The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter XV: Following after the Cross with Mary"
IN THE PRECEDING CHAPTER we recognized the necessity for mortification. Now we must look into some special principles and considerations relating to the actual practice of mortification, for errors and misunderstandings are common in this sphere.
All mortification falls into one of two large classes: it is either providential or self-imposed. In other words, some mortifications come our way without our seeking them, while others we take on of our own accord.
Providential mortification embraces the difficulties that are inflicted on us by our state in life, and also the less predictable things that may emerge in any state of life. All these may be called providential in the sense that none of them happens without at least the permission of God, for His Providence affects absolutely everything that happens: He either positively orders or sends it or He merely permits it to happen. Since these providential mortifications are, as it were, chosen especially for us by the hand of God, it is important that we accept them. St. Francis de Sales writes understandingly on this subject:
Many other examples, some of them peculiar to our own times, could be added to those given by St. Francis. Almost anyone may at times be called upon to endure the discomforts of crowded busses, trains, and other public conveyances, to be patient with other drivers in crowded traffic, to submit humbly to an irritable boss. Then there are the difficulties proper to various walks of life. For example, doctors and nurses need to learn to see Christ even in unpleasant or repulsive patients; clerks in stores must be courteous to unreasonable customers who are "always right"; students sometimes have to endure boring teachers dispensing equally boring subjects; assembly-line workers submit to a monotony more fitted for machines than for men.
The value of these, as of other forms of mortification, depends on the love we invest in them. Hence we should aim not merely to bear troubles, but to embrace them joyfully out of love of God, and to thank Him for the opportunity of serving Him.2 But even then, if we want our mortifications to have really great value, we should ask Mary to unite them to her own sufferings and to those of her Divine Son, and to offer them up for us.
Some will be more generous in accepting this providential form of mortification than others. Little love wishes to give little: great love wishes to give much. For an example of how a saint profited by this sort of mortification, read the Autobiography of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
Unless we are at least sincerely trying to make good use of this providential form of mortification, our self-imposed mortifications will not be very acceptable to God. The truth is, it is usually easier to assume the ordinary sort of mortifications than to make the most of providential mortifications. Still, the fact that self-imposed mortification is easier (except in the case of heroic penances) does not mean that we should neglect it for the providential. Both kinds are needed for our development; love itself urges that we practice both. In fact, self-imposed penances serve very well by training us to contradict our own will and inclinations, and to accept providential mortifications with love.
How far should one go in this matter of self-imposed mortification? The answer will depend upon how great our past sins have been and how disorderly our actual inclinations are, and how much providential mortification we are already suffering. Three principal factors, then, should be considered in our individual plan of mortification: our need, our ability, and the generosity of our love. Our need is great indeed. As for the past, we have reparation to make for our many sins; as for the rest, we set up the goal of a complete emptying of self, absolute detachment from self and from things of earth Our ability is limited, and we must obey the law of gradual progress ( see again chapter IX). The rate of our progress is controlled by our ability and our love. Little love will incline one to move slowly: great love will approach closer to the limits of its ability. Great prudence should be coupled with great generosity. In practice, one should not take any radical step without the approval of his director.
There are two extremes one must avoid. On the one hand, he must not inflict such severe penances as may jeopardize his health; on the other he must also beware of favoring and pampering himself, constantly alleging health as a dispensation from mortification. Relatively few persons are inclined to over-severe penances, though some will vacillate from one extreme to the other. St Francis de Sales displays his usual lucid, well-balanced prudence in writing on this problem; we strongly recommend a careful reading of chapter 23, Book III, of his Introduction to the Devout Life.
St. John of the Cross gives us a practical piece of advice on our choice and use of mortifications. After pointing out that the natural man, who is led by his desires, is following a blind guide, he adds what some may find a surprising comment:
For this reason one must greatly lament the ignorance of certain men, who burden themselves with extraordinary penances and with other voluntary practices, and think that this practice or that will suffice to bring them to the union of Divine Wisdom: but such is not the case if they endeavour not diligently to mortify their desires. If they were careful to bestow half of that labour on this, they would profit more in a month than they profit by all the other practices in many years.3
Elsewhere St. John speaks of those who practice mortification in the wrong way as doing no more than "the penance of beasts."4 He means that although there are many reasons and justifications for mortification, it is necessary to choose and carry out our penances in such a way as to obtain detachment. But a deeper comprehension of the teaching of St. John on desires is worth our study. At the same time we can examine his principles on the closely related topic of the right use of pleasure, and add a few comments on the purification of memory.
