Circular Letter: April 2000
The Justice of God & our little way of expiation
I. The Justice of GOD
When we speak of the justice of God it is important to make clear in what sense we use the term. Justice, taken in general, is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give to each person what is that person’s due. In other words, justice recognizes and honors each person’s “rights.”
There are various species of justice distinguished according to the relationship between persons or groups. For example, what is called commutative justice is the type of justice which regulates the relations between members of a community, people who are more or less equal. For instance, you do this service for me, and I repay you a just wage, or I sell you this thing, and you give me a just price, etc. There is a certain equality, in the give and take. It involves an exchange of goods or services between persons who have no other particular obligations toward one another than that exchange. From this it should be clear that with regard to our relation to God there is no “commutative justice”. That is to say, there is nothing that we can ever possibly do to “pay back” God for what he has done for us. As the psalmist says, “How can I repay the Lord for all that he has done for me?” (Ps 116:12). Further, there is nothing that we can do which would result in imposing upon God an obligation in justice for him to repay us, “…who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” (Rom 11:35). This is due to the fact that there is an absolute inequality between God and creatures. Given the fact that God is the source of everything, and the One who holds all things continually in existence, it is absurd to think that he could owe a debt of justice to any one of his creatures.
Everything that God gives to us is an act of grace, that is to say a freely given, undeserved gift. “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36). For this reason we can never imagine that there is anything that God owes us in justice in the strict sense of commutative justice.
There is another species of justice which is called “distributive justice”. This is the species of justice which in human affairs regulates the relation between the community as a whole and the individual members of the community. Here there is not a matter of a relation between equals in which there is an exchange of comparable goods or services. Rather, each member of the community receives from the community in proportion to his position in the community and service for the community. It is important to note that distributive justice is concerned with not only giving to each person the reward that he deserves for his good works, but it also deals with giving to each person the punishment he deserves for his crimes against the community.
The Just Distribution of Gifts in Creation
When we consider distributive justice in reference to our relation to God, we see that there is indeed a sense in which it applies. By his free will, God has established each creature to have a certain place and function and finality. According to his wisdom and goodness, he gives to his creatures everything that they need for the fulfillment of their tasks and for achieving the finality for which they were created. This is a principle of God’s dealings with us: he grants to each creature gifts in proportion to the task that each is given. Just as Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” it is likewise the case that from whom much is expected, much is given. So, God distributes gifts according to each person’s vocation. This is one sense in which distributive justice determines God’s relation to us.
It should be clear that no one has any claims on God. God’s will to create is not motivated by justice, but rather pure mercy and love. The whole of the creation is a free gift of God. Justice gives to each person what is his due. But when it comes to gifts, there is no strict “due”, because by its very nature a gift goes beyond what is due. It is not as though anything deserved to be created, or that God was in any way obliged to give to any creature any particular quality. As St. Paul writes, “But who are you man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to the molder, ‘Why have you made me thus?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?” (Rom 9:20-21). The prophet Isaiah uses the same analogy to warn, “Woe to him who strives with his Maker, an earthen vessel with the potter! Does the clay say to him who fashions it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’” (Is 45:9).
God does no injustice when he gives to some people certain gifts which he does not give to others. We are reminded of the parable of the owner of the vineyard who gives to those hired during the last hour the same pay as those hired early in the day. When those hired early begin to complain, the master of the vineyard says: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong… Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Is your eye evil because I am good?” (Mt 20:13-15).
Imagine if I were to give to you a check for ten thousand dollars as a free gift – you have done nothing to deserve it. I just want you to have it – it is yours. The next minute I turn around and give someone else a check for one million dollars. Would you be justified if you were to be indignant at the fact that I gave the other person more than I gave you? If you were to say, “Hey, wait a minute! What is with this? Why did you only give me ten thousand dollars when you give him one million?” Would that not be absurd? Would it not be a sign of ingratitude, pride and envy? Rather than being truly thankful for the gift you received, you are angry because you did not receive as much as someone else. This confused sense of “fairness” is a very common problem. It causes much discord, jealousy, and worse of all, alienation from God. When envy is concerned with the spiritual gifts given to others, this is considered one of the sins against the Holy Spirit. If we note that we have such a problem, it is very important to overcome it through long and hard meditation on the fact that everything is a gift lest our eye become evil because God is good. We must learn to rejoice in the gifts that God has given to us and in the gifts that he has given to others. One thing that can help us overcome envy is the consideration of whether we would like to stand in the shoes of those people to whom much is given on the day of judgment when they will have to render an account of how they used all that was given.
