In tribulation, immediately draw near to God with trust, and you will receive strength, enlightenment, and instruction.
Sayings of Light and Love, 66
Have mercy on me, God, men crush me;
they fight me all day long and oppress me.
My foes crush me all day long,
for many fight proudly against me.
When I fear, I will trust in you,
in God whose word I praise.
In God I trust, I shall not fear:
what can mortal man do to me?
All day long they distort my words,
all their thought is to harm me.
They band together in ambush,
track me down and seek my life.
You have kept an account of my wanderings;
you have kept a record of my tears;
are they not written in your book?
Then my foes will be put to flight
on the day that I call to you.
This I know, that God is on my side.
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not fear:
what can mortal man do to me?
I am bound by the vows I have made you.
O God, I will offer you praise
for you rescued my soul from death,
you kept my feet from stumbling
that I may walk in the presence of God
and enjoy the light of the living.
Oh, blessed tribulation, that sure sign that God is madly in love with you.
Tribulation is a word that is no longer part of our daily vocabulary. It appears in word puzzles and still makes its way into Hollywood film scripts, although it sounds more appropriate coming from the lips of the revered British actor Charles Laughton, whose King Herod once posed the legendary rhetorical question: “Why does the prophet visit me with worse than the tribulations of Job?”
Saint Teresa of Jesus understood what Saint John of the Cross meant when he was writing about tribulation because she had seen her fair share of it in her lifetime. Here’s just one example from Testimony 53 written in Seville, 8 November 1575:
On the octave day of All Saints I spent two or three very troublesome days over the remembrance of my great sins and because of some fears of my being persecuted that had no foundation, except that false testimony was going to be raised [She had been falsely accused before the Inquisition of Seville]. And all the courage I usually have for suffering left me. Although I wanted to encourage myself, and I made acts and reflected that this suffering would be very beneficial to my soul, all these actions helped me little. For the fear didn’t go away, and what I felt was a vexing war. I chanced upon a letter in which my good Father [Jerome Gracián, Discalced Carmelite and Apostolic Visitor] refers to what St. Paul says, that God does not permit us to be tempted beyond what we can suffer (1 Cor 10:13). That comforted me a lot, but it wasn’t enough. Rather, the next day I became sorely afflicted in seeing I was without him, since I had no one to whom I could have recourse in this tribulation. It seemed to me I was living in great loneliness, and this loneliness increased when I saw that there was no one now but him who might give me comfort and that he had to be absent most of the time, which was a great torment to me.
On the next night, while reading in a book a saying of St. Paul which began to console me, I was thinking of how present our Lord had previously been to me, for He had so truly seemed to be the living God. While I was thinking about this, He appeared in an intellectual vision, very deep within me, as though on the side where the heart is, and said: “Here I am, but I want you to see what little you can do without Me.”
I felt reassured right away, and all my fears were gone. While I was at Matins that same night, the Lord, through an intellectual vision so intense it almost seemed to be an imaginative one, placed Himself in my arms as in the painting of the fifth agony. This vision caused me great fear. For it was so clear, and He was so close to me that I wondered if it was an illusion. He told me: “Don’t be surprised by this, for My Father is with your soul in an incomparably greater union.”
This vision has so remained up till now. What I said of our Lord lasted more than a month. Now it is gone.
Now, we may not be falsely accused before the Inquisition, but in our daily lives, we see plenty of tribulation. And Saint Teresa makes it clear that if we are seeking to make love our ambition, to grow in that untiring love of which St. John of the Cross speaks, then we will be blessed with tribulation.
Blessed with tribulation?
“It is clear that since God wants to lead those whom He greatly loves by the path of tribulation—and the more He loves them the greater the tribulation—there is no reason to think that He despises contemplatives, for with His own mouth He praises them and considers them His friends.” (Way 18:1)
But what if I don’t want to be a contemplative?
For the faithful, this truly is not an option if we desire to be united with Christ in heaven, where we will be contemplatives for all eternity! St. Paul writes, “and we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
The Catechism reminds us:
Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man’s immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory “the beatific vision.”
Citing St. Cyprian, the Catechism continues:
How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God, . . . to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of heaven with the righteous and God’s friends. (CCC 1028)
To be able to contemplate Christ for all eternity, the tribulation is worth it.
We notice that a great Saint and Doctor of the Church like Our Holy Mother Teresa was not immune from tribulation and anxiety. She was suffering terribly: there were “very troublesome days” and fears of being persecuted. She had lost her courage, and every remedy, every action that normally helped in past situations didn’t help at all. She was stuck in her fears and left with what she calls a guerra desabrida… a rather unsavory war—fruitless, vexing, and pointless. Even reading a letter from the priest who meant more to her than any other friar in the world couldn’t console her; his advice was to read St. Paul, but she admitted that it “comforted me a lot, but it wasn’t enough.”
Poor St. Teresa, she was really in emotional distress and in a spiritual bind. The next day she became even more upset because Father Gracián wasn’t there to encourage and console her in her anxiety. “I had no one to whom I could have recourse in this tribulation” and for her, the loneliness seemed to be the worst part.
St. John of the Cross says that it’s in times like these that we must “immediately draw near to God with trust” and that is exactly what St. Teresa did. She didn’t give up praying, seeking, and hoping, and she didn’t abandon God. Quite the opposite: she continued to draw near to God, even though He seemed distant or hiding. It seems that she may have had difficulty praying with peace, so she turned to spiritual reading instead.
Now, the Lord made himself known to St. Teresa at that moment through a mystical experience. However, that may not necessarily be the path the Lord chooses for each one of us. What St. John of the Cross explains is that if we draw near to God with trust, then we will receive “strength, enlightenment, and instruction.”
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity gives the following advice to ordinary folks like you and I for how best to draw near to God when troubled or anxious in those moments that St. John and St. Teresa called “tribulation”:
You must build a little cell within your soul as I do. Remember that God is there and enter it from time to time; when you feel nervous or you’re unhappy, quickly seek refuge there and tell the Master all about it.
Ah, if you got to know Him a little, prayer wouldn’t bore you anymore; to me it seems to be rest, relaxation. We come quite simply to the One we love, stay close to Him like a little child in the arms of its mother, and we let our heart go. (Letter 123)
O St. John of the Cross
You were endowed by our Lord with the spirit of self-denial
and a love of the cross.
Obtain for us the grace to follow your example
that we may come to the eternal vision of the glory of God.
O Saint of Christ’s redeeming cross
the road of life is dark and long.
Teach us always to be resigned to God’s holy will
in all the circumstances of our lives
and grant us the special favor
which we now ask of you:
mention your request.
Above all, obtain for us the grace of final perseverance,
a holy and happy death and everlasting life with you
and all the saints in heaven.
All Scripture references in this novena are found on the Bible Gateway website, with the exception of texts drawn from the 1968 Reader’s Edition of the Jerusalem Bible. Selections from the psalter appear in the Liturgy of the Hours.
The novena prayer was composed from approved sources by Professor Michael Ogunu, a member of the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order in Nigeria.
All of the citations from the Sayings of Light and Love are drawn from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Revised Edition, translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K and Rodriguez, O with revisions and introductions by Kavanaugh, K, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Elizabeth of the Trinity, S 2003, The Complete Works of Elizabeth of the Trinity volume 2: Letters from Carmel, translated from the French by Nash, A, ICS Publications, Washington DC
Teresa of Avila, St. 1985, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K; Rodriguez, O, ICS Publications, Washington DC.