“So in your vocation…be prepared and be ready for times of trial. We know not how much you may be called upon to suffer. We know not how much any of us may be called upon to suffer in an age of intense agony and suffering the world has gone through. Pray in the spirit of humility, knowing your own frailty, your own weakness, remembering what Our Lord said, ‘Without Me you cannot do anything,’ lifting His arms to sustain you. Never permit anything to separate you from Him.”
– Servant of God, Fr. Paul Wattson, SA
It is terribly hard to hand our lives over to God, especially during times of trial. Even Jesus struggled with this. (“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me…”) So did Fr. Paul Wattson, SA when he co-founded the Society of the Atonement with Mother Lurana White, SA. In the late 1800s, Fr. Paul was a gifted Anglican priest and sought-after preacher serving in Nebraska.
He received a letter from a 22-year-old woman, Lurana White, who was a postulant in an Anglican order. She asked Fr. Paul if he knew of the existence of an order of Anglicans that practiced corporate poverty in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. After responding that he did not, Fr. Paul and Lurana White corresponded repeatedly until they decided to meet at the home of her parents in Warwick, NY, and discern whether the two of them should found their own Anglican order in the spirit of St. Francis. Upon completion of a three-day retreat with each other, on October 7, 1898, Fr. Paul and Lurana White (soon to be “Mother Lurana) made a covenant to found the Society of the Atonement.
Immediately after the two retired to their rooms after making the momentous covenant, doubt paralyzed Fr. Paul. In her book, A Woman of Unity (a biography of Mother Lurana) Sr. Mary Celine, SA, dramatically recorded the event:
“The future Father Founder, however, had scarcely arrived at the threshold of his room when his soul was torn from the heights to which it had just been raised and was plunged into a depth of utter despair. Who was he to presume to establish a religious Community? “What you ought to do,” sneered the devil, “is to leave the Episcopal Church immediately, become a Catholic and join the Passionists.” By the time he had closed the door of his room Father Wattson’s anguish was intense. Casting himself upon his knees, he declared to God that he had no other desire to do His Will, that he was ready to become a Catholic at once and seek admission to the Congregation of the Passionists; in fact, he would be glad to be relieved of the hard task of founding a religious community in the Episcopal Church, but while this state of suspense and doubt continued he could do nothing but writhe in terrible torment of soul.”
Fr. Paul fervently prayed for confirmation of his covenant with Mother Lurana. He didn’t have to wait long for an answer. He opened the Bible at random to these words in Hebrews: “When God made promise to Abraham because He could swear by no greater, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘Surely blessings I will bless thee; and multiplying, I will multiply thee.’ And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise.” (Hebrews 6: 13-14)
With this passage, peace and consolation returned to his soul.
Of course, this was far from the last time that Fr. Paul stared down grave doubt. The trials and tribulations they faced (in founding an order, transitioning from an Anglican order to Roman Catholic, and growing the Society of the Atonement through the years) never abated. But neither did Fr. Paul’s fervent faith and prayer for more faith: “Oh God, establish us in the truest humility and entire dependence on Thee, that our faith fail not!”
Where do I struggle with doubt in my faith life?
How does the faith of Jesus, Fr. Paul, or other saints inspire me when it comes to dealing with my own crises of doubt? Is there a particular saint who inspires you?