Category Archives: Suffering

St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Her Little Sacrifices

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We often think of St. Thérèse in terms of simplicity of life, the life of a joyful young woman in a cloistered convent. She is the Little Flower, which almost has some kind of 60s flower-child connotation.

She was, indeed, a gentle soul, and she did, indeed, live a simple life. Her spiritual life was, however, built around the concept and practice of self-sacrifice.

“I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies,” she wrote.

I find the concept of obscure sacrifice to be compelling. We all love to make sacrifices when we get noticed for it, don’t we? We all have “white martydom” syndrome. Do we hesitate to share with others how hard it is sometimes to raise kids? How many times, in an argument with our spouse, do we tell them just how much we have given up for them? When we give up desserts or alcohol or something else for Lent, do we make sure everyone at work knows about it? Do we make a big deal to people about not eating meat on Fridays?

But obscure sacrifices, hidden sacrifices. Aren’t those the sacrifices we are commanded to make? Didn’t Christ say that if we fast we are to wash our faces and not let anyone know we are fasting? Didn’t He tell us to not let the left hand know what the right is doing?

It doesn’t take much. St. Thérèse said, “To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” We have to pick up those pins, and marriage and family life provides ample opportunity. Let’s not squander that opportunity by trumpeting our great self-sacrifice. A little humility would be in order on that front. We should remember that St. Thérèse performed her little hidden sacrifices when she was suffering from a tuberculosis which would take her life at the age of 24. We should remember that St. Thérèse went through a Dark Night of the Soul, herself, and was tormented by temptations and a grave crisis of faith. If she could persevere through that without complaint, we can persevere through our daily pains with a smile on our face.

One of the Good Guys

I am taking a musical theater class with my daughter. (I find that participating in my kids’ activities – as coach, helper, or fellow student – brings us closer in a way that’s hard to get otherwise.) My daughter’s vocal teacher, who is leading the class, picked out a song for me: One of the Good Guys from the music revue Closer Than Ever. It is a remarkable song about temptation, mid-life crisis, and the truth about marriage.

Temptation

The song is sung by a self-professed good guy, who dotes on his wife and kids. It quickly becomes a confessional:

But there was a night in Hawaii
On a business trip,
That my mind has suffused with a mystic glow.
She was someone’s friend, and she had this smile…

They become close, but in the end he resists the temptation to cheat on his wife. (Though he should never have been on that beach in the first place!)  And in his reflection it gets interesting:

…one of the good guys
Who trades a flash of heat
To build a warmer fire;
Denies himself a treat
To shoot for something higher
And that’s the part that’s sweet
That only the good guys know.

What is the “something higher”? Of course it is marriage, but it isn’t just any marriage. There are plenty of loveless and miserable marriages out there. It is a marriage that has realized something important. A marriage in which self-sacrifice is recognized as the highest virtue. A marriage built according to this guideline:


Husbands,love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.”

Ephesians 5: 25-31

This is a call to self-sacrifice, a call to the husband to give over his very life for his wife, just as Christ gave up his, a concept out of fashion in our no-fault divorce world. This sort of self-sacrifice, however, which is the definitive sign of real love, is what we were built for, what we are called to, and when we reach it, we have reached something higher. We have reached something holy.

I can honestly say, after twenty years of marriage in which we have seen our share of pain and in which we have failed to love more than I would care to admit, that what you get to after those 20 years of perseverance really is something higher, something transcendent. We have, even in a very imperfect way, attempted to imitate Christ’s love, and even imperfectly it is something wonderful.

But that’s not the end. There is more to the story.

Mid-Life

Fast forward and the singer is now 44 with everything laid out in his life as perfectly as he could ask. But…

Sometimes at night, in the stillness,
Lying wide awake
As the wife I still desire sleeps by my side,
I can feel the wash of the perfumed air
As my mind is drowning in billowing hair…

He is tormented by thoughts of what might have been, of what he gave up, and of the possibility that even now he could seize those fantasies and make them real.

