This week I’m writing from the beautiful Black Rock Retreat Center in south central PA, attending the week-long “Head and Heart” Immersion Course offered by the Theology of the Body Institute, to seep in the teachings of Blessed John Paul II on the sacramental view of the human body, and in particular through our sexuality.
I won’t kid you, it has also been an excellent opportunity for me to catch up on some much-needed rest. No television or email in the room (I was warned there would be no Diet Coke machines, either, so I came fortified).
For the past two days I’ve been listening to Christopher talk about God’s plan for the human race from the beginning (“original man”), the restoration of what was lost in the Fall (“historical man”) and our ultimate destiny as the Bride of Christ in the marriage feast of the Lamb (“eschatological man”). All this was helpful in the way of professional development . . . but what helped me most, personally speaking, was something he said Sunday night about the role of suffering in the Christian life: that the “prayer of ecstasy” (think “The Ecstasy of Teresa of Avila by Bernini,” pictured here) is always preceded by the “prayer of agony.”
Christopher explained that, because of sin, the human heart becomes so hard (he called it “full of vinegar,”) it cannot receive the honey of God’s abundant love. In order to prepare us to receive this abundant grace, God has to empty the vinegar and soften our hearts — something that takes place only through suffering. He was quoting from St. Benedict’s “Spe Salvi,” p. 33:
Augustine refers to Saint Paul, who speaks of himself as straining forward to the things that are to come (cf. Phil 3:13). He then uses a very beautiful image to describe this process of enlargement and preparation of the human heart. “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God’s tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined. Even if Augustine speaks directly only of our capacity for God, it is nevertheless clear that through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar, not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others. It is only by becoming children of God, that we can be with our common Father.
As a Catholic, I believe in the concept of “redemptive suffering,” that the pain we bear in this life can be applied in effective intercession for our own intentions and on behalf of those for whom we pray. This “prayer of agony” is aptly named . . . of course none of us would choose it. But in accepting it, even embracing it, we allow God to bring something good out of it. That is my hope. That is my prayer: that at the end of the pain, comes the joy.
Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us!