Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, January 20. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.
Brothers and sisters, in your relations with one another,
clothe yourselves with humility,
because God “is stern with the arrogant
but to the humble he shows kindness.”
Bow humbly before God’s mighty hand,
so that in due time he may lift you high.
Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you.
Stay sober and alert.
Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.
Resist him, solid in your faith,
realizing that the brotherhood of believers
is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.
The God of all grace,
who called you to his everlasting glory in Christ,
will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish
those who have suffered a little while.
Dominion be his throughout the ages! Amen. (1 Peter 5:5b–11)
Today is the feast of a martyr, St. Sebastian, who gave his life for Christ in the third century, under the emperor Diocletian. Christian art depicts Sebastian as an alter Christus, muscular, young, bound naked to a post, his body shot full of arrows, as Jesus was nailed to his Cross. The epistle of Peter speaks to Sebastian and to all the martyrs. It rings in their ears: “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:–9). A prowling lion! During the reigns of Nero and Diocletian, Christians were literally fed to lions.
Throughout the centuries, however, the epistle’s exhortation sounds in the present tense. When has the age of martyrs ever ended? To Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., who died on January 20, 1873, and whose feast we also observe today—to him too came the call to martyrdom! A martyrdom suffered not with a pagan emperor’s arrows and not through violent death, but through the suppression of the Church in a fiercely laical France. Facing that hostility and the countless challenges that were his as a founder, he looked to the Cross as his—and our—only hope.
We celebrate these Vespers on the eve of the departure of Notre Dame students and faculty who will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to bear witness to the sanctity of human life in the midst of a culture of death. They will end their march at the steps leading up to the Supreme Court Building, where the Roe v. Wade decision was made in 1973, and where an important case with regard to religious liberty and health care is currently being considered. To the Little Sisters of the Poor, their legal defenders, and their co-litigants, the call to martyrdom has also come. Staying “sober and alert,” they have “cast all their care” on the Lord who cares for them, trusting that he “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish those who have suffered a little while” (1 Pet 5:7–8, 10).
According to the epistle we have just heard, Christians undergoing persecution and trial can draw strength from the knowledge that they do not suffer alone, that “the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:9). In our day, “throughout the world” brings to mind a litany of place names: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burundi, Mexico, Brazil, refugee camps in Europe. Everywhere the lion prowls. And everywhere brave souls continue to love, to hope, to confess Christ, to bow humbly beneath the cross, terrible and triumphant, that conforms the Christian to Christ. Ave Crux, Spes Unica!
On this day, January 20, in 1942, Servant of God Joseph Kentenich (1885–1968), a Pallottine priest and the founder of Schoenstatt, celebrated Holy Mass in his prison cell. Soon to be sent to Dachau, where he was to suffer for three and a half years, Fr. Kentenich freely laid down his life in union with Christ during that Eucharist, celebrated alone and in secret, but in spiritual union with his followers, some of whom were already prisoners in the concentration camp. “The brotherhood of believers” (1 Pet 5:9)! Fr. Kentenich’s risk-taking, his trusting “yes” to the Cross, expressed his deep faith in Christ, but also in the mystical body of Christ, the communion of saints. “What I do, what I suffer, how I love, affects others,” he wrote.
Let us live our lives, day by day, in a greater consciousness of our responsibility for one another, in solidarity with the martyrs who suffer not only for Christ but, in Christ, for us.
I often do not know what to think during Eucharistic Adoration. Sometimes, I’m just too tired and want to fall asleep. Other times, I think too much, preoccupied with the details of the service. What is the priest doing? I hope he doesn’t trip over his vestments when he stands up. Should I be kneeling or sitting? I hope nobody notices how off-key I am when I sing. Oh, shoot, I wasn’t supposed to say that response yet – how embarrassing. Person behind me, please stop shuffling and making all that noise. Wow, look at that incense cloud wafting up to the ceiling. Incense smells so good, but I hope no one here is allergic to it. I wonder if I can translate this Latin text of the Tantum Ergo. Oh no, my stomach is growling so loudly… I hope the music comes on soon. I don’t like this song; I wish they’d stop playing and just let there be silence. Why can’t there be a prettier-looking monstrance? Gosh, that person looks so holy and focused in prayer. I wish I could be, too.
I try to close my eyes to stop taking in so much external stimuli. But then, images from the course of the day or fantasies I conjure up enter in, and my mind wanders even more, dwelling on things that I probably shouldn’t be thinking about. Why can’t I concentrate? I then try to think about theological ideas that I’ve learned, such as Eucharistic Real Presence, the Incarnate Word of God, transubstantiation, and the Trinity in an attempt to help me focus. Okay, so this is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died and rose from the dead. He’s the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God who was present before all creation and through whom all creation came into being. He became incarnate in human flesh at a particular moment in history. I’m looking at the Body of Christ, the Eucharist that I receive at Mass, the transubstantiated element of bread, now no longer the substance of bread, even though the accidents are still there, but now the substance of the risen Jesus himself. He is really present…but it looks like bread, and I still don’t really feel anything. Or perhaps I’m touched by the light shining on the monstrance, which makes it seem like Jesus is radiating his light on all of us, but is that just aesthetics? And so my thoughts keep spiraling.
Grace, stop. Don’t think so much. Just pray.
But… I don’t know how. What do I do? How is prayer different from thinking? I stare at the white disc in the monstrance, trying to keep my thoughts at bay, and trying to think of things to say to God, to Jesus, who should be my most intimate friend and with whom I should be able to share the desires of my heart, my sorrows, and my moments of happiness and gratitude. I’m mostly unsuccessful, however, because my thoughts have just turned to the historical and theological exegesis that my theology classes have been doing on the Lord’s Prayer.
I sigh, and I try to think of simpler things. I know that I am waiting for something – an encounter with a Person, whom I know also seeks me, but infinitely more so than I seek Him. My heart, however, seems as if it is unresponsive to the great wonder of the Lord’s real presence before me, and I begin to give up on finding some disposition of prayer before the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is over for the evening. Will I ever be able to be open, still, and humble enough to allow God’s advent into my heart? Finally, a short and simple prayer comes into my mind:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This is the “Jesus Prayer.” The Jesus Prayer is often associated with The Way of the Pilgrim and Other Classics of Russian Spirituality and the hesychast tradition of illumination and transfiguration of the human person in the Taboric light, with a special emphasis on mercy and penance. But of course, you don’t need to know that in order to realize the power of the Jesus Prayer and the mercy of God.
What’s truly important is this: In the resonant silence of adoration, mercy seeps in. In a quiet, humble town in Israel, an infant was born. God makes the first move, but it is often unnoticed. I had never thought of Jesus before as Mercy itself, and I had not begun to recognize God’s subtle but powerful act of mercy in my life until now.
Saint Faustina, a Polish nun, was a person who recognized the importance of this divine mercy and its advent in the human heart. The Divine Mercy Chaplet is a well-known devotional prayer that arises out of her contemplation of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and her encounters with him in visions. The chaplet essentially has three simple prayers:
“Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and the Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.”
“For the sake of Your sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
“O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of Mercy for us, I trust in You.”
Throughout her conversations in prayer with Jesus, St. Faustina took to heart the vital message of the mercy of God made incarnate in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Mercy itself entered into history and radically interrupted the course of human existence with the indescribable gift of his self-giving love. The mercy of God was outpoured in the Incarnation and on the Cross; the mystery of blood and water in his flesh and gushing out of his pierced side reveals to us the extraordinary love of God. What happens when we are the recipients of mercy? Oftentimes, we are incredulous because we feel that it is mercy we don’t deserve. That sort of freely given and unmerited gift shocks us. It demands a response, but there is no adequate response that we can give, other than by offering back to God the gift given to us in the Eucharist and trusting in His great mercy. Thus, mercy also inspires gratitude; it forms in us a disposition of thanksgiving.
Mercy transforms, and we enter into transfiguration. Mercy inspires conversion, and it allows us to enter into an authentic freedom of the heart, freedom to receive and to give to those who are our sisters and brothers in Christ. For St. Faustina, love and mercy unites the Creator with his creation, and this is ultimately expressed in the Incarnation and the Redemption, as she explains through her experience at Eucharistic Adoration one day:
“When I was in Church waiting for confession, I saw the same rays (that is, as those depicted on the revealed image of the Divine Mercy) issuing from the monstrance and they spread throughout the church. This lasted all through the service. After the benediction (the rays came forth) on both sides and returned again to the monstrance. Their appearance was bright and clear as crystal. I asked Jesus that He deign to light the fire of His love in all souls that were cold. Beneath these rays a heart will be warmed even if it were like a block of ice; even if it were as hard as rock, it will crumble into dust.
And I understood that the greatest attribute of God is love and mercy. It unites the creature with the Creator. This immense love and abyss of mercy are made known in the Incarnation of the Word and in the Redemption [of humanity], and it is here that I saw this as the greatest of all God’s attributes.”
The Word that He is and the Word that He speaks is mercy. And so, the silence we experience at Eucharistic Adoration is a silence pregnant with meaning. It is the advent of this mercy in the human heart for which we try to prepare; it is this mercy that we come to adore at Christmas. We must cultivate humility to ask for and receive this mercy. We may have nothing to offer, except for swaddling clothes to hold him, but over time, we can let the cradle of our hearts in which we hold him become the monstrance of our hearts.
O, come, let us adore Him. Let us prepare him room and allow Him to enter in and warm us. His is the light that we radiate to the world from our inner monstrance – rays of divine mercy, of redeeming blood and water, that transform our vision and the world. Does your soul feel cold or unfeeling? Has the night of loneliness been too long? Come, be warmed in the rays of Divine Mercy, be enkindled in the fire of His love.
Over this your white grave
the flowers of life in white–
so many years without you–
how many have passed out of sight?
Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.
Over this your white grave
oh, mother, can such loving cease?
for all his filial adoration
Give her eternal peace–
Saint John Paul II, like so many of us, grappled with questions of human fragility and mortality, seeming meaninglessness in death, and the deep pain of losing a loved one.
Karol Wojtyla, as he was known before he became pope, wrote this poem in Krakow, Poland in the spring of 1939. His mother had died of heart and kidney problems ten years earlier, when Karol was just barely nine years old and had not yet made his First Communion. After she died, Karol’s father took him to one of Poland’s Marian shrines, Kalwaria, close to their hometown of Wadowice. It is likely that Karol’s lifelong devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, really began during that time and was strengthened amidst his grief at the loss of his own mother.
The pain of Karol’s loss is very much present in this poem – a relationship that was, a relationship that could have been so much more – yet her life was cut short by her illness and subsequent death. Years after the event, he continues to reflect on his mother’s death and his own emotions. Perhaps the reader is to interpret this whole poem as a metaphor for the place in Karol’s heart where the memory of his mother resides.
Each stanza of this poem begins with the words, “Over this your white grave,” which leads the reader into three striking images. First, there appears an image of a white grave, on top of which is strewn white flowers. Yet, second, there seems to be a certain covering or “veil” over the grave. Third, the reader perceives an image of Karol standing over the grave, feeling deeply his love for his mother that still persists even after all these years without her physical presence in his life.
The color white plays a significant role in this poem as well, describing both the grave and “the flowers of life” which cover it. White often symbolizes notions of purity, innocence, undying fidelity, respect, and peace, and it is frequently used to accentuate important moments in the course of the human life, such as birth, baptism, First Communion, marriage, and death. In this poem, the use of the color white seems to convey a tone of reverence and tranquility in the presence of the beloved dead, and white seems to frame Karol’s devotion to his mother and his recollections of those pure, essential moments of life (“the flowers of life”) in which love was given and received.
While the color white may indicate aspects of the state of death, it may also point toward new life. Memory and mystery come together in death and are transfigured in light of Christianity. Karol writes about some sort of “veil” being lifted, almost like a burial shroud. Perhaps the reader can interpret this as an image pointing toward the burial shroud being “lifted” from the body of Jesus in his Resurrection, revealing that this man, who underwent human suffering and death at its most horrific, conquered death and is risen with a transfigured body. Like death, the Resurrection is something so beyond human comprehension. Nevertheless, it uplifts us; it gives us hope. Perhaps that is what Karol begins to see. There is hope; there is something that breaks the bonds of death. Death does not have the last word, and it is this hope that will give him peace.
Something intriguing happens in the last stanza of the poem. In the first part of the stanza, Karol continues to address his mother using the first person, but then, he switches to the third person for the rest of the stanza, which is a prayer for eternal rest for his mother. I suggest that this shift in address occurs because he has learned to let himself into the arms of his spiritual mother, Mary. Her embrace has been one of utter consolation for the young Karol. Throughout his adolescent years and the beginning of his priesthood, he was often seen praying the rosary, lost in contemplation before an image of Mary, or sometimes even lying prostrate on the floor before the tabernacle.
This entrustment of his life to Mary becomes a recurring theme throughout his life, especially during his papacy. After he was critically injured in an assassination attempt, he visited Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to express his gratitude for the protection of the Blessed Mother, placing the bullet with which he was shot into her crown. He made several subsequent pilgrimages to various Marian shrines around the world, and he led an effort to consecrate the whole world to the protection of Mary. He promoted the rosary as an essential form of devotional prayer, even giving to the Church the Luminous Mysteries to help us further meditate on the life of Jesus, imitate Mary in her pondering of God’s action in her life through the sending of His Son, and emulate her example of love and humility. John Paul II’s papal motto was “Totus Tuus,” which means, “Totally Yours,” and is addressed to Mary, for in the act of entrustment of our hearts to her, she leads us to her Son, Jesus, who alone is the One to whom all our love is ultimately directed.
Let us, too, entrust ourselves and our loved ones, especially those who are sick, suffering, dying, or have passed on, to the maternal embrace of Mary. For it is she who knows most intimately the Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus. It is she who carried God in the flesh at his most vulnerable state – as an infant in her womb and as a dead man taken down from the Cross and buried in the tomb, and it is she who carries the Church and all people, especially at their most vulnerable state. It is she who understands the pain of human loss, and it is she who enjoys the fullness of life in God’s glory in heaven. Let us be wrapped in her mantle, a veil which protects and uplifts us, and brings us ever closer to her Son who conquered death and gives new life.
I have never been to Heaven, though I have been to Iowa. Iowa is not Heaven, but it may open to it. When Ray Kinsella built his Field of Dreams, he followed the seemingly nonsensical promise that turning his plowshares into baseball bats and his crop rows into foul lines would draw some untold company. But even as he built a destination for dreamers, the prophecy within the film—eventually spoken in the only voice that should ever deliver prophecy: that of James Earl Jones—reveals why the dream is for something other than the field itself. The thing that matters is not the place at journey’s end but to enjoy what you find there:
People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn into your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,” you’ll say, “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” And they’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk off to the bleachers and sit in their short sleeves on a perfect afternoon. And find they have reserved seats somewhere along the baselines where they sat when they were children, and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray.
I love the little throwaway line in the middle of this monologue where the mystical enjoyment of this game—on this field—is described as bringing the pilgrims enjoyment so wonderful that it will “be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters.” In Kinsella’s original book (which has somewhat bizarre religious overtones), this line is written like this: “…it will be as if they have knelt in front of a faith healer, or dipped themselves in magic waters where a saint once rose like a serpent and cast benedictions to the wind like peach petals,” (Shoeless Joe by Ray Kinsella). The contrast in images is startling, for a serpent rises up in order to strike with venom but in this case the rising up with the force of a serpent issues good-words that are as delicate, fragrant, and comforting as petals on the wind. I doubt Kinsella knew that he was basically describing Saint Juan Diego who as a child would have received a lecture from his father in which he was told “not to rise like a serpent and shoot out anger against the people, instead receive them in love,” (Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego: The Historical Evidence by Eduardo Chávez).
