Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She and co-author of the children’s devotional book, Rise Up: Shining in Virtue. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota. Find her at her blog, Living With Lady Philosophy.
I was sitting at the lunch table over my daily salad while my husband prepped his grilled cheese at the stove. The children chatted with each other across the table from me.
“I’ve been thinking about Bl. Franz Jägerstätter again,” I said to him between bites. Bl. Franz had been a regular topic of conversation since we had finally seen the movie A Hidden Life, which tells the story of his martyrdom. After watching the movie, I spent several weeks reading a biography of the blessed, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter by Gordon C. Zahn, and my husband and I had had many conversations about his actions.
I continued, “When his diocese acknowledged his sanctity 20 years after his martyrdom they said that his sacrifice was a beyond the ordinary call of a Christian. But it seems to me that the ordinary call of a Christian is, in fact, to extraordinary sanctity.”
Bl. Franz was an Austrian who was martyred by the Nazis in 1943 for refusing to take the military oath in support of Hitler. He was a peasant farmer in St. Radegund, a small town in the mountains. Despite his humble state in life he received an extraordinary grace to see the unjustness of the Nationalist Socialist Party and stand firm in his conviction even in the face of death. He gave up his beautiful, happy family life with his wife and children for the sake of following his conscience.
I explained my thoughts to my husband further, telling him how Bl. Franz believed that he had received a special grace to see the unjustness of the Nazi party, a grace that others avoided. In some of his last writings, which can be found in a volume edited by Erna Putz, Bl. Franz explained this grace:
“If God had not bestowed on me the grace and power to die for my faith — if this is demanded of me — then I would be doing the same as the majority of the people are doing. God can give someone as much grace as God wants. If other men and women had received as much grace as I have obtained, they would have perhaps done much more good than I have done.” (Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, “Text no. 88,” p. 224)
Bl. Franz was not always receptive to God’s grace. In his youth he had lived a mediocre Christian life, becoming a father outside of marriage, participating in gang fights, and not taking life seriously. He reflected on his restless years with these words: “Out of my own experience I can say that life is painful when one lives as a lukewarm Christian. To exist in this way is to have more the existence of a vegetable than to truly live.” (“Text No 85,” p. 237)
He had a religious conversion before his marriage to his wife, Franziska, a woman with a very devout faith, which led him to live a serious Christian life. This change was so noticeable to his fellow townsfolk that they considered his devotion to his faith a fanaticism. However, according to accounts of his life, Bl. Franz’s daily life did not seem radical.
Before his decision to not take the oath in support of Hitler and his refusal to fight for Germany in World War II, Bl. Franz mostly lived his Christianity in simple, faithful ways. He went to daily Mass, served as the parish Sexton, was devoted to prayers, and studied his faith. He was very concerned with raising his children to know the true Church, and he and his wife shared a deep love of God and each other. He was faithful in his farm work, caring for his inherited property.
At the end of my thoughts on Bl. Franz’s life, I explained to my husband how I wondered what I myself needed to change in order to have a fuller life of sanctity. Bl. Franz’s simple, devout life looked like a firm foundation on which he could face any worldly trials. In fact, it was the basis for his act of heroic virtue.
In reflecting on my own distracted days and failed attempts at holiness, I exclaimed, “I feel like I need to do something different!”
My husband looked at me and proposed, “Perhaps you do not need to change what you are doing but change how you do it.”
This statement hit me. He was exactly right. I know I am where I am supposed to be in my vocation to marriage and with my gifts and education. My call has been made clear to me to home school my children and work part time writing and editing. The truth is that I have not been doing this well enough.
My restlessness in my daily life shows me that my interior life, not my exterior one, needs to change. Are the things I do each day done with love? Or am I distractedly plodding through each duty waiting for the end of the day? Am I doing it for the glory of God? Or am I doing it in a lukewarm, vegetable sort of way, as Bl. Franz might say?
My husband’s suggestion reminded me of the saying of the Abbot Moses from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
“A certain brother came to the abbot Moses in Scete seeking a word from him. And the old man said to him, ‘Go and sit in thy cell, and thy cell shall teach thee all things.” (Book II.ix)
Our daily lives, with their repeated activities are boring in a way. Most of us live in a routine, and at times we feel an urge to escape from it. The Desert Fathers called this urge that makes you want to escape from the life you are in “the noon-day devil,” or sloth. But we as Christians are called to persevere through these urges, to find sanctity in the simple, mundane acts of love. This is the same as the “little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux — doing all the small, everyday things with love.
To submit, gracefully to the small trials of this life prepares us to face the greater ones. It is in these small, day to day acts that we actually become holy. In these small acts of love, we learn how to make way for grace in our lives.
Bl. Franz is right about the special grace he received. God does bestow special grace on those who are able to do great, beautiful things. Yet, it seems that forming our souls to receive his grace in every moment as Bl. Franz did is indeed required of the ordinary Christian. We are all offered a special grace suited to who we are and our particular circumstances. We do not have to go out and do great acts or be influential people in order to become extraordinary Christians. We just have to live like Bl. Franz with a view to eternity, and if and when we face a great trial, we will already be receiving that special grace.
In Bl. Franz’s words: “What we suffer in this world, we need no longer to go through in purgatory. If one often thinks about eternity, which one must do here, then nothing is too difficult.” (Letter of March 10, 1941, p. 72)