One of the main reasons many of us think we aren’t holy is that we live amidst contradictions, our virtue sorely tried as we struggle through the combat of the unfolding trials of a life we can’t control.
When told of a religious who was never seen to commit any imperfections, St. Francis de Sales would ask one question: “Has she an office?” He was asking if she had work to do that involved other people—did she run the kitchen, or was she the bursar, the porter, the prioress, the abbes, that sort of thing. If the answer was no, if the “perfect” sister got to read and think and pray without engaging with others, then he dismissed this so-called perfection. She might not show the vice of anger, but she didn’t have virtues, either. Virtues are built when engaging with others, not sitting in ivory towers.
There is great comfort in St. Francis de Sales’ approach here. He had spent happy years as spiritual guide to St. Jane de Chantal after the death of her husband through an accident at the hands of a friend. Grief, sorrow, loneliness, and the struggle to forgive marked those first years of spiritual growth as the young widow’s soul opened under gentle guidance and grace. Then, as they founded the Order of the Visitation, Jane must have had a number of years of peace and joy as the first sisters gathered around her and she was able to immerse herself in the contemplative prayer that so fed her soul under the direction of the holy bishop.
However, by the end of her life she had founded 80 monasteries of the Visitation. Her quiet life was now spent at this work of God to which she had been called with Francis de Sales. She personally followed the spiritual life of many of the sisters, resolved problems with people and buildings and relationships, dealt with legal issues and political interference in the foundation of monasteries and the life of the nuns, consolidated the charism and constitutions of the Visitandine Order and passed it on to her daughters… Those marvelous quiet days as the Order was beginning were long gone as she bore the weight of responsibility for the mission God had entrusted to her. And in this crucible of suffering and strength the saint was formed. The nun who slept in the cell next to Jane’s recalled hearing her moaning in the night under the heavy burden she carried. In fact, toward the end of her life, she relinquished her responsibilities to care for her own soul.
This past year has been a difficult journey for me, and it has been difficult to write. I see now that it has not been my failure, but an apprenticeship by which Jesus has been chiseling away at my character, healing and transforming. Situations that called for humility and open-hearted strength seemed to smother me rather than call me forth. I emerged from the year not victorious, but humbled and welcoming of my nothingness and God’s power at work in mysterious and incomprehensible ways. Those first years of profession things seemed so much rosier and exciting… Now are the days for the “second yes.”
What is your crucible of suffering? Your “second yes”?
Perhaps deep within you is a longing for quieter days, relationships before the struggles developed which you now weigh you down, the carefree fun of young adulthood as you once tested your wings before the harsher realities of life settled in.
Our life, with all its twists and turns, shadows and sunlight and glaring heat and quieter dusk hours requires courage. Virtue is built through courageous self-combat.
We may feel we’ve lost too many skirmishes to count. It may seem that our identity is stamped indelibly with our mistakes and failures, blotting out the successes and valiant struggle. It doesn’t matter.
Your path to sanctity, and mine, lie straight through the messy confusion. It is in the daily attempt to clarify and re-approach situations with a new heart that we became saints. It isn’t success that is the measure of victory. It is persevering determination to carry out the responsibilities laid upon us by divine providence.
Four characteristics of the heart can make your journey more joyful:
- Vulnerability: Give yourself permission to feel the full impact of your experience with honesty and integrity.
- Hospitality: Welcome what you would rather neutralize and remove from your life with gentleness and trust in your special place in your Father’s tender heart.
- Creativity: Imagine the internal structures of your psyche and your heart giving way, making room for you know not what. Wipe your tears, fold up your beliefs, and turn the pages of the stories you tell yourself about yourself and others in the situation.
- Courage: Practice choosing a new heart-characteristic amid the hand-to-hand combat of your life where you polish your character with virtuous choices. Instead of frustration, try reverencing the present moment as it is. Instead of self-pity, give yourself the gift of seeing with new eyes how God is at work in your heart for others. In place of trying to change others, see what of their behavior you can begin to understand. For in the end, all of us are unfinished and wounded works of art, trying to get what we think we need to survive. Be the first to realize that you are one with everyone else in life, wanting the same things, just wishing you could experience the peace of an open and tender heart.
The struggles of your life, whatever they may be, unfair as they may appear, are the path of discipleship upon which Jesus leads you. He has no other way for you. It is the most beautiful way and it leads straight to heaven’s glory where Jesus will crown his work in you accomplished through his grace.
Thanks for walking the journey with me.
I’d love it if you would leave your thoughts below.
ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE? HERE ARE 5 WAYS TO GO DEEPER…
God has amazing ways of knocking on people’s hearts, awakening desires, arousing questions, provoking an unexpected spiritual fire. If you have enjoyed this article, and are ready to embark on a sustained spiritual journey, here are 6 ways you can join me on the journey:
- Join my private Facebook Group and walk the road of healing with a great group of people. I offer a half-hour live spiritual conference here Tuesday evenings at 7pm EST
- Sign-up for my letter Touching the Sunrise. I write a letter a couple times a month from my heart to yours to support you along the way.
- Explore my books: Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach; Reclaim Regret: How God Heals Life’s Disappointments; Just a Minute Meditations Deeper Trust and Inner Peace. Enroll in the free 5-day email series introducing Reclaim Regret.
- Enroll in courses on Midlife, Contemplative Prayer, and a do-it-yourself downloadable Surviving Depression retreat
- Become a part of the HeartWork Community, a place where you can ask the hard questions and find a path to a life that is free, fulfilling and fruitful.
4 thoughts on “Four Characteristics of Heart to Transform Difficult Situations”
Dear Sr, Kathryn _
I’ve just joined this group, and this is the first article I’ve read. It brought tears to my eyes, as I have been going through my own crucible of suffering since 2014. Loss of three jobs, currently unemployed for over a year (nearing retirement age but needing – and wanting – to work at least part-time), caring for an elderly mother with dementia, loss of my father in 2016 and my youngest sister in 2018, loss of two beloved pets. On the other hand, I’ve used the time to pursue my lifelong interest in art and taking classes, joining a bereavement group in my parish, developing my spirituality by attending Mass nearly every day, increasing my prayer life and trying to be an instrument of His peace.
Thank you so much for an insightful and compassionate article! It touched my heart in a simple and profound way, especially the four characteristics of the heart. I want to print it out and place it where I can see it every day.
Thank you and God bless you for the work you and the Sisters do, and I look forward to reading more of your letters.
I know I am late in reading and responding. Please forgive me. Phyllis I am keeping you in my prayer. I have a private facebook group that you might want to join. I pop on every Tuesday evening at 7 for a half hour conference. You might find this supportive. Just check facebook groups: srkathrynhermes or Sr Kathryn Hermes
Dear Sister Kathryn,
Thank you for your courage in writing of your struggles this past year. I know it’s a daunting task to face the uncertainty of how it may perceived…if it’ll be judged and even rejected. Such feelings can leave one quite restless. However, for someone like me it brings joy and more than anything HOPE that someone out there our story can touch others and bring them out of the darkness that lead us being so critical of ourselves, and into the Light and Mercy of God. Your words tell me once more, that our Heavenly Father never tires of waiting our return to rest in Him.
Thank you for writing so courageously. God so tenderly brings our words and stories together.