As a grown man, Juan fulfills and exceeds this instruction when, at Our Lady’s instruction, he rises up before the bishop to let petals fall from his tilma. Kinsella’s odd image suggests that one who embodies all the power of a striking serpent in order to bless rather than to curse is like a saint, and that the transformation of that power from fury to peace is like magic.
Imagine trying to teach a serpent to redirect all his instincts towards a new end. I imagine you would have to do nothing less than make him forget his former action before teaching him how to use the same power for a new action, one which is quite the opposite of his former one. That is what it would be like, say, for a soldier to wholly recast the power of his own efforts in favor of a new purpose—you know, like Ignatius of Loyola, who was first broken of his own ambitions in order to be re-educated for a new purpose. In service of that new purpose, Ignatius exercised no less passion than he did on the battlefield—i.e., he became the one who rose like a serpent not to strike down but to build up. Just so, the peasant Juan Diego takes on the serpent’s and soldier’s poise to strike with the blessing given to him from Our Lady. Perhaps Juan had to be given the soldier’s courage while Ignatius had to be given the peasant’s meekness. In either case, the union of opposites—“the meek soldier” and “the bold peasant”—is no less peculiar than a serpent offering benediction, which is so anomalous that only something like magic could explain it.
Which brings me back to that little throwaway line about being dipped in magic waters: You know who else imagined this kind of transformation in like terms? Dante. At the top of the Mountain of Purgatory—that place of transformation—Dante imagines two boundaries of water on either side of the Earthly Paradise. In truth, the two bodies of water are the same river that flow “from God’s own will” (Purgatorio 28:125), but on one side of the Earthly Paradise it is called Lethe and on the other it is called Eunoe. The River Lethe is a river of forgetfulness: as if by magic it “take[s] the memory of sin away,” (Purgatorio 28:128; cf. Inferno 14:136-138). These waters wash away all the prideful, envious, wrathful, slothful, covetous, gluttonous, and lustful urges, habits, and even consequences of such actions, leaving the one who emerges from the waters without memory. Every memory is taken away from the one who plunges into these waters because all of his memories—like that of a serpent for whom the instinct to strike with venom flows in every part of himself—were tinged with aspects of the sins that plague him. To be without memory, though, is to not be yourself, and to become yourself is the whole point of the purgatorial journey; therefore, on the other side of the Earthly Paradise, the River Eunoe flows to restore the memory of “all good done,” (Purgatorio 28:129; cf. 33:124-132, 142-145). All that power expended upon ulterior motives, slanderous thoughts and deeds, furtive games of rivalry, and acts of love muddied with undue self-regard… all of that power is restored and released for an holistic purpose: to praise the One who blesses and to serve the good of others. On the far side of Eunoe, the saint emerges with the power of a rising serpent speaking benedictions that are as fragrant, delicate, and comforting as petals on the wind.
Dante’s saints are free to praise and serve in the activity of Heaven, while Kinsella’s saints are free for what that dreamy field offers. For Dante, the saint is not simply defined as the one who passes from the Earthly Paradise to the Heavenly Paradise; rather, Dante’s saint is the one who enjoys the Heavenly Paradise. Likewise for Kinsella, the saints of baseball that he imagines are not made by coming to the Iowa field, but rather by enjoying the game they find there. Iowa isn’t Heaven because Heaven is not a goal, and Heaven is not a goal because gaining admission isn’t the point. Enjoying Heaven is the point.
John Henry Newman had a way of speaking of Heaven that made it seem rather un-enjoyable, at least at first glance. In one of his better-known sermons, he describes Heaven thusly:
Heaven then is not like this world; I will say what it is much more like—a church. For in a place of public worship no language of this world is heard; there are no schemes brought forward for temporal objects, great or small; no information how to strengthen our worldly interests, extend our influence, or establish our credit. These things indeed may be right in their way, so that we do not set our hearts upon them; still (I repeat), it is certain that we hear nothing of them in a church. Here we hear solely and entirely of God (“Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness”).
For most of us—myself included—spending eternity in a church actually sounds pretty terrible. If Heaven is like a church, then maybe it is rather like baseball: it’s tedious, it’s repetitive, and it takes forever. That, in fact, is precisely Newman’s point. We tend to conceive of Heaven on our own terms, but we would do well to practice re-conceiving of ourselves in the God-given terms of Heaven. The language of this world is often the language of suspicion and duplicity; the schemes of this world are typically directed towards one’s self-promotion; and the credit we seek to accrue in this world is weighed in the laudations we earn or even the laudations we trick others into conferring upon us. A church—rightly conceived—is a place free of these games because it practices its participants in another game: learning to enjoy that place where a good we do not earn is given and where we delight in sharing that good with others. That place is Heaven. In the world, we practice springing our energies in poisonous maneuvers to either subtly or not-so-subtly advance ourselves even at the expense of others. In a church we practice taking the good of others as our own good. The energy expended is comparable but the purpose is not. In a church, the mighty learn how to wield their might in favor of the meek and the meek learn how to boldly lead the mighty in benediction.
Only once our memories are cleansed of past grievances, shame, and worldly ambition, may our memories be restored to new life in forgiveness, gratitude, and charity. In a way reminiscent of Augustine’s contemplation of the life of the saints at the conclusion of Book XXII of City of God, Newman encourages us to seek memories redeemed in mercy:
Let us thankfully commemorate the many mercies He has vouchsafed to us in times past, the many sins He has not remembered, the many dangers He has averted, the many prayers He has answered, the many mistakes He has corrected, the many warnings, the many lessons, the much light, the abounding comfort which He has from time to time given. Let us dwell upon times and seasons, times of trouble, times of joy, times of trial, times of refreshment (“Remembrance of Past Mercies”).
There is a lot to remember there, and remembering all of that would take all of our energy, all of the time. This activity would be so engaging that we would hand over all we think we’ve earned and all we think we’re due as if we were “pass[ing] over money without even thinking about it” in order to enjoy the peace we once lacked. Money, here, stands for all that worldly ambition procures and giving that up is precisely the admission price for a “perfect afternoon”.
To think about this in another setting, consider the typically unadvertised condition of a majority (or at least a significant minority) of college students, including and perhaps especially those who are currently enrolled at their elite “dream schools”. The problem of conceiving of Heaven as a goal is echoed in the perils of conceiving of college admission itself as a goal, especially since in the case of the latter we often train children and teens to cultivate ambition toward that end, to measure themselves according to admissibility, and to compete with each other for position and ranking. For those in the most prestigious and selective colleges, the ambitious, achievement-driven, metrics-obsessed, comparison-laden, goal-oriented behaviors that they all virtually had to cultivate in order to get into their “dream schools” are the very same habits that prevent them from enjoying college.
When these students get to college, they keep often keep operating according to what they’ve been trained to value: the pursuit of accomplishments and the calculation of worth by inverse comparison to the merits of others. In short, their capacity to learn in order to grow, to venture even at the risk of failure, and to allow themselves to be seen as in process rather than finished products is dulled precisely because of how ‘the system’ (Newman’s “world”) shaped them in order to achieve admission to college and, moreover, what ‘the system’ continues to expect of them once they are in college. The antidote to the venom of the system is not to expect less of college students; in fact, the antidote is to expect more: they should be guided to be more fully human rather than little goal-gobbling achievement-machines, especially since little goal-gobbling achievement-machines eventually breakdown, whether during college or afterwards. (Full disclosure: I myself am a recovering goal-gobbling achievement-machine).
