Francis, in his first major interview as Pope, spoke of his admiration for the early Jesuit Peter Faber, whom he would soon declare a saint. Since you can tell a lot about a man by his friends—including his friends in heaven—I began to read Faber’s spiritual diary, the Memoriale, to see what it might tell me about Francis’ spirituality. It was a revelation.
I found in Faber a man who had many of the same vulnerabilities as me. He battled anxiety, depression, and temptations to sin. Learning how he conquered those weaknesses helped me to better fight my own spiritual battles.
In the Memoriale entry for December 25, 1542, as Faber writes about celebrating midnight Mass, we see that he began Christmas Day in a state of sadness. He had hoped to receive Jesus in the Eucharist with feelings of Christmas joy. Instead, he writes, “I was feeling cold before Communion and was grieved that my dwelling was not better prepared.”
Just as he was thinking those thoughts, a feeling of consolation came to him with such suddenness that he knew it could only be a gift from above. “I received this answer accompanied by an interior feeling of devotion that moved me to tears: This is what the coming of Christ into a stable means. If you were already very fervent, you would not see here the humanity of your Lord because spiritually you would correspond less to what is called a stable.”
As I read those words, my heart tells me the saint was right to understand them as a message from the Holy Spirit.
Note especially how the consolation points the saint toward a love that goes beyond feelings. It would have reminded Faber of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s admonition in his Contemplation to Attain the Love of God: “Love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.” What matters most in love is not what we feel—because feelings can change—but what we will.
In his longing for feelings, Faber had focused upon his own experience of love, rather than upon the object of his love—Jesus Christ. The words of the consolation remind him that, if his heart is truly to be a stable, it has to be empty of self.
The evening after Christmas, on the vigil of the feast of St. John the Evangelist, we see Faber take the consolation’s message into prayerful reflection. He thinks about how John’s Gospel presents John as “the one whom Jesus loved” (Jn 13:23), while Peter is the disciple who professes the greatest love for Jesus (Jn 21:15–17). Until this point, he has wanted to be like John more than he has wanted to be like the saint for whom he was named. Now he realizes it is time to reverse his priorities: “For the future, I must take more care to do what is better and more generous and what I have done less of: to will to love rather than to will to be loved. . . . Take care to be Peter first so as then to become John, who was loved more and in greater favor.”
Faber’s words reveal the new level of maturity he is attaining under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In light of the consolation he received at midnight Mass, he realizes that God wants to live in a constant exchange of love with him—an exchange that can take place only if he continually seeks to expand his heart.
The dynamics of this exchange of love become clearer to the saint the following day, as the feast of St. John arrives. He reflects on how the believer first seeks to be loved by God but then, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is inspired “to seek and to tend not so much to be loved by God but to love him”: “The first attitude of mind, then, is to draw God to us; the second, however, is to draw ourselves to God.
As the saint thinks about these two attitudes, he makes a fascinating connection: they both have to do with memory. “In the first we seek to have [God] remember us and assume complete care of us; in the second we seek to remember him and to be fully engaged only in what pleases him.”
With those words, the exchange of love that Faber has described is placed within the context of time—the days of our lives. God loves us by remembering us, and he demonstrates this loving remembrance through his providential care for us, as he brings the mercies that we are told are “new every morning” (Lam 3:23, RSV). We love God in return by remembering him, and we demonstrate our remembrance of him by offering ourselves to do his will.
Where does this exchange of loving remembrance take place? Faber tells us it transpires when we practice recollection, a form of intimate personal prayer in which we find God’s presence dwelling within our heart. But he is keen to add that this recollection is not possible on our own power. To attain it, we need to center our prayer life on a concrete, even physical moment of encounter with God. We find that moment in our reception of Jesus in the Eucharist—Jesus, who entered into history in order to enter into our innermost being.
“It is properly in the most holy Sacrament that the grace to attain recollection is found,” Faber says. “Our Lord wishes to enter into us and lead us to conversion of heart so that by following him we may daily enter more and more into the deepest depths of ourselves.”
Those words of Faber bring out one of the most wondrous truths of the Christian life. God, who is outside of time, enters into our bodies and souls through Jesus in the Eucharist so that he might be with us daily, in all the times and seasons of our lives. Pope Francis tells us that “through the Eucharist, . . . Christ wishes to enter into our life and permeate it with his grace” to give us “coherence between liturgy and life.”
Let us ask for that grace as we make a self-examination suggested by Francis: “How do I live the Eucharist? . . . In adoring Christ who is really present in the Eucharist: Do I let myself be transformed by him? Do I let the Lord who gives himself to me, guide me to going out ever more from my little enclosure, in order to give, to share, to love him and others?”
Excerpted from Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories by Dawn Eden and adapted by the author for publication on Church Life Journal. Used by permission of Ave Maria Press. All rights reserved.