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Spiritual Progress (english)

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Spiritual progress according to Saint Angela Merici

Saint Angela Merici, like all of us, was not born as a saint. Her life span of about 65 years was spent in a long process of yielding ever more deeply to the love of the Lord. Do we find some glimpses of changes in her life, in the testimonies left par her contemporaries ? A few of the memories they recall show how she progressively approached a deeper likeness to Jesus Christ, her “only Treasure”.

I. Angela’s spiritual itinerary.

Angela’s spiritual itinerary began very early, when she was about 5 or 6 years old. The strongest witnesses of her life, Antonio Romano and Agostino Gallo, although questioned separately, agree to this :

  • First of all, according to what she said to me, after having heard her father read religious books on the saints and holy virgins, she began, when she was five years old, to live a frugal, pious and contemplative life. (Romano 936 r)
  • I will tell you - after having heard this several times - that at the age of 5 or 6, she began to lead a life of abstinence ( because of the good teaching received from her father), and to withdraw from the company of others, so as to dedicate herself better to her prayers and devotions. (Gallo 942r)

We notice that after having described her first attempts to lead a spiritual life, which w could call her “first conversion”, the two witnesses point out that she was continually making spiritual progress :

  • ... She persevered all the more ardently in this way of life. (Romano 936r)
  • And as she grew older, she dedicated herself even more to this manner of living and to contemplative life.. (Gallo 942r)

Romano mentions the death of her sister, which happened when Angela must have been about 15 or 16 years old. This death left Saint Angela Merici anxious about the eternal fate of her sister, so that she prayed the Lord daily for this intention. The vision of her sister, surrounded by angels and beaming with joy and glory remained for a long time in Angela’s memory and led her to live with even more fervor :

  • Having this vision continually in mind, she devoted herself with even greater eagerness to fasting, abstinence, and prayer. (Romano 936v)

Her openness to the Lord’s grace led Saint Angela Merici, according to Agostino Gallo, to become a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis :

  • She finally took the habit of the third Order so as to be able to go to Mass, confession and communion more easily. (Gallo 942r)

This sentence is important, for it reveals in Saint Angela Merici, in spite of the customs of her times, an even greater need for sacramental life, along with greater love for the Lord. Gallo comments on this by saying that in Angela’s times, lay people were not permitted to receive Communion often, as was the case later on...” In fact, the Tertiaries, according to their Rule, were invited to go to Communion four times a year, on solemn feasts, and this was an exception to general practice, which was reduced to once a year at Easter.

When Saint Angela Merici returned from Salo to Desenzano, she continued the poor, austere et prayerful way of life that her entrance in the Third Order had confirmed.
According to Doneda, While working at home, she tried to acquire that purity and perfection of the spirit which she would have acquired in a solitary life. (Doneda 33). Her work at home included working in the fields. In the middle of her work, she raised her heart to God when her companions were tired and took time to rest or to take their meals. (Doneda, 39). Angela sought for God and found Him not only in prayer and penance, but in daily work, thus strengthening her constant union with God.

Angela Merici finally began to shine forth in her milieu. Deep humility prevented her from revealing the graces she had received. Every circumstance contributed to her greater spiritual advantage. She kept her way of life hidden, as much as possible, from the eyes of the world, and fled any oddness and outward sign of piousness. In no way did she hinder the action of the Holy Spirit within her. (Bellintani, Ms. Queriniana, ch. 11).

The people around her began to notice her love for Christ, and the way she expressed it in affectionate and friendly kindness. According to Faino, With great charity, she made friends not only with the people in her own land, but also with those living along the “Riviera”. They invited her eagerly to their homes... She went there modestly, talking to everyone in confident terms, and trying to draw them towards heaven, which was her main aim. (Faino 24). We perceive in this all too scanty information, that Angela’s apostolic gift of bringing others to God through her example and her encouragement, was already bearing fruit during her hidden life in Desenzano.

After she was sent by her Capuchin Superiors to Brescia in 1516, so as to comfort Caterina Patengola in her grief, a year later, Angela Merici was invited by Antonio Romano to come and dwell in his home. She therefore had to discern what to choose: return to Desenzano ? Stay in Brescia ? According to Bellintani, the motives determining her to stay in Brescia were the following: “more opportunities to receive the Sacraments, assist at Mass, attend homilies”. Therefore, Angela “parted from her family and gave up all attention to earthly considerations, so as to devote herself more fully to spiritual matters.” (Bellintani, MS. 20).

This choice is important, for it signifies that she really broke off with everything - her family, her house, her usual work - so as to follow Christ more closely.

