Under God’s Thumb

Fellas, let’s talk about bad days. Sometimes things just do not seem to be working out. We say our prayers, we do our work, we try to show charity towards our neighbor; but wouldn’t you know it, our neighbor does not show charity back to us. Our work erupts in some kind of colossal failure or enormous roadblock. Our prayer grants us no consolation and we wonder if we are simply going through the motions meaninglessly.


Even worse, we can aggravate these upsetting situations with our own sins, responding to them in ways that fall short of our calling to live in Christian perfection. If we are trying to live in holiness, we will doubtless not notice these failures, which we know could have been avoided if only we were better people. This realization of our weakness might threaten to make us feel even worse! Our life is so hard, we think; if only we were not such bad people and in such a difficult situation, we could become saints. Instead, it feels as though we are slowly being crushed beneath the thumb of God.


In these times, my brothers, we must remember that it is indeed God’s thumb which is pinning us right where we are. Yet this is the God who loved us unto humiliation, unto death on the Cross. Why then would He permit us to be afflicted so? Why would He let us be pressed down in such a miserable place? Perhaps the answer is that amidst all this affliction, we are exactly where we need to be for Him to reveal His love for us.


This seems like a pretty uncomforting reassurance, we might reason! Surely our sinful selves deserve whatever affliction befalls us in this life and more besides- we understand that intellectually, but it really sucks to actually taste it. Yet in such times we must make a special effort to take stock of the all the good we do have. First of all, we have that intellectual awareness that we are receiving less than we deserve- this is more than can be said for many! There are certainly wicked men who go about their lives and see the suffering which comes upon them from time to time not as a reminder of their imperfection but as an unfair imposition upon their righteous persons. We should thank the Lord if we are spared the temptation to such thoughts, and thank Him further for the grace to understand our own unworthiness.


Second, while we feel as though we are being crushed, we have yet to actually be crushed- this can be an important thing of which to remind ourselves! St. Teresa of Calcutta once said “The Lord never gives you anything you cannot handle- I only wish he didn’t trust me so much!” Like the tribe of Israel in the Babylonian captivity, we are tested, but not destroyed. Once we realize this we can begin to take stock of the realities of our situation, and perhaps even surprise ourselves with what we can bear. God, after all, knows us better than we know ourselves- not just our weaknesses, but also our potential for strength.



Third, we may often find that our suffering is an opportunity to learn and grow. Virtues require habituation to develop; though it is extremely contrary to true courage to seek unnecessary danger, we can never perfect our courage if we have no opportunity to practice it, and so too with the other virtues. Perhaps the difficult person in our life is an opportunity to practice fortitude; perhaps the hostile environment in which we find ourselves is an opportunity to practice prudence. Indeed, we should accept whatever such opportunities the Lord gives us, no matter how unglamorous or unimpressive they may seem, with the same gusto that our ancient brothers accepted the hardships of the desert where they sought to grow in faith.
Last of all, we should rejoice at the opportunity to suffer with Christ (as I’ve discussed previously). Just as Our Lord’s unprotected flesh suffered the sting of the whip at His scourging, so too must we from time to time endure blows from which we cannot defend ourselves. Yet God never abandons us in such moments, and even if we fall short, we can take comfort in knowing that He endured all that we suffer and more on our behalf, and yet still stands ready to forgive us. If God is pinning you down with His thumb, then that means you are exactly where you need to be for Him to reveal His love to you. Remember this.


A Little Yeast

Fellas, let’s talk about what we are feeding our souls. Most importantly, of course, we must nourish them through the sacraments, but there is another kind of food that they also need, and that is good and holy thoughts and words to ponder. Just as the health of your body is affected by what you eat, so the health of your soul can be affected by what you read. We have to be careful to consume what is good and avoid what is bad, lest we make ourselves sick.

Now, not all of us are quite as sensitive about such things (though all stand to be enriched by good and holy reading). Some have resolute temperaments that are hardly affected by the words and actions of others. This does not necessarily make such brethren better or worse; at times enduring much awfulness can be a great strength, and at times being unmoved by something of significance can be a great weakness. They have different needs; here I intend to concentrate chiefly on those of us who are deeply and easily moved by what we read or otherwise witness.

If you are like me, then you do not simply pass through what you read. You gnaw upon it, you digest it, you mull over it at great length. You can, if you are not careful, be completely carried away by even a little bit of it. Reading the news is an emotional assault. Comment boxes are utterly devastating and infuriating. An acquaintance posting something you strongly disagree with can threaten to ruin your day. Going online can be very dangerous, as we are confronted with a great deal of poison that we can hardly help but swallow in great gulps.

Our interests also tend to consume us. We can obsess over minor details of whatever it is we have an interest in –a book, a show, a game, a sport- scrutinizing it with a fervor that others find impressive but perhaps also somewhat excessive. We can become frustrated when such a thing fails to hold up to our examination, such that we wonder whether we actually enjoy the things that we profess to love, given how painfully aware we are of their imperfections.

Since so much of our world is deeply flawed, it is easy for us to become quite sickened, either by the failings of enjoyable things (which others who are not so inclined to over-scrutinize find perfectly agreeable) or the preponderance of loathsome things (which others who are not so sensitive quickly dismiss from their minds). We can begin to become overwhelmed by the mediocrity and wickedness of this world, and it can make us miserable. We must beware: the devil loves it when we are miserable, because it makes us far more susceptible to his assaults.

This is why we must take great care with what we “eat” in our reading. First, we must limit our consumption of what is bad; we, more than anyone else, should consider it a matter of our spiritual health to avoid reading comments, to remove people or accounts whose words or deeds are regularly upsetting from our feeds, to avoid following the news more than is absolutely required for our duties. We must, in a sense, cut out what is unhealthy for our cognitive diet, and create for ourselves a sort of spiritual monastery within our environment where we can take shelter from the world.

This alone is not enough, however. If we merely reduce what is bad, we shall still need something to occupy our minds. Hence, we must also consume that which is nourishing and wholesome, and allow ourselves to chew upon it. I do not here mean merely that which we personally enjoy and find pleasant, for as I said we will often find that all too wanting. We must turn our attention each day to that which is infinitely good, which withstands and excels all our pondering and scrutiny, to the only thing which can truly satisfy our hungry minds: the infinity and infinite perfection of God.


St. Dominic, who as a young canon was known to retreat regularly to study whenever he was free of other duties.

 How can we do this? Our minds wander easily, and they pick up whatever they encounter like a hungry dog. Thus we must each day read text which is wholesome and religious in nature, even for just a short while, keeping in mind our temporal duties. We must insist upon doing this even when we feel bad or when we feel good. Like any diet, we must hold to it whether it feels necessary or effective or not.

There are several ways to do this, but reciting at least part of an office is an excellent way to begin. In particular, I recommend starting with Lauds of either the Liturgy of Hours or the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Read it when you first get up so that you can return to it in your thoughts throughout the day. If, during the day you find your spirits turning downward, recall to mind your morning office, and reflect upon it.

It is also good to assign to yourself some regular reading from the writings of a saint, if not every day then at least for an hour on Sunday. The letters of St. Catherine of Siena (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7403 , do note that the translator here is a 19th century Episcopalian woman) and St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on the Book of Job (http://dhspriory.org/thomas/SSJob.htm ) are both beautiful and easily accessed online, but it might also be wise to consult with your spiritual director for readings appropriate to your own situation. Again, even if you do not always feel it is necessary, you must make this reading a priority for your health. What you read becomes what you think. What you think becomes what you do. What you do becomes who you are. Remember this.