Distributive Justice in Rewards and Punishments
Besides the just distribution of gifts in creation, God’s distributive justice is also concerned with rewarding our good use of the gifts we received and being punished for the poor use or neglect of these same gifts. We are reminded of the parable of the talents where the master entrusts to his servants talents, and then later each has to render accounts for what they were given (cf. Mt 25:15-28). Sacred Scripture gives ample testimony to the fact that God will, in his justice, expect each person to answer for what they have done with what was given them:
I am the Lord who searches the heart and proves the reins: who gives to every one according to his way, and according to the fruit of his devises (Jer 17:10).
He will render to every man according to his works: to them indeed who according to patience in good work, seek glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life; but to them that are contentious and who obey not the truth, but give credit to iniquity, wrath and indignation (Rom 2:6-8).
What things a man shall sow, those also shall he reap. For he who sows in his flesh, of the flesh also shall reap corruption. But he that sows in the Spirit, of the Spirit shall reap life everlasting (Gal 6:7-8).
We must all be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive the proper things, according as he has done in the body whether it be good or evil. (2 Cor 5:10).
But here it must be clear that when we speak of both the rewards and punishments our actions deserve we are not speaking of justice in the strict sense of the term. The fact that God’s justice in our regard is informed and penetrated by his mercy is most manifest when we consider rewards and punishments.
With regard to the rewards our actions will receive, Christ assures us that if we pray and fast and do good works for the right motives our heavenly Father will reward us (cf. Mt 6:1-18). While at the same time he tells us quite bluntly: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). The point is that Christ alone can merit any reward. Christ alone, as the Son of God is in the position to perform any work that can expect the eternal blessings that are offered in heaven. We are dependent upon the free gift of grace, whereby we can participate in the very Life of Christ, in order to merit any heavenly reward. If we are outside that life of grace and charity it does not matter what kind of sacrifice we make, it is worth nothing in terms of heavenly reward. If we were even to give all we had to the poor and if we were to hand our body over to be burned, if we did not have the life of Christ in us it would be worth nothing (cf. 1 Cor 13:3). So, here it is clear that it is more an act of mercy on the part of God than an act of justice that he rewards our good actions.
Punishment Tempered by Mercy
With regard to the punishment that our sins deserve, God’s mercy and clemency modifies his justice. We can never make satisfaction or reparation for our offenses to God by ourselves. The redemption and work of atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ is the central mystery of the Christian faith. He is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). As the prophet Isaiah taught, “He was spurned and avoided by men, yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all” (Is 53:3-6).
His clemency is there to forgive the guilt of sin and greatly reduce the punishment that is due to sin. As is written in Psalm 103:
The Lord is compassion and love, Slow to anger and rich in mercy. His wrath will come to an end; He will not be angry for ever. He does not treat us according to our sins. Nor repay us according to our faults. As a father has compassion on his sons, The Lord has pity on those who fear him; For he knows of what we are made, He remembers that we are dust (v. 8-10, 13-14).
Our Share in Christ’s Work of Atonement
But beyond the fact that God forgives our sins and diminishes the punishment that is due to our sins; in his justice, tempered by mercy he also gives us the capacity to be joined in Christ’s redemptive work of expiation for sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this.
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men.” But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow [him],” For “Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in his steps.” In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering (CCC 618).
This is to be seen not only as an act of God’s justice, but of his merciful love for us.
II. Expiation: Man’s Response to GOD’S Justice
If Christ suffered and died for our sins and made perfect satisfaction why do we still speak about doing expiation for ourselves? Most of us would be quite happy if we did not have to worry about making reparation for our sins. The notion that Christ has taken responsibility for paying for our sins, so that we do not have to be responsible sounds very appealing. But in fact, it is by allowing us to share in his suffering and death so that we can also share in his glory. The relation between the cross and glory is repeated throughout the New Testament. Christ himself said to his apostles after his resurrection: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26).
And so the apostles have made clear the connection between the cross and glory:
But if we are sons, we are heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8:17).
