Isaac of Stella: “Everything that happens in time exists from all eternity in the Word of God. Everything happens as the Word causes or permits it to happen, and nothing happens without His will; every outside event is the voice of the Word. The person who on the inside loves everything which has been decided [for them by God] cannot murmur about what happens.” (Fr. Robert Thomas OCSO, Passing from Self to God)
The saints give us wisdom, guidance, mentoring, teaching and friendship. Yet sometimes at first glance this path of holiness seems unrealistic and unreal! The fight-or-flight instinct kicks in and we flee from the idea of being ‘like them’. Yet if we resist running away, and give it just a bit of thought, two things emerge: (1) the saints were imperfect like us and had to ‘get over themselves’ just as we must (2) our fear isn’t of them but, rather, of facing ourselves.
God has already created us with the steadfastness to dig in our heels, stay put, and let a saint choose to befriend us. One saint after another will reveal to us that their struggles are not much different than our own, and how God worked gloriously through it all. Last week I happened into the online webinar on St. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) hosted by the Avila Institute.* It was an intriguing overview of the highlights and struggles of her life. (You can watch the webinar replay here.) Later in the week I enjoyed listening in on the St. Edith Stein discussion hosted by Endow Groups for Women.**
Catching my eye was page 10, chapter 1, of their study guide on Stein. An intellectual and lover of fine arts, its fruits of joy and delight were more than a passing emotion. It seems to bring her whole humanity into the experience in a manner that affects her at a deeper level. In contrast to this experience, modern culture today excites our passions, emotions and bane desire for pleasure. These do not necessarily reflect beauty and goodness. It can even distract us from finding and enjoying beauty in the world around us. This was her experience in reading a novel portraying sin and vice that brought her down into a depression for weeks. Her remedy: an evening of Bach.
Her experience somewhat mirrors that of St. Ignatius of Loyola who was converted upon noticing the difference in his heart from reading works reflecting goodness (lives of the saints) and that of the passions (chivalry and women). God would later use Ignatius to pen for us guidance to live this discerning life, and we see Edith Stein followed this path intuitively without even knowing Ignatius’ teachings.
The desolation from reading that book led Stein to a loss of confidence in the good people with whom she associated and in enjoying God’s world around her. She felt ‘unbearably burdened”. Stein was empathetic and overly-sensitive by nature to stories of the hardships, vices and evils of the world. By her own account, Stein was an atheist in this period of her life. Although this is a natural desolation, we can estimate how it affects the spirit too. St. Ignatius’ 1st set of rules for discerning such spirits describes “it is proper to the evil spirit to bite, sadden, and place obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, so that the person may not go forward.” (rule 2). He notes in rule 4 the loss of confidence and feeling of sloth leading to this universal negative of lost hope, satan’s hallmark. God permits such things as an opportunity for us to turn to Him.
The soul, mind and body are a union, and it is with our whole humanity that we experience both the creation of God and God Himself. Because of this, the ‘antidote’ to her depression was created beauty (music) to which her soul and temperament were already disposed. Stein continued in her life responsibilities (Ignatius’ rule 5 comes to mind) and by attending the concert for which she had already purchased the ticket, she was brought out of this dark fog.
One might say that the Church teaches us to be in the world, not of it, so how can immersing ourselves in culture be a proper remedy? God’s gift of creation, and our use of it in the fine arts, reflects aspects of His beauty, truth and goodness. It permits us to both sit in awe of His work while also honoring Him by enjoying His gifts. This contrasts to the more common reaction to desolation: engaging in works of man that bring forth emotions, anger, feeling of dominance and power, sexual drives, or cravings. These works do not reflect the transcendental qualities of God.
On a speculative note, a person of Faith would usually turn first to Sacred Scripture, holy authors or sacred music to relieve a spiritual desolation. Stein as a Jew-cum-atheist likely didn’t jump to find her Torah. However, fine arts and classical music in the western world were sponsored by the Catholic church and later Protestants as well. Much of it, then, is very Christian. Hence, the moment of release from this evil spirit for Stein was a line in Martin Luther’s hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ that spoke of perseverance in the world through all of its evils. Later in life she came to love sacred Gregorian Chant. God’s ways are mysterious.
And yet, as much as we can relate to a saint’s trial, it might still seem easiest to stay in our old habits because we are comfortable with those. Grabbing chocolate and an R-rated movie numbs the pain. But where is the Hope in that?
Our holiness really does matter and God really is interested in the small stuff of our day for that very reason. You are already surrounded by saints wanting to walk this path with you. Take stock of your life, take heart in our God, and be the difference.
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
*a full course on her life and thought is being offered this summer, see here for more info and to register.
**More info on this Endow resource here.
Edith Stein-student at Breslau / Public domain