Circular Letter: Lent 1993

The Asceticism of Love

Lent is upon us, and we feel, perchance, a certain malaise of conscience, knowing full well that we ought to do something along penitential lines, yet scarcely knowing where or how to begin. Mortifications in terms of food and television would certainly do us no harm,… indeed, these would evidently do us good,… but it is by no means clear that the secret to our personal approach and union with our Lord in faith is properly addressed and resolved by such exterior measures.

St. Jerome tells of the desert hermit whom he knew personally who lived on a diet of 5 dried figs a day for upwards of 14 years. That was the era of untold feats of asceticism,… fastings, penances, scourgings, vigils and incredible endurances. St. Severin, for instance, went perpetually barefoot, despite the harsh Austrian winters. The “Apotegmata,” the Accounts of the Desert Fathers, prophetically foresaw that “not even the next generation will be able to sustain such rigors, and the men at the end of times will be utterly incapable of fasting,…. However, if they should persevere through the trials and temptations of that hour, they shall be reckoned greater than us in heaven.”

In the Middle Ages Blessed Henry Suso similarly subjected himself to such heroic penances. Among others he wore upon his back beneath his habit a nail studded cross that reached from the shoulders to the hips. This he carried day and night for over ten years, until his Angel appeared to him and declared: “Now I shall show you a higher path!” And the Angel showed him the path of heroic charity!

We may be incapable of imitating the rigorous fasts and arduous penances of the saints (nor should we think that that was all long ago). Still, with the proffered grace of God we can and ought to pursue the path of heroic charity and may not excuse ourselves from all mortification in the name of our weakness, since “all Christ’s faithful are obliged by Divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance” (Canon Law 1249). Moreover, our Lord has assured us, “My grace comes to perfection in weakness” (2 Cor. 12,9). “Yes, of course,” we may cough rather bluffingly, but the fact remains that we are both afraid and in the dark as to how we should go about any serious mortifications, or advance in the asceticism of love. Fortunately, the saints leave us in addition to their example a clear doctrine of supernatural charity. St. Francis de Sales in his “Treatise on the Love of God” (Bk. XI, ch. 20) offers us an ascetical program that is amenable to all states and degrees of the spiritual life. When we consider the life of Christ and His Mother we verify that Divine charity ennobled and sanctified the exercise of all the passions and affections within their souls. All these faculties have God as their author and are meant to operate in holy and docile obedience to the Love of God that has been infused into our hearts with the Holy Spirit.

Love, notes St. Francis, is the vital principle behind all the motions of the heart. Just as the motion of a pendulum gives movement to all the other parts of the clock, so in the interior life do all the other motions of the soul follow upon the motions of love. It is because we love that we desire, rejoice, hope and take courage. Ultimately it is our love that explains our hate and sadness and so either our despairing capitulation or our militant rise of anger to fight against a sea of troubles and conquer.

Love explains all this. The question is: “What do we love? What do we love most of all?” We are familiar with the expression, “Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are.” This really means: tell me what you love and I will describe the secrets of your heart. There are those who turn their hearts over to sensual love, such that everything they desire and fear, admire and loathe follows upon key of the flesh. The same is true for those who have given their heart to mammon in avarice, or to drugs or drink. They become the slaves of that which they love, and every action is directed towards the acquisition of the base god which they worship. “Where your treasure is, there your heart shall also be” (Mt. 6, 21).

When the Love of God reigns in a heart, it exercises a real but gentle dominion over all the other acts of our will and affections. The stronger this Love of God grows in a soul, the greater and more universal its dominion. Accordingly, the asceticism of charity is simply to bring everything under this holy dominion of charity, of the Holy Spirit, to undertake everything that contributes to the increase of charity, and to abstain from whatever would cause it to decrease. “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again, but it shall become in him a fountain of living water springing up to eternal life” (Jn. 4, 13-14). Wherever the Love of God abounds, affirms St. Francis, never again shall there be any desire, nor fear nor hope nor courage, nor joy except with respect to God.

