Perfect Joy, Perfect Desire
In our long article titled St. Francis of Assisi: They Pretended to Love You So That They Might Leave You, we explored St. Francis’ ideal of Poverty largely from the perspective of the soul’s possession, pursuit, and use of the things of this world. This “exterior” poverty is, of course, intimately related to that interior “spirit of poverty” and humility which is the first Beatitude and the foundation upon which the entire spiritual life is constructed. As stated in the Prologue to Sacrum Commercium:
“Very properly is the kingdom of heaven said to be the possession of those who keep nothing of the goods of this world through their own will, their inclination towards spiritual things, and their desire for eternal things. For it can only follow that a person will live on heavenly things if he cares nothing for earthly things, and he who renounces all earthly things and ‘counts them as dung’ will taste with pleasure the savory crumbs that fall from the table of the holy angels and will deserve to taste how sweet and how good the Lord is.”
But there is a whole interior realm, existing in itself, and therefore constituting a uniquely spiritual poverty, which deserves our full consideration. And just as it is impossibly hypocritical to live in pursuit of the physical riches, pleasures, and luxuries of this world while claiming to possess the spiritual poverty which is the first Beatitude, so it is impossible to cultivate true detachment from the world unless it flows outward from a genuinely Catholic interior Poverty and Humility. As there are many forms of false mysticisms which have seduced many down through Catholic history, so there are many forms of asceticism practiced by false religions which, while often giving the appearance of something quite spiritual, and even of great holiness, are works of Satan for the seduction and ruin of souls.
We wish to offer here, therefore, two marvelous short pieces of true Catholic spiritual poverty which will hopefully shine a light in our souls so as to guard us from such seduction and ruin. The first constitutes a chapter contained in the Fioretti (The Little Flowers of St. Francis):
“One day in winter, as St Francis was going with Brother Leo from Perugia to St Mary of the Angels, and was suffering greatly from the cold, he called to Brother Leo, who was walking on before him, and said to him: “Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy.
“A little further on, St Francis called to him a second time: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.
“Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor knew all languages; if they were versed in all science; if they could explain all Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this would not be perfect joy.
“After proceeding a few steps farther, he cried out again with a loud voice: “O Brother Leo, thou little lamb of God! if the Friars Minor could speak with the tongues of angels; if they could explain the course of the stars; if they knew the virtues of all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots, and of waters – write that this would not be perfect joy.
“Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy.
“Now when this manner of discourse had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo in great amazement asked him: “Father, I beg thee to tell me wherein is perfect joy.
“St Francis answered: “If, when we shall arrive at St Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, `We are two of the brethren’, he should answer angrily, `What ye say is not the truth; ye are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say’; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall – then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.
“And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, `Begone, miserable robbers! Go to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ – and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.
“And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, `These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve’; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick – if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.
“And now, brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, `What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? and if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?’
“But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, `I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Amen.”
We must carefully note that all of St. Francis “joy” and the all spiritual poverty which is the source of this joy is entirely rooted in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. There is absolutely no true Catholic spiritually, of any kind, which attempts to bypass the suffering humanity of Christ.
The second example is The Litany of Humility, most often attributed (although this is disputed) to Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val (1865-1930), Secretary of State of the Holy See under Pope St. Pius X:
Litany of Humility
O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
Everything contained in St. Francis’ teaching concerning “Perfect Joy”, and also in the Litany of Humility, target what both Holy Scripture and St. Thomas so aptly delineate as the “beginning of all sin”: Spiritual Pride. The primary effect of original sin in each one of us is love of self and therefore the desire to be “first”. It would seem therefore that what might be most disturbing to us in the depths of our fallen nature is the very last petition in the Litany of Humility: “That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should.” If the whole of my Catholic life is directed towards holiness in perfect imitation of Jesus and Our Lady, then how can I possibly pray that others may become holier than I? It would appear to be a stark contradiction to do so.
The answer to this mystery is obtained through understanding, in the depths of one’s soul, the dynamics of the path of holiness itself. It springs forth from seeing with both one’s mind and heart the Infinite Goodness of God, while at the same time seeing the poverty and sinfulness of oneself. Possibly the most succinct and beautiful expression between these two realities is to be found in St. Augustine’s work The City of God:
“Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” (14:28).
But it is not just a question of believing in these two absolutely necessary truths of our Faith. It is a matter of such “believing” (faith) descending into that understanding with the heart which springs forth in love. Possibly the greatest barrier to true growth in holiness among those who would consider themselves faithful Catholics is the failure to see and understand with their hearts the very truths which they believe with their faith. Our Lord said to the Pharisees:
“For the heart of this people is grown gross, and with their ears they have been dull of hearing, and their eyes they have shut: lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.” Mt. 13: 15).
It is a matter of faith blossoming into holy and passionate desire. This is why, of course, all the petitions in the second half of the Litany of Humility conclude with the phrase “Grant me the grace to desire it….” It is not enough to believe, we must also desire. And this desire can only be generated through God’s grace. Immersed in the consequence of original sin, it is not something which comes naturally to us, and cannot therefore become the passion of our lives except as a gift from God.
To truly enter upon this path establishes a deep joy within our souls. We come to find St. Francis “joy”, and even to relish, our own nothingness. As self-contradictory as it may sound, we come to hunger after death in Christ, that His Life might become fully present in our souls. St. Paul, beseeching God that he might be delivered from his infirmity, received the following response from Christ:“My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity.” St. Paul therefore concludes:
“Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful. (2 Cor. 12: 8-10).
We now should be able to see why it is that to pray for the grace to desire “that others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should” is the petition which would seem to penetrate deeper than all the rest. There is nowhere where our love of self is more encrusted than in our relationships with our fellow man. And of course the ultimate expression of this spiritual pride is to envy the holiness of others, and to equate our own ultimate happiness above all others through possession of that “status” in which we shall receive the reward which the disciples James and John sought after – of receiving the right to sit at the right and left hand of Christ on His throne. Our Lord’s response was to call all the Twelve together and declare to them:
“You know that they who seem to rule over the Gentiles, lord it over them: and their princes have power over them. But it is not so among you: but whosoever will be greater, shall be your minister. And whosoever will be first among you, shall be the servant of all. For the Son of man also is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life as redemption for many.” (Mark 10: 35-45)
In the depths of the Cross dwells that perfect joy and power of truly desiring, according to the will of Christ, to gather the crumbs under Our Lord’s table, and to be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. And in this lies that perfect love of the children of God which springs forth as the Life of Christ overcoming and replacing the ravages of self-love. It is here where the motherly care of Our Lady bears fruit in our rendering pure glory to God:
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid