Friday, November 30, 2012

Suffering & Heroic Christianity

For many Christians, events and circumstances of the world try their resolve and the faith to which they have devoted themselves. In such dark hours, or even dark days or years, a weary child of God may find him or herself wondering how circumstances can burden so long or intensely. They might even be bombarded by others who tell such Christians that they are the cause of their own suffering. Perhaps even another Christian preacher who professes a prosperity gospel tells them their trials are due to some sin or deficiency in their very faith. Perhaps these weary Christians pray for the same things over and over and never see an answer in accord with the petition. They feel a type of emptiness or distance from God. And they ask themselves, does not divine revelation speak of Christians having "hearts that burn within" (Luke 24:32) for Christ? Shouldn't that be always? And does not God say "Ask and you shall receive"? (Matt. 21:22) And so the crosses they bear and the distance they feel from divinity become matters of suffering and can challenge their faith.

As difficult as it sometimes may be, such Christians may consider remembering the totality of divine revelation and the wisdom of the saints.

Consider the Biblical book of Job, perhaps the most famous work in human history regarding the matter of suffering. Job is an icon for a righteous person who suffers in spite of his righteousness. He is a precursor to God incarnate, who humbled Himself and accepted unjust suffering at the hands of His own creatures.

Job is stricken with a variety of physical and financial afflictions and the loss of family. Only after a lengthy period of grief is he renewed, his "losses" recovered multifold (Job 42:10) so to speak, with restored health, family, and treasures. The restoration to this "new life" reminds us of the eternal life anticipated by a Christian that supersedes all previous joys in life. It is the "treasure in heaven" that is the prize on which the Christian sets his eye. (Luke 18:22)

The man Christ, just as many of his suffering Christian followers thereafter, cried out to God to be spared the suffering, bloody "cup" which he endured and to which he was headed. (Matt. 26:39) Yet it seems this petition was not answered in accord with how it was stated. From that point, Christ remained in suffering, and was scourged and crucified, the ultimate innocent man, suffering the ultimate penalty. Christ had added a caveat to his prayer, that ultimately, to let God's will be done. And after all his suffering, the Christian witness testifies to his resurrection and glory.

Thus, in these examples of Job and Christ, the Christian may not necessarily know the mechanics of the value of suffering and how it can be converted into great spiritual treasure, or how we are purged by it into holiness. But the Christian can have reason to believe that value exists because of these accounts, especially in regards to Christ. If Christ was God incarnate and accepted suffering in solidarity with man which lead to glorification, then should not the grieved Christian hope for the vanquishment of the darkness?

There is here, perhaps, an inspiring truth for the suffering Christian. Great is the faith of the one who remains faithful even in darkness. Consider the words of saints:
Blessed Angela of Foligno says that the prayer most acceptable to God is that which we force and constrain ourselves to say. Such is the prayer we turn to not for the pleasure found in it or because of our own inclination but purely to please God." (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life)
As for my outer man, it too, since the spirit does not respond to it, is so besieged that it finds nothing to refresh it on the earth if it follow its human instinct. No comfort is left it save God, who works all this by love and very mercifully in satisfaction of His justice. To perceive this gives my outer man great peace and happiness, but happiness which neither lessens my pain nor weakens the siege. (St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory, chap. 17)
Great power, says St. Francis, is there in a prayer made with pain. St. Catherine speaks of the siege she endures, and even though she is able to recognize the love of God in her suffering, the pains are no less weakened. These are two venerated saints whose words can inspire those in the midst of such suffering. Even if the pain remains, they can take consolation through it, that great is their prayer from the cross, as is their faith, following in the footsteps of Christ whom first showed the obedient way through suffering.

To maintain hold of the cross, following the Lord through the trial is to exhibit heroic Christianity. It is to be like a docile child, trusting of his parent as he is led through an unpleasant situation he cannot understand even with explanation, yet the parent knows it is for his benefit.

A parable comes to mind, the Parable of the Two Sons (discussed previously at TCV), when reflecting on this image of the heroic Christian who faithful through feelings of darkness.
28"What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, `Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' 29And he answered, `I will not'; but afterward he repented and went. 30And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir,' but did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him. (Matthew 21: 28-32)
In this parable, the good son is the one who originally didn't want to do the father's will. Yet in spite of his instinct to resist, he overcomes his lethargy. He overcomes his obstinance. He conquers his lack of desire. It is this son who resembles the heroic Christian. The heroic Christian does not depend on constant feelings of a burning heart to respond to God. The heroic Christian understands that this earthly pilgrimage is not the final order, and that when he "asks" he can expect to receive, if not in this life, then multifold in the eternal life. He knows this because the master he trusts first showed the way, even if the pain persists as he follows.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wisdom from the Diary of St. Gemma Galgani

It's All Saints Day today. It seems appropriate to post about a saint. Recently I finished reading the Diary of St. Gemma Galgani. A little background on this saint, thanks to Glenn at stgemmagalgani.com: Born in 1878, she was an Italian mystic, and at the time of her writing, she was 22. She was advised to write this journal at the prompt of her spiritual director. She passed away at age 25. I usually use an ereader now, and below are some of the highlights I made and additional reflections on this modern saint.


[E]yes that have been mortified will see the beauty of Heaven. (p. 10)

St. Gemma recalls numerous encounters she has with apparitions of Christ, saints, and her guardian angel. The previous quotation was told to her by her guardian angel. The eyes are often mentioned in Scripture for both good and bad. Job, feeling the torments of earthly life, cries out:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)
There is a certain goal for Job to "behold" God. Divine revelation gives another perspective on the "eyes" in the Gospels. For instance, in shocking language, it is written:
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:9)
And so we are taught by the voice of God through Scripture 2 realities. 1) We must remove our "sinful eye"; and 2) The one who does this, in an ironic twist of sorts, ends up with the ultimate beatific vision in heaven. St. Gemma's angel encapsulates this idea in a tidy sentence.

The days pass and here I am always in the same worldly abyss. (p. 19)

It is not unique to St. Gemma to express grief in a Christian's place in the world. A few years ago, I read St. Padre Pio's letters to his spiritual director, and he often felt terrible weight and pain, particularly when he could not "feel" God's love. As I understand, Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta expressed similar sentiments in her letters. Some interpret this skeptically, as a pock mark of sorts against Catholicism or those who walk in the way of the Church. I see it entirely the opposite. I'm reminded of the words of Christ:
For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  (Matt. 5:46)
If we look at these saints, like St. Gemma, feeling the strife of the world in light of Christ's counsel, there is evidence of a phenomenon. These saints retained their faith in Christ even through the darkest hours. There were times when they rejoiced, but they didn't demand the constant feelings of joy in order to keep coming to Christ's table, to keep believing in his promises spoken as the Incarnate Son of God. St. Gemma repeated a paraphrase of this sentiment more than once in the diary. It speaks of a heroism in her resolve against the weight of the worldly pilgrimage. The idea can be inspiring rather than discouraging. Such saints exhibit love for Christ.


Later, she demonstrates exactly the kind of love born of conviction rather than emotion or feelings:

Sunday has arrived. What indifference, what dryness! Still, I do not want to abandon my usual prayers. (p. 24)


This is a similar aspect of love to which married couples are called. They vow to remain faithful "in good times and in bad." Both married and unmarried saints, as members of Christ's bride, the Church, are thus called to love in good times or bad. The inclusion of St. Gemma's heavy sentiments in her diary is rather an inspiration.

That night I suffered a lot because I too wanted to go to heaven, but no one thought to take me. (p. 29)

St. Gemma wrote this after telling of her vision of a Mother Giuseppa who appeared to her and thanked her for praying and offering penance to help Mother Giuseppa attain the heavenly joy. St. Gemma's longing to go to heaven is reminiscent of St. Paul:
I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Phil. 1:23-24)
You see how Paul, too, desires to "depart" and be "with Christ" in heaven. The Christian soul feels a sense of detachment to the world, belonging somewhere "else," so to speak. Yet, Paul, and St. Gemma, stayed true to their devotion, work, and prayers in accord with the call they received. There remains a certain importance in toiling in the world during one's life. As one of my professors noted, this is the time, the opportunity for "merit." Recently, I saw Dr. Peter Kreeft speak, and one of the lines he said that remains with me is, "Grace perfects nature." In Catholic theology, the world is not just some fallen place of evil, even if it is a pilgrimage "on the way" to point B. We remember that Christ came incarnate to the world. Mary, giving birth to personified grace himself, delivers grace into the terrestrial realm. As dwellers of this place, we can receive that grace made possible through his solidarity with mankind. Elsewhere St. Gemma wrote:

