Originally published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review
According to many Catholic theologians, there are two
purifications in the spiritual life: a purification of the sense,
and a purification of the spirit. The purification of the sense is
brought on by loss of friends, fortune and the like (1). In this,
we are deprived of consolations in order to bring us to trust in
God more than in our own resources. In this purification,
temptations, which involve chastity and patience, are frequent.
The purification of the spirit involves the higher levels of the
soul, so the temptation involved in it are against the theological
virtues. (3) These temptations are, by their nature, greater than
temptations involving patience, although patience is also involved
in their resolution.
When these temptations are met correctly, a final purgation can
happen, leading to an upward inflection to the highest level of
awareness of God, or the unitive way. It appears, though, that the
final purgation of the spirit can be forced by external
circumstances rather than by a deliberate practice of infused
prayer. This is dangerous because it is unexpected, and, it is
happening in a person not prepared by the regular practice of
infused prayer. The purgation that is sought by a Christian is
looked for and welcomed; the purgation which we are unprepared to
meet, that comes from the sudden disasters of life, is more likely
to force a downward inflection to the darkness of separation.
When one is assailed by what seemed to be life and death matters
of family and fortune, at first, a little hope is lost; then, a
little faith; eventually, when one sees the faith decreasing, hope
decreases further. The process accelerates until even charity is
affected. "And, because the wickedness is multiplied, most men's
love will grow cold." (4)
At the end, there is a downward slope leading to darkness, and
even to leaving the Church, as all faith has been lost, with blame
laid on God, who is seen as a fiction, an invention of the earthly
power structure. This may be the ultimate darkness on earth. To
echo St. Peter: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of
eternal life. (5)
In this state, there may still be the knowledge that the Church is
the one founded by Christ himself, so leaving the Church is leaving
him as well. Then, there is no hope at all. This is the explanation
for the high suicide rate among people abused by priests. Because
of the authority of the person involved, and the fact that it
strikes at the heart of faith, the loss of faith is accelerated,
and no resolution can be found. A form of clericalism is at the
heart of this problem, a belief that ordination does more than the
Church claims that it does. A person who believes that ordination
changes a person's free will, and level of sanctity, will fall prey
to despair when confronted with evil in a priest. The same
principle applies when the person engaged in evil acts is not a
priest, but who also has religious or moral authority by virtue of
their state in life, such as a parent.
How can one recognize these inflection points, and through an act
of will, make them turn upward rather than downward? Ultimately,
the downward inflection consists of distrust in God, and a focus on
the importance of self. The upward inflection involves abandonment
to divine providence, and a focus on reflecting the light of
Christ. The temptations during this crisis manifest themselves in
temptations against the theological virtues, so the focus during
this period has to be on the three formal motives of the
theological virtues: primal truth, omnipotence, infinite goodness.
Prayer is the first shield against temptations. When disaster
strikes, prayer is the first and best response, in praying even
when it seems that God is merely the imaginary playmate of a child.
One must focus prayer on the internal process, not the outward
cause of despair; God has that under control. "We believe, in the
absence of every other reason, for the sole and unique motive: God
has said it." (7)
This is the fundamental definition of faith when all else has been
lost. People experiencing the cross, "do not lack entirely the
relief of consolations; for they are aware of the great rewards
they reap by bearing their cross. When they willingly submit to it,
their burden of suffering is turned into confidence that they will
receive consolation from God. The weaker the flesh becomes through
affliction, the stronger the spirit is made by inward grace".
And here is the hope for the future that results from faith: the
knowledge that the omnipotent God is in control, even in the
absence of outward signs. Another shield against temptations is to
internalize all the words on hope and God's omnipotence, especially
as manifested in endurance, and the words on faith and God's truth,
and on love and his goodness. Memorization is a first step toward
internalization, memorization of both prayers and scripture. "But,
he who endures to the end will be saved." (9)
For each of us, every day is the "end times" because we do not
know when Christ is coming, either at the Last Day, or for us
individually. Each day we experience "the tribulation and the
kingdom, and the patient endurance." (10)
A person must "desire self-control, and not allow oneself to be
dominated by exterior things; to reduce the imagination, the
feelings, and even the intelligence and memory to the position of
servants of the will, and to make the will conform, without
ceasing, to the will of God … " (11)
Faith is more than accepting suffering; it is rejoicing in it,
because we then become more like Christ. "Jesus has many lovers of
his heavenly kingdom, but few crossbearers. Many desire his
consolation, but few his tribulation. Many will sit down with him
at table, but few will share his fast. A desire to rejoice with
him, but few will suffer for him." (12)
"Our faith is never more alive than when what we experience
through our senses, contradicts and tries to destroy it."