Antonio Romano, now a direct witness of Angela’s life during fourteen years, mentions her progress in virtue, and subsequently, her influence on the people of Brescia :

  • She became more and more holy day after day. Her reputation of leading a life of piety grew among people, and thus many persons from the city of Brescia came to ask for her prayers so as to obtain graces from the Lord, or to appease some form of dissension. (Romano 937v).

How could her contemporaries be aware of Angela’s increasing holiness ? If we compare her reactions while she was living in Salo, with the testimony given at the end of her life, we are able to measure her progress, to a certain extent.

Bellintani’s accounts based on what Angela’s family and neighbors related to him, show her as having very immediate and lively reactions, sometimes anger. As soon as some one suggested that her beautiful hair would bring her a nice husband, she went out and darkened it with soot. One Easter Sunday, she publicly refused to eat the meal she had herself helped to prepare, and asks a neighbor to bring her the fish and peas left over from the eve’s meal. Maybe she thus wanted to protest against the abundance and luxury of that Easter meal? In another circumstance, when she had been invited to a day’s outing and found herself in a frivolous atmosphere, she angrily threw a handful of dirt on a plate of dainty food offered to her.

Those who knew her towards the end of her life, like Giacomo Chizzola, saw in Saint Angela Merici a very harmonious and serene personality :

  • To tell the truth, I never saw anything bad in her, since ambition, vanity, and anger were unknown to her. She found pleasure only in humility, in a life of contemplation and prayer, and she persevered in this kind of life and in this way of the Lord by fasting, abstinence, prayer and vigils.(chizzola 940v-941).

During her whole life, Angela Merici allowed herself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, while living different events, reaching out to the people around her, but mostly by assiduous receiving of the Sacrements, constant reading and meditation of the Word of God. Little by little, she was conformed to Jesus-Christ, her Spouse, whom she loved and served above all.

Is is therefore not surprising that in her writings, she lays out for her daughters, for all of us, a path of spiritual progress.

II. A path of spiritual progress

From the very beginning of her Rule, Saint Angela Merici involves her daughters in vigorous unceasing spiritual efforts. After having invited them to remain in the presence of God, who has chosen them “to be the true and virginal spouses of the son of God” (R Prol. 7), she invites them to recognize, even to be amazed that they have been chosen for this “new and astonishing dignity” (R Prol. 8).

But, nobility is requiring ! She immediately exhorts them to be faithful to this call, and to take the means for it :

  • Strive with all your might to remain as you are called by God, and to seek and desire all the ways and means necessary to persevere and make progress to the very end, for it is not enough to begin, if one does not also persevere. (R Prol. 9-11).

In the following sentences of the Rule’s Prologue, she proposes the means which will favor our continual conversion, so as to “put on Christ” : that is, listening to the Word of God and putting it into practice, vigilance, confidence, joy and courage.
The first means she suggests is that of listening to the Word of God, so as to urge us to have the will and the effort to “seek to preserve this voice of truth and this holy desire”. (R Prol. 12). Next, Angela invites us to be vigilant, for
We must be wary and prudent, because the greater the value of what is undertaken, the greater the labor and danger which can be expected. (R Prol. 18).

The source of this “labor and danger” is pointed out with realism : whimsical nature “water, air, and earth”; our own propensity for evil, “our flesh and sensuality are not dead”; and, most of all, the “devious ways and wiles “ of the devil who “never sleeps”. (R Prol. 20-21).

Attentive vigilance is therefore necessary, but it is aided by our confidence, our “unquestioning faith and hope in infinite divine goodness” (R Prol. 25). Therefore, “we must not be frightened” (R Prol. 212), for if we habitually seek to respond to our vocation and follow the rule, “not only shall we easily overcome all dangers and adversities, but also, to our great glory and jubilation, we shall defeat them.” (R Prol. 25).

The Prologue ends up with the joyful certainty of victory, for “every sorrow and sadness will be turned into joy and gladness” (R Prol. 27). This strong atmosphere of courage and joy urges us on “with great and eager hearts” (R Prol. 32).

Our “eager hearts” long for one thing, which we have continually in mind, the love of Jesus Christ, our beloved Spouse, “our Lover”. (Last Couns. 23) We should “honor Him” (Couns. 5 21), “place our hope and love in Him alone, and not in any living person”, (Couns. 5, 22), try to “please Him more and more” (4th Leg. 3). Moreover, Angela specifies the means of proving this love.

III. Means for continual conversion or spiritual progress

The traditional means of spiritual progress Angela recommends, are those she practiced herself : prayer, fasting, receiving the Sacraments, following the Evangelical Counsels, unity among the sisters. She proposes to “always pray in spirit and mind, given the continuous need one has of God’s help” (R 5, 5). If the need is continuous, prayer must also be continuous and have its place during different times of the day. The Office of Our Lady is therefore prayed several times a day. “Mental prayer” is to be practiced “every day” (R 5 15), for every day we strive to let the Lord “light up the darkness of our heart” (R 5 16), strengthen our affections and senses so that they do not stray neither to right nor to left” (R 5 18) nor hide His “dazzling face” from us (R 5 19). And it is every day - and even at night - that Angela suggests “to cry” to the Lord, while “moving, staying still, acting, thinking” (R 5 22).

Present efforts do not hinder a return to the past and evaluation of our former attitudes : Saint Angela Merici expresses her “regret to have been so slow to serve His divine Majesty” (R 5 27). The Lord gradually enlightens us on His deep love for us and our “slowness” to correspond to this love ; He lets us realize how much we lack interior availability, or “obedience to His divine precepts” (R 5, 29), and how weak our generosity is to follow Him on the way of the Cross, for, she says, “”Every adversity has been hard for me because of the littleness of my love for you”. (R 5, 27-31).

Simultaneously, Angela invites us approach with confidence the One who is “our only life”, “our only hope”. (v. 35), and to offer Him everything, “affections and passions”, liberty, free will, thoughts, words and deeds, everything within us and outside of us. This offering, she suggests that we make it every day (v. 15), so as to make progress while facing the events permitted by His Divine Providence, and shaping in us true likeness to Jesus Christ.

When it comes to fasting - one of the principle acts of Christian living during her times - Angela considers it also from the point of view of spiritual progress, for “bodily fasting is the means and way to true spiritual fasting” (R 4 1-2). However, when Angela specifies the days and liturgical periods for fasting, she includes apostolic intentions, facing the corrupt world which was hers, because “sensual desires seem to lord it over the world ( R 4 10). So as to obtain graces to those Christians who commit “many dissolute actions, as I more than obvious to all”, (R 4 11), she proposes fasting together with prayer, so as to “implore mercy before the throne of the Most High “ (R 4 11). She gives the same suggestion in favor of “the Christian people” (v. 13) and even “His chosen ones who are well disposed” (v. 16) to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, as we follow in the footsteps of Christ our Lord, we are inevitably led to take upon ourselves His interests, those of the Kingdom, those of the salvation of all men, for whom He has given His life, those “poor creatures who do not know Him” (R 5, 31).

We have seen how much sacramental life determined Saint Angela Merici in her choices of life. She measured all their importance for conforming ourselves more and more deeply to Christ. In spite of the carelessness of her epoch in this regard, and in opposition to current practices, she proposed to her daughters a frequency and an regularity which must have astounded her contemporaries - daily Mass, for Angela herself had personally experienced how “the greater the attention, faith and contrition one brings to it, the deeper is one’s participation in these blessed merits and the greater the consolation one receives”. (R 6 3-4). “Greater” and “deeper” are words which invite us to outrun our habitual ways of life, or monotonous ones, so as to make progress while uniting ourselves to the Sacrifice of Christ.

Frequent confession is likewise a factor of spiritual progress, so as to let Christ’s grace gradually heal “the wounds of our soul” (R 7, 1).

Does Angela have spiritual progress in mind when she speaks about the Evangelical counsels ? When it comes to obedience, Angela claims that “it is like a great light which makes our every action good and acceptable” (R 8, 4), a light gradually requiring of us greater availability to accomplish the Father’s will. This light is given to us by the Holy Spirit who is “unceasingly sending into our hearts His counsels and inspirations”” (R 8 14), and “whose voice we shall hear all the more clearly as we have our conscience more purified and clean”. (R 8 15) This is perhaps the most significant phrase on the ways and means to make progress in His love, so as to attain a more conscious and refined perception of accomplishing “what is pleasing to the Father” in love for Him and “for all creatures for love of Him”. (R 8, 17).

Virginity in the “spouse of the Most High” (R 9, 6) is characterized by joyful love : “Let her be joyful and always full of charity, and faith, and hope in God.”(9, 11). This love embodies the whole of our life : “Let all our words, actions and behavior always be for the instruction and edification of those who have dealings with us, always having charity burning in our hearts.” (R 9 21-22). Notice how Angela emphasizes the importance of continuity through the repetition of “always”. Our apostolic zeal is therefore conditioned by permanent, ever-growing love for Jesus Christ.

