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Monthly Reflection by
Fr. Augustine Vallooran VC
"I dwell with the crushed and the dejected“ (Is 57:15)

- Fr. Augustine Vallooran VC

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FOR THIS IS THE WILL OF GOD: YOUR SANCTIFICATION - By Rebecca Po, Singapore

Once I had the opportunity to join a local pilgrimage to make visits to churches in Singapore. We said some prayers together and spent time in personal prayers in each of the churches. Of all the prayers that were said, two particular words in one of the prayers caught my attention – “small things”. That prayer was about seeking the intercession of St. Thérèse of Child Jesus.

That time I struggled with doubts, scruples and melancholy. As I also had an inner desire to grow in the Christian life and in the grace of God, I figured that St. Thérèse, the saint of “small things” may have a more “manageable” way for me to grow in the Faith. I bought her autobiography “Story of a Soul” shortly after. Although I was not able to grasp her spirituality, her style of writing appealed to me and I received much spiritual consolation from it.

After St. Thérèse, I started to read about the lives of the other saints. I must admit that the desire for spiritual consolation was the primary motive for me to read about them. I was inspired to read how St. Teresa of Avila struggled for fourteen years in prayer before she was given the divine lights. I was uplifted when I read about how heroic St. Monica was in her persevering love for St. Augustine. I was encouraged to see how selfless St. Vincent de Paul and St. John Bosco were.

The saints whom I first got acquainted with were almost all religious. The more I read about them the more I was inspired. In my scant knowledge of the religious life, I thought “Wouldn’t it be great to live apart from the world like them, so that I have only God to think about and to live for?” This brought further questions like “Whether I can keep my faith in the midst of this world, will I lose God?", “Is my occupation leading me to God?”, “What exactly does God want me to do?” etc etc. I wished I had quick answers to these questions.

Such uncertainties were perhaps providential. Because of that, I began to read up the writings of the saints, hoping to find some answers. I visited Catholic bookshops and picked up whatever that might speak to me regarding my concerns. At the beginning, I kept mostly to the writings of the saints because I could be assured that they are true to the Catholic Faith. Most of all, the beauty and power of these writings convinced me that I would obtain much spiritual nourishment and encouragement for my daily living.

When I sought answers from the saints, my primary concern was to know the Will of God for my occupation, along side with concerns like “How can I grow closer to God?” At that time I confined the Will of God to mainly these. Later I learnt that as a baptized person, the call to holiness should be my first vocation, followed by my vocation as a married person and lastly the occupation that I should be engaged in. The Gospel has it clearly proclaimed “For this is the Will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

At the beginning of my conversion, the idea of holiness was not apparent to me. I lived my Christian life for a while, not knowing that my first vocation as a Christian was to be holy. Even when it was eventually made known to me, I was not ready to embrace it because the word “holiness” sounds too daunting to me. Other than the Scriptures, the saints and their writings are my spiritual companions. My attraction to the saints is perhaps God’s way of calling me to holiness. Somebody once asked late Holy Father Pope John Paul II why were the youths attracted to him? He smiled and said “It is the Holy Spirit”. St. Francis de Sales said the saints are “the Gospel in action” and that they are led by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Gospel. They are living examples of how people will be like if they followed and lived the Gospel fully. I got to know a few saints that became my Gospel guides.

I learnt about St. Josemaria Escriva, the “Saint of ordinary life” when a friend mentioned his “The Forge”, “The Furrow” and “The Way”. Each book has 999 short but powerful quotes on various topics for a lay faithful. As they are small and easy to carry, they can be spiritual bouquets for one to bring around to smell and refresh oneself throughout the day. I turn to St. Josemaria Escriva for guidance to live my life as a Catholic lay person and learnt about the value of work. “Every activity – be it of great human importance or not – must become for you a means to serve Our Lord and your fellow men. That is the true measure of its importance.” I also learnt that a purposeful life in God keeps the evil one away from our hearts and minds. “You carry on the war – the daily battles of your interior life – in positions far from the main wall of your fortress. And the enemy comes to meet you there: in your small mortification, in your daily prayer, in your orderly work, in your plan of life. And only with difficulty does he gets close to the otherwise easily scaled battements of your citadel. And if he does, he arrives exhausted." His writings paint a portrait of a Christian living in the world: “A calm and balanced character, an inflexible will, deep faith, an ardent piety: these are the indispensable characteristics of a son of God.”