St. John stresses the evils of the wrong kind of desires. But, since he does not explain for us which desires are harmful, we must now examine that question for ourselves.
Which things, then, should we desire? First of all, we must greatly desire the glory of God-the goal of every creature. Closely allied with that glory is our own eternal salvation5 and that of our neighbor; all else must be subordinated to these desires. There are various means to attain the glory of God and our salvation. Some, like virtue or grace, have value in themselves, because they really make us blessed. We should, of course, desire them. Below these true spiritual goods are temporal things, the goods of the world. Now we can use these temporal things either for our salvation or for our ruin. Hence St. John would have us be indifferent to temporal things insofar as they are of indifferent value for salvation.
A number of distinctions need to be made on how we should desire and use spiritual goods and means to spiritual goods. Our general guide is this: seek out and fulfill the will of God insofar as it is made known in any way-by the commandments, by the counsels, by orders of lawful superiors, by special inspirations,6 by various providential arrangements of events, or a combination of manifestations.
God's will may be clear in some aspects of a problem and not in others; or He may give us an indication of His will, but then, in order to try us, He may change it before we can complete the proposed task. Thus, the patriarch Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, but was ordered to stop before actually doing so. In a somewhat similar way God may give a young man a vocation to the priesthood; it may seem that it is God's will that he sanctify himself through offering Mass and administering the sacraments. Yet it may please God to change all that, to send a crippling illness, so that before or even after ordination that man may find that God wills his sanctification through a lifetime of suffering as a shut-in. Or again, God may give to a priest, through his superiors, the order to conduct a drive to build an orphanage. Now certainly God wills the works of charity. Yet, for a greater good, God may wish to permit this campaign to fail in whole or in part, or to be carried on by other means. Such reverses also come to lay persons. Thus God may give to a young man a special aptitude for surgery, and even allow him to finish medical school, with the hope of serving Christ in the sick. Yet God may permit an auto accident resulting in the loss of a hand or an arm. Another may feel himself called to the work of a lay apostle, for example, in the field of social work or in writing. But failure and rejection of his efforts may come in an unending stream. Another may feel that God is calling him to enter a monastery, but when his father is disabled by a stroke, he sees that God wants him to become the financial support of the family.
In all these cases the person involved should work diligently in the direction indicated by the will of God, but be so disposed as to accept lovingly and readily whatever change or outcome may be subsequently indicated. He should desire only that he may carry out the will of God perfectly, by wherever means, and at whatever time He wills.
At other times God may make use of our desires in order to show us His will. This is very commonly true in what is called our dominant spiritual attraction. Although the basic laws of the spiritual life are the same for all, there are many possible variations in means and in kinds of emphasis. For example, if St. Thomas Aquinas had tried to force himself into the kind of spirituality practiced so well by St. Francis of Assisi, he would have been opposing God's will. For God wanted St. Thomas to grow and serve Him in a life filled with intense theological study and writing. But St. Francis served God while avoiding these things, and it would have been a mistake for him to have tried to make himself into the scholarly type. We could compare many other pairs of saints-for example, St. Francis de Sales as contrasted with St Benedict Joseph Labre. God wills to manifest His goodness in a wonderful variety of ways, and it is to our spiritual advantage to find the type of attraction He wills for us. In this matter our spiritual desires are likely to point toward the will of God rather than in the opposite direction.
With regard to merely temporal advantages, such as pleasures, honors, riches, or health, indifference (lack of desire) has a wider field. For these things are of indifferent value for salvation: a man may use them well, or may use them to his own destruction. Now we need not be unable even to feel the attraction of pleasures and other temporal things. But we should refrain from desiring them, from letting them be a factor in our decisions. Of course we need to use certain temporal things to a certain extent as means to go to God. But it is one thing to use them prudently (considering also their relative advantages and disadvantages as means), but it is another thing to allow the merely temporal attraction to influence us or to make us desire them. In other words, in merely temporal goods we should try to follow the advice of St. Paul, who urges us to use this world as though not using it.
