Lenten Friday Reflection: Practical Suffering

As we approach Palm Sunday this weekend and the start of Holy Week, Christians are called to remember the sufferings of Jesus, culminating in His Crucifixion on Good Friday.  If you are among those who are, for the most part, doing well, it may be difficult to try to reflect on what Christ went through on your behalf.  However if you are among those who are indeed experiencing physical pain or emotional anguish, that does not automatically mean that you are in a position to empathize with Him unless you make a concerted effort.

This Sunday at mass we will be hearing and participating in the reading of The Passion from the Gospel of St. Mark, where the Evangelist describes the following incident involving an attempt to give a 1st century equivalent of a painkiller to Jesus:

At noon darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
which is translated,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“Look, He is calling Elijah.”
One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed
and gave it to Him to drink saying,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take Him down.”

Of course as we all know, Elijah did not come to take Him down: His suffering continued until He died.

One of the several Lenten activities I have taken on is reading more about the life of the great spiritual writer and Doctor of the Church St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622).  His “Introduction to the Devout Life” is one of my favorite  books, not only for its content and sound counsel, but also for its style. St. Francis, who as it happens is one of the patron saints of writers, is someone who writes for those of us who are living in the secular world, with all of its opportunities and temptations. And naturally, when I went to look up some of his thoughts on suffering, he pretty much hit the nail on the head.

While St. Francis de Sales was a priest who eventually become bishop, he was also someone who had spent a significant period of time moving about in high society. Having been born in his family’s ancestral château in French Savoy, and having received all of the usual instruction of his class in gentlemanly pursuits such as riding, dancing, and social pleasantries, he spent the first part of his life being educated at some of the finest schools in Europe, and meeting other young scions of noble or well-to-do families. In fact, being the oldest son and heir, his father had arranged for him to marry an heiress and begin a political career, but by the time he was in his mid-twenties and had completed his studies, St. Francis had already decided to renounce everything and become a priest.

I have come to particularly appreciate St. Francis’ writing over the years because of his recognition that what might be practical in the convent cell may be impractical in the drawing room. He knows that the person reading his work may be deeply religious, but that they are not necessarily called to consecrated life, as he himself was. They may be a person of temporal importance such as a wealthy philanthropist, an elected official, an armed forces officer, or the like, who bears a degree of responsibility for keeping society going in some way, but also wants to be a good Christian, recognizing the passing nature of this life and the fundamental importance of focusing on the life to come.

In much of his writing, St. Francis takes Jesus’ observation that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, and turns to the practicalities of the situation. He himself knew and experienced how difficult it was to live in the material world, with all of the conflicting messages that we receive in it. Thus in Part III, Chapter 3 of his “Introduction to the Devout Life”, St. Francis provides both sensible advice and spiritual counseling with respect to how to deal with what C.S. Lewis called “The Problem of Pain”, in his eponymous book on the subject.

Interestingly, St. Francis views the problem of pain as arising not so much from selfishness, but rather from a need to develop the virtue of patience – and indeed, he titles this particular chapter, “Patience”. He notes that we have to walk a fine line between complaining too much, and not complaining at all, when we are suffering from a malady of some kind, whether professional, financial, physical, etc. If we whinge and wail too much, then we are looking to draw attention to ourselves; if we do not admit that we are in distress, then we deny others the opportunity to act in charity towards us, and also lose the opportunity for personal reflection to make our suffering meaningful.

Thus while St. Francis counsels against people wallowing in their sorrow, he also believes that there is no real virtue in maintaining the stiff upper lip and pretending that everything is fine. And because we are in Lent, it was interesting to note an allusion which St. Francis made in this chapter to the suffering of Christ on the Cross, as described in the preceding passage from St. Mark, and how it can be compared to following what today we would call “doctor’s orders”:

When you are sick, offer all your pains and weakness to our Dear Lord, and ask Him to unite them to the sufferings which He bore for you. Obey your physician, and take all medicines, remedies and nourishment, for the Love of God, remembering the vinegar and gall He tasted for love of us; desire your recovery that you may serve Him; do not shrink from languor and weakness out of obedience to Him, and be ready to die if He wills it, to His Glory, and that you may enter into His Presence…Gaze often inwardly upon Jesus Christ crucified, naked, blasphemed, falsely accused, forsaken, overwhelmed with every possible grief and sorrow, and remember that none of your sufferings can ever be compared to His, either in kind or degree, and that you can never suffer anything for Him worthy to be weighed against what He has borne for you.

