Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it. (Mk 8:34-35)
These words from tomorrow’s Gospel have been lived admirably by all of the Church’s saints. They have all imitated Christ in His self-denial and suffering. Some of them, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, or St. Pio of Pietrelcina (popularly known as Padre Pio), have been so configured to Christ that they shared His stigmata. Plenty of others are known for their extraordinary penances. St. Simeon Stylites, for example, lived on top of a pillar for thirty-six years.
But if anyone can be truly said to have taken these words of the Lord to heart, it is St. Peter Damian, whose feast we celebrate tomorrow. Pope Benedict XVI said that of all the mysteries of the Christian faith, the mystery of the Cross fascinated this saint the most. The Holy Father emeritus also noted that he described himself as “Peter, servant of the servants of the Cross of Christ.” As Benedict said, the Cross was so attractive to this monk because it was the supreme act of God’s love for mankind that wrought our salvation.
St. Peter Damian, an extremely learned man, entered the eremitical life at the Hermitage of Fonte-Avellana about the year 1035 when he was approximately 28 years old. There he lived very ascetically, authored a work on the life of St. Romuald (who had written the rule followed at the hermitage), and within a very short time became prior of the place.
The saint is most famous, however, for his efforts to reform the Church, which was ailing in many ways. The sin of simony and clerical licentiousness were particularly rampant in his time. Simony was so widespread that in one of his letters (of which we have a vast collection), we find Peter commending Bishop Gebhard of Ravenna as being “almost the exception in standing unconquered and unshaken” by this “evil beast.” It was this reforming line of work that required his greatest self-denial.
Not only did St. Peter Damian expend himself in traveling, writing, and teaching – often gaining only criticism, hatred, and personal attacks in response – but he also in 1057 was deprived of his beloved life of solitude altogether when he was appointed Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia. He begged in several lengthy letters to be relieved of such a burden, but these requests were denied. He was so enamored with his chosen manner of life that he was once moved to write
…O eremitic life, holy life, angelic life, blessed life, preserver of souls, hall of heavenly gems, and court of the senators of the spirit. Your fragrance excels that of all herbs, your flavor is sweeter to the taste of the enlightened soul than dripping honeycombs or any honey.
Despite his love for the contemplative life, Peter obediently gave this life up in order to better aid the Church in saving souls.
St. Peter Damian, pray for us that we might put Christ at the center of our lives!
Image: Titian, Christ Carrying the Cross