I have been reading a wonderful book, Holiness for Housewives and Other Working Women by Dom Hubert van Zeller. A Benedictine who died in 1984 (b. 1905), van Zeller originally published the book in 1951. The book has staying power, and while written for women primarily, it is very rewarding reading for men as well.
While our problem these days is usually not on the end of the spectrum that involves too much mortification, van Zeller reminds us of the spiritual dangers of confusing the means with the end:
There is a particular subtlety about mortification: often it may be necessary for us to mortify the desire for mortification, and so remain (objectively and outwardly) immortified. For example, it is better to obey your spiritual director when he tells you not to fast than to fast against his advice. It is better to have a fire in your room and thank God for it than to deny yourself the warm fire and praise yourself for it. Mortification, like prayer, is one means of expressing love of God. But if God indicates, either by the duties of your state or by the commands of another or by the condition of your health, that He can be more perfectly loved by a service that is less explicit than that given in penance and prayer, then submission is to be preferred to the acts of positive praise. After all, love is the end of our endeavor. Penance is only one of the signs. A love that is exacted from the soul by a suffering imposed by God is better than a love that is expressed by a mortification chosen by the soul (p. 54).
"Love is the end of our endeavor." Beautifully put. Mortification is one of many means for achieving that end. Given that one of the most significant sources of evil in our world is that we have confused the means and the ends, van Zeller is giving us an important reminder.
I had an opportunity to put van Zeller's advice into practice this week. In my life, I have not taken sufficient advantage of the great gift that is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Since my return to the Church about ten years ago, I have generally gone to confession in recent years twice each year--during Advent and Lent. One of my Lenten resolutions this year was to get in the habit of going to confession monthly. A friend of mine goes weekly, and I have been thinking that perhaps I should aspire to that goal. This past Monday I planned to go to confession; my last confession had been two weeks prior to that. I was driving to my parish, saying the Divine Mercy Chaplet in preparation for confession, when I discerned that it would be more efficacious for my spiritual development at that point if I went home instead to spend some additional time with my family. Since I generally do not get home before 7:00 PM during the week (and that is when I leave on time, which I often do not do), I do not get to eat dinner with my family. But Monday, when I arrived home at 7:00 PM, my wife and kids were just sitting down to dinner, so I was able to eat dinner with them and spend more time with them that night. What a blessing for all of us that night was.
God was keeping me mindful of "the duties of my state" and that "love is the end of our endeavor."
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