After all, you can’t enjoy a baseball game if you’re obsessed with how much everything costs, who has the best seat, and how to consistently “upgrade your experience,” just like you can’t enjoy Heaven if you keep thinking about how to get ahead, how to work the situation to your own advantage, or how to favorably compare your merits to those of others. In this regard, even elite Catholic colleges may not very much resemble Newman’s own idea of a university, which is certainly meant to cultivate virtue more than ambition, so that when the exorbitant tuition fees change hands it is not done with the consumer expectation that “I better get my money’s worth.” (Another note in the interest of full disclosure: I don’t think exorbitant tuition fees are okay.) What you should get when you gain admission is an education not for the sake of what you think you like but what will help you to enjoy life, unto life everlasting.
If we are to listen to the prophetic voice of James Earl Jones (as we always should), or that of Dante or of John Henry Newman, then we might come to imagine that if saints are indeed models, they are models not because of where they end up or what they achieve but because of who and what they become. The saints are grateful, they admire each other, they praise together, and they passionately enjoy all of this. The question of Iowa fields and (elite) colleges is also the question of Heaven itself: what are you learning to enjoy?
Jenny Martin Assistant Professor, Program of Liberal Studies; Concurrent Assistant Professor, Department of Theology University of Notre Dame
Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, October 28, the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.
For the past several years, I have led a freshman seminar on ancient Greek literature, which includes reading both the Iliad and Odyssey in full. In this context, my students and I talk a great deal about the nature of memory, and these Homeric epics in particular as books of memory. Not only was the oral recitation of these enormously long and detailed poems an impressive feat of memory in itself, but also the explicit themes of memory and forgetting are to the fore in terms of their content. It is most interesting to me in these discussions that for Homer, the relative merits and demerits of remembering or forgetting seem ambiguous.
Odysseus and his crew are constantly fighting against natural and supernatural forces that would have them forget themselves. His men eat Lotus Flowers and no longer remember their desire to go home, and the witch Circe detains the crew for a year with feasts and enchantments, moments of forgetting that are obviously problematic. But Helen puts nepenthe in the wine of Menelaus and Telemachus in order to dull the memory of their grief, which seems in some sense to be a mercy. The remembrance of family genealogies is crucial to establishing identity and friendship, yet many of Odysseus’ apparent memories of himself and his personal history turn out to be wholly contrived, works of fiction within a fiction constructed simply for strategy or effect. Furthermore, in a text that may ostensibly be about the virtue of remembering, it is perhaps doubly ironic that the Odyssey ends with Athena blotting out totally the community’s memory of Penelope’s numerous suitors whom Odysseus slays.
In both epics, but especially the Iliad, the heroes are all the time preoccupied with accumulating honor and glory for their heroic deeds, for bravado and courage in war, for acts of loyalty and patriotism, and so on: this drive for fame and personal honor motivates nearly every act, even or especially the most foolhardy, so again, it is difficult to tell if Homer is supporting or critiquing his culture’s preoccupation with being remembered as honorable.
Certainly, Odysseus’ rashest act and greatest mistake was his insistence on revealing his true name to the Cyclops Polyphemus: had he remained nameless, it is arguable that the god Poseidon would not have harried him so relentlessly. On his homeward journey in the Odyssey, Odysseus clings to a rock in the sea after shipwreck and laments that he should have died gloriously at Troy rather than have his deeds be forgotten with such an undistinguished death as drowning. It was not enough for the ancients that honorable deeds be performed; they must be witnessed and acclaimed by others or they could not, so to speak, be credited in the ledger books. In the Iliad, we see Achilles making the choice for an early, violent death in war with great honor and external praise over a long and happy life that is unremarked and unremarkable. And yet, when we come upon the shade of Achilles in the underworld in the Odyssey, he tells Odysseus that it would have been better in life had he been a poor, land-less peasant working in someone else’s fields. Mixed messages, to be sure.
On this feast of the Apostles St. Simon and St. Jude, about which very little is known, I would like to praise not their glorious deeds, but rather draw out the virtue of letting oneself go unremarked: how honorable it is to engage in quiet, everyday work that is neither broadcast nor publicized, thanked nor recognized, remembered neither in the annals of history nor the vocalizations of the epic poet. What is recorded in the Scriptures about Simon the Zealot and Jude, also called Thaddeus, is actually rather spare: they are listed by name alongside the other apostles in the synoptic Gospels and in Acts, and Jude is given a single line in the Gospel of John and a short epistle of only 24 verses. Their names are inscribed and recalled, yes, but the many particulars of their daily work on behalf of the kingdom of God are not known to us, or to anyone. Furthermore, even their names can be misremembered if not sometimes outright forgotten, overshadowed in Simon’s case by the far more prominent Simon Peter, and in Jude’s, by the far more infamous Judas Iscariot. Indeed, the tradition of Jude being the patron saint of lost or impossible causes could possibly be traced to this very confusion: because few would pray to Judas called Thaddeus, horrified that they might inadvertently be praying to Judas Iscariot, when he was called upon, Jude would be willing to intervene in even the most desperate of circumstances.
Tradition holds that Simon and Jude suffered a martyr’s death together while preaching as missionaries in Persia, with their bones buried together in the same tomb. Psalm 116:15 tells us that in the sight of the Lord, the death of the faithful is not simply remembered, but is precious, even if anonymous or unremarked. Though the days of mortals may indeed be like grass that withers and fades, “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps 103:15–16). That our lives and our deaths are gathered up, recollected in the deep memory of God the Father, who is all love and all gift, is everything. So Christian believers in the security of the steadfast love of God and the gift of the Church can afford more than the ancient Greeks to be anonymous, can afford to work—even heroically—without always seeking out the praise or recognition of others. As the letter to the Ephesians teaches, our Christian community is a body, and of a body, and works on behalf of the body of Christ, all without insisting that our individual accomplishments, gifts, reputations, or names be recognized and recorded as preeminent.
With God, there is a mysterious calculus at work, an impossible calculus not of the order of this world—whether ancient or modern—in which what is erased from or torn out of the ledger books endures all the same, and is in fact written more indelibly the less we contend for its recognition. The Psalmist also witnesses to this mysterious phenomenon of God’s peculiar book-keeping (what French poet Charles Péguy calls with gorgeous lucidity a “strange arithmetic”) where tears and weeping are sown, but shouts of joy reaped (Ps 126), where what is sown in darkness is gathered up, re-collected, recollected, in a light not weakly contrived or invented by human beings as a measure of worth, but in the true and brilliant light which is the glory of God and its lamp the Lamb (Rev 21:23).
In both our going forth and our coming homeward, let us endeavor to remember that the lives of the saints are luminous not on their own merit and an insistence upon being remembered, but only insofar as they allow themselves to be more and more deeply transparent to Christ, which, perhaps paradoxically, allows them in this surrender of visibility to be more genuinely themselves.
The doxology that ends St. Jude’s brief letter recollects this source of strength we have that is not our own but is all gift, and we will allow him the benediction this evening: “Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).
When I was preparing for Confirmation, I, precocious as I was then, wanted to pick an obscure saint for my name. In my scramble to outdo everyone in the class in originality, I stumbled upon Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred, a name with which I was not totally clear as regards pronunciation, seemed to be a perfect fit. None of my friends had heard of him. Neither did my teachers. Excellent. Problem solved.
Then I saw the following sentence in an online biography: “St. Aelred was never formally canonized.” I could not in good conscience, I thought, choose the name of a man whom history has masqueraded as a saint, but whose heroic virtues the Church had never officially recognized. For all I knew, he could have been a terrible person. Sufficiently scared away, I chose Francis, along with three other boys in my class. Francis was a good name, safe—most definitely canonized.
Of course, I had an oversimplified view of sanctity. I set Aelred aside and simply forgot about him. Two years ago, I found him again. Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) was the abbot of the Cistercian community at Rievaulx, in what is now Yorkshire in Northern England. A gigantic place, Rievaulx had over five-hundred choir monks and something like seven-hundred brothers. After his death, his biographer, a fellow monk named Walter Daniel, wrote that he was much beloved by all the monks. That in itself is a miracle in a community of that size. The biography is very hagiographic, to be sure. But it lacks in many of the things hagiography tends to have. Aelred never raised anyone from the dead. He never came even close to martyrdom. Instead, the overarching theme of the work is that he was loving. He was just a loving man, plagued with arthritis. I know many people like that.
His two best known works, Spiritual Friendship and Mirror of Charity changed my life. I learned in the former that friendship is a gift from God, and an essential element to the Christian life. He writes: “Friendship is that virtue, therefore, through which by a covenant of sweetest love our spirits are united and from many are made one.” Far from the cold, unfeeling medieval hierarch, Aelred touches upon the essence of community and Christian life together. In Mirror of Charity, Aelred writes some of the most stunning words I’ve ever read on imitation of Christ, especially as regards loving one’s enemies. He writes:
Hearing that wondrous voice, full of gentleness and love, saying, ‘Father, forgive them’, who would not immediately embrace his enemies? Father, forgive them; can any greater degree of gentleness and love be added to this prayer? However, he did add something. To pray for them was too little, he wished also to make excuses for them. He said: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
Further, Mirror of Charity was written at the request of Bernard of Clairvaux, a Doctor of the Church. Not only was Bernard a man of discerning tastes, but history has proven to us his holiness and
virtue—things he recognized in Aelred. In two quotes from him, we can see for ourselves why he was loved so much by his monks: he loved them. Aelred might have faded away, never to be remembered had he not written so beautifully. He could just as easily have been lost to time.
This is all to say that so many people in our Church past, present, and future are heroically virtuous. Ordinary holiness is not often recognized. Someone once told me that only one parish priest has ever been canonized: St. John Vianney. I don’t know if that’s true, but I wouldn’t doubt it. Ordinary people living ordinarily holy lives come a dime a dozen, thank God. Canonization used to be done by acclaim. Now, we have a formal process; that process does not lessen the holiness of everyday people.
When one flips through Butler’s Lives of the Saints, it is easy to be caught up in the sheer number of saints and blesseds. A great cloud of witnesses. But when we take the complete view of sanctity and holiness, the cloud of witnesses gets larger and larger. It’s a hurricane, a great gust of joy and love and worship. Let yourself get caught up in it.
Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, October 14, the memorial of St. Callistus. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.
O God, you search me and you know me, / you know my resting and my rising, / you discern my purpose from afar. / You mark when I walk or lie down, / all my ways lie open to you.
Before ever a word is on my tongue / you know it, O LORD, through and through. / Behind and before you besiege me, / your hand ever laid upon me. / Too wonderful for me, this knowledge, / too high, beyond my reach.
O where can I go from your spirit, / or where can I flee from your face? / If I climb the heavens, you are there. / If I lie in the grave, you are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn / and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, / even there your hand would lead me, / your right hand would hold me fast.
If I say, “Let the darkness hide me / and the light around me be night,” / even darkness is not darkness for you / and the night is as clear as the day.
For it was you who created my being, / knit me together in my mother’s womb. / I thank you for the wonder of my being, / for the wonders of all your creation.
Already you knew my soul, / my body held no secret from you / when I was being fashioned in secret / and molded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw all my actions, / they were all of them written in your book; / everyone of my days was decreed / before one of them came into being.
To me, how mysterious your thoughts, / the sum of them not to be numbered! / If I count them, they are more than the sand; / to finish, I must be eternal, like you.
O search me, God, and know my heart. / O test me and know my thoughts. / See that I follow not the wrong path / and lead me in the path of life eternal. (Ps 139)
The way we can be sure of our knowledge of Christ
is to keep his commandments.
The man who claims, “I have known him,”
without keeping his commandments is a liar;
in such a one there is no truth.
But whoever keeps his word, truly has the love of God
been made perfect in him.
The way we can be sure we are in union with him
is for the man who claims to abide in him
to conduct himself just as he did. (1 Jn 2:3–6)
Our psalm and our reading tell us that we are being measured.
I think we must be used to it here, at an institution like Notre Dame: We are measured by scores and resumes to get in; we are measured by exams and papers and grades while we’re students; we are measured by Endeavor goals and objectives as staff; we are measured by publication and tenure as faculty . . . currently there is even a wellness exam station in the library to measure our biometrics.
We are used to being measured . . . at least we are used to being measured for our doing: for our activity or for our output. Perhaps, though, we are not as used to being measured for our being. For our inmost thoughts and for our orientation either toward or away from God. But that is exactly what our psalm and our reading point to. We are being measured, and notably, only God can take our full measure.
Helpfully, we know the metric. Our reading is clear that there are two criteria for which we are accountable: keeping Jesus’ commandments, and conducting ourselves as Jesus did. Essentially, conforming ourselves to Christ. We know the metric and we don’t want to be found wanting.
The psalmist, in an effort not to be found wanting hedges her bets proclaiming, “How wonderful your wisdom…so far beyond my understanding” and “How mysterious your thoughts…”; if I tried to count them I would need to be eternal like you just to finish. It’s almost as though she is saying, I can’t possibly measure up.
Psalm 139 is unique as psalms go. It doesn’t exactly fit in any traditional categories (lament, praise, etc.). It has beautiful imagery that composers have set to equally beautiful music. But as a whole it is somewhat haunting: the psalmist has full confidence that God knows her intimately and completely, but this is not exactly a comfort. There is no escape from God . . . not in resting or rising; she can’t even hide from God in the darkest darkness.
We are being measured . . . and there is no escape from God.
But, there is also no escape from the boundless abundance of God’s grace. Only God’s love and mercy are without measure.
St. Callistus knew this. He knew about the boundlessness of God’s mercy. Not only did he experience it in his life—he made more than one misstep that cost him and the local community dearly. He also proclaimed this boundless mercy as Pope—by establishing absolution for all sins, including the most grievous sins of adultery and murder, an act for which he was demonized by his contemporaries. But Callistus knew that he could not put a human limit on God’s immeasurable grace.
We have access to God’s immeasurable grace as well. In the Sacraments—especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the Sacraments, we encounter Jesus and we receive from God’s boundless abundance of love and mercy. This is how we are capacitated—as our reading requires—to keep his commandments and to conduct ourselves as Jesus did.
On our own, we may be measured and found wanting. It is only through the immeasurable grace of God’s love that we may know God and hope to perfectly conform ourselves to Christ.
Editor’s Note: this piece first appeared in Aleteia on October 16, 2015. It has been reprinted here with permission.
First we knew the fruit and then we found the tree (see Mt 7:16-20). If not for the Little Flower we would not have found her parents, but if not for Louis and Zélie, there would be no Saint Thérèse. Of course, the latter is true in the same straightforward sense in which all parents are responsible for the existence of their children. But it is also true that the unique saintliness of this child would not have been possible without the unique saintliness of the parents. In enrolling the parents of this saint in its canon of saints, the Church celebrates the domestic culture that produced this blessed fruit.
Part of the allure of St. Thérèse is her witness to holiness by ordinary means. Like all saints, her holiness is a creative expression of divine love. It is enchanting to conceive of a saint like Thérèse as a miracle, imagining that God intervened in the normal course of history to create a holy exception within otherwise mundane humanity. What the witness of this saint reveals, however, is that her own innovation in holiness sprung from the ordinary life that Louis and Zélie intentionally fashioned. As their skills in their respective crafts were translated into parental care, as their discipline in virginity became the basis for their gift of progeny, and as the cultivation of one child necessarily meant the cultivation of the whole family, Louis and Zélie Martin labored as saints of the ordinary to produce extraordinary holiness.
