Temptation and Spiritual Discernment in Ignatius of Loyola and John of the Cross

Temptation and Spiritual Discernment

in Ignatius of Loyola

and John of the Cross


by Segundo Galilea


The practice of discernment is as old as Christian spirituality. To discern is to distinguish between good and evil in order to choose the good. It is to identify the will of God in order to follow it. In this sense discernment is applicable to any believer, whether or not this person has a spirituality, and whether it be profound or in its beginning stages. In this general form, discernment is often practiced instinctively according to the light of one’s own conscience.


There is, nevertheless, a more specific form of discernment particularly applicable to our concern: the subtle, deceitful temptations that lead to mediocrity. The tradition calls this form “discernment of spirit.” Here one is dealing not so much with explicitly distinguishing between good and evil, but rather with distinguishing the good spirit from the bad spirit, that is to say, distinguishing what is a call from God and what is temptation. This differs from the discernment of good and evil in that, even with good will, the two spirits are easy to confuse, since on this level (when dealing with spiritual persons) the temptations are subtle; at first sight they do not seem bad and could even be taken as inspirations from God.


The discernment of spirits is much more complex than any other type of discernment. It requires experience, sound doctrine, and counsel. This discernment has a long tradition in Christian spirituality; it is present, to varying degrees, in the teaching of all the great mystics and spiritual masters, beginning with the desert fathers and others. But not all of them have attempted to analyze the theme in a systematic way, nor have they always excelled as masters in the discernment of spirits.


Ignatius and John of the Cross complement one another, but the character of their mysticism differs. Ignatian mysticism is oriented to apostolic service; his discernment seeks to arrive at a form of commitment of “making a choice (election) to serve Christ” in His Church. Making a choice is essential in Ignatian discernment and the key to his Exercises. Sanjuanist mysticism, on the other hand, is oriented to communion with God and neighbor through faith, hope and love. Fray John is a contemplative mystic. His discernment is not directed as much toward orienting and confirming a way of making a choice for Christ as it is toward purifying and developing a choice already made, thus the differences and the complementarity. Ignatius is more universal. His doctrine of discernment is as appropriate for those who want to begin to follow Christ as for those advanced in spirituality (in principle his Spiritual Exercises are appropriate for all who want to reform their lives). John of the Cross directs himself to those who are already on the way of Christian perfection; he assumes the first conversion and choice of a way of life. In fact, most of his writings are directed to members of the reformed Carmel. To be sure, his doctrine has universal applications; in principle, though, his writings are not as well suited to those who are just beginning, even less to those who require a first conversion.


Still, both mystics have the same objective; a discernment of spirits that permits the soul to adopt attitudes and decisions leading toward a greater surrender to God through love. And both mystics present discernment as a process of illumination, in which availability for loving and serving God is purified and confirmed. Because of the different styles of their writings (the Exercises of Ignatius are schematic, in the form of aids for the director; the major prose writings of Fray John are treatises), their methods of explaining the process and the doctrine of discernment differ, Ignatius presents a system of “Rules” in pedagogical order (14 in the first week of the Exercises and 8 in the second), in addition to the “times and ways of making a choice of a way of life” that characterize the second week and add valuable criteria for discerning the will of God. On the other hand, John of the Cross’s doctrine of discernment is not synthesized as such, but scattered throughout his writings, as he analyzes the subtle defects and temptations of “spiritual people,” above all in his treatise The Dark Night. For the Carmelite saint, the “nights” correspond to the illumination and purification of inordinate attachments, thus implying a process of discernment. (Fray John’s “night,” however, corresponds to the Ignatian “desolation” only in some aspects as we will later see.)


Both mystics, in the end, also concur in the fact that their doctrine about discernment of spirits proceeds basically from their own personal experience. In this, Ignatius is particularly transparent: his rules for discernment and moments of making a choice correspond to his personal life experiences, historically identifiable during the first stages of his conversion of life.


Criteria for Discerning Temptation


The criteria of both mystics for discerning what comes from God and what is temptation agree to a great extent, although their modes of presentation differ in details. Furthermore, they both add original contributions that enrich and mutually complement one another. In Ignatius these criteria of discernment are explicitly identified in the book of the Exercises; in John of the Cross they are present throughout all his writings in a more implicit way (almost never uses the term “discernment,” for example).


The Need for Inner Freedom. Provisionally, both agree in a fundamental criterion: Discerning the good spirit from the bad (temptation) requires the disposition of interior freedom, a progressive interior liberation from sins and deliberate faults, from inordinate affections and attachments, from passions and tendencies that customarily obscure and condition discernment in each person. (This interior freedom corresponds to the “indifference” of Ignatius and the “nothing” of John of the Cross.)


The grace of interior freedom in order to be able to respond with love and perseverance to the choice that God asks is one of the foundations of the Ignatian Exercises. In the “Introductory Observations,” no.1, for example, he writes: “we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.” The same theme appears in no. 23, “First Principle and Foundation.” Again, in his counsels for making “a good and correct choice of a way of life” (Second Week), Ignatius wants to ensure interior freedom in the moments of making a choice and a holy objectivity and indifference.


John of he Cross follows another method on the road to this interior freedom: He analyzes in spiritual persons the subtle and often unconscious temptations and enslavements of the soul that hinder a greater freedom to love. At the same time he proposes the manner of behavior for the soul to receive illumination from God, and thus to discern and purify this subtle servitude; whereas, Ignatius places the accent on making a choice for the service of God. Fray John places it on communion with God. These are the two complementary dimensions of Christian mysticism. We read in the first book of the Dark Night (Chapters to 7) that the characteristic quality of these imperfections and temptations is that the spiritual person does not perceive them as such; but rather it seems that he or she is doing well. The Carmelite saint sees in this typical form of the deceitful influence of the devil. This can lead to a secret spiritual pride and complacency in the spiritual person’s Christian practices; a desire to have more and more pleasures and sensory experiences; or to delight in them, searching for one’s own gratification; or wanting to appear spiritual before others; or becoming discouraged and irritable when one does not “feel” favor; or the tendency as well to compare oneself with others. For John of the Cross, discernment and the overcoming of these temptations that threaten interior freedom require the purifying and illuminating action of God in the soul (the night of sense and of spirit).


Evil Under the Guise of Good. The two mystics agree perfectly in another fundamental criterion: The most subtle and dangerous temptation in spiritual persons is that which happens under the appearance of good. By this means the devil deceives and obscures discernment. Thus in the fourth Ignatian rule, no. 332 (Second Week of the Exercises), Ignatius write, “It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. . . . Afterward, he will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs.” And John of the Cross in his Precautions (no. 10) says: “It should be noted that among the many wiles of the devil to deceive spiritual persons, the most common is deceiving them under the appearance of good rather than of evil, for he already knows that they will scarcely choose a recognized evil.”


Consolation and Desolation. This fact underscores the importance of taking into accounts other more particular criteria pertaining to the discernment of spirits. Among these, the criterion of “consolation-desolation” occupies an eminent place in Ignatius’s doctrine. In one way or another, this criterion is present in almost all the “rules for the discernment of spirits,” whether in the First Week or the Second. The criterion is essentially this: What comes from God causes consolation in the soul; what comes from the evil spirit, from temptation, causes desolation. Consolation is peace, inspiration toward good, intensity of faith, confidence and love toward God. These signs of consolation are not always accompanied by relief felt in the senses. What gives consolation is not necessarily what pleases the person more; peace and inspiration toward the good can at times be accompanied by aridity and interior sacrifice. Desolation, on the other hand, is the state contrary to consolation (confusion, anxiety, sadness, lukewarmness, etc.). Equally, the signs of desolation can at times be accompanied by sensory pleasures; desolation and consolation are experiences rooted in the depth of the soul, not in pure sensibility.


John of the Cross, on this topic, takes a different path, although convergent and complementary. His point of departure is not that of consolation-desolation in the process of spiritual discernment, but rather that of the “nights” of “the aridities and trials of the dark nights of the soul.” For Fray John, the night is essentially the presence of the action of God, a process in which the soul must keep itself faithful and at peace, in spite of all. (In this sense the night has affinities with Ignatian consolation and not with desolation) The night is an experience of profound purifications of spirit by aridities and trials, and what the Carmelite saint seeks in his doctrine is to help souls discern if this experience of the night is fulfilling the sanctifying objective that God wants for it, or if the devil is taking advantage of the aridity to make these persons believe that they are evil because they do not “feel” the things of God, and thereby to carry the soul off on the road to discouragement and mediocrity. That is to say, John’s goal is to discern if the night is rooted in consolation or moving toward desolation, to use Ignatian language. The criterion of John of the Cross for discerning if one is in the night that comes from God or in the desolation of the evil spirit is that, in the former, one maintains the fundamental choice and faithfulness to God in all aspects of the practice of Christian life; and in the second, conversely, faithfulness progressively declines. In the night there is no sensible consolation, but certainly fidelity; what is important is not what is felt, but what is coming into being (see especially Ascent Prologue, 6).


But it can happen as well that at the beginning the evil spirit disguises himself with consolation and by that means carries the soul off to desolation. Ignatius and Fray John both approach these cases with a similar criterion of discernment: The way of discerning true or false consolation is by the fruits that ultimately prevail in the soul, and whether or not they belong to the spirit of God.


Thus Ignatius in the third and fifth rules of the Second Week (nos. 331 and 333) insists: “The good angel and the evil spirit can give consolation to a soul, but for a quite different purpose. The good angel consoles for the progress of the soul that it may advance and rise to what is more perfect. The evil spirit consoles for purposes that are contrary, and that afterward he might draw the soul to his own perverse intentions and wickedness. …[And so] it may end in what weakens the soul, or disquiets it; or by destroying the peace, tranquility, and quiet that it had before, it may cause disturbance to the soul.” And John of the Cross (II Ascent II, 6) notes that the communications that appear devout but come from the evil spirit “cause in the spirit either agitation, dryness, and vanity or presumption. Yet diabolical communications are not as efficacious in doing harm as God’s communications are in doing good. For the diabolical communications can only arouse the first movements without being able to move the will any further if it is unwilling to be moved…. The divine communications, however, penetrate the soul, move the will to love, and leave their effect within.” Thus the complementarity of the two saints is evident once more in the doctrine of discernment of consolations, desolations, and the nights.


Consulting Others. One last basic criterion in which both saints agree: personal discernment often runs the risk of error even in using the traditional criteria because of the deceitful nature of temptations and our lack of interior freedom. Therefore, in the process of discerning matters of evident importance one must consult with competent people and ask their advice. At the same time this helps individuals confirm for themselves the course taken and the decisions made (for Ignatius, confirmation of the choice discerned and made is very important). John of the Cross says: “It should be noted that among the many wiles of the devil to deceive spiritual persons, the most common is deceiving them under the appearance of good. To do the right thing, and be safe in such a matter, you ought to take the proper counsel” (Precautions, 10). Ignatius agrees: “When the enemy of our human nature tempts a just soul with his wiles and seductions, he earnestly desires that they be received secretly and kept secret. Bit if one manifests them to a confessor, or to some other spiritual person who understands his deceits and malicious designs, the evil one is very much vexed. For he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking once his evident deceits have been revealed” (Exercises, First Week, Rules for Discernment, no. 326).


This last criterion is ecclesial: it means having recourse to the discernment process to people who represent the church for us. This same perspective will come to Ignatius later in writing his “Rules for Thinking with the Church.”




In summary for Ignatius and John of the Cross the discernment of temptations characteristic of spiritual people is equivalent to discerning the good from the evil spirit. As a fundamental condition, both insist on interior freedom from disordered attachments of the will (“indifference” for the Jesuit, the “nothing” for the Carmelite). This presupposed, both adopt the basic criterion of consolation-desolation (understood as profound and lasting states of the soul and not merely transitory and purely sensible) as signs of the good and evil spirit respectively. and in order to confirm the discernment and avoid the danger of subjectivism, both stress the importance of verifying what is discerned with competent spiritual people. Their message remains as important for us today as it was for the church of their own time.



Helping Hand


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The First Blind Guide: John of the Cross and Spiritual Direction

The First Blind Guide:

John of the Cross and Spiritual Direction


Thomas H. Green


Introduction: Discovering John of the Cross


In my 40 years as a religious and a pray-er, and my almost 28 years as a priest and spiritual director, I have come to value St. John of the Cross as one of the truly great directors—perhaps the greatest—in the history of Christian spirituality. It was not always so. During the early years of my Jesuit formation, John’s writings were considered “mystical” in a way that made them un-Jesuit. In fact, they were readily available to us—being confined to a locked section of the library that we young Jesuits referred to as “hell” and more or less (it seemed) in the category of Gibbons, Voltaire and others on the Index of Prohibited Writings.


When during my philosophy years—and because my own prayer was beginning to be dark and dry—I did obtain permission to read John’s Accent of Mount Carmel, the result was trauma. I recall telling my spiritual director that, if John was correct about the nada and the need to renounce all our desires, then it seemed to me as if our whole Jesuit life of involvement in the world was on a false foundation. The director’s response was kind but challenging: perhaps , he said, my anxiety was a sign that I was not yet ready for John. I obeyed his suggestion and gave up my reading of the Ascent. But a nagging question lingered: What did it mean to be “ready”? When would I be ready? When would I be able to see the teachings of John and Ignatius of Loyola, both canonized saints, as integral, and therefore compatible, parts of the same Christian vision of prayer and holiness?


I don’t remember precisely when I returned to John of the Cross. What I do recall is that the darkness and dryness persisted (as they have, essentially, till now) and that, by my theology years, I had found in John the strength to persevere in the darkness and to hope that it was all God’s work. At the same time, it became progressively clearer to me (particularly when I made retreat at the Trappist monastery near my home in Rochester, NY, shortly after ordination) that my own vocation was to be a Jesuit—and that in some mysterious way my two “callings” were compatible.


Just this year on the 400th anniversary of John’s death and the 500th of Ignatius’s birth, I was able to put into writing—in Drinking From a Dry Well (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1991)-the compatibility I have discovered. It is now clear to me that John and Ignatius are truly kindred spirits, possessed by the same vision of being free for God and his will, although they differ (and this I think was the cause of my earlier anxiety) in that Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises writes for generous beginners, whereas John presupposes these beginnings and writes for the “proficient” or “mature.”


The Value and the Danger of Spiritual Direction


John’s Own Example: Compassionate but Challenging. St. John’s final years were troubled and marked by persecution, and as a consequence most of his letters have been lost, but the picture that emerges from those that remain is of a compassionate but challenging guide for souls seeking to grow in the Lord. As the fox warned the Little Prince in St. Exupery’s classic tale, John felt forever responsible for those he has helped to “tame.” He says as much in a letter to Madre Ana de Jesus dated July 6, 1591 (less than 6 months before his death), when she expressed her fear that the troubles in the Order would deprive her of his invaluable guidance: “I still fear they will make me go to Segovia…. [But] leaving or staying, wherever or however things may come to pass, I will neither forget nor neglect you …because truly I desire your good forever.”


In the “General Introduction” to Kavanaugh/Rodriguez translation of John’s Collected Works, Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, says of him: Sinners too found it easy to manifest their conscience to him. “The holier a confessor, “he said, “the less fear one should have of him.” In directing others John stressed the life of faith, hope and charity, understanding that man’s good consists especially in interior acts, not in exterior acts. Thus he was known as a moderator of penances, and in different monasteries of the Reform he ordered that the practice of penance (so severe in those times) be kept within bounds lest they degenerate in the “penance of beasts.“


Thus John preached moderation in everything except love and generosity. As Kavanaugh notes though, “his deepest concern was for those who in their spiritual life were suffering,” especially those undergoing the various stages of what he called the “dark night.” It is they whom he has principally in mind in his references to spiritual direction. And in these references we can note three main themes: The value of spiritual direction; what a desire for spiritual direction reveals of the pray-er’s spirit; and the danger of poor direction. Let us briefly consider each of these in turn.


The Value of Direction: In the Prologue to the Ascent of Mount Carmel, John asks why souls do not advance in spirituality. He answers: “Sometimes they misunderstand themselves and are without suitable and alert directors who will show them the way to the summit” (Ascent Prologue, 3). He returns to this question in Book II, Chapter 22 of the Ascent, where he says of those experiencing apparently supernatural revelations and graces that they need “human counsel and direction,” and should not rely only on themselves in judging divine communications. As he goes on to say, “Whatever is received through supernatural means (in whatever manner) should immediately be told clearly, integrally and simply to one’s spiritual director” (II A 22, 16). Why? He gives three reasons. First, to completely confirm the “effect, light, strength and security of many divine communications” (Ibid.). Second, because “a soul ordinarily needs instruction pertinent to its experience in order to be guided through the dark night of spiritual denudation and poverty” (Ibid., 17). And finally, “for the sake of humility, submission and mortification” (Ibid., 18), for confirmation, for instruction, for humility. While John’s specific concern here is “divine communication,” the three values he describes would be applicable to any sincere pray-er desirous of growing in union with God, particularly to one who has begun to experience the purification of the dark night.


The Desire for Direction as the Mark of a Good Spirit. St. Ignatius Loyola tells us that the devil loves secrecy (like a false lover), since he can easily have his way with one who is not open to a good director. Similarly, John tells us in the Dark Night, Book I, Chapter 12 that the desire to submit to a spiritual guide is a sign of a submissive, obedient spirit in the dark night. Since she is so aware of her own wretchedness, her one desire is to be directed and told what to do “by anyone at all.” Of course, John realizes it would be dangerous to be directed by “anyone at all,” as the rest of this article will make clear. But his point is that hard-headedness and self-willed spirit are very dangerous in the life of prayer.


He expresses this point adequately and in great detail earlier in the Dark Night, when speaking of the imperfections of pride that must be purified in beginners. He contrasts such persons with “souls who are advancing in perfection.” Of the latter he says, “These souls humbly and tranquilly long to ne taught by anyone who might be a help to them….! They are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so” (I N2, 7). Moreover, “they have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and their deeds,” rather than by one who will canonize them or be in awe of their virtue (Ibid.). Whenever I read these lines I think of St. Teresa of Avila, who says that John did her more good than any of her many directors—precisely, it seems, because he was firm with her very strong character, and was never intimidated by her holiness or by the fact that he was 27 years younger than she was. For John, Teresa’s desire to be treated lovingly but firmly (hard as this was for one with such a strong character) must have been among the surest sign of the genuineness of her spirituality.


The Danger of Poor Direction. Unfortunately, the story is not as simple as this might suggest. There are two human beings involved in the work of direction: the directee and the director. And John insists that the pray-er must exercise great care in choosing a spiritual director. For, as he says in the Ascent, a spiritual director can cause great harm in times of consolation by his or her lack of discretion in giving too much importance to the directee’s “visions,” by not guiding her to humility, and by giving her poor instruction because of his own fascination with revelations and preternatural phenomena (I A 18). None of these extraordinary experiences John insists, are necessary to holiness, and all of them can be produced by the devil or by an overactive imagination. The way to perfection is, for John, always a dark way. Hence such directors err by their failure to “disencumber and divest” their directees of all desire for visions and other “mystical” experiences.


Similarly, many directors are “a hindrance and harm rather than a help” in times of darkness and desolation, because they themselves “have neither enlightenment nor experience of these ways.” Some say “all of this is due to melancholia or depression, or to temperament, or to some hidden wickedness.” And “others tell him he is falling back,” thus confirming his fear and belief that somehow he really has lost or offended God. Such directors, like Job’s comforters, merely increase the suffering and distress of the soul in the dark night (Ascent Prologue, 4-5).


In the next section we see that this concern for the harm done by inept or self-centered directors is one of John’s major preoccupations in the Living Flame of Love. Before turning to that classic discussion, though, let us note John’s positive conclusion in the Prologue to the Ascent. The good director, he say, realizes that the dark night is not a time for harshness or recrimination on the part of the director. Rather it is a time “for leaving these persons alone in the purgation God is working in them, a time to give comfort and encouragement that they may desire to endure this suffering as long as God will” (Ibid., 5). We might summarize John’s teaching by saying that the good director, like the Holy Spirit whose instrument he or she is, is the strengthener and consoler of the pray-er in her journey to union with God. There may be a need at times for the challenging word, but directors must have great sensitivity to recognize this need. They must be, in St. Ignatius’s famous image (Exercise, no. 15), like the balance of a scale, leaning one way or the other only to keep the soul centered on God her Lord.


The First Blind Guide


The Context. In the Living Flame of Love, Stanza 3, Section 27, St. John of the Cross begins a lengthy digression that has become a classic in the literature of prayer—and in which we find a systematic development of all the themes called from the scattered references above. He has been speaking of the way the pray-er moves through the various stages of the journey toward union with God or “spiritual marriage”, and he has noted the very few perverse, in this life, to the end of this unitive journey. This leads to say:


Oh what an excellent place this is to advise souls on whom God bestows these delicate unctions to watch what they are doing, and into whose hands they are committing themselves, that they might not turn back! This does not pertain to our subject, yet the compassion and grief that comes to my heart in seeing souls fall back…is so great that I do not think it improper here to warn them….


John starts his discussion with a note of reassurance: “In the first place it should be known that if a person is seeking God, his Beloved is seeking him much more” (F3, 28). Dark as our prayer may seem, we should be consoled by the knowledge that (as I have expressed it) the very desire for God is a clear sign that God is present. For we could not even desire God if he were not at work in us, “No one can come to me unless the Father draw him” (Jn 6:44, 65). What then must we do in this darkness? John of the Cross puts it very simply: “The soul, then, should advert that God is the principle agent in this matter, and that He acts as the blind man’s guide who must lead it by the hand to the place it does not know how to reach” (Ibid., 29).


“The blind man’s guide.” This is the role of God in the dark night. Hence the prayer “should use all its principal care in watching so as not to place any obstacle in the way of its guide.” And how would it place an obstacle in the Lord’s way? Only “by allowing itself to be guided by another blind man,” and who is this blind guide who can lead the soul astray? There are three, John says, “who can draw it off the road: the spiritual director, the devil, and the soul itself” (Ibid.).


Thus John begins his famous discussion of the three blind guides who seek to lead the Soul astray in the dark night. What is remarkable is the comparative amount of space he gives to each. He treats of the second blind guide the devil, in just three paragraphs (Ibid., 63-65), and the third, oneself, in only two (Ibid., 66-67). The devil seduces the pray-er with the “bait” of sensible consolation and “some clouds of knowledge” when it should now be content to abandon all its own activity. “Abandon your activity, for if this helped you, when you were beginners, to deny the world and ourselves, now…it is a serious obstacle.” John values the meditative ways by which beginners come to know God. He would have little sympathy with the advice, sometimes heard today, that even beginners can simply “center” on a God they do not yet know. We humans can only love what we know.


Nonetheless the time comes—and this is the situation of the pray-er to whom John speaks here—when the ways of beginners are no longer suitable and must be abandoned. The devil will try to keep us to these beginner’s ways. And the soul itself (its own “third blind guide”) will also interfere with God’s work if, thinking it is doing nothing in prayer, it strains to perform acts with its faculties (understanding, memory and will). John compares such a person to a child kicking and crying “in order to walk when his mother wants to carry him,” or to a person moving a painting “back and forth while the artist is at work” on it (Ibid., 66). What should we do? In the next paragraph John tells us that we advance much faster when carried by God than when walking by ourselves—even though we don’t feel God’s pace or sense God’s movement. Hence, once the darkness of prayer sets in, we must simply abandon ourselves into the divine hands.


