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I always have a series of books going at once and they usually fall within predictable categories: herbal medicine books, books I am reviewing for the Amazon Vine program, history books, classic novels, and spiritual reading. For some time, I have noticed that my spiritual reading leans more and more toward books in which I seek consolation for being a failure at all endeavors great and small, and especially, for just not being the woman, the person, I long to be, that I hoped I’d be, that I expected to be, that I ought to be, at this point in life. For continually being a spiritual beginner, falling every day from the first step on what St. Therese called “the rough stairway of perfection.”

The latest in this series is Descending Fire: The Journal of a Soul Aflame by Jean Petit, and on page 14 I was taken aback to read:

I am not successful in any undertaking; if I render a service, it is turned against me, and all effort ends clumsily in failure. Far from being discouraged by these things, I find my joy in them.If I were so unlucky as to succeed, I would have to ask whether God loved me less or whether He wished to punish me.

“All effort ends clumsily in failure.” How I resonate with those words! In my own life, whenever I seem to be achieving some success, circumstance calls the endeavor to a halt and pulls me to a lower place. Major efforts into which I pour time, money, and passion ultimately come to nothing. Even in small ways, I am always “off” somehow: I burn the pancakes. I see a woman in church who appears sad, I attempt to console her, and it turns out she is fine and I have caused offense by implying she looked upset. I read a book with my children in our home school, a book we all love and discuss together and look forward to each day for weeks, and when I pull it off the shelf a year later to revive the happy memory, they have forgotten it. I try to solve a problem for someone and am completely misunderstood. Major sacrifices are deemed to be nothing, useless, even selfish. Nothing on this list is intended as a criticism of others; on the contrary, they are confessions of my perennial inability to “get it right.”

But after the part about failure and clumsiness, what’s this about joy? Jean Petit answers:

This is because we cannot obtain the fullness of God without first recognizing our nothingness…For my part, I know that all fruit must fall heavily to the ground before reaching maturity. Nothing has succeeded for me in the past; nothing will succeed for me in the future. It will be an unhappy day for me when I feel satisfied by some result of success. …I must flow like water, vanish like the wind, melt like snow, be consumed like a candle, wither like a flower on the altar. It is my way; it is my path; it is my route. It is my whole past. It is my whole future.

“It is my route.” That is, annihilation is my private, chosen, royal road to God. To feel satisfied in some achievement would be to substitute that paltry success for the emptiness that leaves room for God in our soul. No wonder success (in a worldly or self-satisfied sense) would be experienced like a punishment, like a loss of God’s love! I feel an almost intoxicating feeling of freedom in those words. They call to mind other words by St. Therese:

If you are willing to bear with serenity the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.

When all your plans come to nothing, when you don’t have “what it takes,” when you think you have something to offer and it is rejected, when you are not chosen, when any task you take up crumbles in your hands and even your prayers come out in awkward, fumbling words, be at peace, dear heart. When you are nothing but emptiness, then and only then you are for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter. Then, you will have everything.

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