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

Archive for May, 2013

The Spirit Yearns

[A homily from Pentecost 2002.]

When Christ sends his Holy Spirit, it’s because He’s got work to do: inside each of us, and through us, for the sake of the whole Church.  Therefore, many are the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Today is kind of a “spiritual Christmas.”  On December 25 people give each other gifts; but today is God’s Christmas.  God gives us gifts today because He’s sending us the Holy Spirit—the Gift, Himself, but He also comes bearing many other spiritual gifts.  We heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles that the first recipients of these gifts of the Holy Spirit were the apostles and the other disciples, Our Lady, and the other women.  They were all gathered in the Upper Room and waiting in prayer, for Christ had said, when He ascended, “Wait here for the Spirit, the promise of the Father, and you will be clothed with power from on high.”  So they were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, and the Spirit did come, bringing many gifts.

7-gifts-of-holy-spiritNow, we often look to the Holy Spirit to give us gifts.  And that’s OK.  But now, what kind of gifts does the Holy Spirit bring?  On that first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down, did He give St. Matthew a fancy home on exclusive beachfront property on the Lake of Galilee?  Or, did He give St. Peter a bag of gold coins?  No, the Spirit didn’t give them those kinds of gifts.  Why not? Peter made a point of it in the next chapter; he said, specifically, “Gold and silver I do not have; but I give you what I do have”—and he healed the cripple.

So, the gifts that the Spirit doesn’t give—why doesn’t He?  I mean, there’s nothing wrong with material goods and even money, in themselves.  Well, the reason the Holy Spirit doesn’t give those gifts, aside from the fact that they can be occasions of certain sins, is because they don’t last.  “Moths and rust corrode; thieves break in and steal,” said Christ about earthly possessions, when He was counseling us to store up heavenly treasure for ourselves.  The Holy Spirit is concerned for our salvation, our eternal life and joy, so He gives the gifts that last.

When John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the world, died, someone asked his accountant, “How much money did Rockefeller leave behind when he died?”  The accountant wisely replied, “All of it.”  That’s an important lesson.  You can’t take it with you.  And if you’re focusing on those gifts, material possessions or other things to give you a certain satisfaction or comfort right now, then you’re going to be without gifts, without provision for the life to come— which is the most important one.

Another one: I recently read this story about a man who had a very severe financial disaster in his life.  So he went to his pastor and just plopped down in a chair and said, “I’ve lost everything.” And the pastor said, “Oh!  I’m sorry to hear that you’ve lost your faith.” The guy replied, “Well, I didn’t say I lost my faith.” “Oh, OK; I’m sorry to hear that you lost your family and your health.” He said, “Well, no; they’re still there.” Then the pastor said, “Gee, then, I’m sorry to hear that you lost your character, and your moral conscience.” The man replied, “No, I didn’t say I lost those.” So the pastor said, “Well, then!  It looks like not only did you not lose everything, you didn’t lose anything of real importance!”

One of the messages of Pentecost is that God wants us to focus on the things that really matter, the things that the Holy Spirit brings to us, and wants to give to us, and wants to teach us.  The Holy Spirit has a job to do, which is enlightening us and reminding us of everything that Jesus said.  As Christ Himself said before He left, “This is what the Holy Spirit’s going to do: He’s going to remind you of everything that I said.”

We see in the gospel today, when the temple guards went out to arrest Jesus, they came back without Him, and their superiors demanded: “Where is He?  Why didn’t you bring Him in?”  They replied—such pious gendarmes!—“No man has ever spoken like that before!”  They didn’t dare lay a hand on Him because they saw that He was a holy man.  This is what the Spirit is trying to tell us: “Listen to Him, because no man has ever spoken like that before!”

Things like this have happened sometimes in history, and something similar to that happened, I think in the 1980s.  Maybe some of you have heard the account.  It was during the apparitions of Our Lady at Hrushiw in Ukraine, and crowds were gathering all around this church, and the Communist authorities, of course, sent out the police to disperse the crowd and make a few arrests, to make sure the people were suitably intimidated.  So they went out to do that, and at a certain point one of the policemen went back to his superior, and his superior said the same thing:  “Why didn’t you bring anybody in?”  He replied, “Because I saw the Mother of God, too!”  So he handed in his gun, and that was the end of his police service.

There are these moments when God breaks through into our lives, and this is the work of the Spirit, telling us, “Hey!  No man has ever spoken like that Man before.”  And Christ said, also in this gospel, when He was talking about giving the gift of the Holy Spirit, that it is something generous, abundant, overflowing: streams, rivers, of living water flow from those who receive the Spirit.  This is God’s gift to us.  Today, at Pentecost, the sluices of Heaven are open, and the grace of the Holy Spirit is coming down, and the Office even says that it rained enlightenment upon the apostles!  He wants to give us this gift, He wants to let it pour out, this flooding of goodness and love and grace and gifts to us.  But there’s still one person who can stop you from receiving that, from receiving that fullness of his gifts and his life…. you!

We’re the only ones that can get in the way, that can stop the flow of divine grace that gives us the Holy Spirit:  through our sin; through our closing ourselves off to God; through our negligence, our just not paying attention, or not caring, or not valuing the gifts of God for what they are.  We can do that, unfortunately.  We have a choice.  Either we’re going to have in us the Spirit of Truth or the Father of Lies.  There’s no middle ground.  And if we have the Spirit of Truth, we stand in God, in the Word of God, in the righteousness of God, and nobody can say anything against us, nobody can do anything to us.  And whatever they want to do, even if they do do something to us, if we’re standing in God, and the Spirit of Truth is in us, come what may, it’s like the children in the furnace in Babylon.  They were about to be thrown into this fire and burned to death, and they said to the king: “If our God can save us, then He will.  But even if He doesn’t, it doesn’t matter.  We’re not going to serve you or your gods!   So do whatever you want!  We’re standing for our God, our Savior.”

That’s how we have to be, living the life of the Holy Spirit.  Come what may, we’re not going to serve other gods.  We heard this last night, at Vespers, in the reading from Ezekiel.  The Lord said, “I will cleanse you of your impurities and of your idols.  And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit; I will put my Spirit in you.”  Now what kind of spirit is He going to put in us?  I said the “Spirit of Truth,” but there’s something else—and I got it this morning.  Believe it or not, God spoke to me this morning!   At least, somehow or other, something got into my head or my heart.  I asked a word from God for this Pentecost, just to know what’s on his mind at this moment, and I opened the Scripture. At first I thought it was a dud, because I opened and there was just an illustration on one page, and then footnotes on the other!  So I thought, “There’s no word of God here!”  But there was; at the bottom of the picture, there was a little caption, a passage from the book of Nahum, and it said, “The Lord is a jealous God.”   That’s what He’s saying.  I thought about that for a second, and then it came into my head: “Go to James!”  OK, I go to James and see:  “The Spirit He has made to dwell in you yearns unto jealousy.”  So, God is a jealous God.

But this divine jealousy isn’t something petty, like a jealous human lover or a jealous husband.  God made us, created us, wants us to love Him theJealous God way He loves us, and He does not stand for any competition.  No idols, nobody to get in the way.  He wants us!  He guards us jealously, and He deals with us in that way.  He will not tolerate other gods, other people or things coming in to take the place where his Spirit is meant to be and wants to be.  It’s not like: “I’m a jealous God, and I’m going to kill you if you do such and such.”  No; it’s: “I’m a jealous God, I love you!  I yearn for you!  Why don’t you love Me back?  Why don’t you do for Me what I do for you?  Why don’t you give your whole self to Me, like I give my whole Self to you?”  This is what the Spirit is saying; this is what it means.  The Spirit yearns unto jealousy—the Spirit whom God has sent to dwell in us.

So let us take this to heart, as we celebrate Pentecost, that the gifts of God are available to us, flowing like a river.  We can open ourselves up to them; we can receive them.  We just have to say “yes.”  They’re there for the taking, or rather, they’re there for the asking, because we have to come to God with open hands and open heart.  We have to seek the things that really matter, the things that are important in life, the things that go on, endure unto the next life.

