Happy 500th, St. Teresa!


The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Taken from socialhistoryofart.com

St. Teresa of Jesus—also known as St. Teresa of Avila—was born in Avila, Spain, on March 28, 1515. Thus, today is the 500th anniversary of her birth.

So much to say. I will tweak a three year old post for it!

Like all genuine mystics, Teresa appears as an unexpected epiphany of God’s Fire into our shadowlands. Her remarkable, extra-ordinary encounters with God are dramatic signs of what every Christian bears within under the ordinary form of concealed mystery. Here’s an analogy that came to me. Just as the earth’s homely, stable crust conceals beneath its surface a burning cauldron of molten rock and iron, so the ordinary Christian bears within, sealed beneath the economy of faith, the coming Kingdom, the lumen gloriae, “light of glory” that awaits us beyond death and final Judgment. All the baptized are re-created as a Temple of the Trinity, a Holy of Holies filled with all the Fire of Pentecost, and remain so as long as they remain in grace. Or, as St. Symeon the New Theologian memorably phrased it, each soul in grace is “a living Paradise, a new Eden” where God dwells. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19).

But in this life, this truth is only accessed through the inchoate darkness of faith (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). However, on rare occasions — to exploit the analogy further — the earthen crust of faith ruptures, the magma wells up, the fire explodes and the blazing glory of the next world suddenly breaks into ours. Then the Church looks back discerningly, retrospectively and canonizes the site of the eruption. And we get a Saint. That is who Teresa is.

So to honor St. Teresa today, let me share here my favorite Teresa quotes:

“It is love alone that gives worth to all things.”

“It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves.”

“Once after receiving Communion I was given understanding of how the Father receives within our soul the most holy Body of Christ, and of how I know and have seen that these divine Persons are present, and of how pleasing to the Father this offering of His Son is, because He delights and rejoices with Him here–let us say–on earth. For His humanity is not present with us in the soul, but His divinity is. Thus the humanity is so welcome and pleasing to the Father and bestows on us so many favors.” [mind blowing]

“You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him. And the greatest is love.”

“Be gentle to all, and stern with yourself.”

“God save us from gloomy saints!”

“Mental prayer is nothing else than a close sharing between friends.”

“The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.”

“In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient inn.”

“The closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.”

“Often, as you have read, it is to the weakest that His Divine Majesty gives favors, which I believe they would not exchange for all the fortitude given to those who go forward in aridity of spirit. We are fonder for spiritual sweetness than of crosses. Test us, O Lord, Thou Who knowest all truth, that we may know ourselves.”

“Seek the God of consolations and not the consolations of God.”

“Perhaps we do not know what love is: it would not surprise me a great deal to learn this, for love consists, not in the extent of our happiness, but in the firmness of our determination to try to please God in everything.”

“God withholds Himself from no one who perseveres.”

“The devil frequently fills our thoughts with great schemes, so that instead of putting our hands to what work we can do to serve our Lord, we may rest satisfied with wishing to perform impossibilities.”

Amor saca amor, “Love begets love.”

“But here the Lord asks only two things of us: love of His Majesty and love of our neighbor. The surest sign that we are keeping these two commandments is, I think, that we should really be loving our neighbor; for we cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor.”

“God has been very good to me, for I never dwell upon anything wrong which a person has done, so as to remember it afterwards. If I do remember it, I always see some other virtue in that person.”

“In order that love be fully satisfied, it is necessary that it lower itself and that it lower itself to nothingness and transform this nothingness into fire.”

“It is of great importance, when we begin to practice prayer, not to let ourselves be frightened by our own thoughts.”

“All the way to heaven is heaven.”

“Love turns work into rest.”

St. Patrick, slave of Ireland

Taken from episcopalnet.org

I received several emails chiding me for not posting a St. Patrick post yesterday. ♧ I will re-post, for time’s sake.

From slavery you escaped to freedom in Christ’s service: He sent you to deliver Ireland from the devil’s bondage. You planted the Word of the Gospel in pagan hearts. In your journeys and hardships you rivaled the Apostle Paul! Having received the reward for your labors in heaven, never cease to pray for the flock you have gathered on earth, Holy bishop Patrick!            — Orthodox antiphon for the Feast

St. Patrick’s call to evangelize the Irish is a wild and absolutely unique story. Born in Britain, he was captured as a young man by Celtic pirates, enslaved as a shepherd in Ireland and, after having risked his life to regain his freedom, said “yes” to a divine call to return to his captors in order to preach the Gospel to them.

