The sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us (Rm 8:18).
Why would someone give up something that they love? Giving up something you are addicted to makes sense. Giving up something harmful to you makes sense, too. Even giving up genuine goods for a time for a particular goal makes sense to any athlete or dieter. But what about the young man who gives up a promising career to become a priest, the young woman who gives up her dream of having a family of her own to join the monastery, or the young couple who gives up their love of travel to have a family? Even more so, what about the saint who gives up every pleasure in this life in penance?
In each case, the one thing is not simply renounced. It is given up for something in particular. Why the priesthood, the monastery, the family, or the penance? If these difficult sacrifices are to last, they must first be founded on love of God above all things. After all, you do everything you can for one you love, including giving up things you love less. To love God above all things is to detest everything else insofar as it stands between you and the one you love.
La Sainte-Baume testifies to that love. After the events of the gospel, Mary Magdalene traveled by boat with Martha and Lazarus and landed in southern France. She found the cave (or Baume, in Gallic) in the mountainside where the shrine now stands. There she lived, and prayed, and did penance until Christ took her home. Seven stained-glass windows at the shrine built at the site of her grotto display the love-story of her life. Now, the windows are not particularly aesthetic—a tad modern for my taste—but their story is beautiful indeed.
In her last years, she was moved to do penance, far from all the pleasure of the world. She did this to offer up what sufferings she could in reparation for her sins and the sins of the world and to strip herself of any pleasures that could possibly distract her from her Lord. All this because He was the one whom she loved above all things.
Mary Magdalene knew the Lord well. She sat at His feet, drinking in the words from His lips; she fell at His feet pleading for her brother Lazarus; she washed His feet with her tears and anointed them with precious oil; she stood at the foot of His Cross and there learned the beauty of suffering the pains of this world for the sake of Love; finally, she rejoiced at His feet at His Resurrection, only to be sent forth to preach.
Because she knew Him so well and knew well all the sins He had forgiven her, she loved Him all the more. Because of her great love, she did not want anything to distract her from Him. And so she denied her body the pleasures of this world to unite her flesh to His on the Cross, to train her body to focus on the one joy who really mattered. She knew well that the pleasures of this world are good, created by God, but she penitentially avoided these pleasures because she loved the one who created all these goods more than all of the goods He created.
Though we may not be called to spend our life in a damp cave, her example still has something to teach us. As soon as we find that treasure who is our Lord, we must not let anything keep us from Him. We have found something greater, and the sufferings we endure are nothing compared to the joy that awaits us a hundred times more now in this present age…with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come (Mark 10:30). What we may suffer in offering lesser goods to Him will teach us to love Him more.
Saint Mary Magdalene, model of penance, pray for us.
Photo by Dominique-Benoit Jean-Luc, O.P. (used with permission)