The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for October, 2011

Disarming the Devil

It is perhaps appropriate that this Gospel (Lk. 8:26-39) is proclaimed just before Halloween, which is one of the major satanic events of the year, at which ritual sacrifices are offered and all manner of evil spirits are invoked, so as to spiritually pollute our poor world even more than it already is.  But from the Gospel we take courage, for Jesus manifests Himself as stronger than all the powers of darkness, for He casts them out with a word; and in the power of his Holy Spirit, we can do the same.

This doesn’t mean that we are all called to be professional exorcists, for this requires both a specific calling by God and some specialized training.  But we all have to deal with the devil in our lives, for he tempts and harasses us in various ways, and we need to learn not only how to be strong against his attacks, but also how to understand the dynamics of temptation, so that with the help of divine grace we can emerge victorious in the bitter spiritual battles.

Therefore, since I’ve pretty much covered the exegesis for this Gospel a number of times over the past few years, I’d like to concentrate on the basic theme of overcoming the power of the evil spirits in our own lives.  For this I will draw on two sources that I’ve come across in recent years.

The following description is from Fr Basil Maturin’s Christian Self-Mastery:  “To persons [who at one time were faithful and later fell into sin] the memory must still be clear of the first approach of the temptation that was later to take so firm a hold upon them, of the recoil of the mind from it, with terror and repulsion, and yet with a kind of horrible fascination. It came again and again and stood at the door of the soul, awaiting its admission with a kind of insolent assurance that if it waited long enough, it would have its way. By degrees, the mind… bid it begone in tones of less confidence. It gradually became habituated to its presence outside the soul, feeling its influence, although never yet allowed deliberately to cross the threshold. Then it seemed to gain a certain strange influence over the various faculties, exciting an unaccountable curiosity and forcing them, as it were, to look at it, if only so that they might realize how hateful it was. At last it pushed open the door in a moment when conscience was off its guard and entered, and in an instant demoralized the whole household of the soul, loosened the passions, won over the imagination, and hypnotized the will. And although it was driven out and the doors barred against it, in that moment of its entry, it had made allies for itself, and now the passions and the imagination would loosen the bolts and the will itself would open the door for it. So it entered without hindrance, with an ever-weakening protest from conscience…”

Do you see yourself anywhere in there?  The author must be a man of experience, for he articulates it very well!  One way of preventing this is to enter directly into dialogue with Jesus, reiterating that you love Him more than you love whatever you are being tempted with (thus also reminding yourself of your noblest aspirations), and that you belong to Him and are committed to doing his will. At least this way you open the door to grace.

Another thing Fr Maturin suggests is self-discipline in small things, apparently unrelated to that by which you are tempted. Learning to say “no” in one area can strengthen you to say it in another, because it is the person who is being strengthened. Does the Church ask us to fast because food is not good for us?  Of course not.  But the discipline of self-denial will aid us when we are called to renounce something that is bad for us, something for which we may hunger as for food. Success in any endeavor begins with training, and the training for success in overcoming temptations is largely the practice of self-denial and daily faithfulness to the commandments of the One who loves you.

One thing to learn (and take warning) from Fr Maturin’s analysis is the way our thoughts and even our conscience can become habituated to what is bad for us, simply by small concessions, a bit of curiosity, or some specious reason for investigating the nature of the temptation. You could find yourself eventually in the spiritually dangerous situation of realizing that your conscience is losing its power to object to evil and is learning how to rationalize and compromise.

Next I’d like to refer to the book of Fr Livio Fanzaga, called The Deceiver. The title of the book really says it all, for temptation is all about deception. That’s something that seems hard to sink into our souls, even though we may give intellectual assent to it. Realizing clearly, however, that those suggestions to sin, which make it seem good or desirable, are deceptive, false, misleading, and even destructive, anyone with an ounce of common sense simply wouldn’t follow them. But all too often we do anyway, to our subsequent shame and dismay.

The devil deceived Eve by presenting something evil in the guise of good, but rather than obeying the simple and clear command of God, she chose to do things the devil’s way and brought disaster on herself and on all subsequent human generations. After she went for the bait, and her husband followed suit, Scripture says that “their eyes were opened,” and they realized that they were naked, that is, they felt shame, which they had never felt before, and they were compelled to hide from the Lord. This is what happens (if our conscience still works) when we sin. We fall for the deception, and then our eyes are opened, that is, we realize the guilt of our sin and we feel it. It is imperative that we learn from our mistakes, recognize the strategies of the demons, and thus successfully ward off future attacks, unmask future deceptions. We must pray to see things as they truly are.

We have to realize something about the one who is suggesting to us things contrary to God’s will, but which seem good or pleasurable to us: he hates us. Stop and think—if someone who hates you furiously and is bent on your eternal suffering offers you something and says it’s good, the overwhelming odds are that he is lying, and you will experience quite the opposite of what he promises. He laughs us to scorn as we fall for his lies. “Behind the false light of an immoral life is hidden the sarcastic smile of the [devil]. Evil promises but does not fulfill.”  Once we fall into sin, there are two, and only two, options: repentance or punishment. Either we turn back to God and are restored to his grace, or we remain turned away and receive just retribution for our sins.

Our spiritual fortitude must come from prayer, the sacraments, and the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). The best defense against temptation is a holy life. Demons study us and discover our weaknesses, chinks in the armor, and Achilles’ heels. Through the spiritual means the Church supplies we need to close every access point so that evil finds no welcome within us, no unguarded portal. We also need to practice what Fr Fanzaga calls the “exorcism of mortification.” That is, our self-denial and penance also strengthen us and keep us well-disciplined. But if it is true that self-discipline and mortification help keep the devil away, it is also true that a lack of these will invite the devil in. Attachments, obsessive anxieties, complaining, immodesty, white lies, gossip, little infidelities, unchaste thoughts, words, or looks, etc, all create fertile ground for temptation to end in sin.