Note that St. Francis, writing centuries before the advent of modern medicine and pharmaceuticals, points out that we are not to “shrink from langour and weakness”. In other words, writes the Bishop of Geneva, if you are feeling sick then for pity’s sake take your medicine, go to bed, and stop pretending that everything is fine, when it is not. While he does not want people to be flailing themselves about in public complaining of every bad thing that might befall them, he also does not want people to avoid getting the recuperative rest that they need. This is not only because it is impractical to make themselves worse, but also because he wants them to learn the virtue of patience, by taking at least part of their recuperation time to reflect on Jesus, and the suffering He went through on our behalf.

No doubt avoiding both the pity party and unflinching stoicism can be very difficult for many of us to achieve, myself included. However for those of us who need to work on our patience, combining both a practical, reasoned response to our suffering, whatever its cause, with a willingness to sit back and allow things to repair themselves, if it is God’s Will, will ultimately be of tremendous benefit to our spiritual well-being, which after all is more important than anything else which we possess temporarily in this life, be it health, wealth, intelligence, appearance, position, or what have you.  Using that time of enforced detachment from the world to reflect on Christ’s suffering on our behalf, particularly as we enter Holy Week, may very well prove to be the most beneficial action of all.

“Angel Holding the Sponge and Hyssop” by Antonio Giorgetti (1668-1669)
Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome

Friendship and Frivolity

For those of us who scribble, today is an important date in the calendar for it is the Feast of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), patron saint of writers and journalists.  Yet before you tune out, gentle reader who is a non-Christian, I’d like you to consider some of what he wrote about other subjects.  Like Count Baldassare Castiglione, whose writing inspired and continues to inspire some of the subjects considered on this blog, St. Francis has quite a lot to say about how people should behave in society – which, as it happens, is still very relevant to us today, and particularly with respect to the friendships and attachments we form.

The reason St. Francis de Sales was named as the patron saint of writers and journalists, by Pope Pius XI, was not only because he wrote a number of important books, but also because of his methods.  In his efforts to evangelize and persuade people to come into the Church he often hand-wrote what today we would call flyers or tracts, which he would slip under the front door of homes who would not let him come in and speak to them.  One could also perhaps accuse him of starting the habit of leaving Chinese take-away menus under windshield wipers, but that is beside the point.

I have written previously about how St. Francis de Sales had some very sensible thoughts about fashion, of all things, which you might not expect from a man who was Bishop of Geneva and named a Doctor of the Church because of his significant theological writing and scholarship.  He recognized the reality that most people are not going to dress like nuns and hermits, particularly people who are well-to-do and have obligations to perform in society.  It is interesting that his thoughts, following the Reformation, are exactly in line with Castiglione’s own thinking and writing on this subject, before the Reformation took place.  The world may have changed dramatically during that intervening century, but the idea of good taste being marked by some degree of restraint is one which runs like – if you will forgive the expression – a thread through their work, and even up through the work of couturiers like Coco Chanel or Giorgio Armani.

Another area on which the two men agree has to do with what we might refer to as the formation of “serious” friendships, as opposed to superficial ones based on unimportant matters. Thinking that because two people like to follow the career of the same pop tart or the same sports team that said persons are, in fact, friends, is putting the cart before the horse. It may be a basis to begin building a friendship, but it cannot be the only basis for a true one.

