Fill the valleys, make straight the paths of the Lord…
In a previous article I discussed what is meant by the destruction and levelling of the mountains of our soul; now, here is what must be understood without a shadow of a doubt when Saint John the Baptist speaks to us about filling the valleys: It is, it seems to me, our aversions and our grudges, our fears and our sorrows, in short, all the painful sentiments of the soul. We must, therefore, master and overcome them so that the invisible procession of divine grace can cross the path of our hearts without hindrance.
There is hardly any need to dwell upon the negative bounds of indifference and supernatural equality where our souls are to be established, for what has been said about the dangers of natural joys or human desires, and the miseries which these passions bring about, we could of course reiterate them with opposite sentiments. What is harmful to the soul is not in all respects joy or pain, it is our sensitivity to the things of this world.
There is, Saint Paul tells us, a sadness relative to God, and a sadness relative to the flesh. When one thinks that one has offended God so much, and that one has done so little for His glory, when one is aware of the millions of offences which are constantly being perpetrated against His divine Majesty, surely one suffers. But it is calm and serene suffering that does not detract its peace from the soul. It pushes us and gives us strength appropriate to the service of God. It is what makes religious humble and generous, souls of atonement and reparation. It is of this state of mind that Saint Paul said: such godly sorrow results in repentance that leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Whereas worldly sorrow — St. Paul adds—, produces death. Sadness according to the world is that which ensues from bruised self-esteem or being deprived of the paraphernalia and trappings one covets. A superior has made a rather harsh observation to us or has refused us something. A colleague believed he had to denounce us when we were at fault for something. Immediately our heart begins to revolt, all manner of diabolical thoughts spring to mind if we do not remain mindful and guarded, if we do not react energetically, we soon feel our souls becoming troubled, and God departs from us. To abandon oneself to such states of bitterness as well as to indulge in the melancholy of memories and regrets, for a religious, these are faults which manifest a lack of interior life, very relaxed and slowed down relations with the religious. Good God, and which promise, if we renew them, to cool down and finally to extinguish what may still remain in the soul of the primitive home of piety and fervour.
By the way, a special mention on bad temper; A monk, a heart that has truly given itself to God, must never become angry. If we become angry, the reason is always down to a lack of self-esteem. The insults that we believe we may have suffered, the indignation against the faults of others, demonstrating resistance in the face of injustices or malicious gossip of which we are the victim: none of this would exist if we had truly given all our heart to Jesus, and if we no longer sought freedom from hardships, or relief from the petty satisfactions in our lives of little consequence.
Moreover there is also a sadness that we must never allow to enter within our soul, a sadness that is far deeper and more dangerous than any other, no doubt, because it is far more intimate; it is what we describe as discouragement. You are well aware that the purification of the soul is made through a series of internal and/or external trials, which are all the more beneficial depending on how courageously we have endured them. How do we endure such a trial in order that we come out purer, stronger and more united to God? By not allowing it to penetrate the depths of our soul: by simply refusing it and saying no to it. No! Bitterness, crushing scruples, doubts about my predestination, spiritual fatigue, disgust. Discouragement, weariness, darkness, obscurity, purgatories and inner hells, no! You must not allow them to subvert your confidence. No longer feeling anything, no longer wanting to see anything, yet still wanting to believe and hope in God.
Remaining faithful to one’s vocation —everyone, lay or religious have a vocation— and to one’s ideal of devotion and complete surrender to God, even if the spiritual storm surrounding us metamorphoses into a typhoon blowing ten times harder. I’ve known souls who for years have struggled against doubt in this manner, recoiling from in utter anguish, who have in this manner forged for themselves a composure of steel and who, today, in the joy of deep and continued union with God, bless those earlier years of torment and tribulation’s which never seemed to come to an end, yet equipped and matured them for their present beatitudes.
But I understand that such assurances give very little relief indeed to a soul that is struggling within one of these spiritual storms. This is precisely the attributes that makes such trials so formidable and arduous: there is absolutely no outside help that can provide us with relief and for some unknown reason, at the time, we seem certain that these struggles are without end. Simply remember that the more prepared, attentive and indefatigable we remain, in denying these zephyr’s of despondency to enter within our heart, the faster a demon becomes tired of its efforts to subvert you and the greater the harvest of graces when the sun’s peaceful early morning rays caress you.
For this is the example and the mute advice given to us by the Forerunner: cut short and attack evil at its root. This is how he himself had achieved it: leaving the world, his family, his possessions and his friends at a very young age to go and live in the desert alone. It cannot be emphasised enough just how important this actually is in the labours and battles of the interior life: watch the beginnings, do not allow yourself to make small concessions. As soon as we are grasped by lamentable sentiments or a malicious thought, we ought to immediately, do exactly as Saint John the Baptist had done; refuse to engage, turn away and courageously withdraw into that inner solitude where Jesus is waiting for us with open arms. Let’s not fool ourselves, don’t entertain sensual thoughts or thoughts of discouragement: let’s stand at the door of our own heart, like any soldier would do, armed with our two-edged sword, and allow nothing at all to pass that does not bear the imprint of the supernatural and the mark of the divine.
