Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.James 1:2-4
A young man visited a hermit with a reputation for great holiness, seeking to learn from him, and this holy desert father taught him many methods of prayer. One day the disciple asked, “What can I do to attain God?” The master responded, “What can you do to make the sun rise?” As the implications of this response sunk in, the disciple became angry and demanded, “Then why are you giving me all these different ways of praying?” With great wisdom and patience, the desert hermit explained, “To make sure you’re awake when the sun rises.”
We don’t earn our salvation, nor do we discover God on our own, but we’re called to be awake when He appears in our lives. This means, more than anything else, that we must persevere in our efforts to live out our Faith and to do God’s will.
It’s relatively easy to make one great sacrifice, if we know it will be the last time anything is asked of us; a more difficult challenge for most of us is that of making many smaller sacrifices, day after day, without apparent end. Quite often, however, this is the nature of the cross we bear: continuing to pray and to go to Mass even as most of our family members have stopped doing so; maintaining our commitment to doing what’s morally right even though few others seem to care; and persevering in our charitable activities, even though we’re rarely thanked or acknowledged. It would be so easy to give up, but that’s not Christ’s way. He calls on us to stay awake and be ready and promises His blessings to those who remain faithful to Him.
Models of Perseverance
Some of the saints are models of perseverance; others struggled to remain faithful to their call. We can’t help but admire the example of St. Paul, who gladly paid a heavy price for his efforts to continue serving Christ Jesus, as we see in the Acts of the Apostles and in some of his New Testament letters.
Another magnificent example of dedication and commitment is given to us by St. Athanasius, the great fourth-century bishop whose unyielding opposition to the heresy of Arianism (which denied the divinity of Christ) was essential in preserving the true teaching of the Church. Many bishops, priests, and laypersons wavered, but not Athanasius. He was exiled five times for steadfastly defending Church dogma and was forced to spend seventeen of his forty-six years as bishop away from his diocese of Alexandria.
The Difficulties of Missionaries
Missionaries frequently have a difficult time: far from home, they live among people of a different culture and often encounter hostility and suspicion, which sometimes culminates in physical danger and even death. Such was the case of St. Noel Chabanel, one of the martyrs of North America. Some of his fellow French Jesuits seemed to have little trouble coping with the problems involved in preaching the Gospel to the North American Indians, but this was not so for Fr. Noel. He had great difficulty learning the Huron language, he found some of their customs repulsive, he could not stomach their food, and he experienced intense homesickness and depression. What did he do? The saint made a solemn vow to stay at his post for as long as God chose. Fr. Chabanel fulfilled this promise, remaining with the Hurons until finally he was martyred by them.
One of St. Noel Chabanel’s contemporaries, St. Louise de Marillac, didn’t face the same dangers as he did, but she had her own obstacles to overcome in her efforts, with St. Vincent de Paul, to establish a religious order for women: the Daughters of Charity. Her health was poor, and circumstances were often against her, but the combination of her persistence and divine grace helped her achieve her goal.
Because they keep their focus on the life to come, the saints are usually able to overcome temporary difficulties that would discourage other people. It’s much easier to endure suffering when we know there’s a purpose to it. This was the case for Pope St. Martin I, who died in exile after opposing a heresy favored by the emperor. In a letter Martin wrote, “For forty-seven days I have not been given water to wash in. I am frozen through and wasting away with dysentery. The food I get makes me vomit. But God sees all things, and I trust in Him.”
Not all the saints had an easy time trusting in God; some of them were known to turn back from their original efforts at ministry — perhaps out of fear or a change of heart, perhaps out of a desire to search for God in a different manner.
Second thoughts affected St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a great theologian whose personal shyness inclined him toward solitude. In the year 380, his eloquent efforts to strengthen the Church in the imperial city of Constantinople led to his being acclaimed as bishop there (a very important and prestigious post); after only a few weeks, however, Gregory resigned, so as to spend the rest of his life in prayer and meditation.
Fear temporarily hindered the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Pope St. Gregory the Great chose him to take some missionaries to England, but on reaching the English Channel, the group was frightened by stories of harsh storms and fierce natives; they waited there while Augustine returned to Rome to ask the Pope whether this missionary journey was truly necessary. Gregory reassured the frightened Augustine and sent him back on his way; as it turned out, he and his companions were well received, and their efforts in England bore much fruit.
Even when we’re not journeying far from home or placing our lives at risk, the difficulties involved in serving God can be tiresome and discouraging, and the temptation to give up is never far away — especially when it seems as if our efforts aren’t appreciated or respected. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, St. Clement Hofbauer established an orphanage, and he frequently begged in order to support it. He once entered a tavern and asked for alms, but a man playing cards spat in his face. Rather than walking away, Clement calmly said, “That was a gift to me personally; now please let me have something for my poor children.” Impressed by the saint’s humility and persistence, the man not only apologized and made a small donation, but from then on became one of the priest’s regular penitents and a firm supporter of his ministry. As long as we don’t give up on persons or circumstances too quickly, divine grace can work miracles; and a willingness to continue on in faith can be a powerful expression of our love for God.
According to St. Augustine, “Our task [as Christians] is to make daily progress toward God. Our pilgrimage on earth is a school in which God is the only teacher, and it demands good students, not ones who play truant.” We will graduate with honors from the school of life if we remain faithful to Jesus, not only in our words, but also in our deeds. St. Ignatius of Antioch states, “A tree is shown by its fruits, and in the same way, those who profess to belong to Christ will be seen by what they do. For what is needed is not mere present profession, but perseverance to the end in the power of faith.”
If we are to succeed, we must rely totally on God’s grace. St. Paul of the Cross tells us that we must also devote ourselves totally to the will of God, whether we find it enjoyable or painful. The more we surrender to God, the more we will be filled with His grace. St. Vincent de Paul assures us, “If today we have had power to overcome one difficulty, tomorrow and the day after we shall be able to surmount others that are much greater and more distressing.”
Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow, for today’s challenges are sufficient in themselves.59 We’re meant to live in a trusting spirit one day at a time, for as St. Augustine says, “Hold out, be steadfast, endure, bear the delay, and you have carried the cross.” As we see in the lives of the saints, to persevere in our efforts to follow Jesus isn’t always easy, but with God’s grace, it’s possible, and it’s worth the cost.
For Further Reflection
“We must endure and persevere if we are to attain the truth and freedom we have been allowed to hope for. Faith and hope are the very meaning of our being Christians, but if faith and hope are to bear fruit, patience is necessary. . . .” — St. Cyprian
“He who does not acquire the love of God will scarcely persevere in the grace of God, for it is very difficult to renounce sin merely through fear of chastisement.” — St. Alphonsus Liguori
“Faith believes, hope prays, and charity begs in order to give to others. Humility of heart forms the prayer, confidence speaks it, and perseverance triumphs over God Himself.” — St. Peter Julian Eymard
Prayer of St. Claire of Assisi
I pray You,
O most gentle Jesus,
having redeemed me by Baptism
from Original Sin,
so now by Your Precious Blood,
which is offered and received throughout the world,
deliver me from all evils, past, present, and to come.
By Your most cruel death, give me a lively faith,
a firm hope, and perfect charity,
so that I may love You
with all my heart and all my soul and all my strength.
Make me firm and steadfast in good works,
and grant me perseverance in Your service,
so that I may be able to please You always.