If our fervent desire is to please God in all things, and we make use of the means He offers for that purpose, we will be well-protected against the wiles of the devil. It doesn’t mean that we will never have a weak or wavering moment, or that we will never commit even a small sin again, but it does mean that we will be walking in the Spirit—we will not be slaves to sin and we will be able to recognize and reject the lies of the deceiver. Never forget that Jesus Christ has definitively disarmed the devil and sealed his fate by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead. The risen Lord has given us his Spirit to continue his work of preaching the Gospel, casting out demons, and leading souls to Paradise. In Him we have the victory, and He does not forsake those who trust in Him.

Finally, many find the following Scripture passage to be a source of consolation: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor. 10:13).

God will provide a way to escape or endure the temptation without committing sin—if we are willing to co-operate with his grace. The Apostle uses both those words: escape and endure. Each has its place in the fight against temptation. The best means is to escape, for we can’t ordinarily trust that we have what it takes to outsmart the devil. He still does possess angelic nature, which is essentially superior to ours, though the devil’s is perverse and corrupt beyond repair. So the first thing to do is to ask God for the way of escape when temptations become severe. But it may be that, try as we might, and even pray as we ought, we cannot escape whatever is hammering us or relentlessly clamoring for our attention. In that case, God is probably asking us not to escape but to endure. We can do all things in Him who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13), so we may just have to ride the storm out, determined unto death not to give in, while raising our eyes to heaven in confident (if urgent) supplication.

If we do give in, mostly it is because at some level of our being we simply want to give in. We want to be overpowered so we can have an excuse for our lack of vigilance. It’s a kind of relief to succumb. But the relief is short-lived, and before long we find ourselves in the same battle all over again, so much the worse for having relented, and needing even more strength this time around. But if we do endure (and endurance will lead to escape, if we can’t escape immediately), we will find renewed strength and courage. If every defeat makes us weaker, then every victory makes us stronger.

God’s faithfulness isn’t necessarily manifested in protecting us from all temptation. Sometimes he allows such attacks so that we can prove our love for Him through fidelity in trying circumstances. Trust that He knows what He’s doing. The Russian saint Nil Sorsky says that if a potter knows just how much heat to apply to a particular vessel so that it becomes strong yet does not crack, then surely God knows how much temptation or trial we can take—to strengthen, not to break us. Even if we aren’t all susceptible to the same temptations, we all have our weaknesses; we all struggle with desires that are not of God; we all have to fight the good fight—against evil and for righteousness.

Let us, then, take courage from the message of the Gospel, in which Jesus manifests his power over the devils.  Through Holy Communion we abide in Him and He in us.  So we do have the strength to overcome.  It is a life-or-death matter, so let us hate sin and love the Lord, and let’s give it all we’ve got.  And when that runs out, let’s trust Jesus within us to give it all He’s got!  Thus we will be set free, and like the man delivered from demons, we will rejoice in all that Jesus has done for us.

Bearing Fruit, Becoming Family

[Saturday's] Gospel (Lk. 8:16-21) follows immediately after the parable of the sower, and so perhaps it ought to be interpreted in light of it.  There are at least two direct correspondences.  The parable ends by Jesus saying: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  And in this Gospel, He says: “Take heed, then, how you hear.”  The explanation of the parable concludes with those who, with a noble and good heart, “hear the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  And in this Gospel, Jesus says: “hear the word of God, and do it.”

Within the general admonition to listen carefully to the word of God and to put it into practice, we have several other points to reflect upon.  The first one can be either frightening or consoling, depending on how one interprets it, which depends upon whether or not one has a guilty conscience.  “Nothing is hidden that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light.”  If one is accustomed to doing evil deeds in the darkness, as St John says, then one is afraid to hear that all hidden things shall be manifest and all secrets come into the light.  Nothing escapes the searching light of God’s truth and justice, and so the Lord is putting sinners on notice that it is high time to repent and to begin living in the light, so that when all things are revealed, we shall have nothing that we would prefer to hide.

On the other hand, for the saints who pray and sacrifice and suffer in secret, whom the world despises or misunderstands or simply ignores as irrelevant or useless, the manifestation of hidden things will be for their glory.  As Jesus said, the righteous will one day shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom.  So those whose goodness and charity and silent inner martyrdom go unnoticed or unacknowledged in this life will receive a manifest reward in the next.

This can also relate to the parable of the sower.  Whether or not the soil in which the seed of God’s word falls is good is not always immediately obvious.  Time will prove if the soil is good, depending upon the amount and quality of the fruit it produces.  What is hidden or unknown in the beginning will be manifest and recognized in the end.

Another saying in this Gospel relates to the parable of the sower: “To him who has, more will be given, and from him who has not, even what he thinks he has will be taken away.”  If you already have good soil, then an abundance of rich fruit will come forth from it.  If you don’t, your hopes for a harvest will be disappointed.  So we have to cultivate in our souls the proper dispositions for fruitfully receiving the word of God and his grace.  We prepare the ground by prayer and fasting and sacrifice, by charity and mercy and purity of heart.  Then God provides the growth and the fruitfulness.  But if we receive his word without sufficient preparation, we might think we have something as we see the sprouts coming up, but they will either wither up in the heat of trials or be choked off by the pleasures and cares of this life.  So the word of the Lord is proven true: some get a superabundance, and others don’t even get to keep what they think they have.

Finally, we have Jesus’ saying about hearing the word and doing it, which summarizes both the parable and the other sayings in this Gospel.  When Jesus’ Mother and relatives came to see Him, He used the opportunity to explain what it means to be part of the family of God.  Jesus came to save the whole world and to teach everyone how to please God, so the circle of his special friendship has to extend beyond his own relatives.  What He was in fact saying about his Mother and relatives was something like this: “I know that none of you can have the unique relationship with Me that My Mother does, and it is a simple fact that you do not have the same kind of ties to Me that my relatives do.   So I am not asking this of you.  You can still be part of my family, however, and this I desire very much.  All you have to do is hear the word of God—and put it into practice—and I will consider you family, for you will be acting like children of My heavenly Father.”

So we have much to reflect upon in these few verses of the Gospel.  Whether in a hidden or manifest way, we are called to bear much fruit for the glory of God and the salvation of souls—for everything will be manifest in the end.  We have much work to do, much prayer to pray, much sacrifice to offer, if we are to be among those who have, and who will be given still more.  The whole of our spiritual life can be summed up in the double dimension of hearing the word of God and keeping it, and thus we will find ourselves eternally in the happy company of Jesus’ Father, Jesus’ Mother, and all those who by grace have become members of the family of Jesus.

Comfortable?

A little while back, when I woke up in the early morning, it was a bit chilly.  Not too chilly, just a tiny bit more chilly than I’m comfortable with.  So I turned on a little space heater for a while to get the room warm.  After I was nice and toasty, I put the heater back.  On the wall just above where I keep it is an icon of Christ.  I was somewhat surprised, for He seemed to speak to me from the icon.  I wasn’t asking for anything at the moment, so it was unexpected. He said only one word, but it spoke volumes: “Comfortable?”

If I wanted to expand this to get its full meaning, I would put it something like this: “So, are you comfortable, you who have vowed to live a penitential and sacrificial life, united to your crucified Lord, now that you have made your place warm and cozy?”  It was said without the least bit of harshness. It was a gentle reproach, but these seem to go straight to the heart, because they come from Someone who loves you, Someone whom you also love and should be trying a little harder to please.

We always read in the Gospels about Jesus’ call to deny ourselves and take up our crosses if we wish to be his disciples, and that the way to the Kingdom is narrow and hard, and we also have before us the lives of countless saints who endured all manner of hardship and renounced most of life’s pleasures for the Lord’s sake.  Yet we ought perhaps to be surprised, given all that, that we still do so many things just to insure our own comfort.  After all, doesn’t the Apostle say, “I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1Cor. 9:27)?

The monastic life has a number of built-in renunciations, yet it is not that hard to find ways to make your life relatively comfortable even in a monastery (these days, some monasteries are downright plush, but I’m talking about ones like ours, where we live in little cabins in the woods).  So it was chilly a week or so ago, and I wanted it to be warm.  Today as I write (Oct. 14), it is going up to 90 degrees!  Now, instead of being uncomfortably cool, it’s going to be uncomfortably warm, so I can complain about that, too!  In the middle of autumn, when it should be fresh and cool and crisp and exhilarating, it is practically like an oppressive, enervating summer day, I whine.  But didn’t I sign up for this?  And isn’t this really a very tiny sacrifice to offer?

There are lots of other things besides climate control that we may tend also to try to manage for the sake of our comfort.  We like tasty food, comfortable furniture, comfortable clothing, pleasant sleep, no annoying interruptions in our schedule for the day, etc.  But I wonder if, by striving to arrange all things for our comfort and convenience, we might be raising some interior impediments to grace, and thus hindering our progress toward a more faithful and sacrificial following of Christ.

I remember when I was a novice (I think; I can hardly remember back that far!), that I wanted to get a pair of sandals to wear in the summer, so I would be more comfortable.  So I asked our wise old abbot.  (Because of a serious injury he once sustained, he had to constantly wear big heavy calf-length boots with unequal soles.)  On that hot summer day when I wanted to be more comfortable and I asked him about the sandals, he didn’t say yes or no.  He just pulled up his pant leg a little and said, “I wear these.”  Message received: If I can do it, you can, too; it won’t kill you; take up your cross.

Not that it is somehow evil to live in relative comfort (unless you do so manifestly at others’ expense and refuse to share your blessings with the poor), but you might just be settling for an impoverishment in your spiritual life as you content yourself with material possessions and pleasures.  I broached the subject in my last post, when I talked about making room in the soul for God to fill.  I have noticed this in my own life, that when I am less concerned about material things, and even renounce certain legitimate pleasures altogether, my spiritual life is enriched.  It doesn’t happen instantly, but when the Lord sees we’re serious about setting our minds and hearts on things of Heaven rather than on things of this ephemeral world (see Col. 3:1-3), He responds quite generously with gifts and graces that make earthly pleasures look pretty cheap and even ridiculous in comparison.

You might notice that you pray better on an empty stomach than on a full one, because a meal (especially a rich, tasty one!) weighs you down, not only physically but spiritually as well.  It works for me to spend the first 5-6 hours of the day without eating, because then I can pray and worship with a clear head and a light spirit.  I always pray better and am more aware of the presence of God in the wee hours of the morning.

Lately I’ve been taking the saints for my examples as to what works and what doesn’t work in this life.  There are all kinds of psychological theories and self-help techniques for personal well-being, and there are various testimonies of “self-realized” people who say they have found the secrets to earthly contentment or physical longevity or whatever else people long for who don’t believe in the Cross and the Resurrection.  But when searching for the key to happiness, I always ask: What did the saints do?  How did they find happiness and interior freedom and peace and joy?  How were they able to learn and experience the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven even while still in this world?

The saints usually deny themselves just about everything, pray a lot, endure all kinds of hardships, both voluntary and involuntary, sacrifice their comfort and a whole lot more for the sake of winning grace for others’ salvation, all out of gratitude and love for God—and they are the happiest people in the world!  St Paul gives a little summary how the saints look in the world’s eyes, and how they really are: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true… as dying, and behold, we live… as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (see the whole litany in 2Cor 6:4-10).

So, Jesus was doing me a favor by gently asking whether I was pursuing true happiness or mere temporary comfort.  I have to look at some other areas of my life, too, and discover whether or not I unthinkingly arrange things for my comfort, when it might be much more spiritually beneficial, to myself and to others, if I would take up my cross and follow Jesus just a little more closely.  This doesn’t mean I won’t use a heater in the winter or that I will put myself through penances that are harmful, but I think that maybe we all could go just a little further in setting aside some comforts of the flesh so as to open our souls to experience the joys of the Spirit.  God has many priceless gifts He would give us—if only our hands weren’t already full of worthless baubles…

Sufficient Grace for the Poor and Afflicted

Today’s Gospel (Lk. 16:19-31), while often interpreted in terms of the relationship of wealth and poverty, is actually more about Heaven and Hell, and so there are spiritual applications as well as social or moral ones.

But let’s start with wealth and poverty anyway.  It seems that the inequity of rich and poor has been a fact of human history for the whole of its duration.  That doesn’t mean it is something we shouldn’t try to remedy, however, for it is a symptom of the fall of man and hence has its roots in sin.  In Old Testament times, especially the earlier times when there was no awareness of the eventual resurrection and eternal life, material prosperity was seen as a sign of divine favor, and poverty as a sign of divine disfavor.

Jesus labored to dispel that misconception.  Since He came to preach eternal life and the resurrection of the dead, the fortunes of this passing life were no longer to be used as criteria for whether or not one enjoyed God’s favor.   In fact, He tended to turn things quite the other way around, since he proclaimed that it was extremely hard for a rich person to enter Heaven.  And He went around saying things like, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20).

This reversal of the accepted order of things is a distinctive characteristic of the Gospel, and we find it most pronounced in the Gospel according to St Luke.  Blessed are the poor, but woe to the rich; blessed are the hungry, but woe to the satisfied.  And Mary sang in her magnificat: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and has raised up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich He has sent away empty” (Lk. 1:52-53).  In today’s Gospel parable it is put as starkly as possible.  Abraham says to the rich man: “In your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things. But now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”

So even though Scripture taken as a whole indicates that the issue of riches and poverty is not the sole criterion for salvation or damnation, Jesus clearly points to this as one of the elements involved.  The reason is based on what wealth and poverty commonly do to persons, how they shape their attitudes and perspectives, and hence the way they act and deal with other people.  And the way we think and act is very much a part of how we are to be judged when we die.

Wealth tends to make people complacent, if not outright selfish and arrogant.  Suppose we have sufficient food, clothing, and shelter, but we hear about, for example, the extreme drought and famine that millions of people have been suffering lately in eastern Africa.  We’re not starving, so we don’t feel what they feel. They are 10,000 miles away, so we think they are not our problem.  But guess what?  God says they are our problem, just as Lazarus was the rich man’s problem, but he did nothing about it and ended up in Hell.  It is not the mere fact that the rich man was rich that damned him, but it was his attitude toward both his own wealth and the poverty of the poor that manifested his lack of compassion and his selfishness, and so he was condemned.

The poor are blessed by the Lord not merely because they do not have the necessities, let alone the comforts and amenities of life, but because this dire situation makes them throw themselves at the mercy of God and place in Him all their hope.  Those who are not attached to earthly riches but seek to gain heavenly ones are much more likely to receive them.  The Lord knows that poverty and hunger are not good in themselves, or else He would have said something like, “Blessed are you poor, for it is good to be poor.”  Rather, He promised that the patient acceptance of hardship in this life sets us on a course toward rewards incomparable to our sufferings: “for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Let us approach this mystery now from another perspective.  The accumulation of wealth and material possessions is not only a harmful pampering of bodily life, for such things also damage the soul.  Anything to which one is attached or in which one places his hope—anything, that is, that is not of God and his Kingdom—clutters and disorders the soul just as a bunch of material things clutters up a house or garage.

So, just as it is wise for a person with excess wealth or too many possessions to start cleaning house and bringing order—while at the same time turning all that superfluous stuff into alms for the truly poor—we ought to clear out everything in our souls that prevents God from fully giving Himself to us.  By doing so we can benefit other souls by our extra prayer, sacrifice, and self-denial.

It seems to me that we shouldn’t expect rewards for every good thing we do or every sacrifice that we make, but I also think that God has so arranged things that this happens anyway.  God doesn’t owe us anything, and we can’t bribe or impress Him with good deeds.  But He wants to fill us completely with his grace and gifts, though when we’re full of ourselves and our own attachments, He finds no room in us to give us what He is longing to give.  So what happens is that whenever we do make some sacrifice or perform some good deed out of love for the Lord, a little more “room” is made in our cluttered souls, and God rushes in to fill it, since that is what He has been waiting to do all along.  Detachment from material goods and worldly desires is one way to make room in the soul, which God will fill.  So if we are poor in worldly pursuits and pleasures, we have the capacity to become rich in heavenly grace and blessings.

St Teresa of Avila has something to say about making room in the soul for God.  In her Way of Perfection, she writes: “In my opinion, if I had understood as I do now that in this little palace of my soul dwelled so great a King, I would not have left Him alone so often. I would have remained with Him at all times and striven more so as not to be so unclean… So that the soul won’t be disturbed in the beginning by seeing that it is too small to have something so great within itself, the Lord… enlarges it little by little until it has the capacity to receive what He will place within it… The whole point is that we should give ourselves to Him with complete determination, and we should empty the soul in such a way that He can store things there or take them away as though it were His own property. And since His Majesty has the rights of ownership, let us not oppose Him… He doesn’t give Himself completely until we give ourselves completely.

“This fact is certain; and because it is so important, I bring it to your minds so often. He never works in the soul as He does when it is totally His without any obstacle, nor do I see how He could. He is the friend of all good order. Now, then, if we fill the palace with… trifles, how will there be room for the Lord?”

In light of today’s epistle (2Cor. 11:31 – 12:9), there’s another spiritual perspective.  Lazarus was not only poor; he was afflicted with other sufferings as well.  The Lord says he was covered with sores.  These were not only painful, but humiliating as well, since stray dogs came and licked his sores.  St Paul speaks of some tormenting or humiliating affliction that was visited upon him by a “messenger of satan.”  We do not know what this was, though it was probably worse than a physical affliction, since in the previous chapter he gave us a whole litany of beatings and stonings and scourgings and various bodily hardships like hunger and thirst and exposure.  He didn’t complain about any of these, but whatever the messenger from Hell inflicted upon him he begged the Lord three times to make it go away!

The Lord responded with words that have echoed throughout the whole history of the Church as both encouragement and challenge: “My grace is sufficient for you.”  Jesus went on to say that it was through that very infirmity or affliction that his power would be perfected in his long-suffering apostle.

The Lord’s grace is sufficient.  The Lord works with and through our very infirmities in order to perfect his work in us.  Do we believe this?  I have been confronted with this passage many times and have struggled to see its realization.  It is not always easy, but since the Lord said it, we can be sure it is true.  It is for us to accept it and trust in Him and allow Him to work in and through us to accomplish his will.  He doesn’t ask us to figure it out, since He knows we can’t.  Some things that He leads us through don’t seem to make sense, even from a spiritual point of view (though we have to realize that even our spiritual point of view, precisely because it is ours, is necessarily limited).

So, if we are truly people of faith, truly people who love the Lord and are trying to make room for Him in our souls, we will respond as St Paul did, and say:  Well, if You say your grace is sufficient, then it is, and I for my part will now glory in my afflictions and infirmities, for now I know that your power rests upon me when I accept in a spirit of humility and trust whatever befalls me.

There’s another reversal of fortunes that Jesus proclaims to us, this time from the Gospel of John: “You will weep and lament, while the world rejoices; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy… and no one will take your joy from you” (16:20-22).  In a sense, this is a kind of summary of the beatitudes or of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  The world rejoices in its wealth and possessions and pleasures and parties, its lusts and its arrogance.  Those who are scorned and cast off by the world—often precisely because they are simple and poor disciples of Jesus—weep for a time in their hunger and afflictions and hardships.  But they know that the sorrow of Jesus’ beloved will be turned into everlasting joy, and the revelry of the pleasure-lovers and Christ-haters will be turned into shrieks of anguish and despair, if they do not repent before they die.

The rich man, says the Gospel, was buried in Hell and he finally knew what it was like to suffer and to be a beggar for a single drop of water, while angels carried the soul of Lazarus to a place of peace, and his sufferings came to an end.

Our lives are full of opportunities to choose what is good and to reject what is evil, to be generous—even sacrificially so—to the poor and suffering, to make room in our souls for the grace of God by discarding all that displeases Him, and thus to prepare our souls to be carried by angels to Heaven when we die.   Despite our weaknesses, the Lord gives us sufficient grace to make the right choices.

Let us, then, reject the way of self-indulgence and of disregard for others, and embrace the way of humble suffering and patient bearing of hardships, for God’s power is perfected in the offering of our infirmities to Him.  Then blessed shall we be, for ours will be the Kingdom of Heaven.

Are You Worthy?

In the Gospel [this Saturday] we proclaim and reflect upon Jesus’ healing of the slave of the righteous centurion (Lk 7:1-10), or perhaps we should say “God-fearing” centurion, for this was a technical term used by Jews for righteous Gentiles who had not converted to Judaism or received circumcision.

First of all, we ought to note that the institution of slavery, while not respecting the full dignity and hence freedom of the human being, was not always as cruel in ancient societies as it was in America in centuries past.  Perhaps it simply depends on the benevolence of the master, in whatever place or age.  But in this Gospel we see that this particular slave was “dear” to his master, who went out of his way to seek healing for him when he was seriously ill.  Not only that, the centurion humbled himself before a member of a race that was considered inferior by the Romans, who had occupied their land and maintained their rule by military force.

So it is not surprising that the theme of worthiness is prominent in this Gospel.  The centurion had never met Jesus, but had only heard of Him.  What he heard was evidently enough for him to enlist the aid of some Jewish elders to entreat Jesus on his behalf.  The elders “besought him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him…’”  This was because they knew the centurion to have been generous to them, even to the point of building a synagogue for them.  So he already must have believed in, or at least had respect for, the God of Israel.

The Jews deemed him worthy, but he himself proclaimed that he was unworthy—twice, but with two different words in the Greek New Testament.  When the Jews said he was worthy, the usual term for worthiness, axios, is used.  But when the centurion said he was unworthy that Jesus should come under his roof, a different word (ikanos) is used.  This connotes that he is unqualified, inadequate, that it is therefore unfitting that he should receive someone such as Jesus into his house.  This is a further humbling of himself, for if a leader of soldiers admits he is unqualified, incompetent, or in any way inadequate, he loses all respect and authority.  Finally, when he says he did not consider himself worthy even to approach Jesus in person, he uses the usual term for worthiness, which easier lends itself to the state of a sinner before God.  Then he further expressed his faith in Jesus by declaring that just as a centurion can say, “do this,” to a soldier or a slave and have it done, Jesus can do the same even with bodily diseases.

So the Jews said he was worthy, and the centurion confessed that He was unworthy.  Now the deciding judgment belongs to the Lord, who does declare him worthy.  He doesn’t use the word but clearly implies it in two ways.  First, He marvels and exclaims that He has not found such great faith even in Israel—which must have astounded the bystanding Jewish elders.  Second, he instantly heals the slave.  But He goes one better than even the centurion believed.  The centurion asked Jesus to “say but the word” and his slave would be healed, for he knew the power of command.  But Jesus healed the slave simply by an act of the will. He didn’t go to him and lay his hand on him, and He didn’t even utter a word of healing.  He just praised the faith of the centurion and instantly the slave was healed.

We need to have, for ourselves and for those for whom we pray, the same kind of faith that the centurion had, such that it causes the Lord Himself to marvel and to respond immediately to our requests.  If we are slaves of God and of Christ, as St Paul and other biblical authors describe themselves and us (e.g. Rom. 1:1; 6:15-22), then let us realize that we are slaves dear to God, as the centurion’s slave was to him.  God is concerned for us and He wants every good thing for us that will work toward our eternal salvation.  So we pray to Him, “say but the word and my soul shall be healed,” or, “say but the word and my friend or relative will be healed.”  If the Lord finds sufficient faith in us, and if this healing is compatible with his will, then He will do it.

In the Latin Church, the petition of our unworthiness to receive Jesus into our souls is offered just before receiving Holy Communion.  We ought to realize that we are in fact unworthy on both counts that the two Greek words describe.  We are unworthy as sinners to receive the holy Son of God into our bodies and souls, and therefore it is unfitting and inappropriate for such inadequate, unqualified, incompetents to dare to approach Him—except for one thing: his everlasting, divine, merciful love for us sinners.  And so we say, “Approach, with the fear of God and with faith!”  Let our faith, then, and our love, our repentance, our humility and our gratitude be such that the Lord will marvel with delight and joyfully give Himself to us, unworthy though we be.  And we will find that our souls have been healed.

Draw Me!

I’d like to develop a little more a couple of the points I made in the last post.  “Draw me after you!” cries the lover in the Song of Songs (1:4).  Jesus said He would draw us all to Himself as He was offered in sacrifice to the Father on the Cross.  Many were drawn to Christ even before his “lifting up” on the Cross: the Apostles left everything immediately to follow Him, the holy women accompanied and provided for Him, the crowds were spellbound by his teaching, and even the temple guards who were sent to arrest Him came back empty-handed, saying, “No man ever spoke like this man!” (Jn. 7:46).

Our Lord has drawn countless souls to Himself down through the centuries, through the beauty of his word and example, the power of his love, and the profound union with Him to which He invites us through the holy sacraments and prayer.  Yet today so many are indifferent, cold, even hostile toward Him who loved us unto suffering and death.  The prayer to Jesus that Our Lady taught us at Fatima, in which we find the line, “lead all souls to Heaven,” reminds me of Jesus’ words about drawing all to Himself.  This is not just a standard pious sentiment, for the prayer was given in light of a terrifying vision of Hell, and so this prayer to lead souls to Heaven is urgent and all-important!

I think that our prayer has to be that Jesus would draw souls, through the subtle urgings of his Holy Spirit, so that all could at least begin to understand what He has done for us, and approach his holy Passion with reverence and gratitude.  This may be the only hope for many souls.  They won’t listen to preaching; they won’t come to the Church, the Ark of Salvation, even as the flood of sin rises in this world; they won’t admit that Jesus was right all along and that they, to their own peril, foolishly disregard his admonitions and invitations.  But if the Lord were to gently—but constantly—apply the attractive power of his divine love and goodness to their souls, perhaps a little opening might be found where some Light can enter.  He will not coerce anyone’s freedom, but He still can influence souls and arrange circumstances so that people can come to decide that some serious changes are needed in their lives.  If a soul is in imminent danger of being lost forever, the Lord might conveniently arrange some therapeutic disaster to happen, by which they may turn to Him as a last resort.  This is not how things ought to be, since God should be our first resort in all things, but He loves us so much that He will do anything to save an immortal soul lovingly created in his own image.

Those of us who have already been mercifully drawn to Christ are now called to help draw others, because from those to whom much is given, much is required, and those who have been forgiven much ought to love much (see Lk. 12:48 and 7:36-50).  It is often sheer gratitude at what the Lord has done for us that both draws us to love Him more and to sacrifice ourselves to win the same grace of enlightenment unto repentance that we have received.  There’s a beautiful line in the devotion to the five wounds of Christ I mentioned in the last post, which reads: “I thank You for the love whereby You labored to overtake me on the way to ruin, and bled amid the thorns and brambles of my sins.”  We ought to reflect on that image.  We were running away from Christ, “on the way to ruin,” but He found this state of affairs intolerable, because He loved us so much.  So He labored to overtake us, to catch up to us, before we escaped Him forever.  But in order to reach us, He had to run through “the thorns and brambles of [our] sins,” which cut and pierced Him and caused Him to bleed, which is, of course, a reference to his Passion and Death.  When we begin to understand the depth of his suffering and his love, we are drawn to Him all the more.

That is why there are such things as devotions to the wounds of Jesus.  They fill a need in our hearts to acknowledge lovingly what Jesus has done for us and, insofar as is possible, to make reparation for the cold ingratitude and even hostility of others, who have not yet seen the beauty of love and sacrifice in the gift of eternal life that He has offered us—and hopefully win the grace of repentance for them.

If you allow yourself to be drawn to this sort of devotion, you will see how beautiful it is, and also how right and just it is.  The Lord has offered the ultimate sacrifice for us—without which we would all be damned—and the majority of the world views his precious gift with indifference, unbelief, or even contempt.  The awareness of this should be like a sword piercing our hearts, and so we should spontaneously run to Him, to embrace and kiss his wounds, as I mentioned in the last post that his beloved Mother has led me to do.  You will feel how right this is when you express your gratitude and love with your whole heart.  You will also feel what a horror it is for others to scorn and reject Him, who has poured out his everlasting love as Precious Blood.  Thus you will feel how blessed you are in having been chosen to acknowledge in love that which the world ignores and disdains.

We also have to apply this mystery to our daily lives, and not confine it only to prayer and the effusions of our hearts.  If we are to “kiss the wounds of Jesus” in gratitude and love, we’re also going to share some of the pain of them, as we deal with hurts or offenses from others for whom Christ died, or as we suffer pain from injuries or illnesses or the tragic sorrows that afflict us at times in this land of exile.  To kiss Jesus’ wounds means to bind ourselves to his Passion, to his sacrificial, suffering love, and thus to bear much fruit for the Father’s glory and the salvation of souls.

All of this gives us some indication as to what Jesus meant when He said that through his crucifixion He would draw all to Himself.  Let us open our hearts fully so that we may be fully drawn to Him, holding nothing back, and let us pray that Jesus may labor to overtake all those who are presently on their way to ruin, so that all souls may be thus led to Heaven, where we will be happily and eternally drawn into the infinite mysteries of the life and love of God.

Hearts

I’ve been thinking about hearts lately.  Not just any hearts, however.  I primarily think about the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, for these are the most loving and beautiful Hearts there are, and they have loved us immeasurably, even unto suffering, and still do—and they call us to enter into their own precious exchange of love, where we shall find our Heaven.  There are some other hearts I’m thinking of as well, which I’ll get to in a bit.

The Heart of Jesus is often depicted crowned with thorns, because, of course, He was crowned with thorns as part of his Passion, and these are among the wounds by which we are healed.  It is also usually depicted with another wound, that which was made by the soldier’s lance, when He died and his Heart poured out blood and water, the twin streams of sacramental grace by which we are immersed in the divine life and love.

The Heart of Mary usually has a sword driven through it, since St Simeon predicted (Lk. 2:34-35) that this would happen—in an interior way, as she suffered with her Son, the Lamb of God, as He was taking away the sins of the world on the Cross.  Sometimes Mary’s Heart is encircled with roses or thorns—the latter because this is the way she appeared at Fatima, the thorns signifying how she is wounded by “the blasphemies and ingratitude of men.”  Both the Hearts of Jesus and Mary are shown issuing flames, which signify their undying love, for each other and for us.

Other hearts have caught my attention in recent months as well.  As you can probably guess, St Gemma’s heart is one of them.  Her heart loved Jesus and Mary so much, and it beat so violently when she shared the sufferings of Jesus, that it literally grew to an extraordinarily large size and visibly moved outward three of her ribs that enclosed it (this has been documented by eye-witnesses and was also verified at an autopsy after her death).  Something similar happened to St Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionist Congregation.

I’ve come realize, and even to experience in a certain way, that Heaven is full of hearts.  This is because it is full of happy creatures who love God and who love each other and love us as well.  What about the Angels?  Do they have hearts?  They don’t have physical hearts, since they are purely spiritual creatures.  But they can love.  As far as I’m concerned, if you can love, then you have a heart.  So Angels have hearts.  A heartless angel would be a devil. I believe that when we pray we are surrounded by hearts.  Angels and Saints descend and bless and protect and love us with their hearts.  Thus we are caught up into their vision of truth and beauty and goodness and holiness and divine love and mercy.  We may not see all of this, but they have ways of communicating something of what they see and know. They can direct our hearts and shine heavenly light upon them. It may be almost imperceptible to us, but if we are open, and if we value the things of Heaven more than anything else, we will be taught and led and introduced into profound mysteries that perhaps we knew only in name or accepted in faith without having been on fire about them!

St Faustina said that once when the heavenly Mother appeared to her, she pressed her to her Immaculate Heart, and all the force of Mary’s love and goodness poured into her.  St Gemma has also testified that Our Lady took her into her arms and pressed her to her Heart.  This is so beautiful, so sweet and heavenly!  We may not even realize that we are being pressed to heavenly Hearts—Jesus, Mary, the other holy ones—but this grace is given.  We have to try to attune ourselves to the whispers of the Holy Spirit, the language of Heaven, the delicate touches of those Hearts that come ever so close to our own.

As I write this (Oct. 5) it is St Faustina’s feast day.  I had forgotten about this when I went into prayer early this morning (to my dismay when I realized it later!), but I think her heart was with me, because my reflection on the Gospel of John, which I’ve been reading lately, took me to a beautiful place.  I’ve mentioned before that I always ask our Blessed Mother to guide me in my Scripture reading, to open to me her precious Heart, where, as Catherine Doherty reminds us, the profound meaning of the word of God is kept as a treasure, which she shares with those who ask. Ever since I started seeking her blessing and guidance when reading the Bible (maybe about a year and a half ago), I’ve seen many things I hadn’t noticed before, or I’ve been led deeply into mysteries I had previously understood only superficially.

My meditation and experience had something to do with hearts, specifically with the Heart of Jesus.  Of course his Mother would show me this!  And of course his little bride Faustina, who was the instrument for the worldwide establishment of the Divine Mercy devotion, with its emphasis on Jesus’ Passion, would show me this!  The passage was from John 12, where Jesus talks about drawing all to Himself, when He would be “lifted up” (that is, crucified).  The precious wounds of Christ, and especially his Pierced Heart, are like divine magnets drawing us all to Himself.  And if we have any love in our own poor, defiled or battered hearts, we will beg to be drawn to Him, to his Heart, even though this means we will be drawn into his suffering as well. For love without sacrifice is mere self-gratification, and this is not the love Jesus came to teach and to manifest to us. I had the impression that the Heart of Mary and St Gemma’s heart were with me, gently urging me toward the Cross, supporting me with their love.

I realized that soon I would be celebrating the Divine Liturgy, offering the very Sacrifice I was entering into through prayer at that time.  The Eucharistic Host, the Lamb, which we ritually pierce in the preparation rite, is the pierced Heart of Jesus, and I am drawn with great longing to enter into Communion with that Heart, with the Bread from Heaven, the Sweet Healing Wine of the Heavenly Banquet—the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. So, Hearts were praying for me, clearing the way for Jesus to draw me to Himself in the mystery of his Passion and of the Holy Eucharist.  As my prayer time concluded, and I was making the sign of the cross with the little hand-cross I sometimes hold when I pray, I received a word from the Blessed Virgin.  It’s not always easy to discern whether something comes from Heaven or from my own soul or imagination, but one of the criteria for discernment is the effect it has upon me, how deeply it reaches into my heart and stays with me.  I heard in my soul: “Kiss the wounds of my Son.”  My heart about melted when I heard that, and I did so, gently and warmly.  She loves Him so much—the crucified and risen Son of God is her Son—and so she is deeply grieved that so many in this world ignore or reject or blaspheme Him.  After all He suffered for us with so much love and compassion, I think she’s looking for willing hearts to give Him the tender devotion He deserves.  She invites us to enter into her Heart and learn there how to love Him, to feel what she feels when she beholds Him.  Anyone who feels drawn to Jesus she volunteers to carry them to Him in her own arms!  She will awaken in us the realization that to be drawn to Him is not merely to profess faith in Him, but so much more: to fall down before Him, to kiss his wounds, to embrace the mystery of his Passion, to let Him know that we are at least beginning to understand what He has done for us and that we have a life to offer in return.

A little later in the day, as if to be further obedient to what Our Lady told me to do, I prayed a traditional Latin devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ, which I had recently found online.  It is quite penitential, but beautiful, and even heart-rending.  I don’t know how to explain what happened next other than that my heavenly Mother approved of this, but the room suddenly acquired a distinct scent of roses after I had finished.  It disappeared a short time later, as suddenly as it came.  So I think I will continue with this devotion! There may be still more to the meaning of kissing Jesus’ wounds, and time will have to manifest this.

Still on the same day, I was reading something Pope Benedict said after the Way of the Cross service at the World Youth Day in Madrid last August.  Tears started flowing without warning, and I couldn’t restrain them, not knowing why I was suddenly so moved.  (I wasn’t in a particularly emotional or even prayerful state—in fact, I was eating lunch at the time!)  Here’s what he said: “In the face of such disinterested love [which means, without self-interest], we find ourselves asking, filled with wonder and gratitude: What can we do for [Jesus]?  What response shall we give him?  St John puts it succinctly: ‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.’  Christ’s passion urges us to take upon our own shoulders the sufferings of the world, in the certainty that God is not distant or far removed from man and his troubles… Be sure not to pass by on the other side in the face of human suffering, for it is here that God expects you to give of your very best: your capacity for love and compassion… Let us look upon Christ, hanging on the harsh wood of the Cross, and let us ask him to teach us this mysterious wisdom of the Cross, by which man lives” (Catholic World Report, October 2011).  Powerful words, and they reached right into my heart.

As we become more aware of the mysteries of Christ and his Kingdom—and the demands of discipleship—let us try to be aware that Hearts from Heaven are lovingly pressing around us, supporting us, loving us, calling us to come up higher.  Let us pray that we can experience all this heavenly love and care.  I find it not enough simply to believe that God and Mary and the Saints and Angels love us.  If we don’t grow beyond this, we will never know the precious fruits of the reciprocity of love.  For example, maybe St Gemma has known me all my life, but I never knew it and never paid any attention to her.  But now, when I’ve come to love her and tell her so sincerely, things start happening!  She responded instantly and healed me of a troubling affliction when I sought her intercession, and she has led me to the Passion of Jesus and to Our Lady of Sorrows in such depths as I hadn’t experienced before she became a heart from Heaven that I now know and love.

Love works; love is of God; God is love; Heaven is full of love, full of hearts.  Let us embrace and be embraced and be carried home by the “cloud of witnesses” whom the Lord is pleased to use to draw us to Himself.

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