Of course, he doesn’t. After all, he’s one of the good guys. And then he passes on the key piece of wisdom from the song:

It’s not which road you take,
Which life you pick to live in,
Whichever choice you make,
The longing is a given.
And that’s what brings the ache
That only the good guys know.

He has come to realize that no matter how happy you are, no matter which spouse or career or life you choose, you will feel the regret, the questions, the uncertainty, and the temptations. It is just a normal part of life. These things we find ourselves desiring – and the people – are mirages. Worse, they are lies. They promise something they can never give, which is completion. Total happiness.

But why? Why are we built that way? Why can’t we achieve that happiness we desire? St. Augustine understood:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

We have an emptiness inside us that only God can fill and that will not be filled in this life. We try to fill that need with pleasure; with sex or alcohol or excitement or food or other indulgences. We try to fill it with our spouse. But it is never enough. We always come back to that empty feeling.

Even our marriage cannot fill that God-sized hole, and if we persist in believing that it should, we may be tempted to throw it away and start over. But if we come to understand what marriage is and what its relation to God is, then we can feel that transcendence that I talked about earlier, even while tormented by the longing that never goes away.

And what is this understanding of marriage? Marriage is no less than a relationship, designed by God, to reflect both Christ’s love for his Church and the Father’s love for the son. It aspires to be the perfect and selfless love that is Christ’s love. Paradoxically, the only way to achieve total happiness is through a total outpouring of oneself for another, for in doing that, we begin fulfill our purpose, which is to be an image of God. Likewise, our marriage an family begins to fulfill its purpose, which is to be an image of the Holy Trinity, that most fundamentl and perfect of all relationships.

And that truly is the part that’s sweet, that only the good guys know.

The Hand of the Lord Feeds Us, He Answers All Our Needs – Does He Really?

The Hand of the Lord Feeds Us, He Answers All Our Needs. Is this just touchy feely religious sentiment? The cancer patient who prays for a cure; is He answering her needs? How about the expecting mother facing a miscarriage? The husband seeing his wife slip away into the mystery of Alzheimers? The martyrs that shed their blood to this day in many corners of this world?

We all suffer. We all die. We all eventually lose those we love. We all mourn and weep in this valley of tears. Is God really answering all our needs? It is easy to say no. It is easy to reject the faith on this premise alone. It is easy to be tragically wrong.

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

Somehow, some way, these sufferings are supposed to work for good, for our good. Is this just another condescending little head pat to console us when our prayers aren’t answered? Or is it the case that suffering happens and God tries somehow to make it up to us? Again, no. Such a promise cannot be so easily dismissed.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.
Collossions 1:24

So the good that our sufferings work for isn’t just some consolation prize from God, but it is something essential. Christ’s afflictions were and Sources necessary for the salvation of all of us. Since Christ is God, He cannot of course be imperfect, so the only thing missing from His afflictions must be something that He requires as our contribution, and that would be our suffering. If our suffering makes up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, then both our and His suffering must be working toward the same goal – salvation.

So our suffering is not only turned into good by God, it is in fact necessary. But why? This is not some arbitrary rule. In fact, it derives logically from the nature of our existence.

God created man not as an animal, and not as an automaton. He gave us free will. Why? Because He wanted to create a creature whom He could love and who could freely love him back. Without free will, there is no love, only coerced action.

But with free will comes the ability to say no, the ability to reject God. With free will also comes a selfishness, a base desire to guarantee my own self-preservation, to look out for my interests above those of others. To truly love someone – in a total and pure way – you have to be willing and able to put the other’s needs over your own. In perfect love, this self-sacrifice extends even unto death. I would die for my wife and my children.

So to love God perfectly, I must be willing and able to sacrifice my life for God. How many of us are sure we could do that? Adam failed at the task miserably, and we are all still paying for his failure.

