Photo: Bill Greaney illustration
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 30, 2010)
Here is an important question from a man named Tom, a frequent reader of this weekly column. Tom asks:
Do you have any insight on why St. Faustina many times refers to herself as a miserable soul? Is she talking about her own problems, or is she referring to her relationship with Jesus? Or might it be her reflection on not being able to recognize her total dependence on God?
Actually, most of the time, I would say it was "none of the above."
First, I don't think St. Faustina was referring to her own problems so much when she talked about her own "misery." To be sure, she had many heavy crosses to bear. For instance, many of her fellow sisters in religion thought that she was a fantasist, pretending to have had a special vision of Jesus; she was accused of being lazy and shirking her duties, when actually she was striving heroically to accomplish them; she was slowly dying of double tuberculosis (of the intestines and of the lungs) at a time when there were no medicines or anaesthetics that could do her much good; and for many years she could not find a regular spiritual director who could help her with the extraordinary revelations she was receiving from our Lord.
All of this burden, and more, she had to bear on a daily basis. Sometimes she did, indeed, say that she "felt" miserable (e.g., Diary of St. Faustina, 1817), but mostly, that was not the attitude of her soul. In fact, one of her own Mother Superiors summed up St. Faustina's character this way: "She is a happy child" of God.
Look at what Sister Faustina writes in her Diary (entry 1801):
One day during Holy Mass, the Lord gave me a deeper knowledge of His holiness and His majesty, and at the same time I saw my own misery. This knowledge made me happy, and my soul drowned itself completely in His mercy. I felt enormously happy.
Clearly, knowledge of her own misery did not necessarily lead her to feel miserable — at least not very often!
So what is this "misery" that she talks about so often (dozens of times, in fact, in her Diary)?
It is not clear that it refers to her relationship with Jesus, either. She did not describe her relationship with Jesus as a miserable one, nor did she go on and on about what a miserable, sinful wretch she is. To be sure, she did believe that knowledge of her own sinfulness was included in what she meant by knowledge of her own "misery." So we are getting warmer. Consider these Diary passages:
Today the Lord's gaze shot through me suddenly, like lightening. At once I came to know the tiniest specks [of sin] in my soul, and knowing the depths of my misery, I fell to my knees and begged the Lord's pardon, and with great trust I immersed myself in His infinite mercy. (852)
I fly to Your mercy, Compassionate God, who alone are good. Although my misery is great, and my offences are many, I trust in Your mercy, because You are the God of mercy; and from time immemorial, it has never been heard of, nor do heaven or earth remember, that a soul trusting in Your mercy has been disappointed. (1730).
I also think that when she calls herself a "miserable" soul, she cannot have meant by this that she was "miserable" because she failed to recognize her dependence upon God. As a matter of fact, most of the time she did indeed recognize her total dependence on God: Such humility is one of the characteristics of her spirituality! So, if she really believed she was "miserable" because she lacked humility, (that is, because she failed to recognize her dependence upon God), she would have had an inaccurate understanding of the spiritual condition of her own soul. Not very likely!
I think what ties together her various reflections on her own misery is something else: "Misery" is what she calls the state of her soul, or of any soul, if you exclude God from the picture. In other words, take away God's power and grace, and what are we? Nothing but misery. In fact, without God's sustaining, creative power, we are nothing at all: We don't even exist! Listen to what St. Faustina writes about this:
Thank you, Jesus, for the great favor of making known to me the whole abyss of my misery. I know that I am an abyss of nothingness and that, if Your holy grace did not hold me up, I would return to nothingness in a moment. And so, with every beat of my heart, I thank You, my God, for Your great mercy towards me. (256)
That's why her sinfulness, too, is included in what she means by her "misery," because sin is precisely what we do when we turn our backs on the grace of God, and (following the Frank Sinatra philosophy), "do it my way." In short, without God's power we do not even exist, from moment to moment, and without cooperating with His grace, we are nothing but sin and wickedness, from day to day. Thus, knowledge of our human "misery" is precisely knowledge of what we would be without God:
Jesus, fortify the powers of my soul that the enemy gain nothing. Without You, I am weakness itself. What am I without Your grace if not an abyss of my own misery? Misery is my possession. (Diary, 1630)
During this hour of adoration, I saw the abyss of my misery; whatever there is of good in me is Yours, O Lord. But because I am so small and wretched, I have a right to count on Your boundless mercy. (Diary, 237)
That's also why knowledge of her misery generally did not make St. Faustina feel miserable or unhappy: because she knew that the veritable "ocean" of God's infinite mercy would constantly overcome her misery, as long as she trusted in Him, and this filled her with gratitude and joy:
O Jesus, You know how weak I am; be then ever with me: guide my actions and my whole being, You who are my very best Teacher! Truly, Jesus, I become frightened when I look at my own misery, but at the same time I am reassured by Your unfathomable mercy, which exceeds my misery by the measure of all eternity. This disposition of soul clothes me in Your power. O joy that flows from the knowledge of one's self! O unchanging Truth, Your constancy is everlasting! (66)
After Holy Communion, I heard these words: You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror. However, be aware of what you are. Because you are such misery, I have revealed to you the whole ocean of My mercy. I seek and desire souls like yours, but they are few. Your great trust forces Me to continuously grant you graces. You have great and incomprehensible rights over My Heart, for you are a daughter of complete trust. You would not have been able to bear the magnitude of the love which I have for you if I had revealed it to you fully here on earth. I often give you a glimpse of it, but know that this is only an exceptional grace from Me. My love and mercy knows no bounds. (718)
In short, the secret of St. Faustina's happiness was this: to remain aware of her own "misery" (her nothingness, weakness, and sinfulness) without God, precisely so that she would turn to His "ocean" of mercy all the time and constantly experience the joy of being with God, the God who mercifully overcomes our every weakness. This was the program of her interior life from the very beginning, as she herself tells us:
From the beginning I have been aware of my weakness. I know very well what I am of myself, because for this purpose Jesus opened the eyes of my soul: I am an abyss of misery, and hence I understand that whatever good there is in my soul consists solely of His holy grace. The knowledge of my own misery allows me, at the same time, to know the immensity of Your mercy. In my own interior life, I am looking with one eye at the abyss of my misery and baseness, and with the other, at the abyss of Your mercy, O God. (Diary, 56)
The happiness of St. Faustina was therefore based on this simple equation: "Where would I be without You, Lord? In misery. But where am I now with You, Merciful Lord? Immersed in the ocean of Your infinite mercy, and thereby filled with deep and indescribable joy."
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.