of a Carmelite before. (lol) At least I know who St. Francis is. I know he wore sandals. That’s OK. At least they know he wore sandals. Hopefully they will know that he prayed too.
St. Theresa, of course, is the real master of prayer. And she is very clear in telling us that many people will make it to the 4th mansion, but not very many, in fact, very few, will make it to the fifth, because they refuse to accept the suffering that is necessary to get there. So they back off. And they fall into what I call the expectant father-in-the-waiting-room syndrome, and that is, they go back and forth; and back and forth; and back and forth. They start slipping and pretty soon they realize I am going in the wrong direction and they turn around and towards the next mansion again and then you get there and you get too afraid and you get too afraid and you say, no, no, no, I don’t want to give all this stuff up. I don’t want to jump off the cliff. I don’t trust. Let’s not do this. So, you turn around and start going backwards again, until you find out you are going the wrong way, so you turn around and you go back again and say ‘nope’ and you go back and forth; back and forth; back and forth. And the vast majority of people who really take up the spiritual life stay there for the rest of their lives. What a tragedy, because they refuse to love. They refuse to give up themselves in order to have Jesus. It is just that simple. And so that is why most people never make it beyond that point, if they even make it to that point.
It is something again, to understand, that this is what will happen if we are going to be serious about the spiritual life. These are the things that God is going to ask of us; out of love; not out of hatred; not out of spite; not for any other reason, but purely out of love. And it is that love that has to spur us on. Now it is out of love also that we come to really recognizing the dignity of what it is that God is asking of us. We talked about that a little last night. We are talking more about the dignity of who we are. How wonderful it was when I got back to my room last night and opened my breviary and started praying the Office from St. Peter Chrysologus and read the words “Oh man, why do you think so little of yourself when God thinks so highly of you.” Ha. Not bad. That is what I just said. At least I know I am on the right track. (lol)
It is intimidating to start a retreat on the feast of man whose name means ‘golden words’. Chrysologus means ‘golden words’. A perfect day to start a retreat, but pretty intimidating for the director. At any rate, as we think about the dignity of what it is we are called to do, we find it is most clearly in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Chapter 1; verse 24. One of my favorite Scripture verses in the entire bible. It says “I make up in my body for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church.” Ponder that. Even before that he says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” And then goes on to explain it. That he makes up in his body for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body the Church.” That means that in His mercy, Jesus Christ has allowed us as members of His mystical body to share in His Passion. He took on as much as we would want. Now, keep in mind, that one drop of His precious blood poured out on the ground would have been enough to save all of humanity if that was His will. Yet he chose; that in order to do this; that he would die. And the reason for that is that we really don’t believe that he loves us.
We all know it in our heads, but it is what is in the heart that is the problem. And so we look at it and say; “Well, how do I know?” You are asking me in prayer to be vulnerable. You are asking me to open my heart. You are asking me to give it all. How do I know that you really love me? How do I know that you are not going to hurt me? How do I know that you won’t be like all these other people who violated me when I was vulnerable? And as many assurances as he would give us none of it would make a bit of difference to us, because we look at Him and say; “But, how do I know?” How do I know that you really love me as much as you tell me you do? I know that Scripture says that we are loved. But, I don’t know that. I know it in my head, but I don’t know it in my heart. And, unless He went all the way we wouldn’t believe Him. The tragedy of original sin at work within our lives. We simply would not believe him. Until He proves it. And the real tragedy is we still don’t believe him!
Just try to open to open your heart. Try to be vulnerable with the Lord. The fact is, we really don’t believe him. I don’t know what else he needed to do. So there is no problem on his part. It is only on our own. At any rate, he did that and he did as much as what was necessary. Knowing how much we would be willing to do. So let’s say that all of humanity throughout all of history would be willing to take on 2% of what was necessary. That means that he did 98%. So he allows us to share in our own salvation, and in the work of salvation, for other souls. That is what penance is all about. Love of God and love of neighbor. True charity, and the love of others. To think that God loves you so much that he is going to give to you the opportunity to share in the work of redemption. To save souls. And there is no shortage of opportunity.
I was telling the people on Sunday; reminding them in the homily that Our Lady at Fatima said that souls were falling into hell like snowflakes in a winter storm because no one was praying for them and someone came up to me on Monday and said ‘my son wants you to know in hell it is white-out conditions at this point’. He is right. If in 1917 they were falling like snowflakes, today it is a blizzard.
