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Blessings that are Difficult to Receive — Updated

Blessings that are Difficult to Receive (Updated)


Editor's Note: Yesterday May 4th, 2017, Pope Francis declared Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan “Venerable”, a further step on the road to canonization which began in 2007 when his cause was first opened. With that exciting development, we have updated Dr. Anthony Lilles' post about the prominence of the Cross in Venerable Cardinal Van Thuan's life. Though we are now in the Easter season, we must not forget what came before the Resurrection.


for post on blessings that are difficult to receiveWhen our prayer takes us to the Mount of Olives, we discover the mystery of the Cross in all kinds of trials. Before that impending evil life throws at us, we often find our desires on a collision course with God's desires. Some of these trials come from “without” in the form of difficult circumstances. This could be in the form of a grave injustice or natural catastrophe. The Lord does not always shield us from disaster or illness or the loss of possessions or reputation. He allows us to be vulnerable to the betrayal of those we trust and even abandonment by both friends and family when we most need them. As challenging as such changes in fortune might be, the mystery of Gethsemane also suggests that the Father can even ask us to patiently endure many extremely painful interior trials, hardships from “within,” spiritual difficulties so overwhelming that we can only face them with special divine assistance.

In Paris, at World Youth Day 1997, François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan recounted to the young people of the world how he dealt with these trials in his own life. On August 15, 1975, the communist authorities in Saigon took him into custody and sent the Archbishop to be re-educated in prison. This would begin thirteen years of humiliation and torture, nine of which he spent in solitary confinement.

In the beginning, his prayer was an anxious complaint. Why would the Lord allow him to be imprisoned when there was so much important pastoral work to do? Did not the Lord know that those entrusted to his pastoral care would suffer if he remained in prison? Probably, he was also anxious about cracking under torture and betraying the Church. The Lord questioned why he was tormenting himself, “Do you not know that I have called you here for Myself?”

As he felt the Lord question him in prayer, the future Cardinal was moved to make a beautiful resolution, a resolution that would require him to welcome blessings he otherwise would not have wanted to have. He realized that there may never be a definitive moment where he would heroically stand firm for the faith. So it was no use trying to imagine what it would be like or what he would do. Instead, all he really had was the present moment. So he resolved to fill each moment that he was given with all the love he could trusting in the Lord to supply everything he needed for that moment.

Sometimes, because of the torture and humiliation heaped on him, this effort was so difficult that he found it impossible to pray. He knew all kinds of interior trials, feelings of abandonment by God or discouragement over whether his prayers were achieving anything good at all. Sometimes, he even broke down under torture and interrogation. Yet, he constantly renewed his effort to love not only his fellow prisoners but even the guards who brutalized him. This had its effect.

The authorities found that they needed to move this priest from prison to prison — he contaminated every place they sent him transforming communist re-education camps into schools of hope. In the end, they released him and exiled him from Vietnam. He eventually oversaw the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and the efforts to develop the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Cardinal Van Thuan's example helps us see the mystery of Gethsemane in Christian prayer, a mystery that welcomes those difficult blessings God wants us to have. Christian prayer realizes fruitfulness when it drinks from the cup of these unwanted blessings with Christ. In this moment of prayer, there is the beatitude of sorrow. It is a moment of blessed poverty in which we access the inexhaustible riches of Christ. It is a moment of purifying enlightenment in which a ray of divine darkness transfigures our awareness of the will of God. In this discouragement, humanity discovers the courage of the Almighty. In this crushing disappointment, a deeper hope in the Lord is born.


Art for this post on Blessings that are Difficult to Receive (Updated): Modification of Cardinal Van Thuan Holy Card and Feature Image provided by Dan Burke, used with permission.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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  • BeckitaMaria

    Thank you for this profound, heart piercing article, Anthony. I believe that sooner rather than later, due to pressing forces of evil, we will be a country and world in dire need of hope in Jesus and, by His own design, in His Mother.

    In 1978 when he came to America, Pope John Paul II said, “We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of the American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anit-Church, of the Gospel and the anti-Gospel. This confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is a trial which the whole Church… must take up.”

    May we remember this example of Cardinal Van Thuan, particularly in the looming crisis of religious persecution.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      I agree with you – somehow Cardinal’s example is a way forward.  He was never afraid to speak the truth, but at the same time, he would reach out in friendship even as he was rejected. I love your quote from Blessed John Paul II -although I do not remember it, it is truer today than ever.  And we must pray for those whose religious freedom is already trampled on, who are suffering for the faith even now.  I spoke to someone at a think tank at Georgetown University – religious freedom is more threatened today than it has been for the last forty years on both the local and national levels around the world – including in our own country.  Is this what Blessed John Paul II had in mind with his comments in 1978?  It would seem so.

      • BeckitaMaria

        Yes! We must pray for those oppressed and suffering terribly even now for religious freedom. I have read that Christians are dying for their faith around the world and this is under-reported by western media. Our current administration has remained mum concerning this reality. 

        I cling to Hope Himself as I hold St. Paul’s writing in my heart: where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. In great thanksgiving I have also read that Jesus is appearing to Muslims thus bringing about their conversion.

        While I ponder that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” I pray, too, for the strength and courage to remain faithful. I see Cardinal Van Thuen is a servant of God now and I shall petition him, privately of course, to intercede for all of us in these days.

        I also claim St. Joan of Arc’s words so certain and so true for each of us since God clearly and intentionally created each one for these times: I am not afraid for God is with me and I was born for this. (Truthfully, I am growing into these words.)

        Thanks again and may Holy Spirit overshadow your work.

        • I love your words here. Where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. And Joan of Arc’s words “I am not afraid for God is with me and I was born for this.” 

          I was born for this. Yes, how reassuring indeed that because we were born and created to carry such crosses, there is no doubt that He has given us what we need to carry them. In the midst of some blessings quite difficult to accept, it is truly amazing when despite the hurt and pain, God’s loving hand and peaceful presence remains. Thank you for these beautiful words. 

          They remind of a quote by St. Francis De Sales.

          “The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen
          from eternity the cross that He now presents to you
          as a gift from His inmost heart.
          This cross He now sends you
          He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms
          and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you.
          He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage,
          and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.”

          • abandon56

             Thank you for the quote from St. Francis De Sales, Mary.
            This article and that quote are exactly what I need at this very moment. Praise God!

          • Glory to God! I will pray for you abandon56!

          • BeckitaMaria

            Thanks for this quote as well!

            In a few moments I shall fall asleep as I usually do, with the Relic of the True Cross cradled in my hands of prayer while lifting all those I know whose crosses are heavy right now. This night I shall also meditate on the words from your posted quote: “…anointed it with His consolation…”

            Thanks again, Mary the Defender.

          • Please pray for me and my family too. We really need prayers right now! Thank you!

          • BeckitaMaria

            You and your families are absolutely in my prayers, Mary!  

  • LizEst

    …and in that happiness to do the will of God no matter what that may be, no matter the crucifixion, we begin to sip of, to taste, if only for a moment in eternity, that glorious stream of everlasting joy which flows through the place Christ has gone ahead of us to prepare, that garden of heavenly delights, of beauty and vision God has in store for those who love Him, the cup of good measure, pressed down and filled to overflowing… Blessed be God!

    Thanks Dr. Lilles for this beautiful reflection. God bless you!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you for this insight – it is a beautiful truth.

  • I love what you wrote here. Especially the last paragraph. Strange isn’t, that as we strive to carry our crosses and offer them for the sake of those in need, we slowly realize what a blessing our crosses really are.
    And though its heavy, sorrowful and painful, carrying our crosses gradually gives us a greater awareness of the graces God has been bestowing upon us through such difficulties. In offering our crosses there is an unexpected sense of peace. And a surprising gratitude when God slowly reveals to you how He is blessing not only you but those around you by the cross He has given you to carry. How carrying it is and will bring others closer to Him. And in such a light, the dark is no longer dark, but the cross becomes the first rays of light paving the way for a new dawn. 

    • Thank you for this reflection — I think it is very true, but very difficult at the same time.  You are pointing to something very beautiful in this experience you describe – a delicate and subtle beauty that is hard to see unless by faith you are implicated in it yourself.  We need more of this kind of wisdom.

      • Thank you for your kind words. May I please ask everyone here for prayers for my family? We’re going through a rough time right now.

        • LizEst

          Praying for you and your family, Mary.

  • Karen Trappey

    Thank you for this. My husband has just told me he wants a divorce. As much as I want our marriage to work and my sons to have a normal home, I can not continue to live as a doormat, walking on eggshells, and in fear of upsetting him. Drawing on courage from the Lord.