This love leads to progressive “stripping ourselves of created things and of our very selves” (R 10, 3-5). And in Angela’s mind this is not something negative, for it leads to an authentic love, a truer, deeper one, which manifests itself particularly in our relations to one another. Saint Angela Merici gives herself as an example of this, calling herself our “faithful friend” (Last Couns. 25), who “sees us and knows us better”, who “can and wants to help us more” (Couns. 5, 36-37), and especially, who is present to each one of us, for, she asserts that “she is continually among us with her Lover, or rather ours, the lover of us all”. (Couns. 5, 38).

She insists on being “united in heart and will” (Couns. 5, 20; Last couns. 1, 12 ; 15 ;Test. 10, 7). This mutual love is called to develop as we “esteem each other, help each other, bear with each other in Jesus Christ” (Last Counc. 2), Union and concord must be “longed for, pursued, embraced, held on to” (Last Couns. 11-14). These attitudes called for by Angela are to be repeated and prolonged, as they give us the assurance that we are “in the grace of the Lord “ (Test. 10, 10). We are invited to pursue our way to Him, “loving each other and living in harmony together as a sure sign that we are walking along the right path, pleasing to God”. (Last Leg. 12). Notice the use of the verb “walk”, which means going ahead, step by step, and thus making progress.

Conclusion :

One of Angela’s last words, shortly before her death, was an encouragement to welcome with joy this path of on-going conversion : “Encourage them to continue courageously the task they have begun, and at the same time, rejoice...” (Last Couns. 21), she said to the local superiors.

In fact, Saint Angela Merici is so convinced of each one’s aptitude for progress that she warns the superiors several times :

“Without doubt you will see marvelous things, if you direct everything to the praise and glory of his Majesty and the good of souls” (Couns. Prol. 18). She invites the superiors to “discern”, to “correct in love”, to “counsel”, “to exhort to some good and dissuade from some evil”, and “even then, at the right place and time, and according to the persons”. (Couns. 2, 2,5,6). In Angela’s mind this is a true way of accompanying each one spiritually, in view of her spiritual progress, and an invitation to consider each person as she is, accepting her level, helping her go farther on.

In Angela’s opinion, personal example is a strong factor stimulating the sisters to make progress : “Act therefore in such a way, that, also following your example, they may stir and spur themselves to virtuous living” (Couns. 6,6).

Even material goods are to be used to help the Sisters’ progress in an on-going process of conversion, “directing everything towards the good and spiritual benefit of your dear daughters, as much to urge and move those who are already in the Company to greater love and obligation to do good”, (Test. 9, 8-9) “to greater spiritual benefit” (v. 13).

Angela betrays an unlimited confidence in God’s action and in the sisters’ generosity, confidence she wants to communicate to all local superiors : “They are all creatures of God. And you do not know what he wants to make of them. For how do you know, you, that those who seem to you to be the least and lowest are not to become the most generous and most pleasing to his Majesty ?” (Couns. 8, 2-3). Even the one who seems to be the weakest, because “she finds great difficulty in deciding to give up fashionable trifles and other similar frills” (Test. 6, 1) Saint Angela Merici considers her with hope in her heart, allowing her make possible progress: “because it can happen that a person has set almost all her desire on a bagatelle, so that, having conquered herself on this point, she will no longer find any other too difficult.” (Test. 6, 4).

Finally, she leaves us a last counsel : she not only invites us to “persevere faithfully and joyfully in the work we have begun” (Last Leg. 22), but to avoid slowing up our spiritual journey towards Christ: “Take care, take care I say, not to lose your fervor” (Last Leg. 23). In order to help us, she remains present among us: “I embrace you, and to you all I give the kiss of peace, begging God to bless you”. (Last Leg. 27-28).

QUESTIONS FOR PERSONAL REFLECTION :

- 1. While looking back, in the presence of the Lord, on the different stages of our life, thank Him for the progress He allowed us to make. What has helped us in the past and could still help us to day in our every day life? What is the progress He seems to be asking me now ?

- 2. Parable of the sower : Luke 4, 1-30; Matt. 13, 3-23; Mark 4, 3-20.
We are the field in which the seeds of the Lord fall. See how each type of ground symbolizes some of our personal attitudes, and how He has gradually led us to bear fruit... a fruit that we are called to develop from 30 to 100 percent.

- 3. Progress in Saint Peter’s life :

    • his qualities : Mark 1, 14-18; 8, 27-30; 10, 28-31.
    • his character: Mark 1, 29-31; 8, 31-33; 9, 4-8.
    • his weaknesses: Mark 14, 27-31; 66-72.
    • His conversions: Jn 20, 3-10; 21, 4-23.
Sister Marie Seynaeve

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