Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why do we shrink from interior mortification?

last chance In her work, The Way of Perfection, St Teresa of Avila asks;

Why, then, do we shrink from interior mortification, since this is the means by which every other kind of mortification may become more meritorious and perfect, so that it can be practiced with tranquility and ease?

If we pause to reflect on our thoughts we will find that we often engage in what we might call magical or fantasy thinking.  What would my life be like if I had more money, or a different job, or if I lived somewhere else?  We might even be tempted to think, “What would my life be like if I had a different spouse?” 

I remember meeting a Christian marriage counselor who had literally worked with thousands of couples whose marriages were in distress.  From the collected experience of all these couples he told us that in most cases, “the dream or fantasy of the other lover, almost never equaled the reality.”  The grass on the other side of the fence was not really greener when you were standing in it.

St. Teresa tells us that interior mortification “consists mainly or entirely in our ceasing to care about ourselves and our own pleasures.”  We often fail to live in the moment.  We have ordered our dinner in the restaurant and then we wish we had ordered what we see on someone else’s plate. We are like children fighting over who got the biggest piece of cake.  How much easier it would be to give up the cake if we ceased to care about our own interests? 

We can mortify ourselves in many small ways. What if we purposely choose a smaller piece of dessert?  Without even being noticed, we could eat more of something we do not like, or leave out something small that accompanies what we like.  We can exercise control over our eyes.  Perhaps the most difficult task is to discipline our thoughts.  We can leave something unsaid that draws attention to ourselves.  We can do the hardest job first without procrastinating about starting it.   St. Josemaria Escriva offers a helpful piece of advice, “Choose mortifications that don't mortify others” (The Way, 17).

Of course God is not calling us to live a completely joyless life without pleasures, but our little acts of detachment help our natural loves to be ordered as God intended them. 

Holy Mary, Our Hope Seat of Wisdom,

Pray for us,


Learn more about St. Teresa this Fall in our upcoming Bishop Helmsing Institute course Writings of the Saints, which will be a book study of her work, The Interior Castle.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Seeking Interior Detachment

In her work The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila highlights three important virtues for the interior life. She lists love for each other,  detachment from all created things, and finally, true humility.  She notes that although she put humility last it “is  the most important of three and it embraces all the rest.”  For Teresa humility is simply being honest about yourself.

I would like to focus on the idea of detachment. Some people today might think the ideas of penance, self-denial and mortification are old fashioned.  Is mortification out of keeping with the Church after Vatican II?  Clearly this is not the case. Even in the documents of the Council we read about penance and self-denial in Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (LG 8, 10, 36; cf. SC 9).  In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity we read:

The laity should vivify their life with charity and express it as best they can in their works. They should all remember that they can reach all men and contribute to the salvation of the whole world by public worship and prayer as well as by penance and voluntary acceptance of the labors and hardships of life whereby they become like the suffering Christ (Apostolicam actuositatem, 16).

Detachment can be both exterior or interior. We can give up the exterior world by fasting, or through observing silence.  St. Teresa warns that we should not “feel secure or fall asleep” because we have engaged in exterior detachment.  It is actually our interior detachment that renounces the self-will “which is the most important business of all.”  She counsels us to keep in mind the “vanity of all things and the rapidity with which they pass away.”  She warns that even with regard to small things, “we must be very careful, as soon as we grow fond of them, to withdraw our thoughts from them and turn them to God.”  It is only through this inner detachment to self that true humility can enter because humility and detachment always go together.

Holy Mary, Our Hope, Seat of Wisdom, Pray for us,


Learn more about St. Teresa this Fall in our upcoming Bishop Helmsing Institute course Writings of the Saints, which will be a book study of her work, The Interior Castle.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Finding a Good Spiritual Director

TeresaAvilaOne very important ingredient for vibrant spiritual life is to find a good spiritual director. For many people this person will also be their confessor, but this is not necessary. It is possible to have a separate confessor and spiritual director. It is even possible to have a lay person who acts as a spiritual director.

St. Teresa of Avila shares some advice on this topic in her work, The Way of Perfection. She suggests that first of all a spiritual director should combine both learning and spirituality. Having said this, she goes on to tell a story about a man she had as a confessor who had a “complete course in theology” but who departed from the Church’s traditional teaching in his counsels to her and caused “a great deal of mischief” in her interior life. As result of this experience St. Teresa advises that we should be free to change our spiritual director if they are not helping us. This freedom was more difficult for St. Teresa’s cloistered nuns than for the average lay person. The current Code of Cannon law specifies that all the faithful are free to choose the lawfully approved confessor of their choice (CIC 991). We are free to go to the confessor we feel helps us the most, even if they are not our parish priest.