This principle is of such vital importance that I feel the need to, with your consent, impress it upon your very memories with just a few examples: Consider a river at its source: how easy it would be to divert its course. A child is able to achieve this by simply digging a small ditch into the ground with his toy spade. Now, if instead, you wait until the river has flowed for 30 miles or so, human ability would prevent a fully grown man from altering its course. Bad thoughts are exactly the same. When they’re emergent, it takes just a tiny bit of willpower to deflect your attention away. Yet, if we procrastinate, waiting until these thoughts have already invaded your soul and filled it with their defiling ripples, leading you to make one concession after another and fault after fault, of course, it will be quite another matter to simply get rid of them before they flourish. My grandmother Concettina, when I had a dark night of the soul, would always remind me to ‘Murdilu nu nàsciri!—Nip it in the bud!’
Saint John the Baptist doubtlessly formed the opinion that humanity upon the planet as being similar to trees planted in uncultivable soil. If we carefully uproot the tree and replant it in fertile soil, it will begin to heal, grow and bear fruit. This being exactly what John the Baptist had done for himself when he withdrew from the world at such a young age. It is so easy to pull out a small shoot of a tree: but to pull out a larger tree, one that has been in place for a year, its is impossible without causing damage or even killing the tree. If a tree has been planted in an unfavourable location where it has grown facing the wrong direction, and we have waited too long before we transplant it, there is only one thing left to do: and that is to cut it down, chop it up and throw it unto the fire. For our Lord warns us: every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10).
Let us therefore imitate St. John the Baptist, wild and gentle, ascetic Jewish prophet known in Christianity as the forerunner of Jesus. He had an unusual flair for fashion, clothed in feral-looking apparel obtained from camel’s hair and a rough leather waistband. He resided in the desert wilderness, ate locusts and wild honey, we could safely say that John the Baptist was to some extent the very first Carthusian hermit; let us remain always vigilant, energetic and quick in the struggle within ourselves, let us cut short that which prevents us from living united with the good Lord. We can say that this with a love of radical solutions which is distinctive of the monastic spirit, especially the Carthusian spirit. And that is, after all, the most accomplished and ingenious thing about it. Because it is far easier to simply just give up, wholeheartedly, all at once, that which troubles and burdens us —for example, curiosity, or a desire toward vanity— rather than half wanting to satisfy it whilst attempting to remain friends with God. A divided soul is always an unhappy soul. Those who do not think of God at all can sample those vulgar pleasures of the senses. Those who give themselves completely to the Good Lord are happy like wild birds flying freely, like children at play, like angels in the presence of God, because they have no worries whatsoever. But for all those who want to give while keeping, to be for God and for themselves at the same time, to have the consolations of Jesus and other consolations too, these are people who will always be anxious, uncertain and confused. They are unable to ever be happy. Therefore, in order for you to be successful in the interior life as in anything else you will ever do, just remember these two short words of advice: watch out for beginnings, stick to your principles and never allow yourself to accept half measures.
In conclusion, please allow me to share a word with you about what transpires within your soul when the advice of Saint John the Baptist has been faithfully followed, it has purified itself of the joys and pains caused by self-love, when it no longer allows itself to be carried away by small or large pleasures, nor to be overcome by sorrows and annoyances.
These sentiments and passions, self-obsession, or obsession toward others, these desires and the bitterness that has made our soul loose its serenity: has been agitated by a myriad of events which prevented the light from entering into the soul.
Now, we have established it calmly and we notice: it is just like a glass of water, which, a moment ago when we picked it up, was been unsettled, undulating and swirling, after we have placed the glass on the table and left to stand for a few moments the water settles. In the same manner, our unrest gradually fades away; regaining its clarity, sunlight once again passes through and reflects as the iridescent colours of light passing through a crystal. The light of God in the soul does exactly the same, when the turbulence of egocentric passions have subsided: the soul begins to find peace and confidence and the gentle light of faith is once again lit within your soul. Here it is again quite clear and transparent like pure water, loyal to God and true to itself, humbly benevolent, gentle, charitable to others in the small things as well as those that are greater.
We hermits, anchorites and solitaries, we can achieve a great deal for both the glory of God and the salvation of souls. To do this we simply need to offer ourselves to God with a serene heart, quietened through sacrifice, where God can draw closer and rest like within us just as a ray of sunshine upon a crystal. To rest, I say, to multiply in some manner, and to shine with the clarity of our faith and with consolation of hope upon the souls which are closest to us and also upon those who are far away from us, in both this world and throughout eternity.
May the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit bless you and watch over you always.