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The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 20: How to Follow the Corss"


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The material of the last chapter, if we meditate deeply on it, will lead us to want to take up our cross and follow Him, and to join in the sufferings of Our Lady too. But the next question is: How does one carry this out.

First we need to notice that there are two great categories of mortification: self-imposed, and providential.

Providential mortification is that which God sends or permits to come to us; clearly, we should make best use of it, joining in His will for us. Self-imposed mortification is that which we voluntarily and freely take upon ourselves.

At once the proponents of an unfortunate new tendency in spirituality will object that while providential mortification is good, since sent by God, self-imposed mortification is not good. In fact, some forms of giving up things are even harmful, and obedience prevents our making the decisions needed for spiritual maturing.1 (This movement does not often get a name, though it is all around us. We will follow the current penchant for alphabetic names, and invent the name: Give-up-nothing spirituality, abbreviated GUN.)

They reach this conclusion by noticing-a thing confirmed by Vatican II, in section 7 of its Decree on the Lay Apostolate-that all creatures of God are good for three reasons: (1) God made them good, and after creating each thing said: It is good; (2) Creatures are all destined for the use of humans: we are the peak of visibile creation; (3) Christ in the Incarnation took on a created nature, and used created things-hence a tremendous added dignity for creatures.

Now it is true that all creatures have this threefold dignity or goodness.2 It is true that Vatican II affirmed this. But we need to notice a large leap made by the GUN Spirituality advocates. They say, in effect: Since all creatures are so good, therefore there is no value in giving up any of them. Instead, they lead us to God, showing us His perfections.

It is, as we said, a very large leap to go from the goodness of creatures to saying there is no value in giving up anything voluntarily. Vatican II did not make that leap. Instead, as we saw in chapter 19, it said that the three evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience, "contribute not a little to purification of heart and spiritual freedom, they constantly stir up the fervor of love."3 These things, poverty, chastity and obedience, are of course, three great ways of giving up creatures. Hence the GUN Spirituality is sadly in error. Further, it does not seem to understand what we saw in chapter 19 about the effects of the pulls of creatures. Even if they are good, even if they can, if carefully used, lead us to God, yet they can be like the thorns in the parable of the sower (they stood for the riches and pleasures of this life, so there were two aspects, one good, one harmful).

In passing, we notice that to practice the GUN Spirituality can be devastating in two respects. First, it can readily lead to marriage failures, or even invalid marriages. Marriage is not just a grand round of sexual indulgence: it requires much give and take (recall what we said in chapter 16). A person who has lived all his/her life up to the day of marriage without giving up anything, is in no condition for such give and take. Really, since marriage by nature must be a permanent commitment, and since a self-indulgent person is not really capable of something permanent that requires self-sacrifice, there may be no marriage at all; in extreme cases, it might simply be invalid from the start. In any case, clearly, it will not have much chance of success.

The same damage appears in vocations. Imagine a young person considering any form of priesthood or religious life. If properly lived, these involve much giving up of things. But then the same person comes to believe, with the GUN Spirituality: It does me no good to give up anything. Who would be such a fool as pursue such a vocation? And if when already in a convent, for example, a nun comes to believe this error, she will, logically, either leave, as thousands have done in recent years, or will try to revamp her institute to match the GUN Spirituality-no inexpensive habit (poverty is useless), no obedience (so have only a president, not a superior), and so on.

In addition, one who practices the GUN Spirituality cannot be very happy. For only the really mature can be happy. But one who lives on the principle of self-indulgence, never giving up anything, does not mature. As we saw in chapter 16, even the pagan Socrates knew this: Over and over again he said that one who wishes to find truth should have as little as possible to do with the things of the body. And, as I have already observed elsewhere, pagan Romans as a whole, up to about 265 B.C. held to and really lived out an ideal of frugalitas, sparingness, in their mode of life. They thought-rightly-that they were happier that way.4 We think again of the wise words of St. Augustine: "Every disordered soul is its own penalty."5

Clearly self-imposed mortification is strictly essential, nor can it be made up for by just being "nice" to people, on the grounds that charity is the greatest of all virtues. As we saw in chapter 19, just as we cannot eat only one food element and omit the rest, so neither can we omit negative mortification, self-imposed.

St. Paul understood this well. Even though he had a great abundance of providential hardships in his work, yet he added fasting, as we learn from his recital in 2 Cor 11:27.