Patrick had stunning evangelical success as Christianity swept across Ireland in a short time, and it is a near-miracle of history that the ex-slave Bishop, before he died, quelled most inter-tribal warfare and brought the notoriously brutal Celtic slave trade industry to an abrupt end. He also lauded the strength and courage of Irish women, especially those who were enslaved:

But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most—and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.

Among the many characteristics of Patrick that marked the Irish soul, his earthy, no-frills humility stands out. Just take a moment to read this brief selection from his autobiographical Confession:

I am, then, first of all, countryfied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future, but I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.

Therefore be amazed, you great and small who fear God, and you men of God, eloquent speakers, listen and contemplate. Who was it summoned me, a fool, from the midst of those who appear wise and learned in the law and powerful in rhetoric and in all things? Me, truly wretched in this world, he inspired before others that I could be– if I would– such a one who, with fear and reverence, and faithfully, without complaint, would come to the people to whom the love of Christ brought me and gave me in my lifetime, if I should be worthy, to serve them truly and with humility.

Therefore may it never befall me to be separated by my God from his people whom he has won in this most remote land. I pray God that he gives me perseverance, and that he will deign that I should be a faithful witness for his sake right up to the time of my passing.

And if at any time I managed anything of good for the sake of my God whom I love, I beg of him that he grant it to me to shed my blood for his name with proselytes and captives, even should I be left unburied, or even were my wretched body to be torn limb from limb by dogs or savage beasts, or were it to be devoured by the birds of the air, I think, most surely, were this to have happened to me, I had saved both my soul and my body. For beyond any doubt on that day we shall rise again in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our Redeemer, as children of the living God and co-heirs of Christ, made in his image; for we shall reign through him and for him and in him.

St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, pray for us.

Join me in prayerfully listening to the prayerful Lorica (Breastplate) of St. Patrick:

Divinizing Itinerary

St. John of the Cross sketch of the crucifixion. Taken from enlightened-spirituality.org

Yes, I am on a St. John of the Cross buzz these days.

Below is something I wrote in 2006 after spending 5 days and nights reading and re-reading St. John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night at a Trappist monastery. I was working on preparing my dissertation thesis, and wanted to come as close to memorizing the structure of his work as possible. I wrote this summary for a friend who had been closely following my research.

Disclaimer: It’s a very dense, somewhat lengthy, grossly oversimplified, a somewhat opaque summary, and is not for the faint of heart. It’s also not carefully edited, I don’t have time to edit, and so, I am sure, has careless mistakes in it. How appealing this sounds! Doesn’t my description make you think of those TV ads for prescription meds that end with dire warnings? “Tramadol, which is otherwise wonderful for you and can change your life by making you pain free, may cause life-threatening addiction, withdrawal symptoms in a newborn, hives, tremors, seizures, more hives, severe vomiting. Inhaling this medicine can cause life-threatening side effects or death. Call your doctor today and get Tramadol!” (Disclaimer: this description is exaggerated for the sake of effect)

Sorry, back to my summary. So, it’s not easy reading but, for those who so desire, at least it offers a general sense of the Ascent-Night’s  trajectory if you have a specific interest in going deeper into St. John’s mystical doctrine.

However, so you won’t go away with nothing today: If you’re not interested in wading through it, here are four sanjuanist pearls for you to meditate on:

Do nothing nor say any notable word that Christ would not have done or said were He in the state I am, as old as I, and with the same kind of health.

Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.

Anyone who trusts in himself is worse than the devil. Anyone who does not love his neighbor abhors God. Anyone who is lukewarm in his work is close to falling. Whoever flees prayer flees all that is good.

Conquering the tongue is better than fasting on bread and water. Suffering for God is better than working miracles.


The Précis: my summary of sjc

Nota bene: Though John would argue that the journey to God he sketches out has universal elements that apply to all those who desire holiness, he does qualify its application. He states clearly in his prologue to the Ascent that he is writing only for “some” members of his monastic Order, “those to whom God is granting the favor of setting them on the road to this Mount,” which is the path of “naked faith” leading to union with God. Those called to traverse this way journey along a path of radical death-to-self and enter into union with Christ precisely in the moment of His “supreme dereliction,” i.e. His cry of abandonment. Those called this way are “in Christ” precisely at the moment of Mark 15:43:

Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani? which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Those who consent to this path, John says, become living sacrifices that are consumed in the heart of the Church for the life of the world. These souls chosen by God see themselves in St. Paul’s mysterious words to his Corinthian flock:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. — 2 Cor. 4:8-12

