Circular Letter: Lent 1998
Growth Beyond the Beginnings
Signs of Spiritual Growth
Lent is a time of spiritual growth in Christ, even if it initially appears to be a dying (mortification) of self. We seek to decrease so that Christ’s life may increase within us. To this end we need to know what must be cut away. This knowledge implies that we also recognize those qualities of soul that should be preserved and further nurtured.
Paradoxically, while we should spend little time thinking about ourselves, it would be advantageous to know a considerable deal about ourselves – not only about our faults, but also about the virtues God has planted in our soul, for surely, one of the best forms of ‘weed control’ is the cultivation of fruitful plants. Since evil is the privation of the good, it can only be overcome by the implantation and increase of good (virtues) in the soul. Moreover, when we perceive this divine goodness in our soul, we are moved to gratitude and still greater efforts.
Accordingly, it can be useful to know which traits of soul offer the best hopes for spiritual growth. There are many good works and even penances that we might perform. Which of these would be the most fruitful? Many of the phenomena of the spiritual life are too transitory to base any solid judgment upon them,… like consolations. Others are most equivocal, like aridity. Upon what may an individual base such a self-appraisal?
Here, we want to discuss several encouraging signs of spiritual growth for souls who have made it through the first conversion from sin, and have advanced, for the most part, beyond the consolations of spiritual infancy. Such souls have been making more or less valiant efforts to practice virtue. And now, with uncertain results, they are not quite sure where they stand. Fr. Frederick Faber depicts their struggle for virtue in Growth in Holiness: they find themselves ankle deep in sand, heading uphill on their way across the desert. Fr. Thomas Green tells the plight of their prayer life in the very title to his book: When the Well Runs Dry .
After a zealous beginning, every soul is led out into the desert of trials and aridity. Aridity comes not only as a chastisement for tepidity, but also as a trial to God’s faithful friends, as He is solicitous for their rapid spiritual growth. Misunderstanding the cause of this aridity, some souls become discouraged and despair of ever arriving at a profound intimate union with our Lord in this life. Some lack tenacity and begin to make compromises that demote them quickly into the ranks of mediocrity. Others simply turn back to the consolations of the world. More generous souls, erringly assuming that they have done something wrong, turn back in search of lost, past consolations, and so too fail to progress to union.
Some clarity of spiritual doctrine would certainly be beneficial to these souls, so that they could stay on course. Fr. Faber suggests five spiritual signs, which indicate spiritual health of soul. To verify even one in us is good; and the more, the better. These signs are standards that can be pursued. Each one manifests the interest of the holy Guardian Angels, who long to lead us to God.
1. The first sign souls may look for is the humble discontent with one’s present state. The soul perceives that perfection is something great and noble, and that it is attainable. This is surely an effect of divine grace in the soul, provided that this assurance is marked by a lowly estimation of one’s own worth and virtue and that this knowledge does not deprive the soul of its inner light and tranquility. With St. Michael the soul realizes that what is impossible to the creature is still possible for God: “Who is like God!”. And with St. Paul, it is confident that it can accomplish all things with the grace of God. Contrarily, any knowledge of our impotence which causes sadness and disquiet is to be reckoned a temptation from the devil.
2. The will to make new beginnings is the second sign. Is this not a trademark of the holy Guardian Angels, who in their great fidelity and trust in God never allow themselves to become discouraged by the falls of their protegés, but are constantly seeking new means and graces to draw them to God? In this vein, St. Anthony of the Desert made this his rule of life for over 80 years: each day he resolved anew: Today I will begin to serve God as He deserves. He was never willing to rest upon past laurels, as if he had already done enough for God. St. Paul presents this ideal in the letter to the Philippians where he writes: “I do not consider that I have laid hold of [perfection] already. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind, I strain forward to what is before, I press on towards the goal, to the prize of God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus” (3,13-14).
Note, that this resolve to be making fresh beginnings is marked by the constancy of pursuing the same goal along the same path. How distinct it is from that kind of spiritual fickleness common to sensual souls who wish to dabble and savor new paths; their ‘virtue’ lasts only as long as the initial consolations, which are really only the pleasure that curiosity and self-love find in new things.
3. The pursuit of definite, clear-cut goals is the third sign of spiritual vitality. This manifests itself in their practice of virtue and circumspection; these make clear, practical resolutions that can be carried out and easily verified. Their examinations of conscience are specific and to the point. St. Anthony Mary Claret examined himself, in this fashion, twice daily for 17 years on the fine points of the practice of humility.
The desire for holiness — a good in itself — must be coupled with a generous will to work with grace. God wills that our crown be, at once, His gift of grace and the fruit of our collaboration. We can see this in the example of Tobias who, indeed, was accompanied, counseled and helped by St. Raphael, but who also had to cooperate actively towards the success of their journey.
4. A strong feeling in our mind that God wants something particular of us is a fourth sign. What St. Francis de Sales affirms about the call to the evangelical perfection of poverty, chastity and obedience, applies also to the universal call to holiness: it pertains to the very proclamation of the gospel. Every call to holiness is a call to follow and imitate Christ, not only as a general principle but also in a particular way. Thus, sincere souls express their docility also by imitating Christ in the little virtues. In their concern for the glory of Christ, they are well disposed to the light and guidance from their Guardian Angel and are, at the same time, protected against deceptions from the false angel of light. The latter’s insinuations ultimately are aimed at self-exaltation, whereas the light of the holy Angels would lead us to follow Christ Who emptied Himself and was obedient in all things.
Vanity also inclines souls to something particular, yes, to greatness. But even when this ideal is called ‘holiness’, it is worldly, and vain souls are easily deceived by such appearances of piety and holiness. Only perfect obedience and docility to the Church guard the soul against every deception, as Jesus taught St. Margaret Mary. Indeed, all the saints have generously lived this doctrine of the Church.
5. Finally, since particular goals are always ordered to a final goal, it follows that souls striving for perfection are increasingly animated by a desire for holiness in order to glorify God all the more. In this longing the souls are closely associated with the Angels and saints in heaven in their unceasing song of praise (cf. Apoc 4,8). Such souls, in their yearning to please God in everything, are detached from all things. This longing helps them to assimilate with equanimity the good and the bad that comes their way in life, since all things serve the good of those who love God. It was this desire which strengthened Job against the devil’s machinations and secured for him such a great reward.
Purity of Heart
Now, which of these points could best advance the spiritual cause of the soul towards union with God? “The first means,… the shortest and most secure means for acquiring perfection,” affirms Fr. Louis Lallement (1635), “is the practice of purity of heart”. This is to be preferred over the practice of the moral virtues (without, of course neglecting them) because “God is ready to grant us every possible grace, provided that we place no impediment in their way. By purifying our heart, we cut away that which hinders the working of God in the soul. It is unbelievable, namely, what spiritual effects God produces in the soul, once the hindrances have been removed.” St. Ignatius claimed that even the saints occasionally resisted the workings of God in their soul.
Why is purity of intention paramount in the spiritual life? Quite simply because purity of intention is nothing other than charity that directs and refers “all that we do or suffer to the love and glory of God, which is the most necessary condition” in all our labors. “For God rewards no deeds but such as are done purely for His sake. So that whatsoever other end we propose which is not subordinate to this makes the action so far unacceptable to Him” (Fr. A. Baker, OSB 1641).
Failure to practice vigilance and purity of heart lets devout souls quickly fall prey to vainglory, “the proper enemy of souls consecrated to God, who are dedicated to the spiritual life. Hence, it is well called the (destructive) moth of souls striving for perfection” (P. Pio). He goes on to say, “This vice is all the more terrifying inasmuch as it has no contrary virtue to combat it. In fact, every vice has its remedy and its contrary virtue. Wrath is subdued by meekness; envy, by charity; pride, by humility, etc. Vainglory alone has no contrary virtue to combat it. It insinuates itself into the holiest of acts; indeed, it is even shameless enough to set up its tent in the midst of humility!” (Epistolario I. Letter 141).
St. John Chrysostom writes: “Whatever good you do, desiring to constrain vainglory, you only excite it the more!” And why? He explains: “Because every (other) evil is born of evil, vainglory alone proceeds from the good. Therefore it is not extinguished by the good, but is nourished the more by it.”
P. Pio continues: “All the other vices exercise dominion over those who allow themselves to be conquered and dominated by them, but vainglory raises its head against those who combat and conquer it. It takes heart in assaulting its adversaries with the very victories they have won against her. Vainglory is an enemy which never retires, but battles us in all our actions, and if one is not alert, one falls a victim to it.”
St. Jerome fittingly compares vainglory to the body’s shadow. It is always present, and the stronger the light, the stronger it becomes. Once it penetrates the mind and heart it ravishes and corrupts every virtue and holiness. It is a spiritual adversary truly to be feared, one that is overcome less by direct combat, than by great vigilance and purity of heart. Pure love and humility of heart alone can gain victory over it, not by dint of their own efforts, but by unceasing prayer and petition. As St. Paul writes: “Who will deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 7,24-25). It is by humbly asking this grace, that we shall gain the grace and victory of pure charity. “Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn 14,13). If we persevere we shall surely be heard.
While the struggle against vainglory is the most difficult in the spiritual life, it remains one that can and should be taken up from the very beginning. No one is too small to wield the weapon of humility! The reward is the perfect assimilation of the soul to Christ; for it places no resistance to His transforming love. And so in the divine justice, the soul that sought no glory for itself shall share fully in the joy and glory of its Lord and Beloved.
Here too the holy Angels are encouraging models: Consider their hidden, selfless service to God and souls. How great is their ‘purity of heart’! They are pure mirrors reflecting the Divine Majesty. After all his services St. Raphael referred all glory to God: “Praise the Lord and give Him thanks…for what He has done for you. It is good to praise God and exalt His name” (Tob 12,6).
Making Room at the Table
“The Angel who saved my Marriage”. c1.
In our intensely Catholic home in Indiana, Angels were members of the family. My Italian grandmother always set an extra place for our Guardian Angel on feast days. On our birthdays, we six children set the place ourselves. Grandma said it was a way to thank the Angel and to ask for help in the coming year.
I mean we really believed in Angels. In school the nuns taught us about them. At Mass, we let our Guardian Angel into the pew first. One of the earliest prayers I learned was “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”
Otherwise, my childhood was ordinary until I was fourteen. That year, my favorite brother, Frank, who was eight, began to tire and bruise easily. To cheer him up, I taught him how to ride my bike. Before long, though, he couldn’t even push the pedals and was in the hospital more often than not. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had leukemia.
One day my parents came home from the hospital crying. The pastor who was with them told us that Frank’s Angel had taken him to heaven. I was so sick at heart that I just cried and cried. Our grandmother was so distraught that she forgot her English and reverted back to Italian.
As soon as I dried my tears, a terrible anger began to grow in me like a piece of metal turning red, orange, yellow and finally white hot.”Why didn’t my parents tell me Frank was going to die?” I silently screamed. “And how could his Angel have allowed it?” I hated Frank’s Angel. What a stupid thing to believe in.
My anger didn’t go away. That summer, I lashed out at everyone and even lost my best friend after beating him up. My father got me a punching bag, which I demolished in a week. When my grandmother tried to tell me about Angels, I turned away. When my birthday came that fall, I didn’t set an extra place.
Frank’s death triggered an uncontrollable rage in me against anything that failed to reach perfection. I became obsessed with achieving all I could as fast as possible. In high school, I took out my aggression in football and wrestling, and became the best athlete on the teams. I studied just as compulsively, graduating third in my class with a scholarship to the state university.
I got a summer sales job and was working seven days a week from morning to night. Then I met Marie. She came to the door to hear my passionate spiel about the gadgets I was selling, and as soon as I looked into her pretty round face and big brown eyes, I was in love. I proposed to her on the spot. She laughed, but two years later we were married.
With marriage, school and a part-time job, my pent-up energy found a positive outlet. After college my anger continued to burn. I worked for an import-export business and literally lived in my office for days on end. When I came home, I was too tired to pay any attention to Marie and our three children. By the time I was thirty, I was vice-president.
One Easter weekend, Marie came into the den where I was working late. “Jack, I’m leaving you. I think I want a divorce.” She explained that our marriage was a disaster, with a husband who shut her out of his life entirely. “I’ve already taken the kids to Mother’s and I’m going to join them. It’s up to you whether we come back.” Then she walked out of the house.
I was so shocked I couldn’t speak. It was like my brother dying all over again, and once more I didn’t know until it was too late. I started opening cabinets and smashing everything in sight against the wall. “How could she do this to me?” I raged as bottles and utensils went flying.
The final cabinet had a stack of dishes I had used as a child. The sight of them brought back memories of my brother that made me want to cry. I set them on the kitchen table and threw them one by one at the sink. But when I came to the last dish, I couldn’t pick it up. It was stuck to the table. I used both hands, but still couldn’t pry it up.
I stood there panting and sweating, my hands bleeding from a glass I’d smashed. Suddenly, I heard a voice echo around me. “Jack, make room for me at the table.”
It was kind and compassionate and sounded most sweet and gentle; I felt a shiver of fear run through me. I sat down and cried until my head pounded and I couldn’t cry any more. When I finally got up to wash my face, I noticed the kitchen was in shambles. As I looked at that one remaining dinner plate, I heard the voice again, the most beautiful voice, smooth like a soprano singing softly.
“Who are you?” I gasped.”You know me, Jack,” it replied. “Make room for me at your table.” Numb as I felt, I finally knew whose voice it was. This time I was able to pick up the plate without any problem, and I set it at the end where I usually sat. I placed a knife, fork and spoon around it, added a napkin and an aluminum drinking cup that had survived my rage and pushed a chair in place.
As I sat looking at the place setting, I felt the most incredible peace I had ever known. Then I bowed my head and said the prayer I had learned with my brother: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, …”
When I finished, I talked nonstop to the Angel about my life for a good hour. I can’t pretend I saw him across the table, but I felt my Angel’s presence just as I had heard him speak to me. And he was telling me now that my anger was gone, I could finally change my life.
The sky was beginning to lighten when I heard the sound of a key in the lock. It was Marie. She surveyed the kitchen in horror. Then she threw her arms around me. “I couldn’t sleep,” she cried. “It was as if I heard a voice saying over and over, ‘Jack needs you, Marie.’ So I came.” Marie washed and bandaged my hands, then put me to bed without saying another word.
Marie spent hours cleaning up before I awoke. As I started to apologize, she shook her head. “Just tell me,” she said, “Why did you break everything in the kitchen, and then go to the trouble of setting the table?” When I finished my story, she looked thoughtful. “Somehow you are different, Jack,” she commented. “The tension is gone.”
“Marie, I hope this doesn’t seem silly,” I began, “But I want to keep that place setting on the table forever. If my Angel hadn’t come last night, I don’t know what I might have done. I want to keep reminding myself of something I knew when I was a kid but forgot.”
That strange night was two decades ago, but its effects have stayed with me. Marie and I took the first vacation since our honeymoon and began to rebuild our marriage. In 1992, we celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. Our three children have families of their own, so we now have six grandchildren on earth and one waiting for us in heaven. I left my job to start my own business and found pleasure, instead of compulsion, in work again.
And each night, I still set out the old plate and dented aluminum cup, the silverware and napkin. They are a pledge to my Guardian Angel, and to God who sent him, that he will always be welcome at my table.
(This version was condensed by James Dibello for an article in Catholic Digest in 1992 or 1993. Very slight editing has taken place.)
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