Another saint was St. Francis de Sales who was known for his compassionate ways. In his “Introduction to the Devout Life”, this gifted spiritual director gave instructions on how lay faithful can live in greater friendship with God. I find his gentleness and balance in dealing with matters of the conscience very helpful as I was beginning to learn the ways of God.

“One of the best exercises in meekness we can perform is when the subject is ourselves….Although reason requires that we must be displeased and sorry whenever we commit a fault, we must refrain from bitter, gloomy, spiteful and emotional displeasure. Many people are greatly at fault in this way. When overcome by anger they become angry at being angry, disturbed at being disturbed…Moreover, these fits of anger, vexation, and bitterness against ourselves tend to pride…which is disturbed and upset at seeing that it is imperfect. However, if anyone finds that his heart is not sufficiently moved by this mild manner of correction, he may use sharp, severe reproach and rebuke so as to excite it to deeper sorrow. This must be on condition that…he closes…with sweet, consoling confidence in God”

When I am anxious about things that are put under my charge, he said “You may be sure that if you have firm trust in God, the success that comes to you will always be that which is most useful for you whether it appears good or bad in your private judgment.” Their writings are like a mirror to me as well. Sometimes I would come across passages that pin-pointed areas of my life that I ought to look at. I also learnt about certain pitfalls that I should avoid. St. Francis de Sales the watchful shepherd, cautioned the faithful of the threats to their spiritual lives. He expounded on a myriad of topics such as: lawful but dangerous pastimes, the traps of fond love, remedies against temptations, instructions to married persons,and do forth. St Josemaria Escriva’s caution to one involving in ministry work should also be taken to the heart: “Apostolic soul, first take care of yourself...Let it not be, says St Paul, that I who have preached to others should be myself be rejected.” (1 Corinthians 9:27)

The one saint I love to read most about is St. Thérèse of Child Jesus, whom I first knew as the Saint of “small things”. What I like about her is that her experiences were very ordinary which I can easily identify with. I love reading how she made difficult moments beautiful and offered them to God. St. Thérèse noticed some Sisters form intimate friendships with others more readily than she did. Instead of wallowing in self pity, she said “Seeing several of my companions form special attachments to some one…I wished to follow their example but could not succeed therein. O happy inability!….With a heart such as mine I should have been captured and had my wings clipped; then how should I have been able to fly away and be at rest (Ps 54:7)” While praising God for keeping her heart for Himself, she did not stop there but instead went on the show her affection towards all sisters with the equal tenderness and affability, for the purpose of loving God and her Sisters. Although she often did not derive pleasure from doing so, God looked favorably at these disinterested acts as acts of pure love offered to Him. She thereby grew in the purity of her love for God and others. There are also many such little opportunities for me to grow in love for God and others. Do I value them like she did?

For the times when we feel wretched inside, she said “… it is hard to begin a labourious day, above all when Jesus hides Himself from us. What is this tender Friend doing? Does He not see our anguish, the load that oppresses us; where is He? Why does He not come to console us? Ah, fear not… He is there, quite near! He is watching us; He, it is, Who begs for these our labours and our tears…He has need of them for souls, for our souls; He wants to give us so glorious a recompense….What a destiny! How great is the soul. Let us rise above all that passes away, let us hold aloof from the earth…”

Perhaps what I like most about St. Thérèse of Child Jesus is her “littleness”. After reading her writings, I always go away feeling liberated. Her “little way” gives me the confidence that the call to holiness is not as daunting as I first thought. Her “little” examples show in a concrete way that holiness can be possible and even attractive. Her childlike trust in God inspires confidence in me. She concerned herself with whatever that was within her means and left the result of her efforts totally to God. Despite of her efforts, she acknowledged her inability to “save” herself and trusted that God in His goodness would see that everything bear fruit in due course. I find that an antidote to discouragement in the Christian life.

“Fruitless endeavour! At each attempt he falls without advancing the least. Well, be like that child; by the practice of every virtue keeping on ever lifting your little foot to climb the stairs of sanctity, and do not imagine that you will be able to mount even the first! No; but good will is all God requires of you. From the top of those steps He is watching you with love; and won by your unavailing efforts He will Himself soon come down, and taking you in His arms will bear you away to His Kingdom, never more to quit Him. But if you cease to lift you little foot He will leave you a long time on earth.”

“As soon as He sees us truly convinced of our nothingness and we say to Him: My foot hath slipped: Thy mercy, O Lord, hath held me up." (Ps 93:18), He stretches out His Hand to us… It is enough therefore that we humble ourselves, and bear our imperfections with sweetness: there, for us, lies true sanctity.”

I love her sense of self abandonment too. After a life of countless sacrifices to prove her love for God, she said ”At the close of life’s evening, I shall appear before You with empty hands, for I ask not, Lord, that You would count my works.…All our justice is tarnished in Your sight. It is therefore my desire to be clothed with Your own Justice and to receive from Your Love the eternal possession of Yourself. I crave no other Throne nor other Crown but You, O my Beloved!”

Many saints are not the most talented or intelligent; some are not even likeable by others. However they made use of whatever God has given and whichever situation they find themselves in – a vehicle to grow in holiness. St Francis de Sales said “Bloom where you are planted.” They felt with the same keenness, the weakness, temptations and weariness as anyone does. St. Bernard of Clairvaux had a quick temper which he moderated later in his life. St. Augustine in his Confessions said “Lord make me chaste but not yet.” He later struggled violently and victoriously against the cruel yoke of the flesh. Besides imperfections and weaknesses, some saints went through down right serious problems such as family and marital problems, addictions, among other things. St. Elizabeth of Hungry endured for forty one years her unfaithful husband and her prayers obtained his conversion on his deathbed. St. Gianna Molla chose life of the baby in her womb over her own life. Venerable Matt Talbot was converted from 16-year addiction of alcohol.

It seems to me that to the very many problems that exist, God in His Providence has provided Christ-like model for his faithful to emulate. These role models have trodden the same paths and emerged victorious from it all. Led by the Holy Spirit, saints have the power to touch hearts. St. Ignatius of Loyala wrote a prayer which was made into a hymn “Take and receive, O Lord, my liberty. Take all my will, my mind, my memory. All that I have, you have given all to me. Now I return it, to be governed by your will, Just say your Word to me, at one I will obey, Your Love is wealth enough for me, All else will I forgo.” I heard two versions of it sung during different Masses. Some in the congregation might be uninterested or restless when the hymn was sung. By the time when the hymn was about to end, I could already hear people sobbing away - the atmosphere was totally transformed. I myself was deeply moved by the man who was so madly in love with God. The power of this love is felt even down to this very day.

When St. Paul exhorted the faithful “…my brothers, fill your minds with those things that are good, and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable. Put into practice what you learnt and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9), the faithful was encouraged to imitate the saint in his words, deeds and thoughts. The result of it will be God’s peace and His Presence in their lives.

Saints are attractive because the Sanctifying Grace of God makes them beautiful inside out. The Holy Spirit does the work of sanctifying them, while the saints on their part cooperate by never to impede His action through any willful sins (big or small). I have seen a photo of late Holy Father John Paul II taken with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. They were well on in age but the sparkle in their eyes gave away that indelible youthfulness within their souls. Somehow I feel that I am looking at a little boy and little girl standing side by side in mutual affection.

I also benefit from one saint who lived to reveal spiritual truths of God. St. Pio as a spiritual director had the gift of reading souls. His letters to his spiritual daughters give us an insight of the work that God actively does within the soul. His writings can be a sort of “road map” for my interior life and they are worth the reading many times over. St. Pio in “Padre Pio of Pietelcina Letter II” wrote “We must ask the Spirit, the Comforter, to enlighten us with regard to three great truths in particular. Firstly, to make us increasingly aware of the excellence of our Christian vocation….Secondly, let us pray that He may enlighten us more and more as to the immensity of the eternal inheritance which have been reserved for us by the goodness of the heavenly Father. Finally, let us pray that the Father of all light to enable us to penetrate more and more deeply into the mystery of our justification, how wretched sinners like ourselves have been led to salvation….In our meditations let us frequently dwell on the truths which I have set forth so far, for in this way we shall be strengthened in virtue and our thinking will be rendered more sublime.”

One occasion, together with my brothers and sisters in Christ, we prayed and asked St. Pio to be our spiritual father. St. Pio once assured his spiritual sons and daughters that he would wait at the door of Heaven until they enter it. St. Pio’s exhortation to his spiritual daughter “Get to work, then, O Christian. Remember that by baptism you cast off the old nature and put on the new…” I am not exempted from the call to holiness which is laid upon me during my baptism. “For this is the Will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3)

Though there may be others who come before me in this field of work, there are also those who begin it after me. Whether engaged at the very first instance or at the eleventh hour, we persevere in the grace of God. He will recompense those who are early and as well those who came in the eleventh hour “because I am generous” (Matthew 20: 14-15).

St. John Vianney said “Saints may not all begin well, but they all ended well.” A whole crowd of saints are still now praying and cheering as the time when St. Paul wrote these words: “As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us get rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from the beginning to the end.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

 
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