At one time or another some of the following questions have probably troubled your peace of mind: Does God really love me? Am I still on the right track? How can I know whether I am making progress in holiness and sanctity? How can I know with certainty that I am a real religious and solid in virtue?
Maybe this example will answer your questions: There is Sister A, known in the community as a tireless worked, a real busy-bee from morning till night . Is that any evidence that she is truly virtuous? By no means. And there is Sister B, admired in the community as very conscientious in the performance of all her spiritual exercises. Is that a conclusive proof that she is really a holy nun? No! And there is Sister C., a model and example to all in her life of prayer and work. Is that convincing proof that she is
firm in virtue. No, not even she by her prayer and work can give convincing evidence of her firmness in virtue. But watch how she faces afflictions, contradictions, and disappointments; watch how she suffers sickness and illness or anything that gets on her nerves or “gets her goat”; and especially watch how she takes humiliations. By her reactions to these you can gauge her spirituality. It is especially important for superiors (Minor or Major, Mistresses, etc) to make use of this yardstick so that they may know with certainty the character of the religious under their care and supervision.
In this present life, in a certain sense, we are all like those early Christians, who being called to become martyrs, were compelled to sit in the arena of the Coliseum in Rome, and there to view the death struggles and agonies of others — brothers and sisters in Christ — preceding them, while they themselves await the appointed time for their own ordeal.
Prayer and work, we are told, make up a Christian’s life: Ora et Labora. Yet, neither the nor the other necessarily carries with it the components of hardships or distress: either occupation, or both, may become to us the occasions of pleasure and content. But the crucial test of true, solid virtue does not manifest itself except through sufferings and trials of different degrees and kinds. Marie Antoinette expressed the thought well when, during the days of the Revolution in France, she was led to her death on the guillotine: “Never in all my life did I realise what I know now, that only when one has to face trials and sufferings, crosses of every kind, does one come to know the real caliber or character of a person.”
The Christians of the first centuries were called upon to endure and to suffer martyrdoms of the severest kinds. Nowadays we are not exposed to bloody persecutions in this manner (at least, not yet in our country), but our martyrdoms are made up of a variety of little tests which, nevertheless, may prove to be, in our present state of culture and development, just as grievous and appalling to us as the flame and the whip were to the early Christians. The English poet and mystic Francis Thompson (1859 – † 1907) in his essay entitled: Health and Holiness: A Study of the Relations Between Brother Ass, the Body, and His Rider, the Soul treats this point of view most convincingly and entertainingly. There is almost an endless list of these unpleasant little tests: unfruitful fields of labor in which we find ourselves; the necessity of spending years or perchance our whole life with fellow Sisters who lack congeniality and companionship, who are naturally cold or repellent in manner; experiences in which we are laid open to all sorts of suspicions and accusations. Again, we might be subject to some form of nervous affliction, visitations of extreme dryness, despondency, or abnormal rigidity of thought or deportment. St. Francis de Sales has a beautiful statement on the nature of our crosses:
- God in His divine wisdom has from all eternity beheld the cross He bestows upon you — His precious gift from His heart.
- He contemplated this cross with His all knowing eye before be stowing it upon you.
- He pondered over it with His divine mind; He examined it with His all-wise justice; with His loving mercy He warmed it thru and thru;
- And with both His hands He weighed it to determine if it be one ounce too heavy for you.
- He blessed it with His all-holy Name; with His grace He anointed it; and with His consolation He perfumed it thru and thru;
- And then once more He considered you and your courage.
- Finally it comes from heaven as a special message from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God for you.
We all must face the crosses which Divine Providence has in store for us; no matter who we may be or what our temperament or disposition may be, we must all prepare ourselves for our share of suffering and crosses. It is for this reason that I would like to take you into the school of the suffering Christ, who in our life of prayer and work and suffering must be our Divine Model and Exemplar. Only by bearing our crosses — whether they are physical, mental, or spiritual — patiently, resignedly, silently, and even cheerfully as He did, will we give evidence of being His true followers and offer an unmistakable proof of our actual family relationship to our Divine Master and Bridegroom.
Too many religious when meditating on the Passion of Christ or making the Way of the Cross think only or mainly of His physical sufferings. His bloodshed; His wounds, or His crown of thorns. They can express their sympathy to Him beautifully, but they neglect to consider His mental sufferings. His humiliations, which were so much greater than all His physical sufferings. These religious forget to ask themselves; What was going on in His mind? What was He thinking in every scene and phase of his bitter Passion and death? Those mental sufferings of our Lord, His humiliations, should be considered foremost if we arc to learn from Him how we must bear our trials with the proper disposition and thus grow in humility, which is the fundamental virtue of all virtues, the very test of true, solid spirituality.
There can be no true humility unless a bride of Christ is ready for the full share of humiliations which Divine Providence may have in store for her. Let us, therefore, consider the utter humiliations to which the suffering Christ submitted Himself during His bitter Passion and the degree of humility with which He bore all these humiliations.
Picture the bruised Son of God standing with Barabbas, the murderer, in the court of Pilate. The scene is too well known to require details. Ecce Homo! What went on in Christ’s mind as He turned from Pilate to Barabbas to the howling mob? Just think of three outstanding features of that scene in the court of Pilate.
In the first place, think of die false accusations levelled against Him. To a noble and cultured mind there is perhaps nothing more painful and repellent than to find that all his personally praiseworthy and meritorious acts and motives are misinterpreted and perverted by others. According to them whatever he does is for selfish, ignoble, and base intentions. But is not this exactly what happened to our Lord and Saviour? When He dined with sinners, to gain an opportunity to save their immortal souls and to discuss with them matters pertaining to the Kingdom of the Messias, His enemies spread abroad the tale that He was out for a good time and fine meals wherever they were to be had. They called Him, as St. Matthew tells us, a “glutton and wine-bibber.” And because He rebuked die leaders of His people for their hypocrisy and dishonesty, they accused Him of secretly intriguing with the enemies of the nation, of deliberately planning to give over His country to the Romans. And when He went about doing good, healing the sick, raising the dead to life, in a word, performing miracles of charity on behalf of suffering humanity, He was charged with being an actual colleague of the devil. No, what He did was not miracles, they said, but stunts performed with the help of Beelzebub. Such were the accusations brought against Jesus in the court of Pilate. Surely, if ever there was a man misunderstood, our Lord was misunderstood. If anyone’s intentions were misinterpreted, the intentions of our Lord were most grossly misconstrued.
But let us examine a second feature in this scene before Pilate. The Governor’s constant disposition was to set our Lord free since he was convinced of the innocence of Jesus. Several times Pilate made feeble attempts to set Him free. But what miserable, base, and detestable means did he finally employ to accomplish his end! He selected Barabbas, the lowest of the criminals incarcerated at the time, and presented him, with Jesus , on the platform to the people, that they might choose between the two, might choose whom they should set free, according to custom, because of the approaching feast. Indeed, what a humiliation! But the depths of humiliation have not yet been reached. The people, instigated by their leaders, demanded freedom for Barabbas, the murderer. Our Lord was condemned to die!
And now, finally, the death sentence itself! Crucifixion was the worst punishment that existed in those days. If a criminal realised that he had to die, he rejoiced when he heard that it was by the sword, for in only a few seconds all would be over. Crucifixion was looked upon with dread and horror, and the Romans were experts in drawing out the last ounce of agony from a punishment that was horrible enough without refinements. But crucifixion was not enough for Jesus! Human malice saw to it that He was humiliated even more. He was to be crucified with two robbers, one on either side of Him, so that He might be plainly characterised before the public as one of the outcasts of humanity. And His position in the middle indicated to all that of the three men crucified, He was the worst! Thus it was that our Saviour had to face death in the bloom of His life, at the age of thirty-three.
That is as far as human malice could go to humiliate its greatest benefactor. But, Divine Providence, His heavenly Father, saw to it that He was humiliated even more. What a mystery! Divine Providence arranged it so that He had to die not in Galilee where the population was not so dense, but in Judea right next to the Holy City, on the top of Calvary, at a time when there would be more people in and around Jerusalem than at any other time during the year because of the pilgrims coming from Asia Minor, Italy, Egypt, and other places for the celebration of the Paschal Feast. They all were to witness His utter humiliation in His Passion and His cruel death. Well, what is your opinion of Christ thus humiliated, thus put to death?
Did our heavenly Father really wrong our Blessed Lord in thus committing Him to all that happened in His Passion and death? Was there any injustice on the part of God, His heavenly Father, in permitting all that then came to pass? Not at all. There was no wrong or injustice in the mind of God, because our Saviour deserved all that fie had to face in His Passion and death. Had he not taken upon Himself all the sins of the world? Did He not thereby make Himself voluntarily the greatest criminal, the most outstanding scoundrel that ever lived? Voluntarily He was determined to atone for all sins and crimes. As the scapegoat for mankind, He got what we deserved.
Suppose our heavenly Father should send upon you the same or similar humiliations. Suppose you would be stricken with arthritis and rheumatism, followed by a heart attack and TB and polio, with all the excruciating sufferings connected with all these diseases. Moreover, suppose you would find that you were being calumniated: all kinds of evil things were being said against you by your former pupils, patients, or members of your community. And after suffering in this manner physically, mentally, and spiritually, you might feel like Christ on the cross abandoned by His Father in heaven. Would you complain and say that you did not deserve such crosses? Isn’t that what some religious are doing: murmuring and complaining that God is unjust to them? What right have you to complain? Is there any injustice toward you on the part of God? Are you nor forced to admit that, once or twice or maybe more frequently in your lifetime, you have come to the point of deserving hell because of mortal sins committed? Then does not such a visitation of God as I have mentioned come far short in severity of what you actually have deserved? Ah, then you will understand that beautiful prayer of St. Augustine: “O Lord, here cut, here burn, send me any suffering, but spare me in eternity!”
What is really your family relationship to Christ concerning sufferings and humiliations? In all honesty, is it not decidedly unchristian, that is, contrary to the spirit of Christ, to persistently look upon sufferings and trials as things to be shunned, abhorred, detested, and denounced? Suppose something should happen to you like the experience which fell to the lot of St. Margaret Mary V.H.M. It is related that for a period of time those living in the convent with St. Margaret Mary in Paray le Monial looked upon her as one bereft of her senses, and worse, as one truly obsessed by the devil. And so time and again they would sprinkle her with holy water as she passed them by in the corridor or as she was entering the chapel. Some did this with scorn and disdain; others out of pity and distress. What a humiliation for Sister Margaret Mary! But she had to go through all these experiences to deserve to be the apostle of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. What if such a thing were to befall you within your own convent? How would you meet the situation?
But now it is necessary to consider the special circumstances under which the humiliations of our Lord and His humility under them are made particularly significant for us.
First of all, we know that He was a lamb of innocence led to slaughter; a more perfectly innocent man was never, before or since, condemned to death. On His part, merely a short, determined denial of all guilt attributed to Him would have been sufficient to secure His immediate liberation. But imagine what would have happened had He chosen to exercise the powers of oratory which He had so frequently demonstrated in His sermons and addresses to the people upon former occasions! Instead of this all four of His Evangelists invariably report, “Jesus autem tacebat” — but Jesus was silent (Matthew 26:63). In abandoning Himself completely, unreservedly, to Divine Providence, I le knew that sooner or later His innocence would be vindicated before all the world. And He surely did not have to wait too long because in His glorious Resurrection and His glorious Ascension into heaven He was vindicated completely before all the world.
