“Many sacrifices must be made. Much penance must be done. We must pay many visits to the Blessed Sacrament, but first of all, we must be very good. If we do not do this, punishment awaits us. Already the cup is filling, and if we do not change we shall be punished.”
As most readers will know, these were the words of the first message delivered by the Blessed Virgin Mary to the four young visionaries of Garabandal, delivered on that rainy afternoon more than 40 years ago on 18 October 1961.
Read these words in their entirety again. Now be honest with yourself: It is not a particularly cheerful message, is it? Indeed, it certainly is not the sort of thing any of us really would want to hear as we go about our daily lives. If someone walked up to you today and said these very words, what would your reaction be? Anger? Shame? Indifference? For most of us, although we readily acknowledge its truth, genuine contrition for our failure to heed the message, or firm resolve to do so in the future, probably would rank somewhere near the bottom of the list of possible responses.
There is a reason for this.
The reason is not that we are inherently bad. We are not: We are created in God's image. It is not that we consider ourselves above correction. We do not: The most confident or self-centered person still knows his or her life is far from perfect. It is not that we do not understand the message or its importance. We know all too well what it means for us.
No, the reason is something else entirely.
The reason is that we live in an age where the preferred route is always that of least resistance, lowest cost, and minimum effort. More and more, we are taught, told, and pressured to act on impulse, to do what feels good, to satisfy our material desires, and that anything that we do not want to do can somehow be explained away as unnecessary. The world, it would seem, is meant to revolve about us. It exists to benefit us as individuals, and we should act accordingly: If it doesn't gratify us, to hell with it. The problem with this approach is that what we may be sending to hell is something far more valuable than an attitude.
This is not to say that as children of God we always and instinctively believe this approach is the right one for every decision we make. As unique beings created in God's own image and endowed with His graces, we do not espouse this view ex nihilo. God certainly does not create us predisposed to apathy and pride. But we do not live in a vacuum, and it is impossible to deny that we are increasingly urged on all sides to believe in the cult of self-gratification. Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction the world is headed in, with no sign of reversal.
Whether or not the problem is governed by societal conditioning, however, is not the issue here. The issue is our response to the message of Garabandal. We acknowledge both that the message is true and that something is required of us to comply with it. What is it that is required then? Simply this: we must be very good.
What is so disturbing is that in the age in which we live, as Conchita put it, “we have lost the sense of sin” as a society. This means that being very good is not such an easy thing after all. Simple, yes; easy, no. And this is precisely where our enthusiasm for living the message, our commitment to it, begins to wane. As we do live in a world where we are told the easy way out is the best way, it takes an enormous effort to stand up and be willing to be very good. To go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, or just do the right thing is rarely an easy thing, especially when we are called to do so every day, not when it happens to be convenient for us.
This entails a complete trust in God, and a willingness to follow His precepts regardless of the cost. It means putting – and keeping – Him first in or lives, with no exceptions. It requires self-discipline and sacrifice, perhaps well beyond what we imagine. And after all this, we still have to admit that we fail every single day.
It's easy to see how a mandate like this could scare off anyone! That is, if it were not for the very clear fact that Jesus and His Mother both have said many, many times that it is the effort and intent that count, not so much the results. If we measure ourselves against what we think the Lord expects of us, naturally we fall far short of the mark. History shows that humans have a poor track record when it comes to trying to best God.
But remember Christ's assurance that “my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt. 11:30). He does not expect perfection from us, but rather a continually striving towards it. And consider the words of Our Blessed Mother, who told the visionaries numerous times that being good means attending to the small, everyday things in life and following one's conscience. It is telling that the Blessed Virgin chose four little girls to communicate this to at Garabandal, just as she did the three poor shepherd children at Fatima, and the peasant Bernadette at Lourdes. She expects us to heed the message regardless of our station in life, and to take courage in meeting it.
Remember also that we are sentient beings, endowed with God-given wisdom. For the most part, we already know what is right and what is wrong in the majority of instances, and know further that what is required of us is required of each and every one of us, irrespective of who we are. If we do not know, or are uncertain, we at least know where to look for the answers. We have the Church, the word of God, and prayer – direct contact with the source. Thus, being good is not a question of theological hair-splitting, or comparing ourselves to how good or bad we think our neighbours may be.
Certainly, there are distinctions between sins and their level of impact, but there is no such thing as being “more” or “less” sinful. We either sin or we do not. To try to avoid being sinful is nothing less than a straightforward requirement from heaven that each of us is charged with fulfilling. There are no “if”s, no “and”s, and no “but”s. There is no point in trying to water it down or make it more convenient or less onerous for us, any more than there is in our heeding society's claims to the contrary. If we really, truly, are to live good lives, the way is clear.
All well and good, but there is still the fact that living a good life often is hard. There is no getting around that. Yes, it is hard, but always in the context of what we personally are reluctant to give up, put aside, or ignore. There is nothing hard about being in a state of not stealing, but giving up the habit of stealing from an employer does require pro-active effort. There is nothing hard about being in a state of not telling lies, but putting aside the habit of telling lies to paint ourselves in the best possible light does require pro-active effort. There is nothing hard about being in the state of not indulging in violence or anger, but ignoring comments others make does require pro-active effort.
Is there a guaranteed way to overcome these typical reactions and truly devote ourselves to becoming very good? Actually, in spite of what sometimes seem like overwhelming odds, there is. The first step is to remember the assurances of Christ and the Blessed Virgin that we can move towards this goal, with them and the host of heaven on our side. All we need to do is ask.
The next step is to trust. Admittedly, this is far more difficult than simply asking for the strength and wisdom to lead good lives. It is something that for most of us is fully developed only over time. Initially, we may – and usually do -- trust God in some things, but still, cling to our own notions about how to handle others. This is normal. Many saints developed a trust in the Lord step by step; few are those who are given this gift in abundance from the beginning. Remember that God often speaks through the voice of stillness (1Ki 19:12), and if we do not hear Him speak to us through the noise of our everyday lives, we cannot expect to trust Him as much as we should from the start. With time and a more active prayer life, however, we hear Him more, and we grow in trust.
As our trust in Christ grows, so, too, does our wisdom, and consequently, our discernment between good and bad. As this happens, our willingness to embrace the good and reject the bad also grows. Although we acknowledge the many falls along the way, we learn to embrace the light more and more. With each successive foray into holiness, we are encouraged and emboldened to strive for more, until it becomes our genuine goal. To put it in more dramatic terms, this is the same road that all the saints have trod, and it leads straight to heaven.
This wonderful “process” is not unlike an athlete preparing for competition. The desire must be there, followed by the commitment, and then the training. This training is long and often arduous and requires not only the discipline to reject one's interior impulses but also to accept exterior ones from God. But once a level of discipline – a dying to one's self – is achieved – the training becomes our existence. Yet, unlike an athlete's life, there need never come a day when we must lay aside our aspirations. Instead, we can continue along this path to perfection for as long as we are in this world!
Trying to lead a good life is not something reserved for spiritual giants after a life spent wrestling with God. Only look at the visionaries' lives to see this in action. Mari-Loli made a retreat in Balmori, Spain, in April 1967. Amongst her reflexions was the following: “Oh Lord! I know you have created me to be a saint. Help me to attain this title and try day by day to be more so, that my life may be a continuous act of love towards you.”
She was 17 years of age at the time.
In the end, the answer is painfully clear. We absolutely must lead good lives, not only to avoid a well-deserved punishment, but, more important, to share in the promises that Christ and Our Blessed Mother have made to us. We must be willing to surrender control of our lives into the hands of our loving God, to whom the Blessed Virgin and her Son continually point the way. To do so is truly to love God, and results in us being loved all the more by him. Indeed, the more we live good lives, the more we love God, and the more we see how much God loves us. This completes the most virtuous circle of all. As Mari-Loli once wrote to a priest:
If we only knew how much she [the Blessed Virgin] loves us, we would have no choice but to love her all the more.
Printed by permission of the original author, Geoffrey Groesbeck, April 2002