Skilled Work and the Intricacies of Domestic Life
Louis Martin failed to advance in the first vocation he pursued: the vowed religious life. The well-schooled and well-mannered son of a soldier, Louis sought to apply the discipline that came naturally to him to the ideals practiced in the cloister, where punctilious works were oriented to perfect praise over long years of careful focus and habituation. Sincere and devout though he was, his ignorance of Latin precluded his entry to the mountain hermitage of the Great St. Bernard, and so he descended to fill in what he lacked. After months of tutored study, he was forced to abandon Latin on account of illness and retreated back towards the active life of that other craft in which he apprenticed: clock-making.
Within the rhythm of the world, Louis allowed his workshop to become a form of the monastic retreat he once sought in the mountains outside the world’s movement. The central gear that moved all his work was the refrain from work that he practiced every Sabbath. Despite the best business practices of his day and the expectations of his patrons, Louis closed his shop every Sunday—a day on which he abstained from engaging in any commerce whatsoever, thereby imbibing the weekly antidote to the law of competition. He was free to call his work “good” because his work was given its place within a greater order. Because his leisure afforded him the ability to study the arrangements and movements of nature, the art he practiced in his workshop was truly creative because it combined discipline and freedom. His craft called for “close application, a long apprenticeship, and repeated experiments in practical workmanship,” through which he studied how the patient work of the craftsman, if undertaken with steady intention, can produce seemingly simple products that hide untold complexities (Stephane-Joseph Piat, Story of a Family, 14).
Zélie Guerin’s work of lace-making was perhaps even more precise and certainly no less complex. Not unlike Louis, Zélie herself had been denied from the religious life when she applied to the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul. Though the desire for the cloister remained with her—at least in latent form—for the rest of her life, she accepted this rejection and set out to prepare for her future by other means. After petitioning the Blessed Mother for guidance, she received a response on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1851, when she heard these words within her: “See to the making of Point d’Alençon,” (Family 33). In haste, she entered lace-making school to refine the basic skills she had learned as a child. She trained her hands and her nerves to create the exquisitely delicate and subtly varied designs of Alençon lace. Before long, she was a master with her own shop, in which she not only exercised her own finely honed skills but also orchestrated those of others. As Piat describes:
The lace is a “collective” masterpiece, but the makers do not all work simultaneously as a team. All that is needed is the initiative and diligent direction of a master of the craft, who deals with the customers, assigns the orders, procures everything requisite for each lacemaker to work at home at her specialty, sees that the “pieces” are passed on from one to another, and coordinates and corrects it all so as to assure its final lucrative sale (Family 35).
The wedding of Louis Martin to Zélie Guerin at midnight on July 13, 1858, united two skilled artisans who would create a home that bore the marks of their workshops. At the heart of all the work of this home was that leisure that the master clock-maker put at the center of his craft. In Louis’s play with his children, joy emerged. In the ways he spent himself in attending to them personally, personal love was communicated. During his customary long walks, Thérèse herself, like her sisters before her, learned to practice almsgiving (for Thérèse’s childhood reflections about her father, see especially Story of a Soul, chapter 2). In the kind of speech that he and Zélie made common in their home, their children received grammar lessons in the faith. They spoke of time in terms of liturgical feasts, where one child then the next became the central figure in the family’s celebration: first communions celebrated alongside birthdays and feast days alike. The liturgical cycle that preserves the dignity of creation within a world of competition, was observed as the basic rhythm of the household itself (see Family 87).
Under the masterful direction of Zélie, the children of this union learned and practiced their crafts of holiness in distinctive but coordinated ways. In Zélie’s home, skills were cultivated in order to contribute to the great masterpiece of the family’s life: a single work of praise made of many charitable deeds. In this school of artistry, Thérèse and her sisters “learned to sympathize with the sufferings of the lowly, to grieve over their humiliations, and appreciate the eminent dignity of the children of God,” (Family 170). Zélie’s letters to her correspondents are full of details of the careful attention she paid to each child in correcting faults and strengthening virtues. Through the habits she introduced and guided, she oriented the children’s upbringing to an intentional end. Ever the master lace-maker, Zélie knew the pattern and saw the whole work in advance. “To these stalwart Catholics,” Piat explains,
Life was something like those pieces of lace, the perfection of which is the result of long and patient asceticism. From all eternity, the divine Artist had traced out the design. Grace, like an invisible thread, had, with its inspirations, pricked out the pattern. It remained only to follow out the smallest details closely, and avoid breakages and knots. The simple worker toils at the piece from day to day, resigned to take care of a detail, without understanding the whole development of the design. The master worker repairs, adds finishing touches, regroups, assembles, and the marvel results; the outcome of obscure labor wholly informed by love (Family 144).
The Discipline of Virginity and the Gift of Progeny
In a letter written to her eldest daughter, Zélie confessed that, “When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat,” (Family 48). For years before their wedding, each sought the ideals of the cloistered religious life, where a routine of prayer and work intertwines with ascetical practices designed to train one in the lifelong art of sacrificing unto praise. When Louis could not enter the hermitage, he transferred these ideals to his workshop; when Zélie could not expend herself in the precise maneuvers of religious life, she began to perfect that most delicate of secular crafts. When they wed, these ideals did not relent; in fact, the two continued to pursue them within the home they shared, not only in terms of the intentionality of their religious practices but even in terms of living celibately. For ten months, they embraced sexual abstinence until a confessor instructed them to carry out the pursuit of their pious ideals in another way—in and through childrearing. In opening themselves to the vocation of seeking holiness in the children they would train and form, their ideas did indeed change somewhat. Their progeny would be the fruit of their religious discipline. As Zélie’s letter to her daughter Pauline continues,
Thenceforward we lived only for them; they made all our happiness and we would never have found it save in them. In fact, nothing any longer cost us anything; the world was no longer a burden to us. As for me, my children were my great compensation, so that I wished to have many in order to bring them up for Heaven (Family 48).
Looking back in light of the family they created—and especially in view of their ninth and last child, Thérèse—that first period of abstinence strikes an odd chord. Perhaps it is best considered as the waning days of impractical wishes or an exercise in nonsensical, even unnatural religious fervor. Without question, their conjugal celibacy may seem like unenlightened prudery to sophisticated moderns. But we might need to pause to consider if our own sophistication is sometimes the sophistry our own egos spin, sophistry that catches us in the designs of our own assumed certainty, our own presumed correctness. Our biases blind us. What we chance missing in our sophistication is the possibility that the intentionality of the life they ventured to embrace proposes another pattern altogether.
From the start the couple conceived of their marriage in continuity with the religious formation they had previously desired. What changed after ten months amounts to a variation on this theme, such that the willful embrace of parenthood became the particular way in which they each, through their union, pursued their long-tenured spiritual desire. What is novel here is not so much that their marriage included a period of celibacy as it is that the marriage was, from the start, set to innovating from within their religious discipline. They did not give themselves over to the ‘natural course of things’ because their affections or conventions recommended they do so; they joined in sexual union because they came to understand it as a religious practice that elevates nature.