Note also that John was responding to the “mystical reformation” encouraged by the Spanish Crown in the late 1400’s, a kind of charismatic movement of laity and Religious who claimed to experience visions, locutions, ecstasies, raptures and other phenomena. The Inquisition referred to them as the “dejados” or “alumbrados.” There is no doubt in my mind that one of the reasons Teresa invited John to join her reform was because she recognized his discretion and skill in discernment, and hoped he would write spiritual treatises specifically geared to her reform. Many of those involved in this 16th century charismatic movement were attracted by Teresa’s own visionary mysticism, but Teresa was concerned about the inexperience and immaturity of many of these women. She wanted John to serve as a theologian-confessor who could train Discalced Carmelite priest-confessors, to ably help these women attracted to her reform movement to develop better discernment and ground their pursuit of perfection in the Cross. The Ascent-Night seems to have been be written not for the nuns themselves, but for the priest-confessors — which would also explain its very scholastic tone and the untranslated Latin texts. I will not treat his detailed examination of how to handle the question of visions, locutions and such, which are treated in Book II.

For John the most basic distinction in the person is sense-spirit, which is different from soul-body, or even than the trichotomous body-soul-spirit.  One can say in general that when John says “soul” he means the whole complex of the person, including the body informed by the soul.

In the human person there are two fundamental modes of knowing and desiring: sensual and spiritual.  The sensual mode of knowing is grounded in the exterior five senses, in the interior five senses (which John calls “imagination and phantasy”), and its knowledge and desires are centered on “creatures,” i.e. any created good that is not God.  The spiritual mode of knowing is grounded in the three spiritual “faculties” (which means something like “capacities” or “powers”): intellect, will and memory. These three are themselves grounded in what John calls the “substance” or “depth” of the soul where the center of the self is (what he calls the suppositum, or unifying center of the whole complex of the person). These three spiritual faculties possess a dual capacity for knowing and desiring: they can know created reality and the uncreated God.

For John, the person comes to know and desire God first mediately, through the senses, and then, after a long and hard purgative road, immediately through the spirit which alone has un-mediated access to the naked essence of God. As knowledge slowly transforms from sense to spirit, God-talk language shifts from logical prose into paradoxical/mystical poetry into stammering and finally into silence.

Because we are ravaged by sin, which above all else turns the soul away from God and toward creation in an idolatrous way, the process of untangling the sinful soul from its dysfunctional created attachments and turning toward God is exceptionally arduous and painful.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel is the narrative of the beginning of this journey to detachment. John counsels on how one actively cooperates with God in this process, and focuses on cultivating inner attitudes of self-renunciation that facilitate the subversion of disordered desire rooted in the senses, and not just on modifying outer behaviors. For example, he counsels:

Strive always to prefer, not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult;
Not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing;
Not that which gives most pleasure, but rather that which gives least;
Not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome;
Not that which is consolation, but rather that which makes you disconsolate;
Not that which is greatest, but that which is least;
Not that which is loftiest and most precious, but that which is lowest and most despised;
Not that which is a desire for anything, but that which is a desire for nothing;
Strive to go about seeking not the best of temporal things, but the worst.
Strive thus to desire to enter into complete detachment and emptiness and poverty, with respect to everything that is in the world, for Christ’s sake. – Ascent 1.13.6

Then, in books 2 and 3 of the Ascent, John continues describing strategies for surrendering disordered detachments, but now turns his focus to the three spiritual faculties. The intellect is submitted to faith’s darkness, which alone is capable of accessing God as he is. The memory is given over to hope’s abandoning trust in God alone. The will is made subject to charity’s selfless purification, overcoming the ego’s twisted incurvature and the crippling effects of sin.

Throughout the Ascent, this struggle to detach and surrender to the action of grace is mostly focused on human effort (all under ordinary grace, of course). But honestly, John holds little regard for the deep progress that can be made by such a struggle – though he unambiguously affirms that this ascetical struggle is absolutely requisite. “The way of the death to self and the cross is the only way to salvation.” He highlights the disparity that exists between active ascetical effort and passively infused purgative grace in the first 8 chapters of the Dark Night. There he begins his treatment of the passive nights of sense and spirit – where God’s purifying action predominates – by carefully examining how the seven deadly sins still thrive in the “spiritual” person. These “proficients” have already made great progress in the work of mortifying their disordered appetites, but John’s diagnosis is that without the coming passive nights, the person’s carefully constructed virtues remain fragile and narcissistic. Virtue remains, for the most part, still centered on the self and its (now spiritual) pleasures.

The Dark Night, John’s most unique contribution to the spiritual tradition, treats the manner in which God, first in the senses and then in the spirit, begins to dismantle the natural agency of the soul so as to purify, reform and remake it in the freedom of the sons of God. This freedom prepares the soul for the supreme goal of human life, divinization, which creates at the center of the person a new center of agency: God himself. Transforming union effects perfect synergy between the divinized person and God. In effect, the person becomes by grace all that Christ is by nature.

In the passive night of the senses, all the pleasure of the spiritual life once had in the interior and exterior senses is taken away and bitterness reigns. But this loss of the machinery of the incurved ego means a gain of inner freedom, and God is set free to commence the communication if his divine life to the spirit, even as the ravenous appetite of the senses for pleasure is temporarily disabled. After this first passive night is completed, and the senses, having been turned from slavery to freedom, are accustomed to communing with God through the spirit, there is a period of great refreshment and peace and consolation – though it is still occasionally interrupted by trials and darkness, which are, he says, like “omens and harbingers” of the terrifying night of the spirit still yet to come.

Then, “of sudden,” John says, the consolations and peace come to an end and the spiritual faculties (intellect, memory, will) are plunged into darkness and bitterness: the intellect sees nothing but darkness, the memory can find no consoling recollection, and the will finds no pleasure in anything, but only distaste and bitterness. He gives distinguishing signs to determine whether or not one has truly entered passive nights, or is just suffering from depression, a disordered spiritual life or some other “bodily humor,” as he calls it. The signs confirming entry into the passive nights include (and all must be concurrently present): The loss of pleasure in everything (divine and worldly), inability to meditate on any particular thing, a desire to be alone with God, the fear that one is displeasing God, the desire to be faithful in even the smallest matters, and the desire to embrace the cross.

As the soul goes through the final passive night of the spirit, which is the worst suffering possible in this life (akin to Purgatory, and even Hell), the spiritual faculties in their deepest roots are despoiled of their former disordered attachments to creatures through the senses, and are re-accommodated  to receiving the infusion of divine life in an immediate way. This accommodation to God, which stretches the intellect, memory and will to “infinite” capacity, is also accompanied by an ever increasing hunger and thirst for God as the “void” being formed in the ever-expanding faculties begs/cries out like an incarnate epiclesis to be filled with God – “an infinite thirst awaiting slake.”

Finally, after this final passive night of the spirit passes, the soul is readied for union. But, John says with an awful gravity, God alone decides the moment of union.

Now the soul has been returned to the innocence of Adam, and more, has been made like the New Adam, Christ, in whom God and man are one. In union, the soul becomes the center of the redeemed cosmos, and the priestly character of the soul, sharing in that of Christ, effects the mediation and reconciliation between God and man: the whole universe “moves,” John says, with the soul as God himself moves the soul. Or, in another captivating image of John, the whole cosmos quakes – as it did on the day of Resurrection – when God “awakens” in the soul in a “spiritual resurrection.”

In this dramatic narrative of the person that is the Ascent-Night, the paschal mystery of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, is enacted in the soul. Let me leave you with a selection from Book II of the Ascent that I find, in many ways, to be the white-hot core of his spiritual doctrine:

…it is certain that, at the moment of His death, Christ was likewise annihilated in His soul, and was deprived of any relief and consolation, since His Father left Him in the most intense aridity, according to the lower part of His nature. Wherefore He had perforce to cry out, saying: ‘My God! My God! ‘Why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ This was the greatest desolation, with respect to sense, that He had suffered in His life. And thus He wrought herein the greatest work that He had ever wrought, whether in miracles or in mighty works, during the whole of His life, either upon earth or in Heaven, which was the reconciliation and union of mankind, through grace, with God. And this, as I say, was at the moment and the time when this Lord was most completely annihilated in everything. Annihilated, that is to say, with respect to human reputation; since, when men saw Him die, they mocked Him rather than esteemed Him; and also with respect to nature, since His nature was annihilated when He died; and further with respect to the spiritual consolation and protection of the Father, since at that time He forsook Him, that He might pay the whole of man’s debt and unite him with God, being thus annihilated and reduced as it were to nothing. Wherefore David says concerning Him: Ad nihilum redactus sum, et nescivi.

This he said that the truly spiritual man may understand the mystery of the gate and of the way of Christ, and so become united with God, and may know that, the more completely he is annihilated for God’s sake, according to these two parts, the sensual and the spiritual, the more completely is he united to God and the greater is the work which he accomplishes. And when at last he is reduced to nothing, which will be the greatest extreme of humility, spiritual union will be wrought between the soul and God, which in this life is the greatest and the highest state attainable. This consists not, then, in refreshment and in consolations and spiritual feelings, but in a living death of the Cross, both as to sense and as to spirit — that is, both inwardly and outwardly.

