Perseverance is a word often associated with athletes, but what does it mean in relation to my spiritual life as a Catholic?
Most dictionary definitions would describe perseverance something like this: “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.”
Looking at this definition through a Catholic lens, that “something” we’re doing is living our call in the world, pursuing God’s will — or trying to. “Success” isn’t earthly accomplishment; rather, it’s eternity in heaven with Jesus Christ. Every struggle with vice, sin or a paralyzing emotion like fear, dread or impatience is a difficulty or delay that slows us from reaching that goal.
But it is possible to achieve this seemingly impossible feat with the all-consuming grace of God and the sacraments. It is possible to persevere in faith in a world that throws us curveballs and trials and sufferings, despite our own sin and weakness.
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The saints have proven such.
My kingdom is in heaven
Take, for example, Saint Philomena. She was the only child of royal, pagan parents in a small state of ancient Greece. She converted to Christianity and pledged her life and her virginity to Jesus at a young age. At 13, she traveled with her parents to Rome, and upon attending an audience with the great persecutor, Emperor Diocletian, she was offered a marriage proposal from the emperor. She refused.
Her refusal led to a month’s imprisonment in a Roman jail, followed by three days of torture and suffering. Her parents threatened her, guilted her, begged her to change her mind, to betray her promise to Jesus: a promise, they thought, she was too young and immature to have made anyway. Diocletian tried to entice her with the spoils of a life of royalty; but this little saint stood firm, saying to them all, “My kingdom is in heaven.”
After a month in prison, she was scourged. She was repeatedly humiliated and berated. Guards tied an anchor around her neck and threw her in the Tiber River; yet she floated to the top. Then Roman archers shot her with arrows; but the arrows bounced off. Only beheading, after three days of torture, could end her life and send her to be with her Divine Spouse.
Philomena could’ve taken the easy way out, and doing so would have guaranteed her a life of comfort. But she dug in her heels and said to those who tried to shake her, “My kingdom is in heaven.” Sometimes our state in life, our circumstances and even our vocation can make us feel like we’ve got an anchor tied around our neck, like we’re being shot with arrows from all sides.
At that point, we must remember that these sufferings, whether they are emotional or physical, are helping to sanctify our souls, should we be willing to pick up that cross, unite it to Christ’s and carry it. Whether we’re facing an exhausting chronic illness, anxiety in discernment or frustration in our relationships, we persevere by keeping our hearts in heaven and our eyes fixed on Jesus, asking constantly what he would have us do in that moment and leaving the future in his gentle hands. We persevere by saying, like St. Philomena, “My kingdom is in heaven” and proceeding to march in that direction.
Faith is fidelity, not feeling
I’m a convert to Catholicism. In my early days of being Catholic, shortly after being confirmed at the Easter Vigil, spiritual consolations were frequent, and I always felt God’s presence in prayer and at Mass. My eyes welled with tears at the Lamb of God and after receiving the Eucharist.
Fast forward four years later, and I realize that sometimes I pray and I feel nothing. Sometimes I attend Mass and the priest elevates the host as it becomes the Body and Blood of Christ and I feel nothing.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta went through something similar, but much more intense. She is best known for founding the Missionaries of Charity. Saint Teresa first felt the tug to found this order while on a train traveling to Darjeeling, India. She received approval from the Vatican, and the work of the order began.
Shortly after, Saint Teresa began to sense God’s presence less and less in prayer, at Mass and in spiritual direction. She felt abandoned. Unwanted. She described it as darkness, perhaps not unlike the “dark night of the soul” that St. John of the Cross wrote about: a time of complete and utter loss of any and all spiritual consolation.
The incredible thing about Mother Teresa is that this suffering and darkness lasted for the last several decades of her life. She lived, prayed, ran a religious order, cared for the sick and suffering on the streets of Calcutta, all while feeling God had rejected and abandoned her, all while her prayers were met with silence. Yet she remained faithful, continuing to live her vocation and pursue God’s will .
She’s an amazing example of persevering in faith. Sometimes living our faith can be so difficult; perhaps you’ve had your faith shaken in some way or, like me, you sometimes lack any spiritual consolation from the sacraments or from devotions. St. Teresa’s life reminds us that faith is not feeling — it is fidelity. It is praying when we don’t feel like it or when we don’t feel consoled. It is attending Mass even when we don’t get a rush of love and devotion to Jesus when receiving the Eucharist. It is making the right choice, the holy choice, the difficult choice, even when it’s the hard one and one that we don’t necessarily want to make.
In meditating on the great faith of St. Teresa, we see that she continued pursuing her call even when the earthly rewards and consolation completely stopped. She continued to follow where he led her, even though she couldn’t see, hear or feel the hand that was guiding her the entire time.
Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith
Perseverance isn’t just pressing on when the road gets rough; it’s a countercultural expression of our faith.
The world says, like Diocletian to St. Philomena, “Cast off your vows, your chastity and your virtue, and come live a life of ease and luxury.” But as Catholics we say, “My kingdom is in heaven,” and pick up our crosses, cherishing them and carrying them with the help of Jesus, as we know this is the way to eternal life with him.
The world says to pursue only that which stirs the emotions, and tries to convince us that anything difficult or that involves sacrifice isn’t worth it but we, like St. Teresa, must silence these voices of discouragement, frustration and desolation and pray, frequent the sacraments and live our vocations even when we don’t feel joy in doing so. In Hebrews we read, "let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith" (Heb 12:1-2). Whether we are experiencing strife in our vocation, circumstances or state in life, or if we’re struggling to continue forward in faith, may we indeed fix our eyes on Jesus, who persevered on the cross before us, and implore his help in running our race, trusting that with our self-surrender he will indeed perfect our faith and give us the grace to persevere.