Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Selflessness and Sacrifice-Ecstasy in God

Father John J. Lombardi

"Lord, when you created me, you gave me myself. When You died for me, You gave me back myself. Given and re-given, I owe You twice over."- Prayer of St Bernard

The essence of religion is sacrifice. The essence of sacrifice is selfless giving to God. The fruit of this freedom is eternal life.  Jesus Christ counseled this way: "If anyone wants to be my follower he must deny himself, pick up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Lk 9:23) .

It's Lent and a good time to contemplate and practice such things. But today, in our world, sacrifice is out and self-affirmation is in. It's not popular to promote or practice "the Way of the Cross". Some may view such things as "spiritual fossils from the past". Others may see them as contrary to love and the Jesus' comforting care.

This is not so for the saints and holy people. Sacrifice, informed and inflamed by Love, is beautiful, liberating and essential to spiritual growth and union with God.

Carl Jung, the psychologist, once said: "It is only thru the mystery of self-sacrifice that a man may find himself anew."

With a "modernist influence" upon religion today, some may describe Catholics thus: "All's they talk about is sin and sacrifice." Orthodox Catholics may respond: "No. We talk about these realties-as the Bible and others before us have, so we may embrace the opposite of them: Union with God-we can never separate the two. St Peter says: ". you may share in the divine nature after escaping the corruption of evil which is in the world" (II Pt. 1:14). For the saints, "escaping" means sacrifice, and this means, variously put: "no pain, no gain". The Cross leads to the Resurrection. No Cross, no glory. Celestial Paradise follows purification.

Sacrifice means offering or "forfeiting" something to God-something costly--for a higher purpose. Mother Teresa often said: "Love until it hurts." Translation: we usually love with self-interest, with impure motives. Selfless love is rare; but the saints achieved it: St Paul said "I will show a you a higher way. Love never fails" (I Cor. 13). We need to take the "little stepping stones" and make the "baby-step choices" of seemingly puny sacrifices-to build up toward the bigger sacrifices and courageous mind which can impel us, like the saints-and Jesus Himself-to offer God our whole lives. The Blessed Virgin Mary certainly sacrificed her entire life to and for God, and in so doing, shows us ultimate discipleship: "Let it be done unto me according to Your will" (Lk 1:46)

Last week was the feast of St. Perpetua, a Roman noblewoman who, because of her Catholic Faith, was caught and executed by Roman soldiers and sword. But Perpetua's heroic virtue led her to unite heroically with the sacrifice with Jesus. So, instead of hastening her death as most of us would, she allowed her executioner to kill her in slow manner, so as to become "oned with Christ" in His Passion. The account describes it as an ecstasy amidst death.

What is the saint, and this account, teaching us? That the sacrifice of our most precious things-our very self and life-when done in, and thru and for Jesus (if He allows it), can make us "stand outside of" a previous enslaving self (the meaning of the word ecstasy), and free us into new life, into eternity. St Paul said: "We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that our sinful body might be done away with" (Rm. 6:6).

St Thomas More, married man, father, chancellor of England, made many "small sacrifices" in his daily life: he arose at 3am to pray for hours; attended daily Mass and frequented confession; he loved his Church and priests; read the Bible and saintly literature-and was a faithful family man. When he rightly denied King Henry an illegitimate divorce he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded. He said: "I die the King's servant, but God's first." He made this ultimate sacrifice precisely because he already made daily, loving ones. Do you have sacred desire for spiritual ecstasy --to become a freed soul-- by dying to self, thru sacrificing, relinquishing everything to God, so He may be more in you? Sacrifices are like a "sacred key" which open the door to holiness and truer imitation of Christ. Sacrifices-when done lovingly and nobly--are hard, but so powerful-don't reject them-embrace them like Saint Perpetua! St Thomas More shows us that self-denial is like a spiritual enhancing stimulus which prunes away the corruption of our lives to spiritually accelerate us toward higher, purer planes of living.

Perhaps today, sacrifice may imply giving up chocolate, or beer and tv. For some, these may be sacrifices. But, aren't they more like ways to begin a life of sacrifice, by foregoing the "extras" in life- comforts and pleasures--rather than an advanced life of forfeiting what is most essential, fundamental and central to us?

Jacinta, Lucia and Francisco, small children and visionaries of Our Lady at Fatima, made heroic sacrifices-giving up water, food, sleep, affections, privacy, while embracing mortifications like eating raw plants, drinking still water and sleeping in rugged quarters. Why--to become masochistic warriors, spiritual egotists? No. Because they loved the Virgin, wanted to make reparation for sinners, and imitate Jesus more. They wanted to grow in the spiritual life. This is the "fast track" toward regeneration-all the saints portray and promote this. St John Vianney said: "I have had crosses in plenty-more than I could carry, almost. I set myself to ask for the love of crosses-then I was happy."

The saints knew there was a 'science to the spiritual life" (as a matter of fact-some of these truths, often rejected by modernist Catholicism and Christianity, are so infused in mankind's blood they are universal in all religions). They sacrificed basic needs and requirements of life, which most often included food (by fasting), sleep (by vigils or early rising) , love and affection (denying self), time (tithing it away to others)-giving these up until it costs something. The sacrifice shows God we love Him, by embracing suffering and purification, thereby giving Him a more pristine, enlightened, soul to work with.

So, this Lent, Why sacrifice?

  • To better know the Sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross-giving up the most precious gift-life itself. When we do any sacrifice, we may taste, at least a little, His Passion, and thereby form deeper and more loving affections for Him.
  • We can build upon small sacrifices, and incremental self-denial, to be freed for larger and more loving ones. The saints show us that Love and sacrifice are not contradictory, but complementary.
  • Making sacrifices-like the saints-help us long for Heaven, and Bliss, which are the unending happiness spiritually implanted in our souls, where no corruption may interfere.
  • Practice becoming a " nobody" -and thereby heed St. Paul's words: "If anyone thinks himself something when he is nothing, he is deluding himself" (-Gal 6:3). Sacrifice time and possessions thru charity-give away until it hurts, to gain the freedom of spiritual poverty. ..Sacrifice willingly by accepting crosses-like "sacred sandpaper" and "spiritual scalpels" they will detach layers of false self to reveal your soul and configure you to Christ. In contemplation sacrifice to God generous time thru intense devotion by silent adoration. He will clean you in a way you cannot: "And all of us, with faces unveiled, gazing upon the glory of the Lord, are being , are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory" (II Cor. 3:18). Look, here's the simple spiritual equation: lose yourself (Lk. 9:24) by sacrifices, so "God may be all in all" (I Cor. 15:28). When we practice sacrifices like the saints, after a while it will not even seem like a cross, but rather become rapturous resolutions of be ecstatic love.

What sacrifices will you make? Remember what St Therese said: even the smallest sacrifice, done with great love, is a great gift to God. Consider some other activities this Holy Season:

  • Give up TV, radio, pleasure reading. Begin your day with prayer. St Francis DeSales recommends one half-hour a day for laypersons: pray a psalm, sit in silence before a crucifix, read the Book of Job or memorize Psalm 23. Pray the Rosary: forfeit your time for God.
  • Speak less and listen more-both with God and others. Count yourself last in meals, praise and attention. Keep a custody of the eyes: don't look at-and get enamored by everything, especially extraneous things and seductive attractions. Serve a poor, sick or dying person: don't expect thanks or praise. Reconcile with someone-your husband or wife, children or parents, a friend or neighbor-go out of your way to do it, humbly.
  • Read about the heroic sacrifices and love of the saints-imitate them (in your own way) as they imitated Christ. Count your blessings each night and thank God for them; examine your faults and really amend them. Give away riches and luxuries-to the poor, and be freed. Go to daily Mass as much possible, make a confession really soon; learn about the Divine Mercy devotion, study the Ten Commandments and how you fare regarding them
  • Carry a crucifix in your pocket and frequently "refer" to it-touch and nestle it in your hand to re-embrace the Lord Jesus' Crucifixion-His great Love for you. Prayer: "Most Blessed Trinity, Lead me from sin, To Your Divine Unity".

Briefly Noted

Satan and repentance -these two realties in the Gospel today are "spiritually un-correct" today. However, do you recall the saying-- "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely"? The Bible teaches that anything good can go bad, and anything great can get evil. The highest angel-Lucifer- chose to rebel against God. Remember: corruption can happen anywhere, anytime. Today we see the serious corruption of two essential realities: Marriage and Religion. The Pope has compassionately challenged a "culture of divorce" -wherein illegitimate divorce is hurtful to children, and sometimes even fueled by the legal profession and others. He has also warned us about changing the essentials of our Faith in trying to modernize or become more worldly. How? For instance : "All are sinners"( Rm 3:23) is replaced by the "I'm o.k.- you're-o.k" mentality. Hell and Purgatory are replaced by "suffering is only on earth." Personal conversion and penance is replaced by God's unconditional love of me without justice. The Highest angel chose evil-the best went worst. When we, ourselves, become bad, we need strong medicine: repentance. This means a hard, loving, focused, and continual turning of the "inner steering wheel" of the soul toward God, and away from evil and lukewarmenss. The Devil attacked Jesus, so: "Watch out, your adversary, the Devil is on the prowl looking for someone to devour' (I Pt 5:8) .

Saint Michael, the Archangel, Defend Us in Battle be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen."

Poem: "The truest wisdom, that to which we can aspire/ Is to be joined with God, to be with love on fire." +Agnelus Silesius

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi