Image: St. Catherine of Siena, Baldassare Franceschini [Public Domain]
“Sometimes My providence leaves My great servants a pricking, as I did to My gentle apostle Paul, My chosen vessel…Could I and can I not make it otherwise for Paul and the others in whom I leave this or that sort of pricking? Yes. Then why does My providence do this? To give them opportunity for merit, to keep them in the self-knowledge whence they draw true humility, to make them compassionate instead of cruel toward their neighbors so that they will sympathize with them in their labors.”
—St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue
On the way
In our desire for moral and spiritual perfection, we easily and often feel impatient at our continued weaknesses (the “thorn” or “prick” of the flesh, as Paul renders it in 2 Corinthians 12:7), for progress never seems as fast as we had hoped it would be. The above quote from St. Catherine of Siena’s The Dialogue should thus serve as an encouragement for souls falling short because we read therein that the Christian life is one in via (“on the way”) under the guidance of God’s providence.
We must, therefore, patiently accept our weaknesses. For as God related to Catherine, they remain in His providence for a threefold reason: to merit, to grow in humility, and to gain compassion for one’s neighbor. Understanding that this struggle in the Christian life is what God’s providence deems fit can help ward off our impatience by engendering trust that our continued weaknesses are a part of God’s infinitely wise plan for our sanctification.
The first reason for our continued weaknesses is merit. Just as iron is forged by fire, so virtue can only be proven by its opposite, as the analogy goes. The untested soul will thus never grow. For if we are never tempted by and conquer pride, for example, then we cannot be certain if we are humble. Hence, God’s providence allows for our weaknesses so as to merit through the choosing of virtue over the vice. Further still, God permits the devil to attack us for this very reason: the conquering of Satan wrought by Christ’s grace in us is a magnificent testimony to the power of God’s grace.
The second reason for our continued weaknesses is growth in humility. Pride (thinking oneself greater than one is before God) is the origin of sin. Humility is, by contrast, an experience of our fragile condition, leading us to give our life over to the Lord. To rid ourselves of pride is thus to see the truth of ourselves, for in truth we are likely to think less of ourselves and recognize our need for God’s aid. Our continued weaknesses therefore serve humility by revealing the humble truth that we are not yet perfect. And only in this weakness do we realize this nothingness and inability in ourselves, whereas during success we run the risk of thinking that such is due to our own measures. Continued weaknesses thus help us to realize that repeated prior failures mean that whatever successes we have could only be due to God.
The third reason for our continued weaknesses is the gaining of compassion for neighbor. As a point of fact, it is only upon realizing our own miseries that we will be merciful to others. Analogously, those who have suffered can be compassionate to others, while the healthy are unable to feel the pain of the sick. God thus permits our continued stumbles in order to bring us to empathize and identify with our neighbors, having compassion on them through a shared sense of struggle against imperfections. Our own rich experience of God’s mercy cannot but work to extend this loving mercy to our neighbor.
Patience leads to perfection
The notion that it is a part of God’s providence that we have weaknesses should be comforting to us. We know that weaknesses are a part of the end to which God has ordered things. The Christian life in via, therefore, entails the acceptance of the degree of grace that God deigns to give us in His providence—in other words, the acceptance of our weaknesses.
Ultimately, providence always provides, never failing those who want to receive God’s aid, always giving us what is needed to ensure that everything works to the end that God wills for us. Awareness of this ought to lead us to be less impatient with ourselves and hope that we may one day be conformed to Jesus Christ through such gradual transformation that occurred in the saints. After all, the prick in St. Paul’s side testifies to his own journey in via, showing us that even the great apostle was not yet perfected in this earthly life. St. Paul’s own prick thus reminds us that saintliness is not gained overnight but through struggle, the weak soul leaving itself open to grace, allowing God to condescend and manifest His greatness in such lowliness.