St. John's principles on desire also advise us to practice abandonment to God's will in the things that His Providence sends us, desiring only that His will be done. Therefore we should lovingly accept whatever results He is pleased to give our labors. But we should accept with equal love the things that He sends without making use of our instrumentality, such as sickness, health, poverty, wealth, success, failure.7
Of course it is not always positively wrong to desire even temporal things. There are many desires that are not sinful though they are less than perfect. But he who wishes to advance rapidly and far will follow the advice of St. John of the Cross.
Now, we might ask, why this special emphasis on avoiding the wrong sort of desire? There are many reasons. St. Augustine says well: "You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You."8 Desire is a form of love, and restless desire competes with love of God. Our disordered self-love prompts us constantly to be desiring something, and, since anticipation is, in earthly things, greater than realization, we desire to desire, enjoying the pursuit more than the attainment. If we pull our desires and attachments loose from one thing, they quickly and silently fasten onto something else. We might say that we are attached to attachment: our self-love will give up one thing only to seize quickly on something else. We so often seem to think: just this one thing more, and I can "live happily ever after." But it is an ever-receding mirage. In view of this, it will be worth while to study in detail three specific reasons for the danger of desire.
First of all, St. Augustine tells us that love is like a weight carrying us to the object of our love.9 Creatures tend to pull us to their own level and to hold our thoughts10 and love there (see "attachment"). There are various levels of creatures, all of which are good in themselves, but they must be used carefully. At the lowest level are things of sense: these, though they are not spiritual goods, do have a lower sort of good in themselves, and may even be helpful spiritually if properly used.11 But God is above the level of things of sense. The more enmeshed in things of sense we are, the less our freedom to go to Him. But we muse say the same of creatures higher than those of sense.12 Thus, the things of the intellect (for example, study), though higher than sense, may hold us down to a level that is too low-if we are attached to them or desire them inordinately. Even visions and revelations, though above the merely intellectual and human level, are below God. Hence attachment to them is harmful.13
The second danger is that disordered desire and attachment make it hard for us to hear the inspirations and guidance that Mary may send us.14 We may think that we want to be guided by her wishes, but this will not be true if our desires make us blind and deaf For if we have a strong pull of desire in one direction, we cannot easily perceive the delicate voice of inspiration calling us to the other direction. The reason is fundamentally the same as that which we saw in the Introduction: what we think and what we do tend to harmonize. If we engage in desire of the wrong things, it is difficult for the thought even to occur to us that we ought to move in the opposite direction. We cannot expect to hear the voice of reason, grace, or the Holy Spirit when our desires shout something else in a louder voice. Therefore, if we are led by desires, we are unintelligently following a blind guide. St. Francis de Sales compares a soul full of desires to a hunting dog in spring. For in spring there are so many scents around that the dog can hardly find the scent of the game (by the game he means the love of God). Therefore he says:
The third danger is this: desires block our progress in habitual recollection and mental prayer and these are essential means to any great progress in love. All forms of prayer aim to raise our minds and hearts to God. But, Our Lord warns, "Where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also."16 Therefore, if our minds and hearts (wills) are enmeshed in lower things, it is hard to raise them to God in prayer. For it is as though a weight were holding our thoughts and love down, so that they cannot rise easily. In addition, it is obvious that many desires furnish abundant material for distractions. On the contrary if we do what we can to free our souls of useless desires and other obstacles, we will grow in prayer and thereby in love. When a soul has worked sufficiently at its own purification, God will surely intervene and complete the work by passive purification17 and will even g rant infused contemplation. Thus St. John of the Cross says:
On the other hand, if one seems to advance in mental prayer without growth in mortification, he is in danger. As St. Jane de Chantal says,
St. John of the Cross has much more to say of the harmfulness of desires,20 but now we must move on to a closely related subject: that of the correct use of pleasuse.
There is a great difference between the problem of desire and that of pleasure. In the case of pleasure, we may find a certain partially redeeming feature that is not present in the case of desire. For God created pleasure to be a help to us in our advance toward Him; that is, if we use creatures and their pleasures properly, as means to God, we may find some assistance in them. As St. John of the Cross says, even things of sense can be helpful: "For there are souls who are greatly moved by objects of sense to seek God."21 But although creatures may help us toward God when we are actually using them, they cannot help us when we merely desire them. It is as though they have a certain helping power in them: this power can be made to assist us when the creatures are present (being used), but not when they are absent and merely desired.
St. John of the Cross suggests an excellent means of determining when our use of sense objects is helpful or harmful to us (with proper modification the same principle could be adapted to other classes of created things):
Thus we have the correct criterion for the use of pleasure. Pleasure is intended to be a means to an end. It should aid us toward God and help us do His will, but should not keep our thoughts and love fixed on itself. God created pleasure in order to insure that certain things be accomplished. For example, God put pleasure into eating to insure that creatures would eat sufficiently23 for life and health.24 Therefore we use pleasure rightly when we use it to the extent that it helps us toward God-and leave it alone otherwise. It is part of God's plan that much of our satisfaction should be merely incidental to our work and ordinary activities: it is like an oil that makes the machinery run smoothly.25 If we ever seek pleasure merely for its own sake, we are in disorder, and are following a blind guide. At times we do seek pleasure directly, but still as a means. (Pleasure incidental to work is sought indirectly.) For we need a certain amount of relaxation and recreation.26 To take it properly, without any inordinate desire or attachment, is an act of virtue.27 To take less recreation than we really need is a fault-a fault, be it added, to which few are prone.28 But for the sake of the few who might go to excess in mortifying pleasures, we quote from Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., an eminent commentator on St. John of the Cross:
But most of us need to be discouraged from a more or less constant search for pleasure, a pursuit we may carry on without realizing it. St. Thomas says that recreation is like salt on food: a little goes a long way.30
Desire looks forward to a good thing to come; pleasure enjoys a present good, and memory tends to dwell on past goods. Hence, St. John of the Cross tells us, we must also take care to avoid lost motion in memory.31 For to think lovingly over past pleasures is apt to be merely a case of attachment to creatures. Memory is not likely to have the restless character of desire, but there is little chance that it will have the compensating features that are found in the actual use of creatures. Hence we need to guard against mere idle memories that serve no good purpose. They may occupy our minds and wills with creatures to the detriment of recollection and love of God.
The proper attitude to creatures could be rather well summed up in these words of St. Thérèse: "Let creatures touch us only in passing."32 If our contact with them is only in passing, we will deal with them only when they are present. Thus we will avoid the disorders of desire, which looks to the future, and of memory, which looks to the past. But even in the present, the contact will be light and detached, it will be made in passing.
At first sight these principles on desire, pleasure, and memory may seem to rob life of much of its freedom of spirit and joy; but experience shows that this fear is vain. The saints, who put these principles into practice, were joyful. We read of St. Therese that when she was absent from recreation period the others would say: "There will be no laughing today-Soeur Thérèse is not here."33 Similarly, St. John of the Cross insists that the only persons who can really enjoy things are those who are detached from them.34 St. Paul shows the same sort of attitude when, in enumerating the fruits of the Holy Spirit, he lists joy and peace, but not sourness and disquietude.35 And we must not forget that Our Lord Himself and His Mother were able to join in the celebration at Cana, so much so that He was willing, at her request, to provide more wine by a miracle.
God is the best of fathers. He takes no pleasure in seeing His children suffer, but He knows that present suffering makes it possible for Him to confer unimaginable, unending happiness on them at the end of this brief life. Hence He sends suffering as a great treasure to His friends, as a means of increasing their likeness to His well-beloved Son and His Mother. But even in this life, God sends a deeper kind of peace and even joy into the midst of providentially-permitted sufferings and self-imposed mortification. For God has so arranged His world that those who spend themselves in a relentless pursuit of pleasure find that it escapes them; while solid joy comes to those who seek the kingdom of God and His justice.
In this connection we may note that this principle of renouncement is the way of happiness not only for priests and religious, but also for married persons. If two persons enter marriage, each with the idea of enjoying as much selfish pleasure as possible, and conceding no more than necessary to the other partner, that marriage will certainly be miserable. But if each mate proposes to work more to please the other than for his or her own satisfaction, happiness is fairly certain for both. And if the partners who live in such a spirit of self-sacrifice will raise it to the supernatural level, they will find that this true form of love of neighbor is a great aid to growth in the love of God The sacrifices necessary for the welfare of the children can be similarly elevated so as to bear great fruit in the spiritual life.
