But Jesus said to them,
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and in his own house.”
And he did not work many mighty deeds there
because of their lack of faith.
—Matthew 13: 57–58
This Gospel reading is an extension of the message from the previous week’s reflection, of the idea that our own disposition will affect how God is able to work in us. As we read last week, if our soil is rocky, the Word will not be able to grow unless we first allow God to till the soil. In today’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’s failed attempt to preach in His hometown. If we, like the people in today’s reading, are closed off to the very idea that God might work through the ordinary details of our everyday lives, then His attempts to work miracles in us will be futile. If our hearts are stubborn, if we turn our heads away from the divine in-breaking of grace, then we are refusing to receive His miracles.
The truth is that God often enters into our lives in the ways we least expect. We might anticipate chariots and thunder, when really He’s trying to get our attention through our next-door neighbor. If it seems mundane to us, it is only because we’ve lost the perspective that God cherishes each tiny detail of His creation. He works within the intricacies of the world He created, gently and earnestly appealing to us in the most ordinary moments.
Jesus’s neighbors didn’t recognize that the Messiah was in their midst. Think about your own neighbors: perhaps there is a saint among you, hidden in plain sight. Don’t miss out on the gift of their presence. God give us eyes to recognize the miraculous when it comes in the trappings of the familiar.
At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave, where he took shelter.
But the word of the LORD came to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
—1 Kings 19:9–13
A tiny whispering sound. How gentle God is toward us. He is all-powerful; He created mountains and earthquakes and fire and wind. He could drop anvils and send down lightning to try and get our attention. And yet He speaks to us softly and tenderly.
He is the still, small voice within our hearts. He does not seek to control us; instead, He delights in watching us find our own way. He is always whispering words of guidance and love—and if we aren’t distracted by our own noise, we will hear His voice. But He does not force Himself upon us; rather, He pursues us with gentleness and care.
We are called to imitate this example of gentleness: to be both strong and kind, brave and humble, confident and caring. To be sensitive toward our neighbors without compromising our own strength. To respond to others without feeling as though we have to intimidate them or prove what we’re capable of. To be secure in the knowledge that withholding force is not a sign of weakness in us, but of composure and mercy.
Look to Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati as an example: a strong, active young man who approached the poor and downtrodden with the utmost care. This was a guy who was popular and athletic, who regularly climbed mountains for fun. And yet he didn’t go around flexing his muscles to try and impress people; rather, his true strength showed through in his tenderness toward those who were weak.
When we feel frustrated and wish God would send us a big, loud, obvious sign from above, let us remember that maybe we wouldn’t actually be able to handle such a bold response. God speaks to us softly so as not to intimidate us, but also to draw us closer to Him. In order to hear His gentle whisper, we must draw ever nearer.
1. Abraham Bloemaert, Landscape with the Prophet Elijah in the Desert / PD-US
2. Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, Elijah at the Brook Cherith / PD-US
3. Portrait of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati / Brandon Vogt
Just a few days ago, I heard about the death of a brother, a Dominican priest, Fr. Joachim Li, OP who on June 27th, died at the young age of 32. While enjoying his day off at the seaside in Rome, he lost his life successfully rescuing and saving two swimmers from drowning. Fr. Joachim’s heroic death reminded me of the story of his patron saint, St. Joachim Royo, OP, a Dominican missionary martyr in China. As Fr. Joachim gave up his life to save the two swimmers, St. Joachim gave up his life to save the souls of many.
St. Joachim Royo, OP was born around 1691 in Spain. In 1708, he joined the Dominican Order in Valencia. Filled with the zeal to preach the Gospel to the end of the world, he arrived in Manila in 1713. There he finished his studies and was ordained as a priest. St. Joachim arrived in China in the spring of 1715. In the missionary territories of southeastern China, he not only baptized many, but he formed the newly baptized converts into Dominican tertiaries and lay catechists. During the persecution of the early Qing Dynasty, he went into hiding in the wilderness and caves. Only in the cover of the night, was he able to administer sacraments for the faithful. While in prison, he continued his penitential practices, even going as far as asking the prison guards to whiplash him! He finally gave the ultimate witness of faith in Fujian, China in 1748. St. Joachim’s heroic life is just one story out of those of the 108 martyrs in China (33 of which were missionaries), whom we commemorate on July 9.