The same thing is heard from soldiers who tell of never having
felt more aware of themselves and their surroundings than before
they had experienced battle. "If I say, 'Let only darkness cover
me, and the light about me be night,' even the darkness is not dark
to you, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light
with you." (14)
God made everything, and governs everything. There is no place
where he has not been. So, we need not fear where we are going
either, as he will be there also. (15)
"Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I
complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of
his body, that is, the Church." (16)
If we suffer like Christians, we apply the merit of Christ's
passion to other souls. St. Augustine wrote that the sufferings
were filled up by Christ as the Head. But, now it is the time for
the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, to suffer. (17)
Fr. Frederick Faber wrote that suffering is the greatest of the
sacraments. We unite our sufferings with those of Christ's and, in
so doing, we participate in the efficacy of the Precious Blood.
Our participation in the efficacy of the Precious Blood at Mass
helps us individually, but through our suffering, our participation
helps both us, and the people for whom we offer our suffering. To
focus on the offering of our suffering for someone else's benefit,
is the outward focus on the reflection of Christ's light that is
needed to combat the self-pity that takes us on the downward path.
"Then, they were given a white robe, and told to rest a little
longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their
brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they
themselves had been." (19)
Even if we may not be called to be martyrs and saints raised to
the altar, we are to help complete the number of smaller saints and
martyrs which has been ordained by God's will. "You are seeking for
secret ways of belonging to God, but there is only one: making use
of whatever he offers you. Everything leads you to union with him.
Everything guides you to perfection, except what is sinful or not a
Too often, we see the way to perfection as being paved with only
beautiful paving stones. The idea that imperfections are also
guides to perfection is foreign to us. We like to think our
imperfect path is due to our not living in a perfect world of
contemplation, but even nuns and monks have problems with each
other in community. Contemplatives have internal imperfections
which seem at times to block the way to sanctity. God "comforts us
in a our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who
are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are
comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's
sufferings, so through Christ, we share abundantly in comfort,
Our purpose in suffering is not necessarily for us to reach
sanctity, but to reflect the light of Christ to others, by
reflecting the hope of Christ to others who suffer. In this way, we
reach sanctity through a more external path. "Since his uncreated
hands do everything for me, why should I run about seeking help
from ignorant, helpless creatures who have no real affection for
me?" (22) We should not rely on people, even priests, who often are
no better equipped to deal with spiritual upheavals than anyone
else. Mother Teresa knew this in the darkness of Calcutta, as she
experienced no sense of God's presence for years, and spent
extended periods without access to a spiritual director. "From
within and from without, I find no one to turn to. He has taken not
only spiritual but even human help." (23)
She knew that spiritual help, and human help, are of a different
quality and an efficacy, the spiritual far more than "even" human
help. Seeking human help rarely is useful-as even though there are
many who suffer in so many different ways, so few people have the
degree of introspection to become intimately familiar with the way
of darkness, or how to articulate guidance through it. This
requires being already in the unitive way, at least part of the
time. To reflect his light, we must reflect all parts of it, words
and deeds, carrying our crosses even to death. The Son of God
didn't come to play "patty-cake" and die of old age. We are to
follow him in all things, even to the shedding of blood, though
sometimes white martyrdom seems worse, being more protracted and
less certain as to its outcome. We are not sure of its outcome
because of the worldly causes or nature of our suffering. We refuse
to believe that it qualifies as spiritually genuine suffering or
martyrdom. This is a kind of false humility. "Pain is, in
appearance, the most useless of things, but it becomes fruitful by
the grace of Christ, whose love rendered his sufferings on Calvary
infinitely fruitful … Pain makes us desire God, who alone can heal
certain wounds of the heart, and who alone can fortify and remake
the soul. Pain invites us to have recourse to him who alone can
restore peace and give himself to us." (24)
Someone who is not a Christian may cry out to God in suffering,
asking for him to take away that suffering. But a Christian will
cry out for him to use that suffering. "Instead of stifling her
missionary impulse, the darkness seemed to invigorate it. Mother
Teresa understood the anguish of the human soul that felt the
absence of God, and she yearned to light the light of Christ's love
in the "dark hole" of every heart buried in destitution,
loneliness, or rejection." (25)
To saintly souls, "If he takes from them their powers of thought
and speech, their books, their food, their friends, their health,
and even life itself, it means no more to them than if he did the
exact opposite. They love what he does, and find his activity
always sanctifying. They do not reason about what he does, but
approve of it. They know it is never without significance."
This is a process like winnowing in a storm. We are afraid that
the wind is too strong, and some of the grain will be lost. But
nothing is lost. "What this year contained has gone into the abyss
of eternity. Nothing is lost. I am glad that nothing gets lost".
"You would be very ashamed if you knew what the experiences you
call setbacks, upheavals, pointless disturbances, and tedious
annoyances really are. You would realize that your complaints about
them are nothing more, nor less, than blasphemies-though that never
occurs to you. Nothing happens to you except by the will of God,
and, yet, his beloved children curse it because they do not know it
for what it is." (28)
Realizing what it means, that God's care for the fallen sparrow is
a sign that his care for us is assured, (29) we then believe in the
promise that "I will restore to you the years that the locust hath
The restoration is of years, or time, rather than physical crops,
which are replaceable. Time is not replaceable, and here it
represents all irreplaceable things: confidence, joy, trust, and
faith. Eternity is not just endless time, it is outside of time, so
in eternity, God can restore our years of prayer, labor, and
"It is no easy thing to bear sufferings joyfully, especially those
which are unmerited. Fallen nature rebels and, although the
intellect and will are above suffering because they are able to do
good to those who inflict suffering on them, nevertheless, the
emotions raise a lot of noise and, like restless spirits, attack
the intellect and will. But, when they see they cannot do anything
by themselves, they quiet down and submit to the intellect and
will. Like some kind of hideousness, they rush in, and stir up a
row, bent on making one obey them alone, so long as they are not
curbed by the intellect and will." (31)
The will is the key to finding and turning our inflection points
upward. The will is the one thing over which we have complete
control. There is a popular belief that if one doesn't have faith,
then one just doesn't have it. However, faith is an act of will,
just as much as the propensity for it is a gift. And hope and
charity are just as dependent on the will as is faith.
"We are now living in a time of faith. The Holy Spirit writes no
more gospels except in our hearts. All we do, from moment to
moment, is live this new Gospel of the Holy Spirit. We, if we are
holy, are the paper; our sufferings and our actions are the ink.
The workings of the Holy Spirit are the pen, and with it he writes
a living gospel; but it will never be read until that last day of
glory, when it leaves the printing press of this life … The book is
on a press and, never a day passes when the type is not set, ink
applied, and pages pulled … The paper is blacker than the ink, and
the type is pied; the language is not of this world, and we
understand nothing. We shall be able to read it only in heaven."
1. Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange, Life Everlasting and the
Immensity of the Soul (TAN Books, Rockford, IL, 1991) 33.
2. Garrigou-LaGrange, 33.
3. Garrigou-LaGrange, 34.
4. Mt 24:12 RSV
5. Jn 6:68 RSV
6. Garrigou-LaGrange, 34.
8. Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ, ed. Claire Fitzpatrick
(Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York. 1977), Book 2, chapter 12,
"The Royal Road of the Cross."
9. Mt 24:13 RSV
10. Rev 1:9 RSV
11. Jean-Baptiste Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate (TAN Books.
1946; 2008) 23.
12. Thomas á Kempis, Book 2, chapter 11, "On the Small Number of
Lovers of the Cross"
13. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
(Image/Doubleday, New York. 1975) 39.
14. Ps 139:11-12 RSV
15. Ps 139.
16. Col. 1:24 RSV
17. Chautard, 119.
18. Chautard, 120.
19. Rev. 6:11 RSV
20. de Caussade, 55.
21. 2 Cor. 1:4-5 RSV
22. de Caussade, 54.
23. Brian Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the
Private Writings of the "Saint of Calcutta" (Doubleday, New York.
24. Garrigou-LaGrange, 31.
25. Kolodiejchuk, 185.
26. de Caussade, 61.
27. St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, Divine Mercy in My Soul (Marian
Press, Stockbridge, MA. 2009) paragraph 855, p. 355.
28. de Caussade, 47.
29. Mt. 10:31
30. Joel 2:25 KJV
31. Kowalska, para. 1152, p.422-423.
32. de Caussade, 45.