I have come to really enjoy working with my fitness trainer. Because she knows her craft so well and is especially attentive as I do each exercise, she has helped me to grow in strength and balance. In order for me to grow she gives me challenging workouts, and rightly so, or else I would not be gaining anything except some fun conversation twice a week. Plainly put, this means there is some measure of ‘pain’ involved. Let me be clear: it is beneficial discomfort, an important part of the process of becoming fitter. When my muscles were tight during one particular session, as she stretched them she told me to “relax into the pain.” She was right: once I stopped fighting it and went with it, the pain seemed to lose its power. This bit of wisdom also applies to our spiritual life. When we are struggling with an issue, memory, wound, or character weakness that needs strengthening, or when we experience dryness in prayer, we have to go into it, to face it head-on and then work it through with disciplined prayer. There is no way around it, only through it. We do not have to do this alone: if we trust God enough to share our pain and struggle with Him, the healing and strengthening will come. A way to do this is to enter into the wounds of Christ, to pray with the mystery of His suffering. What this does is to help us change our interior disposition toward our pain which then enables us to persevere and even suffer with joy knowing He is intimately with us.*
To enter into the wounds of Christ is not to deny the presence of our pain by pretending it is suddenly gone. Instead, we join our suffering to His, embracing our pain rather than fighting it. Entering into the wounds of Christ is transformative: through Him, we do experience our pain, but we learn to experience our pain differently. It means to enter into His Heart, letting Him hold and transform us through the power of His mercy and love. We know this, yet we often forget that the power of His wounds is in the love with which He bore them for us. Therefore, His wounds can teach us more about what love really is: it is sacrificial, humble, and selfless, and by entering in, we are empowered to love more like He does. Just as with my trainer who sometimes holds on to me to prevent me from losing my balance, we can rely on Jesus to do the same. He does not do the work for us, but He helps with the transformation of our hearts: the stronger we become, the more we trust that when suffering breaks open our hearts, they are actually expanding in compassion, helping us to develop a disposition of mercy and forgiveness, becoming less judgmental and more selfless. That is, our own suffering can help us to become more sensitive to the suffering of others, to have a deeper understanding which transcends our focus on self and directs us to lift up others. If we let it, suffering becomes a transfiguration of heart which will transform and deepen how we love.
Just as fitness training requires discipline and strenuous work, so do our spiritual practices.** The spiritual life, particularly prayer, requires discipline, and yes, sometimes hard work. If we truly want to grow in intimacy with God and in spiritual strength we have to remember that spirituality is not a separate part of our lives, but permeates the whole of who we are. Therefore, we must prioritize prayer as part of every day. Sometimes we will find prayer dry, even painful, and when this happens we can enter into the wounds of Christ, just being with Him in the silence. In one of His discourses Jesus said, “…unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24) In other words, if we do not suffer a little in this process of growing spiritually, especially in letting go of that which holds us bound, then we will not have the new life of holiness that we are offered. The pain of this ‘death’ is temporary, even if it does not feel like that at the moment. As St. Paul said, “This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” (2Cor 4:17)
Entering into the wounds of Christ teaches us to love as Jesus does, a love to which all disciples are called. To suffer within the wounds of Christ, in the Silence of our God who knows all things, always moves us outwards in selflessness. To love this way will involve pain from time to time, but it always leads to the joy of new spiritual strength, a deeper sense of how loved by God we truly are, and it leads to growth in holiness. Just as the work of physical training is arduous and requires a bit of sweat and encouragement, guidance, and goals to meet, our spiritual life is no different. And just as my trainer accompanies me, our spiritual hard work is always accompanied by the Lord. If we intentionally enter into the wounds of Jesus, we will also be entering into His Heart. It will make us stronger, especially in the most challenging areas of love, and it will give us the peace we long for as we rest in Him alone.