The family into which Thérèse was eventually born was a family that loved much because it suffered much. The thread running between their love and their suffering is the set of disciplines they cultivated, all of which were intended for a definite end. Because they had long labored to allow their own lives to becomes a work pleasing to the Lord and because they had each innovated in terms of the manner in which that work would be accomplished, they were predisposed to seek the same for the family they created. In the intentional way they lived their familial life, the disciplines they cultivated kept them attuned to their ideal. When suffering visited them, they bore it as the cost of love. This did not mean the suffering was any less acute, but it did mean that the suffering was not in vain. Zélie held the dead bodies of four of the fruits of her own womb and she gave the kind of testimony that only a mother of sorrows can speak:
When I closed the eyes of my dear children and buried them, I felt the sorrow indeed, but it has always been resigned sorrow. I did not regret the pain and cares I had borne for them. Several people said to me, ‘It would have been better if you had never had them,’ but I could not endure this sort of language. I did not think that the sufferings and anxieties could be weighed in the same scale with the eternal happiness of my children. Then they were not lost forever; life is short and full of miseries, and we shall find them again up yonder (Family 98).
Zélie’s sister had once written her in a letter that, “the measure of your joy will be that of your sorrow,” (Family 79). Both Zélie and her husband initially sought the pain of ascetical training in order to bear the fruit of holiness; in their marriage, the path to this desire was translated into suffering out of love for their children. They suffered in loving the four they lost, and they suffered in loving the five they raised. Though the kind of pain they bore for each child varied, through loving them they learned that no love is without cost. They also learned that the cost paid in love is never in vain. For the firstborn son who died as an infant but whom Louis had hoped to offer to the Lord as a missionary priest, he received a daughter in Thérèse who took all priests and missionaries as her own brothers, ultimately dedicating her religious vocation for the intention of their wellbeing and success. In his daughter, Louis’s own frustrated desires were fulfilled, both in terms of living out the form of religious ideals that he and his wife had once pursued and in terms of accepting a mission that revived the mission he had hoped for his son.
The peculiar discipline with which they began their marriage is noteworthy, in the end, not for its peculiarity but for its wisdom. They were intentional about making their ordinary ways conducive to their deepest desires. Their dispositions of obedience created a home that absorbed pain and grew love. They sought to account for everything—no cost was in vain, no pain accidental.
The Sanctification of the Whole
To Louis and Zélie Martin, each child was a covenant between themselves and God. Each child was God’s calling upon them to labor in love: to till, to tend, to prune, and to share the fruit that was given within the home of their union. To them, “a child was not a plaything […] nor a creature that has become an object of dread because no one knows how to train it. It was a trust received from the Creator’s hands,” (Family 182). They were responsible for these children—not just for their health and their cleanliness, but for their joy and their salvation.
The Martin home was a communion of holiness. The master clock-maker set the schedule to the liturgical cycle and tuned all the gears of familial life to this standard measure. Fasting and feasting were both observed, and leisure was routine. The master lace-maker orchestrated the work according to the final design: tutoring her work force, coordinating their labors, securing supplies, and offering the good works they produced in the market of charity. In caring for each member of the household the couple cared for the whole, and in arranging the whole in an intentional way they prepared this workshop to produce its good works, this tree to produce its good fruits.
The whole mystery of salvation turned within the subtleties of the home. From the moment their first child was conceived, the turning of their lives was set to the movements of divine love:
They were to experience the joyful stage, marked out by four cradles; the laborious stage: five more births, six deaths [including aunts], sorrows mingled with smiles; the sorrowful stage: the calvary and the sublime sacrifice of parents; to end at last with the glorious stage—the day when Thérèse, the last conquest of love, would carry their name to the altars (Family 49).
The depth of insight of their family’s chief biographer is on full display in this passage. He names the dimensions of their life together according to the mysteries of the rosary. The obvious ones are the joyful, the sorrowful, and the glorious, while the truly ingenious one is the laborious. Written more than 50 years before John Paul II proposed the luminous mysteries, Fr. Piat recognizes those mysteries in the witness of Louis, Zélie, and their family. As one becomes habituated to a way of being, the logic of that way is illuminated. In the oscillations of sorrows and smiles, the labors of love—in season and out of season—slowly lit up the true meaning of the life Louis and Zélie were called to craft and which came to be in their home. The rosary meditates on Mary’s contemplation of her blessed child, while the Martins contemplated their children in the likeness of Mary’s.
And the glory of it all came in their blessed fruit. On the sixty-ninth anniversary of the day Louis and Zélie were joined in matrimony, their last child—the work of two masters who had perfected their craft—was enrolled in the canon of the Church’s saints. Upon the altar of the Universal Church, their child was united to the Son of the Father, the Son of Mary. In her holiness is hidden the discipline and the innovation of two failed religious, two skilled artisans, a husband and a wife who created a home in which saints grew. Thérèse’s holiness redounds to their holiness: the blessed fruit blesses the tree that bore her.
Today marks the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–90), a Burgundian nun who experienced a series of visions from 1673 to 1675 that ultimately resulted in her petitioning Church authorities to institute a feast in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In addition to the feast itself, St. Margaret Mary promoted acts of devotion in honor of the Sacred Heart, chief among which was the reception of Holy Communion on the first Friday of every month, a devotion many still practice to this day. It is for her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and her untiring efforts to spread that devotion to others that Margaret Mary Alacoque is honored as a saint, and so today’s musical piece will focus not on the saint herself, but on the object of her unwavering devotion: the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart is twofold: on the one hand, we honor the physical heart of Jesus, the pulsing heart of muscle and blood with its valves and chambers whose very existence encapsulates the mystery of the Incarnation—the heart that testifies that “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); the heart that was pierced by a lance and poured forth the precious lifeblood of Him who loved unto the end. On the other hand, we also honor what the Sacred Heart of Jesus symbolizes: the sheer, unmerited gift of God’s unsurpassable, unfathomable love and mercy, offered without reservation to all who would receive it into their own hearts.
Today’s musical piece, the motet Improperium Expectavit by 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Casali, is a setting of the Offertory text for the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, taken from Psalm 69 :21–22b. Translated from the Latin, the text reads:
My heart expected reproach and misery and I desired one who would grieve with me
and there was none: I sought one to console me, and I found none: and they gave me gall as my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
The text of today’s piece draws attention to both the physical and the symbolic elements of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. From the symbolic standpoint, the heart of the one proclaiming the psalm—understood in the context of the feast as the Heart of Jesus himself—is broken; it is inconsolable, overcome with grief at the devastation of reproach and abandonment. And yet there is also an immense physicality in these lines. Hearing this passage from the Psalms in the voice of Jesus, we are reminded perhaps of his words from the Cross: “I thirst” (Jn 19: 28). Here is the one who hungers and thirsts to draw all into the communion of life he shares with the Father and the Spirit, and his longing is met with derision; his thirst for love is slaked with a drink of malice. We see the juxtaposition with stark clarity in the Reproaches for Good Friday: “I gave you saving water from the rock to drink, / and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.”
To contemplate the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not simply to contemplate the overwhelming love that Jesus pours forth from his Heart; rather, it is to contemplate the mystery that Jesus pours forth his love for us even as we wound his Sacred Heart with our sins. We see this mystery in the way that the Sacred Heart is represented in visual art: pierced, surrounded with the crown of thorns, surmounted by the Cross which ultimately stopped its beating, and yet, even in the midst of these wounds, it is still ablaze, burning with divine love, the love of the God-man who longs for nothing more or less than perfect communion with his people.
We hear this mystery in Casili’s motet in the way that musical dissonance (clashing/grating of pitches) gives way to serene consonance (rest/resolution). This is the way that nearly all Western music operates at some level: tension arises in the music that is ultimately resolved. The dissonance somehow serves to help us appreciate all the more the consonance that resolves it. In this sense, consonance seems to purify the dissonance as the notes are brought into harmonious communion with one another in the movement toward resolution. This is what happens when we allow the dissonance of our sinfulness to give way to the love of the Sacred Heart: we ‘sour notes’ are brought into a radiant harmony with Jesus as we learn to sing with ever greater fidelity the hymn of self-giving love he intones from the Cross.
In contemplating with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque the Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we learn to give ourselves over to the ardent love of Christ as it blazes forth from his pierced Heart, that the dissonance within our own hearts may be melted away and dissolve into the consonant, radiant harmony of life in God; that, in the words of St. Paul from the proper reading for today, we may be “rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17b–19).
My daughter has a gift for noticing people and for remembering them. Several times in the last week she’s spotted a woman we met recently who begs for alms at different locations in our area. My daughter prayed for this woman, Sheila, during the intercessions of our family’s night prayer yesterday. She also remembered to pray for Chuck, whom she and I sometimes visit on his usual corner on Sunday afternoons, often bringing him a Subway sandwich. She prayed, too, for the Nigerian schoolgirls we prayed for every night beginning in 2014 when they were abducted and held for over a year, as well as for a woman who lived near us who was killed when a car crashed into her house… in 2012. There are other people—regulars and newcomers—who make their way into our intercessions, many of whom are brought forth from my daughter. The ones I listed here are just from last night. Needless to say, her prayer is full of people.
One night when I was putting her to bed a couple or maybe three years ago, she was talking about a child in a wheelchair she had seen with his family on the way to the park. I think the child had cerebral palsy and so I explained, as best I could to a four-or-five year old, that the wheelchair helped him get around and helped his family take him to the park. My daughter thought that must be hard for him and I said it probably was. Looking to the picture of St. Thérèse of Lisieux hanging next to her bed, I asked her if she wanted to ask St. Thérèse to pray for that boy, to which she responded, “No, I want to pray with St. Thérèse for him.”
St. Thérèse found my daughter first. Sure, my wife and I gave her “Thérèse” as a middle name, but that didn’t cause or guarantee the attraction. No, I think the photos started it—photos like the ones that now surround her bed. In every photo, Thérèse exudes a youthful exuberance mixed with mature confidence. I think my daughter knew to trust her before anyone ever taught her she should. Thérèse caught my daughter’s eye as a small, small child because of the way Thérèse looked at her through those photos. The longer I know my daughter and the more I get to know Thérèse, the more I see my daughter coming to resemble Thérèse. The resemblance, however, isn’t so much about the complexion as it is about those eyes that notice people and that heart that remembers them. Thérèse gathers people in prayer.
Hans Urs von Balthasar—who does not remind me of my daughter—once described St. Thérèse’s prayer life as a “festival of communion.” It started in her home, where she prayed with her mother, her father, her sisters, the maid. When she went to Carmel, her prayer drew her into communion with her religious sisters, with whom she shared the daily rhythms of the contemplative life. From home and from the cloister, though, Thérèse was also a restless seeker, searching for others whose cares she could hold and whose good she took on as her special intentions. In particular, she searched for those who were lost or suffering.
Unfortunately pertinent to our own cultural moment, one of the most well-known lost ones whom Thérèse sought out was the convicted murderer, Henri Pranzini. Scheduled for execution, this man against whom a seemingly rock-solid case was mounted remained impenitent for the brutal triple homicide he had (almost certainly) committed. His trial was big news in Paris and throughout France, and Thérèse learned of his fate and disposition through the newspaper. In this man she would never meet, she saw the tragedy not only of unspeakable violence but also of a heart hardened to contrition. Thérèse hastened to take him into her prayer. As she confessed, though, she had no power of her own that would help this man, so she offered that of which she herself was a recipient: “the infinite mercies of Our Lord, the treasures of the Church, and finally […] a Mass offered for my intentions,” (all quotes from Story of a Soul). When it was reported, again through the newspaper, that prior to his execution Pranzini kissed a crucifix before his execution, Thérèse interpreted this as the sign of contrition and claimed the man as “my first child.”
Placing Thérèse in the presence of a murderer might produce some kind of cognitive dissonance. She’s a child, after all, and this is unfit company for a child. She herself is the model of simple faith, the model of trust, the model of loving little things. She seems unfit to shine light upon state executions.
And yet, as seen from another angle, this is precisely who she was: the one whose intercessory prayer is contemplation in action. Not contemplation that yields to action, but contemplation that is an active will to suffer along with the suffering, to carry their burdens along with them, and to seek their good as her own. For the one who “resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross to receive the divine dew,” the act of allowing her heart to become troubled at the troubles of others became the theme of her witness. She sought to suffer with the suffering Christ so as to glory in the glorified Christ. And how does Christ suffer? He suffers in his little ones, who bear the wounds of history and suffer all forms of oppression, but he also suffers in those who fear, who are impenitent, who cultivate suspicion, cast aspersions, envy and mock and scourge. They, too, suffer in their humanity, and Christ seeks them. So, then, does Thérèse.
The triumph of this “little saint” was always in seeing through the malaise to find the person. In her we find one in whom the Lord’s desire to suffer for others becomes her desire to suffer in love with others, even in their place. The intercessory prayer of St. Thérèse is a startling mystery which the episode with Pranzini only begins to reveal. Behind that exuberant youthfulness mixed with mature confidence hides the willingness that was both a gift of grace and a gift of her formation to consider vicarious suffering the greatest potential for human life—that is, to suffer for another. What mother doesn’t suffer love for her child, and do so willingly?
Thérèse’s short life was lived in pursuit of sacrificing her own preferences for the sake of the will of God, who seeks to find the lost “so that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). With all its resplendence, there was also a danger to Thérèse’s spirituality, and it is a danger worth heeding. The danger for her would come in preferring her sacrifices and sufferings to anything else, for then she begins to make a performance out of fashioning a life of holiness. Even as this great saint shows us what depths sanctity holds, her own spiritual precariousness reminds us that the mission of a disciple always stands on the razor’s edge between the charity of Christ and the adoration of the self. Only as she continually learns to replace her concern for her own image with the concern of those for whom she prays does she, paradoxically, grow into the image of her beloved. In other words, Pranzini was never hers to save, which is why she unleashed the treasuries of the Church on his behalf. As my wife and I teach our daughter to pray, we continually teach her to unite these prayers to the prayer offered in Jesus’ name: Our Father…
Thérèse’s vision for and memory of the lost ones was so intense and so beautiful that, upon her deathbed, she vowed to spend her heaven doing good on earth, to continue searching within the mission of Christ the Good Shepherd. She also pledged, however, to bring a shower of roses through her ongoing prayer. It is this particular pledge that opens a portal through which we might glimpse the complex spiritual ecosystem in which Thérèse learned to thrive. During her life and in her dialogue with her Beloved Christ, she promises to strew the flowers of her small sacrifices before his heavenly throne. These flowers are the many acts of love on her Little Way, in which she accepts the concerns and need of others as blossoms in her own heart. She trusts that the littlest hearts of the poor ones—those in need, materially but especially spiritually—will become a beautiful bouquet that will please the Lord. She trusts that as these flowers “pass through Your own divine hands, O Jesus,” the “Church in heaven […] will cast these flowers, which are now infinitely valuable because of Your divine touch, upon the Church Suffering,” to heal it. The flowers that Thérèse gathers while on earth, she offers to the Lord and trusts that the saints in heaven will return them for the good of the suffering ones from whom they came. By the same logic, she pledges to spend her heaven showering roses back upon the earth. The cycle of charity between heaven and earth is like evaporation and precipitation: the particular needs of particular persons are offered as intercessions to the Lord, in whom the desire of the saints is to join him in healing others.
Thérèse never prayed alone: she was bedewed in communion. She drew those in need into her prayer because she herself was already drawn into a Sacred Heart that prayed for her, and in that Heart the company of the saints was her company. So it is that my daughter, who teaches our hearts to grow full with people in our nightly prayer, also taught me something about the confidence of joining the saints in intercessory prayer. When we take on the needs of others in prayer, we do not do so on our own, for already the saints in heaven strew flowers upon those who are suffering and we join them in that work of love. The Church celebrates one of those great saints today: the one her father called “My Little Flower”.