Saints are gritty, resilient characters. If you read detailed accounts of their lives, it may seem that being a saint can be quite difficult and that it is reserved for only the select few that tough it out. On the other hand, we are sometimes given an impression that romanticizes them, usually from exposure to pious hagiographies that do them no favors except to make holiness seem unreachable for those of us who were not born with a ‘holy silver spoon’ in our mouths. Yet in one of the documents of Vatican II it states that we all share in the universal call to holiness which means that every baptized person is called to be holy. So let’s be clear as to what holiness really is: it is living authentically who we are made to be by God, responding to His love with love, through sacrificial efforts devoted to making Him better known and loved. The holy one puts God first through their commitment, sacrifice, and deep love. What holiness does not require, however, is that we come up with strength and power on our own. We have been given unique talents and abilities, so it is not necessary that we move the mountains, but that we let God do it through our small acts of cooperating with His love. In short, it means that we unite our heart to that of Jesus, and with that small mustard seed of faith, we grow one moment at a time.
Those who have been canonized teach us that saints must be gritty because they do not want resistance from any outside force to stop them. Quite often it involves some suffering, but the joy of serving Jesus moves them to respond wholeheartedly to their call. An example of such a one is St. (Padre) Pio of Pietrelcina, (feast day September 23). Many know him because he received the visible stigmata which included all the wounds received by Jesus during His Passion; indeed that required a lot of grittiness.* But I would like to focus on his experience of a rare mystical phenomenon which God gives for reasons only known to Him: the transverberation of the heart, often described as ‘the wound of love.’ Transverberation is a mystical experience of interior union with the heart of Christ which so fills the heart with His love that the recipient can hardly bear it. St. Teresa of Avila, who famously experienced this, described this mystical experience as causing intense pain along with an equally intense joy, describing it as “the sweetest pain.” It can also leave physical evidence, as in the case of St. Philip Neri whose heart became so enlarged after the experience that it pushed out a couple of ribs, (something discovered only after his death), accompanied by great heat that continuously emanated from him that was so intense he never wore a coat, even in winter.**
In the case of St. Padre Pio, the transverberation of his heart took place while he was hearing confession. Like St. Teresa, he saw a “heavenly being” who threw a fire-tipped spear which pierced his soul; the pain was so acute that he thought he would die from it. He received the stigmata a little over a month later, but the pain in his heart remained as well, accompanied by many spiritual gifts which he always utilized to draw others to Jesus, never to himself; if people followed Padre Pio for his spiritual gifts alone, he scolded them, sometimes seeming a bit harsh, but in truth doing it out of love and humility.*** Additionally, Padre Pio was subject to horrific temptations from the devil who, seeing him as a threat, wanted to derail his efforts at serving Christ. Therefore, it is important for us to learn from him that great gifts can often come at a great price. Jesus said, “The one to whom much is given, much is expected.” (Luke 12:48) While we can romanticize things like stigmata and bilocation, we are never to ask for such gifts, and further, it is not wise to have spiritual envy toward the gifts of others or for the gifts we wished we had. Rather, it is wisdom to gratefully recognize and utilize the ones we do have. We all have them, so it is important to spend time praying about our gifts, especially if we do not yet know what they are or believe that the gifts we have are not all that important. Remember St. Paul’s teaching that the Body of Christ is made up of different gifts, all necessary, and no matter what we have or do not have, we all have these three, that is, the most important ones: “faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 12-13:1) It is important for us to realize that no matter if our gifts are visibly pronounced or somewhat hidden, love is the greatest of all the gifts and that without it, all the other gifts become nothing more than noise! In other words, without love the other gifts are rendered useless in building the kingdom of God.
All of us are capable of doing small things with great love. Therefore, if we are serious about growing in holiness according to our call, we must pray about it, not fretting over outward appearances, but simply responding with love to the little things that arise, thus giving glory to God. As with Padre Pio and other saints, our efforts may occasionally be subject to some pain within our hearts, but if they do, we will also have the sweetness of knowing that we are joined to the heart of Jesus.
May we desire to grow in holiness according to our call! May we be given the courage and ‘grittiness’ of spirit to live our call! May we discover our gifts, especially in our daily call to faith, hope, and love! And may we unite our hearts with that of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: I will be taking a short break, so the next entry will be on October 18. If you want to read something in the meanwhile, or on what would have been the next post date, October 4, I suggest going to my archives, (found at the bottom of each post, so scroll down to see the list). There you can pick something from a previous October or whatever you like. My suggestion is the following entry from last year which highlighted St. Faustina Kowalska and Divine Mercy, (her feast day is October 5.) https://www.catanesesd.com/micheles-blog/do-whatever-he-tells-you
*Padre Pio had wounds in his hands, feet, and side as well as evidence of scourging and a wound on his left shoulder, all consistent with the wounds Jesus received during His Passion.
**St. Teresa of Avila described her experience in the Autobiography. Similar to that of St. Philip Neri, (and later, St. Padre Pio), she also had a physical wound in her heart, discovered after she died. https://aleteia.org/2019/06/25/st-teresa-of-avilas-heart-was-physically-pierced-by-an-arrow-of-gods-love/
***While it can seem a bit gruesome, in the case of St. Pio the experience was actually a purification of his soul so that he could ‘join’ in the Passion of Jesus throughout his life. We must keep in mind that St. Pio voluntarily chose to suffer in this way, having first asked what his spiritual director thought of his desire, and only then offering himself to Jesus in this way. I cannot emphasize this enough: we should never do this, (that is, ask to suffer), without an express calling and an incredible amount of discernment with a spiritual director. For St. Pio it was indeed clear, arising from his self-giving love for Jesus: his desire to suffer was as prayer to alleviate that of others.
1. Stained glass, Sacred Heart of Jesus.
2. Marble sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, by Bernini. This photo is from a postcard I purchased while visiting the church, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, (in the Cornaro Chapel). I did take my own photos, but one has to pay to light the chapel and it only lasts about 30 seconds. It is very difficult to get a good photo, so I bought a postcard.
3. Icon, St. Padre Pio Mother Pelican by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find it at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/2-st-padre-pio-mother-pelican-047-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. Painting, First Steps by Vincent van Gogh.
5. Photo, St. Padre Pio at dinner in the refectory at San Giovanni Rotando. See note below.
6. Photo, St. Padre Pio celebrating Mass in the chapel at San Giovanni Rotando. I want to be clear that these last two photos were not taken by me, (I would have been a little girl at the time!) but they are authentic photos that I now possess that were taken by Vera Calandra, a friend of St. Padre Pio and the founder of the St. Padre Pio shrine in Barto, PA. The photos were given by her to one of my friends, who then gave them to me. I have wanted to share them for quite a while.
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