…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:17).
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (1 Pt 4:13).
…far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:14).
The Cross: the Ladder to Glory
The connection between the cross and glory is twofold. First, the cross is the means to the future glory of heaven. As St. Rose of Lima once said: “Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” As St. Paul says, we will be glorified with him provided we suffer with him (cf. Rom 8:17). That is the necessary proviso. The Letter to the Hebrews explains why we are to expect the discipline of the Lord:
And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? — “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-11).
If Jesus, Son though he was, learned obedience through suffering (cf. Heb 5:8), how much more can we expect to endure God’s loving discipline in order to be considered his legitimate children? Such are the momentary afflictions that are preparing us for an eternal weight of glory (cf. 2 Cor 4:17-18). Saints and spiritual writers have consistently taught that Christian suffering provides a necessary preparation for our union with God.
Suffering is the means of expiating our sins. It is good to note that the Church has in recent times spoken of “expiation” more than “propitiation.” Propitiation means to avert the wrath of an offended deity, as though God is furious because of our sins, and our sacrifices calm his anger. Expiation on the other hand means to nullify the effects of sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out when speaking of eternal punishment due to sin, and the temporal punishment due to sin: “These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin” (CCC 1472). “The very nature of sin” that is spoken of here is explained as “an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state of Purgatory” (CCC 1472). It is true that Sacred Scripture uses the imagery of “propitiation”; especially in the Old Testament. But the language of the New Testament in speaking about the effects of Christ’s sacrifice, indicates that Christ came to “take away the sins of the world”, to free us from sin, “to expiate”. This is to say that his work was not to “propitiate” an angry God, but to nullify sin and its effects.
One “unhealthy” effect of certain types of sin is the disorder it introduces in the relation between body and soul. The body is supposed to be subject to the spiritual soul. But due to the effects of original sin, we tend to pamper the body. The result is that the body becomes a tyrant. The more we give in to the body the more demands it makes of us, making the soul a slave to its whims and desires. St. Paul had great reverence for the body. He told the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). But in the same letter he also said, “I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:26-27). The proper respect for the body does not in any way exclude disciplining it with voluntary penances. As St. Peter wrote, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God” (1 Pt 4:1-2). The passions have as their object physical goods; the will has as its object spiritual goods. The only way we can follow God’s will for us, which is a spiritual good, is by subjecting the passions, which involves a “violence” against the inclinations of our fallen nature.
Another unhealthy consequence of other sins is the clinging to the things of this world as though our happiness depended upon them. The creatures to which we are attached range from sinful and perverse attachments, to even spiritual and supernatural attachments. St. John of the Cross has a lengthy treatment of these at the end of his work The Ascent of Mount Carmel. The basic principle that he sets down is that “all of a person’s attachments to creatures are pure darkness in God’s sight. Clothed with these affection, people are incapable of the enlightenment and dominating fullness of God’s pure and simple light; first they must reject them. There can be no concordance between light and darkness.” To obtain the necessary detachment from creatures involves an amount of suffering proportionate to the degree we are actually attached to creatures. St. Paul set the proper evaluation on the things of the world when he said “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ, indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil 3:7-9).
Another unhealthy consequence of sins is a certain disorder within the soul itself. Suffering is one of the most potent means to order the soul. Suffering offers the opportunity to humble our pride. God himself promised that he would punish his people who would not heed his voice, “If you will not hearken to me, then I will chastise you again sevenfold for your sins, and I will break the pride of your power” (Lev 26:18). When we are deprived of those qualities on which we vainly flout ourselves, it is a salutary suffering. It is God’s love that does it to save us from our own foolishness.
The Glory of the Cross
But there is another connection between the cross and glory, which is a little more mysterious. Our Lord, at the moment Judas left the Last Supper to betray him stated: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and in him God is glorified; if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once” (Jn 13 31-32). St. Thomas explains in his Commentary of the Gospel of St. John:
“Now is the Son of Man glorified…” that is, he begins his passion in which he will be glorified. For Christ is glorified through the suffering on the cross, because by it he triumphed over his enemies, namely death and the devil; “that through death he might destroy him who has the power over death” (Heb 2:14). Also, because through it earth was joined to heaven; “through him to reconcile all things in himself, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). Also because through it he obtained every kingdom according to certain translations, “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns from the wood’” (Ps 95:9).
