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Abbot (entered heaven in 460)
I think you misunderstood me. I wasn’t trying to say that you should adopt all kinds of weird penitential practices and start fasting six days a week and sleeping on nails and such like exaggerations. For someone in your situation, that kind of behavior would constitute a gross imprudence. Probably, it would last for a little while, and then you would react by abandoning self-discipline altogether, convinced that it’s too demanding. And on the off chance that you were to persevere in that kind of thing while still at college, I am almost certain it would inflate your pride and arrogance to an inordinate degree, obstructing the flow of grace and leading to a tragic fall.
I wasn’t advising that. I was merely pointing out that the normal discomforts and inconveniences that daily life presents to us are the perfect opportunity for developing the capacity for self-sacrifice so necessary to maturity and happiness. Earth is not heaven, and although all the advertisers will try to convince you that their product will turn earth into heaven, they are wrong. So instead of complaining about the normal burdens of daily life, I recommend that you accept them as gifts of God, reminders that your true home is in heaven, not here, and chances to share in Christ’s cross.
I am often surprised at how hard it is for us to do that. In the old days, it seems that Christians were tougher. Today’s saint, for example, was about as far from a whiner as you can get. When he was 35, the energetic Frenchman left the comforts of the world behind and retired to a church in the wilderness in order to dedicate himself to prayer and penance. But the church was too comfortable, so he went into a forest on the borders of France and Switzerland, found a fertile spot of land at the junction of two rivers, and set up a little hermitage, where he could pray, study, and work, following the example of Christ himself and many saints through the ages. Soon he was joined by his brother, Lupicinus. Together they built a monastery (with their own hands), and attracted a large number of monks. They had to build another monastery near by to accommodate them. Then they were joined by their sister, who started a convent.
It sounds romantic, but it wasn’t an easy life. They worked the land in order to support themselves. They wore course clothes and wooden shoes. They slept in wooden chairs or on bare boards. And they ate only bread and herbs. In fact, when Romanus informed his brother that the prosperity of one of the monasteries had induced the monks to add wheat bread (they were used to taking only barley bread) and fish and other items to their meager diet, Lupicinus had to rein in their extravagance – the monks had left behind the comforts and the pleasures of the world because they felt God was calling them to a life of self-denial in imitation of Christ, why did they want to betray their vocation?
In any case, the monasteries flourished, and holiness did too. St Romanus died in peace (Lupicinus didn’t die till twenty years later), and I am sure that when he reached heaven, he was amply rewarded by our Lord for his fidelity to the particular expression of love that God had asked of him. How is it, then, that we modern Christians find the slight sacrifices of daily life – changes in temperature, bland food, traffic, necessary work, fidelity to duty – so oppressive? We need to learn from the saints, and stop looking for heaven on Earth.
Your devoted uncle,