The Story of St. Gemma
Last spring, one Sunday at Mass, I struggled with a feeling of great emptiness and distance from God. St John of the Cross writes that such things are either purifying trials, or the result of our own negligence in the faith. Though I definitely don’t have St John’s insight into distinguishing or understanding them, I guessed that it might be the second one. At least in my life, various attachments often come out of nowhere and try to compete with my love for God. This time, there were a couple major ones at once, and one of them was wishing for a relationship that maybe wasn’t God’s will for me.
God’s will, and my will.. the whole point is to submit my will to His. It probably goes without saying that this is very difficult and mostly I fail at this. As I sat there in the pew and remembered all my struggles, my will was not submitted to Jesus and my heart was far away from the reality on the altar. I loved others more than Him. I couldn’t even get myself to open up to Him, that was beyond my power and needed grace. I felt like God is a divine Person that I worship on Sundays but the rest of the time, I live for myself. God showed me incredible mercy and kindness that day in helping me to open up to Him and to surrender my heart to Him once again.
There is one Saint that I often think of as having an undivided heart in her love for Christ. Her name is St. Gemma Galgani. When I first read about her, I was stricken by the beauty and sincerity of her prayers to Jesus – prayers of love. Then, I saw that her life was really very extraordinary – she was a mystic and a ‘victim soul’, she had the stigmata, prayed the Psalms with her Guardian Angel, and regularly experienced ecstasy and spoke with Jesus and the Blessed Mother. She lived in Italy and died in her 20s, after wanting to be a Passionist nun. On the surface, her life doesn’t have much in common with mine, which is quite ordinary. However I saw I had much to learn from her, including humility, and loving Jesus more totally and freely.
St. Gemma is an especially great example for any young woman discerning the religious life, because she lived in the world but her heart was detached from everything except her Beloved, Jesus. It didn’t come automatically and she had to fight many battles to get there. She was detached to a heroic degree, yet extremely humble and thought she loved herself and other creatures more than Him. She practiced mortification during meals, gave away everything that was given to her that wasn’t strictly necessary, and refused any vanity or adornments through the advice of her Guardian Angel. Especially in our time and society that emphasizes personal comfort, her level of detachment might at first seem very extreme. However, such a total dedication to what God asked of her is a further incentive to value Christ’s will over the views of the world. God’s will is unique for each person, and each person’s mission is unrepeatable. St. Gemma was generous in following His will rather than her own, though this must have cost her much. Her detachment was an effort to cooperate with all the graces she was receiving to live according to her state of life. Though my efforts and virtues don’t nearly match those of St. Gemma, she has been a great inspiration to me to have more courage in my vocational discernment.
St. Gemma didn’t deny all those things in a prideful way, but because she wanted her heart to be free to love Christ to the degree that He willed and to follow her vocation. The detachment brought her greater joy. For His love, she was ready for all, to show that Christ can truly be everything to us. Though she was very beautiful and many young men might have wanted to marry her, St. Gemma stayed faithful to her own vocation. She was careful in guarding her heart from anything else.
More than anything, St. Gemma’s life shows me that God is worthy of such love. It might not be easily comprehended by the world and at times of distraction, it becomes harder for me to accept. Yet though St. Gemma denied earthly comforts, the joy that Christ gave her was beyond anything that the world could offer. During the night, she eagerly awaited each Communion, when Jesus and her would be united. Especially in her prayers, it’s evident that her love wasn’t something abstract, only intellectual or conceptual – she loved Jesus in her choices and actions, and in all the affections of her heart, which were His alone. She spoke to Him as to her Beloved. St. Gemma is a beautiful example of a bride of Christ for any woman discerning her vocation, because a bride is completely devoted to her Bridegroom and His concerns for souls become hers. She is willing to share in Jesus’ suffering to be like Him and her prayers reflect His own desires. Though not all have an extraordinary life like St. Gemma, holiness consists in loving submission to God’s will and humility, and she is an amazing example of how God’s love can transform a soul. His love entered her heart so deeply that she gave her heart entirely to Him. Will we let His love be victorious in our hearts?
The world might ask “is it worth it?” Yet Jesus did not measure His love or give us only a part of His Heart. He gave everything for us – all His Blood, all His sufferings, and He gives His Heart entirely to us in the Blessed Sacrament. Day and night, He waits there for us, – waits to come into our little hearts and rest there. When He comes into our hearts – what will He find? Will He find it as a garden of weeds, full of attachments and distractions, will He have to share it with creatures and our self-love? Or, will it be like a garden of roses, filled with acts of love, and a longing for Him above all things? Jesus loves each person with His whole Heart – and desires the gift of an undivided heart. His love is so perfect, that it will not rest until we belong to Him completely.