All of us have people in our lives who we find difficult to deal with for a variety of reasons. It may be that they have deeply hurt us or our loved ones. Perhaps their particular personality grates on our nerves for some reason. Maybe they are arrogant and lack self-awareness. It could be that they share vices or personality flaws similar to our own and act as a mirror to our own struggles. No matter the cause, dealing with people we find to be difficult is a part of life in this fallen world. Even the saints dealt with people they found to be a source of trial and testing, but the saints knew how to recognize those people as an opportunity to grow in holiness.
At 59 years of age, St. John Vianney was well known throughout France for his sanctity, confessions, and loving spiritual fatherhood. There was little question any longer of whether or not he was a saint. He served with supernatural strength and love. His sacrifices, long hours in the confessional, and heartfelt imploring for souls to convert had turned Ars around. The lifeless, lukewarm faith he encountered upon his arrival had been ignited into a raging inferno.
The Lord in His mysterious ways tests all of us. St. John Vianney was known for his humility, but even this was put to the test. His long hours and constant schedule was becoming unsustainable on his own, so his diocese sent him a curate: M. Raymond. This priest had known the generosity of St. John Vianney, who had helped pay his way through seminary. He felt duty bound because of this generosity, but he thought too highly of himself and his capabilities. In many ways, he was the opposite of St. John Vianney.
St. John Vianney knew his weakness before the Lord and that it was not his own will that led to the extraordinary miracles around him. Nor did he spend much time contemplating his own capabilities and plans. He focused on the salvation of souls and the repentance of sins. M. Raymond was full of his own plans and expected upon arriving in Ars to take over everything because he thought St. John Vianney incapable of continuing on. He saw a harassed and overworked old man who needed a younger priest to come in and take charge of everything.
M. Raymond wanted to organize and control the pilgrims, orphanage, and parish, even St. John Vianney himself. He thought the people needed a strong administrator in order to get things into shape. He missed entirely that it was the holiness of St. John Vianney that was the conduit for God unleashing tremendous graces upon the pilgrims coming to Ars. He made the mistake we often make in thinking that it’s about our own plans, rather than God’s.
In many ways M. Raymond could see that St. John Vianney was a saint, but his pride convinced him that he could somehow take St. John Vianney’s place. He even went so far as to take over St. John Vianney’s bedroom in the rectory and consigned the saint to a smaller room downstairs. He began signing documents as the cure, rather than as the curate. It was only the intervention of those closest to St. John Vianney that led to any pushback. St. John Vianney tended to resign himself humbly to the circumstances he found himself in.
For eight long years, St. John Vianney had to confront a man who was very much his opposite. The Lord wanted to test the humility of this saint to the last drop. The saint succeeded, and like other saints, told those around him that M. Raymond helped him grow closer to the Lord. He even defended the priest and told the townspeople he would leave if anyone tried to have M. Raymond sent away.
At the end of the eight years, M. Raymond realized how unpopular he was among the people and asked to be sent to another parish. According to Henri Gheon in The Secret of the Cure D’Ars, St. John Vianney wrote to him upon his leaving: “You have been useful to me. You have done me so many services that you have my heart in chains.”
St. John Vianney understood how much M. Raymond sanctified him. As iron sharpens iron, he saw God working to lead him to greater heights through the difficulties he encountered with this arrogant priest. His growth in virtue was more rapid than when he had curates who simply did whatever he wanted. He needed the challenge to grow.
This is an important lesson for all of us. We tend to think we want things to be easier. If only we could get along with every person we encounter. If only people would be nice. The reality is, however, that we need challenging and difficult people in our lives in order to grow in virtue. It is those people who try us the most who reveal to us where we still lack virtue. These people show us the dark crevices within us comprised of pride, impatience, anger, unforgiveness, and control. Sometimes they teach us that we need to stand up for ourselves and sometimes they teach us how to be silent in the face of injustice like Our Lord before Pilate.
Our typical reaction to difficult people is to figure out ways not to deal with them, be rid of them, or tell them off. Instead, through prayer and the grace of God, we can allow the sufferings they cause us to help us grow in much needed areas. The Lord will even put people in our lives who we cannot seem to escape from no matter how much we try or pray to be free of them, precisely because, in His mysterious plan, our own sanctification is bound up with theirs. M. Raymond needed the holiness of St. John Vianney in order to grow as a priest. St. John Vianney needed M. Raymond to test his humility and patience so he could reach greater heights.
We also learn how much we are called to be crucified for others. It may be that the difficult person we are confronted with is in great spiritual danger. They need our willingness to sacrifice on their behalf. We must seek to love as Christ loves. The interior mortifications from interactions with difficult people can be used by God to pour graces into their lives that can lead to their conversion or sanctification. Through our willingness to silently suffer for them, we are also sanctified. This is the secret St. John Vianney uncovered through his dealings with M. Raymond. Difficult people are sent by God to sanctify us in some way.
This doesn’t mean that we need to go out of our way in order to be confronted with these difficult people on a daily basis if we are not spiritually strong enough to do so. The times we do encounter them are usually enough to help us grow and provide plenty of opportunities to suffer interiorly on their behalf. It is these encounters that should be worked out in prayer.
In taking them to prayer we quickly discover that the Lord provides greater and greater strength with each new interaction. We grow in disinterested and detached love and we become freer and freer from our own pride. We eventually discover that more frequent interactions become easier.
One of the greatest lessons we learn from the difficult people in our lives is that we are the difficult person for someone else. Our personality flaws, vices, weaknesses, and failings are a trial for other people. Perhaps for people we don’t even realize. Living in communion is an immense challenge for all of us because we are all in need of growth in virtue and holiness.
St. John Vianney is a great intercessor to turn to when we encounter difficult people throughout our day. Who do you need to entrust to God today? Who has God sent to help you grow in virtue? What difficult person in your life is in spiritual danger and needs your sacrifices? How are we difficult for others? May the Lord provide us the strength to love the difficult people in our lives every day.
Image: Canvas depicting the Curé of Ars exhibited in the chapel of Providence in Ars (Benoît Prieur / Wikimedia Commons)