The Bishop Speaks

Bishop Louis Vezelis O.F.M.

Every false doctrine necessarily gives birth to false spirituality which, in turn, evolves into false mysticism.

This has ever been the experience of the Church since the beginning of time. It is not different today.

One of the most characteristic errors in spirituality is the Charismatic Movement that has Protestantized so many Catholics.

More than anyone else, Franciscans have been called by God to give the world an example of what, at first glance, sounds and looks like a contradiction. I will say no more on this point and will proceed with a correct view of the reality of life through the eyes of a God become Man.

Christian spirituality is, as the name implies, based on Christ. Jesus Christ is the role model of every Christian. Not only that, but Jesus Christ is the model for everyone and for every time.

When using the word `Christian,' the kind reader is asked to remember that it means `Catholic.' For, there can be no authentic Christianity outside the Roman Catholic Church. And, consequently, there can be no genuinely objective spirituality outside the Roman Catholic Church. Whatever else exists out there, is nothing more than a cheap, dangerous imitation of the real thing.

It is `cheap' only in the sense that it requires little effort. But those who embrace false spirituality end by paying very dearly for it.

It is `dangerous' because it does not lead a soul to God. It leads a soul away from God, and is, for that reason, dangerous.

It is an `imitation of the real thing' because it is made to resemble genuine spirituality and thus lull its victims into fatal complacency.

True Christian asceticism is seldom welcomed by the world. It is looked upon as the enemy of joy. And, rather than insist on true asceticism in order to attain true joy, Modernists have `protestantized' it to make it acceptable to a world plunged in horrible sins.

Many experience Christian asceticism as a promoter of gloom. John XXIII was one of those who seemed to condemn it. That's what made him so popular with mediocre Catholics.

Asceticism is looked upon as a system that seeks to destroy any sensitivity to human pleasures. It is pictured as a turning away from everything that is pleasant and beautiful, from everything that develops our senses, whatever deepens our impressions, whatever makes us capable of enjoying the things around us. Asceticism, it is said, intrudes itself between the `me' and the visible world, and thereby becomes an obstacle to experience the Lord's creatures as they are in their fullness.

Asceticism blindfolds the eyes so that they cannot enjoy the beauty of the opposite sex; it plugs the ears, so that they cannot hear the whisperings of love; it pinches the nose so that it cannot smell the sweetness of perfume; it mortifies the tongue, so that it cannot enjoy the taste of a good meal. These are the accusations against asceticism.

Clearly, it would appear that a life permeated with asceticism is robbed of its richness, and thus is crippled, distorted, filled with mind control that destroys every joy and dulls every pleasure. The independence of existence disappears in asceticism, and with it joy. For this reason, Christians and especially Religious are often depicted with heads bent low, hands folded, and faces ashen gray. This, supposedly, is the visible sign of an ascetic.

The nihilist philosopher Nietzsche considered Christian asceticism as a `death wish' and from this draws the conclusion that the Christian is a person whose thoughts he expresses as follows: "Your `Ego' wants to die, so you turn away from life. Your `Ego' wants to perish, that is why you belittle the body." Or, others who are given to dissolute lives _ or aspire to such living while maintaining a comfortable façade of Christianity _ would look upon those Christians who practice asceticism as masochists or misguided souls.

True Franciscan asceticism _ which is, in reality, nothing more than true Christian asceticism _ stands before the world as a herald of joy in the face of this negative and misleading understanding.

Rare is the saint who has practiced the requirements of Christian asceticism with such energy as St. Francis of Assisi.

Asceticism and joy in St. Francis were inseparable. One supported the other; one developed the other.

Disciplining his own flesh gave rise in St. Francis to astounding joy, and this joy pushed aside demonic temptations.

When St. Francis met a leper on the road and kissed his crippled fingers, he became so overwhelmed that he no longer knew in which direction he was going. And he himself testifies that such a sweetness, a feeling of good fortune and joy welled up in him continually like a vessel being filled with cooling spring water to overflowing.

Having returned to his father the clothes he had on his back and putting on a discarded peasant's garb, St. Francis set out towards Gubbio singing.

Every victory over oneself, over one's disordered inclinations was a step higher to the mountain top where he breathed pure air, from whence he viewed the wide vistas below and which filled him with joy. Suffering, fatigue, privation, persecution were far from being causes for sadness. On the contrary, they were a stimulus to great and pure joy, because this revealed to man his greatness and freedom.

From this point of view, the conversation St. Francis had with Brother Leo on their way to Perugia to St. Mary of the Angels one winter is very significant.

For a long while, Francis was telling Brother Leo what true and perfect joy was not. He told Brother Leo that if all the Friars of the Order gave everyone in every place an example of holiness; if they healed the sick and raised the dead; if they spoke in tongues and prophesied; if they converted all the heathens and brought them to Christ by their sermons; if they had all the wealth of the earth and knew the essence of all of Nature _ all that would not yet be perfect joy.

After hearing all this and, most probably cold and hungry, Brother Leo finally asked Francis: "For the love of God, tell me, Father, what is finally perfect joy?"

Francis answered: "When we shall have come to St. Mary of the Angels, soaked as we are with the rain and frozen with the cold, encrusted with mud and afflicted with hunger, and shall knock at the door, if the porter should come and ask angrily, `Who are you?' and we replying: `We are two of your brethren,' he should say: `You speak falsely; you are two good-for-nothings, who go about the world stealing alms from the poor; go your way;' and if he would not open the door to us, but left us without, exposed till the night to the snow and the wind and the torrents of rain, in cold and hunger; then, if we should bear so much abuse and cruelty and such a dismissal patiently, without disturbance and without murmuring at him, and should think humbly and charitably that this porter knew us truly, and that God would have him speak against us, O Brother Leo, write that this would be perfect joy.

And if we should continue to knock, and he should come out in a rage and should drive us away as importunate villains, with rudeness and buffetings, saying: `Depart from this house, vile thieves; go to the poorhouse, for you shall neither eat nor be lodged here'; if we should sustain this with patience, and with joy, and with love, O Brother Leo, write that this would be perfect joy. And if constrained by hunger, and the cold, and the night, we should knock again, and beg him with many tears, for the love of God, that he would open to us and let us in, and he should say still more angrily: `These are importunate rascals, I will pay them well for this as they deserve,' and should come out furiously with a knotted stick and seize hold of us by our hoods and throw us to the earth, and roll us in the snow, and beat us all over our bodies; if we should bear all these things patiently and with joy, thinking of the pains of the blessed Christ, as that which we ought to bear for His love, O Brother Leo, write that it is in this that there is perfect joy.

And now hear the conclusion, Brother Leo. Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to His friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ. For we cannot glory in all those other marvelous gifts of God, as they are not ours but God's, as the Apostle says: `What have you that you have not received?'

But we can glory in the cross of tribulations and afflictions, because that is ours, and so the Apostle says: `I will not glory save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ!'"

Herein lies the secret of genuine Franciscan joy; as the minstrels and troubadours were the sunshine of knighthood, so joyousness added a pleasant charm to the spiritual knighthood of St. Francis. Since St. Francis perceived himself to be a true Knight of Jesus Christ, he was prepared to serve his Liege Lord with unbounded happiness. He was willing to follow Him in poverty and to be like Him in His suffering. It was this blissful happiness in His service, in the imitation and suffering of Christ that he announced as a loyal knight of God to the entire world.

On this point, we might also consider the episode in the great spiritual adventure in the life of St. John of the Cross.

St. John of the Cross had been imprisoned by the Friars of the Mitigated Observance. He was flogged every day in the refectory and then given a few crusts of bread and some water. His prison cell was so small that he could not lay down. After some time of this effort to break his determination to embrace the Reform of St. Teresa of Avila, he managed to escape by letting himself down from a high window. Even this was quite a feat since he had to drop some distance onto solid rock. Already emaciated from the imposed fasting, St. John of the Cross made his way in the darkness to the convent of the Reform nuns.

Apparently, the brethren of the Mitigated Rule were in hot pursuit. At the convent, the nuns hid him in the enclosure. This enclosure, or, cloister, is forbidden to everyone except a doctor or priest to visit a sick nun in need of them. Providentially, this was the case here. The searchers were not permitted to enter the enclosure and so were forced to give up the search.

While the nuns were gathered in the kitchen eagerly listening to the story of St. John's adventurous escape, they fed him stewed pears flavored with cinnamon. This was all the nuns had to offer. Compared to the dry crusts of bread in his prison, even the stewed pears must have tasted great.

The next day, disguised as a secular priest, and under the protection of don Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, Canon of the Cathedral, who called for him in his own carriage, St. John left in relative safety. He remained with the Canon for a month.

On his way to the little friary of El Calvario, St. John stopped at Beas to visit the convent founded by St. Teresa just a few years earlier.

When the Prioress and her nuns saw the lamentable state to which the little friar had been reduced by his starvation diet, they urged him to stay in Beas for the purpose of resting and taking strengthening nourishment. They did this because they doubted that he would find anything to eat at El Calvario except weeds. This was quite true.

Following an accepted custom of the day, the nuns wished to cheer their saintly visitor and to do some good for body and soul. The Prioress, Ann of Jesus, ordered two nuns who had some musical talent to sing to him. This custom was designed to comfort the sick and distract them from their sufferings. Even years later, in his last illness, St. John of the Cross was treated to the music of hired singers who were brought especially for that purpose. Here, the nuns chose a song that was characteristic of the times and particularly suited to the spirit of St. John of the Cross. Here is what the nuns sang:

Who knows not grief

In this vale of sorrow,

Knows nought of good

Nor has tasted love,

For grief is the garb of lovers.

Tears ran down the face of "el Santo" _ as St. John was called. While he grasped the grille with one hand, and with the other he signaled the singers to stop, he was forthwith rapt in ecstasy. And, according to the chronicler, he was in ecstasy for an entire hour. The nuns remained in their places, silently observing from the other side of the grille. When St. John of the Cross came to himself, he told them that the Lord had given him to understand the great good that lies in suffering for God's sake, and how it grieved him to think how little he himself had suffered.

This was a stunning and edifying declaration in view of the recent ill-treatment he had suffered at the hands of his own brethren.

As for St. John of the Cross, so too for St. Francis, the key paradox of the Christian life was the secret source of the most pure and mighty joy: To suffer for Christ and for the love of God.

No doubt, those who have never loved truly cannot comprehend the profound mystery that is portrayed in the Cross. The Cross has a magnet-like attraction for those who have reached a higher level of spirituality.

The greatness in suffering and even dying for love of Christ lies in this: Man's freedom to suffer constitutes his greatness and for this reason becomes the source of true joy.

St. Francis constantly reminded his brethren that joy protects the soul from demonic temptations which we continually encounter on this earthly pilgrimage. He says: "If the servant of God strives to be within and without with that joy that arises from purity of heart and the spirit of prayer, then the evil spirits cannot do him any harm. These evil spirits must then confess: `When this servant of God is joyful equally on good days and on bad days, we are unable to approach him to harm him."

Likewise St. Francis said that, on the contrary: "The devil triumphs if he is able to destroy or at least weaken that joy that comes from pure prayer and upright conduct." (Speculum perfectionis, 177).

In another place, St. Francis fills in with more detail his views on the subject: "The devil carries with him fine dust which he sprinkles in small quantities in the cracks of the conscience, so as to disturb the person's good humor and to darken the soul's brightness. However, joy, filling the heart of the spiritual man, destroys these deadly poisons of the devil." (Celano 122).

What this means is that joy prevents a person from falling into temptations that are presented by the devil which appear attractive on the surface, but hide within them a great sadness. Joy protects a person from these seductions because it makes the person clear-sighted, and he quickly sees what is true joy and what is false. Whereas sadness clouds one's spiritual vision.

St. Francis says: "If the soul is sad, lonely and worried, it easily turns to superficial consolations and to the empty allurements of the world" (Joergensen 395).

The man who is sad is an easy prey to occasions of sin by which he would attempt to dispel his heaviness of soul. This is the reason why St. Francis correctly called sadness the "Sickness of Babel" _ that is, that particular attitude of soul which separates people.

Sadness locks the soul up in a kind of `solitary confinement.' It turns the soul against others; it makes its words and actions insincere; it masks a man's face and makes it impossible to live together.

We can only live with others when this living together is based on joy. What is joy?

Joy is the penetration of divine life into man's existence, and for this reason it is able to unite and ennoble souls.

The Gospel is the joyful news. The first annunciation of Christ's birth was made known by the angel to the shepherds. The angel did not say, "I have bad news for you!" The angel said: "Fear not; for , behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people;" (St. Luke 2, 10). It is, therefore, a great injustice and blasphemy against God to suggest that the Gospel message is one of sadness and gloom.

The Gospel brings to the world not sorrow and gloom, but joy.

Because the Gospel is a message of `good tidings and great joy,' the messengers of that Gospel must first be imbued with that message themselves. The Gospel is not just a book to be read; it is a book to be lived.

And because the Gospel is essentially bound up with joy, this joy cannot be merely some kind of psychological tool of the apostolate.

To be the herald of the great King means to preach redemption to the world not only from sin, but also from the consequences of sin, of which sadness occupies the most important place.

St. Francis could not stand to see his brethren sullen or despondent. Once, while on a journey with another friar, he noticed the friar's face was unfriendly looking. Unable to contain himself, Francis said to him: "Why do you show your sadness? If you have offended God, then let your remorse for it remain between you and God. Entreat Him, so that He might forgive you in His mercy. Then, let your soul rejoice again with that blessing which sin had torn from you. But, show yourself to me and to others always cheerful, because it is not fitting for a servant of God to appear sad and despondent."(Speculum perf. 177-78).

This was not an invitation to put on the external mask of joy, but an invitation to eliminate the cause of the sadness: sin! St. Francis was convinced that the only reason for a person to be sad was his sinfulness.

A man in sin is essentially sad. He has turned away from God and has turned to non-being. He is destroying himself and the Lord's world; he sows hatred; consequently, he has nothing that could bring him joy. However, a Christian ought not to remain in sin. If he has fallen, he ought to immediately rise up, and go to his Father and say to Him: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and Thee" (St. Luke 15, 18).

He must destroy sin by confessing it and doing penance, and then rejoice again. For, the Christian no longer has any reason to be sad. If everything is in the hands of God, if His Providence is the principle of our existence, then no blows of life, no hardship or suffering can take away the Christian's joy.

On the contrary, Christians accept everything as coming from God. This is the reason why the patient and meek bearing of crosses is the very source of the greatest and most perfect joy: because this suffering reveals man's greatness in his freedom.

It is St. Francis who teaches us that a genuine Christian existence is essentially bound-up with joy.

Every repentant Christian is filled with joy because he feels God returning within him.

This is also the reason why our Lord taught the Apostles that while doing penance, they must wash their faces and anoint their heads with oil because that is a holy time. It is a holy time because it is then that God returns to dwell in the soul as in a temple.

There is no cause for anyone to be saddened after the coming of Christ. The age prior to the coming of the Messiah was an age of hope, an age of longing for Him Who would lead mankind out of his sinful existence, so filled with sorrow and gloom. After the coming of Christ, there is no longer any excuse for sadness.

The Church is not a society of sad souls; She is the communion of rejoicing souls.

We see a contradiction in today's society in that it betrays a profound sadness. This is most evident because we live in an age when the pursuit of pleasure is the paramount occupation of people. There is very little morality left to speak of. If the world seeks pleasure and distraction with such great passion, it can only be because the world is immensely sad. And, if the world is so immensely sad, it is only because the world is profoundly submerged in sin.

There is very little genuine joy in the world because joy is essentially something religious.

Which brings us to another important consideration: Can there be genuine joy in religions that are false? Can there be genuine joy in the hearts and hearths of heretics?

Since those outside the true Church cannot have their sins forgiven, it follows logically that such persons cannot be said to have genuine joy.

They may attempt to present a visible imitation of joy, but such joy is not real. It is a metaphysical absurdity to suggest that those who reject the teachings of the one Church established by God can possibly be free of their sins.

Genuine joy, as we have seen, can only come from God when sin no longer has hold of the soul. This requires not only confession but also self-discipline.

Much of the joy witnessed today by certain `Christians' is nothing more than a futile attempt to hide the fact that they are deeply sad. They are deeply sad because they have abandoned the true Church.

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