August 4, 2009

St. John Vianney and True Peace

St. John Vianney is a great example of a man of prayer. There are some who want to paint him in tones that are too sentimental and sweet. The strength of his character and intensity of presence is lost in such depictions. He may have been peaceful but he was not passive. For a great snapshot of his character, see http://bit.ly/3whRJ.

The way he lived his life showed that true peace is always bought at the price of a great struggle. Part of the struggle for him was to be faithful to the mystery of the priesthood in the midst of personal doubts. Even if he was haunted by a lack of confidence in his ability to be a good priest even to the point of running away from his parish, the Lord made him faithful and protected him in his weakness. With John Vianney, the Cure d'Ars, because of the inexhaustible grace of God, we have a man of true grit who was not afraid to fight the battle of prayer.

A small hard working man with a piercing gaze, he defied secular tyranny to become a priest. His dedication to long hours of study remains firm even as his classmates and professors consider him stupid. He is ordained to the dismay of some of his professors and classmates. He is considered incompetent by most the rest of his presbyterate. Assigned a sleepy little country town more interested in bars and dancing than in the Church and praying, the determination and courage that got him into and out of seminary, he takes with him into this ministry. Come what come may he sets himself to do everything he can to help the people entrusted to him realize how much Jesus loves them.

They are not a happy lot. Alcoholism, atheism and adulterous affairs have robbed them of the ability to live life to the full. They are for the most part completely ignorant of the joy and peace that Christ has to offer them. Religion, prayer, going to mass, going to confession - these practices are even mocked as old fashioned silliness. In fact, the priest himself is considered old and silly - out of touch with the real world. And in the face of this rejection, this priest must overcome his own impatience and constantly renew his dedication to them for the Lord. He knows a great secret, a secret shared by everyone who tries to enter deeply into prayer to embrace the will of God. Real prayer involves taking up a fierce struggle against the power of sin and death still lingering in our hearts, and only by engaging this struggle can the Lord make us instruments of his peace.


Because of Christ has conquered death, as long as we turn to him for help, victory is assured. But this victory comes at the price of many trials and tribulations. True peace is rooted in the struggle to love God and one another. This is why the great witnesses of the 20th Century point to the paradoxical relationship of peace and struggle. As F. X. Nguyen van Thuan explains: if you want peace, you must fight continuously.


Behind the doubts that constantly afflicted him lurked a discouraging kind of scrupulosity. Ironically, this affliction became more fierce as his ministry became more successful. As people flocked from all over France to hear him preach and have him hear their confessions, he became more and more suspicious that he was not really being faithful to the Lord. He struggled against the thought that he was self-deceived. He actually doubted that God called him to the priesthood. He suspected that his desire to become a priest was really just his own pride. He was afraid that this same pride was a source of scandal for others. With these doubts about his character and intentions, he was also haunted by the desire to dedicate himself to a hidden solitary life of penance. Sometimes he would even try to run away from his parish. What is remarkable is not that he struggled to be faithful to his vocation, but rather than in the end, he was faithful at all. This was a thorn in his side, the monster that the Lord allowed him to contend with so that he might be purified.

The weaknesses of pride and a fearful scrupulosity can involve the temptation to reject of God's plan for us because we think we know a safer way. It is a combination of fear and pride which causes us to limit our spiritual journey to that which appeals to our imagination. But following the Lord is not a matter of the imagination. Acting out of the fantasy that fear, scrupulosity or pride produces does not bring us closer to God. Friendship with God is a matter of faith - of believing in his love in the circumstances we have before us in the here and now.

(That he should struggle with pride is interesting only because everyone extolled his humility. This points to a great truth about our struggles in the spiritual life - whatever weakness he permits us to endure, he does so to show forth his glory. His strength is made perfect in our weakness.)

The feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, that one's life has been a mistake, doubting the goodness of God - no one is really spared these in life. Prayer does not make these things go away magically, even the prayer of a great saint like John Vianney. Following our Crucified God, we must face them on our own path to Calvary - it is only by learning to love in the face of such things that our faith and our prayer becomes real. A real peace and true joy lives in our hearts not because we are without problems, but because in our struggles we find God.