There is no shortage of opportunity to pray for souls. To suffer for souls. To save souls for Jesus Christ. To bring them to Our Lord. Our Lady said they are falling into hell because no one is praying for them. And so we have the opportunity to share in the single greatest act of love ever known to humanity. To unite ourselves with Jesus Christ in His Passion and His cross. That is the dignity that is ours. And it is an absolutely necessary one. It is one that throughout all of history has been recognized, but what happens is that in any society, as things become more comfortable, penance becomes less palatable.
This came home to me very clearly. We had a priest from Ethiopia who lived in our rectory. When Lent came. When lunch came and we all gave up our usual things, he had to give up all meat; all dairy products; all kinds of things for the entire duration of Lent. And that was just the norm in Ethiopia. And it used to be the norm throughout the whole Church. Now we have to give up meat on Friday during Lent. What used to be normal.
That is where Easter eggs came from. Nobody ate any dairy products, and no eggs, for the entirety of Lent. So the big deal on Easter was to be able to eat eggs. Now, no big deal at all. They have just become colored things we can have fun with.
We have lost the concept of penance because we live too comfortably. So we have the opportunity to really take up the cross and follow the way of Our Lord. We have to remember, that His sacrifice continues. When St. Paul says that Jesus offered one sacrifice for sin. That he offered himself once for all. The non-Catholic Christians misunderstand that term, and they use it against Catholics all the time. They say “Hey, once for all. Why do you Catholics think you are offering the sacrifice of Christ? He did it once for everybody.” That is not what it says. It means ‘once for all time’. In fulfillment for what the prophet Malachi says in first chapter, 11th verse, there will be one sacrifice; once pure sacrifice; for all time. The sacrifice of Christ is offered. It is one sacrifice, and it is for the rest of time. And that is the sacrifice that is offered on every altar, throughout the Catholic Church, on every single day.
The beautiful thing is that when you stop to think how many Masses are being offered throughout the day in a day’s time there is not one single second of the day that the Mass is not being offered somewhere in the world. Never. So 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year with Good Friday as the only exception, the Mass is being offered somewhere in the world. And you can unite yourself with the sacrifice of Christ. I explain to the people in my classes when we are talking about suffering and the importance and the dignity of it. Suffering and sacrifice cannot be separated. What sacrifice is there that doesn’t have some kind of suffering attached to it? What kind of sacrifice is it if it wasn’t any suffering?
As I told you earlier, if the Lord asked me to sacrifice rap music for the rest of my life there would not be any suffering in that, I can assure you. But in the Eucharist there is no suffering. Jesus doesn’t suffer in the Blessed Sacrament. He doesn’t suffer at Mass. He doesn’t suffer when the priest sacrifices Him. But the sacrifice is there. And the sacrifice is offered as a mystical re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary. It is the exact same sacrifice but it is now being offered mystically instead of physical. And therefore if the sacrifice is being offered mystically all you have to do is to ask yourself, how is the suffering offered? Mystically. And who are you? You are a member of the mystical body of Christ. And so if there is a sacrifice that is being offered and it is a real and true of sacrifice that is being offered mystically, then there must be real and true sacrifice, and penance and suffering that is being offered along with the sacrifice. And that is where you come in.
It is one of the greatest tragedies. The unfortunate translation of the Mass that we have. The Latin makes it very clear. When the priest turns to the people he says: “Orates frates et meum ach vestum sacrificum ach set tabulae via ach yet Deum Patre omnium potentem”. Pray that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father. It does not say ‘pray that our sacrifice may be acceptable.’ But that is the way the translation has it. It sounds like what is being offered here on the altar, is our sacrifice that is being offered on the altar. That it is our thing together. That is not true. As the priest I am offering the sacrifice of the bread and wine to God the Father on behalf of the people to God. Your sacrifice is to bring your penances; your sufferings; your struggles to Mass and place them on the paten with the bread; place them into the chalice with the wine; so that when the priest offers these to God he takes what is natural; bread and wine; natural level sacrifices; and offers them to our heavenly Father. At the moment that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ your sacrifices and sufferings are changed instantaneously at the same moment to become the very sufferings of Jesus Christ. It is you in Christ that is suffering. It is your sacrifice along with mine that is being offered. This is what the Church means when she asks that the people have active participation in the Mass.