Even now, there are countless missionaries making all kinds of sacrifices, even risking their lives, so that people may hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can you help? First of all, you can pray for them. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote in 1896, to Fr. Adolphe Roulland, MEP, who was about to be sent to Sichuan, China,
“Distance can never separate our souls, even death will only make our union closer. If I go to Heaven soon, I shall ask Jesus’ permission to visit you in Sichuan, and we shall continue our apostolate together. Meanwhile I shall always be united to you by prayer…”
If you hear the Lord’s call to be a missionary yourself and go to Asia, please do not hesitate to contact us!
If not for a hockey game, I wouldn’t be a Legionary of Christ priest today. As a good Minnesotan, I naturally considered hockey as divinely inspired, a sign of God’s love for us. But it’s what happened after the game that took me by surprise and lead me to know my priestly vocation.
During my first year at college, I often went to the rink at the University of Minnesota with my friends. After one such event —ending in a double overtime victory for the Golden Gophers, and a long celebration— I returned home in the wee hours of the morning, too tired to get out of bed until Sunday afternoon.
Stumbling upstairs for something to eat, I found my Dad sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper. Opening the fridge, I heard from over my shoulder: “Jason, did you go to Mass this morning?” I swallowed hard. I hadn’t. Quickly I tried to think up the perfect excuse. None came. Trying to hide behind the refrigerator door, I quipped “No, I didn’t go”. Without looking up Dad replied solemnly, “Go tomorrow then.”
It was my first Monday morning Mass ever. I was struck by how quiet the Church was, and how empty. I sat about halfway up and waited. Little by little people began to filter in. Then an attractive girl sat down a few pews behind me. How is it I find a girl like this now and not last Saturday evening? It must be God’s providence! I decided the sign of peace was the perfect time to introduce myself. When the moment came I turned around and, to my surprise, she passed me a note. I put it in my pocket pretending it happened all the time.
When I got home I opened the note. It read something like this: “It’s good to see someone young attending daily Mass. You must really love your faith! I want to let you know about a group of young people who pray and study scripture Wednesday evenings. If you would like to come, here is my number.” I decided I could find time in my packed schedule to go. That’s when it occurred to me I hadn’t seriously looked into my Catholic faith since Confirmation. What would I say? What would I pray? Where was my Rosary? I found it stuffed in the bottom dresser drawer along with a pamphlet of prayers.
As to what I would say, I went to my Dad’s study and checked out his library. It had books on music, history, politics —but the largest section was religion. I found one book called True Devotion to Mary. It seemed like a good place to start since it was short. The book changed my life. It explained how St. Louis de Montfort, a priest who tirelessly preached the Gospel and underwent extraordinary trials, spread devotion to Mary throughout France. It was my first encounter with the life of a saint. I marveled how someone could dedicate himself entirely to Christ, even to the point of heroism. It inspired me to truly seek God and sincerely live my faith.
A few months later I went on a retreat with the youth group. It was the first time the priesthood entered my mind. During the consecration, as I gazed at the elevated host, I thought to myself —in words that were my own, but which carried a remarkable resonance I will never forget: If there is one thing I should do, it’s that. It was the defining moment of my life and it came entirely by surprise. I knew I had to look into the priesthood, but I didn’t know how or where. To make a long story short, the same girl who gave me the note in church then gave me a brochure on the Legionaries of Christ. It had testimonies of the young men who entered the year before. I read it and was convinced. I called and asked for an application. A Legionary came to visit. I went to candidacy. I joined. My younger brother followed the next year.
Since then 25 years have passed by like a whirlwind. There is much more I could write, but the essential is simple: Christ crossed my path, called, and by His grace —definitely not my own strength— I found the courage to drop everything and follow him. I have never looked back. Our Lord’s presence and the needs of the Church have captivated my attention ever since.
Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” and yet today we remember him as a great evangelizer and prolific New Testament writer. What happened? Nothing less than an inbreaking of divine grace.
For the powers of humanity, there are a great many situations that are beyond hope: souls that have been irrevocably corrupted, systems that are beyond repair. But for God, no one is beyond hope. No matter how hardened a person, God can break through any barriers to offer them mercy and an opportunity for transformation. He stopped Paul right in his murderous path, turned him away from Damascus and out into all the world a changed man. He channeled Paul’s zeal toward its natural, rightly ordered purpose: building up the Kingdom of God. In the same way, our own human purpose can only be understood through an encounter with the divine.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him (John 6:56).