Mortification presents no problem for some: they have little if any appreciation for its necessity and act accordingly. But others are convinced of its need, and, in addition, may belong to a religious community in which the rule prescribes certain practices. Those who realize that they have a duty to mortify themselves are sometimes turned into spiritual cripples and hypochondriacs by fear for their health. In fact, self-love easily deceives them, unconsciously, into counterfeiting incapacities to avoid facing mortification. St. Teresa of Avila warns us:
This does not mean that we should ignore all thought of health,37 or adopt the extreme physical penances of some of the saints, but there is a prudent, generous position that is right for each one at any given time. A good director is almost indispensable in finding that position for us. But the mortification of desire, attachments, and pleasures can easily be carried out in such a way as not to endanger health. Mortification is particularly beneficial to mental health. As the outstanding priest-psychiatrist Thomas Verner Moore, O.Cart., M.D., says, one who really carries out the renunciation called for by St. John of the Cross " ... will be fairly confident of one thing: he will never suffer mental shipwreck in the storm of life."38
Now to add just a few observations. First of all, we must remember that attachments and disordered desires and pleasures easily develop even in the legitimate use of creatures' even in our work. For whenever we have enjoyable dealings with creatures, we tend to develop a desire for more of the same stimulation. This is a psychological law. The fact that we act with a good intention does not cancel out this danger. Hence St. Francis de Sales says:
We must be realistic about this matter of detachment. It is idle to tell ourselves that we are detached from creatures and their pleasures if we renounce hardly any of them. It is not enough to say: "I am detached from them." If one really is, he will actually give up much; the extent will depend on the circumstances of his whole life situation.
We easily become preoccupied even with things that are good, for our motives tend to be complex. A man may assure himself, for example, that he is doing some work purely for the glory of God, but a large part of the driving force may really be a certain pride that he takes in accomplishment, a self-satisfaction. Then there arises great eagerness or perhaps impetuosity in action- tendencies not under the influence of grace, and consequently at least imperfect.40 A similar merely natural (i.e., unsanctified) eagerness may dominate our legitimate recreation.41 We may think we are using recreation as a means to go to God. But we easily deceive ourselves, and our "good faith" will not prevent some harm from being done. As Thomas Merton says, "The laws of human psychology are not suspended by formalistic acts of pure intention."42 We should also remember that although we may have begun an action with a really pure intention, we can easily slip into a merely natural behavior during the course of the act.43
In mortification itself we need to watch our motives, for a certain secret pride can easily enter, in which we are driven, at least to some extent, by the desire to show ourselves that we are generous, or that we are not soft. It would be a mistake, however, to curtail mortification to little or nothing out of fear of some open or hidden pride.44 As a defense against such pride, we will call on the help of our Mother Mary. She will teach us how little of any good work is really ours, that when we have done all these things, we are still unprofitable servants. Furthermore, we must realize that our mortifications, to have really great value, must be offered to the Eternal Father in union with the immense, priceless sufferings of Jesus and His blessed Mother. It is on such values that we rest our trust, rather than on our own trifling efforts.
Finally, we must remind ourselves again that all these things have to be done in accord with the general law of gradual progress.45
An ungenerous soul will be inclined to measure too carefully: it will often be puzzled as to how far to go. For it has many strong pulls and attachments that distract it so that it cannot readily hear the voice of the inspirations that Mary will obtain for it But a generous soul is less inclined to measure. It approaches more nearly to what St. Louis de Montfort calls Mary's "universal mortification,"46 by which she, with her Divine Son, could say: "My meat is to do the will of him that sent me."47 In ungenerous souls there is an attraction of creatures that pulls them constantly downward: in Mary, however, the love of God drew her ever upward, until one day it carried off her soul to God, so that now, where her treasure is, there is her heart also.48
A note on the mortifications of St. Thérèse
The "little way" of St. Thérèse is sometimes so presented as to leave the impression that little if any self-imposed mortification is necessary. It is true that we find quite a contrast between her life and the giant works of some other saints. Actually there is no contradiction here: all mortification must be so carried out as to serve the four purposes outlined above, paying special attention to counsels of St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales on uprooting desires and attachments. St. Thérèse accomplished this to a heroic degree by denying herself in everything. She could say in all truth, "God will do all I wish in Heaven, because I have never done my own will on earth."49 This suppression of desire and attachment is a great mortification, and largely self-imposed. But she also took on much additional mortification. And we must not forger the great austerities that were a normal part of the Carmelite rule under which she lived. Anyone attempting to follow exactly in her footsteps would not find a path of thornless roses. The "little way" is a work of spiritual genius, but it must be properly understood.50