The reason why our suffering – joined to that of Christ – is essential to our salvation is because it helps us to learn how to offer our lives up for God, how to be willing and able to sacrifice our very existence for Him. Once we have learned that, we have learned to love God perfectly. And once we can love God perfectly, we can become the creatures He originally intended us to be.

So yes, God does answer all our needs. And one of our needs is to suffer. We don’t need to be afraid of it.

Osu! Thank You!

In my son’s karate class, when the instructor calls out push-ups or some other unpleasant exercise, the students know better than to grumble. If they grumble, they get more of whatever they were complaining about, be it push-ps, crunches, or what have you.

Instead, the students are taught to reply, “Osu! Thank you!” (“Osu” is a generic sort of athletic greeting that literally means “push” but in this context might be translated “Yes, sir!”)

My wife pointed out that this is a good lesson in our spiritual lives as well. When God in His wisdom gives us trials, difficulties, or suffering, our response shouldn’t be to complain or whine or, worse, to question God. We should respond in gratitude to God, for after all,
God brings great good out of seemingly evil events.

So, in the spirit of my son’s karate class, whenever life brings us disappointment or difficulty, my wife and I grit our teeth and give Our Lord a heartfelt “Osu! Thank you!”

The Devil, Purgatory, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Embracing the Cross

The Daily Spiritual Battle

Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
1 Peter 5:8

Satan works against us every day of our lives. His “tricks” can be as mundane as distraction in prayer or a traffic jam on the way to Mass The saints comment frequently on this ongoing spiritual battle with the devil.

The devil strains every nerve to secure the souls which belong to Christ. We should not grudge our toil in wresting them from Satan and giving them back to God.
St. Sebastian

Our imagination, which is hardly still a minute, makes our task harder and then of course there is the devil who never tires of trying to distract us and keep us from praying. To what end does not the evil one go against us while we are engaged in saying our Rosary against him.
St. Louis de Montfort

The Omnipotence of God
It is difficult to make sense of the workings of the devil in a world created by a loving and omnipotent God. Sin is one thing; it arises from our free will. But why the temptations? Why does this omnipotent and loving God allow an independent actor on the scene to tempt us, to distract us, and otherwise to make our spiritual journey more difficult?
God does this on purpose. All things are allowed according to His will.

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28

But how can that be if these things could potentially keep us from going to heaven?

The Teaching on Purgatory
The church’s teaching on purgatory provides some insight.

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030 and 1031

So we must be pure before we enter heaven, and if we are not pure when we die (but we are in a state of grace, meaning we haven’t separated ourselves from God), then we have the opportunity to become pure in Purgatory.
Many people think that Purgatory is pretty much required for everyone, but St. Thérèse says we don’t have to go there.

Do not be afraid of going to purgatory because of its pain, but rather long not to go there because this pleases God who imposes this expiation so regretfully. From the moment that you try to please Him in all things, if you have the unshakable confidence that He will purify you at every instant in His love and will leave in you no trace of sin, be very sure that you will not go to purgatory.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

God is purifying us “at every instant”. That means right now we are being purified. How?

The Way of the Cross
Christ demands that we pick up our cross and follow him. Why does He say that? Why didn’t he say, “Just try to be nice and a generally good person doing the best you can, and I’ll make sure you get to heaven where you can have your favorite flavor of ice cream and be reunited with your childhood dog.”?

Why is the cross the way to Heaven? And what is my cross anyway?

The cross is the way to heaven, because it is what God uses to purify us. It is the altar on which the sacrifice of purification is made. We must take up our crosses, because on our crosses is the only place where we can sacrifice our old self, our worldly self, and purify our souls for Heaven. That is why God allows Satan into our lives. The devil is the unwitting instrument of our purification. Just as Christ HAD to be tempted by the devil in the desert of Judea, we HAVE to be tempted by the devil in the desert of our hearts.