Jesus has given Himself to us in the Eucharist as an opportunity for encounter with Him, that we too might be transformed by His grace. He instituted this sacrament so that we might share a radical intimacy with Him. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati understood this deeply—he received Communion daily, meeting Jesus every morning and carrying Him throughout the rest of the day. This is the key to his sanctity: not Pier Giorgio’s own goodness, but his openness to divine grace, to deep intimacy with and vulnerability before God.
“I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharist Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles.”
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
The great things that Paul achieved after his conversion stemmed from this intense closeness with God and awareness of God’s perfect love. This is what opened Paul’s heart to allow God to work through him rather than imposing his own will. When the scales fell from his eyes and he saw his life with sudden clarity, he fell to his knees in humility before God. Throughout the rest of his life, as he wrote and preached and converted a great many souls, he was ever aware that it was all due to God working in him: It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Paul knew all too well the cold, cruel man he would be without God, and thus he was able to recognize that any good fruits that flowed from his work were not due to his own power or talent or goodness, but from Jesus Christ working through him.
1. Domenico Morelli, Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US
2. Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 326/330 – 390), nicknamed since antiquity as ‘The Theologian’, was a fourth-century bishop, born in the rural setting of modern-day central Turkey. He is venerated as a Father of the Church, and is one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with Ss. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa.
Gregory fought strenuously for spiritual orthodoxy, particular in relation to a doctrinal understanding of the Trinity, championing the Nicene perspective, and developing a unique Trinitarian language. He viewed the Nicene stance as a midday between the heretical extremes of Sabellianism and Arianism.[i]
Classically trained in rhetoric and philosophy, he is responsible for transposing Hellenism into the Early Church. In fact, “Gregory’s literary ability was regarded so highly by the learned connoisseurs of Byzantium that they ranked him with the great stylists of classical poetry and prose.” [ii] For example, Psellos (c. 1017 – 1028) describes Gregory’s style in glowing terms as embodying the gifts of figures such as Demosthenes, Pericles, Lysias and Herodotus, whilst outranking them, in wit, persuasive power, beauty and skill.[iii] He was even well regarded by Renaissance humanists for his literary prowess.[iv]
Gregory has left the Church with a large corpus of written works: letters, poems and orations. It is through his orations—speeches delivered in homilies and sermons, and polished and edited in his later life—that he has extended his greatest influence, both theologically and literarily.
Among his 44 orations is Oration 42—a Farewell Address; a kind of apologia directed at his flock at Constantinople upon his resignation. A resignation made for the purpose of quelling the dissensions and controversy surrounding his Canonically awry position in Constantinople. He thus stepped aside, to keep the peace.
The audience included the 150 bishops of the Eastern Church gathered for the First Council of Constantinople (381), and various rivals low and high. It is also addressed to the Nicaean faction in general. He is defending accusations against his style of ministry in Constantinople, whilst raising the banner of his Trinitarian faith. He says his farewells with a mix of sadness, joy, and satire, and leaves by throwing a few preacher-punches at the “great and Christ-loving city!” a descriptive term he calls unenlightened, while at the same time it is expressive of his hope of what could be.[v] Still, the tenderness of his delivery is undeniable—in Gregory is a pastor who loved his people.
The Cult of Numbers
The portion of this Oration I’d like to draw attention to is section 7, where Gregory alludes to a worldly, economic kind of religious way of thinking, that can be described as the cult of numbers. This can simply be understood to be a measuring of spiritual success and fruitfulness in Christian communities, based solely on numbers—on the population of a group in the Church or the Church as a whole. It is an outlook that focuses on the external of quantity, to the exclusion and neglect of the quality of such members. A quality defined by sound spirituality and doctrine, manifesting in holiness and love.
The Context of His Farewell
In the context of his Farewell Oration, he speaks to a church where the Nicene community has recently regained power from the Anti-Nicene’s; finally having the support of imperial policy on its side. It is “a people now grown from small to great, from scattered to well-knit, from a pitiable even to an enviable state”—and Gregory testifies to this increase as the work of God, the rich harvest won through his ministry with the support of his companions.[vi] Yet he does not praise the increase in numbers as the real reason to rejoice, but the increase in this people’s quality: a people who soundly “worship the Trinity”.[vii]
Gregory—God and Numbers
In the following extract Gregory shares what he thought he “heard God saying” (Or 42:8) in those days when the faithful adherents of the Trinity in Constantinople were a mere remnant, “tiny and poor” (Or 42:4), vastly outweighed by those who “wickedly divided” the Godhead in their false doctrines: many of whom, brought from darkness to light, falsehood to truth, now stand before Gregory as he speaks.