    • LizEst

      Karen, I will pray for you. May the Lord bear you up as you carry this cross. Always remember He is your health and your shield. May God bless you and keep you.

    • Becky Ward

      I’m praying too – for all of you.

    • I am very sorry for your suffering. Be assured of my prayers.

    • Praying for you too!

    • I am so sorry that you are plunged into this terrible crisis.  You are so right to seek your courage from the One whose love for you and your family is more powerful than evil, even the evil of abandonment and divorce – He never abandons us and His Word to us never changes even as the world falls apart around us. So it seems that you and your sons must walk through the shadow of this difficult valley – a painful wound that imperils our whole society – it is a powerful witness to us that you already know to rely on the Good Shepherd to guide and protect you.  St. Joseph, the Guardian of the Redeemer, is a special patron for your sons, and I hope you find in his intercession an additional aid as you strive to draw your strength from the Lord. Please be assured of my prayers.   

    • BeckitaMaria

      I’m also praying for you and your family, Karen.

  • carl641

    The cardinals story shows clearly the power of love. Evil cannot tolerate love, it has to kill it (as it did to our Lord and the martyrs down through history) or as in his case, exile it from its (evil) presence. He did what our Lord told us to do, ‘love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.’ Good advice for the future.

    • Yes, this is a curious mystery because at the same time “evil” rejects what is “good”, something else deep in the human conscience is also stirred.  Sometimes, what is stirred bears fruit in a beautiful conversion.  In this case, suffering the rejection of another becomes an easy price to pay if in the end it wins a heart to the Lord. Yet the beatitude of being persecuted for the Lord does not always include this grace of conversion, at least as far as we can see. So it requires of us a movement of living faith, faith animated by friendship love of God.  I agree about the Cardinal – he is an important witness for us today.

  • Guest

    I’ve been going through an exceedingly trying time this past week, tying to cope with feelings of abandonment by family members and a few other prominent people in my life, rooted in what I perceive as unjust and unwarranted personal attacks.  I am very aware of the challenges I give to people in my life by virtue of my chronic illness as well as some psychological issues that have cropped up, but I usually assume that at least those with faith will be empathetic and forgive me my many foibles.

    Well, it seems that this Lent, God seems to be taking me to my limits of faith and trust in Him, testing my capacity to forgive.  I prayed fervently to the Holy Spirit today to receive guidance on what my attitude is supposed to be at this time and to help me to know if I should in any way react to the perceived attacks on me which wounded me deeply.  A few hours ago I just happened to pull out an old Magnificat and opened it to a most beautiful sermon on “letting things go” and then a few moments ago I just read your commentary on “Blessings that are Difficult to Receive.” 

    I receive your emails every day but today is the first time in ages that I have actually gone to the website to read the entire daily spiritual direction.  I want you to know that today’s words have come to me as a tender embrace from God.  Thank you to Anthony Lilles and thank you God!

    • Dear jals0911, 
      You are most welcome.  It is very humbling to know that the Lord might use a post to encourage a fellow pilgrim at an important moment. May the Lord continue to send you encouragement when you most need it – He loves to surprise us with His Providence and your humble openness to Him is a great witness for all of us.  Thank God for Dan Burke and his whole team that work to build up this online apostolate.  You are in my prayers – please pray for me.

      • jals0911

        I appreciate your prayers and thank God for the vocation he has given you through your writing and postings on this web site. It’s no surprise though, seeing you’re a graduate of Steubenville!  
        With prayers and appreciation,

    • this post was also for me my friend, GOD is making us more stronger and teachings us to ONLY seek his love.

      • LizEst

        My prayers for you also, Chamay.

    • LizEst

      My prayers for you jals0911.

  • AGSM929

    This is an e-mail I recently sent to my pastor who has been helping me work through a difficult issue for quite some time now. When I read this article I realized that my problems are nothing compared to what this cardinal faced and how much more self centeredness I have left in me when ever I feel as if there is nothing left but God. I have a long way to go. Thank you for your e-mails. They are of great comfort to me. And my heart and prayers go out to the lady whose husband wants a divorce. My prayer for our marriage is a short simple one, taught by a good holy priest. Jesus stand between us. Amen!

