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Lessons from St. Teresa’s bookmark

Lately I’ve been blogging a lot about St. Therese, mostly because I’m writing a book about her. Each day I am immersed in her Little Way. But I haven’t forgotten the other Carmelite saints. Last year I wrote a post about Teresa of Avila’s bookmark. Yes, she wrote encouragement for herself that she kept in her breviary. Let it encourage you as well.

The post continues the theme I’ve been pursuing in the last week here on my blog–the possibility and elusiveness of sainthood.

By the way, since today is the feast of St. Valentine, keep in mind that our love for God is a response to His love for us: “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The Christian life is about love from first to last. If we love perfectly, then we are truly made perfect.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Connie Rossini

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Are you living a contemplative life?

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Two Girls Praying by Emile Munier

Are you a contemplative? Some people, faced with this question, would answer an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Perhaps they are saints, at a high stage of union with God. Or perhaps they practice Eastern (as in Hindu or Buddhist) forms of meditation that they equate with contemplation. Some would call themselves contemplative because they are thoughtful and quiet. The rest of us might answer, “No.” Since we are not saints, we wouldn’t dare think of ourselves as contemplatives in the proper sense.

Nevertheless, everyone, no matter his stage in the spiritual journey or his vocation, can live a contemplative life.

A contemplative life is a life ordered toward union with God

If you have read The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, you know Teresa divides the spiritual life into seven stages, which she called mansions.  (To be completely accurate, she says that a soul goes back and forth among these stages, rather than proceeding from one to the next in a straight line.) Supernatural contemplation begins in the third or fourth mansion. But contemplative living can begin at our first conversion, even in childhood. Contemplative living prepares us to receive God’s gift of supernatural contemplation.

Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD, defines the contemplative life as “that form of Christian life that directly seeks intimacy with God” (Union with God). This is opposed to the active life, which seeks to serve our neighbor out of love. It’s obvious that lay people living in the world, especially spouses and parents, need to live this type of active life. But the contemplative life is also possible and necessary for us.

Prayer and mortification are the means to this end

Fr. Gabriel notes that prayer and mortification have been the traditional means of preparing ourselves for supernatural contemplation. But what does that mean for the average person today?

We need to dedicate our lives to prayer, setting aside thirty minutes or more each day to spend with God. If you are not convinced of the need for daily mental prayer, or think you are too busy to include it in your schedule, please read Why should you pray? and 7 ways to make time for prayer.

Mortify your will

I used to joke about wearing a hairshirt, but I don’t believe you’ll find one in any reputable religious catalog.

When a person I know entered a religious order, he left behind a “discipline” he had been using for mortification. The discipline is a small whip used to mortify the body. Religious in the Middle Ages often used a discipline. Some still do today. This person told me where I could find his discipline and encouraged me to use it, knowing that I was striving to live a contemplative life.

I almost had to laugh at this. At the time, I was recovering from a fairly difficult Cesarian delivery. I was up much of the night nursing a newborn, and had almost no time to myself. My body was already being disciplined! My vocation naturally brought with it physical mortification that  God could use for my spiritual growth, if I accepted and embraced it.

The purpose of mortification is detachment from everything that is not God.

As spouses and parents, we should primarily work on mortifying our will. What does God want me to do? How can the things I do not like about my vocation be a means of learning detachment? How can they teach me that my peace, comfort, and hope should rest in God alone?

Here are some sage words from St. Francis de Sales on Detachment, taken from Part III of Introduction to the Devout Life:

Fasting and labor both exhaust and subdue the body. If your work is necessary or profitable to God’s Glory, I would rather see you bear the exhaustion of work than of fasting…

At all times a constant habitual moderation is better than occasional excessive abstinence, alternated with great indulgence. The discipline has a surprising effect in rousing the taste for devotion, if used moderately. The body is greatly subdued by the use of the hair shirt, but it is not fit for ordinary people, married persons, those who are delicate, or who have to bear considerable fatigue…

Rather correct your heart, which idolizes your husband, and has indulged your child, letting him give way to pride, vanity, and ambition.

Live a simple life

The second way I believe that lay people living in the world can practice mortification is by simplifying our lives. Instead of amassing possessions, we should give generously to the poor and stick with the things we really need. We should not forget what Jesus said about the difficulty of a rich man entering Heaven! Many possessions means many distractions from God.

I was remarking to my boys (again!) this week how their lack of video games and electronic devices causes them to spend time reading, writing stories, and playing outdoors. When our possessions become a hindrance to real life, it’s time for them to go.

We should also clear our calendars of so many activities that we don’t have time to pray, go to Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, or spend time with our families. This presents a constant challenge as our children get older. If we look at all the events we plan to attend over a month, what priorities do we see?

Finally, are we overloading our senses and drowning out God’s voice? Just yesterday I unsubscribed from receiving email notifications from Facebook. I also decided to check in with Facebook two or three tines a day, rather than keeping it open all day long. When it is open, I tend to check it as I pass the computer, or when I’m supposed to be writing a blog post or my book. I need to turn off the noises and pop-ups every time I receive email too.

Other sensory distractions might be background music or TV, mindlessly surfing the Internet, constant texting, or talking on your cell phone instead of to the people in front of you.

God calls everyone to an intimate relationship with Him, whether priests, religious, or parents of families. The path towards contemplation is simple: prayer and mortification. It is also difficult, because it entails sacrifice. Together, let us make the commitment to strive for it.

Connie Rossini

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Share with us: How do you practice mortification in keeping with your state in life?

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How to grow in holiness in 10 minutes a day

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Female Saint Holding a Book by Aspertini (Wikimedia Commons).


So, you’re going to Mass and Confession regularly, and praying every day, but you want to take the next step towards God? In just ten minutes daily, you can fill your mind with thoughts of Christ that inspire and sustain you. How? By reading a good book about the spiritual life.

I do best in the practice of virtue when I am reading about Christ or the saints regularly. Why is this so?

In Conversation with Christ, An Introduction to Mental Prayer, Fr. Peter Thomas Rorhbach, OCD writes:

We live in a world devoid, in great part, of a Christian spirit, in an atmosphere and culture estranged from God… We must, if we are to remain realistically attached to Christ, combat this atmosphere and surround ourselves with a new one. Constant spiritual reading fills our minds with Christ and His doctrine—it creates this new climate for us.” (Rohrbach 1980, 142)

Every day, ideas antithetical to the Catholic faith bombard us through the television, radio, internet, and conversations in the workplace and with friends. Reading a book written by a saint is almost like conversing with him or her. It reminds us what life is really about.

Start with the Bible

The Bible should be the first book we read. We need to experience Christ in our lives. The Gospels present His character. Reading how He forgave the penitent woman gives me confidence to approach Him when I have sinned. Studying the Sermon on the Mount teaches me to do His will.

The Gospels are a wonderful source for meditation. Some writers suggest reading a short section of the Bible before bed, then meditating on it in the next morning’s prayer. We can continue to think about what we have read throughout the day, seeking to apply it in our lives. Many saints attest that as they grew closer to God, they stopped reading anything besides the Gospels.

But for those who are just beginning or somewhere in the middle, other spiritual books encourage and inspire us as well.

Other reliable books for spiritual reading

What should we read? First, we must be sure the books we choose are in line with the Catholic faith. Look for the Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat on the first few pages. They tell us that a book contains nothing that contradicts Catholic doctrine or morals. Of course, many good spiritual books of our age did not seek these designations, and some books that have them are poorly written or not centered on helping us grow closer to Christ.

Here are some solid spiritual classics:

  • Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
  • Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales
  • The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
  • Abandonment to Divine Providence  by Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussaude

In addition, the writings of Fr. Thomas Dubay, especially Fire Within, which explains the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, are excellent. And Fr. Jacques Philippe has written several short books on the spiritual life that are practical and accessible for modern readers.

Don’t try to read too much at once. Ten minutes or so a day gives you plenty to think about.

St. John Bosco wrote, “Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book.” Delve into one today and see what good it will do you.

Connie Rossini

Share with us: What spiritual books are on your night stand right now? Do you have a favorite I didn’t mention?

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What, you’re not a saint!?

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs by Fra Angelico (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).

I have a confession to make. I’m not a saint. Now, that’s no surprise to those who know me. And the better they know me, the less likely they are to think me a saint! My sins are often obvious.  So, why must I “confess” I’m not a saint? Because God made me to be one. He made everyone to be a saint.

A brief history of the term “saint”

In the early years of Christianity, the word “saint” was more or less synonymous with “Christian.” After all, if God made us for holiness, and died on the Cross to give us the necessary strength, everyone who follows Jesus should reach that goal. And when professing Jesus as Lord meant possible martyrdom, people had to take their faith seriously.

Even so, not everyone did. The early Church had Her share of heretics, schismatics, and sinners. So, gradually “saint” came to mean those who were living the Christian life with abandon, then those the Church infallibly declared were in Heaven.

Throughout the Middle Ages, priests and religious were expected to be holy. God had called them in a special way. But lay people had business to care for and families to raise. They followed the teachings of the Church and tried not to commit mortal sin. But few expected much more of them than this.

The saints themselves teach us the truth about sainthood

God sent saints to re-teach us that holiness is for everyone. In the 16th century, St. John of the Cross wrote that visions and private revelations were unnecessary and dangerous for people who wanted to grow close to God. In the 17th century, St. Francis de Sales called lay people to be holy in accordance with their state in life. In the 19th century, St. Therese of Lisieux taught that holiness consisted in loving and trusting God, not necessarily in doing great deeds. And in the 20th century, St. Maximum Kolbe told his confreres, “I demand you become saints–and very great saints!”

Vatican II made the doctrine of the universal call to holiness official:

Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect (Lumen Gentium 11).

No room for excuses

But still, we make excuses. We think others are called to the heights, not us. We excuse our sins by saying, “I’m no saint.” Read the words of St. Teresa of Avila:

O Lord! All our trouble comes to us from not having our eyes fixed upon Thee… We cry out at once: “Well, I’m no saint”; I used to say that myself.

 God deliver us, sisters, from saying “We are not angels”, or “We are not saints”, whenever we commit some imperfection. We may not be; but what a good thing it is for us to reflect that we can be if we will only try and if God gives us His hand! Do not be afraid that He will fail to do His part if we do not fail to do ours (Way of Perfection Ch. 16, emphasis mine).

You see, Teresa of Avila was not always holy. She sinned, made mistakes, and sometimes forgot her purpose in life. Just like us.

The idea that saints are born holy lingers on. We think it was easy for saints to be good, because they had extraordinary graces. We gloss over their struggles, because we want to view them as different, special.

Ordinary, not extraordinary

Yes, some saints did have extraordinary graces. But that’s irrelevant. It doesn’t take extraordinary grace to be holy–only ordinary grace. The kind we receive at Baptism and through the other Sacraments. The kind that increases when we spend time in prayer, resist temptation, and make even small sacrifices out of love.

St. Paul wrote, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). God began the work of grace in us. He is willing and able to complete it. All He asks is our cooperation.

In cooperating with God we become saints.

So, if I ever start making excuses for my sins, please call me to task. I am not a saint–yet. But I intend to be one. And I hope you will be there ahead of me.

Connie Rossini

Share with us: How do you see yourself as different from the canonized saints? What is your favorite quote or anecdote calling ordinary people to holiness?