May we enter into the wounds of Christ to have our hearts transformed! May we find healing and wholeness within the wounds of Christ! May we persevere in the hard work of growing in the spiritual life, particularly in our prayer! And may we be true disciples as agents of healing and bearers of His love! Let us meet within the Wounds of Christ! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* A note on suffering with joy: When we let go, or relax into it, the pain no longer has power over us and we rise above it. This is how one suffers with joy, an often misunderstood concept. The joy we experience when entering into the wounds of Christ is not emotional, but spiritual because we allow His sacrificial love to empower us to persevere through just about anything. It is also important to remember that we are never to choose suffering for its own sake. Suffering comes unbidden, but rather than avoiding it or denying it, we can join ourselves to the Lord, offering our struggle in the silence of prayer as a gift to Him. Entering into His wounds is to come into deeper understanding of the gift Jesus gave us in our salvation and it is to respond by extending that love to others through acts of sacrifice, forgiveness, toil, and justice. On the surface, this is difficult to embrace, but as with physical conditioning, the result is growth, particularly growth into a deeper experience of the Love of God accompanied by a more profound experience of extending that love to our brothers and sisters. ~ Also, depending on the wound or weakness being worked through, a trained spiritual director can help a directee to work through spiritual issues.
** In a striking passage in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Ignatius says that God labors for us. What follows are exercises (meditations) that teach how we, too, can labor for God.* In other words, God works for us that we might come to know and love Him better, to which we respond through our hard work of service.
1. Drawing; The Prayer, by Vincent van Gogh (1882) You can find some information on this drawing at https://www.vincentvangogh.org/the-prayer.jsp
2. Fresco painting; The Resurrection (Empty Tomb) by Blessed Fra Angelico. The resurrection, beginning with their encounter with the angel, taught the women to experience their pain differently. You will notice Mary the Mother of Jesus added to the left corner by the artist.)
3. My photo; taken in Granna, Sweden.
4. Icon, Nuestro Salvador de las Sandias by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/nuestro-salvador-de-las-sandias-012-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5. My photo; sunset in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
An unfortunate trend these days is the need to be known. With the rise of social media we are aware that some folks are willing to do all sorts of things in order to be noticed, often desiring to become instantly famous. Some of it seems quite harmless, but there is a great danger here. As Christians we remember that Jesus taught His disciples to serve humbly, which means that our intention should be for our good deeds to be done in a hidden way. Clearly, social media does not encourage humility, and while there are some celebrities who do manage to live humbly, it is quite difficult to avoid getting caught up in what can become an addiction to attention. Interestingly, humble ones sometimes do find themselves in a ‘spotlight’ that they have not sought. This is true of many of the saints who only desired to serve Jesus yet ended up catching the attention of those around them. For the holy, fame is unattractive; they put no small effort into avoiding it since they recognize it as both a temptation and a distraction from the path of humility. Therefore, if we desire to grow in holiness, it is this path, the path of humility, upon which we should set our sights.
The need to be known usually stems from the need to be validated. The saints were not immune to this condition, but rather, they allowed God to form them by letting go of self as they immersed themselves in Him. A great example of this is Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) who was incredibly self-centered as a child, but overcame it with the help of grace. She struggled with the need to be the center of attention, but the turning point came through some overheard comments made by her father one Christmas; it stung deeply, but in that moment she surrendered all of her desires to the Lord completely. Thérèse went on to enter the Carmelites at 15, leading a hidden life of service through prayer. In one of the most important moments of her religious life, she realized that her vocation was love, a recognition which moved her to work at perfecting her love by perfecting her humility. If not for her Superior recognizing her holiness and requiring her to write her autobiography, St. Thérèse would have died in total obscurity. Today she is one of the most beloved of all the Saints.