Here St. Thomas is indicating that not only is the cross the means to future glory in heaven, but it is also in itself a glorification here and now. The world has its own standards of what constitutes greatness and glory. Riches, fame, power, pleasure are the common things used to measure the glory and greatness of a person’s life. But Christ who said, “Blessed are the poor … Blessed are those who weep … Blessed are you when men hate you” (cf. Lk 6:20-22), has set all new standards for greatness and glory. He has given the cross as the standard with which we are to measure. This is so because it is the manifestation of the greatest of the virtues: love (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). And on the cross Jesus did not only give up his life, but he did so in the midst of the greatest of suffering. Rather than the glory of riches he emptied himself and was willingly stripped of everything for love of us. Rather than the glory of fame he suffered the greatest humiliation for love of us. Rather than the glory of power he became utterly powerless, nailed immovable on the cross, for love of us. Rather than the glory of pleasure he suffered the most intense pain of body and soul possible for love of us. Such is the glorious love of the Redeemer.
It is in this glory that all the faithful are called to share. The apostles knew well this glory as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake … We are weak … We are held in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless” (1 Cor 4:9-11).
The faithful are called to this because they are called to holiness, and there is no sanctification without crucifixion with Christ. St. John of the Cross was so convinced of this truth that he used the following strong words:
If at any time, my brother, anyone should persuade you, be he a prelate or not, of a doctrine that is wider and more pleasant, do not believe him, and do not accept the doctrine even if he were to confirm it with miracles, but rather penance and more penance and detachment from all things. And never, if you wish to possess Christ, seek him without a cross.
St. John of the Cross is saying the same thing that St. Paul once said to the Galatians, “If we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema” (Gal 1:8). The gospel we have received contains the words of Christ who told his apostles, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24; Mt 10:38-39; Lk 14:27).
We contemplate the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. In doing so “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). It is St. Paul’s prayer that “according to the riches of his glory he may grant [us] to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith; that [we], being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:15-19). These dimensions have commonly been interpreted to refer to the dimensions of the cross, and the dimensions of Christ’s love (cf. CCC 2565).
Knowledge of these dimensions does not come from book learning but from the Gift of the Holy Spirit: Knowledge, of which the Science of the Cross is its highest level. It is a gift for which we must long for, and strive to dispose ourselves by meditation, acceptance of our crosses and voluntary self-denial.
Suffering which is born in union with Christ manifests his glory in us, as we have said, the glory of his divine love. It is a love which thirsts for our own sanctification and for the good of others. Such love marks the members of the Church with the sign of him whose soul was “sorrowful even unto death” (Mt 26:38) for the sins of men. Such a mark protects us as was indicated in the prophet Ezechiel, “The Lord said, ‘Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.’ And then he said to the others: ‘Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare and you shall show no pity… but do not touch anyone on whom is the mark’” (Ez 9:4-6).
The glorious dimension of the cross transforms suffering from being dark and senselessness to a means salvation. St. Paul goes so far as to say that he rejoices in his sufferings, because they are efficacious in assisting other members of the Church. Pope John Paul II gives a beautiful commentary on this passage from St. Paul in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Suffering):
In the letter to the Colossians we read the words which constitute as it were the final stage of the spiritual journey in relation to suffering: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” And in another letter he asks his readers: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ’s?” … The Church is continually being built up spiritually as the Body of Christ. In this Body, Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer. The words quoted above from the letter to the Colossians bear witness to the exceptional nature of this union. For, whoever suffers in union with Christ — just as the Apostle Paul bears his “tribulations” in union with Christ — not only receives from Christ that strength already referred to but also “completes” by his suffering “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” This evangelical outlook especially highlights the truth concerning the creative character of suffering. The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s Redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. Insofar as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings — in any part of the world and at any time in history — to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world.
Does this mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. In this dimension — the dimension of love — the Redemption which has already been completely accomplished is, in a sense constantly being accomplished. Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limit; but at the same time He did not bring it to a close. In this redemptive suffering, through which the Redemption of the world was accomplished, Christ opened Himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so. Yes, it seems to be part of the very essence of Christ’s redemptive suffering that this suffering requires to be unceasingly completed (SD 24).
There can be no greater dignity conferred on any creature, no greater glory in this life, than the glory of being “fellow workers with God” (cf. 1 Cor 3:9). And there is no greater work than the work of Christ’s loving redemption on the cross. From this it is clear that the sufferings of our life can be transformed into our glory, if we unite them to the sufferings of Christ, for the salvation of ourselves and others. “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me’” (Rom 15:1-3).
Degrees and Means of Expiation
We may conclude our consideration by mentioning some of the ways by which we can take up our cross every day. Christ has undergone the “great way of expiation”; what he calls us to is the little way of expiation. There are various steps that should be followed in order to follow our Lord along the little way of expiation.
First Step: Fidelity to Duties
The first step is rather simple, and perhaps because it is so “unromantic” it is the one which most people want to skip over. But there is no way up the other steps without this first step. This step is to never omit our duties regardless of the suffering they cause us. Despite the natural repugnance we may have for our duties we must be faithful to them. The suffering involved here may entail physical suffering, but more often than not, it consists in the suffering of continually submitting our will to the routine of life; the drudgery, the seemingly suffocating narrowness of the daily grind. As one spiritual writer points out, “There are countless deluded souls who neglect some duty of their state in life and nevertheless ask permission of their confessors to practice certain penances and mortifications of their own choosing. The exact fulfillment of all our duties and obligations according to our state in life is the first degree which is absolutely indispensable for the crucifixion of self.”
Second Step: Resignation to the Crosses God Chooses
The second step, which builds upon the first, is the acceptance of the crosses which God sends us, or the ones that he permits to befall us. These are so many little stones that stub our toes, so much dust that blows in our eyes in our daily lives. The contradictions, the trials of patience, the misunderstandings, the pressures, the sicknesses, and uncomfortable or embarrassing situations, false accusations that we have to endure form the cross that God desires us to carry with joy. The greatest challenge is to recognize that what we have to endure is indeed a cross from God. Usually it appears to us to come simply from blind fate, or worse, from the thoughtlessness, callousness, or even malice of others. The point is, that although God does not want anyone to sin, nevertheless, if someone does sin in such a way as to hurt or offend us, or to cause a burden to us, it is God’s will that we on our part, be willing to accept whatever cross we can not avoid. We should come to the point where we not only accept it, but we even pray for those who bring us the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:32).
St. John of the Cross wrote in a work called the Cautions:
It is fitting that you should think that all [with whom you must deal in daily life] are there to test you, as they truly are; that some have to polish you by words, others by works, others by thoughts against you; and that in all these things you must be subject to them as a statue is to the artist who sculpts it, and the painting to the painter. And if you do not observe this, you will never know how to conquer your own sensuality and sentimentality, nor will you ever know how to conduct yourself well with [other people], nor will you ever obtain holy peace, nor will you ever free yourself from your many evils and defects.
It is clear, there can arise situations which are altogether unhealthy, and the only solution is to walk away from them. It is not as though we must always simply “bite the bullet” and persevere. We must be working for a resolution, an understanding, a reconciliation when possible; we must try to remove unnecessary tensions and misgivings. We should especially try to remove the crosses that we ourselves make. As St. Elizabeth Ann Seton once said, the hardest crosses are the ones we make for ourselves, “One cuts herself out a cross of pride; another one of causeless discontent; another of restless impatience and peevish fretfulness.”
Third Step: Voluntary Mortifications
While resignation to the crosses that God sends us is a most important and fundamental practice, we are called to more. The Church and the saints have always recognized the need for voluntary self-denial. The word “mortify” comes from St. Paul, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death (mortify) the deeds of the body you will live” (Rom 8:13; cf. Col 3:5).
The practice of voluntarily giving up things is a necessary practice and must begin with removing all things that are sinful, or an occasion of sin. Jesus used very harsh language to convey this truth: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out … if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off … it is better to enter heaven blind and lame than to go to hell with your whole body” (cf. Mt 5:29-30). It is clear we are not to cause ourselves permanent physical damage. But we can say, “if your television causes you to sin, throw it in the garbage. If your friends lead you into sin, do not see them any more. If the Internet causes you to sin throw away the computer, or cancel the service. Do whatever needs to be done in order to be free.”