This is the message of Pentecost now; this is the time to begin to live this life!  He sent the Spirit on the apostles and said, “This is my Church now.  Go on and start living what I preached to you for the past three years.  The Spirit is going to help you do it.  I’m going to be in you through the Spirit.”  That’s what the Spirit gives us: the main gift is Christ whom He brings to us.  Christ has ascended to the Father; the only way He’s with us now is through the Holy Spirit.   So, whether it’s the Holy Eucharist, the other sacraments, or the word of God, or any other way Christ is present to us, it’s through the Holy Spirit.  We have to connect with the Spirit, we have to receive and respond, knowing that this God, this Spirit dwelling in us, is a jealous God and wants us all for Himself.   And that should make us happy!  I mean, that should be the best news we’ve ever heard!   Not “Oh, no!  I’ve got a jealous God, so I can’t get away with anything!”  No, it’s rather, “Thank God, that God is so interested in me, that He loves me so much He doesn’t want to let go of me for one minute!  He does not want me to go to anybody else or anywhere else where I could possibly lose Him and my eternal happiness!”

So let us rejoice in this feast, receive the Holy Spirit and everything that God wants to give—be open, surrender, let Him do whatever He wants for you, and you will reap the rewards in this age and in the age to come.

The Fathers (of the Church), the Son, and the Holy Spirit

[A homily I gave in 2007 on the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.]

We’re in a time of watching and waiting—not like Advent, during which we wait for the coming of the Christ, but the post-Ascension period in which we wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  This is an important time in the liturgical year—we are coming to the end of the long Lenten-Paschal season, and we need the grace of the Holy Spirit, not only to carry us through the rest of the year, but to revive and strengthen us in our fervor and our fidelity to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We still have a mission in life, and most likely it will only become more demanding with time, so we cannot afford to be indifferent to the Holy Spirit, the Source of every grace we need.

During this time of watching and waiting, we commemorate the Fathers of the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea in the year 325.  In a sense they were waiting for the Holy Spirit, too, because the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as consubstantial with the Father and the Son had not yet been formally defined, but in any case, the Fathers were gathered as the early disciples were, praying and waiting for the Promise of the Father, for they had an indispensable mission to accomplish.  The early Ecumenical Councils established and formulated the basic dogmas of the orthodox Catholic faith, which will remain in force until the Lord returns.  Some lesser teachings may be subject to change or modification, but the essential doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are part of the permanent and unchangeable heritage of Christ, handed on to the Apostles and preserved intact—and liturgically celebrated—by the Church.

FarewellApostlesFor the Gospel today we have a section from the farewell discourse of Jesus, the concluding part which is his final prayer to the Father before He is glorified in his passion, death, and resurrection.  So He is leaving the world, but sending the Holy Spirit to be with those He has entrusted with his word, his Gospel of salvation.  Jesus is referring specifically to the Apostles in this prayer, but He also prays for “those who believe in Me through their word,” which means their successors in the apostolic ministry and all the faithful as well.  It is only through the Holy Spirit that the Church is not only led into the whole truth, but that the truth of the Gospel is handed down from age to age, clarified, deepened, and expressed in ways that are understandable to every age and culture.

So we have to back up a little in the farewell discourse to see what Jesus has to say about the Holy Spirit, whom we are praying and waiting for, the One who will clothe us with power from on high, as Jesus told his disciples.  But the Holy Spirit is not only given for our individual sanctification. He is given for the upbuilding of the entire Church, because the whole of the Church’s evangelical, sacramental, contemplative, and martyric mission relies entirely on the grace of the Holy Spirit for its fruitfulness in the work of bringing souls to salvation.

One task of the Ecumenical Councils was to affirm and define the divinity of the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the All-holy Trinity.  We find the clearest testimony to the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John when Jesus says that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (15:26). This puts the Spirit on the same level with the Son who was begotten of the Father and who is one in essence with Him. This same passage is used in the original version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which the Eastern Churches still use today. (It is not quite accurate to call the Creed used in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches simply the “Nicene Creed.” All the Nicene Creed said about the Holy Spirit was: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Everything else about the Holy Spirit was added later at the first Council of Constantinople.)

Jesus three times referred to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth.  What will the Spirit of Truth do?  Precisely as Spirit of Truth, He will teach us all things and bring to our remembrance all that Jesus has said. The Spirit will guide us into all the truth, speaking what the Father tells Him to, glorifying Christ by declaring to us his word. So the Holy Spirit is the Life-breath of the living Tradition of the Church, leading her into the full truth about Christ and the Holy Trinity. The Spirit will safeguard the revelation, the heritage of Christ which He gave to his apostles, and will bring it to fresh vitality generation after generation.

