VOLUNTARY TRIALS. THE TRUE HAIR SHIRT
26. You ask me if it is licit for a man to lessen his own probation? This is equal to other questions such as: is it licit for a drowning man to save himself? Should he take a thorn from his hand? Should he call a doctor when he is ill? The reason behind our trials is to help us to use our intelligence, patience and resignation. It may happen that a man is born into a difficult and painful situation precisely to make him look for the means of alleviating these problems. The merit is in suffering the consequences that cannot be avoided without complaining, in persevering with the fight and in not allowing oneself to become desperate when one is not successful. It is never to be found in negligence, which is more laziness than virtue.
This quite naturally leads to another question: if Jesus said 'Blessed are the afflicted,' can merit be gained by seeking afflictions which could aggravate our trials by means of voluntary suffering? To this we can reply very decidedly: yes, there is great merit in this, provided the suffering and privation are of benefit to others; this is charity through suffering. But not when the suffering and privations are of benefit to the inflictor; this would only be fanatical selfishness.
It is necessary to make a clear distinction in this matter. Regarding yourself personally, be content with the trials and problems which God sends. Do not seek to increase this volume, as it alone may at times be extremely heavy to bear. Accept it without murmuring but with faith; that is all that God asks. Do not weaken your body with useless privations and mortifications that have no objective, because you will need all your strength if you are to fulfill your work here on Earth. To torture and martyr the body voluntarily is to go against God's Law. He has given Man the means to sustain life, so to weaken the body needlessly is true suicide. Use it, but do not abuse it; that is the law. The abuse of the best thing God has given you will bring inevitable consequences as a punishment.
But quite the contrary occurs when Man imposes suffering upon himself in order to alleviate that of others. If you support cold and hunger with the object of offering heat and sustenance to another, thereby causing your body to be affected, you are making a sacrifice which God will bless. When you leave your perfumed homes to go to an infected hovel so as to console, or dirty your hands to treat wounds, or lose sleep so as to hold vigil at the bedside of the sick, who after all are your brothers and sisters in God, or put your health in jeopardy for the purpose of practising good, then it is here that you find your hair shirt, the true and blessed hair shirt. You have not allowed the delights of this world to shrivel your heart, nor have you slept upon the voluptuous breast of riches. Rather you have become a consoling angel to the sadly deserted.
Therefore, what utility is served by those who retire from the world so as to avoid its seductions and live in isolation? Where is the courage to face their problems? They have merely run away from the fight and deserted the combat. If you wish to make a sacrifice, then apply it to your soul and not to your body. Mortify your Spirit and not your flesh; whip your pride, receive humiliations without murmur, scourge yourself of self-love, harden yourself against the pain of insult and slander which is more pungent than physical pain. It is in these things that you find your true hair shirt, whose wounds will be taken into account because they will testify to your courage and submission to God's Will. - A GUARDIAN ANGEL (Paris, 1863).