And the disintegrated person.
(Pictured, St. Peter of Alcantara in ecstasy.)
Sort of a presumptuous title for me to use, since The Problem of Empathy was the name of Edith Stein's dissertation - of which I never read much. I woke up with the title repeating in my mind however. I have encountered several people over the past few weeks who strike me as rather disintegrated; emotionally, psychologically, and most especially, spiritually.
Many people, upon their conversion, are so enamored by the love of God and the example of holiness set by the saints, they want to become saints over night. Just as those people who find consolation in prayer want to become contemplatives over night - or maybe think they are there already.
When I write about John of the Cross, or Garrigou-Lagrange, some people must think I'm writing about those who read this blog - or they are stimulated to get into reading the mystics as a means of advancement in the spiritual life. Sometimes this is too much, too soon for a soul.
When people read the lives of the saints and the penance they have done, or the manner of prayer they engaged in, so many in their first fervor attempt to imitate them, or to apply the advice of the mystical doctors written for proficients in the spiritual life to themselves - rousing love before it's time. Often, at some point the soul collapses through exhaustion or discouragement that they cannot meet such high standards of spirituality. It's a preoccupation with levels and stages of prayer that often trips them up. Our human nature tends to be achievement oriented - success driven, and we carry that over into our spiritual development.
What is lost, or misplaced is love - especially the knowledge of God's love in our first conversion, when he loved us in all our imperfection - just as we were - that doesn't change. Initially, in the first stages of conversion, the soul is often bathed in the love of God, it's a good feeling. As we go along we at some point will encounter a sense of aridity and helplessness. Often as a result of the self-knowledge close encounters with God precipitate. There is an element of disintegration in every soul, in some who have been damaged by the misfortunes and sufferings of life, it is oftentimes profound.
A friend, who suffered incredible abuse, poverty, and deprivation as a child is now dealing with these issues of identity, disintegration, whilst struggling to live a devout life. A convert, and client of a well known priest, she was more or less catapulted into a spirituality too advanced for her at the time. She was immediately introduced to St. Louis DeMontfort's total consecration to Mary, and as a former protestant, she had not even developed a proper understanding of the role of Mary in the Christian's life. Having been raised by a mother who mistreated her and neglected her, unable to demonstrate any love, this poor woman was expected to embrace this devotion, afraid if she didn't, she would be lost, since everyone told her that devotion to Mary was a sure sign of predestination.
She was introduced to every devotion imaginable, encouraged to read the mystics and to imitate the saints, and deny, deny, deny, herself. She was told her childhood misery was something she deserved for her sins. What? She was a baby, a kid. She was told the path to holiness is a path of suffering and she should be grateful Our Lord allowed her to suffer. In the process, she lost her identity, never experienced love, always feeling guilty that she is a bad person - not good enough to be Catholic.
What a horrid misconception of Catholic spirituality. I say - don't read the saints if you think you have to be like them and scourge yourself and call yourself a worm, while damaging an already ravished psyche. Leave the mystics alone. Learn to love Mary in your own manner. This priest who was in her life, though very good, wasn't able to empathise with this woman. He directed her on a mystical path more or less formulated for religious in a contemplative community.
So many fail to realize that the saints were immersed in the knowledge and love of God, not through their own efforts, but through sheer grace - God first loved them - as the Evangelist writes. God touched, no, he embraced them in all of their fragility, with all of their sins and faults - or the potential for these - collecting their disintegrated selves as a bundle of myrrh, as a mother collects her child, holding it to her breast, to feed and nourish her baby. It is not enough to intellectually understand that God loves us, he must demonstrate this love - a love we do not, or cannot merit, because it is love freely given - and he gives it.
The conversion of Catherine of Genoa is one of the best conversion stories of the saints I have ever read. This vain and bitchy, humorless woman, in a crises of depression no doubt, reluctantly went to confession. Suddenly she was so impressed with the immensity of God's love for her, she was unable to confess, returning home in tears. It was the love of God that flooded her soul, melting her heart, healing her wounds, effecting within her this great conversion. Without this experience of knowing she was God's beloved daughter, she would never have become the saint she is, nor would she have been able to work so generously serving the poor sick. Neither did she fit the standard profile of the saint - she is rather unique among the canon of saints.
The treasury of the Church is rich with the teaching and examples of the saints, with wondrous revelations encouraging devotion, to help souls along the narrow way that leads to life. Everything is a means to an end however. St. Seraphim Sarovsky taught that if fasting or alms-giving gives you grace, that is, the Holy Spirit, then do that. If it is prayer and vigils, do that. yet the soul cannot do everything. He taught that the goal of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of love. It was the Spirit who grasped Catherine of Genoa in confession. It is the Spirit who prays within us when we do not know how to pray as we ought. It is the Spirit who wills and accomplishes within us every good. It is the Holy Spirit who renews, heals and vivifies the soul - uniting the disintegrated self.
And yes, this life is a veil of tears, sometimes accompanied by unbearable suffering, that is why we need the Holy Spirit to sustain us - to console us. The Holy Spirit is the Consoler - God does not desire us to be without consolation and sustenance, he just doesn't want us to seek it as an end in itself. In the final vision of Fatima, the angel held a sword pronouncing, "Penance, penance, penance." Many people do not realize that Our Lord told Sr. Lucia what penance he was asking for in these modern times; "The penance I now ask and exact is that people avoid sin, and fulfill the duties of their state in life." So many people of good will want to impose a host of other penances and prayers upon themselves, while neglecting the request of Our Lord.
It is quite enough penance, to refrain from sin, and to fulfill one's duties of one's state in life. Our first duty is prayer, for the lay person it doesn't necessarily mean the Liturgy of the Hours, or daily Mass, or litanies and tons of other prayers. Pray as you can. It remains the primary reason the morning offering is so efficacious, it unites the soul and all he does to the prayer and work of the Church, it sanctifies one's day. For some people, just getting up in the morning and going to work is a huge penance. be content with your weakness, do little things well. Many are just too little to have the great thoughts of the saints or to imitate their penance.
I think a fine form of prayer is that of the widow in yesterday's Gospel who wouldn't relent in her request, "Render a just decision for me against my adversary!" Not beating oneself up - but constantly praying the Lord for his love to fill our soul, presenting him with our bundle of problems, the disintegrated parts of our lives, so that he can put it all together again. Ask him to make you the saint he wants you to be - by identifying your person, and naming you - thus giving you the mission he created you to accomplish for him. And be patient, it sometimes takes a lifetime.
Jean Vanier has a lovely story he often tells of a severely handicapped man who liked to pray, when asked what he does when he prays, Frank said, "I listen." Vanier asked him, "What does God say to you?" Frank answered, "You are my beloved son!" Hold that thought! Hold it tight to your heart. "You are my beloved son!"
The physically and mentally disabled have so much to teach us about the love of God and the simplicity of experiencing it. The disintegration of the modern human person invites our empathy with the most damaged of society, while teaching us the need we all have to be loved and to love.
"Love then consists in this, not that we have loved God, but that he has first loved us..." 1 John 4:10