“Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” I read this line in T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” a poem, nearly 50 years ago. As a matter of fact, I wrote my master’s thesis on the poem—so I remember pouring over these lines, trying to divine Eliot’s often obscure meanings. Parts of lines often come to my mind, but I have come to know that this one expresses a great spiritual truth. Human kind does everything to avoid facing reality: drugs, alcohol, sex, progressively deteriorating entertainment, mindless media, mindless eating—how far and how deep do we really want to go?
In silence and solitude, we cannot escape ourselves, for this is our most basic reality. To enter reality is to enter self-knowledge; and that is to enter misery. I remember well what I read in St. Faustina’s diary: if God were to give me the full revelation of who and what I am in a full, instant disclosure of self-knowledge, I would be terrified. However, knowing my misery, God has such tenderness for how such a revelation would affect me, would destroy me, that He gives me self-knowledge in tiny doses, gradually revealing to me the absolute depths of my unique misery. Even so, occasional events devastate me when I catch a glimpse of myself as He sees me.
In a recent retreat, I meditated on misery with my brothers and sisters. Until I begin to fathom the depths of my own misery, until I begin to enter self-knowledge, I cannot begin to understand who and what God is, His astonishing mercy.
What is this misery? Years ago I entered into several deep reflections on original sin—a great place for anyone to start. We all know we were born in original sin, inheriting our fallen nature from Adam and Eve. Do you remember what its affects are on “human kind”? Original sin produces a darkened intellect, a weakened will, and disunity between the soul and the body. Here is where we start. Now compound the misery by adding the wounds of personal sin, our own and the wounds we receive from others’ sins, the faults and habits we cannot give up, the vices, etc. As years pass, we often find ourselves entrenched in these disordered tendencies. Even as we struggle to gain the habits of virtue, we fall often, and sometimes severely.
St. Paul bemoaned this condition in Romans:
18 And really, I know of nothing good living in me — in my natural self, that is — for though the will to do what is good is in me, the power to do it is not:
19 the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want — that is what I do.
20 But every time I do what I do not want to, then it is not myself acting, but the sin that lives in me.
21 So I find this rule: that for me, where I want to do nothing but good, evil is close at my side.
22 In my inmost self I dearly love God’s law,
23 but I see that acting on my body there is a different law which battles against the law in my mind. So I am brought to be a prisoner of that law of sin which lives inside my body.
24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death?
25 God — thanks be to him — through Jesus Christ our Lord. So it is that I myself with my mind obey the law of God, but in my disordered nature I obey the law of sin.”
How does baptism affect original sin and our fallen nature? The Catholic Catechism teaches us:
1263 By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin. In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam’s sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God.
1264 Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, “the tinder for sin” (fomes peccati); since concupiscence “is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”
The saints were not free of this misery, either. If they entered into self-knowledge—and they certainly did—then they experienced the same great depth of human misery that we all experience. St. Faustina uses the word misery 115 times in her diary. She 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 has 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.”
St. Faustina also gives us the key to joy in our misery! Because in us “deep calls unto deep”—deep misery calls to deeper mercy. She writes:
“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!”
Long before St. Faustina or any of the saints, Mary, the Blessed Mother herself, taught us this joy in her Magnificat: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” The very depth of our misery is an abyss of hunger for goodness which only His mercy can fill. Only the truly poor in spirit can be filled with the riches of His mercy. If we do not acknowledge or even know our misery, we are the rich which He sends empty away. How foolish we are to hide behind our pride, our false wealth, our masks, our claims that we are perfectly fine, that we don’t need anything—thank you very much!
Let us reflect and pray with St. Faustina:
“69 (29) + O Jesus, eternal Truth, strengthen my feeble forces; You can do all things, Lord. I know that without You all my efforts are in vain. O Jesus, do not hide from me, for I cannot live without You. Listen to the cry of my soul, Your mercy has not been exhausted, Lord, so have pity on my misery.”
“ God demands great purity of certain souls, and so He gives them a deeper knowledge of their own misery. Illuminated by light from on high, the soul can better know what pleases God and what does not.”
“ Pride keeps it [the soul] in darkness. The soul neither knows how, nor is it willing, to probe with precision the depths of its own misery. It puts on a mask and avoids everything that might bring it recovery.”
“283 I want to love You as no human soul has ever loved You before; and although I am utterly miserable and small, I have, nevertheless, cast the anchor of my trust deep down into the abyss of Your mercy, O my God and Creator! In spite of my great misery I fear nothing, but hope to sing You a hymn of glory for ever.”
“289 My happiest moments are when I am alone with my Lord. During these moments I experience the greatness of God and my own misery.”
“ Suddenly, I heard these words: You are My delightful dwelling place; My Spirit rests in you. After these words, I felt the Lord looking into the depths of my heart; and seeing my misery, I humbled myself in spirit and admired the immense mercy of God, that the Most High Lord would approach such misery.”
“363 O good Jesus, thank You for the great grace of making known to me what I am of myself: misery and sin, and nothing more. I can do only one thing of myself, and that is to offend You, O my God, because misery can do no more of itself than offend You, O infinite Goodness!”
“ …I thought I would die of joy. At such times, my knowledge of God and his attributes becomes more acute, and also I know my own self and my misery much better. I am amazed at the Lord’s great condescension to such a miserable soul as mine.”
“435] Then I heard these words: Do not fear; I Myself will make up for everything that is lacking in you. But these words penetrated me to my depths and made me even more aware of my misery, and I understood that the word of the Lord is living and that it penetrates to the very depths. I understood that God demands a more perfect way of life of me. However, I kept using my incompetence as an excuse.”
593 O my Jesus, nothing is better for the soul than humiliations. In contempt is the secret of happiness, when the soul recognizes that, of itself, it is only wretchedness and nothingness, and that whatever it possesses of good is a gift of God. When the soul sees that everything is given it freely and that the only thing it has of itself is its own misery, this is what sustains it in a continual act of humble prostration before the majesty of God. And God, seeing the soul in such a disposition, pursues it with His graces. As the soul continues to immerse itself more deeply into the abyss of its nothingness and need, God uses His omnipotence to exalt it. If there is a truly happy soul upon earth, it can only be a truly humble soul. At first, one’s self-love suffers greatly on this account, but after a soul has struggled courageously. God grants it much light by which it sees how wretched and full of deception everything is. God alone is in its heart. A humble soul does not trust itself, but places all its confidence in God. God defends the humble soul and lets Himself into its secrets, and the soul abides in unsurpassable happiness which no one can comprehend.”
“ The Lord has inclined himself to my misery like a ray of the sun upon a barren and rocky desert. And yet, under the influence of His rays, my soul has become covered with verdure, flowers, and fruit, and has become a beautiful garden for His repose.”
“606 My Jesus, despite Your graces, I see and feel all my misery. I begin my day with battle and end it with battle. As soon as I conquer one obstacle, ten more appear (69) to take its place. But I am not worried, because I know that this is the time of struggle, not peace. When the burden of the battle becomes too much for me, I throw myself like a child into the arms of the heavenly Father and trust I will not perish. O my Jesus, how prone I am to evil, and this forces me to be constantly vigilant. But I do not lose heart. I trust God’s grace, which abounds in the worst misery.”
“672 His justice pervades me to the marrow; outwardly I lose strength and consciousness. With this, I come to know the great holiness of God and my own great misery. A great torment affects my soul; the soul perceives its deeds to be not without blemish. Then the strength of trust is awakened in the soul, which longs for God with all its might. Yet is sees how miserable it is and what utter vanity everything that surrounds it. And face to face with such holiness, Oh, poor soul…”
“718 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 great 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 in Me 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.”
“723 …your heart is My constant dwelling place, despite the misery that you are. I unite Myself with you, take away your misery and give you My mercy. I perform works of mercy in every soul. The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to My mercy.”
“852 (232) Today the Lord’s gaze shot through me suddenly, like lightning. At once, I came to know the tiniest specks 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. Such knowledge does not depress me nor keep me away from the Lord, but rather it arouses in my soul greater love and boundless trust. The repentance of my heart is linked to love. These extraordinary flashes from the Lord educate my soul. O sweet rays of God, enlighten me to the most secret depth, for I want to arrive at the greatest possible purity of heart and soul.”
1182 (50) + Today the Lord said to me, My daughter, My pleasure and delight, nothing will stop me from granting you graces. Your misery does not hinder my mercy. My daughter, write that the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy; [urge] all souls to trust in the unfathomable abyss of My mercy, because I want to save them all.
“1273 Jesus: My daughter, do you think you have written enough about My mercy? What you have written is but a drop compared to the ocean. I am Love and Mercy Itself. There is no misery that could be a match for My mercy, neither will misery exhaust it, because as it is being granted – it increases. The soul that trusts in My mercy is most fortunate, because I Myself take care of it.”
“1318 Jesus said to me, My daughter, you have not offered Me that which is really yours. I probed deeply into myself and found that I love God with all the faculties of my soul and, unable to see what it was that I had not yet given to the Lord, I asked, ‘Jesus, tell me what it is, and I will give it to You at once with a generous heart.’ Jesus said to me with kindness, Daughter, give Me your misery, because it is your exclusive property. At that moment, a ray of light illumined my soul, and I saw the whole abyss of my misery. In that same moment I nestled close to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus with so much trust that even if I had the sins of all the damned weighing on my conscience, I would not have doubted God’s mercy but, with a heart crushed to dust, I would have thrown myself into the abyss of Your mercy.”
“1485I let my Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of mercy for you. Come, then, with trust to draw graces from this fountain. I never reject a contrite heart. Your misery has disappeared in the depths of My mercy. Do not argue with Me about your wretchedness. You will give me pleasure if you hand over to me all your troubles and griefs. I shall heap upon you the treasures of My grace.”
“1602 If their trust is great, there is no limit to My generosity. The torrents of grace inundate humble souls. The proud remain always in poverty and misery, because My grace turns away from them to humble souls.”
“1775 Jesus said, For you, I am mercy itself; therefore I ask you to offer Me your misery and this very helplessness of yours and, in this way, you will delight My Heart.”