“But you build walls around me, and marble slabs and mosaic floors, long colonnades and porticoes; you glitter and shine with gold, spending it like water and gathering it up like sand, forgetting that faith camping in the open is worth more than the richest impiety, and that three-people gathered in the name of the Lord are worth more to God than tens of thousands who deny the divinity. Do you value the Canaanites more than Abraham, all by himself? Or the Sodomites more than Lot on his own? Or the Midianites more than Moses—though all of these were aliens and strangers? What of the three hundred of Gideon, who manfully lapped up the water, while thousands were rejected? What of Abraham’s household slaves, a few more than these in number, who pursued and defeated many kings and their armies of thousands of men, few though they were? And how do you understand this passage: ‘If the number of the children of Israel should become as the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved?’ Or this: ‘I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bent their knees to Baal.’ No this is not the solution—God does not delight in numbers![viii]
The Approach of a Spiritual Man
Gregory understood this Scripturally-derived lesson of God so very clearly. His understanding was applied in the way he went about his ministry. Faced with a tiny remnant Gregory did not conjure up systematic methods to increase his flock, with the mind of an accountant and tact of an administrator. Nor did he subject himself to human standards at the compromise of the Gospel message to gain sympathizers (Or 42:19). Nor did he play politics, to win members to his flock—siding with one faction against another, but he simply delineated between truth and falsehood, paying no regard to human groupings. And nor did he lord his authority over the Anti-Nicene’s in order to crush them, and consolidate the numbers of his Nicene-flock, when the tables turned in his camps’ favor, but rather he acted mercifully, to the point of being blamed for leniency by his very own.
For St. Gregory was a spiritual man, who saw things with a spiritual eye. Seeing success in the quality of his people, not in their numbers; to the point he even lost favor with much of his own due to his steadfastness to the Gospel of mercy. He knew what was at stake — “the salvation of the soul”— and saw his pastoral responsibility with a sharpness of vision: “to guard and protect his flock” but above all “by distributing the word” in teaching, example and the sacraments, which he calls “the first of our tasks” (Or 2:35).[ix]
In one of his poems he defends his Word-focused approach as a Bishop; an approach carried out from the motive of saving souls, not to increasing numbers for the sake of numbers:
You’ve been considering a bishop as you would an accountant, laying stress on mere rubbish, where I’ve been concerned with important issues. A priest should have one function and one only, the sanctification of souls by his life and teaching… Other matters he should relinquish to those skilled in them.[x]
Learning from Gregory
There is so much we can learn from St. Gregory on the cult of numbers. The lesson he understood so well, is perennially relevant to the Church in all its spheres: on the universal scale, the local parish scale, on the level of the religious community, and even to the microcosm of every youth, bible study or prayer group. The value of all of these is not weighed by the numbers of attendants or alleged adherents, but on the quality of the interior fruits of sound spirituality and doctrine, brought forth as the harvest of the Word; nourishing the real spiritual growth of its members, shown to be authentic by a visible and practical love.
It is easy for groups to become ‘accountant-minded’ and focus on numbers as the measure of spiritual success. Acting in ministry from the motive to “increase numbers,” and investing efforts to win “bums in seats.” Yet by focusing on numbers, we lose our focus of love—depersonalising the face of ‘the other’ into a mere number, thus losing sight of the face of Christ in our neighbour; and this is all a consequence of chasing after numbers instead of a deepened relationship with the Word and the lived proclamation of His Truth—a proclamation that reaches out to ‘the other’ as the image of God, not as the means to bump up a statistic.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus shows us that we need not focus on numbers, for “God does not delight in numbers!” but we need only focus on God the Trinity, seeking to increase the quality of the “tiny and poor” remnant in our midst—above all by seeking the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ourselves (in prayer, instruction and the sacraments); and this labour will be blessed by God who in time, will bring forth an increase far greater in quality and quantity, than we could ever achieve by our quest for greater numbers.
God did so in Constantinople in the fourth-century A.D., and He can do so again in our day; so long as we see like Gregory that our strength lies not in numbers, but in our God, and the unconditional Love He has for us (Ps 28:7). That Love of the Father for the Son, the Love who is the Holy Spirit—and increasing in this Love, which always reaches out, and not in numbers, must be our sole and only focus.