Should our share in Divine Love fall short of this plenitude, then charity dwells in our hearts alongside self-love, even as Jacob and Esau were mutually present in the womb of Rebecca. They were so contrary and repugnant to one another, causing such convulsions in her womb, explains St. Francis, that she cried out in her travail. Such is the woeful state of the Christian heart still divided in its loves: on the one hand taking delight in the things of God, and on the other desiring the things of the world, as St. Teresa of Avila describes her earlier mode of life. Scripture declares that two nations were fighting it out in Rebecca’s womb, that is, two contrary loves, that of God and that of the world, with all their concomitant passions. In the end, the younger (charity) prevailed, and the older (nature) served the younger (Gen. 25, 22-25).

When, in historical fact, did the older nation serve the younger? Was it not only then when David subjected the Idumeans in battle, and Solomon reigned over them in peace? “And when shall it be that sensual love shall serve Divine Love?” asks St. Francis de Sales. It shall be when love is armed, and being thus made zealous it shall by mortification subdue our passions, and even more so when in heaven above beatified love shall possess our whole souls in peace” (cf. Lk. 11, 21; 21, 19).

Again, the question is: by what process does Divine Love subject sensual love to its dominion? Simply this: whenever Divine Love discerns the generation of any passion or natural affection in us, it takes hold of it immediately and obliges it to enter into its own service. The passions are like children. They are best and most efficaciously educated in their infancy. In this way, instead of turning vicious like unruly children, their energy is channelled into virtue. Whenever we provide a good end for the emotions, they take on the quality of virtues.

Again, let us ask: what is the best method for rendering our unruly affections and the passions docile to the Love of GOD? The medical profession offers two modes of cure: generally speaking “contraries are healed by contraries,” but the homeopathic approach is to “cure like by like,” or more popularly, “to fight fire with fire,” that is to say, some faults may be cured with a remedy that somehow resembles it.

However it may stand with medicine, these principles are applicable to the spiritual life. We can combat the passions with water or fire. For example, should any vain hope or ambition arise, we may resist these with thoughts about the futility and short duration of all human vanities, and what a slavery it is to be subject to material things or the fickle opinion of mankind. Such sober reflections are a cold dousing over the fires of ambition. But we may also resist and overcome them with even greater supernatural ambitions, like St. Ignatius of Loyola who discovered greater joy and glory in becoming a saintly soldier for GOD than in becoming a soldier of worldly fortune. Desires of wealth and fortune, similarly, may be drowned in contempt, or transcended in the pursuit of greater and more lasting treasures, in a more noble and pure love.

Our Lord made use of each method in His spiritual cures. He cured His disciples of worldly fear by impressing in their hearts a supreme fear: “Do not fear those who can destroy the body; rather fear Him Who can cast both body and soul into the fires of hell.” (Mt. 10, 28). And on another occasion, wishing to cure them of a lesser joy, He pointed out a much greater cause for exaltation: “Do not rejoice that the spirits have been made subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names have been inscribed in heaven” (Lk. 10, 20). Likewise, base joys may be reduced to ashes by sober sadness: “Woe to you that now laugh; for you shall weep and mourn” (Lk. 6, 25).

In a similar fashion, Divine Love supplants and subjects the affections and the passions to itself, deterring them from the disordered ends of self-love, and redirecting them into the service of the supernatural goal. The appetite for food, teaches St. Francis, is made “highly spiritual” if we give it a motive of Divine Love before simply gratifying the appetite. Such prayers of grace, in order to be efficacious, must evidently come from the heart, and go beyond rote and routine. Again, suppose I stand in need of a friend’s assistance. Here I can submit myself to Divine providence that has so ordained human society, that we should be mutually dependent upon one another in our daily needs and services, and so thank God for the gift of friendship, and offer it up to His glory.

Applying these examples, we can discover innumerable good things that happen each day, which can be offered up in praise and sacrifice to God. Then all nature serves the glorification of God and the sanctification of our lives.

By the same token, should any evil arise, any cause for fear, we should resist or flee them not simply for natural motives, but rather we should first turn to God interiorly, and so act for His glory and as His instruments. In all things let us first accept and present everything to God, and then proceed reasonably and supernaturally, because it is His will, and not because it is the will of flesh or the mere will of man. In all the many difficulties and circumstances of daily life, it is the Divine will that we meet and to which we may respond if we live in a spirit of faith. In most cases, our Creator and Redeemer has already placed the remedy to our woes within our reach and resources. But be our sufferings remediable or irremediable, it remains His holy will that we sanctify them and be sanctified through them by our submission to His holy providence. In this submission to His holy will is all our peace of heart and soul. “O holy and sacred alchemy,” exclaims St. Francis de Sales, “O Divine potion with which all the metals of our passions, affections and actions are converted into the most pure gold of celestial love!”