St. Teresa advises that since “it is difficult to know which confessors are good, great care and caution is necessary.” One danger she highlights is that of vanity. One very obvious sign of vanity is someone who champions their own personal views or “I believes” over the “We believe” of the Church. Is the confessor or spiritual director willing to “think with the Church”? Again the Code of Cannon Law specifies that “In administering the sacrament, the confessor, as a minister of the Church, is to adhere to the teaching of the magisterium and to the norms laid down by the competent authority” (CIC 978.2) Clearly we would desire the same standard for our spiritual director, if they are not also our confessor. Another point along the same lines is the problem of some confessors not wanting to hear confessions which are frequent and only consisting of venial sins. The Church encourages all the faithful to confess even their venial sins (CIC 988.2). We receive specific graces to overcome the sins we confesses. By his own example and words Pope John Paul II promoted the practice of frequent confession. He notes,

In the name of the Lord Jesus, let us give assurance, in union with the whole Church, to all our priests of the great supernatural effectiveness of a persevering ministry exercised through auricular confession, in fidelity to the command of the Lord and the teaching of his Church. And once again let us assure all our people of the great benefits derived from frequent Confession (Ad Limina Address to Canadian Bishops, November 1978)

One common concern I hear is that while a particular priest is evidently both holy and “thinking with the Church”, I am told he is too young, or too inexperienced to be the director of someone who is older. Here I would point to St Teresa’s example. At the age of 52 she took St. John of the Cross to be her director. At that time he was only 25 years old! This is roughly the equivalent of a young priest right out of seminary. I think we must trust in divine graces. The Holy Spirit will guide our director to help us. We should pray for our director and trust in God’s ability to use them for our benefit. While it certainly is difficult to find a good spiritual director, it is well worth the effort to find one.

Learn more about St. Teresa this Fall in our up coming Bishop Helmsing Institute course Writings of the Saints, which will be a book study of her work, The Interior Castle.clip_image001

On the Feast of St. Lawrence of Brindisi,



Friday, July 2, 2010

Resting Well

God The Catechism reminds us that, “To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy” (CCC 600). We, one the other hand, move through time and experience the seasons and years as they pass. As we move into the summer season, our culture invites us to rest and relax. Finding time for recreation is important. Many people in our culture are living frantic overscheduled lives. Many families cannot even find time to eat together once a week. Often the culprit isn’t our employment, but children’s sports.

Finding time to rest is important, but even more important is how we rest. In his book Furrow, Saint Josemaria Escrivá wrote;

I have always seen rest as time set aside from daily tasks, never as days of idleness.

Rest means recuperation: to gain strength, form ideals and make plans. In other words it means a change of occupation, so that you can come back later with a new impetus to your daily job. (Furrow 514)

I am not suggesting that you cannot catch up on the sleep that you have missed by not keeping a schedule during your normal work time. You may need to sleep in and of course you will wish to socialize and not follow the strict schedule you use during work. It is very easy though, to fall into a pattern of disordered life which leaves God out of the picture.

For me at least the hardest time to keep up my scheduled prayers is during weekends and breaks. It is even more difficult if I travel and visit relatives. You would think that with more time on my hands it would be easier to pray, but this is not always the case. If we remember that our prayer life is a battle, we cannot like Switzerland in the Second World War, declare ourselves neutral and stay out of the conflict. If we are not progressing forward we are likely sliding backwards.

With some effort we can plan our vacation so that in includes our spiritual life. Could we maintain a daily schedule of prayer, or read some spiritual book? Could we use the time to attend Mass more often? At a bare minimum have we planned out how we will make our Sunday obligation as we travel. With use of the internet it is difficult to claim ignorance. Of course this does mean we will spend the whole day in spiritual exercises. We can still go fishing, or hiking, boating. We can still spend time with family and friends.

As fathers we might also reflect on our responsibility to provide a healthy environment for our children. If you have teenage boys or girls and you plan a trip to the beaches in the south of France or Spain your family is likely to be shocked by the visuals. While clothing optional beaches might be the extreme, we might ask about the effect of regular beaches and swimming pool environments on our family. If you have the option to take a wilderness float trip, or hike instead this might be a better choice. Saint Josemaria Escrivá wrote about this in his book The Way,

'There's no denying the influence of environment', you've told me. And I have to answer: Quite. That is why you have to be formed in such a way that you can carry your own environment about with you in a natural manner, and so give your own 'tone' to the society in which you live.

And then, if you have acquired this spirit, I am sure you will tell me with the amazement of the disciples as they contemplated the first fruits of the miracles being worked by their hands in Christ's name: 'There's no denying our influence on environment!' (The Way 376)escrvia-3

Notice that Saint Josemaria talks about living in “a natural manner.” While we may make different choices than our neighbors, we don’t have to act odd or annoying in order to live our faith well. Our fashion choices and may be more modest and our beer consumption will hopefully be more tempered, but we can still have fun. We can develop our own environment wherever we might be. St. John Chrysostom notes, “It is possible to offer fervent prayer even while walking in public or strolling alone, or seated in your shop, . . . while buying or selling, . . . or even while cooking” (Ecloga de oratione 2).

It is also worth noting that God holds us accountable for our use of time. Recreational time is an opportunity for the cultural formation of our family. We might visit a museum, study a foreign language, or read a great book. We should try to lead our family away from the ever present screens. We might plan to travel to the Ozark Mountains where even AT&T has no bars of phone reception!

The main idea is to plan our summer and resist the easiest path which is frequently not the best one. Our spiritual life takes constant effort. We must not let down our guard.