Deeply grieved by the death of a great and most lovable spiritual leader, Father Benedict Groeschel, we should not forget that he has not left us “orphans.” In this context, I am exclusively referring to the very many books that he has written, and which, now that he is gone, continue to transmit his message and faith, hope and charity. The one that comes to my mind is “Arise from Darkness.” This book will never lose its value or its interest, because in it, he depicts vividly our earthly situation: the constant battle between “faith” and “darkness” – another word for despair.
Not only is this book a personal testimony of the way God leads some of his particularly beloved children, but it is a powerful medicine for all of us who, as soon as we encounter darkness in our spiritual life, lose hope of reaching the top of the mountain.
Well known, alas, is the human temptation of making reproaches to God for “ill-treating his friends” – in contrast to Satan who favors his “children” in every possible way… until they die. Power, success, fame, riches: these are the gifts that the Evil one generously distributes to those who have sold their soul “for a mess of pottage.”
Not so for those whose heart has been wounded by the “man of sorrows”, acquainted with grief… who was despised and rejected. (Isaiah 53) Those who have heard God’s call and generously respond cannot and should not expect a better fate than the one of their Savior Himself.
The lover wants to share the sufferings of the loved one; he who loves Christ wants to follow Him all the way to Calvary for, on this earth, love cannot be separated from suffering. However, the gamut of possibilities is great indeed. For some, it is excruciating physical pains (which do not exclude spiritual sufferings); for others, it is persecution and martyrdom – something which they expect and even welcome. But the most baffling, and maybe the most dolorous form of grief, is to be abandoned and betrayed by those whose mission was to encourage, protect and shelter the faithful disciples of the Lord, those who selflessly work in the divine vineyard, and do so exclusively for God’s glory.
Father Groeschel’s book gives us some valuable insights on this very baffling topic: it is precisely when we feel abandoned by God or are the victim of crying injustices – that is, when the road is in total darkness – that He invites us to see human events in the light of eternity. The darker the road is, the greater should be our joyful conviction that “all things lead to the good of those who love Him.”
In the life of St. Catherine of Siena, it is related that she was once exposed to terrible temptations; she fought the good fight, but this darkness was nevertheless deeply upsetting to her. When peace reentered in her heart, she said to Christ “Lord, where were you during this terrible storm?” The answer was prompt and unequivocal: “In your heart, Catarina.” Faith and darkness are companions. But the saints firmly believe that our “blindness” is actually caused by God’s glorious light. Of the seven words of Our Savior on the cross, the most heart-breaking one is: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
The examples I will now briefly mention, while taken at random, could be endlessly duplicated. One witty (and daring) remark of the beloved Saint Teresa of Avila comes to mind. Her reform of the Carmel inevitably forced her to do a great deal of traveling. One day her carriage tumbled while crossing a small river. Her spontaneous response was: “Dear Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, should you wonder that you have so very few of them?” Her closeness to her Savior was such that she knew He would allow her to make this daring remark.
But many are the trials worse than tumbling into a rivulet: I am referring not only to “the dark night of the soul” in which one experiences total “abandonment”, but also to the cases (which are not infrequent) when a faithful disciple is shamefully treated by those who have authority and whose mission is clearly to protect and support those working in the Lord’s Vineyard.
Divine inventiveness can, for our myopic eyes, be very baffling. I recall that when I became a Benedictine oblate and read the Holy Rule for the first time, a passage in Chapter 7 disturbed me greatly. It reads: “the fourth degree of humility is that … meeting in this obedience with difficulties and contradictions and even injustice he should with a quiet mind hold fast to patience.” (emphasis mine) That St. Benedict warns us that there can be “injustice” in a place dedicated to the love and service of God, is more than baffling: it is deeply upsetting. Many are those who will tell you that they did flee into a monastery to escape from the crying injustices that reign in our world. But to be told by the founder of Western Monasticism that they too can be found in these “divine oases” is a fearful reminder that original sin will accompany us wherever we go. St. Benedict tells that we should accept them with a “quiet” mind, and thereby come closer to Christ – who Himself was the victim of terrible injustices.
To be unjustly treated while selflessly performing God’s work done for God’s glory, a work that clearly benefits all those related to it, is – I repeat – a form of spiritual trial can only faith can solve. Indeed, God’s ways are not our ways.
Catholic spirituality is paradoxical: we are called upon to relieve those who suffer, and yet, it is also our mission to teach them that suffering has a deep meaning: it is by Christ’s cross that the world has been redeemed. We should glory in our being God’s children, and yet never lose sight of the fact that we are sinners, desperately in need of His Mercy. We are expected to do great things for our God, and yet never lose sight of the fact that, “without me you can do nothing.” We know Him to be perfect Justice, and yet accept that He does not prevent shocking injustices from taking place.
We have to obey those in a position of authority, even though we may be aware that their prudential judgment can be based on gravely erroneous information. To obey in domains when a person has legitimate authority, does not mean to approve his decisions. What good many people forget or choose to forget is that Papal infallibility is strictly limited to faith and morals.
To be more concrete: many are the saints who devoted all their lives and energy to work for the Kingdom, and achieved great things for His Glory, and yet God allowed that their work was either destroyed, or “stolen from them.” The one case that comes to mind is Jeanne Jugan, this humble girl from Brittany who devoted her life to helping the poor, her loving work attracted many young girls who followed her example. As could be foreseen, it soon led to the foundation of a congregation, when this work of love was crowned with success, it was hi-jacked by one of its members, and Jeanne Jugan was “robbed” of her achievements. She humbly and joyfully went back to her modest work and became a saint.
Hard as it is for us “men of little faith” to keep sight of this truth, we should firmly believe that God knows how a piece of marble is to be chiseled to perfection in order to fully reflect the genius of the Divine artist. To accept a crying injustice, which humanly seen has nefarious consequences, and to do so as a proof of one’s Love of God is heroic: this is precisely what God demands of his saints.
Anyone reading the moving life of St. Bernadette, would not like to share the trials that she was exposed to – a price she had to pay for the amazing grace of seeing the Blessed one. Fame when not baptized by tears is most dangerous for all of us. The way she was treated by some of her nuns in the convent, once again, gave the final divine touch to her holiness.
To go further back in history, St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque who received the sublime mission of spreading the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, had to pay for this amazing privilege by being viewed by her “sisters” at the convent of the Visitation, as disturbed. To comfort her God, in his Goodness, sent her Father de la Colombiere who, convinced of the validity of her message, encouraged her to hold fast in peace to the mission that God had confided to her.
In recent times, let us recall how Saint Padre Pio was maligned, accused of faking his stigmata, and that this calumny was believed and endorsed by the highest authority in the Church.
It is most baffling that God allows a work that He himself encouraged and directed, to be destroyed, and even permits secular trends to invade His vineyard.
I am fumbling to find an answer. Maybe the most dramatic Catholic paradox is precisely here to be found. God chooses one particularly person to work at his service. This person responds generously, and puts both his mind and heart in the mission confided to him. Indeed, woe to the man invited to work for the Lord, and chooses to go back to his “business.” But he who faithfully responds is told while lovingly doing his work, that “he is useless servant” (Lk, XVII) and moreover is reminded that God – while requiring his service – does not need it: for He and He alone is the one who makes his Vineyard produce rich grapes.
A human demotion (a crown of thorns) is a supernatural promotion, perceived by Angels as a "crown of gold."
“I believe, O Lord; help my unbelief.”
Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.