Blessed Sebastian Valfre
Blessed Sebastian Valfre was born in 1629 and died in 1710, at the age of eighty. He was a priest of the Turin Oratory, which he joined in 1651 and of which he became Superior in 1671. Hailed as the Apostle of Turin, Sebastian was recognized as the Father with Paradise in his eyes. And yet within, concealed from a world which saw only peace and calm and joy, the things of God were, for Sebastian Valfre – and this almost continually – occasions of repugnance and anguish.
Like St Theresa of Avila, he could barely say a Hail Mary without distraction and weariness. Violent temptations assailed him at the altar, and he longed to be able merely to hear confessions, without the unease caused in him by having also to give direction. Teaching theology to fellow Oratorians was a torment; public instructions, hospital visits, and his care of the Secular Oratory were tasks he undertook only with great bitterness of heart: to these things he had to bind himself, by making private vows to persevere in them. And this pattern of repugnance extended to his fellow Oratorians, among whom his acute sensitivity easily turned into antipathy, so that beneath his unfailing courtesy and kindness were often concealed thoughts and feelings of profound irritation and aversion.
Hardly anyone knew, almost everyone assumed it must be entirely otherwise. We can speak of it at all only because small parts of Sebastian’s extensive autobiographical testimony have come down to us. Usually he wrote in this way only for himself, probably as a kind of therapeutic exteriorization of his suffering, but occasionally he showed what he had written to others similarly afflicted – which on one day one of them copied, and others later recalled reading, and something therefore survived the general destruction of personal papers which Sebastian himself conducted before he died. And so it is that we have a glimpse, Providential no doubt, of the seemingly unsustainable polarities which, taking up an expression of St Jane Frances de Chantal, divided Sebastian Valfre from himself. In this separation from himself, nothing within could delight him, or even secure for him a place of simple repose. He was therefore forced out of himself: compelled, again as St Jane Frances de Chantal would put it, to look elsewhere, towards God alone, but in a very pure Faith – a naked Faith, as St John of the Cross would say – without any corresponding experience of presence or security. Held fast in this all but impossible place, Sebastian nonetheless became a saint – in this place where another, as one of his biographers has said, would have lost his reason.
But what was going on? Sebastian himself puts his finger on it: he was afraid. He was afraid, first, of his unworthiness – so profoundly that he could only with great perseverance and courage bear to appear at all as the priest that he was. That he should be called to do and say these things, to come before others as one claiming an entitlement, as it were, to disseminate grace and truth – this thought haunted and almost paralyzed him, so conscious was he of his interior poverty and chaos, and the terrible opening it created between appearance and reality. And being afraid of himself, Blessed Sebastian was secondly, and above all, afraid of God. [My] trouble, he wrote, comes from the dread of that moment on which eternity depends; for I know that I shall be judged, not according to the judgement of men who only see what appears outwardly, but according to God, Who sees what is in the heart. It is true that I try to live outwardly so as not to give scandal to those who see me; but even though my neighbour may not be disedified, my interior life does not correspond to my exterior…The terror of having to give an account of myself to God…[means] I [can] obtain no relief. And again, even more starkly: I feel within me such anguish that my very soul is wrung by it….I would have given the whole world for even one gleam of interior light by which to know what to do, and how to fulfil God’s will…Meanwhile my spirit failed me lest I should be damned, and I lived in a constant state of terror.
So Sebastian was haunted by a terrible misapprehension: that in the eyes of God he was reprobate, excluded from the elect, damned. And the misapprehension here was not so much of himself, but of God: the god that haunted him was in waiting to condemn him, having assured his condemnation by already having rejected him. It doesn’t matter, now, how that god was produced. What matters is what Blessed Sebastian did with it. And what he did was to see through it; or rather, unseeing, throw himself beyond it, where the true God was awaiting him. And I think it is this in which his sanctity above all consists. Had he not suffered in the ways that he did, we would perhaps find him serenely proposing a god who rejects some in advance in order, later on, to condemn them; but because he suffered as he did, the necessity of overcoming a thought of God that would otherwise have driven him mad became inescapable. And this necessity was not only for himself. We are told of a doctor, Paolo Calvo, who was crushed by the thought of being rejected by God. He recounted his anguish to Sebastian, who replied with the words Put it under your feet – and the biographer reports that as he said the words he stamped his foot on the ground to illustrate his meaning. What was here symbolically crushed was every tortuous doubt raised against God’s mercy.
Writing of the fear of Divine judgment, from what St Francis de Sales calls the highest point of the soul where, despite every affliction, a pure and unencumbered faith becomes possible, Blessed Sebastian says this: True though it be that…the enemy makes furious and final efforts to secure his prey, knowing that he has but little time in which to work, it is equally certain that on that very account God gives greater help at the same hour, as a king who even in time of peace maintains a sufficient garrison in a city to keep it in order, but sends reinforcements if it be threatened by an enemy. Thus does God act in the distribution of His grace even towards those who have abused it in their lives. At the hour of their death he deigns to help them according to the measure of their need, and of His mercy. Thus at the very last moment we have greater grounds for hope than for fear.
In the midst of his own ghastly temptations, indeed because of them, we may feel that Blessed Sebastian had truly earned such liberating confidence and simplicity.