Today one can look at the “Trending” column on Twitter, gossip magazines, or frankly even at most formerly-legitimate news outlets, and see all sorts of reports and commentary about entertainers, celebrities, or people who are famous for being famous. However this frivolity is nothing new, as St. Francis noted back in the 17th century. In criticizing the empty-headed people of his own day, he notes:

They do not at all hesitate to say: Such a gentleman has many virtues and perfections, for he dances gracefully, he plays well at all sorts of games, he dresses fashionably, he sings delightfully, speaks eloquently, and is good looking; thus mountebanks esteem those the most perfect among themselves who are the greatest buffoons But as all these things regard the senses, so the friendships which proceed from them are termed sensual, vain, and frivolous, and deserve rather the name of foolish fondness than of friendship; such are the ordinary friendships of young people, which are grounded on mustaches, locks, and glances, on clothes, affectation and chatter; friendships suited to the age of those lovers whose virtues are yet only tendrils, and their judgment only in the bud; such friendships are only temporary.

Perhaps today one would be hard-pressed to find a friendship grounded in a mutual appreciation of mustaches, though admittedly stranger things have happened. St. Francis is not saying that it is a bad thing to strike up a conversation with someone based on a mutual appreciation of or opinion on something frivolous, such as a television show. What he is saying is that those who never begin to discuss more serious matters with the people whom they spend time with are not really forming friendships at all, even if they refer to such relationships that way. These types of relationships have no real value, and can lead to a lowering of standards, as well as encouraging laziness, bad behavior and poor choices.

Similarly, Castiglione recognized the difference between frivolous attachment and serious friendship, and noted that those who associated with frivolous people would themselves be found frivolous, and lose their reputations:

But another thing seems to me to give and to take away from reputation greatly, and this is our choice of the friends with whom we are to live in intimate relations; for doubtless reason requires that they who are joined in close amity and fast companionship, shall have their desires, souls, judgments and minds also in accord. Thus, he who consorts with the ignorant or wicked, is deemed ignorant or wicked; and on the contrary, he who consorts with the good, the wise, and the discreet, is himself deemed to be the like. Because by nature everything seems to join willingly with its like. Therefore I think we ought to use great care in beginning these friendships, for he who knows one of two close friends, at once imagines the other to be of the same quality.

In both cases, neither man is saying that all of our relationships must be serious ones. After all, serious friendships cannot arise until there is at least some initial contact based on a shared interest or experience. Social occasions, entertainments, or even chance meetings have always lead to more intimacy, both in the Renaissance Europe of St. Francis and Castiglione, as well as in our own day. And certainly in the present age social media has made it possible for more people living at wider distances from one another to be able to form new relationships.

What both men are saying, however, is that a love of the vapid and the shallow is ultimately not a good basis for forming anything. Society presently elevates and celebrates frivolous, ongoing sexual encounters among unmarried people, or staged weddings spread across the pages of glossy publicity magazines, as being equivalent to a solemn, sacramental marriage between two adults before God, and we can see where that has brought us. Therefore it should not surprise us to find that, similarly, “friendship” has been cheapened to something which is really little more than an acquaintanceship, at best, and at worst, possibly a bad influence on our intellectual, moral, and spiritual health.

When the world has gone topsy-turvy, and paradoxically embraced “no standards” as THE standard, we do not need to re-invent the wheel to try to look to some sanity about the example we set for others.  History is there for us to make use of, if we will but take the time to do so.  So I suggest, gentle reader, that you take the counsel of these two noble writers from one of the high periods of Western culture to heart, and consider whether you are wasting your time on frivolous relationships, or whether you are, in fact, working on forming true friendships which will do you, the other person, and society as a whole some good.

Detail of “Members of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths’ Guild” by Thomas de Keyser (1627)
Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio

What Not To Wear (To Mass)

It ought to behoove us, when we are headed out the door to mass on Sunday, to stop and take a look in the mirror, and see what is going on with our attire. This was a point raised, though in far more thoughtful tones, in yesterday’s homily when Father Sirianni took advantage of it being the Feast of Corpus Christi to remind us of a number of points Catholics ought to keep in mind when attending mass.  “This is nothing new,” he noted, listing such things as remembering to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, not receiving communion in a state of mortal sin, and not wearing inappropriate clothing such as tank tops and short-shorts to mass, “but sometimes we need reminding.”  While these types of direct, catechetical instructions occur perhaps a bit too rarely in homilies these days, the fact that immodesty in dress always begins to rear its ugly head in Church during summer means that the clergy have to try the best they can to remind their congregations that God’s house is neither a beach resort nor a theme park.

In a slightly different vein, last week National Review Online ran an interesting joint article by Herb and Stacy London on why style matters, and the virtues of being well-dressed. Dr. Herbert London is the president of the Hudson Institute, and his daughter Stacy London is probably well-known to many readers as co-host of the television program “What Not To Wear”. No doubt they have differing political views, but both agree on the importance of knowing how to dress appropriately for the occasion, for one’s state in life, etc., rather than taking a devil-may-care attitude toward one’s appearance.

The issue of what to wear to church on a regular Sunday in ordinary time – rather than, say, Easter or a wedding – is something that still remains in flux, in the minds of many. On the one hand we have the argument that, because we are going into the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament, we ought to dress up. On the other, we have the argument that we should be able to dress comfortably, since we are going to Our Father’s house – and who dresses up to go visit their father?

I know fellow Catholics who always dress for church as they would to go meet the tax man, which frankly is a bit much, for my taste, and others who just roll in wearing whatever they have on, wrinkled or stained clothes and all. The right path, it seems to me, lies somewhere inbetween these two, as is true of fashion in general. This is part of trying to pursue an integrated Catholic life, where one does not compartmentalize the Faith into an “only on Sundays” box, leaving the rest of the week to act like a mad dog, nor go to the opposite of extreme of trying to be such a joyless member of the laity that one heads in the direction of a Pharisaical Christianity.

In his “Introduction to the Devout Life”, St. Francis de Sales has an interesting chapter on how to dress appropriately, which although written to a member of the gentry he intends to apply to Catholics in general. De Sales is not of a Puritanical bent, assuming that everything is supposed to be serious and dour all of the time, but nor is he a sartorial libertine who thinks that everything is fine so long as you are not living sinfully. He explains that, based on your socio-economic status and the type of activities you are attending, you should dress accordingly, and well, not trying to be either the peacock nor the wall flower.

In his chapter on fashion St. Francis concludes by writing:

For my own part I should like my devout man or woman to be the best dressed person in the company, but the least fine or splendid, and adorned, as St. Peter says, with ‘the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit.’ St. Louis said that the right thing is for every one to dress according to his position, so that good and sensible people should not be able to say they are over-dressed, or younger gayer ones that they are under-dressed. But if these last are not satisfied with what is modest and seemly, they must be content with the approbation of the elders.

Compare this to Castiglione who, nearly a century earlier, had come to virtually the same conclusion. In applauding the fashion sense of the well-dressed people he met in the Spanish Court, who eschewed flashy colors and excessive ornamentation in favor of quality fabrics and well-cut garments, Castiglione noted that “things external often bear witness to the things within.” That the secular Castiglione and the cleric De Sales could agree on this point is quite an interesting fact.

The point, of course, is more than just idle speculation about whether St. Francis and Castiglione would have told the fashionable society women of their acquaintance to wear Chanel rather than Donatella Versace (which in my opinion they probably would have.) Nor is it for me to give you specific pointers on what is and is not appropriate for church, for that should be self-explanatory. If you are not sure, go talk to an Italian or Filipino grandmother who is a regular mass-goer, and she will be more than happy to set you straight on the matter.

The assembly brings gifts to the altar at mass, in the form of bread, water, and wine, contained in beautiful vessels. However we also give our hearts as gifts, when the priest asks us to “Lift up your hearts,” and we reply, “We lift them up to the Lord.” While God loves that we offer the gift of our heart to Him, wouldn’t it be nice if we could do so with some nice wrapping paper? Not because it makes the gift look better, but because it makes it more pleasing to Him that we took the time to do so.