We can see that part of what makes one holy is humility, and while there are many such holy people, our focus will be limited to two other Saints, each of whom lived in different centuries, but whose lives bear striking similarities. First is St. Alphonsus Rodriquez (1533-1617) who touched many lives as he happily did menial work. Early in his life St. Alphonsus suffered greatly; he had been married, but lost his wife, three children, and his business all in a short period of time. A few years later when he desired to enter the Jesuits as a priest, he was considered unsuitable. However, instead of succumbing to disappointment, he became a brother and embraced life as a humble doorkeeper at the Jesuit college in Majorca, finding joy in serving those he encountered. Similarly, St. André Bessette (1845-1937) entered the Congregation of Holy Cross as a brother rather than as a priest due to poor health and poor education. He, too, overcame disappointment, and joyfully spent his life as a porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. St. André became known for his healing prayers which drew many people to seek out this ‘lowly’ doorkeeper.
All three of these saints would have remained hidden, one as an obscure nun, and two as lowly doorkeepers, except that God wanted others to know about them so that they could touch lives and inspire humility. What is most important is the source of their love: Jesus. He taught His disciples the way of love through His words and deeds, even humbly suffering and dying out of love for us. As St. Paul wrote, in pouring Himself out the act of love is so immense and extravagant that at the name of Jesus Christ every knee must bow. (Philippians 2:1-11) Through Jesus’ great act of humility we are immersed into the Heart of the Lord who is Love. We learn two important lessons from this: first, that humility is an expression of love, and second, that the most loving acts are those that cannot be repaid. Thus, the path of humility and the path of love are one.* If we desire to travel this path, to grow in holiness through humility, we must put the gospel of Jesus into action in a real and tangible way.
It is important for us to examine our actions and our consciousness daily to uncover which areas are wounded, where we have perceived ourselves to be less than we are, that which discourages us from service, or what fuels a desire for recognition.** To grow in love of others we have to grow in true love of self, which means to see ourselves as we really are; that is, to see ourselves as God does. Once we can accept ourselves as who we are and we are able to let the Holy Spirit work within us, we will have the freedom to express our love through humility. To the humble, everyone around them is seen as Christ, the Beloved whom they want to serve with all their heart.*** Let us seek to grow in humility, and therefore in love, walking the path which is the very same one upon which Jesus walks.
May we ask for the grace to walk the path of humility! May we be inspired by the saints who walked this path! And may we examine our consciousness daily so we might grow into the holy ones we are intended to be! Let us meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* See another wonderful passage from St. Paul in which he sums up what love is, 1 Corinthians 13. In verses 4 and 5 he indicates that love seeks no reward: love is humble.
** One of the best methods for this is the Examen written by St. Ignatius Loyola in The Spiritual Exercises.
*** The mistake many make is to think that to be humble we need to abase ourselves or see everyone else as better than we are. That is totally false. To be humble is to see oneself as God does, that is, with love and mercy, and as we look outward at others, to see them as Christ.
-The autobiography of St. Thérèse is called The Story of A Soul. The Christmas incident took place in 1886 and is described in Chapter 5; she called it the “Grace of Christmas.”
-If you are interested in more on St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, SJ you can go to https://www.jesuits.global/saint-blessed/saint-alphonsus-rodriguez/
Also, here is a link in which the author says, "Here is perhaps the humblest, meekest, most unpresuming saint ever! He embodies one of my favorite quotes from the Psalms: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Psalm 84:10.
After this is a beautiful poem written about St. Alphonsus by Gerard Manley Hopkins, (one of my favorite poets): https://carinyademaria.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/saint-of-the-day-alphonsus-rodriguez/
-The comment on St. Alphonsus and Psalm 84 can be applied to St. André Bessette, too: https://holycrosscongregation.org/holy-ones/st-andre-bessette/
1. Photo taken by my husband: with our guide while hiking a path on the north side of Mt. Etna. (That's me behind the guide.) Sicily, Italy.
2. My photo of an original photo of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. (She is holding a card with the images that reflect her name in religious life: Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.) I took this photo at an exhibition at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
3. Image, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, SJ, artist unknown.
4. Painting, Pond in Sunbeams 2019, by Aleksandr Dubrovsky.
5. Photo, St. André Bessette, CSC (Holy Cross community photographer)
6. Icon, Our Lady of Silence, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. To be silent and listen is an act of humility. If you are interested you can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-silence-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart