All our life is sown with tiny thorns that produce in our hearts a thousand involuntary movements of hatred, envy, fear, impatience, a thousand little fleeting disappointments, a thousand slight worries, a thousand disturbances that momentarily alter our peace of soul. For example, a word escapes that should not have been spoken. Or someone utters another that offends us. A child inconveniences you. A bore stops you. You don’t like the weather. Your work is not going according to plan. A piece of furniture is broken. A dress is torn. I know that these are not occasions for practicing very heroic virtue. But they would definitely be enough to acquire it if we really wished to. —Claude la Colombiére
St. Claude la Colombiére was one of the most effective preachers of the 17th century. Against this heretical view that humans could not obey God without the intervention of overpowering grace, he celebrated our freedom to choose submission. Calmly accepting even the tiniest vexations, as he argued above, could be chances to surrender to God.
At 17, Claude said, he overcame a temporary revulsion against religious life and joined the Jesuits at Avignon. His earliest assignments included teaching boys grammar and tutoring the sons of J. B. Colbert, finance minister to King Louis XIV. When he turned 33, Claude made his profession as a Jesuit. Reflecting on the significance of Christ’s 33rd year, he decided he must die more completely to himself. Thus he made a promise to follow exactly the Jesuit rule and to obey his superiors without question. “It seems right, dear Lord,” he wrote, “that I should live in you and for you alone, at the age when you died for all and for me in particular.”
The next year he was made head of the Jesuit college at Paray-le-Monial, where he met St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. As her spiritual director, he assured her of the authenticity of her revelations about the Sacred Heart. His writings provided a sound theological basis for the devotion and his preaching helped spread it.
In 1676, because of his reputation for holiness and oratory, Claude was sent to London as preacher to Mary Beatrice d’Este, duchess of York. He became well-known not only for his finely-tuned sermons, but also for encouraging persecuted Catholics, restoring lapsed Catholics, and converting Protestants. During the Popish Plot, when Titus Oates falsely accused Catholics of planning to assassinate King Charles II, he was imprisoned. King Louis XIV negotiated Claude’s release and exile to France, depriving him of martyrdom. But his ordeal in prison made the saint an invalid and he died at Paray-le-Monial in 1682.
Once Claude wrote to a dying nun whose consciousness of guilt made her fear God’s wrath: Do you know what would stir up my confidence, if I were as near to giving account to God as you are? It would be the number and the seriousness of my sins.
Here is a confidence really worthy of God. Far from allowing us to be depressed at the sight of our faults, it strengthens us in the idea of the infinite goodness of our Creator. Confidence inspired by purity of life does not give very much glory to God. Is this all that God’s mercy can achieve—saving a soul that has never offended him? For sure the confidence of a notorious sinner honors God most of all. For he is so convinced of God’s infinite mercy that all his sins seem no more than an atom in its presence.