That is what the Spirit does for the Church. For the world, Jesus says this of the Spirit: “He will convince [or convict] the world concerning sin and justice and condemnation.” The sin Jesus refers to is unbelief, the justice (or perhaps vindication) is his return to the Father after having completed his mission, and the condemnation is the judgment pronounced upon the devil (16:8-11). In terms of this passage the mission of the Spirit in the world is to call unbelievers to faith, to instruct them about the unique and absolute claims of Christ—based on who He is and what He has done for us—and to warn them of the condemnation that awaits those who would follow the evil one. Yet this task is difficult, for the world “neither sees Him nor knows Him.”

With the individual believer, the Spirit is more intimate. Once Jesus said that the world doesn’t know the Holy Spirit, He said to his disciples: “but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” That was just before Jesus said that He and his Father would come to us and make their home with us. So the Trinitarian indwelling is here completed. With us and in us—that is how God wants to be. We have to rely heavily on the Spirit of Truth in this age of widespread deception. We so need to be reminded of all that Jesus said; we need to be led fully into the profound truth about God, the Church, the world, and even about ourselves. The Spirit is entirely Self-effacing, glorifying the Father and the Son; it is through the Spirit that the Father and the Son dwell in us and act in the world today. We need to pray to better recognize the Holy Spirit, to know Him, to love Him with that flaming intensity that only He Himself can inspire.

Jesus has great love and solicitude for his Church.  At one point in his earthly ministry he likened himself to a mother hen who wanted to gather all her little ones around her, and at another as a shepherd with his flock.  We see in Jesus’ final prayer to his Father the same care and concern for his disciples.  He refers to them several times as “those whom You have given Me.”  He is concerned for them because He has to leave them so that He can return to the Father. So He prays: “I am no more in the world, but they are in the world… Holy Father, keep them in your name…that they may be one, even as we are one… keep them from the evil one… sanctify them in the truth.”

The Lord still has the same concern for his Church, his flock, his disciples.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that now that Jesus has returned to Heaven, He lives to intercede for us with his Father.  Now we are the ones whom the Father has given Him, we are the ones that need to be kept safe from the evil one and to be sanctified in the truth.  This is why the Holy Spirit was sent to the Church and remains until the end of time.

But we have to receive this Spirit, be obedient to his word and inspirations, living by the grace of the sacraments and prayer, perpetuating the life of the Church in our own time and place.  The Fathers of the Church have defined and formulated the revelation given by Christ to the Apostles and have handed it down to us.  But we need to do more than hand it down to others.  We need to appropriate its meaning for ourselves and bear fruit by allowing the Spirit to live and breathe in us here and now, so that the Faith will not simply be an ancient collection of teachings, but rather a dynamic way of life that can effectively unite us to the living God, that can be an inspiring witness to others that the word of Christ is true and is the way to salvation.

Jesus said the world will hate us for preaching his word [indeed: see what reaction you get from “the world” when you speak the truth about abortion, sexual morality, etc], but at the same time we would have Jesus’ own joy within us, the joy that comes from living in the Spirit of Truth, and knowing that one day we too will go to the Father, and share in the glory Jesus has had with Him before the world began.

It all begins now, with our daily faithfulness to the word of God: those who are found worthy of the Father are those, said Jesus, who have kept his word.

Two Ascensions

[A homily on the feast of Our Lord’s Ascension 11 years ago, when the feast fell on May 9, as it does this year.  I attach absolutely no significance to this.]

As you know, we’re celebrating today the Ascension of Christ, the King of glory, into Heaven.  Which Ascension?  There are two of them; did you know that?  Well, the first one was witnessed by nobody.  The second was witnessed by the apostles.  Now the first one, which we could perhaps call his theological or spiritual Ascension, happened shortly after He rose from the dead.  If you remember when He met Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, He said to her, “Don’t touch me, because I am not yet ascended to my Father.”  Then a week later He said to Thomas, “Touch me.”  So, by then He had already ascended to his Father.  This is something that is invisible to any sensory examination, but what was happening there was really the essence of the mystery that we’re celebrating.  The Ascension of Christ right after his resurrection from the dead was the completion of his glorification.  We know from the theology of Saint John that the glorification of Christ includes his passion, his death, his resurrection and his ascension.  It’s one package of the Glorification of Christ, and it’s not finished until He ascends to Heaven, until He rises up and returns to the Father, glorified as man and, as we’ll see later, opening the gates for us to enter too, to ascend to the Father.

That was his personal triumph and fulfillment, as He said just before He left the world. He said to his Father in his “priestly” prayer: Father, I’m coming to you.  I did everything that you wanted Me to do and here I come to you.  So He completed his work on earth and He went to the Father and was glorified.  That’s how He was able to give the Holy Spirit.  Probably that Ascension happened that same day of his resurrection because Saint John says earlier in the gospel—when Jesus was saying, “I will give you the Holy Spirit, the rivers of the living water will come from Me”—that the Spirit wasn’t yet given because Jesus was not yet glorified.  Then on the night of Easter, He came to the Apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” so obviously He had been glorified fully and was able to give the Spirit.  That’s the Spiritual Ascension which is really the meaning of this feast, where Christ returned to the Father to receive glory from the Father and the ultimate reward, so to speak, for becoming man for our salvation, accomplishing the Father’s will on this earth.

ascensionNow, the other Ascension is the one that we’re most familiar with, and the one you can actually draw in icons because it was something witnessed by the apostles.  This was basically the termination of Christ’s appearances to the apostles after his resurrection.  It says in the Scripture that He appeared to them over the course of forty days, talking to them about the Kingdom of God.  Well, after the Ascension, this second Ascension, He didn’t appear to them anymore and talk about the Kingdom of God, because He sent the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit would, as He said, lead them to the whole truth and remind them about everything He ever said to them about the Kingdom of God.  So He didn’t have to keep coming back and forth like that to appear to them and talk to them.  He did that to shore up their faith in his resurrection and to continue his teaching and his presence among them for a short time.  He said, now the time has come that I am going to send the promise of My Father, I’m going to send the Holy Spirit, so you wait here and I’ll be back—or someone will be back. My best friend the Holy Spirit will be back.  That’s the way that Christ will be with his people, his Church, until He comes again.

So, this ascension is like something to put some closure on the apostles’ experience of having their Master with them all the time.  If He just sort of went “poof” and disappeared and then never showed up again, they’d be scratching their heads and wouldn’t realize what happened to Him.  But this way He could explain to them that He had to go the Father, and they could see Him going to the Father.  They could see Him being lifted up on a cloud.  Now Christ, in order to go the Father, didn’t really have to go “up.”  He didn’t have to go vertically to the Father, but there’s a symbolic value to that because there is—especially in ancient religions—a natural assumption that Heaven is up and Hell is down.  It’s anthropologically based on a scale of values where high values are “up” and the low values are “down.”  So Heaven is up and Hell is down.  Christ didn’t have to go up.  He just had to pass into that dimension where his Father was and where He was always in communion with his Father.  But that was for the benefit of the apostles.

There are two basic reasons why He ascended to Heaven.  Number one, to prepare a place for us and number two, to send the Holy Spirit.  So He said, “it is good for Me that I go because this is going to be better for you.”  He’s going to go prepare a place for us.  He is seated at the right hand of the Father; again, this is kind of a metaphor. Christ does not have to be “seated” anywhere, for He fills the whole universe.  God the Father doesn’t have a right hand, being pure Spirit.  But it’s a powerful symbol and it means, in all these ancient cultures and religions, to sit at the right hand of the King, was to be practically on a par with the King and to receive all the privileges and glory of the Kingdom.  It’s like Joseph when he was elevated to his position of power in Egypt.  The Pharaoh took off his signet ring and said, here this is yours.  Whatever you do is law, whatever you say is law.  He said, the only thing that is not yours is my throne.  The Father goes even beyond that: He says to Jesus, you can have my throne too, as well as all my power and authority.

Christ went to Heaven to prepare a place for us because He wants us to be with him at the right hand of the Father to share that glory, to share that reign over the universe.  Several times, in the book of Revelation, it says that the saints, the faithful who are saved, will reign with Him.  It doesn’t just say they will serve Him but it also says, they will reign with Him.  We will join Him in his reign over the universe.  So, in order to secure our place in Heaven that He’s preparing for us, He sends us the Holy Spirit but again, that was the way He wanted to be with us.  He didn’t want to leave his disciples; He wanted always to be with them.  So, by sending the Holy Spirit, that was a way for Him to be with them, to continue to teach them, to lead them, to love them, to be with them, and help them on their way back to Heaven, to the place that He had prepared for them.

