The reason why people wanted to be around the Saints while they were on this earth was due to the joy they exuded. It made for an attractive soul.
Their friends and acquaintances would often inquire about the origin of such joy. In part, such a disposition was due to the fact that they did not take themselves too seriously nor were they preoccupied with what others thought of them. They were truly detached from human respect. As such, they were at liberty to follow the Spirit wherever he led them. Such liberty of spirit came in handy because God would often have them do that which was foolish in the eyes of the world. Neither the desire to court human favor or the fear of losing it held them back from doing great things for the Lord.
The gift of joy and the appeal it had on so many people did not just happen automatically. It was cultivated through discipline and spiritual activity. Pope Benedict XVI said that great missions begin with prayer in the tranquility of spiritual solitude. The same can be said for great souls.
One of the most fruitful of spiritual exercises is spiritual reading. And from the wealth of Catholic spiritual literature, one book stands out as one of the finest. However, it is not widely known. An influential spiritual masterpiece of the 1500’s was a book called, “The Third Spiritual Alphabet” by Francisco de Osuna.
In Osuna’s book, three spiritual exercises come to the fore: Daily thanksgiving in prayer, especially in times of crisis, meditating on God’s gifts and the daily act of judging ourselves as it pertains to our sins and vices.
As for the first exercise, Francisco said, “People who regard themselves as very devout usually thank God after they have been freed from danger ... but the apostle teaches that the greatest virtue is to thank Our Lord God in the midst of dangers and miseries and always say: ‘Blessed be the Lord; I know I deserve worse suffering, for these misfortunes are minor compared to my sins and no hardship can match my guilt.’”
Thanking and praising God during times of danger and even after having endured a painful loss is a great grace. Like Francisco de Osuna indicated, it is all but natural to thank the Lord when we can clearly see that circumstances are unfolding to our liking. But it is when our expectations are not met or when our will is contradicted that we are tempted the most to see life’s circumstances as having no meaning.
When adversity looms large we are apt to imagine that God’s providence is retreating. Suddenly, the daily occurrences seem to be at random; outside of God’s control. Yet, the bad times are every bit as meaningful and useful for us as the good times. This is where faith must prevail over our senses. This is how we keep our peace.
Another way in which we can keep our peace and our humility is to daily remind ourselves in prayer that every gift, talent or skill we possess comes from the hand of God. St. Paul told the Philippians the following: “For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.” So many blessings are lost because the Christian forgets that his gifts are really on loan from God. In his pride, he takes them as his own. To meditate, therefore, on the gifts the Lord has given us is a praiseworthy spiritual exercise.
Again, to quote from the book, “The Third Spiritual Alphabet,” it says: “Saint Chrysostom says that we protect our blessings by meditating on them and remembering them, and this advice is for the recipient because the one who receives a gift must always remember in his heart what he has been entrusted with, whereas the donor should forget immediately what he had done.” Indeed, when we receive, we never forget that we are in debt to the Lord; but when we give to those in need we should count it as God's generosity and not our own.
The third spiritual exercise runs along the same lines but goes deeper. Here, we consider our own sins and vices. Have you ever noticed that twenty-first century people suffer greatly from hypersensitivity? Some people are just waiting to be offended for things said that have little to do with them, while others, when criticized for some fault, can't seem to get over the fact that they are burdened with imperfections just like everyone else.
The problem with this growing epidemic of hypersensitivity is that very few people are willing to correct others when others are in desperate need of correction. As Our Lord demonstrated several times, to candidly but lovingly point out a fault to a friend or co-worker can be a great service and act of charity. But few want to do it because they themselves do not like to be criticized.
One way to avoid this phenomenon of hypersensitivity and to retain your interior peace when family members, friends or colleagues criticize you is to beat them to the punch! In your daily prayers, judge and criticize yourself. Lament your sins before God and know that without him you are nothing. All of the Saints, without exception, encouraged this practice. For example, St. Paul said, “If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment; but since we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” (I Corinthians 11:31-32) This spiritual exercise is not only a preparation for our death when the Lord will judge us, but it builds up an immune system to hypersensitivity.
But for those who rarely mull over their sins in prayer, they are more apt to lose their peace when their neighbor finds fault with them. The spirit of amendment is faint in such people. As such, the judgment that awaits them will be that much more painful because they failed to take the plank out of their own eye. Pope St. Gregory the Great, in his commentary on the book of Job, said: “For, he that spares himself now in sin is not spared hereafter in punishment …”
But on the other hand, “For as righteous men, when they fix their eyes on the severity of the Judge that shall come, recall their sins to remembrance, weep for the things they have done, judge themselves severely that they be not judged …” Repentance comes with tears and those who shed tears over their own sins are hardly bothered by the unfavorable judgment of others.
These spiritual exercises of thanking the Lord and judging ourselves yields favorable results which, in the long term, will produce the two fruits of the Holy Spirit: namely, interior joy and liberty of spirit. It will also lead us to do good works and to carry out our responsibilities for the right reasons and with pure motives. And motives are made pure when we do everything for God’s sake; for his glory! This is what makes the soul attractive to those who are seeking Jesus Christ. Again, to use St. Paul’s words: “For we are the aroma of Christ for God among those who are being saved …” (II Corinthians 2:15)