I will not pursue this subject farther, although I have no desire to finish speaking of it, for I see that Christ is known very little by those who consider themselves His friends: we see them seeking in Him their own pleasures and consolations because of their great love for themselves, but not loving His bitter trials and His death because of their great love for Him. I am speaking now of those who consider themselves His friends; for such as live far away, withdrawn from Him, men of great learning and influence, and all others who live yonder, with the world, and are eager about their ambitions and their prelacies, may be said not to know Christ; and their end, however good, will be very bitter. Of such I make no mention in these lines; but mention will be made of them on the Day of Judgment, for to them it was fitting to speak first this word of God, as to those whom God set up as a target for it, by reason of their learning and their high position.

But let us now address the understanding of the spiritual man, and particularly that of the man to whom God has granted the favour of leading him into the state of contemplation (for, as I have said, I am now speaking to these in particular), and let us say how such a man must direct himself toward God in faith, and purify himself from contrary things, constraining himself that he may enter upon this narrow path of obscure contemplation.

Holiness or Criticism? I choose Franciscum.

Re-post from March 18, 2013, soon after Pope Francis’ election.

Henri De Lubac once wrote that the difference between St. Francis and Martin Luther is the difference between a reform aimed at holiness and a reform aimed at criticism. In choosing Bergoglio, the cardinals seem to have opted for the former. — John Allen Jr.

What an insightful remark. Though both have a role, I for one am glad to see in yet another pope the mendicant saint prevailing over the trolling cynic.

Bergoglio chose St. Francis of Assisi’s name, it would seem, to point to this saint as the needed paragon of Gospel poverty in a time of materialistic excess; of charity in a time of vitriol; of trust in Providence in a time of fear; of outward-facing apostolic zeal in a time of inward-facing church navel-gazing; of conciliation in a time of division; of passion in a time of apathy; of prayer in a time of activism; of service in a time of self-interest; of chastity in a time of sexual licence; of Gospel freedom in a time of addiction; of peace in a time of violence; of hope in a time of despair; of unshakable joy in a time of passing pleasures. I dare not tire you further with this lengthy litany!

St. Francis’ model of reform sounded something like this: to incite God’s revolution, make certain you’re the first to have been revolved. Nemo dat quod non habet, “No one gives what he doesn’t have.” Or as that other Italian saint, Catherine of Siena, said: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

St. Francis’ Russian counterpart in the Eastern Church, St. Seraphim on Sarov, who defined holiness as the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit,” also made this same point succinctly: “Acquire first the Spirit of peace and then thousands around you will be saved.”


Fr. George Rutler, in his book A Crisis of Saints, argues that every crisis in the Church is at core a crisis of holiness. The lack thereof, that is. Saints are not only compelling witnesses to the Gospel to be imitated, they are springs of divine power erupting from the earth, transforming deserts into oases. In their refusal to leave the Gospel untried, they give God permission to overcome apathy and cast fire on the earth. Each saint sparkles with the beauty of God in an absolutely unique way, refracting the “Light of Light” as no other can. So if I fail to become what God created me to be, the world is irrevocably impoverished and darkened (cf Matthew 13:58). As Leon Bloy had it, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

The mission of the Church is to capture the world’s attention and turn it toward the Face of Christ, Savior of the world (cf. John 4:39-42).

G.K. Chesterton made this point well:

Every saint is a sort of man before he is a saint; and a saint may be made of every sort or kind of man; and most of us will choose between these different types according to our different tastes….The Saint is a medicine because he as an antidote. Indeed, that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.

Chesterton is speaking of the saintliness of St. Francis, of course. Imagine such a spectacle:

A young fool or rascal is caught robbing his father and selling goods which he ought to guard; and the only explanation he will offer is that a loud voice from nowhere spoke in his ear and told him to mend the cracks and holes in a particular wall. He then declares himself naturally independent of all powers corresponding to the police or the magistrates, and takes refuge with an amiable bishop who is forced to remonstrate with him and tell him he is wrong. He then proceeds to take off his clothes in public and practically throw them at his father; announcing at the same time that his father is not his father at all. He then runs about the town asking everybody he meets to give him fragments of buildings or building materials, apparently with reference to his old monomania about mending the wall. It may be an excellent thing that cracks should be filled up, but preferably not by somebody who is himself cracked; and architectural restoration like other things is not best performed by builders who, as we should say, have a tile loose. Finally the wretched youth relapses into rags and squalor and practically crawls away into the gutter. That is the spectacle that Francis must have presented to a very large number of his neighbors and friends.

Papa Saint-maker?

Maybe by taking this name, our Pontiff is hoping such an unruly sanctity will arise in the midst of the Church. If the world needs a strong dose of the Medicine of Immortality that subsists in the Catholic Church, saints are the best ones to administer it.

I’d bet Pope Francis is hoping for the kind of sanctity once praised so eloquently by the late Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthatsar:

And the saints are humble, that is to say, the mediocrity of the Church does not deter them from expressing once and for all their solidarity with her, knowing well that without her they could never find their way to God. To bypass Christ’s Church with the idea of making their way to God on their own initiative would never occur to them. They do battle with the mediocrity of Christ’s Church not by protesting but by enkindling and encouraging the better. The Church causes them pain, but they do not become embittered and stand aside to sulk. They form no dissident groups but cast their fire into the midst. Your genuine saint never points to himself; he is no more than the reflection. It is the Master Flame that counts.

Maybe. Time will tell.

Healing put to the test, Part III

Taken from wrs.vcu.edu

[excuse this amalgam of thought-scraps I pasted together for this last post. Ran out of time. Tempus fugit!]

Healed by and for love

I have to end this train of posts. But how? There are so many ways to approach the topic of faith-healing. What best to say? I thought long and prayerfully on this while flying from Denver to Dallas and it came to me that, in keeping with my proclivity toward hyperbole, I should simply share a thought about a the “more excellent [hyperbolēn] way” (1 Cor 13:6). If I may, I’d like to exaggerate for the sake of emphasis and say that if I were forced to choose, as a Catholic theologian, one “sola” in our faith to retain, it would be sola caritas, “charity alone.” We are saved, sanctified, redeemed and healed in love, for love, through love, with love and by love so that we might be able to love with the very love with which God loved us in Christ dying on the cross. Hence, theologian Hans Urs von Balthsar says, “Martyrdom is the normative form of Christian existence.”

Four hundred years after St. John wrote his letter to Nicholas Doria about the charismatic nun, another Discalced Carmelite nun in France, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, would write:

I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies.  To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.

St. Thérèse considered herself a disciple of John of the Cross. She said,

Ah! how many lights have I not derived from the works of our holy Father St. John of the Cross! At the ages of seventeen and eighteen I had no other spiritual nourishment. He is the saint of love par excellence.

She fully embraced his mysticism of la fe desnuda y amor a Dios, “naked faith and loving God.” For her, love of God and neighbor alone, lived in the darkness of faith in intimate union with the Passion of Jesus, is the heart of her “little way” of perfection. She said,

Our love for Jesus is truly great when we do not feel its sweetness. It then becomes a martyrdom … When, on the contrary, we begin to seek ourselves, true love dies away. Unfortunately, many serve Jesus when he consoles them, but few are willing to keep him company when he is asleep … I do not desire sensible affection, a love that I feel, but only a love that is felt by Jesus. Oh! to love Him and cause Him to be loved! … Love alone saves.

Healing by Healing Others’ Wounds

I was speaking recently with a priest about my thoughts on faith-healing, seeking his critical feedback. He made a remarkable comment at the end of our conversation:

Look, if people want some good faith healing, I tell them — pray with the prophet Isaiah for a while in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and then spend a few days with the Missionaries of Charity cleaning up puke, clipping nails and washing feet. They’ll show you charity’s the best healer there is.

I imagine he was referring specifically to Isaiah 58:6-9:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen —
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your wound will be quickly healed;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

I recall in the months I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C., I met one day with Sr. Manorama to share my frustrations with a patient named Robert. She said, after I finished my venting:

I understand it’s hard sometimes. And I am glad you share these things with me. But Tom, it’s not about you. It’s about Robert. It’s about Jesus. You are here to love Jesus in these people. And inasmuch as it’s about Robert, it’s about Jesus. If you can accept that, you’ll make progress.

At first I was furious. Then I went to the chapel to calm down and I sobbed. Robert had pulled me out of myself. Taught me love. I made progress. Conversion. Healing. In fact, those next several months were among the most transformative of my life up to that point. They set a trajectory.

St. John:

Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw forth love.

Final fragments

As I end this meandering reflection, let me say that I believe the Charismatic Renewal, when its practitioners are well grounded in a thoroughly Catholic approach, can offer some very wonderful benefits. I have received many gifts over the years from those healthy elements of the movement that continue to flourish today. It is a very complex movement, with nearly numberless iterations, and it cannot easily be described or defined. John Allen, in his book Future Church, locates the Renewal’s origins and influence in the early 20th century Protestant Pentecostal movement which, today, represents a powerful and vigorous global phenomenon. Allen says,

When future histories of Christianity are written, the late twentieth century will probably be known as the era of the ‘Pentecostal Explosion.’ From less than 6 percent in the mid-1970s, Pentecostals finished the century representing almost 20 percent of world Christianity.

Pentecostal Christianity emphasizes direct personal (highly individual) experience of God through the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit,’ which often is believed to produce spiritual gifts such as healings, visions, and speaking in tongues. The “Pentecostalizing” of Catholicism is a phenomenon that is here to stay for a long while, especially in the global south. But, as Allen notes, though this cross-fertilization bears many benefits for renewal in Catholicism, it also bears the need for very careful discernment. Many of these Catholic faith-healing movements, in my experience, bear deep imprints from Pentecostalism, and I believe Mario’s posts point out some of the more important issues that require careful judgment.

Here also I would like to recommend some books. If you want some more on St. John, there’s a more general audience book I really like, The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of The Cross by Iain Matthew; and another, bit more technical book, St. John of the Cross: Songs in the Night by Colin P. Thompson, that has a robust summary of John’s spiritual doctrine. On the Renewal, I like a book called Sober Intoxication of the Spirit: Filled With the Fullness of God, by the Pope’s household preacher, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa O.F.M. Cap.


Those who attempt to unite, in a programmatic fashion, God’s healing power, psychological science, the extra-ordinary means of grace, charismatic gifts and preternatural powers must engage in a rigorous and ongoing discernment that never ever tires of a re-audit. Mario’s reflections, and those of the Fathers of Mercy, offer much for reflection. This is always a welcome thing in the Household of God.

Healing put to the test, Part II

Taken from meetville.com

As a follow up to yesterday’s introduction to Mario Sacasa’s blog posts on various faith-based healing ministries, I wanted to share some (hopefully) relevant personal experiences with evaluating some of the claims associated with these healing ministries — claims to private revelation, mystical graces or out-of-the-ordinary charismatic experiences. There’s so much to say, so many issues at stake! But I will limit myself to whatever comes to mind as I sit here in the Denver airport waiting for a delayed plane. I will take my inspiration from a woman across from me who just said to her child after he knocked over a drink: “Wise up and learn from your mistakes!”

I broke my thoughts into 2 parts. I will post the other part tomorrow. They are really unorganized thoughts which I do not have time to tidy up, but hopefully they will offer some light.

A personal story

Beginning in 1987, I became involved with prayer groups that identified themselves with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. My early experiences were overall positive, mostly associated with humble parish-based prayer groups that would meet weekly for praise, worship, intercessory prayer and fellowship. Back then, I would have echoed St. John Paul II comment on the Renewal:

How many people have rediscovered their faith, a desire for prayer, the power and beauty of the Word of God, which is expressed in generous service for the mission of the Church! How many lives were deeply changed! For all of this I wish to praise and thank the Holy Spirit with you today.

But over ensuing years, I also have gotten involved with elements of the Renewal that are not so balanced, and some of them did me (and others I know) harm. In particular, those people who claimed to have gifts of prophetic knowledge and clairvoyant insight simultaneously asserted a certain divine authority to command unearned trust and wield unaccountable power. While there are certainly some saintly people out there who legitimately bear God’s power and authority for good, these people were not that. As a result of these troubling experiences, somewhere back around 1989, I received my first “wake up call” to the need for learning and practicing disciplined discernment in the face of such bold claims. By God’s grace, I had at the same time just begun gong to a first-rate spiritual director. 

After I shared with him what had happened, he asked me to immerse myself in St. John of the Cross’ two classic treatises on the spiritual life, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night (which are really one book in four parts). He said to me, “John offers you a safe path, Tom. If you embrace him he’ll teach you the secure and simple way of faith, hope, charity and the royal way of the cross.” That was a defining moment for me. Over the next several years, he walked me through St. John and taught me how to apply it. 25 years later, John’s vision has come to dominate my approach to matters of faith and discernment. Indeed, my journey into John’s works eventually led me to write a PhD dissertation on the Ascent-Night. As I have said before, I  see my theological vocation to be translating John’s spiritual vision for all walks of life. But I have so far to go! My thinking continues to evolve daily under St. John’s tutelage, and I will, hopefully, remain under his sway the rest of my life.


As a direct response to my bad experience, the first thing my director gave me to read was St. John’s letter to Nicholas Doria, who was at the time to superior of the Discalced Carmelite Friars. The letter draws on the doctrine John articulates in detail in the Ascent-Night regarding how one should discern the origin and meaning of extraordinary spiritual experiences, i.e. visions, locutions, special “prophetic” knowledge and so on. The letter was written after John had, in response to a request from Doria, completed an investigation of a Discalced Carmelite nun claiming to be the recipient of extraordinary spiritual experiences.

For John, the bottom line is that extraordinary experiences in the spiritual life are an inherently ambiguous affair, both in terms of origin (where they come from) and reception (what they mean, what one is to do with them). As Denys Turner memorably words it, for John most mystical phenomena are at best “experiential feedback” from the encounter of the soul with God, and are not God himself. They are like “distant echoes of the Word” that require decoding, and are not worth much fuss. John argues that even when these experiences are genuinely “of God,” answers to how one is to understand them, why they are given, or what one is to do with them once they happen are simply not self-evident. Mystical phenomena are easily distorted, misunderstood, misapplied or misused by credulous recipients who lack proper discretion and judgment; or by those who are still too fragile and immature to resist placing them in the service of their un-redeemed and needy ego. For example, he says in the Night 2.3.2:

This is the stage in which the devil induces many into believing vain visions and false prophecies. He strives to make them presume that God and the saints speak with them, and frequently they believe their fantasy. It is here that the devil customarily fills them with presumption and pride. Drawn by vanity and arrogance, they allow themselves to be seen in exterior acts of apparent holiness, such as raptures and other exhibitions. They become audacious with God and lose holy fear, which is the key to and guardian of all the virtues.

While it is of course true, John says, that God does grant extraordinary graces to his servants, it is also true that the same God commands us to put those gifts to the test — placing them in service to unseeing faith (cf. John 20:29) and subordinating them to the “still more excellent way” of love of neighbor (1 Cor. 12:31).

Diagnosis and Prescription

In the letter, John reviews his investigation and judges the nuns claim to gifts of a supernatural origin to be false. Among the signs of distortion, he highlighted four in his letter.

First, she had mucha golosina de apetito, “a very greedy appetite” for extraordinary experiences, and being attached to such experiences is, for John, an wise open door to deception. Second, she was overly confident in the truth of her interior experiences and was averse to submitting them to the judgment of others. “She has too much confidence,” he said “and too little caution about erring internally, which is not the sign of a good spirit. Everything she says about ‘she said to God and God said to her’ seems nonsense [parece disparate].” Third, she lacked discretion and was overly eager to speak and convince others of the goodness and truth of her extraordinary experiences. She was also eager for more such experiences which is, he says, a very dangerous thing. Finally, she was very resistant to John’s critical inquest into of her claims. Humility, he said, is infallibly the fruit of genuine spiritual experiences that have been rightly received. When the humble “receive great favors” they are always eager to submit to being tested by others, anxious to be exposed, by faith and sound reason, to the light of truth.

At the end of his letter, John recommended to Doria a “test” for this nun. She must not, he said, write about or publicize these experiences any longer or even speak about them with her confessor. Rather, pruébenla en el ejercicio de las virtudes a secas, mayormente en el desprecio, humildad y obediencia, “test her harshly in the exercise of the virtues, particularly in self-contempt, humility and obedience.” “And,” he added, “the tests must be good ones because there is no devil who will not suffer anything for the sake of his honor.” He says of the humility he hopes this test will produce in this nun,

Yet these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. For they do not believe they could ever be right themselves. They rejoice when others receive praise, and their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do. They have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and deeds. Such is the characteristic of a pure and simple and true spirit, one very pleasing to God. Since the wise Spirit of God dwells within these humble souls, he moves them to keep these treasures hidden, and to manifest only their faults. God gives this grace to the humble, together with the other virtues, just as he denies it to the proud.

More tomorrow…

Healing put to the test, Part I

Taken from amazon.com

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. — 1 John 4:1

Whether these charisms be very remarkable or more simple and widely diffused, they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation since they are fitting and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be rashly desired nor is it from them that the fruits of apostolic labors are to be presumptuously expected. Those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and proper use of these gifts, through their office, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit but to test all things and hold fast to what is good — Lumen Gentium 12

I wanted to share with you today a series of blog posts written by a friend, Mario Sacasa, LMFT (found here: https://mariosacasa.wordpress.com/). Like the recent letter published by the Fathers of Mercy (here), these posts address important concerns related to certain Catholic faith-based healing ministries. These ministries Mario refers to in his posts variously blend elements of psychology, demonology and mysticism/spirituality into a set of strategies for seeking healing from God. The concerns Mario raises I also share, and I am grateful he has made a serious contribution to a very important conversation.

Over the years, I  have had numerous interactions with Catholic faith-healing movements like the ones Mario describes. I have grown increasingly concerned over the last 20+ years with some of the directions that have been taken in those movements. I am grateful that Mario chose to engage publicly in a respectful and honest conversation, as these movements have public import in the Church as they continue to grow in influence. They require serious and ongoing discernment based on solid considerations drawn from both faith and science. Mario welcomes comments and dialogue on his blog.

I will share a few of my own related reflections tomorrow.