This simple, but most efficacious doctrine of St. Francis de Sales is the very lesson taught by the Angel of Portugal to the shepherd children at Fatima. “Make of everything you can a sacrifice of Love,… but above all, accept whatever sufferings the Lord may send you” (2nd Apparition).

“Fear is Useless.

What is Needed is Trust” (Mk. 5, 36)

The author of Hebrews tells us that our Lord assumed our human nature of flesh and blood, so that through death “He might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil, and might deliver them [us!], who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude” (Heb. 2,14-15). All our faculties of body and soul have God as their author, and therefore their good and fitting operations according to both nature and grace.

Fear, which is the dread of being overtaken by evil, naturally energizes us so as to be able to respond quickly and safely to danger, whether by flight or by defense, when allied to anger. Supernaturally, servile fear may withhold us from sin, that is, by fearing Divine judgment and punishment. In another way, St. Paul speaks of a godly fear which leads us not only to abhor our sins, but works the steadfast solicitude and zeal of conversion that effectively leads us back into the peace and friendship of God. On the level of pure love, the Gift of the Fear of the Lord instills our hearts with holy awe and reverence before the majesty of God so that we solicitously desire never to displease Him Whom we love.

Fear, like fire, is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master! The infernal foe exploits it to the utmost to hold sinners in the yoke of slavery, and to terrorize virtuous but timid souls. St. John of the Cross declares that this anxiety may be so great, that many souls never even dare set out upon the real path of perfection. The threat connected with this fear shines through the third temptation of Christ: “All these kingdoms are mine, and I give them to whomever I will,”… that is to say, “if you fail to fall down and worship me, then I shall marshal all these kingdoms up against you!” In daily life, this is simply the threat to withdraw favors, privileges and sympathies unless one continue to fawn and cower out of human respect. Moreover, the enemy will rally up tongues to speak against us. Such peer pressure – particularly among the young – radically reduces the appeal and the desirability of the pursuit of virtue. Throughout all this, the devil manages to keep most of mankind in the shackles of fear, or at least, to badger and hold them back from spiritual greatness.

Whoever, therefore, wishes to make great and rapid progress in the spiritual life, and escape the slings and arrows of the enemy would do well to discern the motions of fear in their life, and reject all those which do not serve the glory of God and the execution of His Divine will. Aside from the few instances mentioned above, fear, according to St. Francis de Sales, is nearly always useless, nearly always directly or indirectly in the service of the enemy. Except to dissuade us from sin and to help us escape imminent danger, the holy Angels do not appeal to fear while addressing a soul. Since it is basically contrary to love, fear naturally tends to focus the soul on some evil and to deter it from the consideration of the good. This is why St. Paul notes that in contradistinction to godly fear, worldly fear produces death (cf. 2 Cor. 7, 10). Such sadness, St. Francis de Sales tells us (ibid. Bk. XI, ch. 21), comes from three causes:

First, it may come “from the infernal enemy, who by a thousand sad, melancholy, gloomy suggestions darkens the understanding, weakens the will, and disturbs the entire soul. Just as a thick mist fills the traveler’s head and chest with mucus, thus making breathing difficult and slowing him up, so too the evil spirit fills man’s mind with sad thoughts and thus deprives it of facility in aspiring to God and put it in extreme dejection in order to lead it into despair and damnation.”

St. Francis proceeds to exemplify this strategy of the enemy in terms of the legendary fish, known to the ancients as the ‘sea devil’ which purportedly stirred up the mud at the bottom of the sea, so as to more easily devour the little fish that got lost in the murky cloud. Whatever may be said about this fish, it remains true that the devil loves to fish in these murky waters that are the effect of fear. “He lays his ambush in sadness; then, having confused the soul with many troublesome thoughts scattered about the mind, he launches his attack on the affections, overwhelms them with distrust, jealousy, dislike, envy, needless concern over past sins, and adds a crowd of empty, bitter and melancholy subtleties, so that we reject every kind of reasonable and consoling thoughts.”

Secondly, sadness may originate in a natural disposition, such as a melancholy disposition. In itself, of course, this is not sinful, but here again unless the soul be on guard, the devil exploits this disposition, plotting and preparing countless temptations for the soul. Just as spiders prefer hazy, overcast days to spin their webs, so does the devil, according St. Francis, prefer to work on and torment downcast souls. With sunny spirits, that is, with benevolent, cheerful and meek souls he can scarcely make such easy headway as with lugubrious, pessimistic souls. Because of their apathy, sadness and melancholy he can more easily “disturb them with fits of vexation, suspicion, hatred, murmuring, fault-finding, envy, sloth, and spiritual torpor.”

Finally, sadness ensues upon the various misfortunes that befall us in the course of life. Here the rain falls on the good and the bad. “What happiness can I have without seeing the light of day,” laments Tobit to Raphael’s salutary greeting (Tob 5,7). Similarly, Jacob was saddened at the reported death of his beloved son, Joseph (Gen. 27, 34-35). And how David wept at the death of Absalom (2 Kgs. 18 , 33). Only, in the face of such afflictions, saintly souls know how to moderate their sadness with acquiescence and resignation to the holy will of GOD. Despite his hard lot, Tobit still knew how to praise and thank GOD for His goodness and mercy (ch. 3). And Job, upon whom the enemy precipitated wave after wave of calamities to overwhelm him, was still able to respond: “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord!” (ch. 1, 21). Similarly, Daniel knew how to convert his sorrows into songs (Dan. 9). This they were able to do in the strength of faith in the Divine goodness; in the midst of sorrows, they could look forwards to the blessed resolution that God would also provide in due time.

How contrary are the responses of worldly souls; they are like baboons, says St. Francis de Sales, downcast, sorrowful and dejected with the waning moon, and effervescent with the waxing moon. Worldly souls are cheerful and optimistic in good times and in plenty, but despairing and insupportable in hard times. In a word, the worldly soul is dominated by circumstances, whereas the spiritual soul is capable of standing above them in the strength of faith. While it is true that misfortune visits us all, and while it is true that we cannot change our health or temperament, nor simply have a cheerful disposition at will, still the response of a free heart is in our own hands, and we can practice kindness, and select our words with love for the edification of our neighbor. It is perfectly excusable, at times, to find ourselves short on joy, but it is inexcusable to be short on gentleness and benevolence, for good will and firm resolution suffice for the latter. We fix the eyes of our heart where we will. If we fix them on sad things, we shall have a sour, dour disposition, but if, even in hard times, we look forwards to the consolations of GOD, even in the darkness the light shall shine in our hearts.

Ninety-five percent of our sorrow and suffering is of our own fabrication, stemming mostly from fear. The Israelites would have entered into the Promised Land within two years, if they had not succumbed to fear of the inhabitants of the land. Because they rebelled, God made them wander another 38 years in the desert before leading their children into the Promised Land under Joshua, who in the Divine strength conquered the land.

Fear paralyses activity. “There’s a lion in the street, says the sluggard, I might be slain.” (Prov. 22,13; cf. 26,13). Even so does sadness and pessimism paralyze the soul and make growth in virtue practically impossible. Fixing their attention on the difficulties, fearful souls magnify problems and simultaneously lose sight of the Divine help. With faith and hope, Israel would have gained the Promised Land in two years instead of forty. And this is the lot of all souls who abandon the spirit of faith and hope and surrender the guidance of their soul to the spirit of worldly sadness and fear.

Let us resolve, therefore, to discern and resist the spirit of worldly sadness and fear, fixing our eyes confidently upon the Lord and surrendering ourselves completely to His providence. Thus we will make swifter, more certain and more joyful progress in the spiritual life at the hand of our holy Angel:

“You need not fear danger at night nor sudden attacks at midday,…
for He has given His Angels charge of you to guard you on all your ways.”
“The hope of the just brings them joy! Their hope is full of immortality”
(Ps. 90, 5-6.11; Prov. 10, 28; Wis. 3, 4).

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

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