Another, very unfortunate, misunderstanding. There are two words in Latin for active. It is ‘activitate’ and ‘actuosa’. Activitate means to do more things. Actuosa means an interior activity of the heart. Unfortunately in English they are translated the same way; ‘active’. And so the Vatican documents say that the laity are to have active participation in the Mass. And so we have taken that to mean we are to have more people doing meetings and Eucharistic ministers and hospitality people, and everyone doing more things! That is not what the Vatican Council asked for. It says ‘participatio actuosa’. The interior activities of the heart. The sacrifice is going on and you are to be intimately participating and united with the sacrifice of Christ. It means prayers in the heart. Not running around doing more things so that you can’t pray. It means uniting yourself with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Not sitting in the pew praying your rosary while the priest is offering the sacrifice of the Mass, because then you are not participating in the sacrifice. You are there, but your heart isn’t. And so what the Church is asking is that you unite yourself intimately and completely with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that is being offered mystically on the altar.
And to think that your sacrifices can be united with His and actually become divine. To become the very suffering of Jesus Christ. That is your dignity. That is why we have to have the focus right. That is why last night I was trying to set that up. To be able to say, look at first of all who you are and look at where the focus has to be. That is why it needs to be on the Blessed Sacrament! That is why it needs to be on Jesus. His sacrifice and His sacrifice alone is what saves us. And His sacrifice alone is what gives our sacrifice any value or any dignity at all. Without Christ suffering is useless.
What good does the suffering of someone with no faith do? It is a human being who is suffering but in essence there suffering is no different than an animal that is wounded. It is tragic. It is pathetic. But, it is without value. For a Christian person united with Jesus Christ, suffering has infinite value because it becomes the very suffering of Christ himself. This is why when you read Scripture St. Paul says: ‘may I boast in nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified and may my only boast be in the cross of my Lord, Jesus Christ. For through it I have been crucified to the world and the world crucified to me.’ These are terms that make no sense to someone without faith. It is utter foolishness. He talks about that too, in the beginning of second Corinthians. The cross is absurdity to the Greeks. A stumbling block to the Jews. But to those who believe, it is the power and the wisdom of God.
Without Jesus Christ penance means nothing. Without Him it is merely selfish. A Buddhist monk can do all kind of penance but he is trying to get to some sense of nirvana. It is all about the self again. What good is it? All you are trying to do is to reach some kind of ascendancy. They don’t believe that God is a person. They are trying to become one with a force that is out there. If you want to become one with a force put your finger in a plug socket you can become one with a force. That is not what we are interested in. We are interested in becoming one with a person. That is the beauty of our faith. It is faith in a person. Not in something, but in someone. And it is to unite ourselves with a person in love. Not to try to become one with a nebulous force that is out there that doesn’t mean a thing. But it is to become one with a person who loves. And it is to become love. That is what we are all about.
That is why the focus needs to be on Christ; not on the self. Because if it is about the self it is devoid of love. Love and selfishness are completely contrary terms. They are opposites. And that is one of the ways we can check the reality of our penance. How do you know penance is real? First of all if your focus is right. But we can fool ourselves even with that. We can do all kind of things saying we are doing them for the Lord when we are really not. So how do we know for sure? Perseverance is going to be one of the things we can look at. If it is just done for ourselves it is a flash-in-the-pan. Usually we will wear out pretty quickly when we are doing it for ourselves because, what good is it? There are absolute telltale signs that we will allow us to judge for ourselves, and that is humility and charity. Without those, penance is worthless. If penance is real it is going to be rooted in humility. You can never judge your own humility. If you think for a minute that you are humble that means you are filled with pride.
As a friend of mine who I looked at one day and smiled and said, ya know, I never have met anyone who is so proud of his humility. And that is what happens if we run around thinking we are humble. There is no greater proof of our pride. Humility is something only others can see in you. You can never see it in yourself. If you have ever met a truly humble person, they don’t see that they are humble at all. So we can look at it and say: “Am I getting humble or what?” Well? Go for the ‘or what?” because it is not the reality.
Charity again is something we don’t really see fully in ourselves. We can at least see that to some degree. But it is hard to be able to see it, because where does the self get in there, and where does it not. Where are we really seeking the good of others; where are we not? Those are the two greatest signs but they are not things we are going to be able to see for ourselves. So, perseverance and joy. If we do not have joy our penance is not real. That is going to be the easiest sign to be able to tell. I always tell my directees there are three levels of this. When things befall us, first we need to accept. Then we embrace. Then we rejoice.
So, under normal circumstances when the difficulties of life befall us most of us don’t jump up and praise God! Most of us have a struggle even accepting what God has given us. So that is the first challenge; to accept. Then as we go along we actually learn to embrace it to see that this can be something that can be good. That God can use this to bring about a great deal of good. We don’t just do this in our head but we actually start to live it. And then eventually we can even rejoice in it.
Again, going back to St. Theresa, she tells us that it is not until someone makes it through the fifth mansion and into the sixth that someone actually begins to look forward to the suffering, to desire it. Up to that point it is just suffering and we don’t want it. We endure it but we don’t want it. But once you get through the fifth mansion and into the sixth at that point you begin to really understand the value of the suffering and the importance of it and what God can do with it. It is not that the suffering becomes any easier, it is still suffering, but you actually desire it and rejoice in it and to see the good in it.
That is why when you read the Saints and people think they ought to be locked up because they are rejoicing in their suffering. That’s why, because they had made it to that level of the spiritual life that they were able to rejoice in it. But, regardless, if we are going to try to offer to God the penitential life we need to be able to find joy in our penance. If you don’t want me around with a sour attitude and a bitter disposition, what are people going to think? I am offering penance for Jesus. Oh boy! I am angry about it. What good is it? Where is the love?
Think back, for those of you that are married, to the first few months of your marriage. The greatest joy was found in giving and serving the other person. Giving of yourself for the other. Nothing too much could ever have been asked of you, because there was so much joy in giving, because you were so in love, or so you thought. And as love is purified, though the years of marriage, you suddenly find out how much love you really do or don’t have as the case may be. And suddenly even the little things you are asked to do are even a pain, and you grumble and you groan. And as you work your way through that you will reach the point again where there will be nothing that is too much to ask. Nothing is too much to give. And, in fact, you will find great joy in doing it.
Now, if that can happen on the human level, how about on the divine level? When we love Jesus Christ enough we will have great joy in offering penance. We are not going to grumble and complain about it. We are not going to whine about it. We are not going to try to draw attention to ourselves about it.
That is where we can see real quickly that if we do something really nice for your spouse that was kind of a secret thing and then run around the house and hope they notice that you did this thing for them. What good is it then? So, don’t go to prayer and say, “Lord, did you notice what I did? I sure hope you reward me for this.” That is not being offered for him, it is for yourself again. Just love him, and when you love him all you are going to want to do is serve him and nothing will be too great and you will be filled with joy. When you are not filled with joy doing penance, it is either because you are taking on too much, and are doing more than you have the capacity to do at this time and you are being crushed under it, or because you are not loving enough. Or both.
And so what we want to be able to do is to get our focus where it belongs; get our hearts where they belong, which is on Jesus; and fall in love. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female. He is God. We need to be in love with Jesus Christ and that is not a matter of the head it is a matter of the heart. When we are in love with someone we are willing to give them everything. That is when we can open hour hearts. That is when we can be vulnerable. That is when we can trust. That is when we can let go of the control That is when we can offer truly every aspect of ourselves. That is when penance is real. When it is wholly focused on Christ. When it is truly giving the whole person to Christ. Not just a part of us. The whole being.
So we start off small, and we all have to. We did not start by running when we were little. We had to start by crawling, and making our way along the wall and we finally started to walk, and then we could run. We would fall down a few times and we finally get proficient at it. It is not different with the spiritual life. Don’t take on too much. Begin small and work your way up. And eventually you will allow God to do whatever he wants in your life. When you can do that. When you can actually allow God to do whatever he wants to do and you can rejoice in what he is doing, that is when you know you are in love with God, and your penance has achieved its goal. That is what it is about. Loving God. Being in love with Jesus. If the penance is not drawing us closer to Christ it is not real. We may be suffering but we are not doing Christian penance. If it is drawing us closer to Christ then it is producing the fruit that it was intended to produce.
For us to move forward we need to be sure we are deeply rooted in prayer, if we are going to be able to do the penance. As we said yesterday, prayer informs the penance and penance informs the prayer. Prayer without penance is going nowhere. Penance without prayer is purely selfish. The two need to work together. So pray so you can keep your focus on Jesus. Work at being vulnerable with the Lord. It is the greatest penance of all to give it all to God. That means letting go of the control. It means trusting. It means vulnerable. It is the only way to love. If you cannot be vulnerable you cannot love.
The word vulnerable comes from the Latin word; ‘vulnera’, which means ‘wound’. To be vulnerable means that you take a risk. You take a risk at being hurt; or you take the risk of loving. And if you have ever been in a close relationship you know how that works. You say to yourself that you have to open up and tell this person something that is very personal. And I have to take the risk that this person will say I don’t love you any more. I find you completely repulsive. Or the other side of the risk is that the person will love you for who you are. With whatever problems you might have. And that is when you are loved at a deeper level. When you are loved for who you are.
The spiritual life is like that. Work at it. Become holy, for the love of Jesus.
May the Lord be with you! And may the Almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit descend upon you and remain with you forever. Amen