That’s exactly what happened to Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, who—at seventeen years old—entered the Jesuits in 1585. He had been raised among relatives who were mostly concerned with attaining and sustaining political power. Without religious companions as a boy, yet with a tremendous desire for holiness, he had pieced together his own religious routine:
- fasting, though he suffered kidney disease
- attempting to pray for 1 hour without distraction, which in itself took several hours
- avoiding women (even his mother), fearing his temptation to lust
- avoiding anyone altogether, fearing his hot temper
- scourging himself to a bloody mess
- not wishing anyone to see even his foot undressed
… and various devotions.
I daresay we Catholics sometimes feel ‘expected’ to demonstrate ‘awe and wonder’ at saints like Aloysius, whose prayer lives involved intense self-abuse under the guise of penance, and other such extreme behaviors. While reading the life of St. Aloysius, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief once his Jesuit superiors told him to…
- eat more
- only pray at scheduled times
- take recreation
- distract his mind
…etc. But while discussing this with some friends at Afternoon Tea last Thursday, I asked, “Why would his superiors have told him to pray less?” No one seemed to have a response.
Why would anyone tell a saint to pray less?
I was able to answer from personal experience. Obviously, I’m not a saint(!), but I do wrestle with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, particularly in religious matters. At first, I was very embarrassed by this struggle, and resisted seeking help. (After all, our culture preaches the ‘virtue’ of self-reliance.) After submitting myself in prayer, however, the Holy Spirit convicted me that I needed to seek outside direction.
Whether someone has a psychological struggle like mine or not, we all need guidance and direction from people other than ourselves. Even the saints. Even someone as holy as Aloysius, whose confessor (St. Robert Bellarmine) believed he had never committed a mortal sin in his entire life. In Aloysius’ case, he needed direction in maintaining a healthy life. We see a remarkable change after he submitted to his superiors: spiritual maturity, peace, and ecstatic joy.
Dear reader, isn’t it true that when we rely on ourselves for spiritual direction, we become self-centered and lost—even when our intentions are good, like Aloysius’ were?
Just one or two generations ago, it became ‘hip’ to exchange religion for nameless spirituality. What’s the difference? Religion requires authority. Families began breaking apart. Fast-forward to today: We as a society suffer from focus on self, what is ‘right for me’ and ‘best for me’. We are our own decision-makers. This is not to hail “The Good Ol’ Days”, but to highlight the dangerous results of cutting ourselves off from A.) community, and B.) spiritual authority. We have seen the effects; self-reliance, self-centeredness, relativism, etc., equal chaos and imbalance.
Even Christ our God submitted to those who were in authority over him! Look at his obedience to his parents, and especially his submission as a victim on Calvary:
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” (Hebrews 5:8-9)
What are you doing to seek direction from others?
Whether you struggle with praying – or – working – or – eating – or – sleeping – or – talking – or – trusting … too much or too little—truly submit yourself to the Holy Spirit. Talk with Him about your struggles, your pain, your fears, your wounds. Ask where He is directing you to find assistance and direction. Listen. Seek people who have been given the spiritual authority to direct you.
Like Aloysius, may we all find the peace and ecstatic joy ,which comes from the beautiful yet challenging virtue of obedience.