Spiritual Childhood

The following is an excerpt from the Marian Press book 52 Weeks with St. Faustina by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle:

“Jesus gave me to know the depth of His meekness and humility and to understand that He clearly demanded the same of me.”

— Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 758

As we begin our pilgrimage with St. Faustina, we will delve into God’s call to us to possess spiritual childhood. We walk with St. Faustina right from her birth as Helen and through some of her early days. We touch upon prayer habits Helen learned from her family, as well as the holy stirrings in young Helen’s heart. Let us begin!

Saint Faustina was born Helen Kowalska to a peasant family at 8 in the morning on August 25, 1905. She was the third daughter of Stanislaus and Marianna Kowalski. Father Joseph Chodynski would pour the holy waters of Baptism over Helen’s little head at St. Casimir Church in Świnice Warckie just two days later. That same baptismal font is still standing today. Marianna and Stanislaus might have been eager to baptize their baby girl and ensure her entrance into Heaven in case she was stricken with cholera. People had been warned not to visit the area because of a cholera plague. Marianna had been more than a bit nervous about Helen’s birth because two previous deliveries (Josephine and Eve) had almost cost her her life. With Helen, though, everything was different. Marianna was exceedingly thankful. Her labor was short, and neither the mother nor the baby experienced complications. Helen would live in a simple house built by her father, Stanislaus, made of limestone and red brick with a thatched roof. With the war going on and so many mouths to feed, the family was poverty stricken. The girls took turns going to Sunday Mass because there was just one Sunday dress to be shared.

Helen lived only 33 years — just like Jesus! She would later be called the “Secretary of Divine Mercy.” Helen was beatified in 1993 and canonized as St. Faustina seven years later by St. John Paul II. In the year 2000, this same pope established the Feast of Divine Mercy, which is always celebrated on the Sunday after Easter Sunday. Later throughout this book, we will delve much deeper into the mysteries and messages of Divine Mercy entrusted to a simple, humble young lady from an obscure area where most were illiterate. For now, we focus on her childhood and family life.

On the day of Helen’s birth, times were restless in Poland. Martial law was declared in Warsaw, roughly 30 miles away from Swinice. Russian was the official language in the government and schools, with Russian teachers steadily replacing the Polish. There were strikes by students and teachers against the Russification of the educational system, as well as continued bloody clashes with the imperial army and police when factory workers protested against autocratic rule. They demanded that economic conditions be improved. Such was the atmosphere at that time in that area.

Family faith and familial routine

Every morning, sometimes before sunrise, Helen’s father fervently sang the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, or, during Lent, the penitential Psalms. He never worried about the sleeping children or his tuckered-out wife — who could have benefited from another hour of sleep. He simply desired to praise God and honor the Blessed Mother. If Marianna protested, Stanislaus told her that he needed to serve God first and above all, and “then think about you all” so that he could give a good example to the family. Stanislaus’ tradition no doubt stood out in the minds and hearts of the whole family. Though Stanislaus’ ways of honoring Mary and saying his morning prayers might have annoyed some of the household part of the time (if not every morning!), Helen’s father set a robust example of dedication to prayer. Stanislaus was also an avid reader, one of the two people in their region who could read and write. He even owned a collection of books. Marianna, on the other hand, while a hard worker and a fine baker of delicious breads, could neither read a recipe nor write barely a word. Marianna’s illiteracy would not, however, get in the way of teaching the faith to their children. She said, “The Faith was very important to [Stanislaus], which is what I liked about him. Though I could not read or write, I taught my daughters and sons the truths of the Gospel, taking care that they not only knew the precept of love of neighbor, but primarily, that they observed it.” She added, “Stanislaus was an example to them of daily prayer and obligatory participation in Sunday Mass.” It was certainly a joint effort.

Helen was a favorite of her parents because of her docile disposition and her eagerness to help. A loving and intelligent child, she was very obedient and, even from a young age, was entrusted with duties in the household. When she was a bit older, she would help bring the cows out to pasture. As the cattle grazed, Helen would read books and pray. When inside her home, she prayed before a little homemade family altar and a metal crucifix that her father brought home from a pilgrimage to Czestochowa. As a youngster and again as a teenager, Helen had her first profound mystical experiences.

At 7 years old, in 1912, while praying before the Blessed Sacrament at a Vespers service at St. Casimir Church, Helen’s heart overflowed with God’s abiding love. She suddenly realized that she should live a more perfect and holy life. Later on, she wrote in her Diary, “The love of God was imparted to me for the first time and filled my little heart; and the Lord gave me understanding of divine things” (Diary, 1404). The full meaning of the message would grow in her heart with time, and eventually she would discern that she was called to the religious life.

Some nights, Helen would be awakened by flashes of light. She would proceed to pray because she understood that her Guardian Angel had summoned her to it. In 1914, Helen received her First Holy Communion at 9 years old and made her first Confession in her parish’s confessional, which is still there today. On the day of her First Holy Communion, Helen felt very close to Jesus and kept to herself afterwards. She chose not to engage in conversation with anyone. When asked why she was walking by herself, she replied, “I am not walking alone; I am with the Lord Jesus.”

Helen grew to be one of the best students in her class, but since the school was small, the older children usually left school to make room for the younger children. After almost three years of schooling, Helen begged her parents to allow her to take on employment. She desperately desired to help support her family because, though her father worked hard, he could not make ends meet. Finally, when she was 14, Helen’s parents gave their consent for her to do domestic work for a family they knew. Almost a year later, Helen returned home to plead again, but this time for permission to enter a convent. Since the family couldn’t provide the required dowry, Stanislaus firmly put his foot down on the subject. Helen obediently returned to domestic work.