Contrast the attitude of so many spouses of Jesus Christ with this beautiful, inspiring conduct and behaviour of our Saviour. I low sensitive they sometimes can be if a single word is said against them, justly or unjustly — it makes no difference! Are they not ready on the slightest provocation to protest, to resist, to demand satisfaction? Are they not acting this way sometimes merely on the grounds of past suspicions? Remember, our Lord suffered willingly in His complete innocence.
There is a second circumstance which perfectly sets forth the humility of our Lord and Saviour. Throughout the sufferings of His Passion He was in full possession of His omnipotence. Surely, it would have been an easy matter for Him to call down from heaven “more than twelve legions of angels,” as the Evangelist states (Matthew 26:53), to die utter dismay of His enemies. He was not even in need of legions from on high; I le could have smashed them all to the ground as when He was taken prisoner. But Jesus preferred not to make use of His omnipotence. He preferred to undergo the whole range of tortures which perverse humanity had conceived for Him. Oh, the humility of our Lord and Saviour, ready for die worst of humiliations.
Finally, we also know that He was in full possession of His divine omniscience. He knew full well beforehand that His Passion and death would be interpreted as an unmistakable sign of His weakness and as a sufficient proof of His guilt. Did this not actually happen when He was hanging on the cross? He knew full well, moreover, how much grief He would cause His Blessed Mother and into what predicaments He would drive His Apostles in consequence of these humiliations. These were all considerations which would have impressed us mightily at such a time. But they were incapable of changing the mind of Christ. He was determined to teach us in a most forceful manner that there can be no humility where there is no readiness or love for humiliations.
It is easy to pray, and it is also comparatively easy to work. But where are the religious, the spouses of Christ, who according to the example of our suffering Saviour are determined to take upon themselves afflictions, ignominy, and humiliations of every sort? Where are they? In the sight of God, each and every one of us represents actual worth only in so far as we can prove the nature of our family relationship to our Lord and Saviour, not only by our prayer or work, or by both of them, but especially by our readiness to suffer whatever Divine Providence may send us.
Only a few years more and we shall all be added to the vast celestial procession of the beatified, that glorious throng of apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins. Surely, then it will be necessary for us to give evidence of a relationship to Christ not different, except in degree, from that of those selfsame apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins. All the little trials, sufferings, disappointments, afflictions, crosses of every kind, humiliations especially which we bear patiently, resignedly, and cheerfully, will be the credentials that will permit us to participate in the great concourse of those “who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14). These credentials will entitle us to join in that glorious chorus of the angels and saints in heaven; according to St. John in Revelations, we will sing throughout eternity the great Alleluia Song in praise of the Lamb of God.
Therefore, when reflecting on the suffering and dying Christ, especially the humiliated Christ, or when making the Way of the Cross, let us implore Him fervently to grant us a portion of that sincere love of the great St Augustine — oh, how he loved God sincerely and intensely after his conversion! Or let us ask Jesus to give us a portion of that seraphic love which animated St. Francis of Assisi: “My God and My All” was his slogan. Or let us beg Jesus to give us a portion of that great love which animated the great Apostle of the Gentiles who gloried in the manifold sufferings of his apostolic life, because he realised that only through the sufferings and crosses of his missionary career could he maintain himself in his full family relationship with his Lord and Master. To one group of his converts he wrote: “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which[a] the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14). Here is another even stronger statement of his: “… I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
But the Sorrowful Mother — surely she had her share of crosses and trials. Stabat Mater Dolorosa. Behold her standing beneath the cross on Calvary with the beloved St. John at her side and a few faithful women. There she stood, not collapsing, not fainting, but bravely and courageously fulfilling the vow she had given on Annunciation Day. There she stood, like a royal palm in the desert, determined to the last to keep her solemn pledge: “… I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38).
Are you ready to follow them — Jesus and Mary?