Since I Cannot Impose Great Sufferings on Myself…

How much detachment is “enough”? It is a universal truth that, regardless of our state in life, we must become detached from the things of the world in themselves and attached to God (and love the things of the world with the love of God). Obviously a kind of separation from the things of the world is (materially) “easier” behind a cloister wall. And obviously fewer duties in an interconnected world free us up to personally suffer more.

This poses an interesting “problem” for lay spirituality. We may rightly observe that detachment and suffering are, in Christ, good. But, we may ask, what of the person in the world with many duties which should not fail? Isn’t there a very obvious limit to such a person’s sufferings and material detachment?

Blessed Elizabeth of the TrinityBlessed Elizabeth Catez, before entering Carmel, felt this tension. She wanted very much to become a Carmelite, but for many years she was “stuck” in the world. During this time, did she treat spiritual progress in the world as wasteful? No, she not only made the best of it but moreover achieved great sanctity as a layperson. Still, she knew that self-imposed suffering and detachment could (in some sense) only be minimal in the world, for we laypeople have many duties which prevent painful separations. Perhaps these are duties to family or in one’s job. In any case, they exist. What is one to do? In her journal (written as a young layperson), Elizabeth writes:

Since, for the moment, I cannot impose any great sufferings on myself, well, at least I can at every instant of the day immolate my will.

And that is it. If, for whatever reason (e.g., sickness or precariousness of health, family obligation, duties of employment), we cannot impose any “great” sufferings, penances, or mortifications on ourselves, well, there is another way. We can deny our will in something. We can mortify the deeper root, our will, rather than finding the sufferings to do the work for us. We can still get to the heart of the matter: detachment and love. Nothing prevents us. Certainly, if we are truly and really free to impose a suffering on ourselves, it is, in Christ, good. But yet better is the effect on our will; and in following the course of our duties and mortifying our own will, we can, like Blessed Elizabeth, achieve holiness in the midst of the everyday.


One thought on “Since I Cannot Impose Great Sufferings on Myself…

  1. As always a very thoughtful post. The most dangerous aspect of self imposed ‘mortification and penances’ is the deadly risk of strengthening our egos and missing the mark completely, as they once said of the nuns of Port Royale, ‘They are as pure as angels, but as proud as devils’. Brother Lawrence found great holiness in the kitchen, making meals, setting table, and washing dishes all in perfect abandonment to the every day, moment by moment will of God. Isn’t the real problem ‘in the world’ about discernment ?

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