Finally, this is related to his is preparing a place for us; it’s what the angels said to the apostles after He ascended into Heaven.  Angels are really no-nonsense kind of beings.  They always cut right to the point.  Here Christ ascended in glory; the disciples had never seen anything like this. He has ascended into Heaven on a cloud and they’re all standing there with their mouths hanging open, and these angels show up and say, why are you looking up at the sky?  Get busy and do what He told you!  What they said right after that was: the One that you saw go up like that is going to come back like that on a cloud.  And Christ said about Himself, to others during his earthly ministry, the Son of Man will come back on a cloud from Heaven with the angels.  So, He’s going to return.  He’s going to descend once more.  He descended, so to speak, in his Incarnation, He ascended after He rose from the dead, and then He’s going to descend again, but not a humble, hidden descent, like the Incarnation, but a descent in glory.  He’s going to come back.  He said, I’m going to prepare a place for you, then He said, I’m going to come back for you.  I’m going to come back and get you, so that, where I am you may be also.

So, let us then join the angels in glorifying Christ, for his love for us and for all that He has done for us, and for all that He is doing for us and all He’s going to do for us, all He’s preparing for us.  Then, we too, when we have this awareness of what God has done for us in Christ and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit and everything He’s holding out and offering to us, we will go away, just like the disciples did, worshipping God.  When He ascended, they worshipped Him, and then what?  They were to be, and we’re to be too, found in the temple constantly singing the praises of God.

On Spontaneity and Purity of Heart

[A homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man, from 5 years ago.]

There are several healings of blind men in the Gospels, but today’s is unique (Jn. 9:1-38).  It is much more elaborate than the others, and the whole event and the accompanying dialogues are points of departure for theological reflection.  We are offered here not simply the fact of a divine healing, but the deeper meaning of Jesus’ giving sight to the blind.

For our point of departure, let us look at the first few verses.  Jesus and his disciples came upon the blind man, and immediately the disciples began their own theological reflection: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  It was commonly assumed that physical infirmities were a punishment for sin, either one’s own or that of one’s ancestors.  Jesus immediately challenged that assumption by saying: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”  The Lord does not deny in principle that there is no relation between sin and suffering—for this relation will certainly be manifested on Judgment Day!—but that in this case, the man was afflicted not because of sin but in order that God’s glory and power would be revealed in him at the hands of Jesus.  We cannot assume that a physical infirmity has a spiritual cause, but we cannot categorically deny it, either.  We have to be in the grace of the Holy Spirit to know the difference.

The next question might be whether or not spiritual infirmities have a spiritual cause, and this must usually be answered in the affirmative.  If we are spiritually blind—and this relates more directly to us that physical blindness—then, yes, most likely it is because of our sin that we are thus afflicted.  So we ought to take a closer look, if the glory of God is to be manifested in us as well.

I read something recently that sheds some light on this issue, from the Dominican Father Simon Tugwell’s book on the Beatitudes.  The Beatitude SONY DSCin question is, of course, “Blessed are the pure of heart,” because to be healed of spiritual blindness is to be given the capacity to see God.  And to see God is the ultimate goal of our existence, yet we are called to discover his presence in this life as well, for if our souls are so blinded by selfishness and sin that we cannot recognize his presence in faith here and now, we will not be granted the eternal, unhindered vision of Him when all the veils are finally removed.  To acquire a pure heart is to be healed from spiritual blindness.

Tugwell says that to have a pure heart is to have an interior life that is “unmuddied” by sin, which clouds our spiritual perception.  He writes: “A very important factor here is what we may call Christian spontaneity.  It does not, perhaps, in the last analysis, matter all that much what you do with forethought; what really matters, what is really revealing, is what you do without thinking… what you do when you do not have time to work out how to respond.  It is this that will reveal what kind of person you are, and that is what is important.  After all, the kingdom of heaven comes like a thief in the night (1Thess. 5:2), with a suddenness which will not allow us to work out how we are going to react.”