I find a little peace only in that bit of suffering Jesus sends me, offering it first for sinners, and in particular for me, and then for the souls in Purgatory (p. 23)

As members of "Christ's body, the Church" (eg. Eph. 1:22-23, Col. 1:24), we suffer in union with him. It is because we are "sharing" Christ's suffering that there is merit and power to our toil. You see in the second-to-last quote how St. Gemma, though she had an inward desire to depart this world and go to heaven, plods in this world for the sake of her soul and for others. This is another example of love working through this saint.

[H]e brought me a cup of coffee... (p. 31)

These words, St. Gemma spoke regarding her guardian angel. It got me thinking that I would not complain if my guardian angel did some chores for me, perhaps starting with laundry.

Whoever reads these things, I repeat again, should not believe, because they are all my imagination... (p. 43)

This, St. Gemma wrote after describing an encounter with the Virgin Mary in which the Blessed Mother cradled her. Read in isolation, the statement sounds like an admission that her mystic experiences are an illusion. But such is not the case in the context of the diary, or even the remainder of the sentence which says:

Whoever reads these things, I repeat again, should not believe, because they are all my imagination; nevertheless I agree to describe everything because I am bound by obedience, otherwise I would do differently.

St. Gemma expressed displeasure in her diary at having to write it. But what is revealed here is that her spiritual directors recognized something in her that they wished to preserve. Other times revealed that her visions went beyond something mental, such as when she wrote of attacks by the devil. On one occasion, she wrote that the

devil gave me such a strong shove that I fell off the bed, causing me to bang my head on the floor with such great force that I felt a sharp pain; I fainted and remained on the ground for a long time before regaining consciousness." (p. 31)

Additionally, she would sometimes speak that her "head would take off." I read this book in English, so I am not certain what the original Italian may have said, but she used this phrase in the context of having a vision. So when she wrote that one should not believe her story about the Virgin Mary holding her, she seems to refer to it occurring in her "imagination" as opposed to in some physical encounter. As well, she distinguishes at other times incidents where her "head would take off" with other visions:

When my guardian angel comes, I am awake, and my head does not take off; Jesus, my Mom and sometimes Brother Gabriel make my head take off; but I always stay where I am; I always find myself in the same place, it's just that my head departs. (p. 13)

It is statement such as these that shed light on her description of the Marian vision occurring in her "imagination."

Finally, I wanted to point out two other occasions in which St. Gemma's name has recently come across my path.

The first is in the previous "saint" book I read, Padre Pio: Under Investigation. The book re-prints an April 7, 1913 letter from Padre Pio to Fr. Agostino. After the letter, the author, Castelli, notes that this letter from Padre Pio was "one accused of being the product of plagiarism because of the consonance, of language and theme, with a private apparition to Saint Gemma Galgani." (e-location 875) The author produces the case, however, that Padre Pio's letter was authentic, not plagiarized, and that his experience was only similar to St. Gemma's. It is interesting to note once again, the similarity in the experiences of some saints, not only with suffering, but here with the character of an apparition and inspiration of words.

The second is from another book I reviewed, The Rite. The book opens with a vivid description of an exorcism and the dialogue exchanged between the demon and the priest. During the ordeal, the priest determines that the demon is writhing against the presence of some unseen saints in the room, and at times fought against these unseen figures at which it screamed. One was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. One was Bl. John Paul II. And the other was St. Gemma Galgani. The author, Baglio, determined from the possessed victim, that St. Gemma "was dressed in her traditional black, and looked very much as she had in her twenties." (p. 2)

It is what the saints do. They serve as members of Christ's body, members that do spiritual battle on behalf of the Church. All the more sense does Paul's analogy of the Church's "body" with parts of a human body having parts that work together. (cf. 1 Cor. 12) And some saints, it seems, are called to be part of the fighting hands of Christ's body.