A childlike trust and humility

Throughout her life, Helen remained obedient and humble. This future saint wanted to please God with all her choices. After Helen had become a nun, during a conversation with her Mother Directress, Mother Mary Joseph emphasized the necessity of cultivating spiritual childhood. “Sister,” she said to Sr. Faustina, “let simplicity and humility be the characteristic traits of your soul. Go through life like a little child, always trusting, always full of simplicity and humility, content with everything, happy in every circumstance. There, where others fear, you will pass calmly along, thanks to this simplicity and humility. Remember this, Sister, for your whole life: as waters flow from the mountains down into the valleys, so, too, do God’s graces flow into humble souls” (Diary, 55).

We are all called to spiritual childhood. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt 19:14). Saint Therese of Lisieux, who died at the age of 24, was known for her “little way of spiritual childhood.” She said, “I know well that it is not my great desires that please God in my little soul, what He likes to see is the way I love my littleness and my poverty; it is my blind hope in His mercy, this is my only treasure. ... The weaker one is, without desires or virtues the more ready one is for the operations of this consuming and transforming love. ... God rejoices more in what He can do in a soul humbly resigned to its poverty than in the creation of millions of suns and the vast stretch of the heavens.”

Like St. Therese, Sr. Faustina aspired to remain little and humble. She prayed, “O my God, I understand well that You demand this spiritual childhood of me, because You are constantly asking it of me through Your representatives” (Diary, 55). Jesus Himself asked the nun to remain “little.” He said, “Although My greatness is beyond understanding, I commune only with those who are little. I demand of you a childlike spirit. ... The greatest sinners would achieve great sanctity, if only they would trust in My mercy” (Diary, 332, 1784). It would seem that remaining “little” and humble has a lot to do with the “trust” for which Jesus asks.

Saint Therese also speaks about some of the essential components of the little way of spiritual childhood. “Merit is not to be found in doing much or in giving much, but rather in receiving and in loving much ... But when Jesus wants for Himself the sweetness of giving, it would not be gracious to refuse. Let Him take and give whatever He wants.” Similarly, St. Teresa of Calcutta used to say, “Take whatever He gives and give whatever He takes with a big smile.” The saints have much to teach us about spiritual childhood!

Something to Ponder

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,” we read in Matthew 23:12.

Why do you think God uses the weak, the small, and the seemingly insignificant to deliver great and important messages? Reflect for a moment on the three young Fatima visionaries. They were all under the age of 11! They were simple, basically uneducated but faith-filled farm children who were chosen by God to deliver the message of Our Lady of Fatima to the world. We are told that God raises the lowly to confound the proud. Does God, in some sense, need our humility?

In this chapter, we’ve discussed St. Faustina’s birth and childhood, her early years, and the spiritual childhood to which we are all called. Saint Therese and St. Faustina are great examples of people who desired great holiness. They learned that it is essential to possess a childlike faith in order to grow closer to God and follow His holy will. This week, take some time to ponder your relationship with God. Do you give God enough time in prayer? Yes, life is busy, but making time for those we love is essential. God should be right at the top of our list!

A Merciful Action

In an attempt to get you started on the right foot, this “Merciful Action” section will be much longer than those in each of the remaining chapters of this book. One of Sr. Faustina’s confessors once told her, “Comport yourself before God like the widow in the Gospel; although the coin she dropped into the box was of little value, it counted far more before God than all the big offerings of others” (Diary, 55).

Wise words indeed. He was referring to Jesus’ words to His disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 12:43-44). Take a moment sometime this week to read the story in Mark 12:41-44 or in Luke 21:1-4. We tend to think that something seemingly little might not be worth very much, but the words of Jesus (above) and the witness of the saints say otherwise.

One time, late at night, a poor man showed up at the door of Mother Teresa’s convent. He had heard that she had just received the Nobel Peace Prize. He also wished to give her something and handed her a small offering. This hero for the poorest of the poor knew that it was all that the man had. She struggled interiorly for a brief moment, moved by his caring gesture, but at the same time, she did not know if she could accept it. In the end, she gratefully accepted his gift, sending him off with her blessing. She later explained that his generosity moved her more than receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

Imagine that!

One time after speaking at an event, I passed a gentleman standing by himself. He caught my eye, and I smiled at him. He came over later and told me that he had been corresponding with me for quite some time, but we hadn’t met in person until that moment. Imagine my surprise at that unexpected meeting! After the event, he wrote again to say, “You were on the way to the back of the room after finishing your speech when you passed by me and gave me a smile which melted my heart. You had no idea who I was, but you smiled at me and lifted my spirits in a wonderful way. It was worth driving all that way just to experience that moment.” He added, “You said on Fr. Andrew Apostoli’s show once that a simple smile can make all the difference in the world to someone. You certainly practice what you preach. I just wanted to let you know this. I truly believe the Holy Spirit led me to come see you that day.”

Simple acts of love can be great works of mercy, and can help transform someone’s soul. Smile often, especially at complete strangers. Pray and ponder at least one meaningful work of mercy you can carry out this week.

 

A PRAYER OF MERCY FOR THIS WEEK

(To be prayed each day this week.)

Dear Merciful Jesus, help me to be a more merciful and generous soul. 

I want to become “smaller” and more humble. I want to strive to grow in holiness.

Mother Mary, pray for me. 

Saint Faustina, please pray for me.

Jesus, I trust in You!

Amen.

 

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