This, I think, is an important point.  Our spontaneous reactions to other persons and situations reveal to us, and to others, who we really are.  If we spontaneously react to people and events with anger, fear, suspicion, hatred, defensiveness, unkindness, criticism, or merely irritation, then we are in fact angry, fearful, suspicious, hateful, defensive, unkind, critical, and irritable people. The evidence is uncontestable. This is the measure of our actual purity of heart (or rather, lack of it), even though we may be struggling to overcome these things.  It is in fact the present state of affairs, even if we are working to correct it, and we ought to honestly and humbly admit it.  This issue of Christian spontaneity is something like saying actions speak louder than words, but it is more to the point.  It’s more like saying unrehearsed actions and words speak louder that rehearsed ones.  St Thomas Aquinas says that as long as we have wrong desires (that is, if our interior is not yet pure), even if we do not give in to them, we are not yet virtuous.  We may be on the way to becoming virtuous, but we’re not there yet.  There may not be prayers in liturgical books that say, “O God, re-create my spontaneity!”—but the reality to which this points is essential for our spiritual growth and hence the healing of our blindness.

Tugwell goes on to say: “We must unmuddy the very source of our reactions, so that our spontaneity itself is transformed.  This can only come about through the Holy Spirit.  He is given to us by God to be in us a source of living water, welling up from our own hearts… But purity of heart is not just a matter of our own interiority… If we have a clean heart, it is because God has given us a clean heart… It is God dwelling in us who gives us a true interiority that is genuinely ours, but is not simply our own… Western man…does not feel secure about his identity, and feels that as a grievance.  In response to this, he generally tries to find ways of bolstering up his ‘Ego’, to reassure himself that he is something…”  We ought rather embrace the “no longer I, but Christ,” which is one of St Paul’s most profound insights.

“If we can unmuddy the source of life in us, if we can allow God to re-create us from deep within, so that there is a pure life in us, Christ’s life as well as our own, then this must inevitably affect the way that we are and the way that we see.  There is an interaction between seeing and being.  The kind of person you are affects the kind of world that you see… And conversely what you see affects what you are.  If you see the world as a rather grim affair, you will become a grim person.  If you see the world as a place where there are butterflies, you will probably be a rather more light-hearted kind of person.  If our life is rooted in God, so that the wellspring of life in us is God, then we shall see as God sees… If we have a pure heart, a source of life welling up from the eternity of God, then what we shall see is God.”

This is a very important teaching.  Attaining purity of heart is the healing of our spiritual blindness.  Purity is not merely a matter of trying to avoid impure thoughts or actions.  It is a much more thoroughgoing inner transformation.  It determines how we see the world and other people, and hence how we will spontaneously react to them.  And if the life of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit really is the source and driving power of our whole inner life, then we will see as God sees, and our unrehearsed words and acts will reveal that we are in fact Christ-like people, both inside and out, and we will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit in all our actions and relationships.

When Jesus healed the blind man, the first thing the man saw was the face of God, that is, the face of God incarnate in Christ.  This is symbolic of the movement from darkness to light, from inner blindness to sight, from a muddy interior to purity of heart.  The Gospel makes it clear, however, that it was not only a physical healing of blindness.  For when the man saw Jesus the second time, he fell down and worshiped Him, recognizing, with his new-found spiritual vision, the presence of God in Jesus.

We must begin with the humble admission that we are still spiritually blind, still not pure of heart.  Even a quick examination of our spontaneous reactions (whether external or internal) will give us plenty of evidence for that.  The greatest error that could be made here is to claim that we can see when in fact we are still blind.  Jesus made that clear to the Pharisees, who resented the fact that He implied they were still blind, when He said to them: “Now that you say, ‘we see,’ your guilt remains.”

Let us also realize that, unlike the blind man in the Gospel, it is our sin that is the cause of our spiritual blindness, because only sin can destroy purity of heart.  If we do not yet see everything as God sees it, if we do not yet recognize the presence of God everywhere, if we spontaneously react in unkind or self-centered ways, then we are still suffering from a sin-induced spiritual blindness, a lack of purity of heart.

So let us pray fervently—and not mechanically as we may do every day as we pray psalm 50(51)—“Create in me a pure heart, O God!”  Let this be our constant entreaty to the Holy Spirit as we prepare for his coming at Pentecost.  This matter is too important to be tossed in the mental dustbin with hundreds of other long-forgotten Sunday homilies.  We need the grace of the Holy Spirit to effect a radical change in our inner lives—we can’t afford to remain how we are!  It is crucial for our own salvation and our beneficial influence upon others that our inner life is free from all the darkness that is all too often revealed in our spontaneous reactions.  The Lord can heal us, can enlighten us, but we must want it with all our hearts, and diligently strive to co-operate with his grace.  For our goal is nothing less than complete purity of heart—nothing less than to see God.

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