This applies also to things that are not sinful in themselves, but certainly not helpful, and which constitute a distraction to the things of God. Persons, things, activities which can too easily become a preoccupation, and keep us from the pursuit of our friendship with God should be curtailed, renounced at least on an occasional basis in order to maintain a certain distance from them.
Beyond this, there are many other opportunities to deny ourselves: for example sitting in a less comfortable chair, rather than the “easy-chair”; getting out of bed as soon as the alarm goes off; taking cool showers rather than hot ones; always dressing modestly regardless of how hot the weather is; not giving in to curiosity; not wasting any time watching television; not turning on the radio or tape-player in the car; etc.
Such things as these should lead us to more and more generous sacrifices to God. Generally it is important that unusual penances be done only under the direction of a confessor or spiritual director. In this way we avoid imprudence and also the even greater danger of self-will.
Fourth Step: Preferring Suffering to Pleasure
The next step is arrived at by a special gift of God’s grace which blesses our own human efforts. It is to have a great love for suffering; to desire suffering more than pleasure. St. John of the Cross describes this step:
To endeavor always to incline oneself, not to that which is easier, but to that which is more difficult; not to that which is tasty, but to that which is more bitter; not to that which is more pleasing, but to that which is less pleasing; not to that which gives rest, but that which demands effort; not to that which is a consolation, but to that which is a source of sorrow; etc.
The suffering is not an end in itself, but it is desired because it is recognized as the means of more quickly obtaining union with the Beloved. St. Rose of Lima was deeply inspired by this truth, such that she said,
A strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul … If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! Without doubt they would devote all their care and concern to winning for themselves pains and afflictions. All men throughout the world would seek trouble, infirmities and torments, instead of good fortune, in order to attain the unfathomable treasure of grace.”
Fifth Step: Victim of Expiation
The consummation of these degrees of expiation is the act of offering oneself as a victim of expiation for the sins of the world. As some great spiritual writers of our time wrote: “We must say with great insistence that this sublime act is completely above the ordinary way of grace. It would be terrible presumption for a beginner or an imperfectly purified soul to place itself in this state. ‘To be called a victim is easy and it pleases self-love, but truly to be a victim demands a purity, a detachment from creatures, a heroism which is abandoned to all suffering, to all humiliation, to ineffable obscurity, that I would consider it either foolish or miraculous if one who is at the beginning of the spiritual life should attempt to do that which the Divine Master did not do except by degrees.’”
Having said this, however, we may note that St. Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, recommended to all her novices the Act of Oblation to Merciful Love. In this prayer the soul offers herself “as a victim of holocaust to God’s merciful love.”
In order to live in one single act of perfect Love, I offer myself as a victim of holocaust to your merciful love, asking you to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within you to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a Martyr of you Love, O my God!
This is to note that, following the example of the humility and the sobriety of this great saint, we can make an offering of ourselves to God. This is done in such a way that we leave it entirely up to his Wisdom to dispose of us as he desires, for the salvation of souls.
The classic example of a victim soul is St. Catherine of Siena who wrote, “The only cause of my death is my zeal for the Church of God, which devours and consumes me. Accept, O Lord, the sacrifice of my life for the Mystical Body of thy holy Church.” Such an offering is not principally made for one’s own sanctification. It is for the good of the Church. Indirectly, nevertheless, if the soul corresponds to the graces, it converts the soul into a living image and faithful reproduction of Jesus Christ, the divine martyr of Calvary.
We have considered the merciful justice of God towards us, which not only forgives our sins, but allows us to participate in the redemptive work of Christ. It is this that brings us to radiate in our lives the glory of Christ’s cross, and leads us to the glory of heaven. We must turn, therefore, to our Mother, the Mother of Sorrows, and beg her to “make us feel as she has felt, make our souls to glow and melt for our Savior crucified.” We may conclude with a stanza from a poem of James Kirkup:
O, may I learn to love that passion-seeded joy
That is the hinted pleasure of the soul’s wild grace
In brilliant paradises of diviner joy
Than earthly tenderness received: where no bright pain
At our imperfect love’s desire for perfect grace
Darkens the ecstasy of love’s celestial heart!
The texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission.
©2021 Opus Sanctorum Angelorum Inc.
Back to Meditations Index →