Most people are lonely at times. I think it’s fair to say that a fear of loneliness drives a tremendous amount of human activity. Our desire for God is partially manifested in a desire for union with others. We want to be known, understood, and loved. A soul that is, by its nature, difficult to know is destined to suffer loneliness more acutely. Such souls may seem to have many friends and to be widely admired, or they may be introverted and shy, but they are still the lonely ones.
Because only God can know men the way men long to be known – the way we are created to be known – there is always a danger that human relationships become an obstacle to union with God, an easy substitute that disguises our true condition and purpose. That is why souls who find it more difficult than others to avoid human loneliness are uniquely blessed. The path is cleared for them in advance!
Recently, a seminarian of the FSSP gave a talk on vocations to some young men in the parish. He was asked about the loneliness of the priesthood, especially for priests whose assignment does not include community with other priests. The seminarian responded that this loneliness is intended to drive the priest closer to God, to make him seek the friendship of God, to move him to a deeper life of prayer. The same is true for everyone else.
Ordinarily we should not seek loneliness. It is natural and healthy to desire the companionship of others, and to seek it. God wants this for us. The companionship of others is necessary for the exercise of virtue. How does one acquire patience or fortitude without struggling against human resistance? How does one learn mercy, generosity, or compassion without human beneficiaries? How does one learn to forgive without being offended? How does one imitate Jesus Christ without experiencing human rejection? And not just rejection by the bad, but rejection by the good! Etc. That is why God places us first in a family and then in society.
Having said that, there are souls who are called to acquire the kind of spiritual strength and union with Christ that can only be born of intense loneliness. They don’t seek it at first: the burden is forced upon them by both temperament and circumstances. But if they recognize this burden as a gift and receive it with gratitude, these souls have a “head start” in the spiritual life. They must, however, learn to avoid certain traps. They must learn how to forget themselves. They must accept being misunderstood to an extraordinary degree. They must not accuse those who misunderstand them, or turn their particular burden into a false sense of superiority. Often enough, they must love without being loved in return (because men cannot love what they do not know). One’s natural pride rebels against this condition and wants to blame the world, to take revenge in various ways, to pretend the burden is a virtue, as though it were chosen rather than imposed. And so the soul can respond badly and miss its great purpose in life … or find its purpose too late for the good it might have achieved. The lonely are therefore faced with a more urgent choice upon which their happiness depends entirely: God or self, humility or pride, love or hatred.
In an age of “all fun, all joy, all happy-clappy all-the-time” Catholicism, I think it’s important to re-assert the indispensable value of the desert. The following passage of a rather obscure essay is one of those rare discourses that will stay with me for life.
The School of Love, and Other Essays
by Alban Goodier, S.J.
To most men loneliness is a doom. It is imposed upon a criminal as the heaviest of punishments; carried to extremes we know it will drive him mad; nothing seems so to unman a man as the loneliness of a prison cell. Even for those who are not criminals, nothing so wrings pity from a human heart as the sight of another who is utterly alone. Loneliness to many is the very ghost of life, dogging their steps, haunting them at every turn, from which they are always trying to escape. It cannot be fought, it cannot be avoided, yet there is nothing many more dread for themselves, or see with more concerning others. Yet it is this very thing which God has chosen to be the school of training for His own. He has shown it without possibility of mistake. Look down the line of the Old Testament, and you will find it written everywhere …
… Our Lord Himself was alone; in the wilderness of humanity He lived, so long a time, and men did not know Him. He was in the world, and the world knew Him hot; He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. His fellow-Nazarenes claimed to know Him, and did not. His enemies knew Him and refused to own it. His friends – at one point in His life “many went back and walked no more with Him”; at another “all fled away”; at the very end He had to say:”How long a time have I been with you, and you have not known me!” He was born deserted, He lived alone, He died a lonely criminal’s death; and if we want a proof that He felt it, we have it, first, in His frequent cries of pain, and second, in the eager way He grasped at and rewarded every mark of companionship offered Him …
… Loneliness of soul gives wisdom – that breadth of vision that belongs to him who sees all the valley from the hill-top. Loneliness of soul gives understanding – that further power of seeing beneath the surfaces of life. Loneliness of soul gives counsel to sustain another, and fortitude to “endure its own burden”; all the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost come through and are fostered by loneliness of soul.
These are some of the fruits of this special school of suffering. None the less, let it not be forgotten that a school of suffering it is. We are not speaking here of the loneliness which is a joy and a comfort, in which, as the popular phrase goes, one is “never less alone than when alone”; we are speaking of that sense of desertion, of alienation from one’s kindred, of being somehow out of joint with all the world, of separation from God Himself, which human nature can scarcely endure; which even our Lord Himself considered to justify a cry for relief…
… Nowhere has Christ our Lord come nearer to us than in His loneliness and ours. Nowhere has He shown Himself more human. Nowhere has He more condoned the cry of pain, the appeal for some relief; nowhere has He done more, by example and by promise, to nerve us to endurance.
Zippy Catholic has written an important piece explaining why the “pastoral exception” of communion for the divorced and remarried, as promoted by Cardinal Kasper and not-so-subtly endorsed by Pope Francis himself, is vicious cruelty, not kindness. Zippy is a thorough and comprehensive thinker, and his words don’t lend themselves to snippets or sound-bites, so please read the entire article.
“It is obvious that the PE [editor: 'pastoral exception' for selected divorced and remarried Catholics] would be cruel and vicious toward Catholics who are in irregular situations and are putting forth the effort to try to do what is right. This is not merely theoretical. Implementing this proposal would kick the most vulnerable of penitents — those who are leaning heavily on the Sacraments and the unchanging doctrine of the Church to remain continent in the face of overwhelming pressure to do otherwise — right where it hurts. The PE would completely undermine all of the support that they have. These are real people we are talking about, not policy abstractions, and they are among the most spiritually vulnerable of the Christian faithful …”
You may remember the tragic but triumphant story of Thomas Vander Woude, who died while rescuing his son in 2008. This new video puts faces to the names.
“It is the glory of the monastic life to be founded in loyalty and absolute sincerity, to be delivered
from all the diplomacy and shiftiness of the world. Happy those who have nothing to hide, who
know nothing of torturous or subterranean maneuvers, who live full in the day. Happy those who
have brought all their being to a perfect simplicity, and who, before God and before men, are
what they are, without duality, stiffness, or effort, but with flexibility and ease.”
- Dom Paul Delatte, OSB, Abbot of Solesmes
Lent is a time when many souls are attacked with temptations against faith – the worst and most agonizing of all temptations. In the midst of the crisis presently engulfing the Church, I would imagine that such temptations will test even the best of Catholics. Perhaps especially the best of Catholics. St. Francis de Sales, who often suffered these temptations, advises:
… not to fight against this temptation by contrary acts of the understanding, but by those of the will, darting forth a thousand protestations of fidelity to the truths which God reveals to us by His Church. These acts of Faith, supernatural as they are, soon reduce to ashes all the engines and machinations of the enemy.
For my part, one of the most powerful and consoling things to do is to think of the saints. The miracles of the saints could only be of divine origin. The kind of supernatural charity that confounds the world is found only in the saints of the Catholic Church. Where else can be found the likes of a St. Maria Goretti? Or, for that matter, her forgiving mother? Not to mention her murderer, who repented with great humility, did a lifetime of penance, and even attended his victim’s canonization ceremony? Such marvels are only imaginable as a Catholic Christian. But we don’t have to imagine them: they are real and tangible proofs of the truth of our holy religion. Dear fellow sinners, let this letter of the aged Alessandro Serenelli revive your spirit:
“I’m nearly 80 years old. I’m about to depart.
“Looking back at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself.
“My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking. And I did the same. I was not worried.
“There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life.
“When I was 20 years-old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer. Thirty years of prison followed.
“If I had been of age, I would have spent all my life in prison. I accepted to be condemned because it was my own fault.
“Little Maria was really my light, my protectress; with her help, I behaved well during the 27 years of prison and tried to live honestly when I was again accepted among the members of society. The Brothers of St. Francis, Capuchins from Marche, welcomed me with angelic charity into their monastery as a brother, not as a servant. I’ve been living with their community for 24 years, and now I am serenely waiting to witness the vision of God, to hug my loved ones again, and to be next to my Guardian Angel and her dear mother, Assunta.
“I hope this letter that I wrote can teach others the happy lesson of avoiding evil and of always following the right path, like little children. I feel that religion with its precepts is not something we can live without, but rather it is the real comfort, the real strength in life and the only safe way in every circumstance, even the most painful ones of life.”
Signature, Alessandro Serenelli
Among the innumerable truths forgotten since the Second Vatican Council, we may count the following teaching about good works performed in a state of mortal sin:
Are good works available which are performed in the state of mortal sin?
Good works performed while in a state of mortal sin avail nothing in regard to eternal life, writes St. Lawrence Justinian, but aid in moderating the punishment imposed for disobedience and the transgression of God’s commandments. They bring temporal goods, such as honor, long life, health, earthly happiness, etc.; they prevent us from falling deeper into sin, and prepare the heart for the reception of grace; so the pious person writes: “Do as much good as you can, even though in the state of mortal sin, that God may give light to your heart.“
I can think of no better poem for entering into the spirit of Lent than this one. The author may not approve of my mentioning his name, so I will merely link to his website.
