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Saints are part of our DNA as Catholics. They are our friends, our personal companions on our faith journey. They comfort and challenge us, they give us guidance and hope, they help us find God’s plan for our lives. Walking With the Saints passes on the stories of selected holy people who are powerful examples of Christian living.

Walking With the Saints

Contemplatives and Mystics

by Albert Haase, O.F.M.

The cross stands center stage in Christian spirituality. It symbolizes the uncompromising death to self and the courageous surrender to God that were hallmarks of Jesus’ life. Every disciple must pick up his or her cross and follow in the Master’s footsteps. Indeed, embracing the cross is the distinguishing act which separates Christians from other believers. All the saints have trod the via dolorosa, the way of sorrows. This month’s trio of saints each experienced the cross in such a profound way that they are called “mystics”—people who had a unique experience of and response to God in the depths of their suffering.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)

She was dead at the age of 24. She spent the last decade of her life behind the walls of a cloistered Carmelite monastery in northern France. She never wrote a word of theology. And yet, Pope John Paul II declared St. Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. Ever wonder why?

Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin was the ninth and last child of a saintly couple. Her childhood was scarred with separations. She was four when her mother died. She later longed to follow her two eldest sisters to the Carmelite convent in Lisieux.

According to her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, her childhood came to a sudden end on Christmas Day, 1886. She rushed home from Midnight Mass knowing her shoes, placed in the chimney corner, would be filled with small gifts. As she climbed the steps to her bedroom, she overheard her father’s justifiable comment that this would be the final year that Thérèse, nearly 14, would experience this childish custom.

She described this jolt as the “grace of leaving my childhood.” In that instant, she says, she received the gift of “love and the spirit of self-forgetfulness.” Thérèse’s response to the cross was emerging.

Path to holiness

She joined her two sisters in the convent at age 15. Again she was the youngest, now among 26 other nuns. At her profession in September 1890, she took the name Sister Thérèse of the Infant Jesus and the Holy Face.

Thérèse’s holiness is found not in the convent’s seven hours of daily prayer, nor in her domestic work, nor in her time in charge of the sacristy or as assistant to the mistress of novices. Her heroic sanctity is found in the way she performed her daily tasks even as she carried personal crosses. Attitude was everything. Her “Little Way,” which evolved over the years, was the practical expression of her loving spirit of self-forgetfulness.

Her emotional suffering centered upon her father who, soon after she entered the convent, suffered a mental illness which necessitated a three-year institutionalization. Thérèse considered his illness her greatest suffering.

That suffering would be eclipsed on Good Friday, 1896, when she began exhibiting symptoms of tuberculosis. The 23-year-old nun experienced incredible pain and bouts of suffocation. A few days later, she began experiencing a third cross, a complete loss of faith. An incident of sheer desperation shows how she struggled to cling to God: Using her own tubercular blood which she had spit up, she penned the Apostles’ Creed and pinned it to her religious habit.

Love alone counts

In the midst of all this, she continued to be faithful to the daily schedule, to give herself to community activities and even to write devotional poems at the community’s request. The attitude of self-forgetfulness consumed her.

When asked about her “Little Way” a few days before her death, Thérèse described it as the way of spiritual childhood, of confidence in and abandonment to God. Expressed in selfless deeds of love—a smile, a kind word, a simple act of charity—it was “to throw at Jesus’ feet the flowers of little sacrifices, to win Him through our caresses.”

The “Little Flower,” as she once referred to herself, cared to give the very best—flowers symbolized in practical little sacrifices of self-forgetful love. The future Doctor of the Church summed up her secret the day before her death: “It is love alone that counts.”


St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

At age 34, some members of his religious community felt so threatened that they imprisoned him in a small windowless room and routinely beat him three times a week. After nine months, he managed to escape under cover of night—making “night” an important symbol in his spiritual experience. Taking only the poetry he had composed during confinement, he climbed out a window and, over time, emerged as one of the greatest mystics of Christian spirituality. In 1926, he was named a Doctor of the Church.

Juan de Yepes y Álvarez was the youngest son of a wealthy silk merchant and a poor weaver girl in Fontiveros, Spain. His father, disowned by his family for marrying below his rank, died soon after Juan’s birth. His mother struggled to make ends meet, finally settling the homeless family in Medina del Campo.

After a basic education, John worked at the Plague Hospital de la Concepcion. The hospital’s founder offered the teenager the chance to attend a Jesuit school. Juan later turned down the opportunity to study for the diocesan priesthood. Instead, at age 20, he entered the Carmelite Order and took the name John of St. Matthias. He continued his education and was ordained a priest in 1567.

An agent of reform

Returning to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass, he met Teresa of Avila. This encounter would change his life as he agreed to bring her reform, based upon a stricter lifestyle of poverty and prayer, to the male Carmelite Order.

In November 1568, John and two other friars began to observe the primitive Carmelite Rule in a small farmhouse. Changing his name to John of the Cross, he led his followers in the practice of silence, prayer and penance, together with a ministry of preaching and hearing confessions. They wore coarse wool habits and went barefoot. Hence, they were called “Discalced” (shoeless) Carmelites in distinction to “Calced” (shoe-wearing) Carmelites.