Our cross is not just the big challenges in our life – the handicap, the disease, the difficult family member, the addiction – it is every little distraction, every little obstacle we find in our spiritual life. When our alarm clock fails and we oversleep and don’t have time for full morning prayers, that is Satan and that is our cross. When we get lost trying to find a new church for daily Mass, that is Satan and that is our cross. When the dog wants out in the middle of the Rosary – well, the dog is not Satan, but that is our cross.

Embrace It
So the answer, then, to the distractions and difficulties is to embrace them, fight through them, and most of all thank God for them. These are our means of purification. If we embrace them and use them to grow in our love of God, we just might do as St. Thérèse suggests, and avoid the pains of purgatory altogether. We are, after all, meant to be saints. Each and every one of us.

The Answer is to Love God More

When we struggle to accept a difficult situation, the answer is to love God more.
When we battle with a sin that we just can’t shake, the answer is to love God more.
When we want to do God’s will but just don’t know what that is, the answer is to love God more.
When we cannot forgive our neighbor, the answer is to love God more.
When our prayer life is dry, the answer is to love God more.
When we are angry or hurt or afraid, the answer is to love God more.
When our suffering is more than we think we can bear, the answer is to love God more.

When we love God more, we love ourselves less.
When we love God more, we love the world less.
When we love God more, we see Him in the eyes of those around us.
When we love God more, we find joy in unlikely places.
When we love God more, we come to understand His love for us.
When we love God more, we learn to love our neighbor.
When we love God more, we open ourselves to His abundant graces.
When we love God more, His will becomes our will.
The answer is to love God more.

Why Marriage Has to be So Hard

The Challenges of Marriage, and God’s Sacred Plan

Ups and Downs
My wife and I teach Pre-Cana (marriage prep), and so we’ve had to become comfortable sharing our personal ups and downs both with strangers and not-so-strangers. And there have been ups and downs. Big ones. At one point, early on, we were on the verge of divorce. It was only our parents’ encouragement and the foundation of our faith that saved us. There have been other times when, though fully committed to never divorcing, we did not see how we could ever feel the love for each other that we once felt. And we are not the justice-of-the-peace, living the married-single lifestyle couple that is the norm today. We are serious Catholic who believe marriage is forever. With the help of the church, we have worked through those difficult times, and the love in our relationship now is tremendous.

Every Marriage
Marriage is beset with pain. I believe this is true for everyone, even those who claim publicly that they have never had an argument. No one can hurt you like the person for whom you drop all your defenses. No one can disappoint you like the person in whom you invest all your earthly hopes. Marriages are fraught with arguments, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and difficult negotiations; and that is when things are going well! To keep it functional, to keep it happy, we have to work at it. We have to expend serious emotional effort in communication, in negotiation, and frequently in reconciliation. Without constant vigilance, we find we have “grown apart”. But why? Why does it have to be that way? Why does marriage have to be so hard?

The Hard Truth
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul said, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved His Church.” And how did Christ love the Church? He suffered and died for her! So St. Paul, and through St. Paul the Holy Spirit, is calling us to suffer and die for our wives.

Suffering is not something we, as 21st century Christians, especially in the Western church, do particularly well. We run to the doctor with every little ache and pain and sniffle. We complain when we have to wait in a long line for confession, or when the priest’s homily exceeds 20 minutes. We make a big deal about giving up chocolate for Lent; and when we abstain from meat, we replace it with shrimp or lobster.

But when it comes to marriage, we HAVE to suffer, and we HAVE to die to ourselves. It really won’t work otherwise. When we don’t — when we insist on putting ourselves first — our marriages suffer and, in many cases, die. Every day is a fight to overcome our intrinsically disordered, selfish nature, if we want our marriages to last.

There is a Purpose
But why? We are, after all, modern man, with great intellect and a bookstore full of self-help books. We ought to be able to put our heads together, act rationally, and work together at life just the way we work with many co-workers who nominally have much less in common with us than our spouse does.

God doesn’t want us to treat our spouse like a co-worker. He wants us to love her, and not in an “Every Kiss Begins With Kay” sort of way. He want us to love as Christ loves, as God loves: selflessly, disinterestedly, unconditionally, with forgiveness and honesty and devotion. It is a love that is foreign to this world marinated in original sin.

The surprising answer is this: the love we learn in marriage is for more than our spouse, for more than our families. It is for the whole Church. As we learn to love our spouse in a Christ-like way, we learn to turn around and reflect that love on others we encounter in our lives. And that is God’s grand and wonderful and not-so-secret plan for our marriages. In marriage we learn not only to love our spouse and our children, but we learn how to love, period, and love is a pre-requisite for entering the eternal kingdom. Remember, Christ taught us that the commandments boil down to loving God first and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

So we, as married couples, have a special advantage in the path to holiness. We have a training ground for love, and a partner to take that training with us. The question is, will we take advantage of it? Will we pick up our crosses and soldier through those difficult times? If we do, the rewards will literally be eternal.

A Reflection on Suffering

It is hard to remember that all things that happen are allowed by God. Since God is all good, and God is love, and since all things are allowed by Him who cannot ere, then our sufferings must be for the good, as impossible as it may be for us to understand.

God is timeless. He sees the world, from beginning to end equally, as one thing. His timelessness is how we can approach Calvary each day at Mass. When we suffer, He sees us as the eternal souls we are destined to be, and our suffering is an integral part of that meaning.

When we suffer, we must trust in His judgment and love.

From the Divine Office:
The Moral Reflections on Job by Pope St Gregory the Great
If we receive good from the hand of God, why should we not also receive evil? Paul saw the riches of wisdom within himself though he himself was outwardly a corruptible body, which is why he says we have this treasure in earthen vessels. In Job, then, the earthenware vessel felt his gaping sores externally; while this interior treasure remained unchanged. Outwardly he had gaping wounds but that did not stop the treasure of wisdom within him from welling up and uttering these holy and instructive words: If we have received good at the hand of the Lord, shall we not receive evil? By the good he means the good things given by God, both temporal and eternal; by evil he means the blows he is suffering from in the present. Of those evils the Lord says, through the prophet Isaiah, I am the Lord, unrivalled, I form the light and create the dark. I make good fortune and create calamity, it is I, the Lord, who do all this. I form the light, and create the dark, because when the darkness of pain is created by blows from without, the light of the mind is kindled by instruction within. I make good fortune and create calamity, because when we wrongly covet things which it was right for God to
create, they are turned into scourges and we see them as evil. We have been alienated from God by sin, and it is fitting that we should be brought back to peace with him by the scourge. As every being, which was created good, turns to pain for us, the mind of the chastened man may, in its humbled state, be made new in peace with the Creator. We should especially notice the skilful turn of reflection he uses when he gathers himself up to meet the persuading of his wife, when he says If we have received good at the hand of the Lord, shall we not receive evil? It is a great consolation to us if, when we suffer afflictions, we recall to remembrance our Maker ’s gifts to us. Painful things will not depress us
if we quickly remember also the gifts that we have been given. As Scripture says, In the day of prosperity do not forget affliction, and in the day of affliction, do not forget prosperity. Whoever, in the moment of receiving God’s gifts but forgets to fear possible affliction, will be brought low by his presumption. Equally, whoever in the moment of suffering fails to take comfort from the gifts which it has been his lot to receive, is thrown down from the steadfastness of his mind and despairs.
The two must be united so that each may always have the other’s support, so that both remembrance of the gift may moderate the pain of the blow and fear of the blow may moderate exuberance at receiving the gift. Thus the holy man, to soothe the depression of his mind amidst his wounds, weighs the sweetness of the gifts against the pains of affliction, saying If we have received good at the hand of the Lord, shall we not receive evil?

And from the morning reading of the same day:
Judith 8:25-26,27
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.