A Sonnet to the Sorrowful Jesus
Let me mingle these, my tears, with Thine,
Whose tears roll down Thy face’s cheeks so fine.
Let me share my sorrows, Lord, with Thee –
And, too, Thy sorrows, prithee, share with me.
Let me know the love between us twain,
Who, lovers true, do share each other’s pain.
Let compassion, common, given be;
And thus shall I the love between us see.
Let me walk along, O Lord, with Thee,
Along the paths of this Gethsemane;
Let me be condemned with Thee and whipped,
And of the cup of sorrow take my sip;
Let me wear Thy holy crown of thorns,
Along with Thee endure the soliders’ scorns.
Let me wear Thy shameful scarlet cloak,
And let me hear the words that Pilate spoke.
Let me, Lord, embrace the cross with Thee,
And bear it by Thy side to Calvary.
Let my hands, like Thine, be nailed down,
And let my grievous wailing cries resound.
Let me, nailed upon the cross, be raised,
And hear the tumult of the crowd’s dispraise.
Let me, Lord, with Thee be crucified,
And for Thee die, just as for me You died.
Today is Septuagesima Sunday in the traditional Roman rite. The editor of the blog “A Foretaste of Wisdom” reflects on the incomprehensible suppression of this season in the Novus Ordo Missae:
“In the new missal of Pope Paul VI, the preparatory, pre-Lenten season of Septuagesima has been completely eliminated, on the grounds that it would be difficult for the faithful to understand why Septuagesima, like Lent, is a penitential season. But in fact, as Dr. Pristas stresses, the traditional understanding of the difference between Septuagesima and Lent is that the latter is a season of obligatory penance, whereas the former is a season of simply devotional penance, for the faithful to prepare themselves for the obligatory penances of Lent. This distinction was overlooked by the authors of the new missal. And so they paid no regard to the eminent fittingness of a period of spiritual preparation for the coming penitential season. Consequently, they opted to suppress this season altogether.
Along with this suppression came the loss of a beautiful set of collects which were prayed at the three Sunday Masses of this season. These prayers express a humble anticipation of the purgative processes of Lent, referring explicitly to the sinfulness of man and his deserved punishment, the need to be freed from the bonds of sin, the insufficiency of man’s own efforts, and the need for God’s protection. There is also a reference to St. Paul in the collect of Sexagesima Sunday, on which the Teacher of the Gentiles is specially honored. All three of these prayers are lost in the Novus Ordo.
In what way was this loss of a centuries-old tradition conducive the genuine spiritual benefit of the Church?”
The Holy Father is reported to have said in today’s General Audience:
“If you do not feel in need of God’s mercy, if you do not feel you are a sinner, then it’s better not to go to Mass, because we go to Mass because we are sinners and we want to receive the forgiveness of Jesus, to participate in His redemption, His forgiveness.”
Before you get too excited about this papal permission to skip Mass on Sunday, please recall the unchanged teaching of the Catholic Church:
2180 The precept of the Church specifies the law of the Lord more precisely: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass.”117 “The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.”118
2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.
2182 Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God’s holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
2183 “If because of lack of a sacred minister or for other grave cause participation in the celebration of the Eucharist is impossible, it is specially recommended that the faithful take part in the Liturgy of the Word if it is celebrated in the parish church or in another sacred place according to the prescriptions of the diocesan bishop, or engage in prayer for an appropriate amount of time personally or in a family or, as occasion offers, in groups of families.”120
2192 “Sunday . . . is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church” (CIC, can. 1246 § 1). “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (CIC, can. 1247).
Furthermore, the Church teaches that deliberately skipping Mass is a mortal sin:
390. Is it a mortal sin not to hear Mass on a Sunday or a holyday of obligation?
A. It is a mortal sin not to hear Mass on a Sunday or a holyday of obligation, unless we are excused for a serious reason. They also commit a mortal sin who, having others under their charge, hinder them from hearing Mass, without a sufficient reason.
Is one excused from the Sunday obligation if he does not “feel the need of God’s mercy”? Absolutely not. Attending Mass on Sunday is an obligation that falls upon all Catholics, no matter how they happen to be feeling about God’s mercy. Indeed it is even more important to attend Mass if one doesn’t feel himself to be a sinner, or especially in need of God’s mercy, because the graces of the Mass can move a soul to contrition. Sinners have been converted at Mass by means of the homily, the readings, even the words of the liturgy itself – not to mention the presence of Christ and the prayers of the faithful. Catholics who don’t feel themselves to be in need of God’s mercy should be all the more encouraged to attend Sunday Mass, not to commit a mortal sin by staying home.