John worked closely with Teresa in the reform. He followed her to the Convent of the Incarnation where she was superior. At the early age of 30, he became the spiritual director to both Teresa and the entire convent.

In 1575, the Calced Carmelites began rejecting the reform. Soon after, John was imprisoned.

Poetry and the ‘dark night’

It was during this experience of the cross that John wrote his mystical poetry, which continues to inspire and encourage people in the life of prayer. After his escape under cover of night, some Carmelite nuns asked for an interpretation of his poetry. This led John to write some of his classic works: The Ascent of Mount Carmel; The Dark Night of the Soul; and explanations of the poem Spiritual Canticle as well as an untitled poem that begins, “O Living Flame of Love.”

John is known for the concept of the “dark night of the soul.” “Night” is the central symbol in his writings. It suggests that the spiritual journey is a mystery which challenges the believer to be led by blind faith in God. John used it to describe detachment, the active and deliberate renunciation of the possessive desire for anything. He also used it to describe the passive experience of the cross—the agony of depression, desolation and the feeling of divine abandonment that God imposes on those whom God is leading to the deepest forms of contemplation.

Ill and unappreciated, John died at age 49. Having accepted the cross both in name and in experience, he now enjoys endless light and eternal freedom.

St. Padre Pio (1887-1968)

When told that an airplane had traveled nonstop from Rome to New York in six hours, he quipped, “Good heavens, that is a long time! When I go, it takes me only a second.” Padre Pio bore the physical wounds of Christ in his body. Yet, at his canonization in 2002, no reference was made to his mystical gift for bilocation or to the stigmata. Rather, Pope John Paul II said in his homily, “The life and mission of Padre Pio prove that difficulties and sorrows, if accepted out of love, are transformed into a privileged way of holiness, which opens onto the horizons of a greater good, known only to the Lord.”

One of eight children, Francesco Forgione was born into a poor farming family in Pietrelcina, a small town in southern Italy. In the hopes of helping young Francesco pursue his call as a Capuchin priest, his father spent time in America and worked on the Long Island and Pennsylvania railroads.

Francesco entered the Capuchin order at age 15 and was given the name Pio. Due to ill health he had to return home, where his pastor tutored him in philosophy and theology. In 1910, he was ordained a priest and became “Padre Pio.”

Mystical gift

On September 20, 1918, a year after arriving at the friary in San Giovanni Rotondo, Padre Pio, while praying, had a vision of Jesus. Afterward, he discovered quarter-sized holes in his hands and feet and a two-inch wound near his heart. He was able to hide the stigmata for a few days but, when the religious guardian of the friary ordered him to extend his hands, Padre Pio burst into tears of embarrassment. Life for him and his friary would never be the same.

Padre Pio lovingly accepted the consequences and inconveniences of this rare manifestation of the cross. Besides the physical pain it entailed, he endured the scrutiny of both medical science and the Vatican’s Holy Office. In 1924 and again in 1931, the authenticity of the stigmata was questioned and major restrictions were placed on his ministry: He was not permitted to celebrate public Masses or to hear confessions for a period of time.

As word traveled about the stigmatist, hundreds of pilgrims made their way to Our Lady of Grace Friary. The life of the friary became centered upon the ministry of Padre Pio. He heard confessions 10-12 hours a day. So many penitents came for confession that they were issued tickets. Added to his gift for hearing confessions were God’s instant answers to his particular requests for healings and cures.

The saving cross

Padre Pio’s spiritual life centered on Marian devotion and the recitation of the rosary, his public Masses (which could last up to three hours) and his daily fidelity to hearing confessions. But all of this flowed out of a heart surrendered to the cross. That was his secret. He once said, “If we knew the value of suffering, we would ask for nothing else.” Clearly, he saw the redemptive and transformative quality of the cross.

Padre Pio’s extraordinary compassion for those who suffered found expression not only in his ministry of prayer but also in what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “miracle”: the construction of the House for the Relief of Suffering, still one of the largest, most modern hospitals in southern Italy. Conceived by the saint in 1940, its doors opened in 1956. Today, standing next to the friary of San Giovanni Rotondo, it holds over 1,000 beds.

After being present for 50 years, the stigmata healed the week before his death. No doubt God was giving Padre Pio another gift—advance news of his resurrection.

Next: Defenders of the Faith

Stepping Out in Faith
by Joan McKamey

Turn your experiences of the cross into something life-giving. Follow in the footsteps of...

• St. Thèrése of Lisieux, whose spirit of self-forgetfulness helped her move beyond her own suffering to focus on God and others. Listen to the troubles of another without judgment or comparison to your own.

• St. John of the Cross, whose poetry and concept of the “dark night of the soul” have helped many on their spiritual journeys. Read a good book on the spiritual life, then share it with a friend.

• Padre Pio, whose compassion for those who suffer led him to build a hospital. Reach out to a friend, family member or parishioner who is in the hospital or a nursing home. Commit to praying daily for the sick and suffering.

Share how these and other saints inspire you on your faith journey.
We will post selected inspirations in this feature.
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