“The decline of Eugene’s spiritual life first manifested itself in the form of mediocrity, becoming more pronounced in the form of an ever more pervasive lukewarmness and culminated in what Father de Mazenod would call ‘open desertion’.” In this way, Pielorz (p. 123) sums up Eugene’s spiritual decline which started in Palermo and continued for several years.
The letters to his family from 1799 – 1804 that we possess reflect nothing of the fervor that had been a characteristic of the young Eugene at the College of Nobles and in Venice with Don Bartolo. When the Duchess of Cannizzaro, whom he called his second mother, died, Eugene took refuge in sickly tragic romantic poetry and not in prayer or spiritual comfort.
Pielorz (p. 131) continues to point out: “Eugene’s correspondence for the years 1802 to 1805, some hundred letters in all, do not reveal much of anything positive with regard to his spiritual life. If we are to judge by a faithful Lenten observance during this same period, Eugene must have fulfilled the obligations imposed by the precepts of the Church in terms of annual confession and reception of Holy Communion as well as attendance at Mass.”
Looking back on this period of his life, several years later as a priest doing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and using that imagery, Eugene wrote about failing to serve in the Kingdom of Christ:
St. Ignatius’ parable is admirable and finds application marvelously in every situation. I have been like the others called to fight under this great King against his enemies who are also mine. I was enrolled from my birth at the time of my baptism in his army, but I had scarcely reached the age of reason when seduced by the enemy I would throw myself into his ranks. Before long I was recalled to my duty, but my sojourn amongst the rebels, by accustoming me to revolt, had given me the taste for independence and even though I lived in the very camp of the King, nourished at his table, even so I was guilty of entering into relations with the enemy.
This infidelity soon led me to open defection, and once again I deserted the standard of my Prince to fight in the enemy ranks. Here I bore myself all too well; I was close to rivalling the most able of them; with one exception, all their maneuvers were familiar to me, and that one too, for which, thanks be to God, I had conceived a kind of repugnance, I would doubtless have learnt in the end, if the Lord who even then had his sights on me had not preserved me from this final wretchedness.
… So much to think about! I a priest, I who was for so long, over so many years, knowingly, willingly, stubbornly the slave of the devil, the enemy of God, see me now a minister of that same God, the mediator between God and men. … I am a priest, but am I fooling myself? Am I not the one who lived in mortal sin, persevered in that dreadful state and never dreamt of leaving it, or to speak more plainly did not really want to leave it, and that for how long? Alas, yes, it is I…
Retreat notes, December 1814, EO XV n. 130
“I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him.” Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven