The reputation of St. Padre Pio is shrouded with extraordinary events. When his life is discussed, what often comes up in conversation is his stigmata (mystically receiving the wounds of Christ in his flesh), his gift of bi-location (being at two places at once) and the gift of reading souls in the confessional (knowing what sins were committed before the penitent confessed them). But what sometimes does not get the attention it deserves is that intense interior darkness he would experience; a kind of darkness that Blessed Mother Theresa complained of several decades ago.
By reading his letters to his spiritual director, one gets the impression that for every mystical ecstasy of rapturous joy he would experience, the Lord would have to” even things out” for him by allowing St. Pio to get attacked by demons or to experience incredible feelings of abandonment. Curiously, just about every canonized has, at some point, felt the inner pangs of being abandoned by the Lord. It is as if the Lord wanted these Saints to have some experience of what damned souls experience in hell. And even more important, it is through these bitter experiences that the Saints shared in Christ’s death. As such, their sufferings and sacrifices became a means of saving souls. With Christ, they took on God’s severity of justice so that sinners could be beneficiaries of His Mercy.
It is quite common that God puts his closest friends on a rollercoaster of wild extremes; that of tasting the joys of paradise and feeling the despair of hell. On precursor to St. Pio was St. Paul. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he said he was blessed to have had received from the Lord an “abundance of the revelations.” Yet, these great mystical experiences would exact from him a depth of suffering that would pierce his soul. In fact, he said, “Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.”
That same spiritual warfare and testing had visited St. Padre Pio. In a letter on November 8, 1916, he complained to his spiritual director by saying, “Blasphemous thoughts continuously run through my mind; and still more promptings, infidelity, and irreligiousness. “ Several months earlier, he felt as though the Lord had abandoned him to darkness; a darkness devoid of peace. On March 8, 1916, he wrote the following: “Peace has been fully banished from my heart. I have become completely blind. I find myself enveloped in a profound darkness and I can never, no matter how I struggle, find the light.”
This kind of interior pain that St. Pio experienced can be so intense at times, death is often a welcomed event. Again, he wrote, “I long for death to relieve me of my afflictions. May the Lord God grant me this soon, because I can endure no longer.” Perhaps this is why the good padre would frequently quote from the book of Job, the Psalms and the Song of Songs the most from the Old Testament. These inspired writings truly capture how a love and longing for God is purified by suffering. And the greatest suffering for a Saint is to feel his absence.
Gianluigi pasquale, editor of Secrets of a Soul, is a book that gives us the letters of St. Padre Pio to his spiritual directors. In it he describes just how the interior trials were for the Saint from Pietrelcina, Italy:
“What is most bewildering during this period is that the soul cannot understand God’s action in it, and, therefore, it is overcome with great anguish and suffering. The very thought oppresses the soul to the point that only God’s special grace is prevented from going astray…God has grown distant and, in doing so, left a tremendous void, but God does not allow himself to be found.”
It would seem that Christ gives to souls such as these a taste of the suffering he himself endured for the world. Arguably, Divine justice is introduced into the lives of these chosen souls- but never apart from Christ –so that Divine Mercy could be introduced into the lives of those who are much less deserving. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, death is at work in us, but life in you.
St. Padre Pio, like St. Paul the Apostle, knew that a price needed to be paid for sinners. Quite often, this meant experiencing great anguish of soul. This is God’s way of testing the love and fidelity of his friends. And Saint Pio did precisely that when he used to say regarding Jesus, “I kiss the hands that smite me.” But, with that said, there always came a time when the Lord would lift up St. Pio above the fog of uncertainty in order to better understand his ways.
One more thing: For a Christian who sincerely loves the Lord and wants to do his will- as we have said -there is no greater suffering than when interior darkness visits that soul or it is afflicted with the feeling of being abandoned by God. But after having survived the trial, that soul will count exterior trials as child’s play. In other words, the vexations and inconveniences that come from human beings are as nothing compared to feeling distant from God. St. Padre Pio knew more than most, that when God is with you, everything seems easy. But when it feels as though he backing off- and no longer with us -even the lightest of things we try to lift feels heavy.