05 September 2008

The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

The Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary

I'll just come right out and say it: this book is disturbing. I'm not sure how else to sum up the reaction I have to this autobiography, though it is "offensive to pious ears" (as the theological notes would put it). Allow me to qualify this assessment: "disturbing" can be said in many ways. It is certainly disturbing on the level of spectacle; the saint performs some outrageous penances to overcome her sensitive nature, one of which was struck from the record as unfit to mention. Yet her story also stirs up something in me that justly accuses me of complacency, of coldness to the love of God and the unfathomable desire of the Sacred Heart to unite humanity to itself. I believe Margaret Mary is a saint and is now enjoying the fruits of reward tilled by a lifetime of confusion and suffering that perpetually conformed her to her suffering savior, but part of me wants to hold back from completely ratifying it as worthy of general consumption. Perhaps Pope St. Gregory the Great's adage applies here:
Those things are ours that we love in others, even if we cannot imitate them, and what is loved in ourselves becomes the possession of those who love it. Therefore, let the envious consider the power of charity, which gives us credit for the results of another person's work, without any effort on our part.
This "bond of charity," perhaps, is what one must keep in mind when hearing St. Margaret Mary describe the suffering she endured (and sought) in her all-consuming pursuit of perfection at the hands of her Lord.

Now, that being said, in the judgment of the Church, this woman is the recipient of private visitations that have been ratified by popes. My concern here is articulated best by a short piece on self-love by then Cardinal Ratzinger in a little book I highly recommend: The Yes of Jesus Christ. The relevant excerpt:
Man—every man and woman—is called to salvation. He is willed and loved by God, and his highest task is to respond to this love. He must not hate what God loves. He must not destroy what is destined for eternity. To be called to the love of God is to have a vocation for happiness. To become happy is a ‘duty’ that is just as human and natural as it is supernatural. When Jesus talks of self-denial, of losing one’s own life and so on, he is showing the way of proper self-affirmation (‘self-love’), something that always demands opening oneself, transcending oneself. But this necessity of going beyond oneself, of leaving oneself behind, does not exclude genuine self-affirmation. Quite the contrary: it is the way of finding oneself and ‘loving’ oneself. When forty years ago I read for the first time Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest the last words of this suffering soul made an indelible impression on me: it is not difficult to hate oneself; the grace of all graces would however be to love oneself as a member of the Body of Christ...

The realism of this statement is obvious. There are many people who live in conflict with themselves. This aversion to oneself, this inability to accept oneself and to be reconciled with oneself, is far removed from that self-denial that the Lord wants. Those who cannot stand themselves cannot love their neighbor. They cannot accept themselves ‘as themselves’ because they are against themselves and are bitter as a result, and the very foundation of their life makes them incapable of loving.
What I wanted to convey was that the kind of egoism Ratzinger rightly condemns ought never to seek justification in the lives of saints like St. Margaret Mary. Read her story, but imitate her only out of love of the Lord and not hatred of self.

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