The Worst Blind Guide. But how do we know that the time has come to abandon all our own efforts at prayer? How do we recognize that sensible consolations, helpful for beginners, are no longer desirable and are the devil’s attempts to seduce us? This is where we need good direction. And because such direction is so crucial to interior growth, John devotes about 32 paragraphs to the spiritual director as the first, and worst, blind guide. These paragraphs (Ibid., 30-62) are the ones I reread every year to keep myself honest in the crucial work of spiritual direction. In considering the main points John makes in this important section, I would suggest the following outline: The Danger of Inexperienced Direction (30-45); The Holy Spirit as The Director (46-52); A Portrait of the Blind Guide (53-58); and finally, A Portrait of the Guide with Good Vision (59-62). Let us say a word about each in turn.


The Danger of Inexperienced Direction. John’s main point in the opening paragraphs (30-31) of his discussion of the first blind guide is that an inexperienced director, because he or she does not understand the ways of God, is likely to keep the directee to baser, beginner’s ways—when the Lord is leading her to growth and purification in the dark night. To remedy this, John presents a brief “catechism” of the normal ways of interior growth. He contrsts (32) the beginner’s state, when meditative and affective prayer are right and proper, with the “state of contemplation,” when the soul must let go of all these attempts to “do something,” and simply learn to submit gracefully to the interior purgation that the Lord is working in darkness (33-34). Even that “loving attentiveness,” which John recommends in the Ascent to the soul no longer able to meditate but drawn simply to be present to the Lord in love, is now impossible. It must be surrendered—to be used “only when he does not feel himself placed in this solitude, or inner idleness or oblivion or spiritual listening” (35).


Characteristically, John cites several scriptural passages in support of his argument (36-38), and then he explains (39) why this “holy idleness and solitude” is an inestimable blessing despite all appearances. It withdraws us from all that is not God (“a weariness with all creatures and with the world”) and draws us to solitude—to a total centering on him. Since this work of love is very subtle, it is scarcely perceptible either to the pray-er or to the director.


Hence the Danger. The insensitive director agrees with the pray-er that she is wasting her time, and so encourages her to force acts of meditation and devotion to avoid the wasteful “doing nothing.” In this way the careless or inexperienced director does great harm by destroying the soul’s recollection and causing her distraction (42-44). Unfortunately such directors are, John says, the norm rather than the exception: Scarcely any spiritual director will be found who does not cause this harm in souls God is beginning to recollect in this manner.” Such directors are “like a blacksmith who knows no more than how to hammer and pound with the faculties” (43). The result? “Thus all the soul’s efforts are like hammering the horseshoe instead of the nail, and on the one hand he does harm, and on the other he receives no profits” (45).


The Holy Spirit is the Director. The work of God is always mysterious from our human perspective. And at this time, when the dark night sets in and love no longer follows on knowledge, the Spirit’s ways are far beyond our normal human mode of thinking and acting. It seems to us that we should be busy forming ourselves into good instruments, and sensitizing ourselves to the needs of the world we are called to serve. But good directors must remember that theirs is primarily a work of discerning sensitivity to what the Lord is doing in the directee. They should recall that the principle guide is the Holy Spirit, and that we are merely instruments for directing “according to the spirit God gives each one” (46). If directors cannot recognize this spirit in their directees, at least they should “leave them alone and not bother them.”


Positively, though, a good director faced with a directee experiencing the dark night (or “dry well”) can help much by leading her to a greater “solitude, tranquility and freedom of spirit.” In this way, as noted earlier (38), the director cooperates best with the Holy Spirit, by disencumbering the soul, by bringing it to solitude and “idleness” even with respect to spiritual things. The whole process (if inactivity can be called a process) is profoundly mysterious. But “by their fruits you shall know them.” If the pray-er does as the spirit asks, it is “impossible that God fail to do His part by communicating Himself to it secretly and silently”— like the sun rising and shining on clear ground (46-47).


In the following paragraphs (48-53) John explains this good fruit by recapitulating his teaching, masterfully and lengthily expounded in Books II and III of the Ascent, on the purification and transformation of the three faculties of the soul: the intellect, which now knows and approaches God only by faith (48); the will, which now lives by a love infused by God, who himself makes acts of love in her, and not by a love arising from her understanding of the good (49-51); and the memory, no longer dependent on the “forms and figures” of “meditation and imaginative reflection,” but on a hope directly induced by the Spirit of God (52-53).


A Portrait of the Blind Guide. Having explained, as best he can, why this “holy idleness” is really the will of the Holy Spirit for the mature pray-er, John returns to the trouble caused by blind and insensitive directors. Because they themselves have not progressed beyond discursive meditation and “feelings of fervor,” they cause great anxiety and serious harm to their more mature directees. They themselves do not know what spirit is, not how God himself is “making the natural acts of the faculties fail,” since they are not “capable of spirit” (53-54). Some “err with good will,” since they do not know any better (56); others, even more inexcusable, act out of vanity—refusing to let the directee out of their hands even when another style of direction is clearly called for (57).


This last remark suggests that a director might well be helpful to a pray-er at a certain stage of her growth, and yet not be suitable at a later stage. For this reason I have found it very important to give my directees full freedom to change directors whenever they feel it would be helpful to do so. This can cause pain, of course, but it is the only reasonable attitude, if our primary concern is truly the good and growth of the directee. As John notes, even those directors who err with good will and out of ignorance are still culpable, “for rudely meddling in something they do not understand, instead of leaving matters to one who does understand” (56).


What does this mean in the concrete? To explain the different stages of good direction, John uses the analogy (57-58) fashioning wood into a statue. At various stages we need a hewer, a carver, a “perfecter and polisher,” and finally a painter and finisher. The hewer’s role is “guiding the soul to contempt of the world and to mortification of its appetites”: and that of the carver is “introducing it to holy meditations.” These are the stages when the soul is actively using its own faculties in prayer. Thereafter, the work is God’s and the good director knows enough not to interfere. “No man can do mmore with the statue than what he knows how to do, and were he to try to do more than this, he would ruin it” (57).


Conclusion: A Portrait of the Guide with Good Vision


Jogn of the Cross’s specific concern, in this famous passage on the “three blind guides,” is for the pray-er experiencing the dark night of contemplation, but his essential teaching is applicable at every stage in the work of direction. This can be seen most clearly in the last paragraph of his discussion of the first blind guide, the diorector. In section 59 he tells us what not to do, and in section 61 what we should do.


First of all, he says, realize that “God leads each one along different paths.” Hence, don’t “tyrannize souls and deprive them of their freedom, and judge for yourself the breadth of the evangelical doctrine.” Live in awe of the mystery of God working his unique design in each human being. Don’t, we might say, judge the whole elephant from the one small part that you—the Buddha’s blind man—are able to touch. Also, don’t be jealous and possessive, like quarrelsome married couples (as John himself puts it), :if by chance you learn that one of [your directees] has consulted another.” The director cannot posses the soul of his or her directee. I cannot demand total allegiance to me.


As I have long realized, the prayer life of even those directees I know best and most deeply are still profoundly mysterious to me. I well recall the time when one of my earliest and best directors, the Jesuit priest and philoso[her Norris Clake, was transferred from the philosophate to Fordham University. We scholastics had a farewell party for him. and when it came time for him to say a few words, he said something like this: “I would like to thank you for many things these past years. But most of all I would like to thank those who trusted me to be their spiritual director. They were really sayinf to me, “I do not understand myself. So I would like you to journey with me to the most private and personal core of my being. Perhaps together we can make sense of it.” And that is a tremendous act of trust. No matter how long I live or what I might accomplish, that is the greatest compliment anyone will ever pay me.”

Fr. Norris Clarke’s words touched me deeply at that time, almost 40m years ago. And I am sure they capture the essence of John of the Cross’s teaching on spiritual direction. As I have lived my own life as a director, and countless people have paid me that “greatest compliment,” I have become ever more aware of the sacred responsibility involved. “Set my people free,” the Lord says. “Free from themselves and their fears and attachments. Free from you, the director. Free from all that is not God. Free to journey into the darkness that is light—free to find me, their Love.” That, in essence, is St. John of the Cross’s classic teaching on spiritual direction.



  1. All quotations from John of the Cross in this article are taken from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodrigues, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC ICS Publications, 1979)




Helping Hand


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The Fellowship of His Sufferings’: The Example of Elizabeth of the Trinity

The Fellowship of His Sufferings’:

The Example of Elizabeth of the Trinity


By Jennifer Moorcroft


To discuss suffering is not easy; it is perhaps the thorniest issue with which we have to grapple in our lives. However, Elizabeth of the Trinity has valuable things to say to us on the subject. She died of Addison’s disease, at that time incurable, and the last two years of her life were a painful and agonizing climb to her own Calvary. What she had to say was forged on the fiery anvil of her own experience.


Why Me?


We frequently ask this question: Why me? Is God punishing me in this sickness? Or if it is someone else when we know and love someone living a good life; why should the innocent suffer? How can a good God send sickness and tragedy?


Suffering is not God’s will for us, but a consequence of sin. We live in a fallen world in which sickness, pain and adversity are an inevitable part. Jesus was filled with compassion for those who were suffering, and much of His ministry was taken up with healing. But at the same time, He has invested suffering with something valuable and precious. He actually took on Himself our pain and sickness, and voluntarily died an agonizing death for us. In doing so, He transformed suffering, and He asks us all to take up our own cross daily and follow Him. In this context, far from being a sign of His displeasure, the invitation to have a share in His suffering is a sign of His love for us.


During her life in Carmel, and especially after her own health began to deteriorate, Elizabeth wrote letters to Madame Angles, a close family fried, in which she explored many aspects of the mystery of suffering. This woman had been traumatized by being given insufficient anesthetic during surgery and was facing the prospect of yet another operation. Elizabeth tried to reassure Madame Angles that her suffering was a gift from God: “I see the Master is treating you like a ‘bride’ and sharing His Cross with you. There is something so great, so divine in suffering! It seems to me that if the blessed in Heaven could envy anything, it would be that treasure.” (L 207)


Obedience not Sacrifice


If the invitation to have a share in Christ’s sufferings is an expression of God’s love for us, then embracing whatever cross God sends us is an expression of our love for Him. However, sickness and pain remain as evil and should not be sought for their own sake. Elizabeth was taught this lesson even as a young girl. Her mother, for example, discovered that she was skipping breakfast and gave her a scolding. Elizabeth noted in her diary: ‘Should I carry on?… I don’t think so!’ (D6) Before Elizabeth’s entry into Carmel, the then prioress, Mother Mary of Jesus, had to curb her excessive penances. She forbade her to wear a hairshirt and told her to pray that her severe headaches would cease, as well as the effects of bronchitis. “I have no desire to be cured,” Elizabeth wrote in a notebook, “it’s so good to suffer for the ‘Beloved.’ so I’m making this prayer out of obedience” (IN 9). She was learning that obedience and surrender to His will are much more pleasing to God, a message that she passed on to Madame Angles: “Forgetting yourself with respect to your health does not mean neglecting to take care of yourself, for that is your duty and the best of penances, but do it with great abandonment, saying ‘thank you’ to God no matter what happens” (L249).


Opening Caverns of the Heart


There are sufferings which cannot be avoided, which God permits and which He can use to draw us, if we would, closer to Him. Suffering can make us feel helpless and not in control of our own destiny, or even abandoned by God. We might want to bear it for love of God, but feel we are not doing it very well. All this is part of the suffering; it is the process by which God is hollowing us out, humbling us, to give us a greater capacity to receive more of Himself: “Believe that at those times He is hollowing out in your soul greater capacities to receive Him, capacities that are, in a way, as infinite as He Himself” (L 249). It is often only when we look back when the time of trial has passed, that we see it really had been a time of grace and growth.


Elizabeth does not deny that it can drain our inner resources. Madame Angles was feeling the weight of her fatigue and depression, unable to rise above her physical condition. Elizabeth, too, was experiencing the utter fatigue that was a symptom of her disease, but said that this experience of our weakness should not discourage us. Rather, it should make us throw ourselves into the arms of God.


“When your soul is burdened and fatigued by the weight of your body, do not be discouraged, rather go by faith and love to Him who said: ‘Come to me and I will refresh you.’ As for your spirit, never let yourself be depressed by the thought of your sufferings. The great Saint Paul says, ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.’ It seems to me the weakest, even the guiltiest, soul is the one that has the most reason for hope; and the act of forgetting self and throwing oneself into the arms of God glorifies Him and gives Him more joy than all the turning inward and all the self-examinations that make one live with one’s own infirmities, through the soul possesses at its very center a Savior who wants at every moment to purify it.” (L 249)


Strength in Silence


These words give us an insight into how Elizabeth approached suffering. It was by the way of silence. From the beginning of her religious life it was her watchword, and she followed the Carmelite observance of silence with great fidelity. But it was more than external silence: it was a silence that went to the very heart of her being. To be silent is to refuse a listening ear to the clamoring of self,’ in order to attend to the word of God within. At every moment, with great gentleness, Elizabeth taught herself to turn away from preoccupation with self, so as to listen to her Savior who dwelt in the center of her being and who at every moment wanted to purify her. This unremitting effort in bearing smaller things-like the cold of the unheated Carmel of those days, the fatigue of daily work, forgetfulness of self-schooled her for the greater Calvary which lay ahead.


“My Rule tells me” ‘In silence will your strength be.’ It seems to me, therefore; that to keep one’s strength for the Lord is to unify one’s whole being by means of interior silence, to collect all one’s powers in order to employ‘ them in ‘the one work of love,’ to have this ‘single eye’ which allows the light of God to enlighten us. A soul that debates with its self, that is taken up with its feelings, and pursues useless thoughts and desires, scatters its forces, for it is not wholly directed toward God” (LR 3).

This gathering up of her whole being into one act of love gave her immense self-control as her illness took hold. She herself saw it as a part of her priesthood of Christ, offering to Him ourselves, our daily lives, our praise; uniting ourselves and all that we are with, above all, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That also includes whatever sufferings come our way. As she began to realize the seriousness of her illness, Elizabeth turned to the writings of St. Paul, which meant so much to her, to find out from him what her role should now be. She came across the passage: ‘That I may know him … and the fellowship of is suffering, being made conformable to his death’ (Phil 3:10). Jesus did indeed ask her to follow Him on her way to Calvary, a path she trod with immense dignity. In her Last Retreat, Elizabeth unconsciously painted her own self-portrait:


“‘The queen stood at your right hand’: such is the attitude of this soul; she walks the way of Calvary at the right of her Crucified, annihilated, humiliated King, yet always so strong, so calm, so full of majesty as He goes to His passion ‘to make the glory of His grace blaze forth’ according to that so strong expression of St. Paul. He wants to associate His Bride in His work of redemption and this sorrowful way which she follows seems like the path of Beatitude to her, not only because it leads there but also because her holy Master makes her realize that she must go beyond the bitterness in suffering to find in it, as He did, her rest.” (LR13)


Breaking-Point and Beyond


For all Elizabeth’s calm and self-control, the severity of her sufferings would sometimes overwhelm her. One day, she pointed to the window and said to Mother Germaine, “Mother, are you happy to leave me alone like this?” When the prioress did not understand what she meant, Elizabeth continued, “I’m suffering so much that I understand now how people can commit suicide.” Yet her faith gave her the strength she needed, and she continued: “But don’t worry, God is looking after me.”


Without faith, it is easy to think of death as an acceptable solution to suffering. Some months ago, a young man dying of AIDS stated categorically, in support of euthanasia, that there was no value in suffering. This is not something to which a Christian could subscribe. With the pressure to legalize ‘mercy killing’ as a continuing issue, Elizabeth of the Trinity can teach us the value and dignity of uniting our suffering with that of Jesus. It will not only make us more like Him, but also give us a privileged sharing in His redeeming work.


L = Letters of Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity

D = Diary

IN = Intimate Notes

LR = Last Retreat




Helping Hand



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Padre’s Letter for October 2007

Dear Friends,

The month of October is devoted, as we well know, to the Holy Rosary. In fact, all the Christians that love Our Lady, do not allow one day to pass without reciting at least a crown of the Rosary remembering the mysteries that are proposed for every day of the week. For those who don’t know them, here follows how they have been recently established from the Church.

The Joyful Mysteries are said on Monday and Saturday. The first mystery remembers the apparition of the archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin, when he announced to her that in her Jesus would be embodied, God’s Child, by the work of the Holy Spirit. The second mystery makes us meditate on the visit and the help of Mary to her cousin, Saint Elizabeth, because she carried John the Baptist. The third mystery reminds us of the birth of Jesus in the cold stable in Bethlehem. The fourth mystery makes us think about the presentation of Jesus in the temple and his circumcision to be dedicated to God. The fifth mystery invites us to meditate on the fact that Jesus, at the age of twelve, remained in Jerusalem to talk to the Doctors of the Law causing great pain to his Parents.

The Sorrowful Mysteries are said on Tuesday and Friday. The first mystery reminds us of the sentence of death for Jesus, though innocent, from Pilate. The second mystery makes us reflect on the scourging suffered by Jesus, receiving 138 hits, as he revealed himself to Mother Providence. In the third mystery we see Jesus while the soldiers put a crown of thorns on his head, and then they mock and strike him. The fourth mystery introduces us to Jesus while he is climbing up Calvary, bringing the heavy cross and his numerous falls under it. The fifth mystery invites us to meditate on Jesus who is crucified, and then, after a few hours of atrocious pains, sends cries out in a loud voice and dies.

The Glorious Mysteries are proposed for Wednesday and Sunday. In them we meditate on the last realities of Jesus and Mary, his Mother. The first mystery brings to our minds the Resurrection of Jesus and his apparitions to a lot of people. The second mystery makes us contemplate Jesus who ascends as real Victor over death and its enemies. The third mystery invites us to think about the Holy Spirit descending upon on the Apostles the day of Pentecost, so giving a start to the Church. The fourth mystery reminds us of Mary most Holy taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven. The fifth mystery we contemplate the unimagineable joy that was celebrated in Heaven, while Our Lady was crowned the Queen of Heaven and Earth.

I have wanted to remember, in this month of October, all the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary, because few Christians know them, and for such motive many don’t say it anymore. Fifty years ago, when I was still a child, it was said every day in all the families, and moreover in Latin, and we also knew well the litanies. Today we are instead gladly in front of the television, to see and to listen to a lot of things that make waste time and leave the heart empty. That’s why there is so much sadness and dissatisfaction in the hearts and on the face of many. We avoid saying the Holy Rosary because, we say, it is too much long and costs sacrifice. But don’t we remember that the graces and the benedictions of the Heaven are given by God alone if there is sacrifice? The help cannot be pretended by God without renouncements and sacrifices.

As to feed and to dress our body we need to work, so, to feed and to embellish our soul, we need to pray. Even if the prayer can be made in so many ways, nevertheless we let’s remember and put it well in our head, that, the performance of the Holy Rosary, is one of the most important prayers, more powerful persons and effective, not only for our soul, but also for our body. The Holy Rosary has directly been wanted by Our Lady, and dictated by her to St. Domenic of Guzman. Jesus is moved, and nourishes a particular affection toward those people who pray with heart the Madonna and she assures them the eternal salvation.

The victory gotten on the enemies of the Church October 7th in 1571, was fruit of the saying of the Rosary by all the Christians. Still today, if we will recite it with trust and perseverance, we will get for our beautiful Italy the victory on the enemies of the Catholic Church, for numerous wander in the middle of us, and wait only for the moment to instigate against it a merciless war. To this intention St. John Bosco had truly a vision of such struggle against the Church and against the Pope. Let’s prepare us therefore, with the weapons that we have to our disposition: the Holy Rosary, the frequent Confession and the participation to the Holy Mass at least on Sunday. He who will observe these three religious practices, I am sure that he will be blessed from God, and will be protected and preserved by the persecution. Let’s pray, pray much above all with the Holy Rosary, and then the Madonna will be near us and will also preserve us from death.

I greet you and I bless all of heart.

Your affectionate,

Padre Luigi Duilio Graziotti

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Jerome Lejeune, apostle of life

Jerome Lejeune, apostle of life

The following article is the most recent from the Benedictine Monks of Sainte Joseph de Clairval in France. In light of the constant battle for the right to life, I felt this particular piece would be very helpful as a weapon against those who seek to destroy precious little lives even before they can take their first breath, even if they are perfectly formed or with some defect.
from the September 12, 2007 Newsletter

Jerome Lejeune was born in Etampes in 1926, into a family that would be ruined by the war of 1939-1945. At the age of 13, he discovered two authors, Pascal and Balzac, who would mark him for life. Captivated by Dr. Bénassis, the hero of Balzac’s novel The Country Doctor, he too wanted to become a country doctor, dedicated to the care of the lowly and the poor. After the war, he threw himself passionately into the study of medicine. Soon a second motivation spurred his work; he met a young Danish woman, Birthe, and fell passionately in love with her. On June 15, 1951, he successfully defended his doctorate thesis. That same day, his future was decided in a direction completely different from what he had planned—one of his teachers, Professor Raymond Turpin, suggested they collaborate on a major work on “mongolism,” a condition that affects one out of every six hundred fifty children. Jerome accepted, and his path was set. On May 1, 1952, in Odense, Denmark, he married Birthe Bringsted, now Catholic, with whom he would have five children. Family life was his priority, especially during vacations. During his stays abroad, he wrote to his wife daily.

In 1954, be became a committee member of the French Genetics Society, and a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research. Since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effect of nuclear radiation on human reproduction was the topic of the day. Turpin directed his team toward this field, and, in 1957, Jerome was named an “expert on the effects of atomic radiation on human genetics” by the United Nations. From then on, he participated in international conferences, where he was noted for his frank language in the face of certain delegations’ desire to control the proceedings.

Three children were already the joy of his home when his father’s health began to fail. Jerome was faced with the fact that it was lung cancer. The agony of his beloved father made him realize how “unbearable it is to see loved ones suffer.” From then on, his view deepened— in each patient’s face he recognized Christ Himself.

Making use of new photographic techniques, Jerome discovered in tissue from a young “Mongoloid,” the presence of an extra chromosome on the 21st pair (human beings have 23 pairs or 46 chromosomes). This was the cause of “mongolism,” a condition that would from then on be called “Trisomy 21″ or “Down’s Syndrome.” The Académie de Médcine was informed of the discovery in March 1959. In November 1962, Jerome was awarded the Kennedy Prize. In October 1965, he was given the first chair of fundamental genetics at the University of Paris. Everything looked hopeful: his discovery and the publicity it received in the scientific world, he thought, would encourage research, and appropriate treatments would be developed to cure the afflicted and give hope to their parents. The families of the sick, drawn by Jerome’s international fame and his warmth, came to him in ever greater numbers. He treated thousands of young patients, who came to him from all over the world, or with whom he corresponded. He helped the parents to understand and accept this trial with a Christian perspective—these Down’s Syndrome children, created in God’s image, were promised an eternal future in which none of their disabilities remained. He assured them that their children, despite a serious mental handicap would overflow with love and affection.

Chromosomal racism

But Jerome noticed, especially in the American medical establishment, a tendency to recommend abortion to prevent affected babies from being born. He saw with horror the risks his discovery had brought for those with Down’s Syndrome. To fight this form of racism, he saw recourse to experimental reality as a critical weapon. It demonstrated, in effect, to impartial minds, that one could not view as strangers to the human race those who, biologically, belong to the same species: the embryo is a person.

August 1967: Professor Lejeune was invited to the seventh world assembly of the Israeli Medical Association, in Tel Aviv. The group alternated between work and excursions; the first being to the Sea of Galilee. “I entered a small chapel done in poor taste,” Jerome would relate. “I prostrated myself and kissed the imaginary footsteps of the One Who was there.” At the moment, he experienced a strange feeling: “A son finding a very dearly beloved Father, a Father finally known, a revered Master, a very holy Heart discovered, I felt all this and much more…” Everything melted on this blaze of love: the world, honor, success, fear of the opinions of others. There was nothing but the Lord, and the need to respond to His loving kindness.

When Jerome rejoined the others, a force took hold of him. What was its purpose? An incident would put him on the path. On arriving at Cana, the guide asked if anyone knew the reason for the international fame of the city. Jerome took the microphone and naively recounted the story from the Gospels of the wedding and the miracle of the water turning into wine. Silence. Then the guide: “That’s not it at all! Cana is important because the Helena Rubinstein cosmetics laboratories are here.” Everyone burst out laughing. Jerome kept silent: he felt powerless to avenge the insult Christ had just received right before his eyes. And then to Nazareth. Leaving the bus, everyone headed toward the Basilica of the Annunciation. But some spoke in loud voices, others indulged in obscene jokes about the Angel’s visit and Mary’s virginity. Jerome felt he was being provoked. What should he do? He entered and, slowly, made the sign of the cross and kneeled out of reverence for the mystery of the Incarnation that had taken place here. Curiously, his humble and courageous attitude silenced the mockers. After this public profession of faith, no one provoked Professor Lejeune again, but he was excluded from the group.

“I’ve lost my ‘Nobel’ “

In August 1969, the American Society of Human Genetics granted Jerome the William Allen Memorial Award, the highest distinction that can be granted to a geneticist. On his arrival in San Francisco, where he was to receive the award, Jerome clearly saw that the abortion of Down’s Syndrome children was expected to be authorized. The pretext was that it was cruel and inhumane to allow these poor creatures to come into the world, doomed to an inferior life, and posing an unbearable burden on their families. Jerome trembled. “By my discovery,” he said to himself, “I’ve made this shameful calculation possible!” After receiving the prize, he was to give a talk to his colleagues. Would he have the courage to speak the truth? A famous phrase from Saint Augustine came to him: “two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” What did his stature in the scientific world matter: As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to Me (Matthew 25:40). He would speak! The physical nature of man, he explained, is completely contained in the chromosomal message, from the first moment of conception. This message makes the new being a person, not a monkey, not a bear; a man whose complete physical potentiality is already contained in the information given to his first cells. Nothing more will be added to these potentialities, which will serve his intellectual and spiritual life—everything is there. He concluded plainly: the temptation to kill by abortion these small people afflicted with disease is contrary to moral law; and genetics confirm this conclusion. This moral law is not arbitrary. Not a single clap; but hostile or annoyed silence from these men, the elite of his profession. Jerome had collided head-on with them. He wrote his wife: “Today, I lost my Nobel Prize in medicine”; but he was at peace. He confided in his private diary: “Chromosomal racism is brandished like a flag of freedom. …That this negation of medicine, of all the biological brotherhood that links mankind, is the sole practical application of the knowledge of Trisomy 21 more than breaks my heart. …Protecting the abandoned—what a reactionary, retrograde, fundamentalist, inhuman idea!”

Media battle

With the medical world coming up short could the political world be convinced? In June 1970, a member of the French Parliament, Peyrer, drafted a bill that would allow the prenatal detection and abortion of children with Down’s Syndrome. When parliament went back into session, the media set the debate in motion. Jerome was invited to be the guest on a biweekly television current events show with a large viewership. His appearance generated a huge volume of mail, including deeply moving letters from people who had been severely handicapped from birth, testifying that their life had not been the nightmare that others claimed, as well as letters from parents of children with Down’s Syndrome, who spoke of their son’s or daughter’s panic at realizing that some thought that people like them should be killed. In reality, the campaign to allow the killing of children with Down’s Syndrome was a way of introducing the right to abortion. People worked to discredit Lejeune. After trying to contradict him in numerous conferences, on March 5, 1971, at a large public meeting in Paris, the opponents, armed with iron bars, began attacking women, elderly people, and even the severely handicapped. The police were needed to put the attackers to flight. As for Jerome, he received some tomatoes in his face.

At the time all Europe was discussing the issue of abortion. Great Britain followed the lead of the United States, which had legalized screening for Down’s Syndrome and its “treatment” by abortion. The media battle in France extended to the abortion of all unwanted children: “A baby does not legally become a person until it is born”, “a woman has the right to do what she wants with her body”… Specious arguments, to which many Catholics were susceptible, sometimes even to the point pf spreading them.

During a trip to Virginia in October 1972, Jerome was shown a protocol to be used during physiological or biochemical experiments on five-month-old fetuses “removed” by Caesarean section for this purpose. He wrote to his wife: “The texts says to treat them like any tissue or organ sample, but specifies that one must kill them after a short period of time… I simply said that no text could regulate crime.” How had his very qualified colleagues come to this? They had been molded, under the pretext of scientific rigor, to a point of view in which God had no place. “Good” is not that which conforms to the law of God, but that which is efficient; “bad” is that which interferes with material progress. For them, the fetus is no longer a person; a creature of God destined to see Him and love Him for all eternity. It can then become the target of any attack, as long as a majority agrees.

The weakest link

1973: The United States had just recognized the “Constitutional” right to abortion in general. During a talk on the subject at Royaumont Abbey in Ile-de-France on March 18, a woman in authority made this statement: “We want to destroy Judeo-Christian civilization. To do so, we must destroy the family … by attacking its weakest link, the unborn child. We are for abortion!” On June 7, a bill decriminalizing abortion was filed in the French National Assembly. Jerome noted that false statistics and extreme cases, which he too was very sensitive to, were being used to get abortion legalized. Alleged surveys claimed that half of the medical profession was in favor; but, at the same time, thanks to the initiative of Madame Lejeune, the signatures of more than 18,000 French doctors (a majority of the medical profession) were collected and published, stating their opposition to abortion, thus showing the fraudulence of the media campaign. Soon the doctors were joined by nurses, then judges, law professors, lawyers, and more than 11,000 mayors and local elected officials. The bill was derailed. In this battle, in which the stakes were fidelity to the Ten Commandments and the saving of human lives, much of the clergy were silent. Madame Lejeune’s parish priest wrote to her: “The Church cannot appear to be a pressure group. I think this is why the bishops’ conference is silent right now.” Jerome was grieved by this. One year later, on December 15, 1874, the “Veil Law” allowing abortion, was passed by the National Assembly, for a period of five years.

On May 13, 1981, Jerome and his wife were in Rome. The Holy Father wished to receive them in a private audience. After the discussion, the Pope spontaneously invited them to stay for lunch. The same evening, in their way back to Paris, they learned about the attack on John Paul II, a few hours after they had left him. Jerome’s health was shaken by this news. That autumn, concerned by the international situation, the Pope decided to send each leader of a nation possessing nuclear weapons a delegation of members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, carrying a report on the dangers of nuclear war. For the USSR, he appointed Lejeune and two others. The meeting took place on December 15, 1981. “We scientists,” Jerome said plainly, “know that for the first time, the survival of humanity depends on all nations’ acceptance of moral laws that transcend all systems and all speculation.” There was no whisper of this diplomatic mission in the press. The administrative harassment that, starting with the passage of the Veil Law, had begun to strangle Jerome, particularly in the form of repeated tax inspections, became more severe. His research grants were withdrawn; he was forced to close his laboratory. American and English laboratories, indignant at this conduct, granted him no-cost private loans. This impartial solidarity allowed him to rebuild a team of researchers moved by the same motivations.

In spite of the derision

In August 1988, Professor Lejeune was urged to testify in Maryville, Tennessee, in a spectacular trial, in which the survival of thousands of frozen embryos hung in the balance. In spite of exhaustion, Jerome wanted to lend support to those who, wherever in the world, suffered persecution for their respect for life. Above all, he wanted to help his Catholic colleagues follow the Church’s teaching, despite the world’s derision. In August 1989, the King of Belgium, Baudouin I, in a difficult situation with respect to his parliament, which was about to legalize abortion asked for his counsel. At the end of the conversation, the king suggested to him: “Professor, would it bother you if we prayed together for a moment?” We know the exemplary stance the king later took in this affair, to the point of renouncing his throne rather than offend God.
In 1991, Jerome embarked on “reflections on professional ethics in medicine,” in seven points:

  1. Christians be not afraid! It is you who possess the truth; not that you invented it, but you are the vehicle for it. To all doctors you must repeat: you must conquer the illness, not attack the patient.
  2. Man is made in the image of God. For this reason alone he must be respected.
  3. “Abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 51).
  4. Objective morality exists; it is clear, and it is universal, because it is Catholic.
  5. The child is n ot disposable and marriage is indissoluble.
  6. You shall honor your father and mother: Uniparental reproduction by means of cloning or homosexuality is not possible.
  7. The human genome, the genetic capital of our race, is not disposable.

Note this courageous phrase: “In so-called pluralistic societies, they shove it down our throats: ‘You Christians don’t have the right to impose your morality on others!’ Well! I tell you, not only do you have the right to try to incorporate your morality in the law, but it’s your democratic duty!

Dying in action

On August 5, 1993, The Holy Father approved the creation of the Pontifical Academy for Medicine, dedicated to protecting life. Professor Lejeune would be its president. There was in fact between him and the Pope a meeting of the minds. In their eyes, abortion was the primary threat to peace. If doctors begin to kill, why would governments hesitate to do so? Jerome was stunned by this nomination. He gave himself several days to think about it, because he felt a great fatigue. Around All Saints’ Day, he was examined by his friend Professor Lucien Israel who, with a drawn face, showed him the x-rays of his lungs: they indicated an already advanced cancer. Jerome accepted the situation with courage and submission to the Divine Will. He has to break the news to Birthe and his children: “You shouldn’t worry until Easter—I will live at least till then”, suddenly he added, “And at Easter, only wonderful things can happen!” The chemotherapy sessions started at the beginning of December—they were very taxing, as he expected them to be. Nevertheless, he continued to receive phone calls, to comfort the families of patients. Having informed the Holy Father of his state of health and turning down the presidency of the Pontifical Academy for Life—as he had the presidency of France’s Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, which had just been offered to him—he was told that the Holy Father refused to appoint another president. Jerome smiled, “I will die in action.” To the end, he endeavored to write the Academy’s bylaws. He felt his weakness, but his spirit of faith showed him the fruitfulness of the setbacks themselves. He never complained; his suffering, united with love to Christ’s passion, could put the world back on its true axis!

Wednesday of Holy Week, March 30, 1994, as he lay in a delirium, in the grips of a fever of over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), he was placed in hospice care. The next day, at dawn, he regained consciousness. On Good Friday, he confided to a priest who was giving him last rites: “I have never betrayed my faith.” This is all that counts before God… He told his children who were asking him about what he wished to bequeath to his little patients: “I don’t have much, you know… So, I have given them my life. And my life is all that I had.” Then, moved to tears, he murmured, “O my God! I was supposed to have cured them, and I am leaving without having found… What will happen to them?” Then, radiant with joy he spoke to his loved ones: “My children, if I can leave you a message, this is the most important of all: we are in the hands of God. I have experienced this a number of times.” The next day, Holy Saturday, passed quietly: Jerome was calm. However, at the end of the afternoon, his respiratory problems returned, worse than before. Suddenly authoritative, he ordered his wife and other loved ones to go home. He did not want them present at his agony. Sunday morning around seven o’clock, he said with difficulty to a colleague he barely knew, who had been holding his hand for much of the night: “You see…I’ve done well…” and he breathed his last. Outside, the first ringing of the church bells could he heard—it was the day of the Resurrection, the day of the Life that does not end. For “Christ is eternal life” (1 John 5:20)!

The next day, Pope John Paul II wrote these words about Jerome Lejeune: “We find ourselves today faced with the death of a great Christian of the twentieth century, a man for whom the defense of life had become an apostolate. It is clear that, in the situation of the world today, this form of apostolate among the laity is particularly necessary….

Dom Antoine Marie, osb

Helping Hand

This article is made possible with the permission of the Benedictine Monks of Sainte Joseph de Clairval in France

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September 2007 – Letter from Padre Graziotti

Dear Friends,

In this letter I want to speak of a very important virtue, of which we can never speak enough: charity.

What do we mean when we speak of charity? You intend to love someone with true love. But what is this true love that we have to practice on earth? Indeed we say that love has a triplex direction: the first one is that toward God; the second is that toward our neighbour; the third is that toward ourselves.

Today we speak only of the love toward God. Already in the Bible, and precisely in the book of the Deuteronomy, the love to God is suggested in these terms: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.” (Deut. 6, 4-5). Also the Catechism of the Catholic Church underlines this matter with the following words: “God has created us to know him, to love him and to serve him in this life, for then to enjoy him in the other in Heaven.

Therefore, the first duty of a creature, and above all of a Christian, is to love God. What must we do to love God, and to understand if we really do love him? St. John points out in the Gospel, putting these words on the lips of Jesus: “If you love Me you will observe my Commandments. Who welcomes my Commandments and observes them, these love me”(Gv 14, 15 and 21). Therefore, to know if we really love God, we have to examine our life, and to see if we put his Commandments into practice. And that is: if we sanctify the feasts going to Mass on Sunday, if we don’t curse the name of God, if we honour our Parents and we don’t despise them, if we don’t hurt our neighbour but we assist him in his necessities, if our life is morally good, if we don’t steal, if we do our duty on the job, if we are faithful to our Vocation in the marriage, or to the consecration in the religious life: everything assures us that in our heart there is really the love to God. But to understand better if we love indeed the Lord, we also have to make two considerations.

The first one is this: are we determined to avoid in all ways any sin? Do we put all of our efforts to never sin? Are we determined not to commit some sin no matter how much it is in us? Here, if so it is, then we can say that we love indeed the Lord, and we honour him with our life. He who is determined to avoid every sin, he loves God indeed.

The second consideration is this: two people that are truly in love, continually thinks the one they love, they meet gladly every time that it is possible, they are in constant contact. God behaves really this way, because he has fallen in love indeed with us. In fact, on his behalf, even if we don’t realize it, he always thinks of us, he looks at us, he accompanies us, he is inside of us, he never abandons us, he participates in our worries, our pains, and helps us when we are in need. He is the only Being that sincerely truly loves us. We, how do we correspond to this love? As he loves us, so we should also love him. We should think of him many times during the day, to beg him, to invoke him, to try to avoid whatever sin so as not to offend him, to try everything to make him happy, so that he can say of us that he is happy to see that we love him. That’s a true correspondence of love toward Go! How many people on earth truly love God? Surely few, little. Perhaps among these we may be included.

There is then at times a wrong mentality in some Christians. One thinks that, if we love God, we are impoverished, because we cannot do what we want and like, or certain projects cannot be realized that are precious to us. You believe that God is contrary to the progress and to the liberty: such a thought is wrong entirely. In fact, if the progress exists, in whatever field, it is always worth of God, because it is Him that allows the man to have the intelligence and to use it. Man cannot do anything by himself. St. Paul says even that, without the strength of the Holy Spirit, we cannot move even a finger.
Let’s now consider one of the means that unite us in particular way to God: The prayer. It puts us in contact with God, and it makes us remember that on this earth we are of passage. In fact, there is granted only a determined number of days to earn merits or the Heaven. When we will die we won’t have more even an instant to our disposition. Here is then a mean to show the love to God, is that to use every instant of our life honouring him, adoring it, glorifying him, blessing him, and thanking him with everything of our heart. How fortunate will be he who will understand such importance! In fact he will earn so many merits for the eternal life.
The first duty of us Christians however is to love God as he has loved us, or rather generously, with fidelity and indifference, up to sacrifice our life, if it were necessary, as he did, allowing to be nailed on the cross for our salvation, and as so many Martyrs did. For love of God we have to be ready to whatever sacrifice and renouncement.. Instead, so many times, we are not able to not even make a sacrifice for his love, and above all to renounce the funs, above all illegitimate and sinful. If we have sometimes some sufferings, we immediately complain about there, or even we curse against God.
Let’s hold well in mind that if we will love God as the Bible suggests us, then we can enjoy him for the whole eternity. This is my wish for all of you.
I greet you all, and bless You of heart, while I am assuring my prayer.
Your affectionate,

Padre Luigi Duilio Graziotti

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