Headaches and Hair Shirts: This Present Paradise, Part 14

This Present Paradise

A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity

(Start with part 1 here.)

One of our Theology professors in college encouraged us to add fasting to our prayer.  But he had a caveat that came from his own experience.  “I used to fast all day on Fridays,”  he said.  “And when I’d come home from work, I’d be so weak and tired I’d have to lay down.”  This was a problem because he was a father with young children at home.  

His wife, who had lived, perhaps, a much greater mortification that day homeschooling their large family, would have appreciated—no, needed—some relief and help at dinnertime. Instead, he was resting, drained from his voluntary penance while she juggled dinner, toddlers, and her own tiredness. 

His intentions?  Noble and generous.  But completely disordered.  Eventually, his wife was forced to confront him.

His first priority should have been his vocation, his state in life.  He had obligations to fill at home and by neglecting them, even for good reasons, he was hurting those who had the first claim to his time and energy.  “Don’t do what I did,” he told us ruefully, shaking his head. 

Choose mortifications that don’t mortify others.   -St. Josemaría Escrivá

Mortifications are those actions which subdue our bodily desires for comfort by denying ourselves.  The word mortification comes from the Latin mortificationem, which means “a killing, or a putting to death.” The goal is to be detached enough even from our own bodies to give of ourselves in a complete way in imitation of Christ crucified.  

But there is a primary way we are to give of ourselves, and that is within our vocation.  A mother who gives her body over for the growing child within, a father who works long, backbreaking hours to provide for the little souls at home, the priest who rises at night to anoint a dying person—this comes before anything else.  It is a way to sanctity we don’t need to guess at.  We just need to embrace it.  A practical kind of penance.  And sometimes, the obedience to our state in life requires the mortification of our will more than anything else.

There have been times I would have liked to pray longer.  But the child climbing into my lap, wanting to know what’s for breakfast?  That’s my mortification (and a wonderful one)!  I would gladly have gone on a pilgrimage, tracing the steps of saints and sacrificing the comfort of home to pray in holy places.  But maybe I’m just supposed to follow the crumbs to the kitchen and help the first-grader sound out his spelling words.  That’s my will, given over for the other.  

Anything that compromises my calling is a false kind of penance, and outside of God’s will.  The greater suffering is sometimes not being able to choose our own suffering.

The greater suffering is sometimes not being able to choose our own suffering.

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, before she entered the convent, would have loved to embrace a strict life of penance in addition to her rich prayer life.  In her fervent love, there was little she wouldn’t have sacrificed for Jesus.  She wanted to unite herself to Him in His Passion.  It was certainly one of the things that drew her to the Carmelites because the simple but severe life of a Carmelite is one of intense mortification of the flesh.  The way of Carmel is really the road to Calvary.

“My Savior,” she wrote, “I desire to return Thee love for love, blood for blood. Thou didst die for me, therefore I will endure fresh sufferings for Thee, every day shall bring me some fresh martyrdom because of my deep love for Thee.”  

But there was a problem.  It was becoming evident that Elizabeth was increasingly unwell, which could have prevented her from entering the convent.  She spoke to the prioress in Dijon, Mother Marie, who pressed her about her practices.  And then it became clear: in Elizabeth’s desire to suffer for Christ, this otherwise healthy twenty-year-old was putting her own calling at risk.  She had prayed for the impression of the crown of thorns, and was secretly wearing a hair shirt which was keeping her awake at night!  Tortured by headaches and unable to sleep, her health was deteriorating.  Immediately Mother Marie told her “to pray that her trial might be ended” and ordered her to stop wearing the hair shirt.   She obeyed, and once she was able to get adequate sleep, her health returned.

What had seemed like a good idea was actually stealing away her health and inhibiting her freedom to fulfill her vocation, even as the long-awaited date grew closer.  This was not God’s will, and through the wisdom of the prioress, she was able to course-correct.  What a disaster it would have been if she hadn’t been able to join the Carmelites, all because of a hair shirt!

She learned her lesson well enough to pass it on years later in her letters.  “Forgetting yourself with respect to your health does not mean neglecting to take care of yourself, for that is your duty and your best of penances,” she noted to her friend.  (L 249)

Sometimes sacrifices are good and right and fit within our existing commitments.  Sometimes they stretch us but still allow us to take care of what we’ve already been entrusted with.  Sometimes a challenging new call develops as seasons and obligations change.  But when we take on what seems like a good thing, and other important things begin to crumble?  It’s time to re-evaluate. 

“…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”  (2 Cor 11:14)

Thankfully Elizabeth had a guide with the wisdom to mortify her with obedience rather than severe physical penances.  God would provide physical suffering in another way, later.

But for now, He just wanted her ready to enter Carmel.  And that meant a good night’s sleep.

“Come away…and rest awhile.” (Mark 6:31)

(Read part 15 here.)

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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