Following is my November column that appears in this issue of the print edition of The Catholic Post.
Last month, I volunteered to staff an intersection during the recent Peoria Marathon series of races, and it was a great experience. My assigned downtown intersection included both the beginning and the end of the race, so my fellow volunteers and I, in addition to directing traffic, shouted words of encouragement to the runners. A common one for those near the end of the race was, “Finish strong!”
The Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is coming to a close this month. How can we “finish strong” as Catholics in our observance of this great jubilee and to carry it forward into our lives not just now, but also future years? How about one more book?
33 Days to Merciful Love: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat in Preparation for Consecration to Divine Mercy by Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC. is that book. It is a unique fusion of St. Therese’s “Little Way” with St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy devotion with the goal of nurturing a deep outlook of mercy towards oneself and others. While this book is tied in with the Year of Mercy, its theme is timeless and could be read beyond the November 20 end of the Year of Mercy.
Fr. Gaitley has a series of books on “do-it-yourself retreats”—his best-known likely being 33 Days to Morning Glory: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat in Preparation for Marian Consecration. He’s well-known in the Peoria diocese as Bishop Jenky highly recommended “33 Days to Morning Glory,” and in September Fr. Gaitley spoke on mercy to a capacity crowd at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The reader-friendly structure is ideal for busy modern lives: a short daily reflection, divided into four weekly “themes,” to help readers understand in small doses the things that promote growth in the spiritual life.
33 Days to Merciful Love is the best written of these. It focuses on the writings and life of St. Therese, and how her “Little Way” is uniquely poised to help us live and accept Divine Mercy in our lives: in a small way rather than through grand gestures. Fr. Gaitley also weaves in the life and writings of St. Faustina, the “Apostle of Mercy,” whose writings and inspirations from Jesus gave us the Divine Mercy devotion.
Week One’s theme is “trust” and what it means to both radically and simply put our faith in the God who made us.
Week Two explores “The Little Way,” especially as it relates to mercy. In particular, Fr. Gaitley writes about how Therese was influenced in her early years by Jansenist spirituality, which emphasized fear and judgment. That led to scrupulosity (excessive anxiety about one’s sins or that everyone one does is a sin) for St. Therese until she was able to overcome this through her embrace of mercy through her “Little Way.”
In the third week, Fr. Gaitley shares “The Offering to Merciful Love” and how St. Therese was inspired to make an offering to Merciful Love repeatedly. That’s in contrast to an offering during Therese’s time that certain religious would make— to offer themselves for divine justice. Instead, St. Therese offers herself to Merciful Love in order to be a conduit of God’s grace and mercy into the world. Instead of a “victim soul” offering oneself for suffering, St. Therese proposes becoming a “victim soul” to his Merciful Love.
As Father Gaitley writes, “‘The Offering to Merciful Love’ is all about helping us grown in compassion, and it begins with having compassion for Jesus.…in short, it’s to allow Jesus to make our hearts more like his.”
Week Four’s theme, “Into the Darkness,” is the most difficult to explain in a short summary, as it’s applied in different ways each entry of the week. One concept is that the world is dark, but our faithfulness to mercy can transform that. Another is that our hiddenness in not being “great saints” is an asset, not a liability. This theme proposes embracing mercy more fully, including recognizing our sins but not dwelling on them, accepting our own hidden life, and embodying mercy in ways big and small.
After the four weekly themes, there is a five-day synthesis and review of the concepts and a day of “consecration.” The book closes with additional reflections.
The daily format makes it easy to read in several minute portions. While it is easy to read through the book in several short sittings, it is much more productive to read it as intended, over the course of a month or so.
In many sections, Father Gaitley explains concepts in a fresh and yet familiar way. For instance, he describes the “thieves of hope” — ideas and discouragement he would experience from well-meaning people who would discount St. Therese’s Little Way and its impact for normal people. Haven’t we all experienced this “thieves of hope” in our daily lives or efforts to move forward in the spiritual life?
“We can choose the path of justice or that of mercy,” Fr. Gaitley writes. “It’s about discovering extraordinary joy, happiness, and peace in the midst of regular, ordinary, day-to-day existence.” How better to close out the Year of Mercy than finishing strong by choosing and living mercy.
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(Feeling a little nostalgic as this is likely the last time I will use that meme).