[i] Brian E. Daley, S.J., Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2006), Oration 42:16, pp. 147-148.
There is good reason that St. Francis de Sales is the patron of writers—he really had a way with words. During his lifetime, he wrote pamphlets defending the faith that actually converted many people away from heresy. He also wrote books advising laypeople in the spiritual life, which was a revolutionary concept at the time. These books instructed ordinary people in how to grow in spiritual life according to their vocation, helping them to understand that holiness wasn’t just for those in the religious life. We still have a lot we can learn from St. Francis de Sales today!
1. “Have patience in all things—but first of all, with yourself.”
True growth happens slowly. We are all human beings, prone to making mistakes, and we can’t let our faults frustrate us. Instead, we can acknowledge in humility that we’ve messed up and ask God to forgive us and help us. We can’t expect to be perfect; we must allow ourselves to be dependent upon Him.
2. “Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.”
St. Francis de Sales struggled with anger. In his youth he was hotheaded, but in adulthood he was known for his incredible patience and calm spirit—a direct result of prayer. When he recognized that his short temper was holding him back and drawing his attention away from God, he prayed for inner peace and made efforts to hold back his anger. As a result, he learned the value of maintaining inner peace in all things.
3. “There was never an angry man that thought his anger unjust.”
When we are consumed with anger, it can blind us to the truth of the situation. Our own perspective always seems right—and everyone else utterly wrong—when it’s filtered through the lens of passionate fury. Only if we remain calm can we see the truth.
4. “Those who love to be feared fear to be loved.”
When we seek power over relationships, it is a sign that we are letting fear run our lives instead of love. Allowing ourselves to be loved means relinquishing control and making ourselves vulnerable, but it is always worth it.
5. “Retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart, even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others, and talk to God.”
If we learn to rely on God’s love to sustain us, even as we are surrounded with other distractions, we will find unfailing support through the ups and downs of our lives. Every so often, we need to take a moment and direct our attention to God’s presence.
6. “Reputation is rarely proportioned to virtue.”
A reminder that we should never be too preoccupied with what others think about us—what really matters is what God thinks of us, and public opinion rarely aligns with God’s opinion.
7. “When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.”
Rather than reacting forcefully in the moment, we can effect more lasting change if we respond with patience and kindness, never allowing the challenges we face to disturb our inner peace.
8. “True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.”
God works powerfully and mysteriously. Often we don’t realize the changes He’s making in our lives while they’re happening, but when we look back, we see how He has led us. But if we despair in the moment that it seems we are making no progress, we might become discouraged and give up. Keeping our focus outward, on God and others instead of on ourselves, will leave room for God to do His work in us.
9. “Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”
Don’t have time to pray? That means you need to pray even longer than usual. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s actually true—when we are overscheduled and overstressed, the only way we can survive is if we abandon ourselves to God. Time spent in prayer will help us to step back and see our lives more clearly, and we will be able to discern which things deserve our attention and which things just aren’t necessary. Only prayer will help us get our priorities in order.
10. “Be who you are and be that well.”
Each of us has different gifts to offer the world, and comparison will only distract us from the amazing gifts we’ve been given. Instead of trying to be someone else, strive to become the best version of yourself. Recognize that God has given you a very particular mission, one that only you are equipped to carry out.
I adore Dorothy Day. That’s the reason why I picked up this book. Like Dorothy Day, when I first met Thérèse of Lisieux, I wasn’t very impressed. Day describes Thérèse of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul as “pious pap” the first time she read it. But as life goes on and wisdom is gained, opinions change. Dorothy Day, as one reviewer states, may not be a Thérèse of Lisieux scholar, but she may be the Little Flower’s most “adept and significant student.” Before this book, the only book I had read by or about Thérèse was Story of a Soul. Now, with Day’s influence, I’m interested in learning more, particularly about her and her sisters.
This short biography breathes life into this saint and applies her life and teachings to the modern world. It is well-addressed to other people who like Day had trouble relating to Thérèse at first. It breathes life into the saint. The reader gets to see Day really in a kind of dialogue with Thérèse’s life and teachings.
So, what does this saint have to say about the world today? As Dorothy Day says in the book:
With governments becoming stronger and more centralized, the common man feels his ineffectiveness. When the whole world seems given over to preparedness for war and the show of force, the message of Thérèse is quite a different one.