There are in general two types of self-imposed mortification, which we might call the great way and the little way. In the great way, one takes on physically very difficult things, even the use of a discipline. These things, used with prudence (in practice the help of a sound director is indispensable for this), can be very good. Even Pope John XXIII, who is often thought of as cutting out restraints, and opening windows, and is considered a pleasant companion with whom to drink beer of an evening, yet wrote some strenuous words in his Encyclical on the Curé of Ars. St. John Vianney had heard a fellow priest complain of the slight effectiveness of his ministry. The Curé, as quoted by the Pope, replied: "You have prayed, you have wept, you have groaned, you have sighed. But have you fasted, have you stayed awake, have you slept on the hard floor, have you given yourself the discipline? So long as you have not reached that point there, do not think you have done everything." The Pope commented:

We turn to all priests who have charge of souls and we beg them to hear these strong words. May everyone, according to the supernatural prudence that must always guide our actions, appreciate his proper conduct with regard to the people entrusted to his pastoral solicitude.6

The little way has its chief exponent in St. Thérèse of Lisieux-her autobiography lets us see into her way of life almost as if she were living in a goldfish bowl. She preferred little things, e.g., if a letter came from home in the morning, she would not open it until evening. If she liked a certain kind of food, she might at times eat something else instead. When well-meaning Sisters served her dishes they thought she would enjoy, but which she actually disliked, she would not let them know the truth about her tastes.7 And we must not forget that St. Thérèse had as a base to which she added all these little things the hard life of a Discalced Carmelite. These things, provided one uses prudence so as not to generate too much stress by the very accumulation, can be of wonderful spiritual value.

Here again, the help of a good spiritual director is priceless. On the other hand, we could notice that some are excessively concerned about effects on health. St. Teresa of Avila makes the sage observation: "This body of ours has one fault: the more you indulge it, the more ailments and needs it discovers." And with delightful humor she also says: "We begin to imagine that our head aches when we should go to choir-which would not kill us-[we skip] one day because it does ache, and another because it has ached and three more so it won't ache."8

Routine life offers us many an occasion for accepting mortifications that come our way without being sought: discomforts that we meet from crowded trains or busses, or late planes, or having to submit humbly to an irritable boss. Doctors or nurses may have to put up with unpleasant or even repulsive patients. Clerks in stores must deal with customers who at times can be unreasonable-yet it is an axiom for successful business people to act as though the customer is always right. Students may have to put up with boring teachers; professors put up with so many students who pay no attention at all in class. Assembly-line workers have to endure a monotony more suited to machines than to humans. Marriage partners may suffer much from the normal differences of male and female psychology, or from positively unreasonable wishes of the spouse-not to mention the troubles with children of various ages. Or, suppose a friend drops in in the middle of our favorite TV program. Will we perform a mortification worthy of the Fathers of the desert, or tell him to watch along with us, when he has not seen the needed earlier parts of the program? And the list could go on almost without end.

We might note that some seem to find it easier or more agreeable to take large difficulties than to take small hardships. There is a subtle danger here. One might find himself feeling heroic from doing large things. Without such an appeal to vanity, he might not be much inclined to accept the small things.

One can, for certain, take without risk a one-a-day spiritual vitamin. That is, we can all do one or two of these little things per day. This should harm no normal person. But to go very far calls for the advice of a prudent spiritual director.

Even the followers of the GUN spirituality often agree that we should accept, even gladly, from the hand of God, whatever hardships and sufferings He either sends or permits to come to us. Since they are as it were handpicked by Him, they are good in general, and good for us in particular.

We thought earlier about conformity of our will with the will of God, and noticed that since the only thing free in me is my will, if I could make that totally aligned with the will of God, that would be all that is possible. We noted too that we cannot achieve this perfect conformity by just one prayer of resignation to His will, however sincere we might try to be. No, we cannot foresee all He may ask of us in the rest of our lives; and there is need for gradual development of somatic resonance, which we explained in chapter 16.

Providential mortification is really the chief concrete application of this conformity of will, in which we accept His will even when it is hard to do so, and are prepared in advance to accept whatever He may send or permit to come to us.

There are different levels of acceptance. First, one would merely refrain from complaining against the things God sends. But the fullest acceptance means positively being glad to have the suffering, as it were, embracing it. In passing, let us notice that to embrace the hardship is the opposite of the attempt to fly away from reality-a thing not only spiritually bad, but psychologically unsound as well. So this acceptance is, as we would expect, beneficial to us psychologically, and makes for happiness, for that deep peace on the "point of the soul" of which we spoke in chapter 17. In fact, St. John of the Cross says one cannot really enjoy even creatures unless he is detached from them: "One will find greater joy and refreshment from creatures in being detached from them."9

In what sense can we positively embrace suffering? We do not think suffering is good in itself, but we like its effects: it makes us more like our Savior; it pleases our Father because it makes us more open to His gifts, which His Generosity loves to give; it makes reparation for our sins and the sins of others, so that they and we may also in this way be more open to receive what He loves to give.

The noted scholar J. Bonsirven reports a remarkable instance of this attitude among ancient Jews: "If a righteous person is afflicted, sufferings are called 'corrections of love,' and they are gladly accepted. Some men are even sad if such sufferings are absent for a prolonged time."10

There are two areas in acceptance or aligment of will: first, in the things where His will is already clear; second in the area in which His will is still at least partly not known to us.

Where His will is clearly known, of course we should not be just passive, but should actively embrace what He sends, in union with His Divine Son. It is, of course, clearly known when a suffering or difficulty is already at hand. Then there can be no doubt that He has either sent or permitted it. This does not mean we may not or should not take ordinary remedies against illness or other things. We should use at least ordinary means. but when we have used these, and some hardship or suffering is left, then we do know it is the will of the Father for us, at least for a time. (Note that this does not rule out the possibility of, for example, a miraculous healing at some point, for God may also wish to use an infirmity or other difficulty to show forth His glory-which is also for our benefit.)

A special comment is needed on anxiety, so common today. Deep trust in the Father can do much to alleviate it, yet it cannot do everything. (The basis of much of it is biochemical as we saw in chapter 16.) Should we think it is just a loss? Not at all. We need to remember, as we saw in chapter 8, that Jesus Himself suffered from anxiety, looking forward all His life to the terrible ordeal He would have to undergo. So we should accept even anxiety, and offer the suffering to our Father.

But His will in many things is not yet clear, or not entirely clear. What then? We cannot actively will what we do not yet know; rather, our attitude is one of plasticity, being ready to accept whatever He may send, as soon as, and to the extent that, it becomes clear.

Suppose, for example, someone were given an assignment by lawful authority to take up a collection for some great charity. If it is commanded by authority, it is clear that our Father wills him/her to start out and work diligently. But will such a labor always bear maximum fruit? Not at all. So even though we know in general that a good work is His will, yet we may not know just what degree of success He wills us to have, at what time, by what means. In all these aspects, we remain pliable, waiting for His will to appear.

How acquire such plasticity? By cutting down the strength of the outside pulls of which we spoke earlier. They prevent us from registering the most delicate impulses sent by the Holy Spirit. This is done, of course, especially by self-imposed mortification, by giving up some things we might otherwise have lawfully had.

Especially we need at this point mortification of our desires. St. John of the Cross considers this more important than even great penitential practices:

We must greatly deplore the ignorance of some who burden themselves with extraordinary penances and other voluntary practices and think that this or that will be enough to bring them to union with Divine Wisdom. That will not happen, if they do not take great care to mortify their desires. If they spent half the effort on it [mortification of desires] they would make more progress in one month than by all the other exercises in many years.11

St. John does not mean that we should not desire the glory of God and our salvation and that of neighbor. Of course we should. But as we said above, by what means and at what time, and to what extent these things are to bear fruit-on these matters we need the plasticity we spoke of, or lack of specific desire. St. Francis de Sales compares souls that are full of desires to a hunting dog in the spring. There are so many scents that the dog can hardly find the game: "Those souls that always are full of desires, designs, and projects never desire holy heavenly love as they should, and they fail to pick up the delightful strain and scent of the Divine Beloved."12

So one reason why it is so important to mortify desires is obvious: ideally, we should actively want things only to the extent that the will of our Father is clearly willing them. Beyond that, we may be in discord with His will.

But furthermore, desires cause us to stretch ahead, and thereby to leave aside the goodness of things present. Creatures, well used, can be a means to spiritual growth. We already mentioned that St. Francis of Assisi found occasion to praise our Father for His delicate kindness in giving us such lovely creatures as birds. Similarly, we should thank our Father for the favor of His inspiration to great composers or other artists, for the beauty they put before us, which is simply too lofty for mere unaided human ability to generate.13

However, in using creatures to help us praise God, we need to watch out that they do not hold us onto themselves so strongly as to cause any hindrance to the ascent of our minds and hearts to God. There are two classic, and obvious, principles about music at Mass that show this point well: (1) The music should lift us above the everyday level(so, music designed to appeal precisely at this level lacks the needed value. It can be tolerated temporarily, while we try to raise people's spiritual level); (2) It should not hold us so strongly as to impede the rise of our minds and hearts to God. It is only a stepping stone, not a stopping place.14

However, when the good things are not yet present, they do not give the same opportunity. Then we leave aside what good is at hand, and emptily push to a future that is not yet to be had. This straining ahead is especially harmful when it leads us to hurry Mass or prayers, as we have seen.

Should we positively ask God to send us sufferings, as a means of likeness to Jesus and His Blessed Mother? He Himself on entering into this world said (Heb. 10:7): "Behold, I come to do your will O God." He did not positively ask for such great suffering; but He accepted it. Similarly in Gethsemani He prayed (Lk 22: 42): "Father, if you are willing, take this chalice away from me; however, let not my will but yours be done." In the same way, His mother, when the angel asked her to be the Mother of the Redeemer, simply said: "Be it done to me according to your word." She knew, as we explained earlier, much of what that would entail. She did not ask for that suffering, but she accepted. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is reported to have said on August 11, 1897: "I would never ask God for greater sufferings for then they would be my own sufferings, and I should have to bear them all alone."15 (She said this less than three weeks before her death, which came on Sept. 30, 1897.)

What do we gather from this? First, it is one thing to desire suffering; another thing to rejoice in it when God has actually sent it, as a means of greater likeness to His Divine Son, and union with His Blessed Mother. What of asking for suffering? We may do so in a general way, with, of course the provision: If it pleases our Father. But we should not be specific, asking for a particular suffering at a particular time. For we do not know if that would please Him.

Yet there is something we can do to come more close to actively willing what He wills on this point. Our Blessed Mother knows-even though we do not know-what it might please Him to have us offer at a given time. So we could if we wished give her, as it were, a power of attorney, saying in effect: "I do not know what specific offering it might please Him that I should make at this moment. But you know. Therefore, I appoint you to speak in my name. Please speak for me." If we once make this offering, give her this authority, we should never retract it. Rather, it is good to renew it, particularly at times when things are difficult: "Mother, please speak for me."16

Certainly if we want our mortifications to have value and to be profitable, we should join them with the sufferings of Jesus and His Mother. Alone we are nothing. but if we ask her to come and add her dispositions to ours, and join all to those of her Divine Son, then what we do is supremely worthwhile.


1 The problem of obedience vs. decision making comes only at one age, about the teen age period. Even then, there are so many decisions to make that one can cultivate both values, since obedience will not take in everything.
2 Vatican II speaks on the absolute scale of creatures in themselves; one can also speak, as St. Paul does in Phil 3:8 on the relative scale, comparing creatures now with the things of eternity.
3 Vatican II, On the Church #46. Cf. also On Missions #40, where the Council praises the institutes of contemplative life which go so far in giving up so many things.
4 Cf. also note 17 on chapter 16, and notes 12, 13, 14 on chapter 19.
5 St. Augustine, Confessions 1.12. PL32.670.
6 John XXIII, Sacerdotii nostri primordia, August 1, 1959. AAS 51.569.
7 Cf. St. Thérèse, By Those Who Knew Her (testimonies at process of beatification) ed. C. O'Mahony, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, 1975, esp. pp. 64, 67, 31, 33, 37, 38, 49, 51.
8 St. Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection 11.2 & 10.6, BAC edition pp.110, 108. When we judge how much we are giving up, it is useful to compare our living to that of even ancient kings and emperors, whose material comforts were much less than even people considered rather poor in the U.S. today have: no cars, no electric fans, no air conditioning, no TV, no radio, no screens on windows, no central heating, etc.
9 St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel 3.20.2. BAC ed. p. 758.
10 J. Bonsirven, Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Christ, tr. W. Wolf, McGraw-Hill, NY, 1964, p. 115. Bonsirven refers to Mekilta on Exodus 20:23, which he says is "reporting a generally accepted doctrine." Cf. Genesis Rabbah 32 (on 7:1) cited in J. Neusner, Midrash in Context, Fortress, Philadelphia, 1983, p. 155.
11 St. John of the Cross, Ascent 1.8.4. BAC ed. p. 582.
12 St. Francis de Sales, Traitté de l'Amour de Dieu 12.3. Oeuvres, Nierat, Annecy 1894. Let us note that it is specially good to aim mortifications at those particular desires to which we seem specially attached.
13 Cf. comments on natural inspiration at the end of chapter 23.
14 Cf. Pius XII, Encyclical on Music, in The Pope Speaks 3, 1956, p.13.
15 Novissima Verba. The Last Conversations and Confidences of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, tr. Carmelite Nuns of New York, Kenedy, N.Y., 1951. p. 96.
16 For a somewhat similar attitude, cf. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Her Last Conversations, tr. J. Clarke, ICS Publications, Washington. Cited from Our Lady's Digest, Sept-Oct. 1978. p.40; "Asking the Blessed Virgin for something is not the same thing as asking God. She really knows what is to be done about my little desires, whether or not she must speak about them to God. So it's up to her to see that God is not forced to answer me, to allow Him to do everything He pleases."

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