    I have been thinking a lot since we last spoke. (And praying) This is what I think. Can I say that my marriage is “happy”? Not really, but what is happiness anyway? The word happy is derived from the word happenstance, which implies luck or furtune. Would I say that I am happy that my son died in Iraq and I now get to be a Gold Star Mother and do all sorts of cool things like going to the Memorial Mass at the National Shrine with the Archdiocese for Military Services? NO! But I can say that blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted. Recently I was at the grocery store and feeling very sad. I was praying for Faith, Hope, Wisdom and Courage, so much so that I wrote those words down on my grocery list and repeated them with every step I took walking up and down the isles. I tried to cheer myself up by making a game out of looking for them at the store. 🙂 (I am a little weird) At one point I said, God I am sad today, I could really use a hug.” After I checked out and was on my way to the door, the lady who helps put together the ceremonies at Prospect Hill Cemetery was there. She gave me a BIG hug when she said hello. I walked out smiling.

    When I went to the carnival committee meeting, I grabbed what I thought was the notebook I used last year. It was not. Instead it was a notebook I used as a journal 2 years ago when all this with my marriage first started. I had written almost all of the same things then that I just wrote a recently. We seem to be cycling through the same things over and over again. It is not furtunate or happy to do this. But I can say that my marriage is Blessed. It is blessed by God, by the church and we even had an extra special blessing by Fr Jim right before this all started in January of 2011. As I see it now what needs to change is me. My behaviors, attitudes and reactions to the circumstances, so that my life reflects Christ’s love more perfectly in everything I say and do. As much as I love my husband. God loves him even more. As much as I want him to come back to the church, God wants it even more. I cannot use coercion to combat coersion because we can not fight satan with satan’s ways. Only through truth and love will this battle be won. and our marriage may be the only thing keeping my husband connected to the truth right now.

    • LizEst

      May God be with you and your husband.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Dear AGSM929,
      I am glad the Cardinal’s story was a consolation for you. I am humbled that God should allow me to write something that might give you a little comfort in the midst of so much pain.  Thank you for taking the time to write this out and for being so honest about what has gone on in your life.  I am glad you have a spiritual director and that you are not trying to face these things alone. These kinds of trials require more frequent confession, daily mass and even adoration if your duties in life allow.  You have probably made a retreat already – but if not, talk to your spiritual director about this as well.  It is good that your are journalling as well – precisely so you can pick up “cycles” and surrender these to God just as you have.  Otherwise, we are just tormenting ourselves.  Just as it was for the Cardinal, your growing detachment over things you cannot change is an important grace for which to thank God. 

      I am so sorry for the loss of your son, and so grateful for his service to our Country. His mission in Iraq, whatever it involved, helped give people of goodwill a chance to build a just society, and by this, helped keep us safe here at home. Your son’s sacrifice reminds us, in this life, freedom and justice and the peace that comes from these all have a bitter price attached to them – the blood that is shed to this end reminds us also of the blood Christ shed for our sake. Really, the whole world owes men like your son a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.  At the same time, losing one’s own child, no matter what age, is overwhelming.  Thank you for helping us think about the painful beatitude of the sorrowful – and for your witness that in this sorrow you have begun to be comforted in unlikely places and in unlikely ways. Your difficult story is a poignant reminder that we must pray for you, your husband and all the other families of our Nation’s fallen heroes.
      In Christ,

      • AGSM929

        Thank your caring and thoughtful words especialy concerning the death of my son. The hardest thing to deal with about his death is the fact that he left behind a widow and 2 children. My heart breaks for them as they struggle to go on with out him. And for all of the families who struggle with these trials during this ten year long war. I also pray for protection for my oldest son who is still in the military I need God’s strength every single day.
        I did not even realize this was what I did until I read your words:

        It is good that your are journalling as well – precisely so you can pick up “cycles” and surrender these to God just as you have. Otherwise, we are just tormenting ourselves.

        Something as simple as putting a name to it… picking up cycles and surrendering them to God, helps give me the courage I need to take another step. One of my favorite quotes from Padre Pio is this,
        In the spiritual life you must take one step forward each day in a vertical line, from the bottom up.
        Many thanks to you and LizEst for your prayers they are always welcome and much needed.

  • orajen

    God wants us to have difficult blessings???

    • Absolutely

    • LizEst

      Are you having some “difficult blessings” right now?

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Yes — we are meant to follow Christ Crucified who reveals the love of the Father. To reveal the Father’s love to the world, we, like our Crucified Master, will have to suffer. Yet, to have the opportunity to suffer for the love of God – this at last allows us the freedom to live life to the full, to be fully human. Love that is only easy and without worries, that costs nothing, is it really love? Love, however, that remains faithful to what is good and true — this reveals something great in the heart of men and women. This greatness is the very glory of God in us. God has created us to reveal, to be the praise of His glory.

  • orajen

    I’m pretty sure it wasn’t God that sent Job difficult “blessings”. Your comment – “to welcome difficult blessings God wants to have” leaves me a bit puzzled. I understand God allows trials and tribulations for each one, but to say that God wants us to have difficulties is a bit perplexing. God allows us to be tried and tested like ‘gold in fire’, but that doesn’t mean He isn’t allowing satan to put obstacles in our way, just as God allowed satan to do with Job.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Dear Orajen,
      Thank you for raising an important point.  You are right that the Lord does ultimately will suffering or evil in our lives. He is the Author of all that is good and His deepest longing is that we should all enjoy His goodness in communion with Him and one another forever.  However, in this life, He often permits all kinds of trials and difficulties – some by external circumstance and some through interior turmoils, and often, these trials concur with one another.  In addition, He also allows all kinds of spiritual adversaries to put us to the test, just as Job was put to the test.  Indeed, the blessing of our salvation came through the abandonment,  anguish, sorrow and terror Christ bore for us on the Cross.In the pattern of the Suffering Servant through whom every blessing comes, God never permits anything that He does not want it to become a source of blessing for us. Fire-tried gold is pure because of the fire and He disciplines the son whom He loves.  So while evil in itself is not good, the way God uses it to strengthen and purify is.  This is why St. Paul boasts of his trials, “I am glad of weaknesses, insults, constraints, persecutions, and distress for Christ’s sake.  For it is when I am weak that I am strong” 1 Cor. 12:10.If the strength of Christ is made perfect in our weakness, this means He is able to change the evil that befalls us into a blessing – if we offer it to Him with love.  This is the blessing that is hard to receive – the blessing is good but the circumstances through which it comes to us are difficult. It is a blessing hidden in suffering. Each blessing is unrepeatable and unique – capable of transforming the whole world in love.  Yet so many refuse these blessings because they cannot deal with the circumstances through which they come.  They lose heart.  Only when we bear painful circumstances by persevering in love can we welcome those hidden blessings that come in suffering, in weakness, in inadequacy and even in failure.  This is exactly how the Cardinal chose to live – filling each moment with love so that each difficult moment of the re-education camp became a moment of blessing, difficult blessing he came to welcome.  Here, faith allows us to see blessings in the difficult trials of life. This is what Jesus saw when He declared the sorrowful blessed. Indeed, the blessings we welcome in difficult trials exceed the sorrow and pain they cause.  

  • orajen

    Anthony I hoping you meant to type: “You are right that the Lord does NOT ultimately will suffering or evil in our lives.”

  • Judy Silhan

    Excellent repost. I only learned of Cardinal Van Thuan last year, in a class Dan and Dr. Lilles taught, and have since read his writings. What an example he is for faithful Christians today.

    • LizEst

      So true, Judy. We can learn a lot from him.

  • Valerie Saldanha

    I am grateful for this article, especially the last paragraph.
    I have read the book by Cardinal Nguyan Van Thuan, ‘Testimony of Hope: The Spiritual Exercises of Pope John Paul II.’

  • Kathy

    I have read 2 of his books, he shows us how the only way out is to pick up your cross and go through. How deep his desolation must of been yet he became hope in darkness. He is a Saint , pray for us!

  • Charles Saliba

    I experienced a very good blessing few weeks ago. When I was rushed to hospital and ended having my stomach open, but after three days it was all over, and since I have been through an entire check up, and the last words from the surgeon and the staff at the hospital were, that for my age of 70 I am a very healthy person, I feel like born again without any worries at all, and never ended giving thanks to God since then in my prayers, considering the fact that I simply ignored my wife and relatives advice and never wanted to have a check up as I TRUSTED in Jesus to do His will, and I tell you He definitely did for sure! Thanks Jesus you will never disappoint us when we TRUST IN YOU in the truth!

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