Day was writing this book in 1960, but her insights in this book are just as true, if not more so, 56 years later. With the advent of the internet and social media, we’re now bombarded with rage porn and we’re all screaming into the void. Everyone wants to be internet famous. From the richest billionaire in the board room to the poorest homeless teenager on the streets, everyone is looking for attention, everyone wants the biggest, loudest, fanciest thing.
In this world, Thérèse says the same thing she’s said for over a hundred years, “be little, be small, be like a child, be like putty in God’s hands.” This isn’t to say you can’t stand up against injustice. Dorothy Day, one of her spiritual children, is a good example of that. But imitating Christ isn’t just for big, flashy things. It’s the small acts of everyday life that we will all ultimately have to answer for. And, at the end of the day, God is the only Person you have to please. Forget all the anger, all the fame, all the noise. Forget all the stuff, all the media, all the busyness. Be who God wants you to be right now. Do what God wants you to do right now. Act with God’s love right now. Thérèse’s message is truly counter-cultural. That’s what makes her relevant and needed even now.
I first encountered Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur about five years ago when I was towards the beginning stages of my spiritual dry spell. The Magnificat had included a reflection of hers that reads:
“Those who seem to be spiritually dead are not always those least accessible to the divine Word; when wood is dead, it needs only a spark to set it afire.”
These words spoke very loudly to me, like a loud voice in a once silent room. At the time, I felt like that dead wood, searching for that spark, and reading her words set me on a journey of discovering a new saintly friend.
Elisabeth Leseur was born in 1866 in Paris to a wealthy French Catholic family. She had hepatitis as a child, and it recurred throughout her life. In 1887, she met Dr. Felix Leseur, also from an affluent, Catholic family, and they were married in 1889. However, shortly before they were married, she discovered that her husband-to-be was no longer a practicing Catholic. Felix was an outspoken atheist, and he would bring these anti-religious attacks against Elisabeth. Prompted by her husband’s confrontations, she probed deeper into her own faith, and she experienced a profound religious conversion at the age of 32. At that moment, she saw that her biggest task in life was to pray for her husband’s conversion while remaining patient with his criticism of her faith. She took all of this in stride throughout her marriage, bearing her cross silently, only to share her sufferings with her diary and with those she had a spiritual correspondence through letters. She wrote in her diary:
“We pray, suffer, and labor unaware of the consequence of our action and prayers. God makes them serve his plan; gradually, they take effect, winning one soul, then another.”
This was not the end of her inner suffering, though. Elisabeth experienced profound spiritual darkness at times during her marriage and felt deep loneliness from being isolated for her faith in her marriage and feeling apart from God. When she did write about her struggles in her diary, her entries are filled with longing for God, to feel his spark again. Despite the darkness she felt, she often saw the good that God would bring out of her suffering, and the peace she felt in discovering God each time anew:
“It is surprising to see how much spiritual progress we make in times of aridity, when no conscious joy of any kind unites our souls with God. It is then indeed God himself whom we love, and not his consolations; and whatever we do then, requiring constant effort and appeals for grace, is indeed duty in all its starkness. Then, when the dusty road is over and the way becomes easier, we are astonished to see how far we have come; sometimes we arrive at a gentle resting place, in peace, near the heart of God.”
In addition to her interior suffering, Elisabeth suffered from many physical afflictions. She and her husband also bore the cross of infertility, never to have children. In 1907, she became so ill that she was forced to live a highly sedentary life, directing her affairs from a chaise lounge in her home. Despite these sufferings, she didn’t let this stop her. She was quite intelligent and wrote on political and women’s issues for the time. She also had a great love for the poor and was active in a lot of charity work, although this greatly deteriorated as her health declined. In 1911, she received radiation for a malignant tumor, and while she initially recovered, she passed away from cancer in 1914.
But her story doesn’t end there. After her death, her husband found a note by her addressed to himself that prophesied about his conversion and him becoming a priest. She said:
“I shall die before you.
And when I am dead,
you will be converted;
and when you are converted,
you will become a religious.
You will be Father Leseur.”
In order to prove his wife wrong, Felix went to Lourdes to expose it as fake, but instead he experienced his own religious conversion. He read and re-read her diary, and was finally made aware of the holy woman with whom he had spent so many years. He wrote of his conversion:
“And so from her Journal I perceived clearly the inner meaning of Elisabeth’s existence, so grand in its humility. I came to appreciate the splendor of the faith of which I had seen such wonderful effects. The eyes of my soul were opened. I turned toward God, who called to me. I confessed my faults to a priest and was reconciled to the Church.”
And her prophesy did come true. In 1919, Felix became a Dominican novice and was ordained a priest in 1923. For the next 27 years, he spent much of his priestly vocation speaking about his wife’s spiritual writings, and he constantly looked to her for guidance, writing: “Elisabeth had led me to the truth, and even today, in my inmost being, I continue to feel her guiding my steps to a more perfect union with God.” He shared her holiness with the world by publishing her diary, and he was an instrumental part in opening the cause for her canonization in 1934.
There is so much to admire about Elisabeth, and I pray that she is canonized someday. She is a role model and provides us with many spiritual lessons, just from her life and death. She was a laywoman, and she shows especially those of us who do not have a call to the religious life how to live a holy life through our lay vocations (although her spiritual guidance is also incredibly appropriate for priests and religious). She was faithful to her marriage, despite the attacks she endured (and despite how it sounds, she and Felix loved each other very much). She teaches us how to bear with those who persecute us, especially those who we love, by being patient with them and praying for their conversion all while living an interior spiritual life. And with her holiness, she struggled in her faith as so many of us do, and while she experienced profound spiritual darkness, she never gave up on God. She saw the good He worked in her life through her suffering, and she offered up her sufferings for others, even to the point of offering her own death.
“It is not pride, is it, to call myself your friend, one you have called, your chosen friend? I see the traces of your love everywhere, the divine call everywhere, my vocation everywhere. You made use of trials, suffering, and illness to make me completely yours and to make me holy, first drawing me to you solely by your action within me. You have done everything. Now complete your work; make me holy according to your will; use me for others, for my beloved ones, for all your interests; use me for your greater glory, and let all be done in silence and in an intimate encounter between us alone. From the depths of my being and my misery I say, ‘Lord, what will you have me do? Speak, your servant listens; I am the handmaid of the Lord; I come, Father, ready to do your will’ (Luke 1:38).”
I thought this morning that holiness comes like a sunrise. The Holy Spirit hovers over the waters, filling the earth with goodness and light. A sinner becomes a saint as an acorn becomes a tree or a boy becomes a man: slowly. Despair would have us feel the defeats more acutely than the victories. Nor do we win the battle overnight. As the sky is not black one moment and white the next, so sanctification does not come all at once. Rather, we live in the oranges, purples, greys, and pinks before the full light of day.
Holiness dawns as Christ woos us into His love. As Anne of Green Gables reflects, “Perhaps, after all, romance did not come into one’s life with pomp and blare, like a gay knight riding down; perhaps it crept to one’s side like an old friend through quiet ways” (Anne of Avonlea). Holiness resembles romance in this way: one must wait and be willing to say yes. It trembles, wavers, and quakes until it finds sure footing and takes root.
One tells a love story from the vantage point of its conclusion: the radiance of glory. The bumps and dips along the way become part of the story, and we can see in retrospect the arch of our growth in holiness. But resisting temptation and fleeing the devil never seem so glorious at the time. It feels rather droll to deny oneself. Who dares to pray for patience? Gerard Manley Hopkins bemoans this painful virtue: “Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray, / But bid for, patience is! Patience who asks / Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks; / To do without, take tosses, and obey.” If we truly prayed, “deliver us from evil,” we would never sin again. We only lack desire. God never causes us to sin but rather gives us strength sufficient to resist temptation. We want to keep the vestiges of the old man; we nurse our pet sins, give them safe harbor, dress them up, and pamper them as Julia in Brideshead Revisited: “Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful.” We would rather dwell in darkness than walk out into His marvelous light. We think we are happier this way because we cannot bear to look into the sun of His holiness.
If God called us into His presence today, we would surely burn up. He must prepare us to enjoy Him; we have to acquire a taste for heaven. For this reason holiness dawns gradually, remaking us and giving us the endurance to behold His glory. An immediate transformation would prove too painful. Instead, God chips away at our faults to yield the sculpture He envisions. He prunes us so we may blossom. Then finally we shall be like Him because we shall behold Him as He is. Made fully holy, we will possess the ability to look the sun full in the face.
In this journey into the light, we should hold fast Bishop Chaput’s words, “There are no unhappy saints.” Leon Bloy offers the corollary of this truth, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” Indeed, His yoke is easy and His burden is light. If we truly believed this, we could be happy and holy tomorrow. He would give us happiness if we would let Him. He gives us perfect strength to stand to resist temptation. We know it is through no fault of His that we sin but rather through our free will. Perfect love casts out fear: fear of self-denial, fear of serving others, fear of decreasing so that Christ may increase. He wants to give us happiness, if only we would say yes to His will.
 Charles J. Chaput, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” First Things, January 2015, 26
Today at Holy Hour I read this passage in “The Living Flame of Love,” by St. John of the Cross:
He [The Holy Spirit] touches the soul not with His shadow only, for He unites Him self to it, feeling and tasting with it the form and attributes of God in the shadow of God: that is, feeling and tasting the property of divine power in the shadow of omnipotence: feeling and tasting the divine wisdom in the shadow of the divine wisdom: and finally, tasting the glory of God in the shadow of glory, which begets the knowledge and the taste of the property and form of the glory of God.”
If, like me, you are the sort of person who rarely if ever has the sensation of “feeling and tasting” the presence of Jesus, this is a very comforting passage. Certainly I believe that Jesus is present in the Tabernacle, in my soul in the state of grace, in the Eucharist. I would go so far as to say that I know this with a conviction that surpasses mere intellectual knowledge.
I have invested myself in it, like rappelling off a cliff. I know that the rope will hold me before I go. Afterwards I really know it from experience. However at no point during the rappel do I feel secure. I still feel as if the rope were going to snap at any second. It doesn’t really matter because I’m all in one way or the other, and that is the important thing.
Knowing is a gift, and being able to act on that knowledge is also a gift, but sometimes I think it would be nice to feel as well. This is why that passage from St. J of X (as Sir Alec Guinness affectionately called him) is so comforting. I may not be sensible of feeling or tasting the power and wisdom and glory of God, but that doesn’t really matter. The Holy Spirit is and does. When the Holy Spirit enters my soul He takes up residence and continues His eternal act of worship and communion with the Father and the Son. He feels and tastes the totality of the Godhead, which I am incapable of. By remaining in the State of Grace and by consciously uniting myself to that prayer, I make it my own. I am drawn into it, because I become a temple of the Holy Spirit.
I am sure I don’t know why I feel comforted by this, but there you have it. It doesn’t matter what I feel or don’t feel, as long as the Holy Spirit feels and tastes. More to the point, the Holy Spirit opens my eyes to various obstacles and hindrances I place between myself and being more fully entered into this eternal prayer. That gives me more than enough work to do. It sends me over the cliff edge, if you will.
It makes me go all in, which is really the important thing anyway.
Here are 8 great Christian songs. (The links lead to the corresponding audio via YouTube.)
1. Hail, Holy Queen. This is, by far, my favorite hymn. Hearing it during the closing procession at the evening Mass on the Solemnity of the Assumption this past week was one of the highlights of that day. And I’m not the only one that shares such a high enthusiasm for it – after all, who could forget the famous Sister Act version?
2. Panis Angelicus. It was written by St. Thomas Aquinas as part of Sacris Solemniis, and it is one of my all-time favorite songs – out of every genre. If it were up to me, singing it would be mandatory around the Eucharist at every Mass. The polished version from Luciano Pavarotti is the best.
3. Turn Around. I’m not a big Matt Maher fan, which is probably due to my unsatisfying Protestant upbringing and, stemming from that, my general distaste for anything affiliated with the charismatic movement. Despite this, the song contains a good message on God’s grace, and I can be occasionally caught humming it.
4. Dies Irae. Considering its prominence in the traditional Requiem Mass, this chant about Judgment Day is hardly uplifting, but it maintains a sense of the sacred that I find lacking in most other songs.
5. The Litany of the Saints. I never hesitate to give credit to this prayer when discussing my conversion to Catholicism. This particular rendition from the 2005 papal conclave always fills me with awe.
6. Te Deum. It has traditionally been ascribed to St. Ambrose and St. Augustine (two of my favorite saints!), and it is simply great. I was first introduced to it by an Anglican, surprisingly enough. The lyrics are not especially profound, but they provide a captivating reflection on the grandness of God.
7. Miserere. This Latin classic is based on Psalm 51 (Greek: 50), which enshrines contrition.
8. The Paraklesis. It consists of a series of odes to Mary, the Theotokos (Mother of God). This version from the Greek Orthodox is beautiful. (An English translation is available in the video’s description.)
What are your favorites? Please share them in the comments section below.